by Michael Brooks
When they saw no trace of my “inner artist,” I knew I was about to disappear—faster than Nightcrawler could teleport. Pops spent the spring digging through dumpsters and gluing trash collages together. And Ma? She poured clay over her belly to make plasters, fired them in the kiln, and then stuck ‘em in water until they disintegrated. They seemed upset when all I wanted to do was sketch my favorite X-Men.
“It’s just not art,” Ma said, sneering at a picture I drew of Havok zapping Sabretooth.
“What do you mean?” I said.
Pops shook his head. “This is art,” he said, sweeping his sausage fingers at the trash squares and Alka-Seltzer ceramics.
Ma cleared her throat and said I was too young to understand the “nuances of postmodernism.”
Which I guess was what she meant by using garbage to make things you ended up throwing away. No, I didn’t get it. At least my X-Men drawings lasted. I had a whole folder full of ‘em to prove it.
“What kind of art do you want to create with your life?” Pops asked me.
“My life, Pops?”
He nodded, and his eyes got all big. “Yes, Benji, your life.”
“Umm… I think it’d be cool to sit outside and draw X-Men comics for Marvel.”
“Please,” Ma said. “That’s so lowbrow.”
Lowbrow? Was that so bad? It seemed to me the only way you got “high-brows” was if you stuck your nose up all day.
Pops glanced down at my sketch and traced one finger over the baseball stadium I had Magneto lifting. “I see elements of neoclassicism in these sketches.”
“Neo what?” I said.
“Yes.” Ma nodded. “Perhaps he’s undergoing a stint of Romanticism.”
“I don’t want any of that Valentine’s Day crap!” I said.
Pops twirled the hairs of his mustache. “I wonder if time spent in the natural world might foster that awakening…” The next thing I knew, I was spending the summer at Yiayia’s in Michigan to “foster my artistic awakening.” Not a soul in my fourth-grade class knew what the heck that meant when I asked—not even my teacher.
At Yiayia’s place, the walls were pink and blue and baby duck yellow, like someone had barfed up Easter. Yiayia forced me to finger paint and practice a seaweed-colored piano, but I liked her. She made baklava a lot and didn’t really bug me when I went outside, sat in the grass, and read comic books. Yiayia didn’t have TV or AC, but she had this big ol’ hammock in her backyard, and every once in a while, I’d lie there and swing while she sat on a lawn chair rubbing tanning oil all over her face. (If there’s one thing we Greeks aren’t afraid of, it’s sunburn.) Then, she’d press a pair of Army binoculars to her beak of a nose and look for different birds. If she heard one, her eyes would widen. She’d pat me on my shoulder and say, “Look, Benji! A cardinal.” Or, “Benji! An oriole!” She didn’t get too excited about robins or crows, though. Artists… Only interested in stuff that’s mismatched or colorful.
One day, I was sitting on the hammock staring at the clouds—those big puffy ones that look like you could bop ‘em and rain would fall. I wondered if my inner artist would wake up soon, but I thought that might be hard on account of how comfy the hammock was. I started drifting off, and then I heard a bunch of twigs snapping.
I sat up to find this tall kid Morlock-ing through the trees. He wore baggy nylon pants and a long-sleeved shirt faded from blue to gray. Dirt lined his fingernails and bony knuckles. I imagined he’d been in the woods for a while. I was about to make a run for the house when Yiayia said, “Tyson! Good morning!”
“Howdy, Mrs. L,” he said along with a two-fingered salute.
“Are you playing camping games again today?” Yiayia asked. He was wearing an Indiana Jones hat and had a big backpack.
“It’s not really a game. I’m—”
“Take Benji, my grandson, with you!” she said, sweeping her wrinkly hand at me. “He doesn’t have any friends here, you know?”
He hesitated. “Well, I—”
“He’s trying to wake up his inner artist. Maybe you and the trees can help him.”
I expected him to roll his eyes at this, like any normal human, but instead, he ran his fingers over his hairless chin, like he was thinking about it. Great, I groaned to myself, another crazy.
“Do it, and I’ll give you some baklava later,” Yiayia said.
“Oh alright,” he said.
“Opa!” Yiayia whooped.
The first X-Men comic appeared in 1963. Besides Professor X, there were only five mutants on that team: Cyclops, Archangel, Jean Grey, Beast, and Iceman. Iceman could freeze stuff, fly through the air on slides of ice, and even cover his body in a coat of ice armor. He seemed more like a snowman in that first edition, but later, the ice got sharp, like crystal-blue spears. This Tyson guy reminded me of Iceman: brown hair, blue eyes, kind of gangly.
