The 101 Domitians
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The young shift supervisor was miffed to be reminded of it. “Just didn’t show up the other day, or any day since. No word, no nothing. Not at all like Al.” His chubby red face made him look like a wad of Dentyne that took being chewed way too personally.
“Carl, is that you?”
I looked around. It was the pretty neighbor with the mailbox. “Ah. Miriam, this is Carol.”
“Hello,” said Miriam.
“Hello,” said Carol. Neither offered to shake hands.
“Did you call him?” I said to the young supervisor.
“Several times. Left messages. Nothing. I wound up having to cover two of his shifts myself.”
“What’s his number?” I asked.
“I can’t give out that information.”
Miriam snapped, “Listen to me, you little snip. You have one second—”
“Whose number?” said Carol.
“Al, the man who bags here,” I said.
“I know Al,” Carol said.
We all looked at attractive young Carol, and I thought of Al. Disheveled middle-aged Al. Who looked like the first-century Roman emperor Domitian. Along with ninety-nine other men in this town. Along with my twelve-year old son, according to the boy’s mother. Which would make me... what?
The nausea came back in a wave. I sagged against the cluttered customer service counter, knocking pens and a Western Union display to the floor.
“What is it?” Carol asked, leaning to help me.
Miriam beat her to it. “His son’s missing. Steady, Carl.”
“You think he might be with Al?” Carol asked.
“We don’t know,” Miriam said. “Let’s get you outside, Carl.”
“I can take you to Al,” Carol said.
“Can you call him?” I said.
“No cell phone,” she said.
“He’s not there.”
“How do you know?” Miriam said.
“I know where he is,” Carol said. “Come on.”
* * *
We left Miriam’s orange Accord in the Big ’n’ Bag parking lot and she rode with me in my pickup. We followed Carol’s minivan.
The warehouse district, as the sign grandly called it, was two modest buildings on the waterfront. They huddled together like frightened sisters in a fairy tale, ones who’d wandered too far from home.
Fear chewed my gut and my bowels felt loose. My head swam with stories of abducted children.
Carol’s minivan went down a narrow alley between the two warehouses.
“This is nuts,” Miriam said.
A large bay door was rolling up like a lazy eyelid in the warehouse on the right side of the alley. Carol stopped the minivan a few feet from the opening and got out. We pulled up and parked behind her. She looked at me and beckoned, then went inside.
Miriam and I looked at each other as we moved to the door.
Carol leaned out. “I meant just Carl,” she said.
“Nuts,” Miriam said. She stepped quickly around Carol into the doorway. And stopped.
I caught up to her. “What is—”
My first thought was: It’s a giant ashtray. One of those big old cut glass ashtrays from when you could smoke in banks and other public places. Then I registered what was hanging from the ceiling. Like a crown of thorns made of orange Dunkin’ Donuts straws. Only it was the size of half a tennis court, and the straws flickered. The whole was strangely unconvincing, like when somebody else tried to draw Jack Kirby machinery.
And between the ashtray and the crown...
They were all there.
Hanging. Suspended. Floating, bobbing up and down.
All my Domitians.
There was the Episcopal priest. Or minister.
The man from the Save-O! that first day.
The panhandler from in front of the registry.
One of the men from the mall. But not the baby from the stroller.
The cab driver with the Greek fisherman’s cap was there.
None of this mattered. Where was Peter? Where was my son?
The rim of the ashtray was maybe three feet high. I started to heave a leg over it.
Carol put a hand on my dirty sleeve. “Don’t.”
I shook her off and thrust my foot over the edge.
When I came to, my right leg was numb and tingling in alternating waves, and my head and solar plexus throbbed. A scrape on my right temple was bleeding. I had landed about twelve feet from the giant ashtray.
“Has he always been like this?” Carol said.
“Pretty much,” Miriam said.
“What the hell?” I said. “Ow.”
“Peter’s safe,” Miriam said.
