The 101 Domitians
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Next time I saw Domitian was Monday. He was bundling my few groceries at the Big ’n’ Bag. Must be the man from the gas station, I thought. This is where he works. Domitian gets the swing shift. Only I thought his hair was shorter. And now he’s stockier. Maybe I’m misremembering.
But the third time I saw Domitian was two days later. He was six people ahead of me in line at the registry of motor vehicles. Wearing the collar of an Episcopal minister. Or priest. Which is it? I always forget. I thought: Can a priest have a second job bagging groceries? Should I tell him he looks like the guy who is said to have boiled the Apostle John in oil? Nah.
That was Wednesday.
On Thursday I met my buddy Miriam for coffee in the morning. She taught at the community college and on Thursdays her classes began after noon. Nice work if you can get it. I had to be out in my truck bright and early if I wanted to make ends meet, but I shoehorned an hour for coffee into my schedule once a week.
Miriam taught English and critical thinking, and she liked to take me to task for using clichés like “bright and early” and “make ends meet.” We often disagreed, but that’s what makes horse races. She also wrote space opera using the device of the unreliable narrator. For fun, as it turned out.
“Listen, Miriam, do you think time travel is possible?”
“We’re doing it now.”
“We are traveling in time right now. Forward at the rate of sixty seconds per minute.” She waggled her eyebrows like Groucho Marx.
“Lord, my load is heavy.”
“Why do you ask?”
I told her about my Domitian sightings.
“You say he tried to boil John in oil? But John kept right on preaching?”
“And your son is Peter. Another apostle. And his mother is Juanita.”
“What about it?”
“You know Juanita is a feminine form of John?” Miriam said. “In Spanish. A Romance language.”
“I have no problem believing Juanita would talk all through being boiled in oil. Complaining of a splitting headache. That I give her.”
“You think old Domitian escaped his would-be assassins and traveled to the future?” Miriam asked, “And joined the Episcopal clergy?”
“But all three looked different. I’m telling, you, Miriam, they were three different men.”
“Three different men who looked like Domitian.”
“No. Three different Domitians.”
“How certain are you that you know what he looked like?”
We Googled Domitian and hit images. The top row had the bust I wanted. “That’s the one they use most often, so I think that must be the generally accepted view of what Domitian looked like.” The broad forehead and long fleshy nose should have taken attention from the small mouth but didn’t. That mouth might have been quirking into a smile or a grimace of disapproval. I couldn’t decide whether he looked more like an enormous boy or a tired middle-aged teacher.
Miriam brought up some text. “He wanted people to call him God? Like Caligula?”
“Maybe not. History may have maligned him. Writers have agendas.”
Miriam nodded. “Like Richard the Third killing the princes in the tower. People accepted Thomas More’s word for years, and More wasn’t alive when it happened. Just happened to be locked up the in the same jail about fifty years later. And then Shakespeare made him maybe the biggest bastard in all drama.”
“Why did Shakespeare do such a job on him?” I’m not a historian or even an antiquarian. I’m a handyman who reads. There is no system to my interests, and wide gaps.
“Who was queen in Shakespeare’s time?”
“And her father?”
“Henry the Eighth.”
Miriam nudged my shin with her bare foot. “You are less an object to be pitied that it would appear. Now, his father?”
I spread my hands. “I got nothin’.”
“Henry the Seventh. That Henry Tudor who defeated Richard the Third at Bosworth Field.”
“Richard the Third was the ‘my kingdom for a horse’ guy?”
“Right. Shakespeare was keeping on the good side of Henry Tudor’s granddaughter. Many people now blame Shakespeare for his part in the maligning of a good man.”
“Made a deal with the devil, like his other character.”
“That was Marlowe.”
“Shakespeare’s buddy, the glamorous and exciting Christopher Marlowe. Led this dangerous life: spying, adventuring. I get the impression Marlowe was the darling, and Shakespeare was seen as the less-exciting friend he went around with.”
“Why isn’t he big like Shakespeare?”
“He died at twenty-six. Stabbed in a bar. Maybe something to do with the spying. Only left a handful of plays and a bunch of poems. Also Shakespeare was far better.”
“Despite being less popular than the star.”
Miriam shrugged her thin shoulders. “It happens.”
“Look, you mentioned Caligula. Some recent scholars have taken a kinder view. Less salacious.”
“And this impacts my day how?” Miriam took a sip and fluttered her eyelashes at me.
“I’ve done some reading. There is a similarly revisionist school of thought in the case of Domitian.”
“Not such a bad fellow after all?”
