Howard the Duck stumbles through the intersection of North Street and Mission Boulevard. He coughs. The light changes halfway through his crossing, because the light, the confounded crossing sign, is never up long enough for anyone trying to cross the street. He coughs again, almost trips, and cars begin honking. He finally makes it across and the stream of traffic headed up Mission Boulevard continues on its way. A van full of kids in baseball caps is one of the vehicles that rolls past him. As it goes by, the door slides open and one of the kids leans out bodily. The kid yells, “Hey, buddy! Fuck you!!!!”
It sounds, probably due to the wind, the general street ambiance and what have you, as though the kid yelled “puck you,” or maybe “buck you,” but Howard the Duck gets the point.
He doubles over and lets loose a loud, hacking cough and then he tries to flip the kid the bird. The door has closed back up and the van is now safely in the distance, well past his revenge.
Most of the suffering in the world is created by kids wearing baseball caps, Howard the Duck thinks. He looks down at the base of his hand and notices a wad of blood. Goddammit, He thinks, and tries to wipe it off on his jacket. He keeps walking.
Howard the Duck has problems. First and foremost, he has tuberculosis. He is dying. He's also a pedestrian, which only belabors the point.
There are other problems, though, that only create greater impact in his life.
Howard the Duck has a price on his head. He is almost sure of it.
He is a walking copyright infringement. And he must allow that this is not an accident of birth but a choice he made, a moral stand that has had ramifications in his life.
Nobody understands him——not his girlfriend, or the guys at work....not even his best friend.
All of which brings him back to his primary goal. He's walking to McDonald's. He's going to meet his friend Spider-Man, to tell him he disapproves of his lifestyle choices.
Howard the Duck shakes his head. Skippy, he corrects himself, not Spider-Man. I refuse to call
Skippy does not understand the weight and the stress of being a walking copyright infringement. Skippy is young, of course, and only sees the glitz and glamour of naming yourself after your favorite character. Howard the Duck realizes all of this and hopes to make Skippy aware of some of the pitfalls he has to live with.
He hears a shout back toward the intersection. He half-turns. He's always looking over his shoulder these days, because he knows Marvel Comics are following him and he is sure that they mean to kill him.
Nothing. This time.
Besides, he thinks, changing your name legally to “Spider-Man” is stupid. Spider-Man is a popular character consumed by the masses for no good reason and to no good end. There is nothing special, risky or meaningful about such a move.
Changing one's name legally to “Howard the Duck” is a bold and deeply personal move that invites hardship and misunderstanding.
Few if any people hear “Howard the Duck” and think of Steve Gerber's brilliant, existential satirical comic. They usually think of the horrid '80s movie if they think of anything.
There is nothing fun or glamorous about filling out paperwork and signing it as “Howard the Duck”. Try renting an apartment that way. Buying a car. Shit, try voting.
And again, the aforementioned understanding that you are a marked man, your days are numbered and Marvel Comics are trying to kill you. And in the case of Howard the Duck, it's just an arrogant grab for intellectual property. There's not even a goddamned profit motive.
He will set Skippy straight on this and more, if it's the last thing he does. And it might be.
His real last given name is “Vlierboom”. He hates it. The guys at the factory simply call him “Boom”, which he's fine with. They can't pronounce “Vlierboom”. Past the bosses who hand him his paycheck and the personnel department who he had to clear the change with he has no desire to share this with his co-workers for all the obvious reasons. He doesn't need any of the wise guys pointing out that he is not actually a duck. He knows that.
It's a point that Jessie, his girlfriend, makes frequently. “I'd be happy to meet you in the middle and call you 'Howard the Man',” she tells him. “I mean, you are a man, you know.”
“That's not the point,” he retorts, “I'm trapped in a world I never made. I literally am that character.”
“You're making a world you never made by calling yourself a duck,” she says. She always falls back on that one and he thinks it's all beside the point but then they smoke up another big fatty, he hacks up a lung and she starts talking to him about how he needs to see a doctor. So nothing is really ever solved in this circular exchange.
It might be a problem of the therapist in question. Jessie says she's a playwright, although she's never written a play in the whole time he's known her.
Howard the Duck busts his hump for a couple of miles before finally reaching the big intersection and heading to McDonald's on the other side of the street. He winds himself getting across the intersection but makes it in good time. He crumples up by the light post. “Uh-hriiiii-hriiiii-hriiiiii-hriiii,” he coughs.
o get to McDonald's from the corner he has to hike up a steep hill and cross a couple of different parking lots. He thinks that motorists don't know the painstaking difficulty required in going everywhere on foot——needing to walk miles for a futile meeting at McDonald's because your best friend has made a stupid life decision. Of course, the whole process only exacerbates the coughing. He tries to apply some thought to this. Spider-Man. Why Spider-Man? And for the love of God, how the hell did Skippy slip that one past Judge Dunn?
