Rick takes the money the Mayor of Corkscrew has wired him and flies to Florida, feeling his oats, full of hope. He’s met at the airport by one of Mayor Delameter’s staff and driven to his hotel, the old but clean and dry Swamp Hotel in downtown Corkscrew. The next morning he’s out at the edge of town where Main Street runs along the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and he’s surveying the marching battalions of Gecarcoidea natalis—little, red, forest-dwelling crabs about the size of your palm that are migrating, as they do each year—though not usually in such numbers—through the town, back to the swamp to breed . . . and taking their sweet time doing it. .
Hero, the Movie
Midpoint- Episode Break
Or How This Call Will Change Rick’s Life
Rick is looking a whole lot older now—thirty-three, not twenty-three—but he’s been through a lot recently. And he’s right: This phone call is going to be important, though not in the way he imagines.
Rick takes the money the Mayor of Corkscrew has wired him and flies to Florida, feeling his oats, full of hope. He’s met at the airport by one of Mayor Delameter’s staff and driven to his hotel, the old but clean and dry Swamp Hotel in downtown Corkscrew. The next morning he’s out at the edge of town where Main Street runs along the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and he’s surveying the marching battalions of Gecarcoidea natalis—little, red, forest-dwelling crabs about the size of your palm that are migrating, as they do each year—though not usually in such numbers—through the town, back to the swamp to breed . . . and taking their sweet time doing it. The Mayor and his staff are present. The local press is present. And so is a woman, early thirties, too, who doesn’t seem to fit this south Florida scene: She’s dressed somewhere between Banana Republic and L. L. Bean, attractive and confident but understated, and she stands off from the group with her arms crossed and an amusement on her face that he finds disturbing. No one bothers to introduce them, and Rick doesn’t ask who she is—though he can’t ignore her.
“Well, what do you think, Mr. Rowe?” the Mayor asks. “What can we do about this little problem of ours? We can’t touch their breeding grounds in the swamp. They’re protected.”
“What are their natural predators, Mayor?” Rick answers, giving it his best.
“They don’t seem to have any, Mr. Rowe. Not enough to matter.”
“That’s not possible,” Rick answers. “Every animal this size has—or once had or would have if you moved it somewhere else—a natural predator. That’s a basic scientific concept, Mayor.”
The Mayor, his staff, the press, and the other citizens present look at each other and shrug. No one looks at the woman in Birkenstocks.
“Coons,” someone says at last.
Rick freezes. “What?”
“Raccoons, Mr. Rowe,” the Mayor says.
“Yeah,” someone else says, “I’ve seen coons eat them. They’ll eat crayfish, frogs, even a hefty turtle if they can get into one.”
“There’s your solution, Mayor,” Rick says.
Everyone looks at everyone else again. They’re willing to believe. They just need encouragement.
“How much does a raccoon cost?” Rick asks.
“Hell,” someone says, “you can probably get the Seminoles over at Pahokee to round up two hundred or three hundred of ’em for five bucks a head. Take ’em a couple of weeks maybe. They don’t have anything else to do.”
“You’ll need more than that,” Rick says quickly. “And you’ll need them quicker.”
“My sister’s brother,” someone else offers, “works for Water and Power in Baton Rouge. I’ll bet we could get a thousand in less than a week from the Cajuns. Cheaper, too.”
The Mayor’s staff calculates and recalculates and at two thousand raccoons it’s going to cost the city somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000—transportation included—which is great. But suddenly someone is laughing and everyone turns. It’s the woman and she’s really enjoying it.
“Mr. Rowe,” the Mayor says, and he’s not happy, “this is Dr. Field. Dr. Susan Field.”
Susan Field, Rick learns, is an ecologist trained at the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts who’s lived in Corkscrew for five years. She’s laughing, he also learns, because the introduction of that many raccoons to the area would not only put a hundred native birds, by egg theft, on the endangered species list, but would destroy the tropical fish farms upon which twenty percent of the economy of Corkscrew County depends. “Remember how the ‘walking catfish’ hurt those farms in the early ’80s?” she says. The crabs may be an annoyance, she adds, but they don’t impact the local economy at all the way two thousand bandit-eyed predators would.
Rick is devastated.
All he can think to say is:
“What do these crabs want?”
