The Night Paul Bunyan Died

Tom Nixon
Tom Nixon
May 16, 2016 · 14 min read

The night the man they called Paul Bunyan died, you wouldn’t believe what went down. The skies above Northern Quebec burst into blue flame and for just a moment, fire covered the sky from horizon to horizon. In Maine and New England, every maple tree opened up and sap poured out like water. In Michigan, the lights on the Mackinac Bridge went dark and the pebbles along the rocky beaches of St. Ignace began to dance and the waters of Lake Huron crashed into those of Lake Michigan. In Minnesota, the wolves began to howl in Ely and in Bemidji an electric blue lightning bolt came down out of the clear night sky and split the sequoia at the tip of Diamond Point Park- the only tree, it was said, that he had never been able to chop down-clean in two.

Those were the stories, anyway. We heard them later. As Mom had slipped further and further away from us, Dad had taken us out into the hallway one by one, hugged us, told us that he loved us and then, when that was done, he climbed into bed with Mom, Holding her tightly to him, not saying a word. She must have known he was there, because her breathing became less labored and she seemed, calmer almost- at peace. The rest of us just watched. We were all silent, exhaustion etched into our faces, eyes rimmed red with tears.

She left us just after midnight with one last, long breath that seemed to last forever and almost hang in the air and then she was gone. And then, just like that, Dad began to glow, a faint shade of electric blue, growing brighter and brighter until it was blinding, an unearthly blue glow filling the room with incandescent brightness. The University of Minnesota Medical Center shook and the lights flickered for a moment and went dark and then just like that they came back on. There was just Mom, laying in her bed, that secret, shy smile that she kept just for him on her face.

Adulting is hard. Harder still when you realize that without your parents, you are finally, irrevocably an adult. Standing on your own two feet, for good or for ill and our world, in those minutes and hours after they left us, was forever rocked slightly on it’s axis. Holidays, birthdays, those moments where you pick up your phone and almost call them to ask them for advice about something or just to say hello and see how they are and have to stop yourself and remember that no, you can’t do that anymore. Whatever the problem is, you’ve got to tackle it on your own.

Everyone goes through this. Everyone, It’s part of the cycle of life, however much it might suck. Time passes though. The surges of sadness become fewer and further between. Now and again, you find yourself smiling at a memory. Or you smell something cooking and flash back to your childhood, in a kitchen bathed in sunlight, watching your Mom sway slightly to that same music she always listened too when she baked.

Our family, however, was a little different. Our family had a secret.

Every city has a superhero these days- most of the big cities, anyway. There’s the bat, the fast one, the green one, the one from outer space. They stride across the world like the Titans of Greek mythology sprung to life and everyone knows who they are. But there are others. For every Michael Jordan, there’s a Dickey Simpkins or a Bill Wennington. They might all be members of the 1996 Chicago Bulls, but you’re going to hear a lot more about the first guy than you are the other two. Doesn’t mean that the other two weren’t successful or great basketball players. It just means that people get… overshadowed sometimes.

That was Dad in a nutshell, but you know what? He never once complained about it. We all figured it out though, gradually, as we grew up one by one. There’d be the late nights when Mom would seem tense and distracted. Or those blisteringly hot summer days when Dad would shuck off his t-shirt and just mow the lawn, flashing a kaleidoscope of scars across his back. We’d hear names spoken in quiet voices and then we’d be whispering to each other about what we thought Dad actually did.

One by one, we all figured it out. I think I had done a thorough internet search by the end of my sophomore year of high school and put the pieces together. Dad didn’t really have a code name, but the people of the Twin Cities eventually started calling him Paul Bunyan. He was faster than lightning, they’d say and would swing an axe made of fire. No, he was the one on fire. Blue fire. And he could fly. Or grow a hundred feet tall. The tales and the sightings grew more ridiculous the deeper you dug on the internet. In general, he belonged in the realm of conspiracy and tinfoil hats, but if you looked closer and read between the lines a different picture emerged.

There was that time he pulled a family of six out of a fifth story apartment in South Saint Paul. The building was fully engulfed.

Or that time he prevented a crane from collapsing in the Mill District Downtown. He just held it up for hours they said, until they finally got the equipment in there to stabilize it. Nobody died.

