It started off as a joke. Some guy in town started showing up to crime scenes dressed in a Batman costume. The cape was made from a black cloth, and where the neck and shoulders met, his skin showed. The boots might have been Wolverines from Wal-Mart. He just stood there, arms crossed, watching the police jot down notes on their little yellow notepads. Sometimes he’d be crouched, half-hidden in his cape. But, in Oakaville, Kansas, a town of 1,200 people, the cops laughed and he’d get a round of applause. He made the front page of the Perry County News five weeks straight before some of the townspeople started complaining. You’re missing the point—he’s not the story, the crimes are the story! Where’s a picture of the bakery burning down? My son’s the policeman who made that drug bust at the high school—he’s barely mentioned! Can we please talk about the graveyard? I hate Batman! Why’s he so special? It’s just some random guy in goddamn tights! When the editor stopped printing his picture, the town noticed. Newspaper sales dropped drastically.
None of us knew who he was, though some had their guesses. After about the fourth crime scene he showed up to, reporters started asking him questions. Who are you? Do you live here in town? All the eligible bachelorettes want to know: are you single? What’s your real job? Are you involved in these crimes? Which Batman villain would you liken Mrs. Walden’s grave-robber to? Can you comment on how snug those tights are? Boxers or briefs, Mr. Batman?
After that, Batman went on hiatus. Kids in town started vandalizing stores, homes, even churches in the hope that Batman would return and stop them. One morning, as Dave the barber opened up his shop just off Second Street, he found graffiti tags on the side of his building: bats spray-painted in bright green and magenta, the words “Free the Batman” painted over and over in the deepest black over Dave's red brick wall. Dave’s bright red face, pristine moustache that looked like a sculpture, mouth open to yell something obscene, was on the front page of the newspaper beside the graffiti the next day. Having gotten haircuts from old Super-Dave for years, decades, many of us knew the kinds of things Dave might have been yelling. I’m already not getting enough business as it is! Those spraypaint-slingin’ bastards need their necks wrung, and the son-of-a-bitchin’ Batman needs to slide those tights back on and stop bein’ a big ol' pussy!
It was almost dark the next night when our gang of concerned citizens and the Mayor met outside City Hall on the freshly paved parking lot, which the Mayor was awfully proud of and didn’t care who knew it. The sky had started to purple, but no bat signal.
“It could be any one of us. Could damn well be me,” Johnny Thompson said.
“Well, is it you?” Darlene Matthews, a bank teller at First National, asked.
“No,” he said. “But how would you know if I was lying?”
“Could be a woman,” the Mayor said.
“No,” Thompson chimed in again. “We've all seen the pictures in the paper. Tall, not as big as you, Mayor, but close, 5 o’clock shadow, strong jaw like a granite headstone, deep gruff voice. Ain't no woman.”
“I’ll bet he's got a big pecker,” Darlene said.
“Jesus Christ, Darlene. Really?” the Mayor said, the excitement causing him to wheeze.
“Sorry, Mayor. I meant ‘penis.’ I’ll bet he’s got a big penis,” Darlene said. “But either way, maybe we should start looking at the cemetery.”
“You think Mrs. Walden’s grave has something to do with this?” the Mayor asked.
“Yeah, maybe the grave robber was Batman’s villain or something. Every hero needs a villain. Maybe it’s the Laughster.”
“Who in the hell is the Laughster?” Johnny Thompson asked.
“The Laughing Man? It’s not my job to be the comics nerd,” Darlene said.
“Look, Mrs. Walden’s body was dug up, yes, but it was found intact and the only thing taken was her dentures she was buried with. We think one of her daughters did it. You know, Brenda, the one with the rotten teeth.”
The meeting went on like this for what seemed like hours before we agreed on a plan. We’d go looking for Batman. The pinks and oranges in the west had all blacked out and the stars had fully brightened. We hopped in an armada of cars, dusty trucks, police cruisers, and even a pizza delivery van from Al’s Pizza to wade through the summer darkness and find our hero.
