Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Boy Wonder (5 of 5): The Second Workout

Special workout. Birthday workout. If this is my birthday. Or if yesterday was. The days run together. Light running, light lifting, too many sit-ups, not too many push-ups. And the surprise.

The grass is dewy. The sky is pale. The stars are gone, but I can still see Venus. It's important that to know that it's Venus, because one day on a rooftop, maybe, I'll see it and know which way's southeast, and maybe I'll know that there's a fire escape on the south side of the building, and in the middle of a tough fight, maybe, I'll jump south, and that knowledge will have saved my life. Take all those maybes, multiply them, and you get something almost zero. And then you add up all of the similarly unlikely situations, and you get something much bigger than zero. Add up all the improbabilities and you get Batman.

Bruce and Dick again, workout suits, stupidly expensive, except they make sure that we don't blister or chafe, and yes, it's all part of his master perfect vision. Bruce takes two cards out of a deck and hands me the deck. He holds up the cards. Ace of diamonds and ace of spades. I have no idea what this is about. Then he takes off running towards the wooden table in the grass, jumps over it, twists in two axes, and lands running backwards. The cards are standing on the table, leaning against one another. I didn't even see him do it. He jogs back with a toothless grin. "Take two cards," he tells me, then takes the deck from me.

"This is my surprise?"
He nods.
Insanely stressful.

I make the goofiest magician face I can and hold up the two cards, then run at the table. I know how to get my steps, so the launch foot is just the right distance from the table, and that gives me all of a quarter second to figure out how to do the totally impossible thing with the cards. I get the jump right, don't even touch the table, then my body creates a veritable hurricane that leaves all four cards lying flat. One of them slides off the table altogether. I see this as I run backwards. I got the jump and the landing perfect. So my grade is an… F. Bruce is loving this.

"Failure is my passion," I tell him. He hands me the deck. Without cards, he runs at the table, and jumps over. The aces are standing again, leaning against one another.

"You're very cool," I tell him. I take two more cards, make the goofy face, show him the cards, and run at the table again. As I fly over the tabletop, I screw up one card, but for a moment the one is on edge alone. Then it falls.  But the aces stay up. Bruce takes two new cards, shows them, runs, and leaves this pair standing. I take two, goofy face, run, and knock one of his pairs over. Mine fall. This goes on for a long time, no talking, not even me. Maybe the end of the deck is a deadline. I'll never know, because after eighteen tries, I get a pair to stay up. Sunlight has lit the tree tops, and when I get back to Bruce, he gives me a clasping high five and musses my hair. A dazzling orange light makes its first appearance at the horizon.

"When are you ever going to have to do that?"
"Whenever it is, you'll be there with me."
"What's the highest point in Sweden?"
"Who was born on July 20?"
"Gregor Mendel. Edmund Hillary."
I shake my head, disgusted.
"I'm thinking of a number between one and ten."
"Two," he says. I turn around and throw my hands up. Because it's funny to do that. But it was two.
I turn back.
"The cards?"
I knew that was coming. I name them in the order that they were drawn.
"You want to see a movie?"

This is as relaxing as training gets, to start The Godfather at 5:30 am, when we haven't slept all night. Bruce talks the whole time, pausing it to critique everything. Not the dialogue or the cinematography, but the tactics, the strategy, how everyone could do everything better. And he's the maestro. He compares the movie to the book, to other movies, to hostage crises and commando attacks. To lots of situations that he's been in. We're watching a movie, but it's still the mission, it's still instruction. And I love it. And he loves it.

If a fight walked into the room, he'd jump on it like a lion. His limbs look so powerful, resting but ready. His arms are propped behind him on the sofa, his legs crossed on the ottoman. I make my posture more like his. I'm not embarrassed to copy him. He's always right. He sits like Batman, eats like Batman, breathes like Batman, blinks like Batman. I'll copy it all.

I'm starting to nod off, delirious. I catch myself wondering if he'll notice. I must be sleepy to think for a second that he wouldn't. But it's OK. I don't say 'no' to anything that he suggests, and he doesn't judge my shortcomings. I have to nod and drift for a little bit.

In the resulting half-dream, a third person is there with us. I look over at the sofa, and there in his circus costume, it's my dad. John Grayson, smiling at me. I want him to see me like this. Not a skinny kid, not his little boy. But his, always. He carried me to bed once when I was up too late and fell asleep watching TV. I look at the TV. and know that I have made a tragic mistake in looking away, that that was the last time I will ever see him. I should have sat by him, hugged him, but now it's too late. I know that when I look back he won't be there anymore. I look back and he's not – Bruce is right where I saw Dad. If Dad can hear this, I have to say it out loud.

"He's got me."

Bruce looks at me and smiles. Does he know I said that to Dad? How could he possibly know? – the world's greatest detective.

Without knowing when, I wake up, and Bruce is at it again, or still, Mount Rushmore with muscles, old man eyes, half-smile, talking ceaselessly, what every gunman and victim and gangster did wrong. Bruce talking, talking, wise and powerful, an Greek god in his living room. Facts, wisdom, the secrets of life and death. All of this stuff will stick in my memory. After a century, the movie ends. Thirty hours awake. I'm free to go. Bruce, maybe he'll watch another movie, study new research in epidemiology, push avalanches back uphill.

