I first met the kid known as the Vision at second base, during a kickball game in the P.S. 29 gymnasium, fifth grade. That's what passed for physical education in 1974: a giant rubbery ball, faded red and pebbled like a bath mat, more bowled than pitched in the direction of home plate. A better kick got the ball aloft, and a fly was nearly uncatchable--after the outfielder stepped aside, as he or she invariably did, nearly anything in the air was a home run. Everyone fell down, there'd be a kid on his ass at each base as you went past. Alternately, a mistimed kick scudded back idiotically to the pitcher, and you were thrown out at first.
The Vision booted a double. His real name was Adam Cressner, but he believed himself or anyway claimed to be the Vision: the brooding, super powered android from Marvel Comics' Avengers. The comic-book Vision had the power to vary the density of his body, becoming a ghost if he wished to float through walls or doors, becoming diamond hard if he wished to stop bullets like Superman. Adam Cressner couldn't do any of this. This day he wasn't even wearing his cape or costume, but under black curls his broad face was smeared unevenly with red food dye, as it always was. I was fascinated. The Vision had come to be taken for granted at Public School 29, but I'd never seen him up close.
"Nice kick," I ventured, to Adam Cressner's back. The Vision had assumed a stance of readiness, one foot on the painted base, hands dangling between his knees Lou Brock-style. "Ultron-5 constructed me well," replied the Vision in the mournful monotone of a synthetic humanoid. Before I could speak again the ball was in the air, and Adam Cressner had scooted home to score, not pausing as he rounded third.
Now the Vision was a grown man in a sweatshirt moving an open Martini & Rossi carton-load of compact discs into the basement entrance of the next-door brownstone. I spotted Captain Beefheart, Sonny Sharrock, Eugene Chadbourne. I'd been returning from the corner bodega with a quart of milk when I recognized him instantly, even without his red face and green hood, or the yellow cape he'd worn in winter months. "Adam Cressner?" I asked. I made it a question to be polite: it was Adam Cressner.
"Do I know you?" Cressner's hair was still curly and loose, his eyes still wild blue.
"Not really. We went to school together."
"P.S. 29, fifth grade." I pointed thumbwise in the direction of Henry Street. I didn't want to say: You were the Vision, man! But I supposed in a way I'd just said it. "Joel Porush."
"Possibly I remember you." He said this with a weird premeditated hardness, as if not remembering but possibly remembering was a firm policy.
"Migrated back to the old neighborhood?"
Cressner placed the box at the slate lip of the basement stairwell and stepped around his gate to take my hand. "By the time we had a down payment we could barely afford this part of the city," he said. "But Roberta doesn't care that I grew up around here. She became entranced with the neighborhood reports in the City section."
"Ah." This left me with nothing to say except, "I should have you guys over for drinks."
The Vision lifted one Nimoy-esque eyebrow.
"When you get in and catch your breath, of course." You and the paramour.
I met Roberta at the border of our two backyards, the next Sunday. The rear gardens through the middle of the block were divided by rows of potted plants but no fence, allowing easy passage of cats and conversation. These communal yards were a legacy from the seventies that most new owners hadn't chosen to reverse. I had a basement renter's usual garden privileges, and was watering the plants which formed the border when Roberta Jar appeared at her back door. She introduced herself, and explained that she and Cressner had bought the house.
"Yes, I met Adam a few days ago," I said. "I know him, actually. From around here."
I'd supposed he'd told of our encounter in front, mentioned being recognized by a schoolmate. Now I had to wonder whether to explain Cressner's childhood fame. "We were at grade school together, on Henry Street. Long before this was a fashionable address. Surely he's walked you past his alma mater."
"Adam doesn't reminisce," said Roberta Jar coolly and, I thought, strangely. The assertion which could have been fond or defiant had managed to be neither. I thought of how Adam had possibly remembered, the week before.
"Funny, I do nothing else," I said. I hoped it was a charming line. Roberta Jar didn't smile, but her eyes flashed a little encouragement.
"Does it pay well?" she asked.
"Only when something gets optioned for the movies."
"How often is that?"
"It's like the lottery," I said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, nothing. But that one time and you're golden."
