Fiction: Laina Pruett
Laina Mullin Pruett’s fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Prairie Schooner. She was in residence at Yaddo during summer 2014, was a 2011 Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and is an editor for The Worcester Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from Boston University and is currently at work on a novel.
THE LAST CON
Collectables were not Clyde’s primary area of interest, so he quickly walked past the first aisle of booths at the UberMegaCon Pop Culture Spectacular. The next aisle was what he came for: tables lined with hundreds of white comic book boxes holding thousands of titles. He flipped through the comics like a secretary sorting a filing cabinet. He chose only those in pristine condition, bagged, and boarded with acid-free cardstock to prevent damage. His stack slowly increased until he had a six-inch thick brick of books.
Clyde had only made it through three vendors’ merchandise when his cell phone played a few bars of “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back, indicating that he had received a new text message: “i’m here.” It was James, ninety minutes late. Clyde typed back: “checking out now.” He got a great deal, paying half the cover price for the older titles.
The lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham was designed to look like a Tudor Castle. Decorative suits of armor contrasted with the fully costumed storm troopers, Supermen, and anime girls in short plaid skirts and white knee-highs wandering past the dumbstruck hotel guests. James was sitting on one of the lobby loveseats wearing a brown bomber jacket with black jeans and classic, white Chuck Taylors. He stood when he saw Clyde approaching. The woman sitting next to James had stood at the same time and was holding his hand.
“Clyde, this is Erica. Erica, Clyde,” James said.
“Nice to meet you.” Erica was unconventionally pretty, with a long, oval face and no cheekbones to speak of. But her cropped brown hair looked professionally styled, and her makeup was carefully applied. She wore leather boots and a tweed skirt.
“You too,” Clyde said. “Dropping off?”
“No, I want to check it out,” Erica said. “I’ve never been to a comic convention before.”
Clyde looked at James. “I only ordered one extra ticket. And I think the VIP passes are sold out.” He dug the second lanyard out of his trench coat pocket and handed it to James. It had cost an extra hundred bucks but included seats for the Sunday morning breakfast-with-the-stars. Clyde didn’t want to have pancakes with Chewbacca alone, so he picked up James’s pass as an early Christmas gift.
“We’re going to buy a one-day pass for Erica,” James said. He widened his eyes a little as if to say “be on your best behavior,” as he put the lanyard around his neck.
Clyde scowled. His plan to spend the entire day hunting in the stacks, asking James if he thought each purchase was a smart one, was swiftly disintegrating.
“I’m so excited,” Erica said as they passed a giant broadsword hung in a glass case and flanked by tapestries of medieval noblewomen.
“It’s interesting,” James said. “Good people-watching.”
“No kidding.” Erica scrutinized a young man dressed in a green suit with a brown belt and boots. He wore a pointed hat and held a shield; a plastic sword hung from his waist. “Robin Hood?” she asked.
“Link,” Clyde said.
There was no recognition in her eyes.
“From The Legend of Zelda? The Nintendo game?”
“Oh,” she said, still clueless.
Inside, Clyde watched Erica look around, dazed. The ballroom was full of the primary colors of superheroes. It had been fully opened up, all three dividing panels pushed to the walls. Each booth was separated from the next by metal poles on casters draped with navy blue panels. People moved slowly up and down the aisles, packed in tightly between the displays. Some patrons wore costumes, but most didn’t. Many wore snarky or ironic T-shirts. Clyde knew that Erica was making judgments, and that James must have been shitting his pants right about then.
“What the hell, man?” Clyde whispered to James as Erica sorted through a bin of plush toys a few yards away.
“She wasn’t supposed to come up this weekend,” James said.
Clyde and James had been friends since middle school, when the five elementary schools in town combined like the mighty Transformer Devastator to form one giant seventh- and-eighth grade babysitting service. They met the first week of school in the lunchroom, each somehow knowing exactly where he belonged: at the round table in the corner by the lunch line. It had been fourteen years since that day. Lately James had been unreliable when it came to weekly games night. For years they’d spent eight to ten hours each week playing card, board, and video games with a rotating cast of secondary friends. But Erica lived in Rhode Island, and James had been spending a lot of time down there.