The list was endless. He saved a whole high school graduating class when their boat capsized on Lake Minnetonka. He broke the Polish Mob’s control over South St. Paul and apprehended the serial rapist that had been spreading terror and fear throughout the northwest Metro in a single night. On and on it went. Commendations from Governors, Mayors, Police Chiefs, it went on and on.

To other people, he was a hero. But every day, always and forever, to every single one of us, he was something much more important. He was just Dad.

If every picture tells a story, what if the story they tell is a lie? Dad’s study was full of pictures, each one seemingly more idyllic and perfect than the last. Family vacations from when we were young. Mom and Dad, dressed up to go to some event Mom was sponsoring, Mom radiant in her evening gown and Dad dashing as ever in his tuxedo. There was Ryan, posing with his first fish- which the way Dad used to tell it, had been well over two feet long, but in reality was little more than a minnow. Every picture on the wall, it seemed perfectly normal in every way possible. But it wasn’t, was it? I asked myself. He was different. He was a superhero. He ran with the people that shook the world to it’s foundation and spin the planet backward. So was every picture a lie? Or was it an illusion? I didn’t know.

The study was tucked away at the back of the second floor of the house. It was lined with bookshelves that bulged with dusty books, knick-knacks and more framed pictures than you thought could actually fit on the shelves. But Dad had found a way to make them all fit… I smiled to push back the flood of emotion that threatened to overwhelm me again. It had been three days since Mom died and Dad had… disappeared, I guess was the word, and my siblings and I still found ourselves crying at odd moments or wandering around the house, aimlessly, soaking in the memories, even as we struggled to try and figure out what to do with it all. The house needed to be sold. The furniture divided. The will read. And for the first time in years, we were all together and it was strange.

I couldn’t figure out why it was strange though. For all that Dad did in his spare time- and he had done a lot, our childhood had been normal in every possible definition of the word. We went to school, played sports, read books, graduated high school, went to college- pretty much like every other middle class American family you could think of. We were vanilla and boring. Lucas blew out his knee in college and became an account. I was a real estate agent. Ryan was just finishing up college and was trying to figure it all out.

But, we were never that close. I mean, we were and we weren’t all at the same time. We did holidays together as a family and occasionally we’d go see each other on vacations, but we weren’t friends exactly. I trusted both of my brothers, but if I had a problem, I wouldn’t call them. And they wouldn’t call me. It was strange.

So it was strange that we were all back in the old house. Lucas had the week off of work and his wife, Angela, had taken the kids home so we could, in her words, “have time together.” I made my downstairs to the kitchen, where I could smell the coffee already. Lucas and Ryan were already at the kitchen table, mugs in hand, talking about basketball or something. They looked up as I entered the kitchen.

“Morning, sis,” Lucas said.

“Who made the coffee?” I asked, walking over to the machine and opening the cupboard to grab a mug.

“I did,” Ryan said. “And don’t worry, I brought the good stuff with me.”

“Oh thank goodness,” I said, grabbing the put. “I was worrying we’d be stuck with the cheap crap Dad always drank.” Ryan and Lucas both chuckled at that. Dad hated what he called ‘boutique coffees’ and had never, as far as we knew, set foot in anything resembling a Starbucks or a Caribou. He would go to the local supermarket and buy the cheapest coffee he could possibly find. The brand he finally settled upon was called Rockwell’s Castle and produced some of the weakest swill you could imagine. But Dad had drunk a cup every morning for years until- I tensed as a small spasm of grief ran through me. I forced it back and it passed as I turned back to the table, mug in hand and sat down.

We sat in silence for a long moment, all of us lost in our thoughts, sipping on coffee before Lucas finally spoke. “So,” he said.

“So,” I sighed.

“We’ve got a meeting with Henry at 3 o’clock this afternoon to go over the will and the financials,” Lucas said.

“What about the house?” Ryan asked.

“We sell it,” Lucas said, bluntly. “Unless either of you two plan on moving in.”

Ryan shook his head. “Nope, I’m good.”

“Melissa?” Lucas asked.

I crinkled my nose for a moment and looked around the kitchen before shaking my head. “As much as a tiny part of me would like to try and buy this place and keep it in the family, you’re probably right.”