“They seem, Mr. Rowe,” she tells him, while the Mayor and his staff glare with hostility, “to want to get back to their swamp and breed . . . and we happen to be in the way. They also like hanging out in town as they do it. . . .”
“Parasites?” Rick says, trying anything.
“Crab parasites don’t distinguish between arthropods,” she says. “We’d kill the crayfish and other crabs in the sanctuary. And you don’t kill crayfish in the South, Mr. Rowe.”
“Our good Mayor tried that once,” Susan Field answers, smiling at Delameter, “despite objections from a humble ecologist from New England, and the federal government hit us with a fine in the six-figure area. That’s not science, Mr. Rowe, but it is politics.”
“I’ll need,” Rick mumbles feebly, “to think about it. I’d like . . . to spend tomorrow looking at whatever reports . . . and other documents . . . you may have on the history of the problem, Mayor.”
“Good idea, Mr. Rowe,” Susan Field says, still amused and very unwilling to let him off the hook. Why did he ever think this would work?
He flees to his hotel room, sits on his bed, stares at the wall, and when night falls makes his way to a bar just outside of town, cap pulled down to hide his face.
Then these things happen:
Susan Field tracks him down at the bar. It’s a very small town, word travels, and he’s the only one with an L.A. Lakers cap. She even shows compassion. Rick isn’t yet drunk, but he’s certainly doing his best to drown his sorrows in Gator Piss Beer. She makes chat—telling him a little about herself, her graduate work in wetlands ecology, the politics of environmental issues in the South, safe things to talk about—and then she asks him about himself. He hides the truth; more accurately, he lies. He tells her about all of the heroic things he’s done since McCulloughville. It’s easy when you’re drunk. Polar bear infestation in Inuit villages and how he used inflatable seal decoys filled with laughing gas to subdue them. A Nessie-like plesiosaur (though smaller) in Vermont’s Lake Champlain, wreaking nocturnal havoc at two marinas, and how bagpipe music played on an old PA system helped him catch it. . . .
She’s not easily fooled. She sees a man who’s in agony, and, though we won’t know why until our story’s through, she invites him back to her house for the night. “I’ve got an extra room,” she says. Rick brightens. An attractive woman inviting him back to her house for the night? Maybe he’s still got that Hero magic. Maybe Janie was wrong. Maybe his science isn’t so off.
When they reach her house, an old Florida bungalow with endless verandahs, the bubble bursts and he discovers she’s got a ten-year-old son—Jacob—and it’s his room that Rick will share tonight. The room is a waking nightmare: It’s filled with insects. Insects mounted on pins, arranged neatly in drawers and glass cases, each with an information card. Insect mobiles hang from the ceiling. The wallpaper has insect designs. Large plastic models of insects sit on the dresser. Rick wants to scream. But the boy is entranced: This is Rick Rowe—the man who stopped the mutant Melanoplus in northern Nevada. The boy knows all of it, about Melanoplus, about Rick, and his eyes are wide with adoration. Rick should love this attention, but he doesn’t. He slips away to use the bathroom and as he does overhears Jacob whisper to his mother, “Don’t tell him, please, Mom.” She smiles. “I won’t. Not unless you want me to.”
Susan retires to her bedroom early (“I’m an early riser—you two have fun.”) as the wimpy, chunky, bespectacled Jacob bombards him with questions and takes him on a tour of every species in the room. The tour lasts late into the night.
Lying on the bottom bunk at last—Jacob’s heavy body asleep just above him—Rick, not surprisingly, has nightmares about insects.
Rick remains in Corkscrew. He remains in Susan Field’s house, in fact. She insists, and the intensity of her insistence is a little scary. But he has no place else to go and there’s something real, something human in this little world with its bug-collecting ten-year-old, this female Ph.D. who teases Rick mercilessly but somehow affectionately, this town with its crab problem that seems not to be much of a problem after all. It feels, strangely, like home.
He gets a job as a driver for a local water-bottle company and he learns who this woman really is. How Susan Field, still a graduate student at Woods Hole, came to study the ecosystem of the Corkscrew Swamp, wore her bug-proofed Birkenstocks and Baffin swamp boots dutifully, and on her very first day in town met Joshua Covington—liberal politician born somewhere in Florida (so he said), relocated here just before she arrived, ten years her senior, divorced, one son. How (though she’d never imagined herself a stepmother) she’d stayed, married him, and they’d spent half their honeymoon talking about ways to save the swamp. How Joshua Covington died in an auto accident three years later, how she was the only one Jacob had left, and how soon after, the chubby boy, who obviously loved her, took up bug-collecting.