James placed his hand on Erica’s back, gripping her sweater as if he were afraid she would wander away. “What do you want to do?” he asked her.
“I don’t know; what do you want to do? This is your thing.” She curiously watched a man with a thick beard sign prints of scantily clad barbarian women.
Clyde wished that James had just stayed home. He pushed between them and plunged into the crowd. “I’m getting a couple of autographs.”
“We’ll come,” Erica said.
Autograph alley was at the back of the ballroom, where a dozen tables draped with white tablecloths were set up in a U. Each had a sign hung from the front with a celebrity’s name on it.
Clyde had brought a mint-condition copy of the first issue of his favorite comic book, and he joined the end of the line for Parker Sullivan, its writer. James and Erica waited with him.
“What do they have to do with comic books?” Erica gestured toward the other end of autograph alley where five women with enormous breasts and stage makeup were signing eight-by-ten glossy prints of themselves in lingerie.
“Playmates and wrestling divas,” James said.
“Think about that for a second,” Clyde said. “Who’s their market?”
James gave him a stern look.
“Who are we waiting for, anyway?” Erica asked.
“Parker Sullivan,” Clyde said. “He writes an X-Men title for Marvel, but he also created this great indie comic called Zombinomicon. It’s horror-comedy.”
“Do you read that one?” Erica asked James.
Clyde shook his head in disbelief. James had been reading that title since the first issue. “Did you bring one of Sullivan’s books?”
“No. I didn’t really have time to get anything together.”
“It took forever, but I did find my first run Zombinomicon number one. I’ve really got to organize my books. Make a spreadsheet, or something.”
“That would take forever.” James shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“So how long is this going to take?” Erica asked.
Clyde gestured at the man in front of them. He had a rolling suitcase that looked heavy. “I bet this guy alone will take twenty minutes. Looks like he’s got fifty books in there.” There were at least ten people ahead of them.
“So what do you do for a living?” Erica asked Clyde.
“I’m a shift supervisor at a video-game resale store.”
“Erica is a manger too,” James said. “She runs a chain of karate studios.”
“Do you have a black belt?”
“No. I don’t practice. I run the business office.”
“That’s how we met,” James said. “I was training Erica how to use the software.” James was a programmer at BusinessClass, a developer whose flagship program was a customizable template for small businesses to manage students at daycare facilities and dance studios.
“I kind of assumed you met online,” Clyde said.
“What made you think that?” Erica asked.
He shrugged, then smiled. “James has a thing for those Internet dating sites.”
James laughed nervously.
“There are some pretty fascinating people in here, that’s for sure,” Erica said.
Clyde checked his cell phone for messages. “Yeah, you’d never notice if you passed one of us on the street.”
Erica smiled. “Well, you are interesting, but not that interesting, if you know what I mean. You aren’t dressed up in tights, at least.”
“James has done it.”
“I have not!” His eyes widened in panic.
“Sophomore year you dressed up like a goddamn storm trooper.”
“That was armor, not tights. And it was for charity.”
“Did you really?” Erica asked.
James sighed. “There’s this organization called the 501st.”
She looked confused.
“It has to do with Star Wars. Anyway, people dress up to raise money for Toys for Tots. My cousin is big into this and he got me to help one year.”
“Risking humiliation for the sake of underprivileged children. I’m a lucky girl.” Erica kissed him on the cheek.
“I was wondering,” Clyde said to James, “if you gave any more thought to the website idea. I’ve been writing up some content.” He dug around in his messenger bag and pulled out a white three-ring binder. He had carefully slid in a cover page, having driven all the way to Staples to print it in color. It read: “CJ Enterprises Presents Geekdom: the Gamer’s Social Network.”
“We don’t have any capital,” James said, “and don’t know anything about business.”
“But we know games,” Clyde said. “You’ll build it, and I’ll focus on the content. I even got a book on writing up business proposals, and it said to find comparable businesses that are succeeding to use as examples for the investors. Get this–” He pulled out a packet and handed it to James who was fumbling with the materials, failing at balancing everything while standing in line. “It’s a knitting site. Fucking knitting! People create a free profile and post reviews about yarn and patterns and shit. They’re making a fortune on advertising.”