Miriam grinned. “Why not ask him next time you see him?”
* * *
The next Domitian was reading the current issue of Scientific American in the reference room at the library. He looked like the one at the gas station, but thinner. And his hair was darker. Younger?
The Domitian after that was sitting on the curb outside the homeless shelter. He asked me for spare change. I gave him a dollar.
* * *
“How am I to blame for Peter’s D-minus?” I said.
Juanita’s voice over the phone scraped like flint. “You had him with you at work the whole weekend. He couldn’t concentrate.”
“It was one day, the unseasonably warm Saturday. He was fine. He sat on the grass in the sun and did his work.”
“Well, he’s on the verge of failing the semester. Your dragging him to work all the time is too damaging to his school work.”
“All the time? Dragging? I very seldom—”
“This is too important to argue about. The seventh grade is the turning point.”
“The what?” I said.
“The turning point,” Juanita said. “From here it either goes up or down.”
“Peter’s academic career.”
“It can go up or down at any—”
“But seventh grade is the crucial year. The prevailing wisdom says so. This D-minus is a red flag. And Ted agrees.”
My face went hot. “What does Ted agreeing have to do with my son’s schooling?”
“Well, you have to admit Ted spends more time with Peter than you do.”
Her words hit me like a blow to the solar plexus. All the air rushed out of me. I made myself hold still.
“Carl? Hello? Carl, are you there? Did you hang up on me?”
“That... is not by my choice. I would much rather spend time with Peter. That is why—”
“I don’t see what this has to do—”
“That is why I take Peter with me on those weekend days when I have to work. I also quite enjoy teaching my son how to handle tools. I like imparting to him the lessons of my trade.”
“Peter’s going to go to college.”
“Fine. But he may still need to know how to make repairs around the house. Or he may wish to frame a shed—”
“He’ll be able to pay somebody to do that. Someone without a college education.”
I was silent, thinking, I started college late in life. And dropped out when I knocked you up.
“Juanita. One of the pleasures in a father’s life is showing his son how to do things. It is both normal and healthy of me to wish to—”
“Well, you can’t keep dragging him to work with you at the expense of his grades. Not at such a crucial time. Ted and I both think—”
* * *
There were two Domitians at the mall the following Saturday when I took Peter to lunch at the food court. Telling him I wasn’t hungry, I made do with an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. A kid had stripped the paper wrappers off a dozen orange straws and left them in a jumble on the counter. While waiting, I wove them into a circle.
“You’re quick,” said the girl.
Peter’s mother called twice to make sure we were not at one of my handyman jobs.
The two Domitians were in different parts of the mall and ten years apart in age. One had a moustache; the other was with a woman who was pushing a stroller with a baby in it. Domitian junior?
I treated each sighting as a separate Domitian unless they were indisputably the same man. The grocery bagger, for instance. He was there every Monday, with “Al” on his name badge, when I stopped on my way home from work. Or on those Mondays when I did stop.
Some days I worked well past quitting time. I needed the money. Six weeks after I started counting, I had logged forty-four Domitian sightings. Possibly forty-five. This last was driving one of our green and white local taxis and wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap. I didn’t get a good look.
* * *
“I’m sorry you’re upset, but Peter has to stay home tonight,” Juanita said.
“But we have plans. We’ve been looking forward to the new Megaton Monster Pancreas movie for months.”
Juanita refrained from inviting me in. The aggressive blue thistles on either side of the doorstep bent their spikes toward my feet like armed sentinels poised to stab. She had planted them after the judge awarded her the house.
“Ugh.” Juanita jerked her head to the side and made a face like I’d shaken a sponge soaked in urine under her nose. “Why I let you show him such dreck is beyond me.”
“It’s just a shared enjoym—”
“Not tonight it isn’t. He has to stay home.”
It was too much. Tears burned in my eyes. “My house is also his home.”
“Your rented room is hardly a house.”
“This is Peter’s time with me. The agreement is legally binding.”
“File a complaint. And for God’s sake don’t cry.”
Ted appeared shirtless at the door. “You need a tissue?” He was holding a five-pound dumbbell covered in lavender-colored vinyl.
“I’d like to see him, Juanita, please,” I said.
“I’m sorry, he has to do his homework.”
“How is it he never gets his homework done in the several hours before I pick him up?”
“He likes to unwind after school,” Juanita said.
“Listen,” Ted said, “I think we should—”
“Not now, Ted,” I said. “Please.”
Ted looked hurt. “Now, look. I put Peter’s well-being ahead of all other considerations. There’s really no need—”
Juanita said, “Ted, will you excuse us?”
