The line stretched through the convention hall, up the escalator, and into the lobby. Hundreds of fans of all ages clutching books, toys, T-shirts, and all manner of memorabilia. Children chattering endlessly to their parents about how excited they were, collectors watching clips on their phones, teens arguing over their favorite moments from blockbuster films.
They were not there for him.
Jacob Braxton sat alone behind a sparsely decorated table in front of an easel holding a decades-old photo of him dressed like a giant bird with a cape and a shield. He stared at the digital clock on the wall. From the floor, he could barely read the numbers.
There was a time, he assured himself, when fans would have lined up to meet him. It was getting harder and harder to remember how that felt.
He had to put in three hours at the table to get his appearance fee. He figured he must be coming up on the end of hour two, and nobody had stopped to meet him yet. He wished he had brought a book. He barely noticed when a father with a young boy approached the table.
“Excuse me,” the man said. “I was hoping—”
Jacob jolted into action, reaching out to the blond-haired boy with one hand, an uncapped pen in the other.
“Step right up, son. What would you like? A signature, a —” blanking on the word, he awkwardly mimed taking a photograph, “— a selfie? It’s a selfie, right?”
The boy said nothing. Jacob thought perhaps he was just shy, but then he noticed the blank look on the father’s face. The man cleared his throat.
“I was going to say, I was hoping you could point us to the men’s room?”
Jacob sheepishly directed them to the end of the aisle, toward a staircase leading to the restrooms. The father thanked him and they went on their way.
“Who was that?” Jacob heard the child ask.
He momentarily suppressed the urge to stand up and tell them exactly who he was. As the slight, however unintentional, festered in his mind like a splinter, he soon found himself rising from his folding chair and following them down the hall. He stomped down the stairs and slammed face-first into the bathroom door.
“It’s a pull,” a passing janitor muttered.
Jacob released a deep sigh and reached for the handle. Inside the bathroom, the boy was finishing up at a urinal. His father was in front of a sink, washing his hands. When the boy turned, Jacob was waiting.
“I’ll tell you who I am,” he said, raising his voice over the sound of the flush. “I am Jacob Bartholomew Braxton, classically trained thespian, icon of the stage and screen, beloved star of The Adventures of the American Eagle, which ran for over 100 episodes from 1982 to 1986. I was nominated for three Daytime Emmys. They made action figures with my likeness. My face was on cereal boxes. I was the Adam West of a generation!”
He was immediately rocked by a wave of regret and a tinge of embarrassment. There he was, a three-time Daytime Emmy Award nominee screaming at a clueless eight-year-old in front of a urinal in the bowels of the Westchester County Convention Center. It wasn’t the lowest moment of his life, but it had to be near the top of the list.
“Who’s Adam West?” the boy asked.
* * *
Jacob Braxton had no illusions about his place in modern popular culture, or lack thereof. He was a decaying relic of a bygone era. The days of low-budget syndicated dramas. The kind of show dads could watch with their kids on a Saturday afternoon after naptime. A couple set pieces, some corny jokes, a good cliffhanger, and everyone comes back next week to see what happens. The Adventures of the American Eagle was one of the most popular and well-received shows of its kind, an adaptation of a long-running comic book series featuring an American flag-clad hero and his teen sidekick, the Sparrow.
Jacob understood he had been consigned to the back bench of the pantheon of ’80s cultural memory, behind the G.I. Joes, ThunderCats, and Knight Riders. He couldn’t change that, but that didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.
Alone in a White Plains McDonald’s, he sipped the last of his soda, eyeing the self-serve soft drink station and weighing whether to go back for a refill. The hand-scrawled sign above the machine said “NO REFILLS,” but how likely was the bored teen behind the counter to enforce that? He asked himself, was saving $1.79 worth the risk? Hours after he was shuffled out of the convention by a security guard who was enjoying himself a little too much, he was not eager to experience another moment of extreme public humiliation.
