Story — From the September 2012 issue

Batman and Robin have an altercation

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Sanderson sees his father twice a week. On Wednesday evenings, after he closes the jewelry store his parents opened long ago, he drives the three miles to Crackerjack Manor and sees Pop there, usually in the common room. In his “suite,” if Pop is having a bad day. On most Sundays, Sanderson takes him out to lunch. The facility where Pop is living out his final foggy years is actually called the Harvest Hills Special Care Unit, but to Sanderson, Crackerjack Manor seems more accurate.

Their time together isn’t so bad, and not just because Sanderson no longer has to change the old man’s bed when he pisses in it or get up in the middle of the night when Pop goes wandering around the house, calling for his wife to make him some scrambled eggs or telling Sanderson those damned Fredericks boys are out in the back yard, drinking and hollering at each other. (Dory Sanderson has been dead for fifteen years and the three Fredericks boys, no longer boys, moved away long ago.) There’s an old joke about Alzheimer’s: The good news is that you meet new people every day. Sanderson has discovered the real good news is that the script rarely changes.

Applebee’s, for instance. Although they have been having Sunday lunch at the same one for more than three years now, Pop almost always says the same thing: “This isn’t so bad. We ought to come here again.” He always has chopped steak, done medium rare, and when the bread pudding comes he tells Sanderson that his wife’s is better. Last year, bread pudding was off the menu of the Applebee’s on Commerce Way, so Pop—after having Sanderson read the dessert choices to him four times and thinking it over for an endless two minutes—ordered the apple cobbler. When it came, Pop said that Dory served hers with heavy cream. Then he simply sat, staring out the window at the highway. The next time, he made the same observation but ate the cobbler right down to the china.

He can usually be counted on to remember Sanderson’s name and their relationship, but he sometimes calls him Reggie, who died forty-five years ago. When Sanderson takes his father back to Crackerjack Manor, his father invariably thanks him, and promises that next time he will be feeling better.

In his young years—before meeting Dory Levin, who civilized him—he was a roughneck in the Texas oil fields, and sometimes he reverts to that man, someone who never would have dreamed he would one day become a successful jewelry merchant in San Antonio. Then he is apt to “cut up rough,” as the Manor’s orderlies say (Sanderson has even seen the phrase on his father’s chart), and use language not fit for the common room—or for the Applebee’s on Commerce Way, for that matter. Then he is confined to his suite. On one occasion he turned his bed over and paid for his efforts with a broken wrist. When the orderly on duty—Jose, Pop’s favorite—asked why he did it, Pop said it was because that fucking Gunton wouldn’t turn down his radio. There is no Gunton, of course. Not now. Somewhere in the past, maybe.

Lately, all sorts of things have turned up in Pop’s room: vases; silverware (actually sturdy plasticware) from the dining hall, where patients who are well enough to choose things from the steam table eat buffet breakfasts and lunches; the TV controller from the common room. Once, Jose discovered an El Producto cigar box, filled with various jigsaw-puzzle pieces and eighty or ninety playing cards, under Pop’s bed. He cannot tell anyone, including his son, why he takes these things, and usually denies—with gentle puzzlement that is certainly genuine—that he has taken them at all. Once, he told Sanderson that Gunderson was trying to get him in trouble.

“Do you mean Gunton, Pop?” Sanderson asked.

Pop waved a bony driftwood hand. “All that guy ever wanted was cunt,” he said. “He was the original cunthound from Cuntsville.”

But the klepto phase seems to be passing—that’s what Jose says, anyway—and this Sunday his father is calm enough. It’s not one of his clear days, but it’s not one of the really bad ones, either. It’s good enough for Applebee’s, and if they get through it without any accidents, all will be well. He’s wearing incontinence pants, but of course there’s a smell. For this reason, Sanderson always gets them a corner table. That’s not a problem; they dine at two, and by then the after-church crowd is back home, watching baseball or football on TV.

“Who are you?” Pop asks in the car.

“I’m Dougie,” Sanderson says. “Your son.”

“I remember Dougie,” Pop says, “but he died.”

“No, Pop, huh-uh. Reggie died. He . . .” Sanderson trails off, waiting to see if Pop will finish. Pop doesn’t. “He had a car accident.”

“Drunk, was he?” Pop asks. This hurts, even after all the years. That’s the bad news about what his father has—he is capable of random cruelties that, while unmeant, can still sting like hell.

“No,” Sanderson says, “that was the kid who hit him. And then walked away with nothing but a couple of scratches.”

That kid is in his fifties now, probably going silver at the temples. Sanderson hopes this grown version has prostate cancer and it hurts, he hopes the guy had a kid who died of SIDS, hopes he got mumps and went both blind and sterile, but he’s probably just fine. Why not? He was sixteen. All water over the dam. Youthful indiscretion. The records would be sealed. And Reggie? Also sealed. Bones in a suit under a headstone on Mission Hill. Some days Sanderson can’t even remember what he looked like.

“Dougie and I used to play Batman and Robin,” Pop says. “It was his favorite game.”

Sanderson looks at his father and smiles. “Yeah, Pop, good! We even went out that way for Halloween one year, do you remember? I talked you into it. The Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder.”

Pop looks out through the windshield of Sanderson’s Subaru, saying nothing. What is he thinking? Or has thought flattened to nothing but a carrier wave? Sanderson imagines what that might sound like: a flatline mmmmmmmm. Like the old test-pattern hum on TV.

Sanderson puts his hand on one thin topcoated arm and gives it a friendly squeeze. “You were drunk off your ass and Mom was mad, but I had fun. That was my best Halloween.”

“I never drank around my wife,” Pop says.

No, Sanderson thinks as the light turns green, not once she trained you out of it.

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lives in Maine and Florida. He is the author of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and two novels published in the past year, 11/22/63 and The Wind Through the Keyhole.

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