“You look like Iceman,” I said as I followed him through the trees.
He made this horse snort and wiped his forehead. “Bobby Drake couldn’t make a snow cone in this humidity.”
I stopped. He knew Iceman’s alter ego? Maybe he wasn’t one of these oddball artists after all. “You know X-Men?”
“Are you a mutant?”
“What’s your power then?” I said, crossing my arms. “Can you freeze stuff?”
“No,” he said.
“Can you make ice armor?”
“Well, what can you do?”
“I’m a survivalist.”
“So you hang out in the woods all day?” I asked. Above us, vines hung from trees. I half expected Tarzan to come swinging out on one. Birds sang, and this leafy, Jurassic-Park-looking stuff grew out of the ground. It was kind of a cool place. “That’s not so bad.”
“And I can swim,” Tyson said.
“Swim? You got a pool or something?”
“Hasn’t anyone shown you the lake?”
“Lake Michigan. Follow me,” he said, and I did, through the woods, all the way to a giant sand hill, which we climbed and wound around until right there in front of me was a body of water so huge, I doubt Iceman could have frozen it all.
I think artists make up words to keep non-artists away. Or at least that’s what I thought for a while. I’d hear Pops and Ma use words no one else ever said, like “chic” and “surreal” and “Baroque,” which sounds like what we were: broke. But then, right before Pops shipped me off to Yiayia’s, he used a word I’d heard before: “latent.” It means something hidden in someone that starts to go nuts and shows itself after a while. I knew that word because of X-Men. All the mutants found their “latent powers” when they were a little older than me. Pops was talking about how I was going to find my “latent prowess” in art.
“See him beam?” Pops had said to Ma pointing at my face. “He wants to be a maker.”
I was grinning because I imagined getting superpowers at Yiayia’s, which seemed way cooler than gluing trash together, but I didn’t mention that. There was another word I’d learned from X-Men too: “uncanny.” The word appeared in the title on and off after 1973: The Uncanny X-Men. When I looked the word up in the dictionary, I read this: “Strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.” Well shucks, I thought. The X-Men didn’t seem uncanny to me; everyone else did.
There were only three things Yiayia panicked about: when she couldn’t spot a bird with her binoculars, when she forgot the notes to Chopin’s Nocturnes, and when we ran out of ingredients to make baked goods. Compared to Pops’s and Ma’s weekly quests to “re-find their centers,” this didn’t seem so terrible.
I sat at the counter drawing a picture of Iceman, but it looked a lot more like my new friend Tyson. Yiayia was romping through the kitchen on her ostrich legs, checking every cabinet for sugar.
“Oh, Benji!” she said. “How can I make a baklava with no sugar? Come with me. We’ll borrow a cup from Mr. Kuipers down the road.”
I dropped the blue pencil I was using on Iceman’s eyes and followed Yiayia outside. Her driveway was paved, but the road to her house was dirt and rocks. When she grabbed my hand at the end of the driveway, I didn’t argue. We were on a quest in the name of baklava.
We kicked up enough dust to hospitalize someone with asthma—a good half mile’s worth—before coming to this rusty red mailbox with the word “Kuipers” hand-painted on the side. Whoever painted it must have had lots of free time, because it was perfect—clean cut, block letters evenly spaced with those Greek-column-looking ends Pops called “serifs.” The mailbox was the kind of thing Ma would have claimed had “no vision,” so I decided I liked it a lot.
A bunch of big trees hid the place, which, when I finally saw it, looked like something out of Little House on the Prairie, minus the prairie—just a small log cabin with a barn nearby. A bunch of tomatoes grew out of boxes, and chickens waltzed around in the yard. Yiayia seemed uninterested in them, which I thought was uncanny on account of how much time she spent binocularing at birds.
An old man dragged a hoe through the garden boxes. He wore dark sunglasses, and he was going bald—a combination of Cyclops and Professor X! He stood up straight, and even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I could feel him staring at me, like he was seeing a ghost or something. I squeezed Yiayia’s hand tighter.
“Morning, Tula,” he said with a nod. His voice was a gentle growl, low and deep.
“Good morning, Bruce!” she said. “Your garden looks beautiful.”
“Thank you.” He smiled. “Who do we have here?”
“This is my grandson, Benji. Benji, this is Mr. Kuipers.”
The old guy smiled but stood Tin-Man stiff. “How do you do, young man?”