Judge Dunn hates legal name changes. Jessie had actually told him this back when he first decided to change his name to Howard the Duck. She had a friend, she said, named April Morgan, who decided, for religious reasons, that she wanted to change her name to Purple Vanguard Trixie Diatribe 6. Yes, the number six, that was her last name. Judge Dunn grudgingly gave it to her but not before forcing her to give a long, detailed explanation as to why she wanted the name change and what it meant.
“Later on, like a year later,” Jessie told him, “she thought maybe her choice went a little far and she was having trouble getting jobs...she went back and got it shortened to just 'Trixie Diatribe', and the Judge yelled at her about how much of a burden she was putting on taxpayers. She gave her the name change but told her she didn't ever want to see her in her court again.”
Howard the Duck encountered similar wrath. He explained to the judge that he wanted the name change because he was trapped in a world he'd never made. She told him that such frivolous petitions like his were putting state taxpayers into a world they'd never made, but she grudgingly granted him the name change.
He does not know Trixie Diatribe.
After a herculean hike (and another good, hard cough), Howard the Duck finally makes McDonald's. Skippy is sitting in the booth closest to the exit. He's sipping on a shake. “Took ya long enough,” says Skippy.
“You know how far I had to walk,” rasps Howard the Duck, and this causes him to lurch into another coughing fit.
“You oughta take a Ricola,” Skippy adds. Howard the Duck stops and regards Skippy's hairy moonface, peering at him guilelessly from underneath a mop of greasy, brown hair. He stops short of ripping him a new one.
“You eating, smart guy?”
Skippy looks down at his shake and then looks back up. “Nah, I'm good. Been waiting for you. For a while.” He holds up his wristwatch for emphasis.
“Alright, well, I've had a long walk, so I'm getting something.” Skippy nods agreeably and Howard the Duck gets in line.
His McDonald's order looks like this:
Quarter Pounder, no cheese.
Hot Mustard Sauce
Medium Diet Coke.
Howard the Duck does not drink Diet Coke because he believes it will make him thin. He drinks Diet Coke because regular coke drinks are too sugary for him.
Upon receiving his order he sits down with Skippy at the booth by the exit.
“Skippy,” he says, and then, seeing Skippy frown, he corrects himself. “Sorry....'Spider-Man'.” Skippy's face softens slightly——apology expected.
“Been missing you at Munchkin, dude,” Skippy says, glazing over the faux pas. “Where ya been?”
“Sick,” says Howard the Duck, coughing again.
“Yeah, no shit,” remarks Skippy. “You oughta take something for that.”
“I have TB,” Howard the Duck grunts.
Skippy takes another sip off his shake. “Sucks,” he says.
“Yeah,” Howard the Duck says. He tears into the burger and begins coughing again. This time it seems like the ketchup is setting it off, but everything sets it off. The cold air. The car exhaust. The food. You name it.
“Damn, dude,” Skippy says again.
“I'm dying,” says Howard the Duck.
“I guess,” Skippy muses.
“You're a goddamned idiot,” says Howard the Duck.
“What do you mean?”
“First and foremost, you don't listen to anything anyone tells you. That's just for starters.”
“Huh?! Dude, I have absolutely no idea what you mean!”
“I bet you don't, but that's just for starters!”
“What the hell, pal???? We haven't seen you for weeks at Munchkin.....months, maybe——and then you're all yellin' and attackin' and callin' names?”
Howard the Duck regards Skippy with a hard look and several vignettes go through his head:
Waterboarding, however hot, hip and trendy that may come off.
All of the above scenarios are accompanied by happy whistling music. There are a multitude of grievances at work in his head right now, but he puts them all aside in favor of one, which in his mind represents everything.
“Spider-Man,” he sighs.
Skippy smiles. “That's my name, don't wear it out!”
“Are you on crack, you fuckin' moron?! Seriously, are you sure your parents weren't related? Answer that for me, will ya?”
“Don't 'Dude' me again, okay, ya mongoloid? Just what the fuck is wrong with you???”
“What do you mean??? Dude, what's up your ass????”
“Okay, so first off, I have to know, how hard did Judge Dunn jump down your throat when you told her you wanted to change your name to Spider-Man?!”
“Not at all! Man, she was a stand-up Judge!”
“Yeah, I'll bet she was.”
“Listen, just because she was a cooze to you doesn't mean she didn't learn something and lighten the hell up, man.....”
“Yeah? Yeah? What, exactly, do you figure she learned, huh?”
Skippy stammers for a few seconds and licks his lips. “Ah, maybe she got more tolerant of other peoples' individuality? And maybe you could re-learn some of that?”