As she tells him these things, she won’t look at Rick and he doesn’t know why. Her eyes shift away as if she doesn’t want him looking at them. He hears something in her voice, too, that makes him think she might be lying. But about what? Her life is obviously what she says it is, and she seems honest. What would she lie about?
As he works beside her in her home office, Rick learns what the new millennium is really about—not the stopping of alien blobs with fire extinguishers or giant locusts with food pheromones, but politics. He learns that the Mayor, going on his fifth term of office and always reelection-conscious—wants the little red suckers with pinchers stopped because the more powerful among his doddering constituents are annoyed by them. They’re not a physical threat to the citizens or an economic burden on the county. They’re a natural phenomenon and after each yearly migration their little red exoskeletons lie fading in the sun, crushed by car tires, toyed with by curious pets, even turned into godawful tourist souvenirs by local craftsmen. But they’re an embarrassment to the businessmen of the town, the ones who live in the big colonial homes; and because they are, the Mayor wants them stopped. And, Susan explains, Mayor Delameter is not going to listen to a Northerner—some female Yankee doctor of “bah-ah-logee” from Massachusetts, widow of a “leftist reformer”—about how to do that. The situation is hopeless, she says.
Rick turns moody, homesick for something he can’t even articulate, and Susan takes him to a ’50s sci-fi horror film series at the local Corkscrew theater—a theater straight from The Blob. She makes fun of the movies: Their portrayal of women. The buffer-than-life heroism. The black-and-white values. The cardboard people. He begins to see these things in a new light. These aren’t movies about real people. They’re about cartoon characters who never lived and never could live in a real world.
She teases him about his tattoo, too, but behind the teasing there’s that affection, and so he listens.
Jacob gets sick a lot—the “flu,” she tells him, and Rick doesn’t think much about it. The boy doesn’t get much exercise, is chubby, so it isn’t surprising. He’s just not in shape. He likes the kid, sure, but there are limits—and when the boy has the flu it gives Rick a legitimate excuse to bow out, to have time to himself. After all, when he isn’t sick, the boy follows him everywhere, pumping him for information. One day he gifts Rick his one and only plastic replica of the “McCulloughville Mutants.” “I didn’t even know they made them,” Rick confesses. “Sure,” Jacob says. “They had a computer game, too. McCulloughville! Every time you killed a mutant you got to street-race this old car. I had a copy but I loaned it to a guy at school and he moved. It wasn’t very good. The locusts looked like chickens.”
Rick watches the Mayor’s commandos attempt to address The Crab Problem—flamethrowers, traps, poison. The burning crabs stink to high heaven and the live ones simply carry the traps off in a tidal wave of red bodies. It’s pathetic, Rick sees. Like a parody of those ’50s creature-features, in fact.
When Susan’s cat, DNA, crawls into the shower stall to die and Susan cries—saying, “They’re using the poison again.”—it loses all humor.
One night Rick stands in the darkness of the porch and watches the crabs marching through the creek near the house. They’re marching because they must, he realizes. They’re full of courage and sheer will, he sees. Does he have this kind of courage and will? he wonders.
He takes Jacob—just the boy this time—to a ’50s flick at last and finds himself poking fun at the Hero and The Girlfriend and The Professor and the State Police and how easy it all is. “If life weren’t worth living, it wouldn’t be so hard,” he hears himself saying, amazed. As he sits there in the theater with Jacob Covington, we know he’s discovering what it means to care about someone—someone who needs you and doesn’t have the power you do. It feels good. It even makes him feel—in a calm, quiet way—like a hero. The boy loves him. The boy falls asleep—that big goofy moon face with glasses—on his arm during their third movie in a row and Rick doesn’t wake him, even when Rick’s arm falls asleep.
When the lights come on, Rick sees a rash on Jacob’s arms, one he hasn’t seen before. He’ll mention it to Susan when they get home. But as they leave the theater and he looks at Jacob’s arms again, the rash is gone. Was it just the lighting in the theater?