I'd been blunted from the fact of my instinctive attraction to Roberta Jar, in those first moments, by her towering height. Roberta was six two, or three, I calculated, and with none of that hunched manner with which women apologize for great height or sizable breasts. So I'd been awed before being struck. By this time, though, I was struck too. Paramour-pyramid-pylon, I fooled with in my head.
I mentioned again having the two of them over for a drink. My evenings were very free since parting from Gia Maucelli, and I was stuck on what I'd blurted to Adam Cressner and had visualized ever since--a grown-up encounter, involving wine and sophisticated talk. No longer a couple, I still socialized like one in my imagination. Cressner and his tall woman would visit my apartment for drinks. They'd see the couple I'd been by Gia's phantom-limb absence, and ratify the couple I'd likely be again by the fact of themselves. In other words, perhaps Roberta Jar had a friend she could set me up with.
"Maybe," she said, utterly disinterested. "Or you could come along tonight. We're having a few people in."
"A housewarming party?"
"Actually, we're playing a game. You'd like it."
"Truth-or-dare, spin-the-bottle sort of thing?"
"More interesting than that. It's called Mafia. You should come--I think we still need a fifteenth."
For bridge or a dinner party you might need a fourth or a sixth--Roberta Jar and Adam Cressner needed a fifteenth. That was how close to essential I'd been encouraged to feel myself to be.
"How do you play Mafia?"
"It's hard to explain, but not to play."
I turned up with wine, still imposing my paradigm, but it was a beer thing I'd turned up at. Adam Cressner ushered me into the parlor, which was restored--new white marble fireplace and mantel, freshly remodeled plaster-rosette ceiling, blond polished floor--but unfurnished, and full instead of gray metal folding chairs like those you'd find in a church basement. The chairs were packed with Adam and Roberta's friends, all drinking from bottles and laughing noisily, too caught up to bother with introductions--when I counted I found myself precisely fifteenth. Roberta Jar was part of the circle, tall in her chair. I wondered if she stood taller than Adam--this was the first time I'd seen them together.
Adam had just been explaining the game, and he started again for me. I was one of four or five in the group who'd never played. Others threw in comments and suggestions as Adam explained the rules. "I'll be the narrator," Adam told us. "That means I'm not playing the game, but leading you through it."
"We want you to play, Adam," someone shouted. "Someone else can narrate. We've played, we know how."
"No, you need a strong narrator," said Adam. "You're an unruly bunch." I imagined I heard in his tone a hint of the Vision's selfless patronage of humanity.
According to the rules of Mafia, the group of fourteen comprised a "village"--except that three of us were "mafia" instead: false villagers working to bring the village down. These identities were assigned by dealt cards, black for village, red for mafia. The game then unfolded in cycles of "night" and "day." Night was when we closed our eyes and lowered our heads--"The village is asleep," Adam explained--with the exception of the three mafiosi. They instead kept their eyes open, and by an exchange of glances silently conspired to select a villager to kill. The victim would be informed of his or her death by the narrator, when night was over, and then make an orderly exit from the game.
Day, by contrast, was chaos, a period of free talk and paranoia among the sincere and baffled villagers--who, of course, included three dissembling mafiosi. Each day closed with the village agreeing by democratic vote on a suspect to banish. This McCarthyesque ritual lynching brought about night, and another attack from the mafia. And so on. The mafia won if they winnowed the village down to two or three, a number they could dominate in any voting, before the village purged all mafiosi from its ranks. It seemed to me like relentless jargonish nonsense, but I worked on a beer (telling Roberta the wine was "for the cellar"), checked out the women, and allowed myself to be swept into the group's flow. We began our first day in the village, peppered by Adam-the-narrator's portentous reminders, such as "Dead, keep your silence." I'd drawn a black card: villager.
Our village was young and boisterous, full of hot, beer-bright faces whose attachments I couldn't judge. It was also splendidly bloodthirsty. "It pretty much doesn't matter who we vote out on the first day," some veteran player announced. "We don't have any information yet." I wondered how we were meant to gather information at any point in the agitated cross talk, but never mind. A regular named Barth was quickly exiled, on grounds of past performance--he'd proven such a generally deceptive player that he couldn't be trusted now. Roberta, who with her stature and chesty volume was strongly dominant in the village, led this charge. Barth succumbed to our lynch mob under groaning protest. "Night" fell, we "slept," and when day came again Adam announced that a woman named Kelly had been taken out by the mafia.