Then again, it was $1.79 plus tax, which is practically two dollars.
He pulled himself up from his seat and shuffled over to the machine on aching legs. He opted not to add ice, figuring he could get more Coke in the cup that way and avoid having to face this decision again. The drink was cold enough coming out of the machine anyway, he told himself, though he didn’t entirely believe it.
“The sign says ‘no refills,’” a voice said from behind him, and the cup almost slipped from his hand.
Standing there was Walt Gray, his one-time co-star—the Sparrow to his Eagle—15 years younger than him and looking considerably healthier and cheerier. They greeted each other with an uncomfortable shared silence, and Walt followed Jacob back to his table.
* * *
Like most early patriotic superheroes, the American Eagle had his roots in World War II propaganda. Young New York Jews who couldn’t fight doing their part to stick it to the Nazis from the home front. A costumed adventurer who led a battalion of ruffians and troublemakers through the battlefields of Europe and behind enemy lines. Punching Hitler and bashing goons with swastika tattoos. He remained popular in the post-war era, as writers folded him into a team of newer heroes, fighting aliens, mad scientists, and crazed supervillains for decades.
By the late 1970s, the Eagle’s popularity had faded, as had that of most of AE Comics’ characters. The company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when the publishers looked at the success of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk as a TV series and rolled the dice on licensing out their flagship character for a show of his own.
The series followed the American Eagle and the Sparrow as they battled costumed criminals in the fictional Liberty City after waking from 40 years in suspended animation. They had a talking car and a variety of weapons and gadgets that had the general appearance of being high-tech and cutting edge but mostly just gave the producers an excuse to license toys.
The American Eagle show breathed some new life into the comics, and the tone and scope of the adventures on the page came to reflect what was happening on screen. Artists even started drawing the character to look more like Jacob. Once the series was off the air, interest faded again, and a succession of massive company-wide crossovers offered only temporary bursts of interest.
The ’90s being the ’90s, the original version of the character was unceremoniously ushered out of the book in 1996, slaughtered by an army of Nazi zombies or something. The story was poorly drawn, swamped with pseudo-occult clichés, and more than a little hard to follow. He was replaced by a younger, hipper, grimmer vigilante with a large gun, leather jacket, and shoulder pads. It sold well for a while, and then it didn’t.
The angry, violent Dark Eagle gave way to a new hero years later, a Black teen from Brooklyn who adopted the American Eagle mantle with the original Sparrow, now paralyzed and middle-aged, as his mentor. He fought crime, advocated for social change, and helped his single mother raise his younger brother after his father was shot and killed by a white police officer while walking home from work.
The character later got swept up in the superhero movie boom of the early 2000s. With the Avengers and Batman bringing in billions at the box office, studios were seeking out any IP with a cape and a mask to dump $100 million into. They chose to focus on the modern, racially diverse version of the character, a decision that angered a very vocal corner of the internet to no end. Despite the viral complaints and death threats, though, the film was an enormous hit, spawning several sequels and spinoffs. The original wartime version of the Eagle was occasionally referenced but never seen.
Jacob didn’t know or care about most of this. He had never picked up a comic book in his life. He just knew he was rarely getting royalty checks anymore, and somebody else was wearing an American Eagle costume, raking in millions, getting their face on toys and billboards, and basking in a lifestyle of stardom he barely remembered.
* * *
Jacob and Walt sat across from each other at a small table, their puffy winter coats and drab sweaters about as far as imaginable from the brightly colored matching spandex they once wore. Neither of them said anything for a moment.
“I honestly don’t know what I’m doing here,” Walt said.
Jacob coughed into his sleeve. “Gosh, I missed you too,” he said after clearing his throat emphatically.
Walt stared back. “No you didn’t.”
“Yeah, I guess not.” Jacob sipped his lukewarm drink through a paper straw that was growing soggy.
“So why’d you call me?” Walt asked.
“I’ve just been thinking a lot about … everything,” Jacob said, his mind drifting across decades, getting lost in a haze of pride tinged with regret.
