Spartanburg, South Carolina—morning. A hotel lobby. I am drinking complimentary coffee, eating a complimentary breakfast.
I have spent the past days on two-lane highways. I like small highways. I can’t do interstates because they are filled with amateur NASCAR drivers with deathwishes.
Interstate folks travel at lightning speeds. People like me weren’t built to do anything fast. We move slow.
For example: those last two paragraphs took me approximately nine days to write.
A woman walks into the hotel lobby. She’s wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Clemson University.” Her teenage son is with her. He wears cargo shorts, an orange hat, he has a prosthetic leg.
Soon, he and his mother are eating breakfast beside me. I’m typing on my laptop about interstates.
He initiates contact.
“What’re you writing?” he asks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I answer. “I’m kinda hoping something will just come to me.”
“Do you think it’ll work?”
“So you must be a writer and stuff?”
I shrug. The truth is, I’ve never been sure about what I am. I’ve worn different hats, and called myself different things.
I hung drywall with a Mexican man named Jesús, I ran a deep-fryer in a kitchen, I mopped floors in a food court, I played piano in pathetic barrooms. And once when I was twenty-two, after a wild night in Southaven, I got ordained in Mississippi.
It was never meant to last.
“Well,” the boy says. “I’m a writer, too.”
I ask what he writes.
“Oh, stories about superheroes and stuff. Sometimes I write about hot girls.”
Here is a man who knows what he likes.
“Yeah,” he goes on. “I pretty much write about everything. I also write music. But mostly about superheroes and stuff.”
He started writing months after a horrific car accident. He doesn’t fill me in on details, but I learn that he was lucky to survive.
I wish I knew more, but that’s all he tells me. And besides, it’s his story, not mine.
“I was stuck in bed forever,” he says. “Couldn’t move. I got sick of watching movies, so I just, like, wrote and stuff.”
He wrote about a lot of “stuff.” His superheroes were little pieces of himself. They were happy stories. Action-packed stories. With girls.
When he speaks, I notice a scar on his cheek, running down his neck. It’s a thick scar.
“Yeah,” he goes on. “I’m gonna study writing one day, at Clemson, maybe.”
And what he doesn’t tell me, I already know:
He writes for the same reason I do. Because writing changes a person. When you write, you can paint life the way you need it to be. You use a brush to paint happiness over sadness. And if you’re lucky, you heal.
You can make sunshine appear from nowhere, and rain, and romance, and airplanes. And you can make invisible people into superheroes.
After my father died, I started writing a lot. I would sit at a desk and write cursive on a legal pad until my fingers were sore.
I wrote about a boy my age, who looked just like me, talked just like me, but wasn’t me. A kid who missed his father—just like me.
My main-character boy had magic abilities. He could fly, see through walls, shoot bows and arrows with remarkable precision, and solve crimes with immutable wits. And he always got the girl.
Once, I even dreamed of studying writing at a big university. But things don’t always work out.
The boy’s mother finishes breakfast. She tells him to hurry. The boy leaps to his feet.
We shake hands. His hand is small, and clammy. But firm.
He walks out of the room with a labored gait. He turns one more time to wave at me. He’s all smiles.
I put my laptop away. I’m about to head for North Carolina. I’ll be in the car most of the day.
It’s funny. I woke up this morning wondering what on earth I would write about. I hoped it would just come to me.
That’s when I met a superhero.