The Astonishing Colossal Man wore a red and blue uniform with a wide studded belt that circled his middle like a sheet of armor. A bolt of lightning blazed across his muscular chest. A silver half-mask enhanced his noble face. There were little golden wings on his knee-high boots. He was a superhero!
You could see the boy wanted this model. Cars, airplanes, dinosaurs, what were they? He picked up the box and shook it and you could hear the parts of the Astonishing Colossal Man rattling together. And if you listened, really and carefully listened, you might also have heard a sigh. I leave it to you if that sigh came from the boy or the box.
Mr. Bishop walked down the aisle and stood behind the boy. Mr. Bishop had been selling model kits to boys for years, but that didn't mean he liked model kits, and it certainly didn't mean he liked boys.
"You gonna buy that thing? Or are you just going to wear it out looking?"
The boy's name was Peter and he was twelve. A small boy, a quiet boy, a good boy. He had no hope whatsoever. Not even if we could afford it. That's what they would say. A boy must learn that money is not to be squandered upon foolishness.
"Only one like it," Mr. Bishop whispered. "I may take it home and build it myself."
Peter tried very hard not to turn white.
Just then a customer came through the door, ringing the little bell, and Mr. Bishop hurried off.
Carefully, Peter worked a finger beneath the cover of the box. The model had been in the store so long all the cellophane wrapping had peeled away. The gaudy illustrations were faded and impregnated by dust. No one would ever buy the Astonishing Colossal Man. No one would ever notice.
A moment later another piece was in his pocket. It felt like a leg. The upper part. Walking down Vermont Street, he checked and saw that he was right.
This happened in the village of Park Island, an independent little community whose residents most resolutely did not want to think of themselves as suburban. "Our families," they would say, "have been here for generations." Naturally there was tension between those who could make this boast and the people who had been moving in ever since the expressway opened up. As soon as Peter saw those three boys cross Vermont Street and head in his direction, he knew what to expect.
One of them was Eustace McGovern, the same Eustace McGovern whose father was fighting the new anti-smoking ordinance. Eustace didn't waste any time, just walked right up to Peter and threw an arm around his shoulder. "My friend Peter," he said. "You are my friend, aren't you?"
"Uh huh," Peter lied.
"Peter? Because we like you, we got something for you. Don't we, guys?"
The other two boys were Richard Grove and Cookie O'Rourke. They were the worst students in Peter's room, constantly missing assignments and disrupting class, conduct that adversely affected the progress of any boy who wished to learn. "Come on," Eustace said, wrapping his arm around Peter's other shoulder. "You want to come with us."
"I'm supposed to be home."
"Who's gonna know?"
Peter's parents both had very important jobs. They were gone from six in the morning until seven at night, sometimes longer. The Polish lady who was supposed to watch Peter and make supper often did not show up until five. Before Peter knew it, the boys had shoved him around the corner and into an alley. He hoped they wouldn't go through his pockets and find the Astonishing Colossal Man's leg.
"We really like you, Peter," Eustace insisted. "Wait till you see what we got."
Eustace reached into his coat pocket and produced a package of Marlboros. He shook one loose and placed it between his lips. "You don't believe what they tell you, do you?"
All three boys lit cigarettes and blew the smoke into Peter's face. They puffed and they blew and they puffed and they blew until he was coughing and tears were running down his face. "Hey," Cookie said. "You don't suppose this might kill him?"
"It could," Eustace said. "Some people get sick just being in the same restaurant with a person who smokes. Ain't that right, Peter?"
Peter was coughing so hard he could not answer. "He's not used to it," Cookie said. "What he needs is to smoke one for himself."
Suddenly Peter felt a cigarette thrust between his lips. "Ok, Peter," Eustace said. "Go on, suck on it!"
They had his arm behind his back and were twisting. Peter drew in a mouthful of smoke and coughed it out.
"Nah, nah," Eustace said. "That's not fair. Let's try again."
This time Eustace clapped a hand over Peter's mouth and trapped the hot smoke in his lungs where it curled about in a most decisive way. When they finally let him go he was feeling nauseous, dizzy, and just a little bit high.
"That's enough," Eustace said. "We'll give him another lesson tomorrow."