“Don’t tell me you got the fish sandwich,” Walt said after giving him a moment to regroup, pointing to the buns wrapped in blue paper on Jacob’s tray.
“Two for four dollars is a hell of a deal.”
Walt shook his head. “Some things just shouldn’t be that cheap.”
Jacob unwrapped one of the sandwiches and took a bite theatrically. Walt could see him stifle his revulsion as it slid down his throat. They both ate in silence for a few minutes.
A mother and two young children passed their table. Jacob noticed the American Eagle-themed Happy Meal boxes on their tray. “You remember in ’83 when McDonald’s did that Eagle and Sparrow Happy Meal line?” he said with a chuckle. “Our toys were better than whatever crap they’re peddling now.”
“Well,” Walt nodded, “we did care considerably less about children’s health and safety back then.”
“Those were the days, am I right?”
The two men smiled, falling back into the somewhat comfortable patter they’d developed over five years spending hours a day on soundstages in exceedingly uncomfortable costumes.
“What have you been up to?” Jacob asked.
“You know, the usual,” Walt said. “Couple of made-for-TV movies, a small role in this kitschy streaming show that’s practically drowning in ’80s references. You?”
Jacob sighed. “Living off Social Security and what’s left of my savings,” he said. “You know how it is. Nobody wants to hire me —”
“Not this again.” Walt rolled his eyes and leaned back.
“Nobody wants to hire me because I’m conservative,” Jacob said, pointing a french fry at Walt’s face for emphasis.
“Have you considered maybe they don’t want to hire you because you’re not a very good actor?” Walt batted the fry away. “Adventures of the American Eagle wasn’t exactly Shakespeare.”
“There was a time when I was almost as big a star as Richard Dean Anderson.”
“That was almost forty years ago, man. Nobody knows who he is anymore either.”
Jacob considered for a moment whether that was true, whether his own failings and shortcomings were responsible for his descent into obscurity, whether any other outcome was ever possible, whether there was truly nobody else to blame. He squelched those thoughts.
“Everything’s changing,” he said. “I’m telling you, they couldn’t make our show today.”
“I honestly don’t know how it got made in the early ’80s,” Walt said. “I mean, do you remember the villains? The Savage Swami. Captain Kraut. The Malevolent Moor. The Minstrel, for chrissake.”
“Sure, if you focus on the names, it sounds pretty bad.” Jacob grew defensive. “Some of those characters had real depth. Pathos even.”
“He was a white guy in blackface throwing watermelon bombs,” Walt countered. “He had henchmen named Shuck and Jive.”
“I’ll tell you what the problem is,” Jacob said. “Hollywood these days is offended by genuine, unironic patriotism. You can’t talk about how much you love America, and God forbid you try to wear the flag on your chest.”
Walt laughed and slapped his hand on the table. “There have been like five very successful American Eagle movies in the last decade.”
“With the young, Black American Eagle,” Jacob shot back. He noticed the disgust wash across Walt’s face and immediately regretted his choice of words and the obvious implication, which he insisted to himself was not intentional. “Come on,” he said. “It’s not that he’s Black. It’s that he’s —”
“Not you?” Walt shook his head. “You could have done a cameo in the movie like me. I know they offered. It was easy money.”
“They wanted me to play a senior citizen riding a bus.”
“You are a senior citizen.”
“So is Harrison Ford!”
“He’s also, and I say this with all due respect,” Walt said, “much more talented than you.”
Jacob scoffed. “What do you know about talent?”
Walt pushed back his chair and stood. He picked up his tray. “I don’t know why you never took me seriously as an actor,” he said.
“You were a teenager in a leotard and a beanie,” Jacob replied. “Why would I?”
“And yet, I’m the one who’s gainfully employed and you’re doing …,” Walt gestured across the table, “whatever it is you do.”
