Winner of Rose Metal Press's 2016 Short Short Chapbook Contest, Lex Williford's Superman on the Roof is a haunting series of stories told in the voice of Travis Truitt, the oldest of four children. While they are told years later, the reader gets a strong sense of the child's consciousness, his helplessness against circumstances way beyond his control or comprehension. Travis is ten years old when his younger brother, Jesse, dies from a blood disease. In his introduction to the collection, judge Ira Sukrungruang reflects on the interconnectedness of all things, like the butterfly effect, and certainly the death and rage and grief persist down the decades, affecting the lives of the survivors in these ten linked stories.
The stories jump back and forth in time, which subtly emphasizes the yoyo effect of the emotional and psychological impact of the child's death. Jesse dies at the age of three in 1965, and the collection begins three years later with "The Coat," in which Travis is punished first by his seventh grade teacher, for insubordination (he refuses to remove his coat in class because he is cold) and then by his father, viciously with a belt in the iron–cold of a Texas winter, this time for the insolent, sarcastic essay he writes in detention, on the teacher's orders.
Indeed, violence is how the parents tend to react to the anguish of the loss of their son. Travis' childhood seems to be one beating after another.
The second story takes place a year and a half earlier, in July, 1966, eight months after Jesse's death. In this story the sister, Maddie, acts out by way of resurrecting Jesse, insisting on playing in his wading pool and then running naked out into the street, as she and her brother had done the summer before. Her father gives chase but their dog Reveille is struck by a car. We learn later that its leg had to be amputated, a constant reminder of the guilt, to Maddie, who later goes through rounds and rounds of drugs and therapy, in her adult life.
In the third story, "A Rose for Sister Carmel," we at last revisit the day of Jesse's death, how his siblings, attending a Catholic elementary school at the time, learn that their brother is dead, secondhand, on the playground. The son of one of the hospital nurses breaks the news in the heedless way of schoolkids, before the Truitt parents can tell their children.
The next four stories take us month by month from March to June of 1966, one sad brick after the other added to the foundation of the Truitts' despair and dysfunction, but also fleshing out who this family otherwise is or might have become. We gather that they are otherwise "normal." The father is a small businessman whose architectural firm is struggling. Cruelty and hostility do not seem to be part of the family's fabric until the truly awful befalls them. The medical expenses for Jesse's care take a huge hit on the family's finances. Tempers fray and the parents turn to drink.
The family is already floundering, but at the end of the fourth story in this sequence, "Texas State Optical," in which Travis, always in trouble with the nuns at his school, gets a pair of eyeglasses, something seems to change. He has needed them for a while, adding to his behavior problems in class. Texas State Optical is the cheapest place to get glasses — the family needs all the help it can get. But at the end of the story, Travis seems to undergo some emblematic metamorphosis. True, his parents will continue to beat him, but the story closes with these paragraphs:
The whole time Jesse was sick, every tree is summer had been a giant blur
of a bruised gray and green like a thundercloud building on the Dallas
horizon, but now I could see the individual leaves, thousands of them,
their sharp outlines coruscating in the wind.
I let go of my mother's hand.
"I can see," I said. "I can see all the leaves on the trees."
It's clear that in some sense Travis is growing up. At eleven he has matured and gained a kind of confidence and independence he did not have before.
The final three stories take place in the twenty–first century but yoyo back and forth from 2000 to 2015 to 2012, again in the haunting way of nightmares. These stories all take place at Christmas, which we all know can be the bleakest day of the year. Moreover, "Superman on the Roof," the title story which takes place on Christmas Eve, 2015, not long after Travis' father's death, involves the family watching heretofore taboo home movies of little Jesse. Travis' father had hidden these away in a cigar box, once administering a beating to Travis when he showed one to his brother and sister, These movies show us Jesse in clips from 1963, 1964, 1965. Jesse had worn a Superman outfit his parents had given him after his first coma, and he refused to take it off. In one, Jesse is shown on the Truitts' roof, striking a pose worthy of the Man of Steel, cape flowing behind. How Jesse happened to be there by himself and how his father came to take the movie are part of the story.
Travis' father suffered from Alzheimer's at the end of his life, and the forgetfulness had its rewards. Just as he tried so hard to repress the horrible memories, as symbolized by the cigar box with the forbidden films, the release from memory resulting from Alzheimer's has its blessings for him — and for Travis, watching his father. There can be no more potent symbol of the haunting persistence of tragedy in individuals and families than this.
Superman on the Roof is a moving, melancholy collection but with glimpses of solace and redemption throughout, and for Travis, at least, the narrative ends precisely with these images of deliverance.