“Oh, really? And whose individuality did she get more tolerant of? Explain that to me, will ya?”
“People like US, dude!!!! People who have their own ideas! People who don't march to everyone else's drummer, you know?”
“People like us,” crabs Howard the Duck, half under his breath. “Explain to me, exactly, how calling yourself 'Spider Man' helps you assert your individuality.”
“Well,” says Spider-Man, look a little nonplussed, “you know!” He gestures frantically to Howard, as if that should speak for itself.
“No,” Howard the Duck smiles. “I don't. How about you explain it to me?”
Spider-Man now has a look of concern and frustration on his moonface. It reads a mix of “you should understand this already, dude,” coupled with a dash of “I thought you were my friend”.
“You know....being the Hero. Being your own hero! What you always tried to tell me!”
Howard the Duck is not placated. “I don't remember ever telling you that.”
“Well, not in so many words....”
“It's my moral obligation to call you on your shit, genius,” Howard the Duck sneers. “I'm dying, do you understand that? I'm dying. And on top of that my life is shit. Marvel Comics are coming to kill me. And if they're coming to kill me, you'd better believe they're coming to kill you! Do you have any clue as to the can of worms you've popped upon yourself?”
Skippy cocks his head, not unlike one of those pug dogs who doesn't understand what it's being told by its owners. “No one's going to kill you, my friend! How could you think something like that?!”
“Fuck you!” Howard the Duck says though gritted teeth. The dumpy employee cleaning tables across the way stares their way and it's over. Howard the Duck knows he's been made. “Calling yourself 'Spider-Man'——what kinds of sacrifices does that really require you to make? How much harder has it made your life? Do you have any idea of the cliff you're headed for???”
Again, the quizzical expression. “What are you talking about? You're starting to worry me, bro!”
“Why 'Spider-Man'?!” Howard the Duck is trying his damnedest not to scream in Skippy's face right there in the restaurant now. “Justify that to me, will you please? Why the hell was it such a big deal for you to call yourself 'Spider-Man'? What made you think that was such a good idea?”
Skippy stammers, “it's just my own personal choice!” He waits expectantly, as if that should be a satisfactory response.
“I get that part. What the hell is so great about Spider-Man to where you're going to change your name to that?”
Skippy looks agog as if to say, how can you even ask that? “Dude! What's so great about Spider-Man? What's so great about Howard the Duck? So, see how easy that is?”
“You're avoiding the question! What the fuck does goddamn Spider-Man say about you?”
Skippy looks contemplative for the first time ever and he chews into his answer with some level of deliberation. “Well,” he says, as if thinking about it for the first time ever, “Spider-Man is cool.”
Howard the Duck fights back a scream. “Please continue.”
Skippy searches for the words. “Spider-Man is a badass. And by taking the name I become a badass!” He smiles hopefully.
“Kill me,” groans Howard the Duck. He lets loose a frail, spluttering cough.
Now Skippy goes on the offensive. “Listen, where do you get off? I made a personal choice that's very important to me. Spider-Man is cool, everyone knows that! What the hell's so great about calling yourself Howard the Duck?! I saw that movie when I was a kid——it sucked ass!”
Howard the Duck affixes a dead stare on Skippy.
“Yeah, you heard me,” Skippy says, more emboldened. “I saw that movie. Howard the Duck sucks ass. So don't go trying to judge me!”
Howard the Duck gets up out of his seat. He suffers an explosive coughing fit.
“That's right, buddy,” grins Skippy. “So how do you like it?” Howard the Duck hobbles out the door, hacking uncontrollably.
With great difficulty, he makes it across the parking lot and into the woods out in back of the shopping plaza. He finds a tree stump in a clearing and rolls himself a cigarette. He smokes and coughs and smokes and coughs and then he just sits there for several hours, thinking and yet trying not to think because thinking hurts too much.
It's getting dark. He's wasted his entire day on this worthless errand. He hobbles at least a mile to the Gas Mart. There's at least one good reason to stop there——they've got one of the few still-functioning payphones——hell, maybe the very last——in town.
He sees that it's fifty cents per call and he wistfully remembers back when a dime was required.
He stops for a second and remembers when there were payphones.
Howard the Duck doesn't have a cell phone. He dislikes and distrusts them. He had a little flip phone at one point——he got rid of it because it was problematic and everyone was looking at him as if they thought he was a drug dealer.
He dials up Jessie. “I need to see you,” he wheezes.
“That's cool,” she says, her aloof, baked tones coming across the phone line. “Dude, this is amazing——I have to show you!”
“What?” Howard the Duck is irritated. His head's still back in McDonald's with Skippy, who legally changed his name because he thought it would be cool.