When Peter got home Maria was stretched out in Father's easy chair, watching television and smoking a cigarette of her own. She was a young woman, about thirty, and beautiful in a wild European way with dark shaggy eyebrows and coarse black hair she tied back in a bushy tail. She spoke very little English, "Yes, yes, no no, Hello, Bye bye, Meester, and Lady," seemed to be her entire vocabulary. She was strictly forbidden to smoke in the house, of course, and she knew it very well, carrying her own ashtray, and warning Peter to keep quiet. "Meester. . . . , Lady . . . ," she would say, touching a forefinger to her lips and shaking her magnificent head. "No, no, no!"
Now she had learned a new word. "Keees! Keees!" She pointed at the screen where a young couple was hungrily embracing. "Kees, kees!" she repeated, smacking her lips suggestively.
Peter went straight to his room. The Astonishing Colossal Man was standing on the dresser, as best he could with only one leg and no head. Bit by bit Peter had been assembling him for over a month. Now he was almost complete. Fitting the Colossal Man's leg in place, Peter wondered why there still seemed to be so many pieces left in the box, and why he had yet to discover a bit of clothing. The Astonishing Colossal Man, or as much of him as had reached Peter's dresser, not only stood naked, but anatomically correct.
Peter was downstairs when his parents arrived in their usual noisy rush. They had a town meeting to attend and there was no time to spare.
"Hurry, hurry," Peter's mother cried. "Oh, Maria, what is this wonderful stew you've been cooking?" She and Peter's father hurled themselves into the kitchen and began spooning down goulash. Peter's father had a stack of papers he read while he ate. "I've got all the statistics here. The surgeon general's report, the data from the EPA, the University of Wisconsin survey, they all say the same thing . . . "
"You think you're going to impress these Townies with an EPA report?"
"Don't call them Townies, Kayanne. We are all members of the same community."
"Tell that to Mr. McGovern."
"Since he has a vested interest, I'm afraid we're not going to be able to tell him anything." Not once did Peter's father take his eyes off of the papers in his left hand. Peter, who was still nauseated, stared at his empty plate. If no one noticed, he meant to leave it that way, empty.
After dinner, which was accomplished in less than ten minutes, Peter's mother and father dashed upstairs to shower and change. Both of them took at least three showers a day, and never missed a chance to get out the toothbrush. Peter was in his room when they banged away, slamming the front door. From his window he could see them crawling into the car, both clad in stone-washed jeans and Lands' End jackets. Peter's father was still holding that sheaf of papers.
A moment later Maria entered the room. "Bye bye," she said, waving her suggestive fingers. She was already in her coat, the one with the fur collar Mother had frowned at.
"Bye bye," Peter said sullenly.
Maria hesitated. She was staring at the Astonishing Colossal Man, headless in his profound nudity. "Ohhh," she sighed, touching her knuckles to her mouth. "No kees kees?"
That night Peter dreamed the Astonishing Colossal Man was wandering through the house searching for his head. People were laughing at his misadventures; he was knocking over furniture and smashing into walls, and Peter, caught in his bed clothes, was unable to rise and help. Suddenly the dream was gone and the laughter was still there--it was Peter's father and mother, downstairs with friends. "We won, we won!" his father was saying. "What are you going to do for an encore?" a woman's voice asked. "Run for mayor?"
The next morning, on his way to school, Peter was almost hit by a viciously thrown rock. In the hallway he was tripped, and when he reached his room someone had written on the chalkboard: "Peter Kennedy smokes Marlboros"
Cookie, Richard Grove, and Eustace McGovern all applauded when Mrs. Clarendon rubbed this away. Mrs. Clarendon had once been Peter's friend, but there was no denying she had cooled after that time his parents had spoken to her in the hallway.
"Boys and girls," she said. "Today we are going to write an essay."
In huge white letters she printed these words on the board:
SHOULD SMOKING BE BANNED IN PUBLIC BUILDINGS?
At once Cookie raised his hand. "Is a school a public building, Mrs. Clarendon?"
"I'm afraid it is," Mrs. Clarendon replied, bitterly.
After school Eustace and his friends caught Peter and gave him his second lesson. "You're going to learn to like this," they promised, and when they finally sent him on his way, dizzily lurching toward the Hobby Shop, he did indeed feel a not unpleasant buzz.
Mr. Bishop was busy with a customer. "They actually got it passed," the customer was saying. "Who are these outsiders to tell us where we can smoke?"