The night was young, fresh, full of hope and stars and all the summer Kansas bugs. We split into teams, used walkie-talkies to make it official. Some of us covered all the main streets in town using spotlights, even the trailer park on the south end of town where a lot of kids get caught having sex in parked cars. But there weren’t many kids parked that night—they were all out searching for the caped vigilante.
The Mayor’s team circled the outskirts of town, following the gravel roads and kicking up dust that caught the spotlights and made it impossible to see anything. The sports writer for Perry County News, wedged in the backseat of the Mayor’s truck with four other people, addressed the elephant in the room.
“Mr. Mayor, if we’re looking for Batman, it has to be a person in town—wouldn’t our time be better spent checking people off the list of potential candidates? Maybe we have some leads on a vehicle Batman might have been seen driving? Why are we out here?”
“Well…you know what, Mr. Smartypants investigative journalist, can you tell me with absolute goddamn certainty Batman isn’t out here? Huh?”
He couldn’t. The head boys’ basketball coach, who sat up front with the Mayor, legs all spread, bag of French fries in his lap, yelled out at one point that he’d seen something off to the left. They slid to a stop, brake lights bleeding the dust red, and ran out into the soybean field with flashlights, running around as if playing tag on a playground. After an hour, the Mayor politely asked Coach to shut the hell up.
Every last policeman, including retired sheriff Rosen, suited up in their uniforms and began going door to door, asking people if they’d seen Batman or knew who he was. Toward the end of the night, when things weren’t looking up, they began demanding if anyone was harboring Batman, and in the low-income housing, they flashed some old newspaper coupon inserts, folded to look like warrants, and raided the houses.
Around one in the morning, we all rendezvoused back at Northside Bar. Nobody really said much for a while. The ceiling fans churned the warm air and the smell of beer—a good smell. We could’ve sat there in silence until closing time and we’d have still understood we’d failed. But nobody sits in silence at a bar.
“Not a goddamn thing? I can’t believe it,” said the Mayor.
Some people moaned in agreement. Most everyone kept drinking. Darlene Matthews took the liberty of being the first to get drunk.
Oakaville and, hell, all of Perry County, was dying. The state had moved the highway that skirted the east side of town further away from the city limits. Four lanes, all the way down from Kansas City. The steady stream of traffic off the highway slowed to a trickle. The concrete plant closed, followed by DeeDee’s Café. School enrollment slowed and the school size dropped a whole size, down to 1A. Whole families moved away—the Bradfords, Shannons, Gomezes, the other Gomezes. When Mrs. Durbin and her husband uprooted from their farm just south of town on Scott Road, the principal taught third grade for a month before the school board could hire anyone. Not to mention the gay community becoming essentially nonexistent when Sandy Brown and her partner moved away.
“What sort of legitimate town can be taken seriously, even exist as a town at all, without any gay people?” the Mayor had told the Perry County News. Most of the town disagreed.
Nobody wanted to talk about the graveyard. If one body could be exhumed without anyone noticing, dentures ripped from poor Mrs. Walden’s mouth, who was to say the other unsuspecting bodies wouldn’t be dug up too?
But Batman caused people new and old to flock back to town, as if a bigfoot or aliens had been spotted and people needed to satisfy their fascinations.
The next day, the Mayor had an idea. He and his secretary, Linda, rounded up a team of high schoolers and volunteers to use their cell phones and go through the phone book, calling every house to first ask if they were Batman, and then tell them that all the businesses and city services would be shut down for the near future, except for the grocery store, the bank, and the bar. This freed up everyone to help search for Batman.
The younger children walked with their parents, some with pet dogs and some without, patrolling all of the side streets branching off Main Street. Kids on bicycles searched both parks, the school playground, and around Snow Creek, near the cemetery. Julie Jacobs and some other sixth- and seventh-grade kids rode their bikes out to Stegge Lake. Stegge marked the southwest corner of Oakaville and on nice days, even shitty days, the shore was punctuated with fishermen trying their luck with largemouth bass or channel cats. The kids skipped rocks as they walked the dirt path bordering the deserted lake.
“I hope Batman shows up soon,” Julie said.
“Me too,” Timmy McKann said. “My dad says it’s a dickin’ damn shame that he’s not back yet.”
