– David Schuman –
It wasn’t easy growing up as the son of superpower. I never knew which of my friends might be a spy, a fact that was made clear to me in eighth grade when a kid I’d known as Perry Wimble for my entire life dislocated his shoulder falling from the crook of the oak in my backyard and began swearing in perfect Russian. My father took him into the basement and forced him to admit his real name was Dmitri Petraskova before taking hold of his arm and forcing it back into place with a wet pop. He then brought the weeping Perry-Dimitri upstairs and forced him to eat two portions of my mother’s meatloaf before sending him home clutching his stomach. My mother’s meatloaf was the kind that had a hard-boiled egg baked into the center, staring up at you from the plate like a jaundiced eye. A little ketchup and it looked like a horror movie.
Things being what they were back in the nineties—peace, prosperity, walls being torn down, etc.—I thought my father was out of the game, but now they’re reporting he’s at it again. He’s released photos of an attack jet he’s been working on for years in secret. The photos are too dark—he’s never known how to work the digital camera my stepmother got him—but the worlds’ military elite is abuzz. Four articles in Jane’s Defence Weekly alone. And now I know why he was so insistent, in ’97, that I get all my college stuff out of the basement. He needed the space. I don’t know how he works down there, with nothing but a buzzing florescent and the deep freeze always breaking down and reeking of the trout his neighbor, Gary Bezemek, forces on him. My father doesn’t eat fish but he can’t say no to Gary, who lost his wife to the “The Big C,” pancreatic, same as my mom.
The State Department’s decided to take a real hard line, releasing the following statement: While the US doubts the integrity of the recent photos released by Mr. Dovecoat, that is whether the thing can actually get airborne, let alone attack anything, we condemn the action as inflammatory and intended to disrupt peace in the region. We demand that Mr. Dovecoat cease and desist, lest we answer his actions with our own. Furthermore, his rhododendrons are getting out of hand (again), making it difficult for reasonable citizens to utilize the sidewalk in front of his residence.
My father, cryptic to his core, released this statement to the press: “Private property.” Italics his.
“He’s headed for the banana peel for sure this time,” says my wife, spreading the Times across her pretty thighs. I haven’t seen her legs in months, and now here they are like old friends. Friends you want to tie to the bed and ravish. The green shoots of spring are here after a long winter and another miscarriage. Her third; right after New Year’s. Dr. Meckler called it “habitual,” which I took issue with, as if Jen was a smoker or, what, a hophead. “Just medical terminology,” Meckler said. As my father would say; my foot.
“Hey Mister,” Jen says. “Earth to hus-boid? This is serious. Like, Cuban Missile Crisis serious.”
She pokes the picture of him staring up at her from the Times, an old photo from more glorious days. He had a way of grinning then, of setting his brow, like he’d been carved from solid marble.
“Maybe you should go talk to him,” she says.
The last time I visited, for Thanksgiving, Dad told me that my stepmother, now living in Boca Raton, was one fake eyelash short of being a streetwalker, that the Chinese were “inciting” him with their recent muscling into his no-fly zone, and that if I was any kind of man I’d have given him a grandson by now.
I’d stalked out of that popsicle-shack like nobody’s business, leaving two Swanson’s turkey dinners steaming on the kitchen table. He stomped after me. He had a rocket launcher pointed at my back. After growing up with the man, I could feel it. But, ever the cold warrior, his trigger finger did nothing but twitch.
“He can fight his own battles,” I tell her. I scoop her out of her chair, Times and all, and carry her to the bedroom. Before the fun starts she digs in her nightstand drawer and hands me a Trojan. She’s done with all that, she’s told me, even though Meckler’s said we can keep trying all we want, that she’ll set Jen up with a specialist. But Jen says three heartbreaks is a quorum. She says a fourth would be simply uncalled for.
John Thomas doesn’t seem to want to argue the point. He’s quivering to get into the action. Me, I don’t look at her as I roll the rubber down.
After it’s over we lay in bed. Jen strums the hair on my chest. In this state, all love-nuzzly, it takes her about two seconds to convince me that paying the old man a visit might be a good idea after all.
“In the intelligence community I think they call this a honey-trap,” I say.
