William is writing a graphic novel about two post-apocalyptic characters, one named Father and the other Son. These two ride around on their choppers and sit by campfires and try to survive in a dark world. Son, who has never known anything before the apocalypse, is very romantic. He wants to fall in love, but he has never met a girl. Father remembers the world the way it was. He recalls television shows and commercials and the internet and frozen dinners and things like owning a house, which, after the apocalypse, being only a dream, seems absurd. But still, he remembers.
William writes a scene in which Father and Son are chased by a horde of invaders. They agree to split up and meet at the old camp, but as soon as Son takes an exit, Father pulls his bike over and dismounts. He kills many with his war club, but eventually is subdued and beaten to death.
“He needs to be killed so Son can become a man,” William explains.
But still, I don’t like this newest turn.
“So, the son becomes a man because he gets away?"
"That's not the point."
"But what about Father?"
"He's dead, man."
I don't like this turn at all.
"Maybe he can come back as the undead or something,” I say.
“But that sort of ruins the metaphor,” says William.
“Who cares?” I say. “It’d be cool! Besides, anyone who sacrifices their life for something bigger, in this case his son, becomes, like, greater than he was before. Look at Jesus. Joan of Arc. Martin Luther King.”
And I go on to name a bunch of other martyrs. But William hates it.
“Okay," I say, “How about this? I’m not telling you how to write it, but the father should meet up with a character that seems to be his ideal. This big, strong, quiet guy who knows everything about engines and the father should compromise himself in some way. You know? He should compromise himself and that will be his bargain with the devil. Because the guy he thinks is his ideal is actually Satan. That’s how Satan operates. You need to be the one who chooses him. He has no power other than that. So, the father is fooled into this deal with the devil, and then the father needs to die, but the son is innocent so he’s unaffected by the deal. And his whole mission is then to get even with the devil. Because these post-apocalyptic stories are perfect for God and the Devil. Right? There’s always God and the Devil. I love that shit.”
“But the father still dies,” says William.
“Yeah,” I say. "I guess."
“And he doesn’t come back.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Does he come back? Can he come back?”
These days I spend with William are more than I could have hoped for. We work out twice a week – 150 pushups, 50 pullups, 75 dips, curls, crunches, military press, and jump rope. William has boxing gloves and headgear from his kickboxing days, and on the off days we try to spar. Four rounds at three minutes a round. Punches pulled. No haymakers. And we write together sometimes. Sometimes we split lunches at the Cactus, a small Mexican restaurant in Coralville, or the China Garden. Last weekend, we raked the lawn together. Yesterday, he helped me change out a water heater. Next month, he’ll be moving to New York City with his brother, Sam.
I never got to spend time like this with Sam. Sam and I never had a mature relationship. It was always father / son. I’d tell him to clean his room to no avail, and to avoid drugs to no avail. There were a lot of things I told Sam to no avail. But I didn't listen much. And then he moved out and he hasn’t moved back. Lucy, my only daughter, is sixteen years old and hates me for being old and disgusting. And she probably will hate me for the foreseeable future.
I had a dream that the children were young. We were hiking in the woods at Squire Point. We were paddling the canoe down the Iowa River. We were inspecting the ruins of a tarpaper shack on some abandoned stretch of highway. We were in Arizona climbing Silly Mountain. Moving through North Dakota by train. Swimming in the Atlantic. Swimming in the Pacific. Lucy’s body bright red due to the cold. But all these things, of course, actually happened. Not that they are in any way distinguishable, now, from things that didn’t actually happen.
Mounted on the walls of the stairway leading downstairs are a series of self-portraits done by my children when they were each in kindergarten. Sam’s is square and robot-like. William looks like a half-formed human. Maybe in a pupal state, arms and legs forthcoming. Lucy is standing beneath a tree with tulips. Beside her self-portrait is a small crayon drawing of a small person and a large person, both smiling like maniacs, with the words “Me and Dad.” When she did it, I thought it was very cute and didn’t think much more about it. But Deb, having a feminine sense of history, framed it and hung it. Now, seeing it in the midst of this other life where Lucy dates a baseball player who owns a truck and works at Noodles and Company and has been drifting farther and farther away, as I head downstairs with a load of laundry, the little crayon drawing makes me want to cry.
Last night, I was an eagle. I was released in one level of a video game. The idea was, I needed to fight some evil force. The devil. But the devil would appear as many flying creatures yet to be released into this particular level. I flew to a lighting fixture, high up in the clouds, an enormous window behind me. Another eagle joined me, an ally.
“There’s no way they’ll miss us here,” I said.
I thought of the two of us, perched on the lighting fixture high up in the air, backlit by the window, an easy target. Looking down, I saw a dark barroom with a grill. I couldn’t make out much else, it being so dark. So, I flew down and huddled up next to the exhaust hood, loud music, the smell of stale beer, the patrons shouting, and was invisible. My eagle friend joined me. And we waited for the devil so that we might subdue him and beat him to death.
It has been my third devil dream in a row. Once he appeared on my daughter’s computer screen, a series of colorful lines and the sound of static, and although I was almost paralyzed with fear, I walked into her room to protect her. And then, once, he was in the closet beyond the TV set as I slept on the couch, and although I didn’t want to look, I had to use all my energy to turn my head. And then awoke to find that my neck was very uncomfortable and at an odd angle on the arm of the couch. And although my heart was racing, the devil had once again disappeared.
But it’s hard to believe in such things when I'm not sleeping. And the spring has just begun, the best part of spring when there is yet to be even one leaf on a tree and the crocuses have just now poked their purple and white heads up and fifty degrees feels like a beach day. How long ago was it when I first saw a crocus make its through that frozen soil? How long ago when I hated to step out of my truck, the cold wind pulling at me like a vengeful spirit? A week ago? Two weeks ago? And I would have given anything, then, for a day like today.
I’m raking again. Alone this time. The sun bright. The wind at bay. New shoots rising up from the roots of the old crabapple tree. And I filling my certified paper bags with dry leaves and lining them up on the curb to be taken away. Those leaves that have been so long covered with snow so that I imagined they might not be there anymore. Unraked last fall when my father lay dying and I crisscrossing that familiar stretch of highway again and again, unaware of what death might look like. Of what it might be like to be in a world without a father.
All this talk of death. And loss. When the season is so new. It’s ridiculous to maintain focus on this dark ending. To imagine that death is any more final or absolute than life. What could be more absolute than life?
“I have four kids,” said the woman I met yesterday morning in Brueger’s Bagels. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“At the time?" I said. "Not about kids.”