“Well my mom says Batman is chicken shit, which sounds stinky. I don’t like it,” Tina Jones said.
“Oh yeah? Well my dad told my mom yesterday that Batman isn’t ever coming back no matter how many lesbians come to town, no matter how many of those coffins turn back up at the graveyard, no matter what the G-D Mayor says. He said Big Willie’d make a better Batman than what we got now,” Logan Peters said.
It was like Logan had flipped a switch. The kids, all twelve of them, working together and yelling every curse word they’d heard their parents or the high schoolers utter, and some they made up on the spot, pushed Logan into Stegge Lake and threw his Mongoose in after.
The only things in town that didn’t aid in the Batman search were the trains. That loud, shrill, goddamn incessant wailing of train horns that sounded, like clockwork, six times a day, echoing up and down Main Street. We could have done without the trains.
Willie Johnson was by far the largest man in town and probably all of Perry County, and was almost always confined to his electric wheelchair. As the firefighter crew was searching the north end of town, between First and Seventh streets, they spotted Willie walking around in his backyard, peering behind his bushes—even Big Willie was out looking for Batman. Only Dave the barber and the small anti-Batman group he’d amassed didn’t. They marched in front of the newspaper office, demanding Batman be arrested or at least forced to leave town. Dave had made signs. Parents complained about the curse words. Dave retorted with even more curse words. But nobody found Batman.
As the sun was going down, the streetlights not yet lit, everyone gathered in front of First National Bank on the town square, where the Mayor had a podium and microphone set up. We knew this was serious business because the Mayor hadn’t used a podium and microphone since two years back when he announced that all of the school buses from USD 472 were being retired and would be used for a school bus demolition derby. The front of the podium was embossed with a crude bat logo colored in with black paint. We all gathered there in silence. Even all the children and dogs, tired from searching all day, stood among the adults and didn’t make a peep.
“After two days of hard searching, everyone in the town contributing time, money, and heart to the cause, people sacrificing time with their loved ones and their televisions, we haven’t found Batman. It pains me to say this, but either Batman is dead, or he’s one of us, or she is—”
“Ain’t no woman, I said!” yelled Johnny Thompson.
“Either way, I say we think of some other way to go about this. I’m open to any bright ideas. Please. I’m…begging.”
Our crowd went aflutter with whispering. The streetlights began to flick on, one by one. Clouds churned overhead. Toward the front of the crowd, behind all of the elderly people from Sunset Residencies in wheelchairs, someone began walking up to the Mayor’s podium—a man, tall, wearing all denim. The whispers started up again. When the Mayor had backed away from the podium and the man stood towering over the microphone, we all recognized him as Tim Schaffer.
Nobody knew much about Tim, but he’d worked security up at the Perry County power plant and he’d been in the Navy for eight years after high school—submarines. He seemed tough and was naturally menacing. So what Tim said at the podium made at least some semblance of sense to us.
“I’m the Batman.”
As the words left Tim’s mouth, a gunshot rang out, its blast echoing up and down Main Street. The crowd ducked and scattered. None of us saw Tim actually go down. One second he was standing there in front of the podium, the next he was lying on the ground, moaning and flopping around like a fish, one of his legs filled with buckshot.
“What the—why in God’s goddamn green earth did you do that?” the Mayor asked John Johnson, who stood alone, sawed-off shotgun held in his outstretched arm.
John dropped the gun to his side and took two steps toward the Mayor, which the Mayor mirrored as he backed into the bank wall. “Well, now we know that dipshit ain’t Batman, right?” he said.
“How the fuck do ya figure?” the Mayor asked, finding courage to step back up to the microphone. He had to sort of kick Tim's now-bleeding leg out of the way to make room to stand there.
“Look. If Tim was Batman, he’d have deflected all that buckshot, or dodged ‘em, or had a body double to take his place, or anticipated my shot and got me first, or any of that shit in the movies. Fact that he’s layin’ there on the concrete tells us: he ain’t Batman. He’s just a guy.”