“Well, the good news is that the house can keep for a bit,” Lucas said. “Henry should be able to tell us more, but Mom and Dad were in good enough shape, financially that we don’t need the money to cover expenses.”

“Good,” I said.

“The hard part is going to be going through all this stuff,” Ryan looked downcast.

Lucas nodded. “Unfortunately,” he said. “That probably can’t wait.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Ryan replied.

“Don’t worry, Ryan,” I said. “It’ll go faster than you think. Once we get rid of the big stuff, like furniture, we just have to figure out the sentimental things. Or whatever they didn’t leave us in the will.”

Lucas nodded. “We’ll see what we can get done in a week. If we need to reconvene, we can figure that out later.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Ryan said.

“Any other items on the agenda?” I asked.

“Just one,” Lucas said. “Power Man and Captain Marvelous want to come by to pay their respects.”

“Wait,” Ryan said. “Power Man, like the Power Man? And Captain Marvelous?”

“Are they still married?” I asked Lucas.

“As far as I know,” Lucas replied. “And yes, Ryan,” he rolled his eyes. “The Power Man and Captain Marvelous. They used to work with Dad quite a bit back in the day.”

“How far back in the day?” Ryan asked.

“Pretty far back,” I said. “Before they moved to Coast City.”

“They want to drop by on Wednesday,” Lucas said. “If that’s okay with everyone.”

Ryan and I both nodded and there was a long pause before Ryan asked, “What were they like? You know, back in the day…”

Lucas shrugged. “They were superheroes. Power Man was super strong and Captain Marvelous could fly.”

“Power Man gave me a piece of steel girder he had twisted into a pretzel once,” I said. “I still have it in a box somewhere.”

“Did you see them you know, be heroes and stuff?”

“Well, Power Man liked to show off,” I said. “And Captain Marvelous could fly and wasn’t shy about it. Is that what you mean?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I mean Dad has this whole other life he had that none of us got to see. Striding around, glowing with blue fire, swinging his fire axe. I would have loved to see that.”

“Not like we saw that a bunch, Ryan,” I said.

“I’ve only seen that once,” Lucas said. He nodded at me. “You remember, don’t you Melissa?”

I nodded. “That was a strange afternoon.”

“Where was I?” Ryan asked.

“You weren’t born yet,” I said. Then, surprising myself, because I hadn’t told the story to anyone before- ever, I began to talk. It was the summer just after I turned sixteen and I was reading a book outside in the yard. “Do you remember that old willow tree that was in the backyard until that bad storm took it down?” Ryan and Lucas nodded. “Well,” I said, “there used to be a bench under there.”

“I don’t know what it was about this bench, but once the weather got warm, Mom would always put cushions on it so we had a comfortable place to sit and hang out and I don’t know what it was about those cushions, but they were just about perfect. Didn’t matter if you were sitting up, laying down, on your side on your stomach. Any position, you could be perfectly comfortable on that bench. This particular afternoon, I was reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter-”

“How do you know?” Ryan asked.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“How do you remember what book you were reading that day?” Ryan asked. “I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast two days ago, never mind my reading habits in high school”

I chuckled. “It was one of my favorite books- and still is and I’d always read it at least once a year in the summer, during the first week or so of summer vacation- but anyway! This particular afternoon, I was reading a book and other than the wind and the birds and warm summer sun, the only other sound in the backyard was Lucas and his damn basketball hitting the concrete as he tried to be the next Steph Curry.”

Everyone chuckled. “Well, I didn’t measure up to Curry,” Lucas said. “But I had some game.”

“So pretty much, it was just like every other afternoon in the summer,” I said, “Mom would shoo us outside. I would read, Lucas would shoot hoops for hours… it was,” I chuckled. “Looking back on it, those were really amazing days.”

Lucas nodded. “Yeah, I miss that sometimes. A lot.”

“But what happened?” Ryan asked.

“Well, we’re just doing our thing and then the wind began to pick up,” I said. “Now, it was pretty hot that day and very humid, which usually meant that there were going to be storms later in the afternoon or night to break the humidity- so when the wind began to pick up, I looked around and that’s when I saw the clouds.”

