He was small enough that he couldn’t see above the window of the car to realize that they were home, but he was preoccupied anyway. His mother allowed him to thumb through the literature she had picked up from the church. He looked with fascination at all the pictures. There was God and Jesus, and Jesus was God’s son…God had sent Jesus to earth where he had been treated very badly and killed. Then God took him back to heaven.
He was able to look at the pictures and break things down at this point…they were both bearded men…Jesus was usually seen nearly naked and his hair was twisted and matted, whereas God was more fully clothed and clean looking, usually portrayed as looking down on all earthly events from his palace in heaven. There was a picture that showed God peering down upon Jesus, who had been hung on the cross…he guessed that this was the moment God decided to take Jesus back to heaven.
He knew sporadic things about Jesus….he had been hung on a cross by Pontius Pilate and there were other villains whose names escaped him who were also implicated. How did Jesus die, he asked? He was crissified, his mother explained—he didn’t understand what that meant. His mother explained that he had hung there on the cross and choked to death. He was bewildered by this and ran around pretending to choke, making gagging sounds and pretending to be Jesus. His mother would become angry with him and make him stop, telling him that was disrespectful to God. He didn’t understand why—he was only trying to envision what she was telling him, but he did as he was told.
His mother let him out of the car and he raced inside. It was time for Yogi Bear. As the sky darkened, he watched Yogi Bear, he watched Pixie and Dixie and he watched Huckleberry Hound. The cartoon characters and their ironic dilemmas confounded him.
He empathized with them and their goals, but didn’t understand why the stories always wound up with these characters running, usually being hit with a repeated shotgun blast to the buttocks. Why did the good always have to be punished for no reason?
For the sake of entertainment?
He took much more enjoyment from the cartoons on Saturday; The Lone Ranger, “Shazzan” and Space Ghost were some of the recent ones. He liked the Superman cartoons the best. Most recently, Superman had been flanked by other costumed heroes—The Atom, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Flash were among these. He liked The Flash best—the Flash ran real fast. He would go outside and pretend he was The Flash, maintaining that his sneakers could help him achieve super speeds as he ran. He supposed, as it was often drilled into him, that he would never be able to fly, like Superman, Underdog or Mighty Mouse…but if he worked at it, he believed he had a good chance of becoming a fast runner.
It wasn’t Saturday, though, so no superheroes—Yogi Bear and his ilk it was.
After cartoons ended, the sky was darkening outside, and he knew cartoon time was ending. The Edge of Night came on, with its familiar open and music—the trill of piano he heard every night at this time. He liked the opening music but the show bored him—this was not a cartoon—this was a “program”—-something the grownups liked, for whatever reason.
He knew his father would be home from work, soon, and they would eat supper.
His mother was, in fact, cooking. He could smell the burning oil from the kitchen and he knew there would be French fries. He liked French fries.
She was talking on the phone as she cooked—after listening to the conversation for a while he understood that it was Aunt Eileen on the phone. She spoke with Aunt Eileen for a while about running errands for the church—she even mentioned how well-behaved he had been, and he was pleased that he figured in his mother’s conversations.
He was tired of the TV and its monotonous grownup programs. He retreated to the dining room with his Superman doll and his soldiers—he created a playlet under the dining room table where Superman, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were trapped in a ravine, facing Lex Luthor, Pilate and John Wilkes Booth. In these games he would thwart history and people like Jesus and Abraham Lincoln would survive and triumph—how could they not, with Superman helping?
He wondered if George Washington was sad when Jesus and Abraham Lincoln were killed. Did he cry?
He thought it must be incredibly sad, being a great man, being a hero, and watching other heroes die around you.
The front door scuffed open and his father came in. The big man looked tired and grumpy and he chose to ignore him, now lost in the melodrama of his toys.
His father designed and tested missiles. There were pictures around the house of the missiles his father had designed—the pictures were next to those of his grandparents. He knew that the purpose of the missiles was to blow up planes. He didn’t understand how it was possible to test missiles—who would want to be the doomed pilot of a plane that was flown only to be blown up? Who would die voluntarily?
Priests, maybe. Priests would fly the planes because they wanted to die and be with God.
But this wasn’t a matter he wished to dwell on, now or ever…there was still the crucial business of his toys and their adventures.
He always saw the scenarios play out like cowboy movies. He saw characters like Pilate and Booth as western bad guys. Pilate would spit and say, “draw.” Superman would save the day with his heat vision.
Behind him, in the lit kitchen, his mother was off the phone and she and his father talked of grownup things he neither understood nor cared for, He continued playing as the shadows grew long around him.
It was supper time and his mother had made steak and French fries. His father prepared the meat for him, cutting it into tiny pieces—much smaller than those he was eating.