“I don’t know,” James said. “I’ve got a lot going on right now. I don’t have hours and hours every week to devote to this thing.”
“If we got financing, we could hire people. Don’t you know anyone who might be interested? Some programmer friend who would take a gamble for a cut of the profits?”
“With work, and”–he looked at Erica–“everything . . . now is not a good time.” James put the packet back onto Clyde’s binder. “I’ve got to run to the bathroom. This line is killer.”
Clyde grabbed the binder and jammed it back into his messenger bag.
“Get me a soda while you’re at it,” Erica said.
“You’re going to stay?” James looked at Clyde.
Erica reached up and patted Clyde’s arm awkwardly. “Sure am. You go ahead.”
James left. He looked back once and waved helplessly.
“So what do you need an autograph for, anyway?” Erica asked.
“You’re going to hang up a comic book?”
“Well, to keep. It’s valuable.”
“Are you going to sell it on eBay?”
Erica looked unconvinced.
“It increases in value over time. People collect this stuff. It’s like an antique.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes. The line crept forward. Erica began typing on her cell phone’s tiny keyboard.
“So what do you think about your new boyfriend’s hobbies?”
“Well,” she said, “it hasn’t really come up much, until today.”
“You don’t say.”
“It sounds like something he does to connect with his friends. With you.”
“Well, you better get used to this,” Clyde said. “You’ll probably have a comic-themed wedding.”
Erica tucked her cell phone into her pocket. “I have some news.” She smiled. “We were going to save it for later, but I think this is a good time.”
“You’re not engaged, are you?”
“Not yet. But James is moving down to Rhode Island. With me.”
Clyde slid the bag off of his shoulder and set it on the floor, leaning against his leg. He held the strap slack in one hand. “Really.”
When they were only two people away from the front of the line, a man in a red UberMegaCon T-shirt stepped in front of his table and unfolded a sandwich board with a clock on it: “Will be back at 1:00.”
“Shit,” Clyde said.
Erica followed Clyde down another of the vendor aisles toward the bathroom and refreshment area. Erica touched a plush zombie doll complete with blood and tattered clothing. One of its limbs fell off. She crouched to pick it up and tucked the leg into the crook of the doll’s neck when she couldn’t get it to reattach in the proper place.
“They really make everything, don’t they?” she said.
“Sure, if people will buy it.”
“Hey Clyde!” Behind them stood the Joker, Batman’s greatest adversary, smiling. He wore a purple suit jacket, black tie, and black pants. His long, stringy hair partially obscured his white clown face; the long red smear of his lips smudged over one of his cheeks. The hollows of his eyes were darkened like a raccoon. He even had the authentic leather gloves.
“Is that you, Ben?”
“You look great.”
“Thanks, man.” He turned to Erica. “Hello there, I’m Ben.”
“Erica.” She reached forward to shake Ben’s hand, but he twisted her wrist and kissed the back instead. There was a smear of red and white on her skin. She tucked her hand into her pocket to rub it off.
A little boy around eight years old stood off to the side, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Ben looked over and said, “Good evening” in the Joker’s gravely voice, his movements stilted.
The boy stepped forward reluctantly. “Can I have a picture?”
Ben laughed maniacally then stopped abruptly. He tilted his head. “Sure.”
A girl, probably the boy’s sister, appeared from nowhere then lined up the shot with a tiny digital camera. Ben crouched down to the kid’s eye level, posing as if ready to spring. The boy smiled, and the flash went off. “Thanks,” he said, then scampered away.
“You’re good,” Clyde said.
“It’s all about authenticity.”
A woman dressed in a full-body, black-and-red harlequin suit sidled up next to Ben. He slid his hand across the smooth synthetic fabric hugging her hips. Her face was also painted white, her lips covered with a thick layer of black lipstick. Two substantial appendages protruded from her hood, white bells dangling from the ends. Her face paint was starting to crack.
“This,” Ben said, “is my Harley Quinn. Otherwise known as Matilda.”
