As a distant planet was destroyed by old age…” –Action Comics No. 1, 1938
He heaves the automobile into glowing sky, headlight popping off, bumper succumbing, windshield bursting, white rubber tire hurtling away. Machines beware of this force. The automobile is green. Bad guys shudder. The future runs faster than an express train.
The plant is mostly shuttered. If I could get any closer, I could say more about its inaction, but I’m lost on its periphery, above the valley that holds it. The bridge on the map is a road ending in a concrete barrier and chain link fence. On the other side of the chain link fence is a chain link gate, open. Beyond the gate, the asphalt sprouts a Russian olive bush, bright weeds, a green beer bottle. The road crumbles off a cliff. Far below, a rail yard. At the brink, on the road’s surface, someone has spray-painted, in white, something that seems to read PUSH.
He runs along the power lines, bad guy in tow. A landscape of skyscrapers leans over him. He knows birds sit on wires and aren’t electrocuted. He can joke about this with the bad guy. He can put things into perspective. Far below, automobiles speed by—so small, just tiny boxes.
Past the rails, the plant waits. Looking through the chain link, I can’t say how big it is. No one moves down there for scale. It appears to be bigger than I can really imagine. The buildings loom like nightmares of buildings. Or maybe just very sad confusing dreams. If I broke it down, I’d call the parts roofs, smokestacks, conveyors, wires, docks, pipes, scaffolding, vents. Inside there must be machines. Surely, though, these aren’t the right terms.
The dam cracks further, pressure building over the town below. But first there’s the weakened railroad trestle to attend to, to lift into place until the train passes. Then he lets the trestle crash so he can reach the dam, keep it from collapsing until the people escape to safer ground. But the dam won’t hold for long, the irresistible flood escaping. His solutions are temporary. He topples a mountain peak to divert the waters. The town is saved.
Behind the plant, hazy, the tops of the city’s tallest buildings poke into grayness—beaux arts to brutalist. On Terminal Tower, a bird rests, ready to dive off a ledge, reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour. A dive is called the stoop. Under the Tower, trains come and go in tunnels. The trains move slower than the birds, which are falcons.
The bad guys throw her out the window, and she falls, falls, her shadow falling with her on the building’s face. Her dress floats up her legs. She falls, toes pointed in red heels, lovely in her falling. But he sees her, springs into the air, cradles her in his arms. She still feels like she is falling.
In courtship, the peregrine falcon dives and swoops. Sometimes the male feeds the female in flight, holding the food in his beak, their talons locked as she flies upside down, like the belly-to-belly mirror formation fighter planes execute at air shows. I imagine it this way, anyhow. From the missing bridge, I can’t see the bird.
The lunatic from the asylum makes his way out onto the building’s ledge. He wants to end it all, the moment of pain followed by nothingness. He jumps. Can he be saved? Of course he can.
The plane that flies inverted is always number five. The number five painted on the plane is inverted, as is the number five on the pilot’s uniform.
The moment the trigger is pulled, he fires himself into motion, racing so fast we can’t even see it. But we know it happens because there he is, his body blocking the boy, bullet bouncing off his chest, as though his insignia were the target and was always meant to be.
Another tower belongs to the Justice Center, a grid of concrete and windows. Inside, courtrooms full of arguments. It is the center of justice, like a sun or black hole, pulling criminals in, the orbit of consequences. Here is the Police Museum, with its artifacts of crime. I’ve seen there the death masks of unidentified victims of dismemberment, their painted faces calm, unastounded. The murders, never solved, cease in 1938. Outside, a sculpture titled Portal, which looks like ductwork.
He finds the man in quicksand, sucked up to his torso, so he pulls, wrestles the grip of the quagmire so hard he almost tears the man apart. But his strength prevails, and he hauls the man, step-by-step, the quicksand resisting. As he reaches solid ground, bloodhounds lunge. He always has his hands full.
If I gazed down from the sky, I could see a ghost bridge, the line the mind draws over the valley between two disconnected roads. Across the missing bridge, rise the sooty spires of the church of Saint Michael the Archangel.
Against a backdrop of moon, his caped figure hurries, silhouetted, face erased by darkness. He must awaken the governor. The governor generally sleeps through everything.
If I were to turn away from the valley and walk a mile or so, heading towards the lake, I’d come to where they find some of the bodies, in Kingsbury Run. They are poor and headless. Apparently, no one worries about them or at least misses them. The famous Safety Director worries about them, but he worries too late.
