I'd come to Metropolis a few months previously. It isn't that much different from where I was from. All tall buildings look tall, you know? Like people. They don't change from one coast to another, not like you might think they would. It's sort of a disappointment, really.
But life's full of disappointments. I learned that early. Real early, like the first time my daddy taught me how to play 'mommy' with him. Disappointment and pain, oh yeah. It took me three tries in four years to get it right, but I finally ran far enough fast enough that Daddy couldn't rescue me.
I bet he's disappointed.
Anyway, this ain't about my problems. Bartenders who spill don't get tips, that's lesson number one. And I need all the tips I can get, you know?
I picked up the bottle from under the bar and poured another slug for the guy, it was only his third but he was light. He was older than me, late twenties maybe, and handsome or so I judged if he was cleaned up. Maybe even pretty with his bright blue eyes, high cheeks and softly pouting lips. His hair was black and cut fashionably short with just the barest hint of a cowlick, irrepressible and boyish and utterly sexy.
But he wasn't cleaned up. He was slouching, bent over the bar on his elbows. Wearing a rumpled gray suit, his shirt no longer starched and white, a striped tie hanging around his neck like a noose. His eyes were bright, the rye hadn't clouded them so completely yet, but they burned cold with precious little life. He was dying, this handsome man, right before my eyes.
I watched as he lifted the glass to his mouth, tilting his whole body back, the way inexperienced drunks did it. A little shiver as the whiskey burned it's way low, down into the trenches of whatever battle the man was fighting. He held the glass a second, eyes closed, and then set it down carefully.
"Another..." He kept his eyes closed and when I hesitated they opened, fixing on me with such pain that I involuntarily took a step back. "Please, Miss..."
"Ivy." I recovered. "My name is Ivy and I'm not sure you need..."
"Ivy," he repeated, smiling as if he should have known that already. "Need..." he seemed to pause, searching for the right words, " ... has nothing to do with it, Ivy."
I shrugged and looked away. Looking into that man's eyes were like looking into my own life, my own soul. It hurt and confused me. I concentrated on pouring him another drink.
"How old are you, Ivy?" he asked, watching my hands intently.
"Old enough." I smiled, but didn't look up. I corked the bottle and left it on the bar this time.
The man rotated the little shot glass slowly, his thumb and fingers working it round and round. "No, really. I want to know."
"I'm twenty-two." I glanced down the bar, checking my three other customers and they seemed okay. I was kind of looking for an excuse to get away because I thought I knew what was coming.
"Hmmm..." He smiled to himself, so slightly that I barely caught it. "Every number has a meaning. When I was twenty-two I saved the world. Twice." The man chuckled. "Twenty-two is how many times old Mrs. Daley's cat got stuck in her tree, and how many times I got it down. And twenty-two ... twenty-two..." He looked up suddenly, catching me by surprise, staring into my soul with those eyes. "That's how many times I told her..." His voice drifted softly away beneath his gaze.
"Uh..." I looked away, finding my bar towel.
"You're a beautiful young woman, Ivy." He drank his shot, grimacing in the mirror as I watched. "Good bartender too."
"Thanks." I wasn't sure what else to say. Most guys are easy to talk to, or easy to ignore, but not him.
"Who are you?" He caught my look as I refilled his glass. "I mean, when you're not here. Who are you, Ivy?"
I shrugged and smiled weakly. "I'm still me."
"You're not a bartender all the time," the man insisted. "Are you?"
"No. I'm an actress, sometimes." I picked up my little towel and worried it. "I mean, off Broadway, you know. Little things."
"Oh." He sounded vaguely disappointed by that and it almost made me angry.
"How about you?" I challenged him. "Who are you? When you're not a drunk, who are you?"
"You mean really?" The way he said it made me wonder if I truly did want to know. Like it was a secret. A secret of the most dangerous sort.
"Yeah," I said softly just to reassure myself, then to him. "Yeah, really. I really wanna know."
The man lifted his drink, looking into the darkness before tilting it back with a smile. "I'm Superman," he said softly, setting his glass down and reaching inside his suit coat for his wallet. He pulled out two twenties, laying them on the bar with an extra little pat. He stood up, a bit unsteadily and looked around. "Where's the men's room, Ivy?"
"Back there," I pointed. "First door on the left."
He nodded and started walking slowly.
"You're not, you know," I called after him. He just waved over his shoulder and continued on.
The place was a dive, just a little hole in the wall off 127th street in the garment district. Busy time was afternoon, by eight the place was dead. By nine there were just the regulars, my little trio at the end of the bar. They were security guards for some of the warehouses and liked to get braced for their shift. Once in awhile a bum would stumble in, or somebody lost maybe. But this part of town was largely empty after the sun went down, lifeless and cold.
