Monday, May 10, 2010
"People are always talking--psychiatrists--about how it's your Mother's going to screw you up. Well, not my Mom. My Mom was a peach. She put up with the whole thing all her life, never said anything to him or to me."
"No, it wasn't anything like that. It wasn't. My Father was just what you'd want. He never hit me, he never touched me, he just...he wasn't my father. I mean, sure, he was my actual, literal father, that's not what I mean. What I mean is...we have doctor/patient confidentiality in here, right?"
"Right. Sorry. Figured, just thought I'd check. I've never been in therapy, actual therapy. Seen it on TV, of course. I'm forty now. You'd think I'd have managed it earlier on, with everything."
"Yes, with my Father. I thought my father was a professor of astronomy. I never talked about it with Mom. I especially never talked about it with him. She knew, she must have known. I found the basement when I was eighteen.
"I think she knew I knew, too, then. In hindsight it's impossible to think after that Thanksgiving dinner she didn't know something was up, but still, we never talked about it. And now he's dead. Last week. I gave the eulogy. They actually put me up there, on a stage, in front of people, they actually put me up there to talk about my father as if I knew him. As if I had any damn idea at all who he was, in the end."
"...My father...Doctor/patient, right? My father...my father, Ward West, was The Comet."
"Yes. THAT Comet. The superhero. Our house was in Grosse Pointe, well away from the city. I wasn't really aware of it, of him, growing up. Like I said, I thought he was a professor of astronomy, at the University. I just never imagined. Not some maniac in purple spandex and a white satin cowl. That cowl, that's what everybody remembers, how his cape came out from the back of the cowl."
"No, there weren't--no, I mean, looking back, there were times when he wasn't at home, but I thought he was out stargazing, or something. I don't remember if Mom told me that at first and I just internalized it. 'Oh, Dad is out stargazing.' It's night. It's plausible, right? I don't know. That's just the thing, though! You go through the whole back-catalog of your life, looking for signs he was ducking out. Was that time he missed my tenth birthday really a freak once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower or...wow. That sounds stupid just saying it out loud. All of this stuff, all of it I'm just saying out loud now, for the first time.
"'THE COMET! MOST WANTED MAN IN THE CITY!' Some news headline, I remember, from '82. It turned out to be agents of H.A.V.O.C. or something, responsible. After I found the basement, after I went back to MIT, I started collecting things. Old newspaper clippings--the political cartoons always got the cowl right, streaming behind like the tail of, well, you know. Hasbro put out a toy. I wonder who got the money on that? Who gets the rights? He'd have had to come forward. He was technically breaking the law, of course. I bought one of them on ebay, a Comet figure. Swear to God I carried the thing in my pocket for like a week."
"By now you can figure what's in the basement. I took the house for granted, my whole life, growing up. Sure, it seemed weird that I was the only one of my friends without a basement but when you ask your father that question at the tender age of four or something, sitting on his knee as he smokes his pipe in that old cardigan of his, smelling of tobacco and pomade, and he says, 'Craig, my boy, they just didn't build it with one,' you take it at face value because he is your father. And I didn't think about it. I thought those low narrow wooden rectangles, set in from the rest of the wall by a half inch and framed for all the world like they were, or had been at some time, windows, I thought those were artistic touches, until Thanksgiving, that first year at college.
"It was like seeing the place for the first time, coming home. Like the scales were lifted from my eyes. You ever have that? I had taken the place for granted and then there I was, on the day before the Day, standing outside, by myself, staring at the front of the place. I began to become obsessed with the question of Does My House Have A Basement? The day before the Day. Dad was at his office at the University, presumably, and Mom was out shopping. We were supposed to have Uncle Neil over, only he wasn't Dad's brother, just a collaborator at the University.
"I circled the house. I didn't have measuring tape so I counted steps. I searched around inside for some kind of discrepancy in the internal geography of the place, something that didn't match up with the outside. I went back out again, tried to push or bash my way past the painted-over-to-match boards I knew had to have once been windows."
"Very narrow, like the ones where if they were still there they'd be almost too small to squeeze through. I must have looked like I was trying to rob the place, only I'd left the front door wide open, and, really, it wasn't that kind of neighborhood.
"Eventually I figured it out. In my father's study, there was a door underneath the rug, like one of those that you pull down from the attic and it becomes steps. Very low-tech, really, which left me utterly unprepared for what was below, in the Comet's lair."