Spider-Man, he corrects himself.
Jessie disrupts his personal hell. “I'm back! I'm done! I wrote a musical! A whole musical! It's finished!”
Howard the Duck is not in the headspace for this. “What?”
“I wrote a musical——big, Broadway, all the bells and whistles——I wrote a musical based on Watership Down!”
It's as if someone hit him in the face with a brick. “Watership Down???”
“Omigod, babe, it's so amazing....I feel like it came out of me through some other force----this is going to change everything!”
“Hold on, back it up a sec. Watership Down, that's a book about rabbits, isn't it?”
“No! It's an allegory——it's an epic and an exodus about people who leave their homeland and fight to make a new existence.....”
“Epic and an exodus, Jessie——are the characters in the story or are they not rabbits?”
“I....they are but they're not,” long silence. “Dude, you're really harshing my buzz, okay? Come over——I'll play you the songs. They'll make you believe, just like the world is going to believe!”
A harsh wheeze turns into another coughing jag. He manages to eke out “I'm dying,” into the phone.
“God, there you go being negative again! Come to my place! I'm going to play you my songs and....”
“I saw Skippy. He changed his name to Spider-Man.”
“Wow. That's crazy.”
“He doesn't even know. He doesn't even know.....”
“Howard, you need to stop, okay? It's a little weird, just like changing your name to 'The Duck' is a little weird, but it's fine! That's his choice!”
“No, but his reasoning, Christ, it's so dumb! “
“Boy, there's the pot calling the kettle black! Dude! Drop all your crazy no-hope and come hear all the songs. And quit worrying!”
“'Kay,” he grumbles. “I'll be over soon.”
“'Bout time! Love you!” She coos.
“Yeah,” he grumps and hangs up the phone. He ambles past the front window of the Gas Mart and sees that there's a comic rack in there.....understocked and lonely, but goddammit, it's an According-to-Hoyle comic book rack. A twentyish, unkempt, long haired kid is loitering by it, thumbing through a dog-eared Archie comic.
The kid looks up and stares through the window at him, as does the fat clerk with the muttonchop sideburns behind the counter.
Payphones. Comic book racks. There's something not right about this place....these people. Time to leave.
He worries that they might all be agents of Marvel Comics, sent to watch him. Or apprehend.
He walks along the dark road and hits the trailer park where Jessie lives by eight thirty in the evening. Several things happen:
Jessie plugs in her Casio synth and plays Howard the Duck all the songs from her WATERSHIP DOWN musical, in sequence. She talks about how she wants all the actors to wear hats with bunny ears and she shows him some of her choreography ideas.
Howard the Duck goes out to the tiny kitchenette, grabs a steak knife and stabs Jessie forty times.
He lights a number of glass-encased Catholic saint candles around the house and places them all around the gas stove.
He opens up all the gas valves on the stove and heads out.
He begins the arduous hike back to his own place. He never gets there. He's found dead by the side of the road the next morning. The eventual autopsy report mentions exposure and exhaustion. And Tuberculosis.
News of the oddball murder/death makes the rounds on all the local new affiliates, everyone has a good laugh over the whole thing and it is quickly forgotten. He is consistently referred to in the reports as “Howard Vlierboom” instead of his legal name, but everyone takes a moment out to laugh over his given name. No mention is ever made of his obsession with an arcane cult comic book character.
Skippy is overcome with grief because of the death of his friend.
He belly flops off the overpass on Exit 76 one Saturday morning.
He goes straight through the windshield of a Mini-Cooper, accidentally killing a family of four who were visiting from Oregon.
Several state highway workers are wounded in the wreck.
The entire region is shocked and saddened by Skippy's death. Roadside tributes are erected in his honor. His sister tearfully tells the local media that he had been very despondent over the last several weeks. She describes him as “an old soul” and says that he loved comic book heroes like Spider-Man.
Spider-Man ephemera pops up along with the usual bouquets and crosses along the spot where Skippy ended his life. Years go by but sad and haunting stories are handed down and exchanged for decades to follow, regarding the tragic story of The Spider-Man of Exit 76.
C.F. Roberts is a writer, visual artist, videographer and antimusician living in Northwest Arkansas with his wife, writer Heather Drain and a small menagerie of animals. He published and edited SHOCKBOX: The Literary/Art Magazine with Teeth from 1991 to 1996. He sings lead for the rock band, the S.E. Apocalypse Krew while also commandeering his own industrial project, 90 Lb. Tumor. He most recent publication credits are in Fearless, Paraphilia, Pressure Press Presents, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Blue Collar Review, Corvus Review, Antique Children, and Guerilla Genesis Press. His book, The Meat Factory and Other Stories, is available from Alien Buddha Press.