Sunday, January 3 2021

from the homework vault: johnny lightfoot

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I got my first job in eight grade. A few times a week after school, my mom would drop me off at church so I could stock the vending machines with my best friend Johnny. Our seventh grade year was our last year attending school together. He and his parents decided to do homeschool going forward. I was sad to see Johnny go, but this little church vending machine gig was a fun way to keep in touch throughout our first school year apart.

I'd usually find Johnny perched on a high ledge in the poorly ventilated stockroom. The church's supply of chips and snacks were kept on high on wooden shelves. We could have gotten a ladder if we asked for one, but being eighth grade boys who lived half our waking lives in video games, we instead climbed around like a couple of amateur splinter cell agents.

After stocking the machines, we took our usual places in our boss Luke's cramped office. In lieu of payment, Luke tutored us in Biblical Greek. Still sweating from climbing around the stock room, Johnny and I patiently took turns reading from the Greek New Testament with a copy of Bill Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek open on the table - a book that is still on my shelf.

That was a happy time in my life. If not for the vending machine gig, figuring out how to go on with school without my best friend in class would have been a lot more difficult. I'm grateful that we had a whole extra year to bond over doing grunt work at church.

I wrote this story for ninth grade English class, dated December 16 2005. It's a silly re-imagining of our shared vending machine stocking experience as a super hero origin story. Johnny Lightfoot is heavily inspired by (if not plagarizing) The Spider-Man 2 video game.

The church door swung ajar as Johnny strolled in for his first day on the job. He didn’t know what to expect, but how hard could stocking a few vending machines be? As he made his way through the aged corridors of the church sanctuary, he halted at a rusted door. The plate just above the center read "Volunteers HQ" in chipped letters. Not so confident now, he wrapped his sweaty fingers around the copper doorknob and entered the room. Behind an oak desk lay a chair, turned the other way, revealing only a steady puff of smoke rising up to the ceiling fan. A gold name plate on the desk read "Luke ‘Da’ Boss’ T."

Johnny squeamishly stepped closer and, with a timid voice, said, "Uh, Mr. T?" The chair violently swung in his direction, revealing a man with a scruffy beard and puffing on what was left of a cigar stub.

"You da’ new guy?" said the man in a flat, heavy Chicago accent. Before Johnny could respond, the man rose from his seat and began speaking again. "You must be here for the vendin’ job. It’s as simple as gravy," he continued as he shoved Johnny into a store room, "Get the stuff on da’ cart, and fill the thing up nice. Got it?" Johnny stared at him. He had no idea what he had just said, but he did not want to anger the man.

"What if I get hungry? Will I get dinner?" squealed Johnny.

"If you can’t figure that out," retorted Luke, "then you’re just plain slow, kid." Luke slammed the door and stomped away. Johnny was embarrassed at his rudeness, but he was jumped and robbed of his lunch on the walk there, leaving him ravenously hungry. He slipped a Reeses peanut butter cup into his pocket, and began to load the candy on the cart. As he worked furiously, he could hear rain and wind picking up outside, making him dread the walk home.

Two hours later, Johnny stepped outside with an envelope full of change. The sky was black with frequent lightning, but the rain had ceased. He remembered the candy in his pocket, removed the wrapper, and stuffed the peanut butter delight into his mouth. Just as he chewed it for the third time, he was overcome with an awful, acidic taste. The sensation burned his mouth; Johnny knew he had been poisoned. His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed. He began to shake in violent convulsions. He was in too much pain to yell. Through his blurred vision, he could see the sky above him glow, preparing for a lightning strike. He saw white, then blacked out.

He awoke in the same state, staring at a black sky. The moon, now visible through the rumbling atmosphere, illuminated the parking lot in an eerie light. He made a slow effort to regain his posture, but he hit a tree branch well above him and fell to the ground. Johnny peered at the obstruction from his fetal position on the pavement. The branch was at least twenty feet above the ground. Lost in confusion, Johnny stood and reached for the wall. He was sprung from his feet and slammed into the stone siding. Johnny made no effort to stand again.

"Is there something wrong with my legs?" Johnny questioned to himself. He rolled up his pant leg, revealing enormous calf muscles that pulsated with each heartbeat. He felt up and down from his waste to his ankle; all his leg muscles were tight and lean. He made a final effort to rise; this time it was slow and steady. He was on his feet, but when he took two steps, he was already near the farthest car in the lot, at least fifty feet from the vestibule.

He paced in small steps until he reached the heart of the city. It was midnight, and the town was crawling with thugs and drug dealers. Johnny kept his head to the ground, taking fast baby steps. He was knocked to the ground by a thick body.

"Got any thing to brighten my day, Suzy?" said a hooded thug holding a .44 to Johnny’s face. Three other men in sweatshirts crowded him. One raised his arm to strike him. Rather than flinching, Johnny ducked and dove behind the man. He turned and, to his surprise, saw the man with his arm still raised, only to swing at empty air. The fact hit Johnny like a leather belt.

