America’s Greatest Hero by Jon Maci
To his employers, Dashiell DeBrun is an aging asset. Twenty-two years ago he designed and patented the Inova-turn Quikroll paper towel dispenser system for commercial office use, an achievement of mechanical elegance, the Vitruvian Man of paper towel dispensers. The first year of production earned the company an easy two million and DeBrun a brass plaque and a party, business casual and sparsely attended.
To his employers’ displeasure, DeBrun has not since replicated this achievement, though he has not been entirely useless. Once, the company printed his doughy, beetle-eyed likeness in a newsletter touting him as a creative resource. It implied promises to recapture the Inova-turn’s lightning in a bottle and implored the investors not to sell their shares. A copy of the letter hangs on the DeBruns’ refrigerator at home. Dash put it there, two totems beneath the Christmas cards and photos of his wife and son.
To Sandra, his wife of twenty-one years, DeBrun is an irksome bore. In a sinus-rattling tenor, he erms and ahs his way through noontime phone calls home, unaware he is mostly speaking into her shoulder. His purple tongue coffee-burned, he doesn’t taste the yoga instructor still stuck to her lips when he kisses her good morning. He tells her how lucky he is to have her and she agrees. Go back to sleep, darling, he says, and she does. And he wakes his son for school.
To Zachary, his bucktoothed, pimply progeny, DeBrun is a searing embarrassment. The way he calls to him, “Buddy!” from across the parking lot at school. The way he came to career day and actually talked about paper towel dispensers: God! The way he looks just like Zachary in snapshots from his own high school years, thickly bespectacled, posed alone next to train sets and model rockets. The albums sit dusty in a trunk in the attic. Zachary will get the trunk when his father dies. Maybe he’ll open it; maybe he won’t. No one opens it now. It and the man inside are an afterthought.
But to Neal McInnes of Manhattan, Dashiell DeBrun is America’s greatest hero. So he tells a young woman in a jean jacket and spandex leggings, who sips cheap beer at a makeshift bar. Gangsta rap beats beneath lyrics by Billy Joel, and it drifts out onto the porch as McInnes slides the glass door open. Waiting the suds down inside her red Solo cup, the waif stands poised with the keg hose in hand when McInnes engages her in DeBrunean colloquy.
“America’s greatest hero.”
“Never heard of him.”
“No one has.”
“So why is he America’s greatest hero?”
“Because he invented the Inova-turn Quikroll paper towel dispenser system for commercial office use.”
She cocks a bored half-grin, relaxes, and sips her beer.
“There’s one in the bathroom at Bar Sinergie. It’s the kind that holds out a towel for you, you take it, and chunk! there’s another one. No electricity. No pulling a lever over and over to drop a rainforest’s worth of paper in your lap. With his system DeBrun says, ‘here, man. Just take one. Peace.’ And you say, ‘yeah, thanks. That’s all I really needed anyway.’”
He pantomimes a grateful restroom patron clutching a sheet of paper towel to his bosom. She giggles. Her bleached, straightened hair quivers.
“And this makes him more a hero than, you know, the other heroes?”
She means her parents’ hand-me-downs, groomed and declawed, the ones she’s seen splayed on billboards and heard playing behind commercials.
“I mean, they’re alright. But the Quikroll has saved forests. Is the Amazon still standing? The Russian and Canadian taiga? Hugs and kisses, Dash DeBrun.”
“When is he getting the peace prize?”
“Not soon enough.”
He inhales and stiffens so he can draw a lighter from a too-tight jeans pocket. He lights a cigarette, offers her a monkey fuck and she takes it. She’s loosened up by this point.
“Where do you get this shit?”
He gets it having filed old patent claims at the law office where he interned last summer.
“I met DeBrun in a SoHo bathroom last year. He’s traveling around the world, you know, undercover, secretly installing Inova-turns in a guerrilla campaign to save the trees.”
It was five-a.m. and the real Dash DeBrun lay awake in his bed in Avon, Indiana, his hands folded about a buddha-belly. For hours he had stared up at the ceiling, created beasts and birds out of the speckled plaster patterns there and called them good. He had been dreaming about the pig farm he grew up on, how in the back acres there was a little stream with muddy muddy banks that swallowed seven shoes gone over the course of his childhood. He remembered how delightful, for a time, that slimy silt felt between his toes, which he wiggled absently beneath the covers. Sandra was curled on her side next to him, facing away and breathing lightly, oblivious to his dreaming. At the window, through the plastic slats of venetian blinds, high beams shone, swelled, and disappeared with the whoosh of a sedan passing outside, leaving the room dark again. An arthritic tortoiseshell tabby clambered up onto the tousled bedding and nudged DeBrun under the chin.
