I thought that my father’s death would have a little money in it for me; so I went home.
Long Island had decayed. The houses were duller (green became gray so easily after years of neglect). The train lurched through the golf course where a handful of older white men walked in fits and burst to play their holes—carts puttering over those still-verdant hills. The winter sun brightly loomed over us all.
My mother picked me up at the train station in her beat-up Honda, with the red paint scratched so thin that it seemed ill. She has a hard time of getting rid of things.
“How was the ride?” she said.
“Oh, you know,” I said, flicking the heater vents open and closed. “Dad left me in charge of his estate to give me another kick up the ass, huh?”
Dad was the famous comic book artist who left the big two (Marvel and DC) in the 90s to create his own characters and keep the rights. He saw the money to be made. In college, I asked him to set up a meeting with an editor from Marvel that he was still friendly with. “Son,” he had said. “This is a lousy business. Comics will break your heart. I won’t help you get into an industry that doesn’t have a future.” The last movie based on his work made a billion dollars.
“You’re going to be like this the whole time,” she said.
“He did what he did,” I said. “You think I wanted to wear a suit every day? Shlep to the subway. Go to an office?”
She shut the heat off.
“I get the comics stuff, okay? I made my peace with it. I’ve been through therapy.” I took a deep breath. “Why didn’t he pay my tuition?”
My mother focused on the road.
“I’m forty and I’m still paying off my loans,” I said.
“He was strange with money. We never went hungry. If you needed to live with us, he would have let you. His parents had money and they didn’t give him anything. That’s just how it was done to him. I couldn’t fight with him anymore.”
“Well, I’ll never want for character,” I said.
“I wish I had done better.”
The house was large and airy. A “sun-soaked modern delight.” The original house was small, with only two bedrooms and a bath. Over the years it had amassed five bedrooms, four bathrooms, and an isolated turret where my father liked to work. He created best at night, scratching the quills over the paper to shade, increasing the depth on his pencils. He also liked to scream out “fuck” in bursts when he messed up, the sound of which shot up you like a chill. My mother took to the garden as her palette, planting these auburn Japanese trees where the leaves cascaded down like a dome. I used to hide in them.
“Town looks smaller than it used to.”
“It’s the winter,” she said. “Coastal towns and all that.”
“Right,” I said.
In the kitchen, she poured me a cup of coffee. She looked good despite everything, better than me. I had to stay on West Coast time, thanks to the whiny rich people I worked for. I thought I could adjust to the time difference and live as if I were in LA, but, alas: that just meant I worked later. They pay me more than my father ever did, and I created his most famous character when I was a kid! I told him most superheroes were wishy-washy, boring, a snooze, and that he needed someone arrogant who had the guts to help the oppressed. He drew a rakish sort of drifter from the 70s and I made him change the character to look like a fascist, citing Watchmen, and create someone who could hide amidst the cops and wealthy. Deathrap was born! Before the comic, before the action figures, before the movies, there was me—a bossy thirteen-year-old with a shitty haircut and a Garfield t-shirt.
She gave me a tour of the new rooms, stopping at my childhood bedroom.
“You can sleep in here,” she said. There was a new bed, but a couple of old pals remained: Spider-man and Darth Maul judging me while I slept and fantasized about writing them.
“You could have redecorated in here, you know.”
“We don’t have any guests,” she said.
“Can we do this now?”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Everything you need to sort through is in the office in the back.”
“Great,” I said. “An entire office. Guess he moved out of the turret, huh?”
“Too much light.”
“I’m going to bed.”
“No,” my mother said. “Have a drink with me.”
“I stopped drinking, Mom,” I said, lying. I wanted to sleep.
“Then watch me drink.”
She took me in hand and forced me out to the porch.
“How long are you going to stay here?”
“Not long,” I said. I had taken the week off, thinking that I could knock out this whole project in an afternoon and then relax. I could take up yoga. I could start running again. I booked time at a sauna.