“Is he in there?” My brain was popping like heated popcorn kernels. “My crazy ex-wife said my son looked like a young Domitian, you told me.” Why wasn’t Miriam as rattled as I was? Or rattled at all?
“He is a young Domitian,” Carol said.
“This is bullsh—”
“He is also your son,” she said.
I struggled to my feet. My right leg buckled. The two women caught me. “I want to see him.” Now there was a buzzing in my ears. “How are you involved in this, Carol?”
“Any point in asking him to hold still until he has full use of his legs?” Carol asked.
Miriam shook her head.
“Come on, Hopalong,” she said.
Miriam’s uncharacteristic serenity was getting through to me. “You’ve seen Peter?”
“Yes,” Miriam said. “He’s safe.”
We made slow progress around the outside of the giant ashtray, the two women supporting me on either side.
“So what am I: Vespasian? Because heads are gonna roll. Somebody’s going to be lion lunch. Did Vespasian throw people to the lions?”
“Here he is,” said Carol. “Right beside your buddy Al.”
Peter, still but breathing, was floating next to Al. The knee of his jeans was split. I made a mental note to stitch it before it widened, then reeled from the loopy incongruity.
“Miriam and I talked while you were out. Your discussion about Marlowe and Shakespeare intrigued me.”
“You talked? Just gals chatting?” I said. “Get Peter out of there.”
“He’s needed,” Carol said.
“Meaning you can free him.” I moved on her, hands flexing. “You’re part of this.”
Miriam stepped between us. “Please, Carl. Listen. Peter is needed. All the Domitians are. I don’t understand it all, but—”
“I need him!” I roared. Both women flinched. “That’s my boy in there. He’s all I have.”
Miriam’s face pinched as though closing itself off from pain. “Damn you both,” she said.
The buzzing in my head continued. My brain was climbing — being thrust up — a rainbow waterfall of ideas. “Why Domitian? Why not Titus? Why not his celebrated older brother?”
Carol said, “Titus was more popular, and he died young. Remember Marlowe and Shakespeare. Marlowe dies after a bar fight. Then Shakespeare goes on to become the greater by far.”
“Not Domitian,” I said. “His reign was a failure. So much so that they killed him. Set him up by playing on his superstitions.”
“Failure is a relative term,” Carol said. “Like success. In other circumstances, Domitian’s strengths would have emerged more obviously.”
The popping in my brain, which had been like an arena full of flashbulbs from an old movie, subsided. The buzzing rainbow coalesced into one clear thought. “Such circumstances have come about,” I said.
“These men are needed,” Carol said.
“Peter’s just a boy.”
“And he needs you. Go with him.”
Tears burned my eyes. “I can’t even help him with his math homework,” I said.
Then things get spotty. Did the following few moments happen as I seem to remember them?
Juanita burst in with the police. She screamed that I was murdering our son. Miriam flew at the nearer officer. He got her in a choke hold and squeezed. “Bastard,” she said as she lost consciousness.
Ted appeared. “Oh, hey,” he said. “Not cool, homies.”
Juanita spun on him, eyes glittering in mad, triumphant glee. “I told you the bitch was watching Peter. You didn’t believe me.” She laughed, her martyr’s laugh that meant It’s my unjust burden to be surrounded by morons. “Kiss visitation goodbye, Carl.”
The orange crown of thorns began to spin. Then a howling started like a wind blowing the damned to hell. The ashtray sparkled. Carol was on it, bending over the ledge, bosom heaving, hand out to me. “Come through now,” she called over the shrieking.
I took her hand. Warm with labor, and soft.
“Were there others?” I said.
“Jim Morrison was a Hammurabi. I’m Hatshepsut.”
“This is crazy,” I said.
Carol smiled. “You’re going to love it.”
“Juanita did the best she could,” I said.
“Like hell. She’d have destroyed you both.”
“I wouldn’t have let her.”
“We need to go.”
I looked at Peter. My son. The one hundred and first Domitian.
Copyright © 2018 by Max Christopher