“Good morning, Marbles,” he whispered, kneading stubby fingers into the cat’s plump scalp.
The cat droned a low, smoker’s meow.
“Okay, Marbles. I know just what you want.”
DeBrun grunted his way out of bed, pausing to robe and slip on his houseshoes. He felt his way down the hall, and when he closed his eyes against the fluorescent light in the kitchen, his face resembled November’s jack-o-lanterns. Groping beneath the counter, he found a crumpled bag of cat food and dumped a heaping scoop of the oily pellets into a dish by the refrigerator. “There’s a good girl,” as the already overweight cat chomped and smacked them down. He did the same with a tin of ground coffee, spooning the grains into a paper filter. He set the stained plastic coffeemaker to brew, scratched himself and ambled to the window. There the first light of the day spilled in and touched shadows across flattened berber carpeting and rudely gouged oak furniture. He suspired the new morning and felt not in the least like a guerrilla.
A moving truck sat parked across the street. Neighbors leaving, lighting out for Arizona, said “Yeah, we’ll keep in touch,” and rolled their eyes at him when he finally left them alone. Beyond the truck stood a dark line of trees and the sun yet hidden retiring cool night, rebuffing it from a faultless March sky.
He was humming a tune he didn’t remember as he cinched a four-in-hand tight up under his chin. It was a birthday gift, the tie, a silk number bendy des gules et argents, meant for a thicker knot, but he only ever bothered with the one. It looked on him now like the ribbon and navel of a toy balloon.
“The history of invention…” he said to mirror Dash.
“Next chapter… Mmm mm mmmm,” mirror Dash said back.
Lights off in the bathroom and his cuffs buttoned around his wrists, he gathered up his briefcase and jacket, sang his love-you-sugarlump to Sandra, who was awake in bed but silent, and he closed the door. He poked his head into Zachary’s room.
“Awake for school, Buddy?”
“Mmmm!” angry and muffled under a pillow.
DeBrun left for work.
Two divider walls and an AC register made his office in the research park, which was the annex to a factory warehouse by the railroad depot. The plaque commemorating the Inova-turn hung on a nail tacked into his far divider wall, positioned to be seen at a glance by anyone happening by. The only other decoration there was a framed wedding photo of him and Sandra and a crayon drawing, done on notebook paper by Zachary when he was six, of his father as a cowboy, blankly smiling and awkwardly sitting a horse like a paper doll with only partially perforated legs.
He could hear two coworkers converse as they walked down the hall. He straightened up and neatened papers at his desk as if he were posing for some exhibit and they were tour guides, or auditioning for a part in a play and they its directors. Coletto and Weir, they were junior managers. Something in their titles about accounts or strategic something. They were fifteen years younger than DeBrun and had spoken to him only a few times in all the years they had worked together. “Different departments,” they shrugged when he introduced himself at the picnic one summer. They talked about big changes at the company—modularity, streamlining, buy-in—and DeBrun talked about his idea for the restaurant he dreamed of opening one day. It would be a farm restaurant, all the food fresh from field to table. The patrons could tour the grounds and the barn while they waited for a seat. Sandra held his arm and he could feel her wince when he mentioned it. Coletto and Weir pulled faces like they were smelling for spoiled milk. Stupid stupid stupid.
“Oh, Dash,” said Sandra, patting his arm. “You have an imagination, don’t you! You keep talking about that restaurant.”
The tension was broken. DeBrun looked down at his feet. Coletto and Weir each seized the opportunity to move on, and Dash imagined later that he saw them glance his way and whisper to each other. They whispered now as they passed his cubicle. He would have wished them good morning, but they didn’t make eye contact with him. He is utterly incapable of greeting anyone without first making eye contact. He slouched when they turned the corner and resumed their conversation.
“The history of invention is…” he sighed.
Though DeBrun maintained an elaborate electronic calendar, replete with appointments, meetings, and other events (some contrived and embellished), he still kept a day-planner as a redundancy, which he now fished out of a desk drawer. In it he browsed a history of the past two months:
January 13, 1430, meet with Price to discuss raise. (A red line drawn through the item.)
January 21, 1900, Zachary, basketball game. (A green line and a doodled pennant with “go Orioles!” scribbled next to it.)
January 22, 1500, early day, see to mom’s affairs. Take possession of farm mortgages. (A black line.)
