The Cartoon Villain’s feet hurt. He has to walk everywhere and hates to take the bus. It smells, is too crowded, too noisy. Once, a scoop of ice cream from a toddler’s cone plopped onto his cape, and the cape is dry clean only. The mother smacked her child to shut it up. She smacked it under the sign that read NO FOOD OR DRINKS.
It’s my feet, you see, the Cartoon Villain says, they’re drawn too small. He’s at the back of the lot, asking Henchman Number Two to drop off his dry cleaning. Henchman Number Two wears giant, clod-kicking boots. They match his shovel-like hands, his shovel-like face. He’s very stompy. Cartoon Villain’s legs are sinuous and tapered, like a gazelle’s. They flow into a muscular torso—a hero’s physique, he used to think, except heroes don’t have to wear masks all the time. Heroes are drawn with strong jaws and liquid eyes and everybody loves them.
Henchman Number Two sighs. Listen boss, he says. Cartoon Villain likes that he still calls him boss, even off-set. Listen boss, you know I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I’ve got a reputation to uphold. Besides, it’s not in my contract.
Henchman Number Two is well liked. He’s on two other shows. Has three more in syndication. He’s drawn in the same costume in each one. Does the same pratfalls. Runs off cliffs and flails about in water with his huge, flat hands. In actuality, he’s an excellent swimmer. He tells Cartoon Villain he ought to take it up. Easy on the feet, he says. Will strengthen the legs, he says. He smiles as he says this. Winks even. His eyes are just two dots, but still he winks as he pulls away in a new convertible. It’s lipstick red and always has this girl or that riding along. Residuals, Henchman Number Two explains.
I need another show, Cartoon Villain says. He’s on the lot’s payphone with his agent. Feeds it quarters from his utility belt. His agent says, Darling listen to yourself, you’re a star. She always calls him darling, always says he’s a star. Darling, you don’t want to spread yourself thin. Darling—
The call ends abruptly. He’s out of quarters. A convertible roars past, and the phonebooth shakes.
Take it for a spin, boss? Henchman Number Two always asks this, and Cartoon Villain always shakes his heavy, masked head. He doesn’t have a license. Not even after waiting at the DMV for over two hours. No masks allowed, they told him as he went to get his photo taken, and they wouldn’t refund his license fee.
The mask is a solid curve of glass, silver and opaque. It’s clasped to a black helmet, as shiny and lacquered as a beetle’s shell. The Cartoon Villain only wears blacks and silvers. He’s very reflective. Henchman Number Two studies his face in the mask, checks to make sure any lipstick is wiped clean. Let me hook you up with a nice girl, he tells Cartoon Villain. I know lots of nice girls—some that aren’t so nice but are fun. He wipes at his face and winks.
The Cartoon Villain can’t tell if Julia is nice or fun. She doesn’t wear lipstick and has a smudged, indistinct appearance. She compliments him on his cape and doesn’t mention the stain. They meet Saturday after work for a matinee in a rundown cineplex. The popcorn is too expensive, but Julia doesn’t complain, sitting in the darkened theater not eating, not talking. As the swells of the soundtrack wash over them, Cartoon Villain worries about taking her hand, about not taking her hand, about whether he should spend his bus fare on popcorn or not. Outside, she tells him she had a nice time. She tells him this and looks into his mask.
They meet again next Saturday. During the coming attractions, Cartoon Villain passes her a Hostess fruit pie he’d smuggled in his utility belt. His agent’s idea. Darling, you have to surprise her, bring her flowers, bring her chocolates. Darling, don’t you know what girls like? Julia takes the pie and tries to unwrap it quietly. When she smiles, a smear of apple gelatin clings to her lips.
He brings her Juicy Fruit, Lance crackers, every flavor of fruit pie from the lot’s vending machine. Each time Julia says thank you and eats with small, precise bites beneath the flickering light of gun fights and car chases. She eats with both hands. Lovely hands, Cartoon Villain thinks. She eats and asks if he wants a bite, and he shakes his head. She stores the leftovers in her fanny pack. It’s a beige canvas and holds much more than Cartoon Villain’s utility belt. It rests on her lap like a small pet.
On their fourth date, she stares at him in the darkness, at his mask, and asks if he will remove it. Nobody has asked him this before. She reaches up to trace the smooth surface, to find the crease where the faceplate meets the black ballistic shell. He shudders at this touch. Then slowly, with trembling fingers, he finds the clasps and unbuckles them.
Explosions light up the theater. Sound and light rip about them.
You have no face, Julia says.
I know, he says.
She studies the blankness where his mask used to be, then traces the contour of imaginary lips. Hold still, she says and produces a grease pencil from her fanny pack. She lifts it to where his mask used to be, and Cartoon Villain intercepts her hands with his. Her fingers are warm, almost hot. Something vibrates inside him. The credits roll and the theater empties. The screen goes dark and still he holds her hands. He holds her hands in the darkness, but it is light outside.
Joshua Jones lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, Juked, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.
Artwork by: Timothy Gerken