“These clouds though,” I shook my head. “These clouds you could tell right away that they were different. They were jet black and growing and swirling and moving way too fast. I stood up and stared at them, wondering what the hell was going on and even Lucas stopped bouncing his basketball long enough to take a look.”

“As they got closer, we started to see the lightning. It was red and blue and every different shade imaginable and the sound of it reverberated across the sky. Mom came running outside and yelled it us to get back inside and we did. Just in time too, because then it started to rain and hail and trees were exploding up and down the block.”

“We watched from the big front window,” Lucas said. “Every second of it- our noses pressed to the glass.”

“How did you know it was Dad?”

I fixed Ryan with a look. “Come on, Ry. Blue lightning? Red lightning? Exploding trees?”

“And Mom had that worried look on her face, too,” Lucas said.

“Exactly. That’s how I knew,” I said. “Anytime Dad was off doing something dangerous, she always stayed up to wait for him. Always pacing up and down in the kitchen trying to distract herself.”

“How long did the storm last?”

I shrugged. “Not that long, really. The thunder stopped, the clouds disappeared and then…” I trailed off, lost in the memory. There was a blinding blue flash and then, there he was, standing on the front lawn, wreathed in blue fire, shimmering with power. As a kid, you always want to think your parents know everything. They’re immortal. They’re your superheroes. I remember looking at him and it felt like a bolt lightning had run through me from top to bottom. It was one thing to be told that your Dad was a superhero, it was another thing to see it right in front of you.

I remember looking up at Mom’s face, but she didn’t see any of us. She was just looking at him, a gentle smile on her face, eyes full of love. I blinked as I realized that she had been wearing the very same smile as he held her hand as she breathed her last. This was the man she fell in love with. The man on fire. The man who could fly.

“Melissa,” she said. “Stay inside and watch your brother.”

“But Mom-”

“Just do it,” she said. “I’ll be back later.”

Then she opened the front door and walked down the steps and across the lawn to where he was standing. She reached out with one hand and touched his cheek, before he pulled her into a tight embrace and then, they kissed and-

“And then what?” Ryan asked. I shook myself out of the memory and back into the present. “Well then they flew away,” I finished.

“What happened after that?” Ryan asked. I laughed and I saw Lucas was smiling as well.

“Well,” I said, “about nine months or so later, you were born.”

It was much later. Ryan pulled into a parking space outside of his hotel and sat in the car for a long moment, weariness pouring off of him. It had been a long few days and despite the urgings of his siblings, he wanted to be alone. The hotel was on the edge of town, close to the interstate, away from everything and he had scored a nice deal from the internet that had landed him a small studio suite with a king bed.

With a deep sigh, he turned the car off, unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the car door, stepped out into the cold night air. The snow from the previous night was still fresh on the ground, but they had done a good job clearing the parking lot, so his woefully inappropriate footwear could survive the walk unscathed to the entrance. He glanced up, as he always did until he found the familiar figure of Orion hanging in the night sky. “Hello old friend,” he said to it as he crossed the parking lot.

Everything felt different now. The universe was slightly askew and Ryan had a depressing feeling that was going to be the way it was from now on. This was, he grimaced at the words, “the new normal.” He walked through the front entrance and strode through the lobby, heading for the elevators. A short elevator ride later and he was at the entrance to his room, the key surprising him by working on the first try.

He tried watching television, but couldn’t find anything he liked. He gave up, eventually, stripping down to his boxers, turning out the lights and climbing into bed. He didn’t sleep though. He arranged the pillows in the center of the bed before settling himself there, spreading his arms and legs as far as he could before relaxing back into the expanse of the mattress, staring at the ceiling. On impulse, he slipped his left hand out from under the covers and raised it above his face. He turned his hand over and looked at the scar that ran from the base of the knuckle of his pointer finger diagonally across the back of his hand to the outside joint of his wrist.

He then closed his hand and opened it again, before placing his thumb against the tips of the first two fingers of his left hand and, taking a deep breath, he snapped his fingers, and in the darkness of the room, Ryan saw a flash of electric blue and smiled.

Tom Nixon

Written by

Tom Nixon

Mild-mannered #911Dispatcher by day and a #writer, #blogger, drinker of #whiskey by night. (Husband and father of three 24/7/365)