What came back specifically and vividly was the comic-book shop in New Jersey that my brother took me to soon after he’d gotten his driver’s license. It was forty miles outside of the city and housed in a converted depository that still said A & J TOMATOES from back when everything was farmland. Lightbulbs hung from the rafters, shining bad light on a million-plus comic books stuffed in trunks and bins and whatnot. The owner of the store was an overweight man, three hundred pounds, who apparently had played college football years ago, but now sat in a wooden booth ten feet off the floor so that he could observe the goings-on in his establishment. Next to him was the cash register, and when you paid your money you had to place it in a little wicker basket that he would lift up on a string. The rumor was that if he caught you shoplifting he’d take you out by the dumpsters and beat you with a baseball bat and then let you keep the merchandise.
No one ever knew what they were going to uncover in this store, what first edition they might find buried under a pile of worthlessness. So the patrons hunted as if they were squirrels, clawing, scraping, until the owner, feeling put upon, would shout through his bullhorn, “No more looking! Let’s make a selection!” His voice would boom through the depository as men and boys obediently fell into line, each one waiting his turn with the little basket on the string.
It took forty-five minutes to get to A&J Tomatoes and my brother used the drive as an opportunity to dispense advice. He was good at advice. He was seventeen and I was twelve. He was going to college and I was getting bad grades. Study hard was something he’d suggest. Also, apply yourself. “Find something you like,” he’d tell me, “and pursue it with everything you have. Like geometry.” I was terrible at geometry, but his counsel made sense in theory, and midway through the trip I would see inner passion materializing, and also dedication, and all the loose ends of my life tying up in a bow. “I’m going to do it this time!” I’d say, pounding my fists on my knees, and my brother would put his hand on my shoulder, lovingly, saying, “I know you can, Wally.” But we both knew that it was most likely hopeless, that he was saying the things my father had stopped saying a long time ago because my father had given up.
My brother owned five thousand comic books, sealed in individual plastic sleeves, organized alphabetically and chronologically, and stored upright on shelves in the utility closet so that their spines wouldn’t become creased and diminish their value. He was keen on keeping them in pristine condition so that they “would last forever.” But eventually he outgrew them and went to college, and the collection he gave to me as a farewell gift. The day he left, I stood in our lobby on Eighty-Third Street with Mom and Dad, watching him drive off, waving in the rearview. Then the next thing I did was haul the comic books into my bedroom and take them out of their plastic sleeves and stuff them in the bottom of my closet. I didn’t care about keeping them pristine, I cared about reading them, each and every one of them. Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and all those heroes in between. Heroes who died, heroes who came back, heroes who died and never came back.
I began at the beginning, back when they cost twenty-five cents each, lying in bed at night with a flashlight, slowly making my way toward four dollars. My father would occasionally appear in the doorway, frustrated, sullen, staring at me, saying, “Your brain’s going to turn to mush.”
I’d say, “It’s too late to worry about that now, isn’t it?”
He had no answer for that, and by the time I’d finished reading them I was close to graduating from high school myself and driving out to New Jersey alone.
And it was there, at the comic-book shop, one afternoon during the summer I turned nineteen, that I saw something that would alter my brain forever.