“I’m gone,” he said. He had to duck under Juanita’s arm where she was holding the door.
“You don’t need to block the door like I’m going to break it down,” I said.
“I know how you get. That’s why the judge—”
“You lied to the judge.”
“I was afraid.”
“May I see my son, please?”
“I’ve already told you no.”
The late-afternoon sun looked weak and thin, as though it had been hung in a shabby shop window too long and been faded by a bigger, brighter sun.
“You’re going to pay for this.”
“Is that a threat? Ted’s right here.”
Ted stuck his head around the door. “Hey. You should really go.”
I closed my eyes. “I mean, Juanita, that Peter is old enough to recognize your behavior for what it is.”
My ex-wife’s eyes had that hard glitter. “I’m sorry you’re upset, Carl, but no, you may not see Peter. He has to make up the grade point average his visitation with you cost him.”
“A child does not visit his father!”
Ted blinked like a man adjusting to a lamp switched on when he wasn’t expecting it. “I think I can offer some insight—”
I began to hyperventilate. “Ted, shouldn’t you be working on your quads? Instead of interfering with other men’s children?”
“Hey. Not necessary.”
“Why don’t you have children, Ted?” Shame burned my throat like scorching bile as I lashed out at Ted’s fishily blinking eyes, his washboard tummy and lavender dumbbells. “You were married, weren’t you?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything under discussion.”
“You work out a lot. What are you compensating for?”
Ted blinked at Juanita. “That’s it. I’m out.”
Juanita nodded. “See if Peter needs help with his schoolwork.”
“I can help him with his schoolwork,” I said.
“It’s math. Advanced. A little beyond you.”
She shut the door in my face. It swung slowly on its hinges and seemed to ripple, like a door moving under water. And, as though under water, my lungs burned for air and found none.
* * *
Miriam said, “You let her get away with that?”
“It’s her house.”
“You’re still paying the mortgage while you rent a crummy room. I don’t know why you don’t take my spare bedroom.”
“And that’s your son in there.”
I scrubbed my face with my hands. I had skipped last night’s shower, dropping exhausted onto my bed and sleeping in my clothes. Every pore felt like a cup of oil.
“And where did they get that crap about the seventh grade?” she said. “I’m a teacher and that’s horseplop.”
“I don’t know. Did I tell you that Juanita got rid of Riley at the beginning of July?”
“Riley? That little Husky-mutt thing that went everywhere with Peter? What on earth for?”
“The reason Juanita gave was that Peter didn’t have enough time to spend with the dog anymore.”
Miriam shook her head. “What does that mean?”
“Peter is finally with me more. After years of Juanita’s obstructions. And my place doesn’t allow pets.”
Miriam’s eyes snapped wide. “You can’t mean it. Not even Juanita.”
I didn’t say anything.
“She got rid of his pooch to punish him for being with you. That—”
The coffee maker gasped like it was dying. “Stay there.” Miriam got up, put cream and sugar in mine and set it in front of me before getting her own. Her little pink skirt bounced against her long skinny legs. “Any more Domitian sightings?”
“I’m up to eighty-nine.”
“Any of those misplaced emperors tell you you look like hell?”
“I just want to sleep.” I emptied the mug in gulps and pushed myself up. “Mind if I break off another chunk of this rocket fuel?”
She scraped her chair back up to the table. After a sip of her coffee, she said, “Take me with you today.”
“On your Domitian hunt.”
“Miriam, I have a lot of work to do. I have to stack some real cash if I want to take Juanita back to court. And you have classes.”
She shrugged. “I’ll play hooky. Accompany you to your jobs.”
“It’s nice that you’re worried, but don’t.”
“Settle down. I’m intrigued. I’d like you to point some Domitians out to me.”
I looked at her. “No bull?”
She smiled. “Maybe we can apply a little critical thinking.”
* * *
One middle-aged Domitian was walking a fat yellow pug by the library. Another, twentyish, served us chili dogs at the Orange Julius in the mall. He had a braided beard and spreaders in his earlobes. I could have put my thumbs through the holes.
“Did he pick a place called Julius on purpose?” Miriam said.
A third was in the thrift store, looking over a chunky old cut-glass ashtray, the kind you used to see in banks when you could smoke in public places. A possible fourth was working on a power line in a cherry picker. He was on the way up when he passed.
Miriam wobbled her head from side to side. “I admit it’s weird.”
I said, “Hah.”
“But not conclusive.”
“How do you explain it?”
She shrugged. “I can’t.”
I spun the wheel. “Come meet a friend.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Max Christopher