by Nguyen Tri Thong
|Illustration by Do Dung
It was nearly midday. The sun slanted its rays on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although it was dry sunshine, January's capricious weather ensured it was still a little cold.
Spiderman sighed. It had been a wasteful morning. He jumped on to the top of a nearby hydrant. He struck the famous Spiderman pose, but the clumps of tourists, one after another, passed by him, indifferent and cold, as though he was Invisible Man, not Spiderman.
"If only my hands could actually shoot cobweb threads" he thought, "I would jump from building to building like the daredevil in a thriller and yell yahooo to my heart's content and get out of this weary, drawn-out mood."
Spiderman sighed again. He jumped off the hydrant and stared without seeing at the tourists going to and fro on the famous Walk. About 50 metres away, in front of the crowded Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, seemed to be doing well. He had come there late, put his music player down on the marble slate bearing the star of the King of Pop and pressed the play button. The hits poured out - Thriller, Beat It… He began dancing to the music. He was good, and the tourists crowded around him. When he took a break between the songs, many crazy female fans in their mid-teens clamoured to have their photographs taken with him. The tips they gave him were of much higher value than the performer's suggestion clearly made on a white sheet: "At least US$2 per exposure, please." He was talented and worth it.
As he looked at the young and dynamic people, Spiderman's mind went back to 20 years earlier, when he had also cherished great dreams about leaving his native place in Oklahoma and establishing his own business. "Clearly, superstar Brad Pitt, also from Oklahoma, had to dress up as a huge yellow chicken to attract shoppers into the El Pollo Loco restaurant chain. After all these years, what have I got?" At forty, he had two empty hands. Weary and aimless, every day, he came to the Walk to be a superman hero to amuse people from all countries and all walks of life and live on their offerings.
It was strange that today was so bad. There was such wonderful sunshine to take good photos, but his young fans were nowhere to be found. In some despair, he pulled his box to the sheltered corner of a tall building and removed his mask to get some fresh air. Leaning against the wall, he lit a cigarette and took a long drag. After a few puffs, he delved into his pocket and took out several old bank notes. Slow day today. The vertical sunrays now seemed intent on melting the stars of fame on the Walk. He realised he was hungry. He opened his bag, took out a stale sandwich and began eating.
There was no tingling sensation that the Spiderman feels, but he felt he was being watched. He looked up from his sandwich. Across the street, near a lamppost, an Asian man stood looking at him with a mixture of stealth, attentiveness and surprise. When his eyes locked with Spiderman, the Asian man turned away. He was used to Asian tourists. He saw them every day. They usually moved in big groups and chatted noisily. Most of them, especially from the Far East and Southeast, looked so much alike that he could hardly tell one from the other. He had one term for all of them: Chinese. They were usually curious and excited, as if they were little children taken a stroll by their parents for the first time. This young man looked 30 at the most, and, of course, looked Chinese. But there was something different. This tourist's look seemed to go deep inside the Spiderman's mind. It was unsettling. He made up his mind to go and talk to him, but the Chinese-looking guy hurriedly walked away.
The Asian man was a fan of Michael Jackson himself, so he joined the crowd near Grauman's Chinese Theatre and got a photograph taken with MJ for two dollars. Then he decided to take a leisurely stroll along the Walk. That is when he had spotted Spiderman, and immediately thought of his four-year-old son at home. The kid was passionately fond of Spiderman on the screen. He remembered the little fellow's broad, lovely smile when his Mother gave him DIY kit for a plastic Spiderman. Every time he had to enact a fight with his son, he had to bear the blows of his heroic son, who would don the Spiderman mantle every time. "If only he were here, we could have had a picture together with this Spiderman," he thought.
As he approached Spiderman, the latter had crossed the street and hidden himself behind a tall building. He should have known what was happening, but the Asian man was still surprised to see Spiderman remove his mask and light a cigarette, revealing a middle-aged white-skinned man.
He watched Spiderman surreptitiously, and continued to be surprised when the latter took a stale sandwich out of his bag and started eating quickly. And he looked up suddenly, feeling the Asian man's attention on him.