February 4, 1030, meet with Price for quarterly performance review. (Another red line.)
February 14, 1230, lunch with department guys. (Black.)
February 14, 1900, Anniversary! Dinner at DiSalvo’s (Green, a lopsided pink heart.)
March 11, 1300, R&D meeting. (Today. No line.)
He compared today’s entry to the one on his computer calendar and they matched. He spent the next few moments in breathing exercises, finished them in five minutes, and moved on to tightening and relaxing his buttocks in his seat. The day’s warm-up routine. He strolled the cubicle pool. Two laps around mostly empty desks, some screen savers, two colleagues tilted back in their chairs and polishing off fast-food breakfast muffins. When he was younger, he would make his morning walk through the warehouse, wending a mile or so through the long rows of tooling machines and high shelves stocked full of stainless steel, foot-operated waste bins; sleek, dual-chambered soap dispensers; Inova-turn Quikrolls, wrapped and aligned in ranks like an inspection-ready robot army and he their strutting general. In the years after he designed the Inova-turn and it became a success, DeBrun would talk it up to the guys on the shop floor, not so much like a boast, but like a child seeking the approval of the big kids on the playground, although he stopped walking the warehouse and talking to the guys when he got older and gained weight and they started calling him “Quikroll” to his face.
Returning to his desk, he fished a manila folder out of his briefcase and leafed through its contents. They were designs for an outdoor lighting system that, through curved reflectors and hoods, reduced both light pollution and energy consumption by nearly a third of the average for similar lighting implements. His first proposal in nearly a year, he handled the papers like the illuminated pages of a medieval manuscript, as if a crease or wrinkle would shake them to dust. He laid them out neatly on his desk and reviewed their figures and measurements, rendered for display in colorful graphics. He rehearsed his pitch for the meeting that afternoon. At eleven-thirty, he took lunch from the vending machines in the break room: a turkey sandwich and some microwave noodles. At twelve he returned to his desk for his customary after-lunch nap.
He awoke at eight-past-one. Late for the meeting. Wiped drool. Heart racing. Had been dreaming. Gathered papers. Thrust them back into the folder, bending them at the corners. Sprinting over brown grass. The treeline in the distance and the creek behind it. Following a blood trail. Tracking something that turned about in the brush ahead and cast up sparrows like a fan winnower.
DeBrun marched into conference room 1 with his folder tucked up under his arm and made for his seat. Collins, standing frozen, his finger on the fluorescence-lit whiteboard, sighed.
“Sorry,” DeBrun edging past Ealy and Freeman. “Sorry,” sitting down. “Sorry,” adjusting himself and shuffling his papers. Nobody said anything to him about the red polygon on the side of his face, printed there by a forearm during his REM cycle.
“You all ready there, Dash?” said Collins.
“Oh yeah. All set here, Bill.” And he was up again. “Sorry,” past Freeman and Ealy. “Hello,” standing at the overhead projector.
Thus did Dash DeBrun, America’s greatest hero, present for the approval of his peers what he hoped would one day be called the “Inova-lux versatile outdoor lighting system”. He highlighted recent trends in corporate eco-consciousness and pointed out the Inova-lux’s arcing reflectors as exemplars of energy efficiency made possible by a frugal optical solution.
“Computer models suggest that, using only a fraction of the energy demanded by systems with similar lighting depths, this design can produce the same, if not more lumens, while leaving a minimal shadow at its base.
“The history of invention is a history of doing more with less, and this is the next chapter for outdoor lighting.”
There was a faint smattering of applause. Collins nodded his head and scribbled some notes on a legal pad.
“Thank you, Dash. Wow.”
DeBrun beamed as the R&D department checked their watches, rose, and left the room in clusters of chatting, shirtsleeved businesspeople. Hang a new plaque on my wall, he thought. When he returned to his cubicle, the red message light on his phone was blinking.
“You wanted to see me, Jerry?”
The narrow doorway to Jerry Price’s office barely admitted Dash DeBrun, who stood behind the chair opposite his boss’s desk.
“Have a seat, Dash.”
By the time he was fumbling for his keys behind the cardboard box holding the contents of his desk, DeBrun was swallowing tears. Not a handsome man anyway, he was truly unfortunate looking when upset. A dark starburst of crows’ feet erupted around his eyes, and the corners of his mouth hooped a Chinese dragon’s grimace. He slumped down behind the wheel, pushing the box onto the passenger seat. In it shifted his wedding picture, Zachary’s drawing, the day-planner, a few doodads, but not the binders that held accumulated years of data on customers’ orders for foaming soap dispensers, not his designs for the Inova-lux. These, Price had told him, belonged to the company, and would have to stay. There would be no guerrilla campaign. In exchange for a modest severance package, DeBrun had signed a non-compete clause into his termination agreement. A pink carbon copy of this lay in the box as well.
