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.

Want help with the menu, Pop?”

“I can read,” his father says. He no longer can, but it’s bright in their corner and he can look at the pictures even with his sunglasses on. Besides, Sanderson knows what he will order.

When the waiter comes with their iced teas, Pop says he’ll have the chopped steak, medium rare. “I want it pink but not red,” he says. “If it’s red, I’ll send it back.”

The waiter nods. “Your usual.”

Pop looks at him suspiciously.

“Green beans or coleslaw?”

Pop snorts. “You kidding? All those beans were dead. You couldn’t sell costume jewelry that year, let alone the real stuff.”

“He’ll have the slaw,” Sanderson says. “And I’ll have—”

All those beans were dead!” Pop says again, and gives the waiter an emphatic look.

The waiter merely nods and says, “They were dead,” before turning to Sanderson. “For you, sir?”

They eat. Pop refuses to take off his coat, so Sanderson asks for one of the plastic bibs and ties it around his father’s neck. Pop makes no objection to this, may not register it at all. Some of his slaw ends up on his pants, but the bib catches most of the mushroom gravy. As they are finishing, Pop informs the mostly empty room that he has to piss so bad he can taste it.

Sanderson accompanies him to the men’s room, and his father allows him to unzip his fly, but when Sanderson attempts to pull down the elasticized front of the continence pants, Pop slaps his hand away. “Never handle another man’s meat, Patrick,” he says, annoyed. “Don’t you know that?”

This prompts an ancient memory: Dougie Sanderson standing in front of the toilet with his shorts puddled around his feet and his father kneeling beside him, giving instruction. How old was he then? Three? Only two? Yes, maybe only two, but he doesn’t doubt the recollection; it’s like a fleck of bright glass seen at the side of the road, one so perfectly positioned it leaves an afterimage. Memory is such a mystery.

“Unlimber, assume the position, fire when ready,” he says.

Pop gives him a suspicious look, then breaks Sanderson’s heart with a grin. “I used to tell my boys that when I was getting them housebroke,” he says. “Dory told me it was my job, and I did it, by God.”

He unleashes a torrent, and most of it goes into the urinal. The smell is sour and sugary. Diabetes. But what does that matter? Sometimes Sanderson thinks the sooner the better.

Back at their table, still wearing the bib, Pop renders his verdict. “This place isn’t so bad. We ought to come here again.”

“How about some dessert, Pop?”

Pop gazes out the window, mouth hanging open, considering the idea. Or is it only the carrier wave? No, not this time. “Why not? I have room.”

They both order the apple cobbler. Pop regards the scoop of vanilla on top with his eyebrows pulled together into a thicket. “My wife used to serve this with heavy cream. Her name was Dory. Short for Doreen. Like on the Mickey Mouse Club. Hey there, hi there, ho there, we’re as welcome as can be.”

“I know, Pop. Eat up.”

“Are you Dougie?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Really? Not pulling my leg?”

“No, Pop, I’m Dougie.”

His father holds up a dripping spoonful of ice cream and apples. “We did, didn’t we?”

“Did what?” “Went out trick-or-treating as Batman and Robin.”

Sanderson laughs, surprised. “We sure did! Ma said I was born foolish but you had no excuse. And Reggie wouldn’t come near us. He was disgusted by the whole thing.”

“I was drunk,” Pop says, then begins eating his dessert. When he finishes, he points out the window and says, “Look at those birds. What are they again?”

Sanderson looks. The birds are clustered on a dumpster in the parking lot. Several more are on the fence behind it. “Those’re crows, Pop.”

“Christ, I know that,” Pop says. “Crows never happened back then. We had a pellet gun. Now listen.” He leans forward, all business. “Have we been here before?”

Sanderson briefly considers the metaphysical possibilities inherent in this question, then says, “Yes. We come here most Sundays.”

“Well, it’s a good place. But I think we ought to go back. I’m tired. I want that other thing now.”

“A nap.”

“That other thing,” Pop says, and gives him an imperious look.

Sanderson motions for the check, and while he’s paying it, Pop sails on with his hands tucked deep in his coat pockets. Sanderson grabs his change in a hurry and has to run to catch the door before Pop can wander out into the street.

That was a good night,” Pop says as Sanderson buckles his seatbelt.

“What night was that?”

“Halloween, you dummy. You were eight, so it was 1959. You were born in ’51.”

Sanderson looks at his father, amazed, but the old man is staring straight ahead at the traffic. Sanderson closes the passenger door, goes around the front of his Subaru, and gets in. They say nothing for two or three blocks, and Sanderson assumes his father has forgotten the whole thing, but he hasn’t.

“When we got to the Foresters’ house at the bottom of the hill—you remember the hill, don’t you?”