“Do they?” she says, tracing her index finger down my stomach and dipping it into my bellybutton, which is a little deeper than I’d like it to be. She takes her finger out and touches the tip of it to her tongue. Her body, pressed next to mine, is as soft as custard. “Honey trap, huh?” she says. “Talk about your post calling your coital black.”
And you’re telling me, universe, that this woman should not be allowed a child?
The last one was the hardest because Jen held on to it as long as she did. Really it was just eleven weeks, but that was longer than before. Long enough for us to start looking at catalogs, marking the nursery stuff we liked with Post-Its. Long enough for us to start calling it Doll. Not a name—we’d become too superstitious for that—but a placeholder for the possibility.
She’d been spotting for days.
“As long as it’s brown, Meckler says it’s probably okay,” I kept telling her.
And it was brown, just a blush on the toilet paper when she wiped herself. We’d smile at each other and go back to watching television or eating breakfast.
Until one morning it wasn’t brown, it was red. And then she doubled over at the breakfast table with a rapid succession of stabbing pains. Like a prison-yard shiv-ing, she grunted. By the time I got Meckler’s service on the phone it was over. I found Jen on the toilet, her underwear strung between her ankles like a little kid, crying into her hands.
Jen dipped her hand into the toilet and scooped up what was floating there. The tenderness with which she did this put God himself to shame, I am certain of it.
She put it inside a plastic sandwich bag. I wouldn’t look at it, but my fingertips stumbled over it through the bag. It felt like an al dente lima bean. I put the bag inside a business envelope and wrote my last name on it with a Sharpie. I thought better of this and wrote both of our first names above it. I delivered it to Meckler, who later that week declared it completely normal. Fucking Meckler, she’s like Joseph Mengele with her goddamned declarations.
Twenty-three Frog Hollow Road looks the same as it ever did. The lawn is studded with dandelions. But soon as I cross the border, stepping onto the first flagstone leading up to the porch, I get that old weird feeling knowing there’s a floating eyeball, probably a KH-11, trained on my every move from 300 miles up. And some spook in Virginia with red eyes, ring-around-the-collar, and a cold cup of coffee watching me on his monitor and plucking the handset off his phone.
The doorbell plays a few bars of some joyous Bach piece. My mother installed the thing a year or so before she died. My father griped about it nonstop—he’d wanted something Wagnerian, of course—but he never took it down. I have this feeling, and he’d sooner die than admit this, that sometimes he rings it himself just to listen to it play my mother’s song.
I wait for the old man’s shadow to appear behind the peephole. He’ll see it’s me, but we’ll still go through the whole security clearance rigmarole, him barking questions from behind the door, me muttering the answers I memorized along with the multiplication tables all those years ago. But he doesn’t come to the door.
I make my way around the house to the backyard. He’s on his back in the grass, the soles of his boots sticking up like headstones.
“Daddy?” I say. I haven’t uttered that word since I was a child, but it flutters out of my heart and up my throat like a chimney swift.
“Junior?” My father says this to the sky. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” I say.
“Good. Established,” he says. “Now how about helping me to my feet?”
I pull him up and he wipes off the back of his khaki pants.
“Moles,” he says.
“Infiltrators?” I whisper. “The Israelis again?”
“No, actual moles. The backyard’s caving in with their damn tunnels. I stepped into one up to my knee and fell the frig over.”
My stepmother’s only victory, other than finally leaving him for a man who owned a sock manufacturing concern in Florida, was getting him to stop saying fuck.
“Can you call an exterminator?”
He gives me one of his long, incredulous looks.
“Are you kidding me? They’d have a field day with that.”
In no other household did the word they connote quite as much. Stunted my growth, it did.
Inside I make us some hot coffee. The old man doesn’t look right. He’s got his hair in the old high and tight, but he’s missed a few patches above the rim of his ears, and the fade is fail-inspection choppy. My mother, and then my stepmother, before she left, used to cut his hair and keep the blades on his trimmer sharp.
What’s more, there’s a growth drooping off his eyelid that probably needs looking at. And his uniform is draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs like a cast-off spirit, the bullion fringe of the once bright yellow epaulets the color of old newspaper.
“This life is getting to you,” I say.