"I have super speed," he whispered to himself. He gave a cackle to the gang, and hollered, "A bit slow today, eh?" The man turned to fire at him. Johnny turned, held his breath, and took off in a violent sprint. The world before him warped into a faint light. Before he heard the gun shot, he ran square into his garage door. He arrived at his house, which was at least a three-mile walk. "What a night," he stated as he walked, now voluntarily slower, into the house.

The following day, Johnny sat in his room, stunned with wonder. As he stared into the evening sky, he noticed that even his thoughts were faster. He picked up a marvel comic on his desk. On the cover was Quicksilver, his favorite hero. Johnny hated the corruption in his city, and, at that moment, vowed to end it. After his dinner, he headed out the door in search of some crime. After heading deeper into the downtown area, he climbed into a dumpster and waited. Sure enough, an innocent elderly woman came around the corner, daintily stepping, hiding in her white bonnet. Three men stormed her from an adjacent door.

One holding a baseball bat yelled, "Easy pickin’ boys." Johnny was fuming with rage. Just as one was about to strike her, Johnny exploded from the dumpster. The familiar light engulfed his vision. He rushed at the man and wound up for a bone-crushing punch. He unloaded his blow on the attacker and sent him through a brick wall. Johnny turned and elbowed another in the mouth, sending his teeth in all directions. The third man wound up to slap the lady, but Johnny pounced on him. He grabbed the man with a quick jerk and sprinted up the wall. He threw the man as far as he could, and slammed down on to the pavement. He could still here the man’s faint moan as he fell from the heavens.

"I’m Johnny," said he, "It was a pleasure saving your life Madame."

The old woman, slightly delusional from the intense action she had just witnessed, exclaimed, "Johnny Lightfoot, you are my hero!" She continued as she squeezed him with a feeble hug, "I’ll repay you someday!"

"No need, Mam. I don’t expect you to," Said Johnny proudly.

Johnny continued to foil muggings and spoil drug transactions through the whole city until he became the town hero. No one ever saw his face but the old woman, for he could travel at the speed of sound itself. The name the woman had dubbed him, Johnny Lightfoot, had become the name criminals feared.

It was a Friday morning, and the proud city of Chicago was as productive as ever. Traffic and pedestrians crowded the streets and roads. The sun danced of the brilliant skyscrapers in a blinding prism. The pride of the city, the Sears Tower stood taller than ever. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky or a puddle on the ground. It was then that the pavement began to rumble.

The town halted in confusion as the held their ears to the faint noise that was gradually growing. A crevice split the street on Fifth Avenue, and a set of titanium tentacles pierced the sunrise. Terror broke out through the city. Johnny Lightfoot’s name was echoed in desperation through every alley, until a sonic boom and a quick flash stimulated a short jubilee.

Johnny was running with all his might. In his vision, he could see the machine. It had eight legs attached to an orb with a tinted window. Johnny ran faster and faster, until his legs lifted off the ground. He could see the head of the machine coming fast, as he braced for a punch. The machine whirled and grabbed him by the torso; it squeezed with a merciless grip. The window opened, revealing an erratic bald man.

"Do you know who I am?" whined the man. Johnny only struggled. The man continued, "Clarence Lorenzo Atrius is the name. I was an excellent vending machine stocker until you replaced me!" It all made sense to Johnny. He was the man that had poisoned him. He would have died if it weren’t for the lightning strike! "Looks like I’m getting re-hired!" He threw Johnny into the ground. Johnny bounced into a pile of sharp metal and moaned in pain. The town was stunned. Their hero had been killed instantly. The machine marched toward the center of town, destroying entire buildings with single swipes.

All appeared hopeless until a feeble voice challenged the beast. "O say, can you see, by the bombs early light!" The same old woman was singing at the top of her lungs, waving a tattered flag above her. The city slowly joined her in a wonderful chorus of the anthem. Johnny, still barely conscious, caught a glimpse of the sight through the rubble. He realized what he was fighting for. Johnny crawled from the smoldering pile and yelled at the monster. The town exploded with praise.

"Mess ‘m up, Lightfoot! Give ‘em one for the Stars ‘n Bars!" screamed a bystander. "Knock this clown cold out! Put this fool on a stretcher!" hollered another. Johnny rushed at the machine with a greater speed than ever, and threw the most terrific punch. The machine fell, then stood again only to suffer from more repeated blows. Johnny was angrier than ever, as he hurled his fist at the bending metal. Johnny punched the window open, and gnarled to the man with a smirk, "You’re fired." With that, Johnny sent the machine into a brilliant explosion. Orange and yellow flames surged into the air, hurling chunks of the monster in all directions. Johnny escaped the explosion and landed near the old woman, still waving the tattered flag.

"Thank you," he said just before he took off into the sunrise, leaving the old woman beaming with delight.