“Hi!” she screeched in Harley Quinn’s high-pitched voice. It sounded almost like a misguided adult trying to convince a small child to do something unpleasant, like eat a hated vegetable, but with an exaggerated New York accent.
“You look great. I’m Clyde. And this is Erica.”
“Nice ta meet ya.” Matilda was good–she had the voice down. She pulled off her black glove–the other was red–and held out her hand to display her ring. “We’re engaged.”
“Congratulations,” Erica said.
A small crowd was starting to form around them. People with cameras waited politely. Clyde wasn’t into cosplay. He didn’t like to be the center of attention, people always staring at you, even at a convention when that kind of thing was expected. It seemed like Ben and Matilda worked there, and some of the people probably thought that they were part of the entertainment, but they weren’t. They paid the entrance fee just like everyone else.
James showed up, looking a bit flustered, Erica’s drink in hand. “Did you get the autograph?”
“He bailed,” Clyde said. “Went on a break.”
“Are you hungry?” Erica asked James.
“Actually, yeah,” he said. “How about you, Clyde?”
“Not really.” Clyde imagined them in the car on the way over: “When you get bored, just say you’re hungry. Hungry will be our safe word.”
“Anybody . . . want to come?” James fiddled with his jacket zipper.
“Hey, why don’t you come upstairs with us,” Matilda said. “Ben is going to get us into the lounge for some lunch.”
“There’s a lounge?”
“It’s going to be awesome,” Matilda waved coyly to a teenage boy. “All of the writers and artists hang out up there.”
“I thought we were going to an Irish Pub,” Erica said to James.
“Yeah, there’s one off the lobby,” James said.
“Come on,” Clyde said. “This kind of opportunity doesn’t come along every day.”
James smiled sheepishly. “Just for a few minutes?”
Erica agreed to go.
They walked to a large metal door with a crash bar then up two flights of stairs to a long hallway carpeted with an oriental rug. Ben knocked three times on one of the hotel room doors–number 327–then paused, and knocked a fourth time.
“Who is it?” a muffled voice called from inside.
“Ben Simpson,” he said.
A moment later, someone popped the door open. It was a suite. Olive and salmon colored couches surrounded a coffee table covered in soda cans. A tiny trashcan overflowed onto the carpet. A wheeled cart with two shelves held soda cans and bottled water. Three men and one woman sat on the couches, including Parker Sullivan.
Clyde elbowed James and whispered, “He’s here.”
James cracked a smile.
“Can I have my cell phone, Mista J?” Matilda asked, using Harley Quinn’s pet name for the Joker. She looked at Clyde sheepishly. “No pockets.”
Clyde wondered if their sex life was based on their characters. If they had other personas, besides the Joker and Harley Quinn. Or if they ever just lounged around the house in costume sometimes.
“Who you calling?” Ben asked as he handed her the phone.
“Just checking on David,” Matilda said. “My son,” she added for Clyde’s benefit.
“You have a kid?”
“Yup. He’s two. My mother’s watching him today.” Matilda walked into the bedroom, her fingers pressed to her ear to block out the noise.
“So now you’re going to have a kid,” he said to Ben.
“He’s a lot of fun. He’s just starting to get into Batman. I’m totally corrupting him.”
“You don’t know how to build a website, do you?” Clyde asked.
“Not a clue,” Ben said. “Why?”
James glared at Clyde sharply.
Just then a deliveryman arrived with eight pizzas. Ben rushed to clear the coffee table.
Clyde, Erica, and James each took a slice and sat on folding chairs arranged around one side of the coffee table. Ben sat on one of the couches next to Matilda, who sat next to Parker Sullivan–he was busy watching something on his smart phone with ear buds blocking out the world. Clyde dug out his Zombinomicon book, placing it carefully on top of his messenger bag on the floor by his feet, ready to ask Parker for an autograph when the moment was right.
Clyde looked out the window. Parked under the awning at the front of the building were three vehicles: the black and red sixties Batmobile, the Batcycle with its giant fins and matching sidecar, and the Delorean time machine from Back to the Future. Attendees stopped on the way in to snap a few photos, leaning over the velvet ropes to get in close.