“Church Street hill, sure.”

“Right! Norma Forester opened the door, and to you she says—before you could—she says, ‘Trick or treat?’ Then she looks at me and says, ‘Trick or drink?’” Pop makes a rusty hinge sound that Sanderson hasn’t heard in a year or more. He is laughing. He even slaps his thigh. “ ‘Trick or drink!’ What a card! You remember that, don’t you?”

Sanderson tries, but comes up empty. All he remembers is how happy he was to have his dad with him, even though the Batman costume was pretty lame. Gray pajamas, the bat emblem drawn on the front with Magic Marker. The cape cut out of an old bedsheet. The Batman utility belt was an old leather tool belt in which his father had stuck an assortment of screwdrivers and chisels from the toolbox in the garage. The mask was a mothy old balaclava that Pop rolled up to the nose so his mouth showed. Standing in front of the hallway mirror before going out, he pulled the top of the mask up on the sides, plucking at it to make ears, but they didn’t stay.

“She offered me a bottle of Shiner’s,” Pop says.

“Did you take it?”

“Sure did.” He falls silent. Where Commerce Way meets Airline Road, the two lanes become three. The one on the far left is a turn lane. The lights for straight-ahead traffic are red, but the one handling traffic in the left-turn lane is showing a green arrow. “That woman had tits like pillows. She was the best loving I ever had.”

They hurt you. Sanderson knows this not just from his own experience but from talking to others who have relatives in Crackerjack Manor. They may not mean to, but they do. What memories remain to them are a jumble—pilfered puzzle pieces in a cigar box—and there’s no governor on them, no way of separating the stuff that’s okay to talk about from the stuff that isn’t. Sanderson has never had a reason to think Pop was anything but faithful to his wife for the entire forty-some years of their marriage, though perhaps that’s the assumption all grown children make if their parents’ marriage was serene and collegial.

He takes his eyes off the road to look at his father, and that is why there is an accident instead of one of the near misses that happen all the time. Even so, it’s not a terribly serious one, and though Sanderson knows his attention wandered from the road for a second or two, he also knows it still wasn’t his fault.

A pickup truck with oversize tires and roof lights on the cab swerves into his lane, wanting to get all the way left in time to turn before the green arrow goes out. There’s no taillight blinker; this Sanderson notes as the left front of his Subaru collides with the rear of the pickup truck. He and his father are both thrown forward into their locked seatbelts, and a ridge suddenly heaves up in the middle of his previously smooth hood, but the airbags don’t deploy. There’s a brisk tinkle of glass.

“Asshole!” Sanderson cries. “Jesus!” He pushes the button that lowers his window, sticks out his arm, and wags his middle finger at the truck. Later he will think he only did it because Pop was in the car with him, and Pop was on a roll.

Sanderson turns to him. “You okay?”

“What happened?” Pop says. “Why’d we quit?” He seems confused but otherwise fine.

Sanderson leans over Pop’s lap, thumbs open the glove compartment, gets out his registration and insurance card. When he straightens up again, the door of the pickup truck is standing open and the driver is walking toward him, taking absolutely no notice of the cars that honk and swerve to get around them. There isn’t as much traffic as there would be on a weekday, but Sanderson doesn’t count this as a blessing, because he’s looking at the approaching driver.

He knows this guy. Not personally, but he’s a south Texas staple. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulders—not cut, ripped, so that errant strings dangle against the slabs of muscle on his upper arms. The jeans are hanging off his hip bones so the top two inches of his underwear shows. A chain runs from one beltless loop of his jeans to his back pocket. He’s got tats on his arms. This is the kind of guy who, when Sanderson sees him on the sidewalk outside his jewelry shop via closed-circuit TV, causes him to push the button that locks the door. Right now he would like to push the button that locks his car door.

Instead, Sanderson opens the door and gets out, ready to placate, to apologize for what he shouldn’t need to apologize for—it was the guy who cut across, for God’s sake. The man’s tats are crude, straggling things: chains around the biceps, thorns around the forearms, a dagger on one wrist with a drop of blood hanging from the tip of the blade. No tattoo parlor did those. That’s jailhouse ink. Tat Man is at least six-two in his boots, and at least 200 pounds, maybe 220. Sanderson is five-nine and weighs 160.

“Look what you did to my truck!” Tat Man says. “Why the fuck didn’t you let me in, asshole?”

“There was no time,” Sanderson says. “You cut across, you never blinked—”

“I blinked!”

“Then how come it isn’t on?” Sanderson points.

“Because you knocked out my fucking taillight, fucknuts! How am I supposed to tell my girlfriend about this? She fronted the fucking down payment! And get that fucking shit out of my face.”

He strikes the insurance card and registration, which Sanderson is still holding out, from Sanderson’s hand.