As they walk down Main Street, checking out the shops, they stop to buy T-shirts. Rick buys the boy one with a bug on it—a big bright beetle. It feels good to do it. Jacob buys him a T-shirt with a bug on it, too—a giant millipede—and Rick must wear it. They wear their shirts together as they walk down the street. Though it’s embarrassing at first, it grows on him. At least it’s not McCulloughville Mutants.
One night he finds a photograph of Joshua Covington and studies it, looks in at Jacob sleeping in his bed, and sighs. Fathers. Sons.
Rick could have moved out of Jacob’s room by now—onto the porch that Susan has recently had enclosed—but he doesn’t.
The next day he sees the rash on Jacob’s arms again and mentions it to Susan.
“It’s all right,” she says. “It comes and goes. It’s not contagious.” And we cut to:
Rick destroying his news footage tapes—the tapes of his old glory. He’s got a smile on his face. Acceptance at last. Some peace.
And then it happens:
They’re all watching television in the living room—fireplace, everything—in Susan’s house. It’s been a busy day on the water-bottle route and another two hours—Susan and Rick together—at the office of the “Save the Swamp” club, which Susan helped found. A news bulletin interrupts the regular broadcast: “They’re coming out of the sea at Galveston!” the announcer shouts.
The aliens, of course. Looking like aquatic triceratops with rubber horns, they’re swarming from the Gulf of Mexico and bringing the wrecks of old boats and airplanes, the detritus of the Bermuda Triangle, with them. And they’re mad as hell. Global warming and the gulf currents have cracked their stealthy underwater domes and they’re pissed, ready to tangle. Shots of fleeing Galvestonites. Shots of dripping creatures the size and color of M1 tanks. And it’s all real.
Rick listens—and to his horror feels elation. It’s happening again, a voice says. A chance for that old glory. He resists. Hasn’t he learned anything at all from the past few months—from Susan, Jacob, and her world? He’s one man, one human being—a mortal one at that—and there’s a world for him here in Corkscrew. A home. A family.
Vanity rears its head like a cobra, but he resists.
“Great,” he says at last, grinning. “The aliens are ruining the beaches in Texas. So what?” Susan and Jacob laugh, but it’s a nervous laugh and Rick doesn’t know why.
He notices Susan’s elbow. The light’s dim but he could swear the elbow has the same red rash. Is he imagining things? Is this some mental trick—some odd residue of his PTSD?
“You don’t have that rash, too, do you?” he says to her before they turn the lights out.
“No,” she says quickly, and she’s right. When he looks at her elbow, the rash is gone.
The next day the first fax arrives on Susan’s home machine: Mr. Rowe, we need you. Signed: The Mayor of Galveston.
And another the next day—from the Office of Emergency Services in Texas: You’re needed! And cell messages, real ones: One from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One from the Miami Herald: “Word is that you’ve been approached about the Galveston crisis. What are your plans, Mr. Rowe?”
Cell in hand, Rick folds.
He stands before Susan. “They need me,” he says. “They really do. I’ve got to go.” His heart is beating like a railroad track. It’s McCulloughville all over again and he’s got to live his story. He’s got to. Certainly she’ll understand. “A man’s got to do what he’s got to do,” he says. Someone once said that. Someone in a movie, he’s sure.
“It’s not real,” she says.
“Of course it’s real, Susan. It wouldn’t be on the news if it wasn’t real—”
“I don’t mean it like that.”
“Then how do you mean it?”
When she doesn’t answer, he says: “I was hoping you’d understand.” He’s angry. If she really cared for him, she’d understand, wouldn’t she?
“Maybe we need you,” she says quietly.
“Come with me—both of you,” he says—brightening.
“We can’t, Rick. It’s not our story.” She turns away. Jacob has the flu again and she’s got to take his temperature every hour on the hour. Doctor’s orders.
Finally, he says: “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry.” She’s looking away, as always, but making it easy for him. “I’ll explain to Jacob what’s happened. He’ll understand. You’ll still be his hero.”
Rick takes the old Ford pickup that’s been languishing in Susan’s garage for years and speeds toward Galveston. You’d think he’d be on a freeway at least, but he’s not—it’s a highway like Route 66 and the billboards have the old brand names and slogans again—SEE THE USA IN YOUR CHEVROLET and NO CLOSER CALL . . . THAN BURMA SHAVE—and the few cars that pass him in the night are just as old as his. The broken line down the center of the road mesmerizes him and his life flashes before his eyes. We see what he sees: McCulloughville, his parents, Buddy Blaylock and his car, Susan, Jacob, Chi Chi Escalante. We see all of the versions of Rick Rowe we’ve seen over the past few months. Something’s happening to Rick as he drives. We’re not sure what, but it’s important.