Slouched in his car, he thought three things. One: Perhaps I should not drive home right away. Perhaps I should go—go where?—somewhere, first. Two: What am I going to tell Sandra? Zachary? They’ll be so embarrassed. And three: Who else could I tell? He pulled the gearshift into reverse and made for home, but the drive did not register. He almost hit a dog that ran into the road. He missed the last light and had to turn around.
The moving truck was gone when he pulled into his driveway, a realtor’s yard sign the only ghost there of his neighbors. He left the box and his briefcase in the car and walked to the front door as slowly as he could manage. Sandra was there to meet him when he stepped inside. Her arms were folded. Her hair was disheveled and her face was flushed.
“Dash. You’re home early…”
There was a stranger there, a man DeBrun had never seen. He carried his shoes and held a jacket over his arm. He pushed past DeBrun and out the door.
A boy, twelve years old, walks with his father toward a sty. The boy carries a tin pail, and his father a small, sharp knife, the handle wound in twine. The boy takes three strides to the man’s two. His feet drag the ground as he walks, scuffing white sneakers. When they reach the barn, the father pulls open the inset door.
“Come on,” he says. “We talked about this. There’s no gettin’ around it. Jes’ gotta get through it.”
The boy takes a breath and steps inside where it is dark and stifling and twenty little black eyes attend and ignore him in turn. His father follows and closes the door. He stashes his knife and enters one of the pens, returning with a plump, wrinkled American Yorkshire runt, Mister Lumpy, as it was named by the boy, who has started to cry.
“Now now,” says the father, as he leads his son and the pig out of the barn, past the wallow, toward a semi-enclosed shed twenty yards away. “You cain’t shrink in the morning from what you promised at midnight.” The boy barely knows what this means.
His father stands astride the pig, bracing his hand alongside its neck and shoulder. It twitches and dances a few steps forward and back, held in check under the man’s grip. He knots a line around the hog’s hind legs, grounding them to an anchor pole.
The boy steps forward as if pushed.
“Put the bucket down there.”
He places the tin pail under the pig’s chin.
“Now stand right here…”
The boy straddles the hog in front of his father.
“…and hold the knife firm, like this.”
The boy takes the knife. His father puts his hand around his son’s, squeezing the boy’s palms, soft in comparison, sternly into the twine handle. The boy is shaking. His hand and his father’s hand and the ritual knife at the hog’s throat.
“Remember what we talked about. You have to mean it.”
But I don’t mean it. I don’t I don’t I don’t.
“Firm and quick. All the way across. Like this.”
His father guides a practice stroke across the pig’s gullet.
The boy nods and his father lets go his hand. The man steps back, leaving the boy poised alone over the pig. The boy, now the knife is just his. Okay. Beneath him, the pig snorts. A few yards away his father prepares the scalding bath, into which they will cast the carcass once they dispatch Mister Lumpy and which will boil away any hair and bacteria. This has to be done. I’ve been eating this pork and tending the pigs that give it. I’m a coward if I don’t do this, or at least a hypocrite. I can’t refuse this time. I’m too big now. Quick. In. Across. And done.
The boy takes a steadying breath and tenses over the runt like a slugger choking up on his bat. Before he chooses to thrust the knife, his hand begins to move, though how fast he cannot tell. Before the swine bucks and spasms, the boy can feel the animal’s demeanor change, its whole countenance, once placid, now frightened. It wants not to die. His hand slips.
The boy is on his back, the knife on the ground, the pail upended. The empty anchor line is tangled around his leg. His father stands over him, mouth moving, but making no sound. He hauls the boy to his feet. The boy looks down at himself, checking for injury, then at the room for the pig. Dark, arterial blood slicks his shin and his shirtsleeve. Blood on the packed dirt floor and a line of it in Morse code staggering out of the shed.
