The 101 Domitians
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The first time I saw the Roman emperor Domitian, he was operating a self-serve pump at the Save-O! where I bought my gas. The deep gray shadows of late autumn made the filling station look like a life-sized engraving taken out of a history book from the future. Domitian was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, like the lazy older brother of the Brawny paper towel man. Our eyes met for a meaningless instant when he turned away from the pump and passed me.
It was Saturday, and I was on my way to pick up my son. My former wife had stipulated that if I couldn’t give the whole weekend to Peter, I had to forfeit my time with him on the weekend in question. Her lawyer drove a Bentley; mine drove a Nissan. She got her stipulation.
“You’re late,” she said as I climbed out of my truck.
“Hey, Dad,” Peter said.
I kissed my son’s sweaty forehead. “I just saw the emperor Domitian.”
Juanita’s face squinched like a shriveled lemon. “The who now?”
“Domitian. The first-century Roman emperor. The less-popular and possibly mad second son of Vespasian.”
“Less popular than who?” Juanita said.
“His elder brother, Titus,” I said.
“Elder? You couldn’t just say older?”
“Hang on.” My ex-wife’s new next-door neighbor was struggling to get her new mailbox post to stand up straight. I walked over.
She looked up from where she was kneeling in a pile of grassy dirt clods. “I try not to swear in front of children,” she said, smiling. She looked like an ad in a magazine devoted to home improvement.
“You just want to pack it down,” I said. “Shovel that dirt back out and I’ll be right with you.”
“Just a moment, Juanita.” I rooted around in the contained chaos of my truck bed for a short piece of two-by-four, then hauled a small mallet out of my beat-up red tool box.
“All dug out,” said the neighbor. She sat back on bare heels and pointed her chin at the post and mailbox where they lay on the ground like an ugly modern sculpture that somebody had knocked down but failed to destroy. Pretty chin, smudge of dirt. “Now what? Make a fire with it and rent a P.O. box?”
I planted the post and mailbox solidly in the hole. “Toss in a small shovelful while I hold this,” I said.
“Of the dirt I just took out?” She cocked an eyebrow at me but did it.
“Now grab the mallet and that bit of wood,” I said. “Place one end of the wood on the dirt you just threw in and hit the other end with the mallet. That packs the dirt down so the post will stand up straight. Really hit it. Good. Now you hold the post while I take a turn.”
“A nice way of saying I hammer like a girl.”
“And you should probably wear some work boots while you do this sort of thing.”
“They don’t have them in my size,” she said.
“Try the boys’ department,” I said.
Her face brightened. “I didn’t think of that.”
Juanita said, “Carl, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you come act like a father to your son?”
The neighbor’s back was to Juanita. She made an “Oh dear” face at me, and I smiled.
“Won’t be a moment,” I said.
“Already been several,” Juanita said.
I rapidly shoveled and packed dirt around the post. When the hole was two-thirds packed, the neighbor held out dirt-grimed hands. “Let me finish. It’ll stay up now and I’ve already interrupted you. I’m Carol, by the way.”
“Carl. Glad to meet you.” We shook. Her hand was warm with labor, and soft.
Juanita regarded me icily as I walked back. “Carl meets Carol. Jesus.”
“Nice neighbor,” I said.
“You seem to think so,” Juanita said.
“You should say hello.”
“What makes you think I haven’t?”
“And she’s barefoot and bosomy and sweaty, the way you like them.”
“I make no secret of your perversions. Peter and Ted both know all your filthy secrets.”
“So shall I introduce you?” I said, making my mouth smile.
“No. She’s a common type.”
“Women are such herd animals,” Juanita said. “One much like another. Even make themselves look alike half the time.”
I glanced at Carol. “I’d have noticed one who looked like that.”
“That a fact?”
“Facts are frequently slippery, in my experience,” I said. “It is feelings that are definite.” I hoped Carol heard me being clever.
Juanita blew air through her nose. “Whatever. You saw this Dalmatian when?”
“Domitian. Twenty minutes ago.”
“Where?” Juanita said.
“Gas station,” I said.
“You saw a Roman emperor at the gas station? Was he wearing a toga and those faggoty leaves on his head?”
“Laurel wreath,” I said. “No.”