Peter slipped right by without even being noticed.
Someone had moved the Astonishing Colossal Man's box to a higher shelf. Peter's heart almost stopped beating. If ever it were to be gone, sold, the Astonishing Colossal Man might never have his head. If only he could open that box and conduct a decent search in safety. So many parts remaining, what could they possibly be? Clothing? Weapons? Extra arms and legs? Peter hesitated, and then quickly brought the box down. The head! The head! Please, this time, the head!
He could hear voices coming up the walk. His parents, always so animated, always so voluble, always so full of themselves--they would never notice anything was wrong. Peter sat before the television set, pretending to watch the end of the six o' clock news. Bang, bang, the door slammed open and slammed shut. "It's time to call the police," they were saying. "What kind of a country is this?" They walked right by and were on the telephones, one in the kitchen, the other in the vestibule. Someone had spray painted a neighbor's garage and what were the police going to do about it? "There ought to be an ordinance! They shouldn't allow people to sell that stuff."
Peter tried to concentrate on the television. He didn't want to think about what was going on upstairs. "Where's Maria?" Peter's mother finally said, standing between her son and the television. "Don't tell me she didn't come in again."
"She's here," Peter whispered.
Luckily Maria appeared on the stairs before anyone thought to go up and look, her hair wilder than ever, her ruddy face flushed, her nostrils distended. "Laydee!" she cried.
"Maria! You haven't even started dinner!"
Peter tried to block it out. A new program was starting on television, something about the lives of the rich and famous. Maria flew into the kitchen, rattling dishes and pans, and Peter's parents were back on the phones, calling their friends, attorneys, and the local newspaper. When dinner was ready, they barely took the trouble to see what it was.
Peter stared at his plate. Maria had cooked a large fluffy omelet with specks of crumbled meat staring out like an overabundance of eyes. He didn't want to think about eyes. He especially didn't want to think about the Astonishing Colossal Man's eyes.
"Henry," Peter's mother complained. "I smell cigarette smoke."
Peter's father put down his fork. "Maria! Have you been smoking again?"
"Yes, yes, no, no, Meester," Maria replied from the next room.
"It's no use, Kayanne," he sighed. "She doesn't understand a word we say."
He picked up his utensils and took another look at what he was eating. "Why this is egg!" he cried. "Kayanne! Can you imagine the cholesterol in this stuff? I'm sorry, but we're going to have to look for another woman."
Meanwhile no one heard what Peter was hearing. Someone, something, walking about upstairs.
"Excuse me," Peter said. His parents didn't hear that either.
A moment later he was at the top of the stairs and there was the Astonishing Colossal Man standing naked in the hallway. Naked and seven foot tall.
"You've got to be quiet," Peter whispered. "And you can't smoke when they're around. They can smell it."
"Oh can they?" the Colossal Man said.
Without his uniform and without his silver half mask, the Astonishing Colossal Man did not seem quite the same creature pictured on the box. His chest was covered with black curly hair that continued on down his groin and legs, and of course there was no avoiding the obvious presence of his sexual parts. Much more unsettling, however, was the way his unmasked face somehow refused to come into focus, only his bright blue eyes, which had snapped open the moment Peter had attached the head to his body. Peter supposed it was much too late to even think about taking that head back.
"You've got to stay in our room," Peter pleaded. "What if they see you?"
The Astonishing Colossal Man did not seem greatly alarmed by that possibility. "How about that woman? Can you get her back up here?"
"I'll try," Peter promised. "But you must stay quiet."
Downstairs, Peter found his father in the living room doing his best to scold Maria in sign language. "No zigarettte!" he was explaining, pantomiming the lighting of one. "No, no, no!"
"Ah, Meester!" Maria smiled, reaching for her purse. At exactly this moment the doorbell rang.
It was Mr. Bishop from the Hobby Shop holding a certain familiar box in his hand. Peter instantly ducked around the corner where his mother was on the telephone. "We don't have to put up with it, Annabelle," she was saying. "If people can't keep their pets on leashes, maybe it's time for the police to enforce the law!"
It didn't take Mr. Bishop long to say whatever he had to say, and it didn't take long for Peter's father to respond. "My son? My son? My son did what?"