“The language of surrender,” he says, blowing steam off his mug. “I’d expect nothing less from my son.”
“What do you think you’re going to do?” I say. “Take them on? All of them? The world?”
He massages his temples with his index fingers.
“I can get my hands on some weapons-grade uranium,” he says.
“Never happen,” I say. “I don’t think you understand the new order of things.”
He stands up suddenly, toppling his chair, throwing his shoulders back, assuming the uniform. This is the man I recognize from the state speeches and military parades of my childhood, though he’s in a Hanes Beefy T and a pair of Dockers I sent him two Christmases ago.
“What is it you want, Junior?” he says, jabbing the air in front of me with a rigid index finger. “You have your normal life in Denver with knit sweaters from the shopping mall and bicycles built for two and omelets or whatever it is you fancy so much. I gave you a choice and you took that life. So don’t come pussy-footing around here pretending you give two frigs.”
A choice. After everything, is that how he sees it?
I’m standing now, too, my hands in tight fists. There are things it’s time to say.
But then I think of Jen, and the last thing she said before I left for the airport at four-thirty this morning. She’d gotten up with me, roused herself from a sleep as sweet as ambrosia, to make sure I breakfasted. “You can bring him back from the brink,” she said, scraping a burnt edge off my toast with a butter knife. “Secretly it’s what he really wants.”
She doesn’t know anything about it, really—a discrepancy in her application for security clearance has held it up for years, so she’s never physically met the man, only knows what she reads in the papers—but by tonight I’ll be back in Colorado with her, so what’s the use of engagement? I sit back down and the vinyl cushion sighs beneath my butt.
He nods, peers at me down his craggy nose, chin jutting like a warhead, as if backing down is what he expected I’d do. Fuck him. He doesn’t know the half, either.
I spend the rest of the afternoon engaged in de-escalation tactics, puttering around the house. We stick pinwheels all over the lawn to scare off the moles.
“Apparently they hate the vibrations when these things spin,” my dad says.
When we finish I get us each a beer from the fridge. We stand at the edge of the back porch and survey what lays before us. The pinwheels he’d purchased at the dollar store are for a girl’s birthday party, bright pink and sparkly, the only ones they had. But with all of them lined up in orderly rows, spinning and twinkling as they catch the sun, they achieve something in the neighborhood of splendor.
* * *
At the airport it seems like I see him before he sees me, but this is just one of Agent Mather’s many tricks. Once I’ve seen him, the game is entirely his. He comes across the terminal at me straight as an arrow, other passengers swerving and dodging out of his path. Mather waves like we’re long-lost somethings, but the man’s never lost anything in his life.
He grips my forearm the same way he’s done since I was a boy, digging his thumb into the crook of my elbow.
“Thanksgiving was a disappointment,” he says by way of a greeting.
“Yes,” I say. “To me as well.”
“Don’t get cute,” he says. “I am speaking of the fact that, last November, because you left your father’s borders in advance of the established timeline, you were unable to deliver what you were expected to deliver.”
Mather speaks through a smile so that anyone watching us will think we’re relating in a warm and comfortable way.
“Now,” he says, “You will come with me and we will have a conversation.”
Mather leads me through a doorway and down into the corridors below the airport, then, after passing his card in front of a scanner, down another flight of stairs into the corridors below the corridors.
I’m in a position to know that all airports have such sub-corridors, lined with doors that open to rooms where things are happening involving shadowy men and women, trained in various arts, all while the citizenry traipses above on their way to conferences in Cleveland, Boise, Disney Worlds and Lands. I have an inkling, just an inkling, that there may be sub-sub-corridors.
Mather leads me into a standard interrogation room—lightweight plastic chairs, stainless steel table screwed into the ground, florescent bulb inside a cage hung from the ceiling. This room’s a little less intimidating for the crumpled Panera Bread Company bag somebody’s left on the table along with a scattering of crumbs and a strand of blackening lettuce.
“I tell them not to eat their lunches in here,” Mather grumbles, and because he’s taken me into his confidence I begin to relax.
“Not like it used to be, huh?” I say.
“Different world,” he says.
I sit down. He’s never sat in all these years. I don’t know if his legs even bend.