He sits on his bed, wearing only his drawers. His hat, his white shirt beside him, his jacket slung over a chair. He lingers between identities.
In the shantytowns of Kingsbury Run, the working poor wear jackets and hats, shirts with collars. They heat coffee in pots on stoves, the inside furnishings outside. A dog sits on an upholstered chair in the midst of debris. Two investigators disguise themselves as hoboes, carry their belongings on the end of a stick. This is how to survive a depression.
He smashes the bad guys’ oil well. They’ve been selling worthless stock. Oil spews into the sky. He topples the derrick. He sets fire to the oil. The workers in overalls try to stop him, but he warns them away, yells at them to run for their lives. The workers aren’t bad guys. Black smoke curls around the well. He does a thorough job.
Bodies turn up near the shanties. Three men gaze into a metal bucket, one man wearing what appears to be surgical attire, a white smock, white pants. The other two have white hats, brims obscuring their features. Inside the bucket lie bones. Police display a victim’s death mask at an exposition, but one hundred thousand people don’t know who it is. Detectives X-ray some of the heads. The famous Safety Director has the shanties burned to the ground, flames revealing nothing but dark.
He must stop the robbery, so he takes a short cut through the fair’s fireworks display, fiery bursts illuminating his suit, a treat for the spectators.
The missing bridge closes decades ago, is demolished—the trusses removed, the trestle detonated. When built in 1912, it is the longest span in the country. An old illustrated postcard depicts people on the bridge gazing down below. Automobiles cross. Further away, the vague shape of a horse. In the distance, the bridge disintegrates. The missing bridge is named the Clark Avenue Bridge.
He holds the suspension cables of the bridge, the arched supports crumbling, the deck wavering. It’s not clear if he’s tearing the bridge to pieces or keeping it together. It’s not part of any story, just a demonstration.
If I were to turn away from the plant and walk fifty blocks east or so, I would be standing in front of a two-story duplex next to a sausage shop. Inside, a man has murdered a woman or is about to murder a woman. It’s not his first time, nor even his second, nor third, nor fourth, etc. I wouldn’t know this standing outside the house. No one knows this. Only in the future do we know this.
The mayor has infuriated him, not enforcing traffic laws and breaking them himself, zipping down the road, speedometer reading ninety. He kidnaps the mayor and carries him to the morgue. Bodies lie under sheets, the suggestion of a face draped in white, victims of accidents.
The murdered women hidden in the house are poor. The women who haven’t yet been murdered are poor. They abuse drugs, move from place to place. They’re lost. Most haven’t been reported missing. Months later, the police will find bodies in the living room and graves in the basement, in the crawl space, in the backyard. They’ll find a skull in a bucket.
The train he’s on has missed its signal. It barrels towards an oncoming train. He must help, but he has no time to strip off his outer garments. It doesn’t matter. The cape means nothing. In his suit and necktie, he slows the train, braces against both engines, pins himself between, brings them to a stop. Then he disappears before anyone can identify him.
I leave the missing bridge. There must be a way down below and if I follow the ridge, maybe I’ll discover it. I may be trespassing, though I don’t see any gates. Industrial detritus riddles the ridge. Dumpsters, fences, and many tires—tires abandoned by their usefulness. The road dead ends at a cul-de-sac. If I perch on a pile of gravel at the lip of the ridge, I can almost touch a stream of power lines swooping down into the valley, each line thick as my wrist.
He saves the train from the washed-out rails, one leg in the river, one arm holding back the streamlined engine. Was there a flood? What swept away the rails? It isn’t part of the story. He doesn’t need both hands to stop disasters.
A security truck pulls into the cul-de-sac, rolls down its window, a uniformed man inside. I tell him I want to see the plant, but can’t find my way. He says the plant is twelve hundred acres. He says his shift would be busier in a graveyard. He says he’s worked here thirty-nine years. He says he has no pension, no insurance. He says when he leaves, he leaves with the shirt on his back. He says falcons nest on the plant.
He grasps a bad guy under one arm and propels himself from rooftop to rooftop. The bad guy tries to stab him, which messes up his timing. He slams into a building, the two of them falling, falling. He grabs a windowsill with one hand, but the bad guy grabs nothing, doomed. The bad guy hits the sidewalk—little puffs of dust rising—gets what he deserves.