Finally he sees himself as a locust—alien, wide-eyed, exoskeleton shimmering blue and green . . . and somehow it’s all right.
He stops the car, pulls a U, and drives back. When he arrives at the house, the doctor is there. Rick looks at the boy, the doctor, Susan, and knows suddenly that it hasn’t been the “flu” all these months.
“How long has he had this?” he asks her.
“Since we arrived.”
He doesn’t know what she means. Arrived?
“What is it—what does he have?” Ricks asks.
“A muscle weakness. A problem with the muscle sheaths. . . . I don’t know the scientific name. I’m not sure there even is one, Rick. Dr. Patterson has never seen anything like it.”
“Shouldn’t he be at a hospital—with specialists?”
“That’s not possible.”
“You mean money?”
She ignores him, looking at Jacob and the doctor instead, and all Rick can think to say is, “Will it get worse?”
She smiles a little, looking at him for a moment, and he realizes he loves that smile. It’s a little off, a little higher on one side, and her teeth are awfully small, but he loves it. “Maybe . . . maybe not.” She says it with resignation and he remembers that she always says that: Maybe, maybe not. No assurances. No billboard-large promises.
“He idolizes you,” she says quietly.
“He doesn’t really know me.”
“He knows what he needs to know,” she says.
There’s an awkward silence between them as the doctor finishes his checkup on the sleeping boy. Rick notices the doctor’s hands. They’ve got the same red streaky rash on them that Jacob’s arms had in the theater, that Susan’s elbow had. He stares. The rash remains. It’s real, he sees. Very real. He starts to say something about it, but the doctor looks up at him and there’s something odd about his eyes—the doctor won’t look at him either—so Rick says instead:
“There’ll be other aliens, other monsters, right?”
“Of course,” she answers. “There always are. . . .”
She’s seen Rick’s look and knows it’s time. It’s time to tell him. She holds out her hands, and there it is, the rash—but as he looks the red turns blue and green, shining like a rain-forest butterfly wing, and it’s her skin, he realizes, not a rash. And when he looks up at her face, her eyes aren’t what he remembered at all. They’re an incredible blue—like space between the stars—and they don’t have pupils, and her teeth look a little more pointed than he remembered them. It’s real, he knows.
Sometimes what you want, she’s saying, though her mouth isn’t moving, isn’t very far away.
He touches her hands and they’re thinner than he remembers, and maybe there’s an extra finger.
It’s the atmosphere of your planet, she says, that’s making him sick. But he wants to be here. I’m all he’s got. We’re all we’ve got.
We need you, Rick, she’s saying. We knew you were the one when we saw you on television that day. So brave. We knew you wouldn’t be afraid—that you of all people would be willing to help. . . .
He’s staring at her, unable to speak. Even if he could, what would he say?
I was the one, she adds, who got the Mayor to call you. He’s not one of us. There are only five. Jacob’s dad was the sixth. We had to get you here. I’m sorry.
He’s holding her hands now and, though her skin should bother him, it doesn’t. She’s still the woman he knows, even if she’s something else. He nods. She steps toward him, puts her arms around him, her pupilless eyes only a few inches from his, and hugs him, really hugs him. It feels good. He knows what they must be feeling—Susan, Jacob, the doctor, and the others—alone here, not knowing what’s going to happen to them, bodies not really all that different from his. After all, we come from the same galactic seed, don’t we? a voice says—the one that always talks like this.
“I’m glad you didn’t go,” she says in his ear, this time with words, and he’s hugging her back now—a real, honest-to-goodness hug between two beings who’ve become good friends and who may yet, God and anatomy willing, become lovers.
As they hug, we see a tattoo on her forearm—a very patriotic eagle clutching arrows—something that wasn’t there a few days ago, something she’s put there for him, and this tells us that whatever else she might be feeling, whatever else she might be, she loves him—and isn’t that what really matters in a universe or a movie like this one?
We fade to blue sky.
Or a newborn baby.
Or whatever else feels right.