He watched his father eat with rapt fascination. His father ate every bit of the steak, even the yucky fat that he could never chew through. His father was a constant source of terror and awe to him. He looked down upon him from the head of the table, silently eating and contemplating his son. He did not know what he was thinking…would his father approve of him, or put that huge class ring across his face? These things never happened for any reason he could understand.
His father stared at him blankly and he did not know how he was being judged. As his small teeth gnawed the rare steak, he saw that his father chewed food differently from him, with his mouth closed—as if he were chewing with his lips. He didn’t know what to make of this. How could you chew through meat with your lips?
Maybe it was something he would be able to do when he got older, bigger and stronger.
He sat on the couch with his father while his mother did the dishes and shut off all the lights on that side of the house. He knew there would be a few TV shows and then bed.
The news was on. He didn’t like the news…his parents seemed to enjoy it. His general aversion to the news wasn’t that it was more boring programs for adults—it was frightening. It seemed as though pictures of dead people were trotted out every night. Dwight Eisenhower, who was once the President, died. Robert F. Kennedy, who they said could have been the President, was shot and died. Martin Luther King, a black man, had died…he was also shot. His mother told him Martin Luther King was a good man, like Abraham Lincoln, like George Washington, like Jesus. He was frightened by the pictures of these dead men.
Tonight on the news they were showing horrible images—starving children, crying, with their ribs showing. The man on the news kept saying something about the Opera. The starving children were from the Opera. He didn’t understand what that meant—what
he did understand was that these kids, kids like him, were dead—as he was watching them cry on the TV, the man on the news said, they were already dead.
Would he starve to death, too?
After that, there was film of the war. There was a war in Viet Nam and the news talked about it every night. There was dirt everywhere. Soldiers were struggling in mud and bushes and little girls were crying and running and burning. Everyone was shooting guns.
“What are you watching?!” His mother asked his father.
“It’s the news,” said his father.
“Is that Viet Nam?!” His mother seemed upset. “He doesn’t need to be seeing that!”
“It’s the news,” his father insisted.
On the news, a number of muddy men carried a soldier on a stretcher. The soldier had bandaids all over him and he was yelling.
“Mama,” he asked, “does it hurt when somebody shoots you?”
“Yes, honey, it does. Can’t you find something else to watch while he’s still up?!”
His father glared at her. “It’s the news,” he said, sounding very angry, now. “It’s important!”
“Important” was a word his father used a lot—usually in reference to something terrible on TV. Even if it scared him, it didn’t matter—it was the news. It was important.
He hated anything that was important.
“Is that war going to come here?” He asked his mother.
“No,” she said. “That war is never going to come here. Our soldiers will never let that happen.” His father said something about Viet Nam and Communists, and he was suddenly unsure whether his mother could keep that promise.
“He doesn’t need to see this,” his mother told his father again. Another man was carried across the screen. His face—was that a face? It couldn’t really even be called a face.
“I’m afraid of that war,” he said.
“I think somebody’s ready for B-E-D,” his mother said.
“I don’t want B-E-D,” he complained.
Protest was futile. She picked him up and carried him off. “I’ll read you a story,” she said.
His father continued staring at the news. He didn’t say goodnight. Goodnight wasn’t important.
His mother read him his favorite book, “The Very Best Home for Me”. He liked looking at the different animals living in their house and how they all got their own special houses, all suited to their needs. Then she helped him say his prayers and it was time for bed. She left his night light on.
“That war won’t come here, will it?”
“I won’t ever have to go in that war and get shot and die?”
“You might want to be a soldier someday,” she told him.
“I don’t ever want to be a soldier. Soldiers die.”
“You might want to die for your country someday.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“It’s a great honor,” she told him. “Someday, when you grow up, you might want to die for your country. You don’t have to worry right now. You have a busy day ahead of you tomorrow and you need to sleep for that. Okay?”
“I don’t want to die in that war.”
“You won’t ever have to worry about that war,” she said. “Try and get some sleep.”
“Goodnight. Go to sleepy.”
She closed the door.
He didn’t want to die for his country. He wanted to live.
He stared at the ceiling for a long time. He thought about the War, and how he wasn’t sure he trusted his mother anymore. He thought about Jesus and Abraham Lincoln and Superman and John Wilkes Booth. He thought about Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and how if Superman got together with the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, and then maybe Zerak and his Zeroids came down from their moonbase, they could save them and no more heroes would ever die.
C.F. Roberts is a writer, visual artist, videographer and antimusician living in Northwest Arkansas with his wife, writer Heather Drain and a small menagerie of animals. He published and edited SHOCKBOX: The Literary/Art Magazine with Teeth from 1991 to 1996. He sings lead for the rock band, the S.E. Apocalypse Krew while also commandeering his own industrial project, 90 Lb. Tumor. He most recent publication credits are in Fearless, Paraphilia, Pressure Press Presents, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Blue Collar Review, Corvus Review, Antique Children, and Guerilla Genesis Press. His book, The Meat Factory and Other Stories, is available from Alien Buddha Press.