Clyde took a long gulp from his soda. “So Erica. Are you aware of the extent of James’s collection? He has at least thirty comic boxes in his mother’s basement.”
“Wow.” Erica looked at James. He wouldn’t make eye contact.
“Every Wednesday he goes to the comic store the day they come out so he won’t miss one. In high school, we went together every week.”
Erica shifted in her seat.
“And we both collect action figures, which are awesome.”
“All right,” James said. “I have some news.”
“You’ve moving to Rhode Island,” Clyde said.
James swallowed a wad of pizza. He and Erica made eye contact. She shrugged.
“It’s only two hours away, and my boss is letting me telecommute.”
Clyde stared into his lap at the white paper plate with pools of grease soaking through to his lap.
“It’s very exciting,” Erica said. “I’ve already cleared out one of my closets for him.” She threaded her arm through the crook of James’s elbow.
“So I take it games night is out, then,” Clyde said.
“I’ll still come sometimes,” James said. “We’ll just have to make it Saturdays, instead. Maybe I can do once a month, and stay with my mom.”
“I promise I won’t steal him away entirely,” Erica said.
“Don’t patronize me.”
“You know what? “ James said. “You’re an asshole.”
“Hey, you’re the one leaving me in the lurch, having to find a new roommate.”
“Let’s go,” Erica said. She stood up quickly, knocking over a half-full can of Mountain Dew, which rolled along the edge of the table, spilling onto the floor and soaking Clyde’s Zombinomicon number one.
“Fuck!” he said. “Fuck!” Clyde dropped his plate and grabbed the comic book, pushing his messenger bag away from the stream of still glugging soda. Ben grabbed the can and stood it up, while James and Erica watched, dumbfounded. Parker looked up from his smart phone.
Clyde slid the book out of its protective cover, and the liquid had seeped into one corner, soaking the top fifth of the book. It was ruined. Ben handed Clyde a wad of napkins, and he began laying them flat and inserting one between each page.
“I’m sorry,” Erica said, still standing.
“She didn’t mean to,” James said.
Clyde didn’t look up.
“That sucks, man,” Parker said.
Everyone but Clyde looked at him. One of his ear buds was dangling against his chest. His head was shaved, but he had a thick, dark beard that obscured his mouth. He wore a black bowling shirt with a spade insignia over the pocket. Cornmeal from the bottom of the pizza dusted the black hairs sprouting from his chin.
Clyde smoothed the cover of the book and dabbed it with a clean napkin. When it dried, it would wrinkle.
James stood. “We’re going. You can have my number one when I find it.”
“I don’t want it,” Clyde said.
“Fine.” James took Erica’s hand, and they left together.
Clyde looked up at Parker. The ear bud skittered across his chest as he moved. He looked like a biker crossed with a hipster. “I’m a big fan,” Clyde said.
“Thanks, man,” Parker said, mouth sloppy with pizza.
“Do you think you might sign a comic for me? I was in line earlier, but you went on break.”
“I guess so, if you don’t mind some pizza grease.”
“I don’t think it could get much worse.” Clyde fished out the permanent marker he kept for occasions such as this. Parker set the damaged comic on top of a pizza box and scrawled his name.
After another four hours of sorting through comics, Clyde had to buy a new box to carry his purchases home. His apartment was on the first floor of a two-family. It was a three-bedroom, with a living room and kitchen. The place was empty, though Shithead had left a note: “Do your own goddamn dishes.”
Clyde grabbed a couple of beers and settled into the couch, leaning forward with elbows on knees, gripping the controller, thumbs stabbing furiously. When the front door opened a short while later, he didn’t turn around.
“Hey,” James said. He opened the refrigerator, the light casting a jagged glow through the darkened room. The bottles clinked, and he twisted off the top of one.
“Need another?” he asked.
“I’m set,” Clyde said.
James sat next to him on the couch and took a swig of his beer. He picked up another controller and pressed start, joining the game. They played until four o’clock, until their eyes were bloodshot and their lids puffy from lack of sleep. James crashed on the living-room couch. But when Clyde woke the next morning, to shower and head back to the convention for breakfast, his friend was already gone.
“The Last Con” was originally published in The Gettysburg Review.