“Can you stay here for a few days?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Stay through Wednesday.”
“Fine,” I said. I could take the nine o’clock train and be back in my apartment by midnight.
“You are dismissed,” she said.
“You know,” I said, taking a sip of her wine, the sickly-sweet taste hitting my tongue. Why couldn’t my mother like a dryer white? “What really gets me is that these creeps who grew up reading Dad’s work. They’re all still out there reading this stuff and going to the movies, buying the action figures, but they moan. They kvetch about having black people in it. More parts for women. But they still buy it.”
“Rob, is there a question in there?”
“I guess not.”
My mother woke me up early drawing open the curtains—the sunlight hitting my eyes. The best part of living in the city is that there’s always something overshadowing you. I followed her into the kitchen, which had also been remodeled at some point over the last few years, so now everything was chrome and gleamed. I covered my eyes, pretending to stumble around blind. My mother laughed as I bumped into the table. She lost it when I reached for my sunglasses.
“Maybe you can invest in curtains now that Dad’s gone,” I said.
“You’re being dramatic,” she said.
“I need sunglasses for breakfast.”
“You’re in a mood.”
We drank our coffee in silence.
“Do you have a key for the office?”
“I don’t,” she said. “But Ivan does. Your father never let me in there. He was afraid I would throw everything away.”
“I’m going out to run some errands.”
“I do love you,” I said.
“I know,” she said, snatching the Wayfarers off my face and ducking out.
Later on, Ivan appeared. He looked worse than I remembered, like his body had decided to give up against the ravages of time: gaunt and thin-chested; he beamed with pride at getting a chance to say hi to me again, always the people pleaser, and always the one who wanted my acceptance. He had come to my father as an intern and before too long he was inking and drawing backgrounds. Now he wrote and drew the books.
“Hey Robbie, how are you?” he said, going in for a hug.
“Do you have the key?” I asked, pushing him away from me.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“What’s so funny?”
“I’ll show you,” he said.
The office was a cheerless Soviet-style block at the far end of the yard. It was a box with no windows and a single door. Ivan opened it and the musk of dust and mold rushed at us in a thick waft.
“Smoke if you got ‘em,” Ivan said, lighting a flashlight.
“Why is there no light in here?”
“Sorry Chief,” he said, and threw me a flashlight. “You know your old man. He had a thing about lighting. Your mother threw the desk lamp out when I wasn’t looking. Said it didn’t work and wouldn’t let me test it.”
There they were: piles and piles of boxes. They were on his desk as well as shelving above and below. To be a comic book fan is to be besieged by boxes large and small. Somewhere in there was his childhood comic book collection—Golden Age hits that might be worth something. It was obscene. In most of these boxes where copies of contracts, receipts for taxes, sketches, and thousands of photos of reference photos of my mother, of buildings in the neighborhood, and of me for his worlds.
“Dude from the storage unit came by a couple of days ago,” Ivan said. “Dropped a bunch more boxes off. This is everything though.”
Sitting on his desk was a bust of Deathtrap. His dark eyes glowering at you from under that cowl, looking like they’d follow you around the room. Who on Earth bought these? Art collectors? Oh, there’s my Monet and here’s my Deathtrap bust.
“Wow,” Ivan said. “They only made 500 of these.”
My laughter started as a low rumble in my belly like I hadn’t eaten for days. I started dry heaving in a fit of mania like when I was a kid and my dad made a shitty joke. It was his dumb puns; the worse they were the funnier they became. “You know, the first French fries weren’t actually cooked in France,” he had said. “They were cooked in Greece.” If you didn’t laugh right away, he’d poke you: “Did you get it? Did you get it? Did. You. Get. It?”
“You okay, Chief?” Ivan asked, his light coning me. Save me from guys who call other men Chief, boss, sir, or whatever ironic title for authority they’ve got. I was going to smash that bust today.