The first headless torso is found where a road dead ends at Kingsbury Run. I try to find this spot, but it’s missing. Where the road should be, a bridge arcs over a railway. The bridge is closed, concrete barriers blocking passage. Behind a fence, cranes with giant magnets sort through piles of scrap. On the other side of the closed bridge, a splintered bureau with mirror lies on the ground, looking like it’s been dropped from a great height. Nearby, a tree with a tire swing, a boarded-up building with sign reading “Quality Saw.”
The cab racketeers smash their own cars with sledge hammers. They have no choice. He makes them do it. He threatens to kill them. It might be an idle threat—who knows?
The falcon on the Tower will die. He will crash into a building fighting another male. A woman will find his body on the sidewalk. She’ll notice his banded leg and call a number. She’ll rush him to help, though he’s dead and there’s no need to rush. The city will mourn. But right now, no one knows this.
He’s intrigued. The police are overcome with poisonous gas and the bad guy escapes. It seems too clever for a common bad guy. There must be someone else behind it, a mastermind. Someone with imagination. Let’s see what he can find.
In 1937, the plant workers strike for higher wages, better conditions. They sit down at their machines so no scabs can take their place. The famous Safety Director threatens to clear the area of picketers. The employers use tear gas. The governor sends in troops to break up the strike. In a few years, the war will come, and everyone will get along.
He spots a dark cabin. Bad guys hide in cabins. Sure enough, inside are bad guys. One is the mastermind, a paralytic in a white smock.
I’m lost in a graveyard, circling and circling. Obelisks point to the sky. Mausoleums line the shores of ponds like eternal shanties. Urns, crypts, lambs, vaults, angels, tombs, headstones, crosses. One hundred thousand dead. Some of the dead are tragic—a president shot, children burned in a school, a shortstop killed by a pitch. I’m looking for a plaque that marks the place where the famous Safety Director’s ashes were scattered. Instead I stumble on a big dam holding back water.
He gets tossed around a little by the mastermind. First electrocution. Then he’s strapped to a table with a spinning saw blade. He’s fine, though. The saw shatters on his skull, a shard flying off, piercing a bad guy’s throat. The mastermind flees by plane, but not for long.
The graveyard calls the dead “residents,” and, indeed, they do remain behind, confined to their stories. We know who they are.
He destroys the plane’s propeller, sending it hurtling towards earth. A sickening crash, plane blasting into indiscernible parts. But in the wreck, he finds no trace of the mastermind. Is this the end of the mastermind’s plan to control the earth? We don’t know. We never know.
If I could leap great distances, I could take off at the graveyard, soar two miles, heading north-northwest. I’d land in front of a two-story house, down the street from some boarded-up homes, their faces giving in to gravity. Someday, more plywood sheets will be nailed up to keep out people stealing pipe, wire, scrap to sell. But it’s hard to say which houses, which windows. Who is like God? This is a rhetorical question.
Just before the doomed planet explodes to fragments, the scientist places his infant son in an experimental rocket ship. When the vessel reaches our planet, an elderly couple finds the child. “The poor thing!” says the woman. “It’s been abandoned.”
The security man drives in disbelief around and around the empty plant. The stories he could tell. He knows each building by name. He remembers the missing bridge. What next? The plant will again fire up its blast furnaces, manufacture clouds in a clear sky, but as I watch white gulls take off and land on railways, on piles of ore, on vacant roads, I don’t know this. And in the future, when I see the exhaust of flames escape the furnace, what other future won’t I yet know?
His foster parents tell him to hide his strength or he’ll scare people. They tell him when the time comes, he must use it to assist humanity. When he stands at their graves, grieving, his determination grows. He becomes what he must.
Who is like El? A young man sits in the attic room of the two-story house. He is someone with imagination. He writes stories with his best friend, an artist whose eyes are failing even as he begins to sketch. They are awkward and isolated. They will never burst the chains around their chests. They won’t get what they deserve, but no one knows this. Only in the future do we know this. For now, the future is their creation.
He can hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamlined train. Nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin. He can crush steel with his bare hands. Someday, he will fly. Someday, he will turn back time. It is 1938, and soon it will be tomorrow.
Mary Quade is a finalist in the 2013 Literary Awards Program. Steel: Products of Cleveland is an excerpt from her collection, Ideal Uncertainties. Steel: Products of Cleveland was first published in West Branch Fall/Winter 2011.