I found him one night, just a teenager then and quite small for his age, shivering on the doorstep of my X-Mansion in Westchester County. Back then, students were calling me Dr. Charles and I was moonlighting as an adjunct professor at Columbia, a kind of wayward time in my life just before the War. The young man’s mind was a discordant mess of sentence fragments and character sketches. Even worse, his hands were covered in shards of glass. Blood was everywhere. I brought him inside to clean up and calm down. Under the light, I realized the blood was actually ink. This trembling lad before me said he had exploded five inkwells that night, just from the power of his narrative voice. Sometimes, as he would reveal the dark hearts of his characters, his writing desk would split asunder.
His name was John Cheever. Even with my psionic ability of mutant detection I was not yet able to tell that this young writer possessed the X-Gene, the DNA alteration needed for superhuman powers. Nor would I have guessed that Cheever would become one of the greatest American fiction writers of the twentieth century. Some called him the Chekhov of the Suburbs, but in my mind he will always be known as the mutant Prose, the only writer to graduate from Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
DEVELOPING A VOICE
IN THE CEREBRA CHAMBER
As a raw specimen, Cheever’s mind was knowing and incredible. It embarrasses me that I did not quickly recognize his mutant abilities. But I was quite young then too. Things were just getting off the ground. My pupils were not the X-Men you know today. One boy could turn his arms into rakes. The other, whom we called Tea, could heat liquids to the boiling point. Cheever was different. His powers were literary. I hooked Cheever’s mind up to Cerebra, a telepathic ability amplifier. I knew he was a mutant the minute he started operating the device. His body levitated and his fingers started twitching. Cerebra gave Cheever the ability to visualize thousands of the townspeople of Westchester County. He saw their homes, read their thoughts and translated their very souls into resplendent language. I brought in two Smith-Corona typewriters, placing one under each hand. That night, I came face-to-face with the power of the written word. It was like the Scarlet Witch’s power of reality warping, but far more emotional.
During that writing session he produced “The Enormous Radio,” inspired by the Cerebra Chamber, and “Goodbye, My Brother,” the latter of which he counted amongst his best stories. His apt yet tragic choices of imagery, scene and dialogue were so strong he destroyed fifty-six typewriters that night, every single one that I owned. He would obliterate many more, until I made two special ones out of adamantium. I stitched him a bespoke suit of ink-resistant blue with gold trim. Prose had emerged.
THE ACCIDENT IN THE BATHTUB
BY THE DANGER ROOM
Although I am one of Earth’s most powerful telepaths, I’m still confined to a wheelchair. Getting around the X-Mansion can be tough. On the day of Prose’s accident, I was watching the ‘55 New York Knickerbockers’ playoff game against the Celtics . . . in my mind. Basketball has always calmed me, which is why I eventually installed a court by the swimming pool. I must have dozed off because Dragonfly, a capable mutant who, as her name suggests, could summon dragonflies, woke me up saying that Prose hadn’t attended workshop. Telepathically, I scanned the grounds. Prose was facedown in the bathtub by the Danger Room on sub-level four. Knowing that it was impossible for students to access the lower levels (Prose must have figured out my password), I had been using the tub to make a special batch of my famous X-Gin. By the time we took the elevator and activated the hand, voice, and retinal scanners, Prose was dead.
I cradled him in my arms. I screamed “no” for a long time into the heavens. I took him into the medical labs and started reviving him using every power within me. His mind retained his writing talents, but my X-Gin and his X-Gene had fused together. This hybrid mutation changed his work. A deeper sense of dread suffused the pages. Unfortunately, it also turned him into an alcoholic. I never took a sip of X-Gin again.
BATTLE WITH BARTHELMISMO
Years later, during a routine writing session in New York City, Prose was attacked by his nemesis, Barthelmismo, frequently shortened to Mismo, alias Donald Barthelme. A postmodern experimentalist, Mismo had published work in the New Yorker during the same time as Prose, but thought the magazine wasn’t big enough for both voices. He struck Prose with fragmented verbal collages, flash fiction, and a surrealistic protuberance. Prose countered with verisimilitude, sharp descriptions, and his trademark suburban suffering. After the mutants had weakened each other, the painful revision process of the fight began. They sharpened sentences and started cutting each other. Unmarked pages lay everywhere. The mutants grew weak. Summoning up one last bit of energy, Prose faced his palms together a few inches apart. One could hear the build-up of narrative voice from miles away. It sounded like a locomotive whistle being played backwards. A three hundred and sixty eight page manuscript formed between his hands. It was entitled The Wapshot Chronicle. Prose fired it out and struck Mismo in the face. Mismo retreated, vowing to one day create a novel with that kind of force.
Prose returned to the X-Mansion a changed mutant. He had won a National Book Award for his fight against Mismo, but I could tell the X-Gin had taken an even stronger hold. Life was different at my school too. I had found the mutants I had been looking for, ones with real evil-mutant-busting powers: optic blasts, cyrokinesis, and flight. Prose called my new recruits comic book versions of mutants. Though I tried to persuade him otherwise, he felt like he didn’t fit in. He got a house nearby in Ossining, twenty minutes away from the X-Mansion, raised a non-mutant family, and continued to write. Every now and then he came back to visit Rake. Apparently, they were lovers.
The last time I saw him he was receiving a lifetime achievement award at Carnegie Hall, just before his death. He told the audience, “A page of good prose remains invincible.” He meant it in the most literal way possible.