“I’m going,” Tat Man says. “I’ll fix my damage, you fix yours. That’s how it’s going to work.”

The damage to the Subaru is far worse than the damage to the pickup, probably fifteen hundred or two thousand dollars more, but that isn’t what makes Sanderson speak up. It’s the thought of his gorked-out father sitting there in the passenger seat, not knowing what’s happening, needing a nap. They should be halfway back to Crackerjack Manor by now, but no. Because this happy asshole had to cut across traffic. Just had to scoot under that green arrow before it went out, or the world would go dark.

“That’s not how it’s going to work,” Sanderson says. “It was your fault. You cut in front of me without signaling. I didn’t have time to stop. I want to see your registration, and I want to see your driver’s license.”

“Okay,” the big man says, and punches Sanderson in the stomach. Sanderson bends over, expelling all the air in his lungs in a surprised whoosh.

“There’s my registration,” Tat Man says. Big streams of sweat are running down the sides of his face. “I hope you like it. As for my driver’s license, I don’t have one, okay? Fuckin’ don’t. I’m gonna be in a lot of trouble, and it’s all your fucking fault because you were jerking off instead of looking where you were going. Fucking ringmeat!”

Then Tat Man loses it completely. Sanderson has just time enough to see the blue eyes on the guy’s knuckles before a double-fisted blow drives him back against the newly distressed side of his car. Sanderson slides along it, feeling a prong of metal tear his shirt and the skin beneath. His knees buckle and he lands on the road. He stares down at his hands, not believing they are his. His cheek is hot and seems to be rising like bread dough. His right eye is watering.

Next comes a kick to his side, just above the belt. Sanderson’s head hits the hubcap of his Subaru and bounces off. He tries to crawl out from under Tat Man’s shadow. There’s another kick, this time in the meat of his upper left thigh. He wants to raise his head—if he’s going to die he would like to do it looking at something more interesting than the front of his own wounded car—but he can’t. Then Tat Man gives a cry, and red drops begin to splash the composition surface of the roadway. Sanderson at first thinks it’s from his own nose—or maybe his lips, from the blow to his face—but then more warmth splashes the back of his neck. He crawls a little farther, past the hood of his car, then manages to turn over and sit. He looks up, squinting against the dazzle of the sky, and sees Pop standing beside Tat Man. Tat Man is groping at the side of his neck, which has sprouted a piece of wood.

At first Sanderson can’t understand what has happened, but then he gets it. The piece of wood is the handle of a knife, one he’s seen before. He sees it almost every week. You don’t need a steak knife to cut the kind of chopped meat Pop has at their Sunday lunches, but at Applebee’s they bring you one anyway. Pop may no longer remember which son comes to visit him, or that his wife is dead—he probably no longer even remembers his middle name—but it seems he hasn’t lost all the cleverness that enabled him to rise from a no-college oil-fields roughneck to an upper-middle-class jewelry merchant in San Antonio.

He got me to look at the birds, Sanderson thinks. The crows on the dumpster.

Tat Man has lost interest in the man sitting in the road and never looks at the older man standing beside him. Tat Man has begun coughing. One hand is on the knife in his neck, trying to pull it out. Blood pours down the side of his T-shirt and splatters his jeans. He begins walking toward the intersection, still bent over and still coughing. With his free hand he gives a jaunty little wave: Hi, Ma!

Sanderson gets to his feet. His legs are trembling, but they hold him. He can hear sirens approaching. Sure, now the cops come. Now that it’s all over.

Sanderson puts an arm around his father’s shoulders. “You all right, Pop?”

“That man was beating on you,” Pop says matter-of-factly. “Who is he?”

“I don’t know.” Tears are coursing down Sanderson’s cheeks. He wipes them away.

Tat Man falls to his knees. He has stopped coughing. Now he’s making a low growling sound. Most people hang back, but a couple of brave souls go to him, wanting to help.

“Did we eat yet, Reggie?”

“Yeah, Pop, we did. And I’m Dougie.”

“Reggie’s dead.”

“Yeah, Pop.”

“That man was beating on you.” Now his father also starts to cry. His face twists into the face of a child, one who is horribly tired and needs to go to bed. “I’ve got a headache. Let’s blow this pop stand. I want to lie down.”

“We have to wait for the cops.”

“Why? What cops? Who is that guy?” Sanderson smells shit. His father has just dropped a load.

“Let’s get you in the car, Pop.”

His father lets Sanderson lead him around the Subaru’s crumpled snout.

He helps the eighty-three-year-old Caped Crusader into the car and closes the door to keep the cool in. The first city police car is pulling up. The sixty-one-year-old Boy Wonder, hands pressed to his aching side, shuffles back to the driver’s side to wait.

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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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