We couldn’t argue with his logic—not the Mayor, not the City Council members, not the policemen, and surely not Dave the Barber, who wanted Batman gone more than anyone. So John Johnson, the owner of the hardware store, the man most people would agree to be the nicest, most polite man in town, didn’t go to jail for shooting Tim Schaffer. His shotgun was confiscated but nobody came knocking on his door again after that. Most of us visited Tim at the hospital one town over in Harrisonburg—Oakaville’s lone minute clinic wouldn’t cut it—and paid our respects, brought balloons, enough to float the small building away into the clouds. Many of the cards we got him were signed something along the lines of, “I know you’re not Batman, but thanks…” Nobody knew when Batman would turn up again, or if he would at all. With the amputation of Tim’s leg, we hoped Batman was removed from us as well, finally laid to rest—silent.
The fuss over Batman began to seem like a dark, hopeful, foggy dream. After a couple front-page stories about Tim and John, the newspaper let it go. Kids started having sex out by the trailer park again, the fishermen went back to trying their luck, and everyone once again tried to avoid talking about Mrs. Walden’s exhumation and the questions it raised about graveyard security, especially the Mayor. But the town was different. Batman, our search for him, and the feeling of his absence now, had left the town with an air of positive change. More of us were out and about with our families, going on walks, playing in Plum Park, paying bills on time. Oakaville had stepped out of the deep, shitty rut it had been in. For three weeks we all happily forgot about Batman.
One night Darlene Matthews and the new bank intern were leaving First National. The intern pulled the doors hard several times to make sure they were locked.
“Anyways,” Darlene continued, “that’s how our bottle of lube ended up in Hollie’s backpack at school with her new calculator.”
“Holy shit, that’s hilarious. Was she mortified when you explained it to her?” the intern asked, laughing.
They started walking around the side of the bank to their cars parked in back.
“I told her it was just lotion. Then she said lotion isn’t clear, so I said it was Daddy lotion. So she went in our bedroom and handed the bottle to James. True story!” Darlene said.
The intern was crying. “Shut. Up. What did James say?”
Before Darlene could answer, one of the metal trashcans behind the bank tumbled over with a bang. Both women jumped and when they looked over, someone was standing there dressed in a Batman costume.
“Ladies,” Batman said in a deep voice, almost a wheeze.
“Batman—you’re back!” Darlene said.
“Yes, yes I’m,” he paused, messing with his cape. “I’m back.”
“Well why did you take so damn long? Tim Schaffer was shot! We looked everywhere for you,” Darlene said.
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry,” he said, coughing.
He just stood there under the light from the bank’s back door and Darlene and the intern stood watching. Batman seemed bigger than before. Not taller, just bigger.
“Well, don’t you have anything to say?” Darlene asked.
“Take my picture,” he said.
“Excuse me?” Darlene asked.
“Take my picture,” he coughed again. “Send it to the news. Tell everyone you saw me.”
Darlene grabbed her phone from her purse and snapped a few pictures of Batman, some with flash and some without, some vertical and some landscape. She squatted down to get a different angle. “Okay, got ‘em,” she said.
Batman immediately started running toward Main Street.
“Wait, Batman, I have one question for you,” Darlene said.
He stopped and turned around, breathing hard. “What is it?” He fixed his cowl.
“I have to know—do you have a big pecker?”
Batman stood there, looking around as if he had no clue how to answer. “Yes,” he said, and continued running away.
Darlene couldn’t be sure, but she thought she’d heard Batman follow up with “Jesus.” And just like that, the town’s hero was swallowed by the night.
“Did you hear that? Batman’s back, and he’s got a big pecker. You owe me $20.”
Darlene sent the pictures to the Perry County News. Batman was back and the town slept a little more comfortably after that, especially John Johnson, who was sure to tell everyone he came across that he’d been right about Batman, that wasn’t no way in Hell Tim was Batman, no offense. And Dave knew his barbershop walls were safe from graffiti. Everything was starting to look up. All except for Mrs. Walden’s body’s missing dentures and the culprit still at large, but we didn’t care much about that anymore with Batman around. We could still do without those damn trains and the Mayor would still like more gay people back in town, but he says Batman is working damn hard on it.