Mather looks exactly the same as he did when he first approached me when I was a child on the teeter-totter in Frog Hollow Park. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that his physiognomy is incapable of change; that he’s somehow trained himself to resemble, down to the part in his hair, the kind of man who a witness could only describe with a series of questions. Maybe average height? Average weight? I’d say maybe forty-five to sixty-five? Gray eyes? Sort of sandy hair?
He un-crumples the Panera bag and smoothes it out under his palms, then brushes the crumbs off the table. The piece of lettuce rolls into a little booger. Mather wipes the heel of his hand disgustedly on his pants.
“We’re taking him down,” Mather says. “Thought you should know.”
I am flooded—with what, exactly? It is a moment to be flooded, to be sure, but I can’t identify these rising waters.
“Why now?” I stammer. “He’s obsolete. I’ll show you.”
I unclip the buckle from my belt. It’s a tiny camera. I’d taken some pictures in the basement while my father was taking a nap.
Mather waves it away.
“Viewing is unnecessary,” he says.
“But it’s cardboard!” I tell him. “The jet. A lot of cardboard and silver spray paint!”
“It’s irrelevant,” he says. “Maybe if we’d known back in November, but now things are in motion which are not reversible. If it’s any consolation, we did know, pretty much, that the jet was a smoke and mirrors job. One of our agents noted that your father never threw away the box from after taking delivery on that fifty-inch flat screen. In any case, we knew his glory days were over, that’s been obvious since the failed invasion attempt back in eighty-seven.”
“You could just—” I say, searching for something to say next. “—stop paying attention.”
Mather shakes his head, somewhat sadly I believe, as if he had also searched for another solution, so that the long, stately dance he and my father have danced could go on.
“That’s just not a possibility at this point,” he says. “He’s been buzzing in our ears for too long. Buzz. Buzz. He knew that sooner or later the United States of America would slap. The international community is with us on this.”
It’s at this point that I recognize my surprise—it isn’t that all of this is coming to an end, it’s that the ending took so long.
“How will you do it?” I ask.
“We’re putting a team together,” he says.
I stand. I’ve never asked Mather for anything. I always gave him what he wanted because it was mine to give. It was mine. To ask for anything in return would have been complicit and, in spite of everything, I couldn’t do that to the man who gave me his name. But now it’s moved beyond that, so I ask.
“Can you make it quick?” I ask. “Painless?”
Two things, I might note, that my own life with my father was not.
Mather raises an eyebrow.
“Do I have to say it?” I say.
“I think you misunderstand,” he says. “We’re not going to do that. We are simply going to remove and contain him. We’ve found a nice room in the Honeycomb Hills Retirement Community outside of Tulsa. They have a wing for the memory-impaired into which we believe he will fit quite nicely. This particular room receives a lot of sunlight.”
I think of this afternoon in the yard, the sun slanting over Gary Bezemek’s roof, my father arms akimbo, eyes taking in what was his under the shadow of a brow as straight as a horizon.
“A wing for the memory impaired,” I say. “That means a lot of locked doors, right?”
Mather’s face settles back into its cruelly placid mien.
“A man can be comfortable behind a door locked or otherwise if he chooses not to dwell on it,” he says.
“This will kill him worse than a bullet,” I say. “It’ll kill him until the last day of his life.”
Mather touches his pants pocket. I know that inside it his phone is buzzing and that he has decided, as part of the dance, not to ignore it.
“The chef at Honeycomb Hills was a dishwasher at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia,” he says. “I expect he picked up a few tricks there to delight the taste buds.”
He takes his phone out of the pocket and brings it to his ear.
“I expect you can show yourself upstairs?” he says.
I’m halfway down the hall, already forgetting what Mather looks like, when he leans out the door.
“One more thing,” he says. This is another one of his tricks. He saves what he really wants from you until you are halfway gone, when you’re practically tasting fresh air. “If you could tell me when your father takes his afternoon nap, it could save us an episode.”
I don’t turn around. I keep walking.
“Three thirty” I say to the air in front of me. “One hour long. You could set your watch by it.”