Peter knew that tone of voice. It promised not beatings and punishments but something much worse--shame, humiliation, and dishonor. He would be forced to stand face to face with Mr. Bishop and confess his guilt. He would be made to personally pay for the Astonishing Colossal Man out of his allowance, one week at a time. He fled to his room, momentarily forgetting that this same Astonishing Colossal Man was at this very moment sitting naked and seven foot tall on the foot of the bed, smoking one of Maria's cigarettes.
"What's going on down there," the Colossal Man asked. "Where's that woman?"
"It's Mr. Bishop," Peter moaned. "He found out."
"Hah." The Colossal Man blew a marvelous smoke ring into the air. "Who cares about him?"
"My father cares," Peter sobbed.
"Some father you got," the Colossal Man said, blowing another smoke ring.
A boy thinks that himself, sometimes. A boy even wonders if a day will ever come when he will no longer be measured against those all knowing, always right, and forever perfect people, his parents. Not any time soon! He could hear his father coming up the stairs. "Peter! Peter! Don't you hear me calling you?"
And what to do about the Astonishing Colossal Man? Where could you hide a seven foot tall naked super-hero who refused to put out his cigarette?
The door slammed open and Peter's father stood there, not so much in anger as in resolution. "Peter," he said, his voice calm but stern. "You're going to have to come . . . "
And that's when he saw the Astonishing Colossal Man.
"Who in hell are you?" he cried.
"Buddy," the Colossal Man said, rising and grasping Peter's father by the throat with one enormous hand. "You are about to find out."
For a moment Peter thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. His father was shrinking, rapidly shrinking, almost too rapidly to follow. One moment he was there, the next an empty suit of clothes was slowly collapsing to the floor.
The Astonishing Colossal Man picked them up and shook out a handful of vaguely familiar bits of plastic. "It's about time I got dressed," he said.
And then, even though he obviously was a dozen sizes too big, he began putting on Peter's father's clothes, piece by piece, and when he finished he not only fit them, he could not be told from the man whose place he had taken. "Not bad," he said, dusting off his trousers. "And now I'll go down and take care of that Mr. Bishop. How dare he accuse my son of stealing!"
As soon as he left the room Peter began picking up the pieces of plastic that had dropped out of his father's suit. There was no question what they were. An arm, a leg, a foot . . .
He was still looking for the head when the Astonishing Colossal Man returned, only he wasn't the Astonishing Colossal Man anymore, he was Peter's father, and he wasn't alone either, he had Maria with him. "Kees, kees," he chuckled, running his hand through her wild hair. "Peter, would you go downstairs and keep your mother company? Maria and I have some unfinished business."
"Bye bye," Maria said, quite unintentionally stepping upon a small round object with two bright blue dots that could very well have been eyes. It crunched like an eggshell.
Downstairs, Peter's mother was still on the telephone, discussing a petition she had in mind concerning the sale of certain magazines at the mall. Peter settled in front of the television and waited.
It was a civilized divorce, but she still believed the marriage might have been saved with proper counseling. Counseling and therapy. If only he had been willing. She had never seen a man change so much. So swiftly. It was very hard not to be bitter.
And yet, there was so much to keep an intelligent woman busy. There was the new and tougher anti-smoking ordinance, there was the petition drive against the power company, struggles she must now carry on alone since he no longer cared. At least she could count on him to take the boy off her hands on busy weekends!
A horn sounded outside. They were parked out front in a silver Mercedes that glittered like a newly minted coin. "Peter!" she called. "Your father is here! Don't forget to brush your teeth!"
Even as Peter was dashing down the stairs with his little weekend bag packed (he wouldn't, she knew, so much as change his socks) she was answering the phone, and it wasn't just somebody she could put on hold.
There was a bright golden sky shining down upon the little town of Park Island that morning. Peter had to squint to see the man sitting behind the wheel of that glittering car. A fine looking man with a heroic profile. "Hurry up, Son!" he called. "We'll be late for the ball game!"
Scrambling into the back seat, Peter was almost engulfed by Maria's perfume. "Peeter!" she cried. "Happeee! Happeee!" She had learned several new words. As soon as they were around the corner she pulled out a package of cigarettes, lit one for herself, another for the man behind the wheel, and handed Peter an enormous chocolate bar. "No tell Lady!" she cried.
"No, no, no!" the man behind the wheel echoed, and Peter, doubling with laughter, wondered if any boy, anywhere, ever had a better father.