Jacob felt another coughing fit coming on. He fought it off, eager to make his point. “I lived through Vietnam, Watergate, Reagan, Clinton, 9/11. Trump,” he said. “I’ve seen this country change over and over, wave after wave of social upheaval, revolution. You ride it out long enough, it always goes back to the status quo. America is the illusion of change. Like television and superheroes. I just don’t know if I’m going to make it to the other side of this one.”
“I don’t know, man,” Walt said. “Sometimes, things actually change.”
“But that’s just it,” Jacob said, standing and gesturing aggressively. “There was nothing wrong with the country we lived in forty years ago. I was proud to wear that damned costume, to represent that dream for a generation. I don’t know how I got left behind.”
“That’s the thing,” Walt said, his eyes scanning the restaurant. Few other customers seemed to even acknowledge the two of them arguing at increasing volumes. “You didn’t get left. You chose to stay.”
They both sat back down. Jacob finished the first of his two sandwiches and shoveled a handful of fries into his mouth. “I should run for Congress,” he said, flecks of half-chewed potato scattering across the table between them.
“Yeah, that old white dude perspective is really missing in Washington these days,” Walt said, adding with faux earnestness, “Someone must empower the powerful.”
“Voters love a hero.” Jacob shrugged. “And a star.”
Walt let out a louder laugh than he intended. “And how long has it been since you were either?”
Jacob ignored him, washed down what was left in his mouth with tepid cola, and launched into a pitch that had been rolling around in his head for weeks. “I can already see the ads,” he said, forming a picture frame with his fingers. “Me on some pristine mountaintop, wearing that old costume, a live eagle perched on my shoulder, the wind blowing through my hair.”
“This isn’t really the point here,” Walt said, “but are you saying you kept the costume?”
“You didn’t? Man, you wouldn’t believe the crap groupies are into.”
“You should really consider making that your campaign slogan,” Walt put his coat back on and stood again. He picked up his tray. “Look, I’d like to see a flying car before I die. Promise you’ll do something about that, and maybe even I’ll vote for you.”
Before Jacob could respond, a man in a black track suit and black ski mask burst through the door of the restaurant. He pulled a handgun from his pocket and charged toward the cash register, making muffled demands for money. The frightened teen clerk stepped back. Most other customers and workers cowered behind tables and counters. They couldn’t make out every word being said, but Jacob and Walt watched as the kid sheepishly attempted to open the drawer. The thief grew agitated, gesturing wildly with the gun.
“Somebody should do something to help,” Jacob said.
“I’m sure somebody will,” Walt said, surveying the room. Another customer hidden behind a trash can was poking at his phone. “I think that guy over there is calling the cops.”
“They’ll be too late,” Jacob said, his voice deepening an octave. “It’s now or never.”
He stood and picked up his tray, allowing his untouched second fish sandwich to slide to the floor. The thief didn’t seem to notice his movement. Walt could see where this was going, and he wondered how long it had been since his former partner last wielded a shield.
“This is a bad idea,” he said.
“Eagle … take flight!” Jacob said. It was the first time he’d uttered his once ubiquitous catchphrase outside a convention hall in decades. The words were oddly satisfying.
He took a moment to gauge the distance to the register and aim his shot. Then he reared back, stepped forward, and let the tray fly. He was briefly impressed with how steadily it soared across the room, but he soon realized it was veering off its intended course. The tray shattered a display window to the left of the counter. An alarm blared overhead. The thief was startled, but he reached across the counter and grabbed whatever he could from the register before fleeing through the frame of the broken window.
Walt stared at Jacob in disbelief. Other customers gathered around them, more curious than anything else. Few seemed to recognize or care that the men before them were once among the most famous faces in daytime television.
“Don’t even try to pretend that’s what you were aiming for,” Walt said.
Jacob’s soda cup had spilled in the excitement. He picked it up and limped toward the soft drink machine,
“I’m a goddamn American hero,” he said, patting Walt on the shoulder as he passed. “And I’m getting another goddamn refill.”
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