“Well, thanks,” I said. Professor X could read minds and Cyclops could shoot force beams from his eyes. I tried to think good thoughts like, What a nice house, or Those eggplants are huge, so he wouldn’t blast me.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Tula?” Mr. Kuipers asked.
Yiayia got this uncanny smile and said, “Oh, Benji and I were making baklava, and we ran out of sugar. Wondering if we could borrow a cup.”
“Of course. Let me get that for you.” He disappeared into the cabin and returned with a whole bag. “I never use the stuff anymore. Just take it all.”
“What a gentleman! Thank you,” Yiayia said, reaching for the bag. She patted Mr. Kuipers’s wrist, and his face turned crimson. Walking past the mailbox again, I asked Yiayia, “Why’s it Kuipers?”
“That’s his name, Benji.”
“I know. But why not just ‘Kuiper?’ Like one Kuiper. He lives alone, right?”
“How did you know that?”
I shrugged. I guess I just knew lonely when I saw it. Maybe that was my “latent prowess.” What a weird mutant power.
The more I hung out with Tyson, the more I believed he had a bunch of mutations. He raced me down a sand dune once, and he was fast. I’m talking Quicksilver fast. Sometimes, I’d look up and he’d be gone, like he was Nightcrawler and could vanish into thin air. “Nightcrawler’s my favorite,” he said when I told him this.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he can teleport any place he wants to any time.”
I narrowed my eyes. Nightcrawler was also a three-fingered, blue-skinned acrobat with a tail. And an expert fencer. I picked up a long stick and pointed it at Tyson. “En garde!”
He snatched another one off the ground and blocked all my jabs and pokes, followed by some fancy twirl of his wrist that sent the stick flying out of my hand. By the rules of dueling, he had the right to stab me through the heart. Instead, he lowered his foil and smiled. And that’s when I knew for sure he was a mutant. I wondered if under all that skin and nylon he was blue too.
He introduced me to Maya, his girlfriend—well, he never called her that, but sometimes, you can just tell. She was definitely a mutant. The scarf she always wore danced like she was lifting it with her mind. One of the original X-Men, Jean Grey, could do that. She was called Marvel Girl in the sixties, but later, they changed her name to Phoenix. Maya seemed flighty, so I called her “Phoenix” once, and she got that spacey, poet face Ma gets when she “creates.” Maya made this “mmh” sound in her closed mouth, as if she liked the taste of that name or something. Then she ran a hand through my hair and said, “You’re sweet, Benji. You may call me that whenever you like.” The next day, she brought me a cupcake from the bakery where she worked. I called her “Phoenix” the rest of the summer.
The mantle above Yiayia’s fireplace was spotted with colors. Like some circus clown had unloaded a paintball gun on the thing. There were a lot of photos on it: Pops and Ma on their wedding day, me as a chubby toddler, and some smiley guy with a straw hat and a mustache.
“Who’s that, Yiayia?” I asked. She was stitching a pattern into this circle thing on her lap.
“Benji! That’s your Pappous, your grandpa. You don’t recognize him?”
“He’s an angel now,” Yiayia said, pushing the needle. “Probably loving his wings.”
I told Tyson about it the next morning while he was rigging a figure-four trap. A deer was supposed to knock over a small stick and make a big log fall and whop it on the head.
“Yiayia says my grandpa’s an angel now.”
The figure-four wasn’t holding. Tyson fished a knife out of his pocket and started sharpening one end of the small stick. “Maybe he joined the X-Men,” he said, blowing the wood shavings off the end of the blade. “You know, as Archangel?”
I knew that Yiayia wanted Pappous to be an angel, but I liked Tyson’s version better. I imagined Pappous joining the X-Men and started counting on my fingers. If Pappous was Archangel, and Tyson was Iceman, and Maya was Phoenix, and that Mr. Kuipers guy was Cyclops and Professor X, that only left one original X-Man, which I guess made me Beast. He wasn’t my favorite, but he was strong, had opposable toes, and somersaulted into people.
Tyson caught jack squat and complained about it the whole way to the water where we met up with Maya, but I was only half listening, still thinking about Beast. While Tyson and Maya sat in the sand watching the waves, I got a running start and somersaulted right into his side. My head thumped against his ribs, almost knocking the wind out of him. Maya and I laughed; he didn’t. “What are you doing?” he asked, his tone icicle-sharp. I stopped. It was the first time I’d seen him mad.
“Sorry, Tyson,” I said.
“Benji, you can’t just fly into people like that. Where’d that come from?”