"I don't know. Cave? Fortress of Solitude? Oort cloud? I don't know what I was going to find, down there. I could hear my heart in my ears. Whatever I was about to do was Not Supposed to be Done. Secret things I was fucking with.
"There was light coming from below. I went down.
"It was low, the ceiling, I remember now. It was a proper basement, all low and cement-floored, missing the water heater and the furnace because at some point of course they'd been dragged upstairs to maintain the ruse. And there was a door at the end of the basement, like a garage door. The whole place had the feeling of a garage, the smell, of oil and stale exhaust. I could peer through the tiny window on the garage door--who knows how he got it down there or how he dug a tunnel from Grosse Pointe to Detroit proper without anybody noticing, but it was all darkness.
"There was a desk, with a row of computer screens. On the chair, tossed casually as if he were coming right back--and for all the world he probably was, the fucking Shooting Star was missing--that's his car, the Shooting Star--on his chair was a disembodied Comet costume.
"There were more of them in a rack in the closet. Not just your regular superhero costumes, but also some Comet scuba gear, a desert outfit, snow gear. There was a rack for various esoteric weapons. Two racks, really. One for his ice guns and one which was all stuff he'd collected from his enemies. Heliovore's Thermoscepter. Professor Zodiac's Wheel of Misfortune. The Human Pyramid's Turntable of Crime. All of this stuff crammed in to the basement with just enough room for that car of his.
"It's probably all still down there. He retired, what, a couple years after that? He was fifty-five. And my father was fit all his life, don't get me wrong. Scary fit, compared to the other dads. But even at fifty five, you gotta figure you're pushing your luck tussling with some tweeker at three in the morning with only your satin cowl and an ice gun you built in 1965."
"So I'm standing there, my heart about to just explode out of my chest, when I hear the sound of my mother getting home. Saying something about the lines at Meijer. Complaining about some woman in front of her buying more cranberry sauce than truly stalwart mortals should be able to process. Funny what you remember.
"I booked it upstairs. I kicked the rug over the ladder/door thing and rushed out, tried to look casual as I came in to the kitchen and offered to help Mom with the groceries.
"I didn't sleep at all that night."
"Of course I didn't say anything! What was I supposed to say? Hey, Mom, was snooping around in Dad's study and found out he's got a rocket pack and six changes of spandex tights hidden under the floorboards? I'm from the Midwest, Doc. Confrontation's not something we do. And who knows if she even knew anything. I thought she did. I think she did. She must have, right? Anyway, the morning came and Uncle Neil and Aunt Claire came over. I remember staring at them all through dinner. Like I said, my father was an only child, he didn't have any brothers, we just called him Uncle Neil.
"But so then Uncle Neil comes over and I'm...I'm just staring at him. At him and Dad and Aunt Claire. Were they in on it. I couldn't stop, who were they? Mister Midnight? Radium Girl? The Stoplight? The Hourglass? I tried to imagine Aunt Claire in that old green-and-black Hourglass costume. You remember the one? From the Seventies? Form fitting. Well, I guess they were all form-fitting. But with her there was just so much....form. Where was I?"
"Oh yeah. Yeah, right, yeah. Under her clothes! Who was she under her clothes? And Uncle Neil as well? Under his sweater-vest and his half-windsor, has Uncle Neil got on the old garish yellow-and-red-and-green number? With the cowl stashed maybe in the pocket of his tweed overcoat, kept just out of sight. All through dinner I'm thinking this, like maybe they're talking in code, like maybe they've been talking in code all my life."
"The funeral was last week. I flew out, I saw my Mother again for the first time in a couple years. He was there, in his casket, like some wax doll of himself. All his secrets, gone for good. I kept thinking there'd be some letter or some video message, maybe, explaining things. Nothing. And then so I'm there, and I spent the whole flight over practicing in my head the eulogy, the speech I'm supposed to give in front of a room of Uncle Neils and Aunt Claires and people who all knew him better than I did, I'm sure.
"I stood there, I'm standing there, looking out at them, with my tie and my manicured words about my father. It hits me again. Who are these people? How much did any of them know him, really? How many of them--how many of us--all of us, really, I think now, carry our tawdry, lurid selves around with us, just underneath."