Shin smiled at the Greyhound bus driver as he fixed the brim on his hat. “I always arrive in the morning.” Shin threw his duffel bag over his shoulder and made his way down the steps of the bus. Early mornings were always the best time to get off the buses because it almost always meant that he would be arriving at his destination before the locals awoke. In Shin’s case that meant that he could pray without negative attention. In his experience, if he could put on his tefilin in private, there was much less chance of trouble, especially in the small towns, and Iron City was that kind of town. He’d seen the sign on the way in: “Iron City, Pop. 248.” A good sign, he’d thought at the time, there are 248 positive commandments in the Torah. Maybe he’d be able to perform some of them in this town.
The bus through Iron City dropped passengers off in front of a traditional diner called Maybelle’s. Large glass doors and front windows looked straight down the main road of the town, Creed Street. From the stoop, Shin could see all the store fronts and the small courthouse/city hall a few buildings over. All these small towns were the same, following the layout of the old western films, one road all the way through and to Shin, they were all becoming a blur. He noticed that many of the storefronts had boarded up windows which appeared to be normal in towns like this. Often the small towns struggled to keep afloat; they had a difficult time keeping the young people from leaving for the big cities. What was odd was the amount of broken glass on the streets, like the stores hadn’t just closed but that something had happened to close them. Broken store front windows always reminded him of the Holocaust, specifically of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. He filed the occurrence away for later and decided not worry about it; after all, every town he visited had its issues.
Over the last few months, since he’d arrived stateside from his adventure with Lockbox and Thrillseeker, he had decided to take a journey, a pilgrimage without a destination. Having gone halfway around the world to help a fellow superhero rescue his girlfriend had made him rethink his mission in life. He had sworn to be a protector of Jews everywhere, but he had been letting his own needs for a religious community hinder his potential. He had experienced so many wonders on that last adventure, some almost placing his faith at risk, and it was time for thought, for a period of meditation, to reflect upon his role. Not to question his faith, God forbid, but his place in God’s world. So he had left his small apartment in Unity City and hopped the first bus west. He needed to get away from the spiritual ghetto he had placed himself in.
So he had traveled, bussing from town to town, all across America, getting in scrapes and going from adventure to adventure. He’d shut down a chapter of the local KKK in one town and actually discovered a whole town of Red Victory sleeper agents in another. Obviously not every city had problems; some were just quaint small towns with nice people.
Having stepped around the side of the diner, Shin took his time putting on his tefilin, focusing on each strap, binding the leather tight to his arm. He prayed to his Creator, thanking Him for allowing Shin to wake up in the morning, for his ability to breathe, for the glorious wonders he experienced every day. Most of all he prayed for revelation, not Divine, but simple awareness of himself and his purpose in life. He prayed to find someone he could relate to or at least someone who could relate to him, understand him. Deep in prayer, he barely noticed the young waitress who had arrived to work and open the small diner.
Samantha had worked at the diner since tenth grade when her father died and she had been forced to get a job. Her soft golden brown hair, beautiful young face and developed teenage body made her a sight to see in the small town, something that tended to make her life difficult. Extra attention from the customers was not always welcome attention. Now, several years and one divorce later, she was twenty-four, her mother had passed on, and she was still working at Maybelle’s.
She spotted him in the side alley, a place she used every day for her breaks, to escape from the noise and monotony. At first she was enraged to find some one in her private refuge but the feeling vanished quickly as she watched him sway back and forth. Fists clenched and a smile on his face, he mouthed silent words, motioning from the small book he held in his hands to the sky above. Soon she began to notice other aspects, like how large and muscular his revealed arm was, the black boxes; how the white shirt he wore was tight across his chest, showing a firm and well shaped body. With a start she came back to herself and felt guilty, like she was intruding on something special or sacred. She hurried away from the alley and ran up the three steps to the diner, unlocked the door and began her chores.
Shin had barely noticed her as she stood there watching him, but notice her he had. His highly developed sixth sense wouldn’t allow anything else. Through slits he had seen her, sized her up and labeled her as a non-threat. Later, after he had carefully put away his tefilin, he made his way into the still-empty diner. He found himself alone with her in the front area, though sounds of someone cooking came through the doors from the kitchen.
Samantha quickly approached the corner table that Shin had chosen and gave it a once over with her dish cloth, moved the shakers to the left and the right, doing everything but looking into his eyes. “Hi there, what can I get for you?” She spoke in one of those obnoxiously slow and loud voices that Americans set aside for foreigners.
“Hot water. Small glass.”
“What now?” She couldn’t help herself; she straightened up and looked right at him. She had to. His deep voice, calm and soft, layered with a New York accent, surprised her into betraying her uneasiness and curiosity.
He smiled. “I would like a small glass with some hot water if it isn’t too much trouble. I have strict dietary restrictions. I will happily pay the regular price for a cup of coffee.”
“Um, yeah, sure it, uh… shouldn’t be a problem…” Slowly, while finishing off the table, she began to study him, his hands, clean and manicured but rough. A scent reminiscent of travel assailed her, but it wasn’t a bad smell, more like the aroma of a hundred stories. She wondered what he looked like beneath the beard. His lips were full and generous but it was the small locks of hair behind his ears that surprised her, they were so… deliberate. Finally their eyes locked, silent but conveying, until he slowly broke contact and tilted his head down, his hat covering his eyes.