I should have said something about Beast, but I couldn’t find the words. How do you say you want to be super too without sounding like a kid?
Still trying to help my inner artist wake up, Yiayia brought me one of those throwaway cameras from Walgreens. When I tried to take a close-up of the wrinkles on her hand, she shooed me out of the house. “Take pictures of nature, Benji. Something beautiful.” She shut the slider before I could get a word in, and the blinds closed over it seconds later. I made for the woods. I didn’t really know where Tyson lived, so I just walked the way I saw him come whenever he went down to the beach. After maybe ten minutes, something yanked my ankle, and I fell face-first to the ground. It was one of Tyson’s traps. Finally, he’d snared something.
A woman’s laughter caught me off guard. It was far off, but not too far. I pulled my ankle, but the rope just tightened. Through the trees, I could make out a house, huge compared to Yiayia’s or Mr. Kuipers’s cabin. It had this ginormous deck that was probably as tall as some of the trees. I pulled at the knot ‘til my foot was free, slipped the camera in my pocket, and started climbing a tree. I climbed until I could see the top of the deck, where a guy lounged on a chair with a dark-haired lady sitting on his lap. She was holding a glass of something bright green with one of those little umbrellas in it. He held a beer by the neck, like he was choking it.
I pointed my camera and pressed the button. They never saw me. I got out of the tree and headed toward the beach. Looking down the whole way to avoid more traps, I almost bumped right into Tyson.
“Careful there, Juggernaut.” He had a slingshot in one of his hands, and his eyes followed a gray squirrel through the trees.
“Catching lunch?” I asked.
“Losing ammo, more like… Where you coming from, Benji?” Yiayia’s place was still down the way.
“Looking for you,” I said. There was no way I was telling him that one of his traps caught me. I’d never live that down. “Is that your house, the one with the super deck? You could land the X-Jet on that thing!”
“That was your dad then?”
“He and your mom sure like each other a lot,” I said.
“That’s not my mom.”
“Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Great question. Other side of the lake somewhere.”
I eyed the slingshot. “Is that why you’re learning all these skills? So you can go rescue her? ‘Cause I’ll go with you, Tyson. It’ll be a mission! You know, like X-Men?”
He paused for a few seconds before speaking. “Thanks, Benji. You’re a good friend.”
“Where’s Phoenix? I haven’t seen her around in a few days…”
His face lost color so fast, I thought for a second he was making ice armor. “Maya went back to college, Benji,” he said. “In Lansing.”
“Oh. Is she a mutant, Tyson?”
“Yeah. For sure.”
“I’ll miss her,” I said, kicking a pinecone.
Tyson turned away for a moment before firing three pellets at the squirrel. None of them even close.
The camera had thirty-six shots on it. After the two I took of Yiayia’s wrinkles, I snapped about twenty of trees and leaves, plus the one of Tyson’s dad and his not-mom, ten more of Lake Michigan, and a few of Yiayia’s clown mantle and barf-colored piano.
I was thinking about how to spend the last three shots when I went into the woods that next morning, a lot earlier than usual. It was cool, and the sunrise turned the tree bark a grapefruit color. Halfway to the lake, I saw Tyson sitting on the ground, his back to me, hat off. He was shaking, elbows on his knees, head down, and his pocketknife open beside him. Was he crying? He looked at the light on the trees like it was a person and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He kept saying that, over and over like a chant. I was about to step out of the pines and say something, when I noticed his arm had a bunch of red stripes on it. The knife blade was the same color. It looked wet. I got dizzy all of a sudden. I wanted to go sit by Tyson, but there was the knife and the blood and him twitching and talking to no one. So I did something that didn’t make any sense to me: I took a picture of him sitting there and then snuck away. When I got back to Yiayia’s yard, I started crying too. I don’t know why. I sat in the hammock and gazed at the sky. There wasn’t a cloud. It was as blue as Nightcrawler’s skin.
Yiayia said the greatest thinkers were Greeks. You know, Socrates and Aristotle and Plato—all those guys. Given such a “heritage of brilliance,” as Yiayia put it, you’d think I’d be able to figure out what was eating Tyson. My “latent prowess” told me he was lonely, but I had no idea how to fix that. I thought about it for so long, the sun set.
Yiayia had printed my photos at Walgreens that afternoon. She sat on the couch leafing through them. After shot number seventeen of blurry leaves, she sighed and handed them back to me. “Maybe music,” she said. “Maybe we’ll try more music. Tomorrow though.” She yawned and headed upstairs to bed. I stayed in the living room, wrapped in a quilt she’d stitched. I stared at the million tiny icebergs of her popcorn ceiling and thought about my parents, probably at some tent festival paying big bucks for a spatula wrapped in gold wire.