The guy who owned it was in my acting class. He owned a lot of little properties around Metropolis, but none of them made him any money. Just enough to pay for his lessons, he said, and that was enough. He had dreams of making it, being on the stage in a Broadway musical. His name was Mel and he was 72 years old. He told me he'd never been disappointed in his life, but I didn't believe him. I didn't want to.
I was setting my regulars up with another round when the man came back, walking slowly and holding his hands out a little.
"You're out of paper towels," he said, sitting down in front of his bottle. I hadn't touched his money, but I'd poured him another drink.
"Most guys who come in here wouldn't notice." I laughed and grabbed a clean bar towel. "Here."
He looked down the bar at the three men and nodded. "I believe you."
I stood back and poured myself a Diet-Coke, sipping it while he dried his hands. "So what happened to you?" I asked.
"Huh?" He turned his eyes on me again and I looked down.
When I looked up again he was drinking his whiskey, giving a little shake of the shoulders as it went down. "I mean the booze. What's a guy like you crawling into the bottle for?"
"Maybe I like to drink," he said sullenly, putting his glass down with a heavy thud and reaching for the bottle.
"My job." I smiled and grabbed it before he could. I spoke slowly as I poured, "You get fired or something?"
He seemed to find that funny and he chuckled softly as I grabbed a basket of old popcorn out of the machine, putting it on the bar for both of us. I've always liked popcorn when it was just a little stale.
"Oh, right." I laughed too. "I forgot who you were. Okay, so you didn't get fired. Um ... Your best friend died?" I was talking as if to myself, like I was solving a crossword puzzle out loud. "No, couldn't be that..." I glanced at him and snapped my fingers. "Girl trouble!"
"What?" He looked up sharply and for the first time I saw something, a little spark of interest in his eyes. This time I didn't look away, but he did. Staring down into his drink.
"You wanna talk about it?" I offered, knowing that he did.
"No." He picked up his drink, sipping it slowly so it burned.
"Hey, look ... sometimes it helps, you know? Talking to a stranger, a female to boot. It might give you a whole new perspective." I smiled supportively. "Believe me, I know about these things."
"You ... You got it all wrong," he sighed. "My problem isn't like that."
"Like what?" I prompted, refilling his glass. "Excuse me. How you guys doing down there?" I looked at my regulars and they waved they were fine and I turned back to him. "Okay. Start at the beginning."
"Her name is ... Lois. We work together and..."
"Wait. You work together? I thought you said you're Superman, so who's she ... Superwoman?"
"No ... Uh-uh. I work at the Daily Planet, she's ... she works there too. I'm a reporter and, well ... It's hard to explain. I just want a normal life too, and so I work and..."
"So, you're like a cross-dresser? Okay, got it." I giggled, trying to imagine Superman working a nine-to-five like a regular Joe.
"No. Come on!" But he was smiling and he sort of blushed, just a little I thought. "Anyway. We work together and I like her a lot. I mean, I really like her as ... as who I am at work."
"The normal you," I nodded as though it made sense.
"Yeah. No." He made a face. "Superman's the normal me. This..." He looked down at himself. "Anyway, Lois, she likes me as Superman and, well she likes me at work too, but she doesn't..."
"Love you?" I finished and he nodded, looking up with appreciation.
"Right. She loves Superman," he sighed. "At work she thinks ... Lois thinks I'm a joke."
"Because I have to act different, sort of clumsy and not very strong or brave. I ... well ... I can't use my powers or anything." He picked up his drink. "It's my disguise." He swallowed it down and licked his lips. "That and, uh ... These." He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pair of glasses.
"That's your disguise?" I asked, maybe a little incredulously and the man gave me a look. "Wait a sec. Now this Lois, she works with you every day, right?"
He nodded. "Right."
"And she's seen Superman, right? Like close-up and personal?"
"Uh-huh. We've, uh, we've kind of gone out ... uh, flying and stuff." He smiled a little sheepishly. "I've rescued her a lot."
"And this woman, she doesn't know you and Superman are the same guy?" I admit that there were certainly a number of things about the man's story that were hard to believe. Not the least of which was that Superman would be sitting in my bar getting drunk, but this was too much.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Lois can't tell. Nobody can."
"Put on the glasses." He did. "Take them off." He did. "Put them back on." He did it again and I shook my head. "You look like you with big black glasses on."
"Well, I comb my hair a little different," he shrugged. "And the outfit, you know, the cape and the big S on my chest, they kind of distract the eye, so maybe..." his voice trailed off.
"So maybe she's an idiot," I said and I poured him another drink.
"No! No, she's..." he started protesting and I waved him off.