Immediately, the Asian man left the scene, anxious to avoid any possible trouble, and headed for Vine Street. By now, the crowd around Michael Jackson had dispersed. Maybe they were having lunch at the roadside cafes. He continued his aimless, leisurely walk.
He had more than an hour left to take the chartered coach and visit the Universal Studio, according to instructions from his tourist guide. Strangely enough, after leading the whole party of tourists here at 9am his guide disappeared with a mischievous smile and a lengthy piece of advice: "There are a lot of souvenir stalls and fashion shops around here for you to select and buy. Remember to get some photos taken at this Walk of Fame. If you are lucky, you could get to see George Clooney or Jennifer Aniston going to the market as well."
Letting the tourists wander freely to shop was customary. Yesterday's hasty shopping at the Target outlet beside the expressway could not have met the thirst for fashionable things of many Vietnamese nouveaux riche travellers. After his unexpected encounter with Spiderman, he decided to follow his friend, the owner of a small-sized business with several dozen employees, on the latter's shopping expedition.
The guy bought a lot of key chains, glasses, small Oscar statues and T-shirts with the Hollywood logo. "How cheap these things are! They'll be very suitable gifts for my employees at home," he said in a cheerful voice. So he ended up carrying numerous trivial things to their bus so that the friend could put pack them. After their trip to Hollywood, the group was to leave straightaway to the Los Angeles International Airport and catch their return flight to Viet Nam.
As his friend struggled to pack all the newly-bought items into an extra suitcase, his thoughts went back to the moment when he saw Spiderman remove the mask. He was kind of disappointed that the man did not look like young Peter Parker. "If I myself am upset, what about my boy, when he realises that his idol is just an old man smoking sadly and eating a stale sandwich on the Walk of Fame?"
A vague understanding of the Chinese-looking guy's look was developing in Spiderman as he returned to his station. Stubbing out his cigarette on the pavement, he ran his hand through unkempt yellow hair in the cold breeze. He covered his head and face with the mask. All of a sudden, he burst out laughing. Another Asian innocent soul nourished by splendid American dreams had crashed into reality and disappointment. "Has he lived here long enough to know other naked truths on this well-known boulevard, every honourable square foot of it? Can he see what I see every day? This masquerade of heroes which is pan handling in disguise? Has he seen a lot of Supermen become obese? Does he see the hate and disdain of the Los Angeles Police Department for these Superheroes and how often they deal harshly with minor nuisances caused to tourists, wittingly or otherwise, by the supermen? Does he know how often they are "guests" of the LAPD's detention facilities? Can he imagine Spiderman in handcuffs in an LAPD special car?"
Spiderman was not completely cynical, though. He knew that for many people, including his own son, Spiderman was a hero always fit and ready to take on and defeat the bad guys. After returning to his dilapidated shanty, he would lift weights and do other exercises to keep his body fit for the superman's special garment. Without this perseverance, he would die of boredom. The more he worked out, though, the more he felt anger and resentment towards his mates' careless and irresponsible behaviour. Eventually, he stayed away from them as much as possible. This meant that he had to give up some of the better locations to ply his trade. He felt somewhat sorry about exposing himself to the Asian guy, although he had hidden himself while taking a break. "Obviously, it is not my lucky day today," he told himself. He decided to call it day and return home early.
The plane was taking off. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. It was a long flight, and he would have a lot of time to relive the trip in detail. Next to him, the young businessman had regained his composure after struggling with the packing and paying a stiff fine for overweight luggage. He remembered again his confusion on seeing Spiderman take a break. It should not have been a shock, seeing that Spiderman was just another ordinary man. No, it was more than Spiderman who was unmasked. It was an ongoing revelation about the Land of Dreams. Last year, when he had visited its eastern shores, he had been surprised that the entrance to magnificent New York was the out-of-dated and even disreputable JFK International Airport. The sight of rubbish on the highway and humble Chinese workers who hastily ate their bowl of noodles in a luxurious Manhattan area as they waited for vans to come to collect them to go to factories had saddened him.
The young businessman began snoring slightly. He decided he would finish the glass of wine that the air hostess had given him and try to get some sleep himself. Soon, he would land at the Narita International Airport in Japan and wait for a flight to sunshine flooded Sai Gon. He would be home soon.
Translated by Van Minh