I flipped through the rest of the photos. I got to the one of Tyson’s dad and then of Tyson sitting there in the dirt. Then, the weirdest feeling came over me. It was like a chunk of ice melting in my veins. I got up and went outside into the backyard, where a white bedsheet dried on the clothesline. I grabbed the sheet and dragged it into the kitchen where Yiayia kept the finger paints. I spread the sheet over the wood floor and started trailing colored lines over it. The microwave clock said 10:00, and I went somewhere, my hands moving by themselves, all of Pops’s ramblings about “the visual canvas” coming back to me.
The paint on the sheet started to look like something: Tyson, with his elbows on his knees, and his dad throne-sitting on a shadowy deck in the background. And on the other side, a big firebird flying away. I was so focused I could hear my heart beat.
The picture kept changing. Tyson had a suit of armor on, an icicle blade in one hand. The trees had that grapefruit color, but their leaves were purple and gold. Tyson’s wrists were tied up in black cords, the very rabbit traps he had set, all of it streaked in finger lines, looking so real I shivered. A lamp clicked on behind me, and I jumped. Yiayia was there squinting down at me in her nightgown. I was aware then of the paint streaks on the floor, my filthy fingers, her bedsheet covered in color, and the green numbers on the microwave that read 1:00.
“Yiayia,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened. I should have asked about the bed sheet and the paints. And—”
“Shh, shh,” she said, and crept closer, gawking at the sheet for what seemed like forever. Then she grinned. “I knew he was down there, Benji,” she whispered. She ran a hand through my hair and said, “Wash your hands and go to bed, my little Michelangelo.” She kissed me on the cheek, and I felt as super as a mutant.
Pops and Ma made the trip up to Stevensville in their old hatchback, which chugged up the driveway like it was having a seizure. Pops gave me a big hug when he got out of the car, and Ma even admitted she missed me. They said they were excited to see my art. I felt like any normal kid being picked up from summer camp, except that camp was my grandma’s house, the car was full of small trinkets instead of siblings, and my arts and crafts project was about to face “critical analysis.” Oh well. It was as close to normal as I was going to get; I tried to enjoy it.
When Pops and Ma saw my painting, they gasped. I cringed, but Pops broke out in this rant about how “the dynasty of craft would continue through the generations.” He lifted me up and kissed me on the cheek. Ma studied the painting for a long time and said, “Well done, Benji.” Yiayia uncorked a bottle of something fizzy, and while they toasted to “self-actualization,” “afflatus,” and a bunch of other syllables that made no sense, I snuck out the back door. I opened the gate, knowing I was making my last journey into the woods. I touched the bark of the trees on the way to the lake as if playing tag and realized that in order to make comic books, people cut these down. It made me sad, that something alive had to die for every X-Men adventure.
Somehow, I knew Tyson would be by the water. He sat in the sand, squinting up at the smurf-colored sky, thinking about Phoenix or squirrel traps or God or his mom or who knows what. I plopped down right next to him.
“Benji,” he said, his eyes glazed like Ma’s pottery.
“Long time no see,” he said, meaning a few days.
“I’m leaving today.”
“To go join the X-Men?” His mouth smiled. His eyes didn’t.
“No. My inner artist woke up, so my parents are dragging me back to Ohio.”
He breathed, and it sounded like a sigh. A breeze from the lake made his nylon clothes ripple. Water splashed nearly to our ankles. There was still a part of me hoping he would freeze it—make ice slides, ice spears, ice armor, anything. But Tyson sat there wearing long sleeves in the eighty-degree afternoon, sweat drops pooling beneath a hat that raccoon-shadowed his eyes. He couldn’t freeze anything.
“You gonna be ok?” I asked.
“I’m a survivalist, Benji.”
“I know.” Then, as much as I didn’t want it to be true, I said, “But you’re not actually a mutant. You don’t have superpowers.”
He said nothing. We sat there for a long time, listening to the lake’s waves break and batter the ground around us. A stripe of sweat trailed past the shadowed part of his face like a streak of finger paint. It snared the sunlight and sparkled. With all my heart, I wanted to see it as ice, to believe he could take what was inside him and use it to make something.
Michael Brooks is a writer and educator who spends his free hours exploring the shores and
coastal forests of Lake Michigan. He received his MFA from Pacific University and teaches writing classes at Hope College.