“What was he doing?” she said.
“Where do you get this crap?” She bit the final “p” like she was angry at it.
I winced and tried to gesture with my face in Peter’s direction. “Please.” In fact I knew there was no point in asking Juanita to refrain from putting me down in front of our son. “Obviously, I know it was not the emperor Domitian,” I said. “That would be ridiculous.”
“It was just some middle-aged man who bore a striking resemblance to him.”
“How do you know what he looked like?” she said.
“There are busts and things,” I said.
“I thought maybe you waited at the same bus stop when you were kids.”
I realized I was smiling because I felt my face stiffening that way like a sudden freeze. “There’s no need.”
“Your crown of thorns is showing, Carl. Peter, where’s your backpack? And I want that homework done when you get back on Sunday.”
“How much homework do you have, Peter?” I said.
Juanita answered. “Rather a lot.”
“How much of the weekend is it likely to consume, would you say?” I said.
Peter opened his mouth to answer but Juanita said, “No telling. Got big plans during your visitation time with Peter?”
The skin at the back of my neck was beginning to feel like guitar strings tightened too much. “Juanita, I have asked you before not to refer to Peter’s time with me as a visitation. The term is offensive and misleading.”
“Don’t look at me. Visitation is what the court order says.”
“Did you do any of your homework last night, Peter?” I said.
Juanita: “No time. Ted came straight from the airport and took us all out.”
“I’m surprised he could spare the time from his ab workouts Did you mention to Ted that Peter had a lot of homewor—”
“Carl, you’re giving me a splitting headache. Peter, hurry up.”
* * *
In the truck I said to Peter, “Sorry about that, son.”
“S’okay, Dad.” He grinned. “The homework won’t take long.”
“Where did Ted take you for dinner?”
“Some new-age place Mom picked.”
“How was it?”
“I had a cup of something called miso soup to make Mom happy.”
“I never did learn the trick of making her happy.”
Peter laughed, surprising me. I looked over at him. “You’re going to be taller than me before you’re fifteen.”
“What guy were you telling Mom about?”
“Domitian. The last of the Caesars in this book by Suetonius. He was finally killed by those close to him.”
“Suetonius says they were afraid of him. Crazy, unstable, likely to have them put to death at any moment. Do you know the word sensationalism?”
“Make a big deal? Like too much? To get attention?”
“Right. Suetonius is thought to be on the sensationalistic side of history. Or historiography, which is what historians write.”
“Hm.” Peter was serene. How could kids be so resilient? And how often could their parents fail them before that resilience shredded like a paper napkin in a washing machine?
“Dad, what did people a long time ago call their years?”
“How did they know what year it was? Those Romans ten years before Jesus was born didn’t say, ‘Well, back in forty-four B.C., when old Julius was killed by his buddies, blah blah blah.’”
“How did you know Julius Caesar was killed in forty-four B.C.?”
“You told me.”
That warmed me. I grinned like a dope. “No, they wouldn’t have, would they? I wonder about that sort of thing. I don’t see references to past years in the ancient writers I read. They seem to say things like, ‘in the following year,’ or ‘in the spring of that year.’ Or sometimes they refer to these things called Olympiads. ‘Epictetus is said to have flourished in the fourth Olympiad after yadda yadda yadda.’ An Olympiad seems to mark a group of four years but I can’t figure out what the heck they mean beyond that. Why do you ask?”
“I was thinking maybe this time we’re living in right now is before some huge event, so when people a thousand years from now talk about it they’ll say, “Yeah, that guy was elected president in 109 BBE.”
“Before the Big Event.” Now he grinned. “Like when two guys in Rome were arguing about when Vesuvius erupted. How did they know what years to disagree about?”
I thought. “Maybe one guy said, ‘That was ten years ago,’ and the other said, ‘Hell no, it was at least twelve.’” I glanced sidewise at Peter like a prisoner plotting escape under the eye of the warden. “Rather unsatisfactory example, huh?”
“Meh.” Another grin.
I said, “What cities were destroyed when Vesuvius erupted?”
“Pompeii and Herculaneum.”
“Who built Herculaneum?”
“And who built Pompeii?”
I felt my heart lurch like a slipping transmission in my chest. I thought, I love this kid so much.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Max Christopher