“How much is this thing worth?” I asked, grasping the ugly face in my hand. His hero in a perpetual snarl, teeth sharp like a wolf. Nothing could stand in Deathtrap’s way.
“A couple of grand.”
“Who is this for?” I asked.
“Fans, man. The fans,” he said. “Do you mind if I take it?”
“Haven’t you taken enough?”
Ivan shut his flashlight off.
“Look Chief,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I spoke with him?”
“Fifteen years,” he said.
“And you want more? He trained you. What are you doing now? Storyboarding the next film?”
“Rob,” he said, his voice lilting soft. “Please. It wasn’t easy on him.”
“What is it like having the life you wanted?”
“I didn’t go to art school. I knew nobody. I emailed your old man out of the blue and he took me on. You know how he paid me as an intern? I worked, Chief. I worked here, at coffee shops, at the mall, whoever would have me. I worked.”
“He told me no. He said no. I badgered him. He said the bottom was coming out of the industry. That he wanted better for me than growing a hunchback and obsessing over drawings of overly sexualized creeps. He’d show me fan letters calling for his death and asking for nude drawings of Storm. He’d show me sales figures and Hollywood executives jerking him around. There was always an excuse. Showed me the good stuff too. The cars, the fancy dinners, the additions to the house.”
The room was empty; Ivan had left.
“Get back here,” I said, picking up the bust.
I thought about throwing it and about the satisfaction of watching it fly off in little pieces. The head would break in half and roll out the door, to be scooped up by a bird of prey or maybe a feral cat. Montauk was lousy with feral cats.
It was worth money, though.
I went back to the house and made a cheese sandwich, slabbing two pieces of bread with some provolone. The dryness made me hack. I thought about the irony of choking to death now and my mother finding me on the kitchen floor, just like she found him after the heart attack. Instead, she saw me taking glugs from her bottle of wine.
“Ivan texted me,” she said.
“You never text me.”
“How many of those have you had?” she asked, putting the bottle back in the fridge.
“I can handle cheese.”
“It’s the bread I’m worried about. More sugar than wine.”
“Well, it’s a little too late for that,” I said, grabbing my stomach, shunting my gut toward her. I was newly diagnosed as pre-diabetic and proud of it. I had good insurance. Fuck it.
She laughed and said, “I suppose so.”
“Ivan’s got thin skin,” I said. “Can you help me sort through his shit?”
“He wanted you to.”
“I can’t do this alone.”
“Then I’ll throw it all out.”
“Don’t you want the money?”
“Son, I get the residuals,” she said, pinching the tips of her fingers together.
I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I pushed everything I could identify as sketches to one pile, notes to another, fan letters, statues, all of it. There was another bust—a small purple alien who called himself the Well of Life. The deal with Well was that he had the charisma of a 1950s door-to-door salesman and wanted to restore the planet to an era with no pollution. He had the haircut I always wanted, short and curly, parted to the side like Paul Newman. He wanted to annihilate 98% of the human race so that those who remained could live in harmony with nature. He was a cliché of a cliché, but had a neat costume. He looked like a golden age superhero with a headband and a bright blue and gold costume and flew like Superman. He was Deathtrap’s archenemy. A hero that looked like a villain and a villain that looked like a hero. Another idea by a child that an old man ran with and made millions.
This job choked me. Sketches and signatures would need to be verified. Buyers needed to be found and met and followed up with. Items and lots would be posted online, followed by haggling.
My future flattened out in front of me. I had some matches in my pocket. I could burn off all of this. 911 would come quickly. It’s a wealthy white neighborhood.
But I needed the money.
I picked up the villain, his clean-shaven face staring back at me with that warm and inviting smile. Superhero comics are cheap, heavy symbols, my father always said, but that’s what sells and “you gotta go where the action is.” I grabbed the Deathtrap bust and sat him next to his great enemy. I heard them whispering, “We’re worth more now that he’s dead. Sell us. Sell us.”
“A good idea is a good idea,” I said.
Besides, my father owed me.
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