Kelly's murder drew shouts and giggles of surprise. Why had they picked her? Perhaps this was the information that would lead us to an informed lynching, instead of Barth's whimsical sacrifice. The village again plunged into an uproar of accusations and deflection. I turned to the woman beside me, a sylphlike girl with dyed-black shortish hair, who hadn't spoken. "Are you in the mafia?" I asked her, not quite whispering.
She blinked at me. "I'm a villager."
"Me too." I told her my name, and she told me hers--Doe. Our exchange was easily covered by the shouts of the village leadership, mainly Roberta Jar and a couple of strident men, as they led our next purge.
"First time?" Doe asked.
"That doesn't mean you aren't lying to me."
"No, it doesn't," I said. "But I'm not. Whom do you suspect?"
"I'm hopeless at this." Unashamed, she met my eye. I felt a pang. Doe was everything Roberta Jar was not: diminutive, vulnerable, and, I began to hope, single.
"We'll work together," I suggested. "Be watchful."
Mafia was a kind of fun, I decided. It elicited from us heaps of behavior: embarrassment and self-reproach, chummy consensus building that curdled at a moment's notice to feints of real paranoia and isolation, even measures of self-righteous, persecuted fury. The intensity was enthralling, but it was also strangely hollow, because it lacked any real content. For all the theatrics, we revealed nothing of ourselves, told no tales. It was that for which I yearned.
It was the morning of the third day that I fell under suspicion. Irrevocably, as it turned out. "I think we're ignoring the new people," said Roberta Jar. "I've seen it again and again, some newcomer draws the mafia card and sits there, playing innocent and silent, just mowing the village down while we argue. I think we ought to look at Joel, for instance. He isn't saying anything."
"I heard him talking to Doe," someone volunteered. "They have some little thing going on the side."
"Both mafia, then," said one of the leader men, whose every pronouncement was full of unearned certainty. "Take them both out."
"I'm a villager," I said. This was the standard protest, despite its deep meaninglessness: Who wouldn't say that? Someone laughed at me sharply for being unpersuasive. Before I'd assembled a better defense, hands shot up all around the circle. Even Doe voted for my banishment.
Adam Cressner then shepherded the village into night. "The dead usually wander off where they can talk without disturbing the village," he stage-whispered across their bowed heads. I took the hint. As I moved into the hall, Adam returned to narration: "Mafia, open your eyes, and silently agree on someone to kill--" I wondered who the dastards were.
The zombies who'd vacated the parlor were gathered out on the brownstone's stoop, smoking cigarettes and gabbling. They spotted me peering through the front door's doubled glass panes. I made a gesture meant to be interpretable as Be right there, just going for a pee. Someone waved back. I went downstairs.
The half-basement's front room was furnished as a suburban den, with a stereo and large-screen TV, and walls lined with CDs, laser discs, and books, many of them expensive museum catalogues, compendiums of film stills, photo-essays from boutique imprints. I spotted a brightly colored paperback on a shelf of oversized volumes on art and antiquities: Origins, by Stan Lee, a reprint compendium of comic books introducing various Marvel characters: Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four. A sequel, Son of Origins, was shelved beside it. I browsed both, but the Vision wasn't included. He wasn't the sort of character who'd had such a prominent debut--more of a cult figure, I recalled. Like Rhoda or Fraser, he'd been an unplanned star, spun from an ensemble.
The pop-art panels looked thin and fraudulent on white paper, instead of the soft, yellowed rag of the old comics from which they'd been reprinted. Nevertheless, I felt a howling nostalgia rise in me at the sight of the Silver Surfer and Daredevil, characters who'd meant a tremendous amount to me for a brief moment in junior high, then been utterly forgotten. I'd discovered Marvel Comics a year or two after leaving P.S. 29 and Adam Cressner behind. The oddness of Adam's choice in identifying with the Vision had had a troubling chicken-or-egg quality to me then--did the character seem so depressed and diffident to me because of Adam's red face paint? The answer wasn't in Origins, or Son of Origins.
I replaced the books on the shelf and went digging in the walk-in closet instead.
Excerpted from Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.