Samantha turned red and began stuttering again. “I’ll get that cup for you right away.”
“Thank you, I really need a pick-me-up.” Smiling without looking at her, he pulled a small book out of his pack, quickly thumbed through it, lowered his head and began to read.
From behind the counter Samantha found the small drinking glass that they kept for children. She was about to pour the hot water, when she looked it over and felt embarrassed to be serving this man something with water spots all over it. Iron City wasn’t made up of the type of people who cared one way or another but this man was different, and she felt embarrassed at the drabness of the diner. Around her was nothing but peeling linoleum and oily countertops, but when she looked at the stranger she saw something different and exotic. His clean and shiny beard fell over his clean white shirt, speaking volumes more than the collected license plates, bull horns, and random stuffed animal heads that adorned the walls of the diner.
Biting her lip, she approached him and placed his glass of steaming water carefully near the book he was reading. In a quick glance she saw it definitely wasn’t English but she couldn’t place the language. The man thanked her with a shy smile from beneath the bent brim of his black hat. She walked away but stopped at a table nearby to watch him remove a small brown and red plastic bag that was clipped at the top. He undid the clasp and took out a small spoon which he dug into the bag and removed a heaping teaspoon of what was looked like a very thick coffee. He then popped open a tupperware of sugar, added a heaping spoonful and absently stirred the muddy mixture inside the glass while keeping his eyes focused on his book.
She took a deep breath and marched over to Shin and planted herself across from him. “Hi, I’m Samantha. So, what’s your deal?”
Shin was taken aback by the brazen question. The spunky southern waitress was, by his estimate, at least five years his junior. He was forced to see her in her entirety now, how beautiful she was, how tight her light blue waitressing uniform was and how many buttons she had undone. He immediately moved his gaze back onto the table and tried not to stutter. “Um, hi. My name is Shin and, um, I don’t have a deal.” In her opinion, his soft voice and averted eyes spoke differently.
“No, I mean, where are you from? What are you doing here? You know, tell me about yourself.” She gave him her best smile in an attempt to put him at ease, but only succeeded in flustering him even more.
“There’s really nothing to tell. Right now I’m kind of taking a sabbatical from my studies while I work things out.”
“Yeah, I think I’m trying to find my way in the world, so I decided to explore it.”
“Kind of like, taking a physical journey to complement your spiritual one?” she suggested.
Shin looked into her eyes. “Yes. Yes exactly.” He began to notice more than the attractive physicality; he saw intelligence in her eyes, an intellectual curiosity. Taking a slow sip he turned the conversation around. “What about you? You don’t seem like the usual locals I run into in the other towns.”
“Yeah, well let’s just say it’s a story as old as time. All my life I wanted to get out of this place, even got accepted to U of T over in Knoxville, but just like in the soaps, my dad died, my mama got sick, and I got stuck here to cover the expenses. Been working here six years now, and can’t seem to break out. God, I hate it here,” she mumbled under her breath.
“Hey, with God’s help and a little bit of luck you can accomplish anything. Trust me, I’ve been there.”
With a sad smile, Samantha said, “I don’t think we’re talking about the same God. Besides, even if we are, He wouldn’t step foot in Iron City.”
Shin glanced out the window. Trucks and cars were beginning to make their way through the streets, store fronts were beginning to open and people were pulling into the diner’s parking lot.
Customers began filing in slowly and quietly. They glanced at Shin but immediately looked away, which he found odd. Generally, the locals openly stared at him. Samantha began getting up to serve the customers when Shin asked, “Samantha, what’s the deal around here? Why is everybody so…down?”
“Well, remember when I said that God wouldn’t step foot in Iron City? I was being serious. The Skyenas wouldn’t let him.”
“They’re a local biker gang that moved into Iron City about a year back. They think they own the place.”
“So, all the broken glass and boarded windows…”
“Exactly. Sometimes the Skyenas party a bit too hard and the town suffers.”
Shin motioned to a uniformed police officer sitting at the counter. “The local enforcement can’t do anything?”
“Hon, we have three officers in this town, and there are more than fifteen men in that gang. Patrick, over there, he tried pulling over one of the Skyenas a few months back… He just got the cast off last week.” She left Shin and started taking orders from several men in a booth a few tables over.
Shin reopened his gemara, but the words were now a blur to him. He could feel the adrenaline beginning to kick in and the argument between Rav Papa and Rav Ada was no longer relevant. This was what he referred to as his love/hate relationship with his lifestyle; delving into the depths of the sages evoked such joy from him, but the knowledge of an upcoming fight was better than any drug he had done in the past and twice as addictive. He understood why a superhero would straight out name himself Thrillseeker. It was just telling the people the truth, admitting to the love of danger.
A police cruiser landed in the parking lot and an officer jumped out, and ran into the diner.
To be continued. To see the first part of this story, go to https://thebeaconmag.com/2012/02/the__written_word/tractate-300-tales-of-a-jewish-superhero/.