I say all of the above in a tone that is just above a whisper, but there’s no doubt Mather’s heard every word. I want to feel bad—I could have kept this one betrayal to myself and they would have gone ahead anyway. But I’m thinking about that morning in November with Jen in the bathroom, and about the tiny thing that could have been ours floating in a trembling pool of toilet water in her palm. What had my father been doing at that very moment? Tracing his finger covetously over a map, maybe, or penning a rambling list of demands for the U.N.?
I push open the door at the end of the hall and make my way up the stairs.
I get back late that night, having missed my flight. Normally I’d make sure Mather got a receipt for the fee, but I’m happy to eat it if I never have to deal with him again. Jen’s already asleep, barely stirring underneath the covers. There is a current running through me, something light as the static on a pile of freshly dried laundry. I nestle in next to her, though I don’t believe I will sleep.
I surprise myself. I close my eyes and I’m gone.
In the morning I wake first and make breakfast. We have a waffle iron, and even a decent batter mix from Williams Sonoma, but Jen loves Eggos, so that’s what I make. I soak them in so much syrup they’re translucent, amber gems.
“How was he?” Jen asks, swaying into the kitchen on sleepy morning legs.
She’s wearing her favorite pajamas, an old Minor Threat T-shirt and a pair of mismatched striped sweat socks for her always frozen feet. For the record, I want these articles lain over my face prior to burial.
“He’s fine,” I say. “We worked on the yard. He’s got moles.”
“Like, skin cancer?” she says through a grimace of concern.
“No, the animals,” I say. “In his yard.”
“Oh,” she says. “And the jet?”
I shrug. Throw a pat of cold butter on the slick of syrup coating our waffles. You’re supposed to put the butter on first, of course, but we both like it only partially melted. We eat the little lumps like candy.
“If you’d rather not talk about it, that’s fine,” she says. “I’m just glad you went to see him.”
I shrug again, not wanting to commit myself to any sort of conversation on the topic. If we snapped on the tiny kitchen TV right now, it’s possible we’d see my father being led up the flagstone path in his undershirt, blinking at the cameras and stumbling between agents like some third-rate street dealer.
We eat. Jen tries to catch my eye, and when she finally does, she smiles. I smile back. She comes around the table to stand over me, trickles her fingers into my hair, finds the tiny bald spot I’ve been trying to hide and kisses it. She sits again. When we’re done she gathers the plates, brings them to the sink. She runs the water until it’s hot, checking the temperature with the back of her hand.
“You can leave those,” I say. “I’ll do them later.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “You cooked, I’ll clean, and the world will keep on spinning.”
I move behind her and turn her around to face me, put my arms over her shoulders.
“I’d rather you left them,” I say.
The front of her shirt is damp from the spray. I pull back from our embrace, slide my hands over her breasts and start fiddling with them through her shirt like I’m adjusting the picture on an old television set. This is a running joke between us, but she knows it’s only partly a joke.
“Jesus,” she says. “You’re a randy bugger these days aren’t you?”
“Must be the, uh, springtime,” I tell her.
“Sure,” she says. “A young man’s fancy and all that?”
“Something along those general lines,” I say.
“Why don’t you go brush your teeth?” she says. “Give me two minutes to finish these dishes and I’ll meet you in the bedroom.”
I wander to the bedroom in a fog of love and horniness, a half-mast arrangement bobbing along inside my boxers. In the bathroom I slither out of my clothes, leaving them on the floor in an Obi Wan heap. As I’m brushing my teeth something lances through the fog, something steely that at first I don’t recognize until I look in the mirror, into my own eyes.
Now I can see it clear enough, all that heavy ordnance, glinting.
I pull open the drawer on the Her’s side of the vanity and draw a needle out of a sewing kit I’ve never laid eyes on but somehow knew was there.
I slip into the bedroom, light as a cat, and open her nightstand, remove the rubbers she’s got stacked there. I hear her coming down the hall. I gather the Trojans in my hand, bounce them into a neat little stack, and pierce the centers of all of them with the needle. In the seconds I have left before her hand is on the doorknob, I scatter them back into her drawer, swing my arm over the side of the bed, tuck the needle in between the mattress and the box spring. My motions are fluid. It’s as if I’d been trained to do just these things.
Then I settle into the cool of our sheets, suck in my gut, and wait for the door to open.