Angrily the man snatches the knife from his son’s hand, which is still trembling. Then he is off, running, telling the boy to stay where he is. The boy ignores him and barrels behind, over dry prairie dropseed stained red. He soon overtakes his father, who has stopped and doubled over, his hands on his knees, surveying the treeline. The boy slips his arm through his father’s and twists his wrist outward so that the knife falls into the grass. He picks it up almost without breaking his stride. The man calls to his son, but the boy does not stop. Dancing brush and the flight of birds draw the boy’s eye ahead and to the left, where white oak and ash stand on a ridge cradling a shallow creek. He explodes over the embankment, falling and landing ankle-deep in the creekbed. Catching his breath, he twists about to free himself from the mud. He spots the pig a half-chain away.
The pale pink lump has worked itself into the muck. It twitches in slowing meter, getting slower, going nowhere. Little puffs of breath curl up from its snout and disappear. Blood trickles from a spidery wound in its neck and mingles with the stream’s lowland snowmelt. When the pig sees the boy, it wheezes an aborted squeal. The boy labors, his feet splashing and sucking in the shallow water. The pig shrinks from him as he approaches. Its skin is cold to the touch. “I’m sorry,” the boy cries. “I’m so sorry.” He leans over it, the knife handle whiting his knuckles, and he puts the blade to its throat. But the pig is already dead.
Mid-afternoon sun falls slantwise into a studio apartment in Gramercy Park. Neal McInnes lies on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He’s not thinking about anything in particular, but his mind is not empty. Images dance like a stock footage reel across what passes for the internal theater of his conscious self.
He rouses himself when the young woman wakes who lies next to him, her arm draped across his chest. Good morning, er, afternoon. Dollops of clothing pile about the bed like floral offerings at an altar. The woman groans and squints against the light at the window. She pulls the covers over her face. Neal rolls out of bed.
“What time is it?”
“Did we come straight back here after the…”
“We went to Chubb’s first.”
She sits up, feet on the floor, holding the sheet around herself. She plucks a bra from the crumpled bedding, a shirt, a jacket.
“I can’t. I have to… get back. Another time, though?”
“I’ll leave my number.”
She dresses and scribbles her phone number on a gum wrapper and leaves it on his nightstand. They share an awkward half-kiss at the door. When she leaves, the apartment is quiet and empty.
He’ll call her back later that week. The two will date for four-and-a-half months before he breaks it off with her. He will tell her all about his fucked up childhood, how he’s so glad he’s in the city and not “back there”. He’ll tell her about his favorite music, how misunderstood he is, how skeptical about the future. He won’t remember what she has to say about it. He’ll cheat on her twice, once with a stranger, once with a friend. He’ll use Dash DeBrun as a pickup line three times. He’ll come across DeBrun’s name once more in his life, when he prepares a patent claim for some unremarkable lighting apparatus, and he’ll mutter, “son of a bitch.”
But before all this can happen, DeBrun must crawl back into his little bed in his little room in his little house, even though it is mid-afternoon. Sandra is snapping up clothes from her dresser and pressing them into a travel bag. Her lips are tightly pursed. Every minute or so she exhales heavily through her nose. She doesn’t turn or say anything to Dash. He doesn’t lower the covers from his face to say anything to her. A lovely inverse landscape of illuminated taupe falls gently from his forehead and flows out over his belly and down his sides. His toes lie somewhere in the valley beyond, keeping counsel in a far off country.
Sandra has finished packing and she zips her bag shut. Dash hears her pause, but he can’t see her looking at him there in bed. He can’t see her expression softening, or her eyes glistening. She can’t see his shaking lips, or that he has retrieved a paring knife from the kitchen drawer, that he holds it by his side. He hears her turn and close the bedroom door, but forget to shut the front door when she leaves.
Maybe half-an-hour passes before Zachary knocks timidly at Dash’s bedroom. He doesn’t say anything from under the covers. “Dad?” Another knock, and then he doesn’t knock again.
“Have mercy on me,” Dash whispers, his breath trembling the sheet over his face.
He begs mercy of his son, who will get the trunk with all the photos inside. He begs it of Sandra, for whatever it was, whatever he did, whatever… oh, oh whatever. And Dash begs mercy of Mr. Lumpy, whom he raised until he was two.
He is fairly certain he is not asking mercy of God. He does not imagine there are any gods or demi-gods living. None to weigh a quiet, portly man’s deeds, heroic or otherwise. None to understand why he never built the restaurant or to see what was there in the creek. But perhaps the universe will produce one at last, and maybe that god will look back on him with some tenderness.
Jon Maci found these moustaches stuck to the grille of a Cadillac parked on Maryland Street in Indianapolis. If you think they look good here, they were exquisite on the Caddy. This was after he studied philosophy at Hanover College, and before he studied it some more at the University of Chicago. He’s always loved writing fiction, too.