I stand. I owe something.

"Bruce, the girl?" He looks.
I shake my head. "There was no way." I point at him.
He nods. Very slightly. Batman and Robin.

I'm back at the mirror where I met Robin last night, looking to see if my eyes are tired, like his, but they're not. At the door, Alfred's tap. The final act.

"Master Dick. According to the clock, your birthday has passed, but if we could pretend that it were still yesterday, I can still think myself a gentleman." He holds out the present.

"It's still yesterday. Or tomorrow. I think it's tomorrow." Dense, rectangular, Bruce would want me to know what it was before I opened it. But this is Alfie. It's a framed photo. Impossible to guess what it shows. Nobody could know what's in the photo. Maybe Bruce. Probably. The paper comes off. Heavy glass. I flip it over.

It's a boy, mop of brown hair, holding up a gold watch for the camera. Smiling like the morning sun. Joyous, proud, ecstatic. Nine years old? The watch must be a gift, probably birthday, Alfred being thematic. The boy loves whoever was holding the camera. That's all I've got. Who is this kid?

"That's a cheery boy."
"That was my life. The life of the Manor. Some sixteen years and a month."
Bruce. Little Bruce. Happy little Bruce.

"Now we talk about the past?"
"It pains me. He is teaching you how to read clues; it is written all over him for you to read." I'm blank. "How did he go through these trials that you are going through?" I nod. "Poorly. Tragically."
"I'm ahead of where he was at my age?" Alfie manners. "No way."
He stares, quiet, thinking.
"Death struck twice. A double funeral. The boy heals. A boy should. You did. He did not." Alfie's talking. Let it come. "You want to know how he learned his skills. How fast, how well, how young. How you compare. Master Richard, watching him mature was agony."
"Why?" He's suddenly near tears. He points to the photo.
"Because I love that boy! He was my charge, my light. And I lost him for Batman. That terrible phone call, the news about Thomas and Martha. And he never came home. The weekend wailing and pounding his fists," shaking his head, "it turned into something still more devoid of hope." But.
"He used it. He became Batman."
"He built a black coffin and crawled inside. And he named it Batman. And another fa├žade 'Bruce Wayne', the gay to the grim. But never again my…" He wants to say "boy" but he can't. "Rope" yesterday. "All those years of training. Do you think I ever delighted in how well Batman fingerprints or performs jiu jitsu? I wanted him to come back. And every day that he did not has been my death."
Nothing to say.
"He was all dead eyes. A decade. More. When he actually started going out as Batman, it was the end of my hope. The training, at least it was wholesome. But going out every night, to them, the worst, making himself strong, that nothing might ever really touch him. I'd bring his meals and change his sheets, but his soul was out there. Lost in that sewer. I prayed for him. I wanted my smiling boy back. And then you came."
"I'm a smiling boy."
"Master Richard, I had a brief fantasy once, no more than a minute, that I might join him out there, sit in the car perhaps, be a spark of – perhaps not salvation but light." Head shake. "His mission is in places I cannot go. Vaulting over walls, scaling fences, jumping. I cannot leap from rooftop to rooftop." Very long pause. "But you can."
"I can leap. I can't, apparently, be help beat up one of six bad guys, but I can leap."
"Master Richard, did you see any indication that he has want of more weaponry, that he can't parcel out enough violence?"
"He's like a nuke."
"He needs Robin. During all those grim years of anguish, of course I wanted to dispense my wisdom and tell him that he had chosen poorly. But for so many reasons it is not my place to tell a boy who saw both parents die how he should react. I cannot tell him that. You showed him. You're stronger. And he follows. He knew that when he chose your colors. Your arrival in our lives gave him a new outlook on self-preservation. That's when he conjured up the mantra of five nines. He is on your back."
I point to the photo. "He looked just like that tonight, for a second. After he decked Two Face."
"And where was he looking?"
I don't want to take credit for it, to be that for him. For him.
"Well, slow and clumsy and useless out there, I'm glad I did something."
"You brought back the dead."

I look at my feet and Alfred's gone. He's gone so I can let it go, cry for the third time today. But I'm too tired. I speak to the air again. "See you tomorrow, Bruce."
And I lie down to rest on Napoleon's bed.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Boy Wonder (4 of 5): The Second Girl

I don't feel like the safest person in the world anymore. Not to point fingers, but the masked man doing 175 mph in a 35 zone is the main reason. I don't know why we're going five times the posted speed, but I suspect that it's pretty important. I don't ask because I neither have nor want his undivided attention. Let's keep Batman's eyes on the road.

When you slow from 175 down to 65, it's brutal. It feels like hitting a brick wall. Bruce has shown me film of astronaut training, a guy's cheeks pulled way back by g-forces in a centrifuge. That's the sort of thing that's happening here when we take a turn. I'm trying to do math in my head, kinetic energy varying with v-squared, just because it's more calming than what's going on with the jerking and the turning and the squealing. Even Batman's head is leaning way forward when we slow down. There are eight monitors on the dashboard, and he uses one hand to change views while steering with the other one. And it's terrifying that he does that. Has he suddenly gone rogue? Is his driving going to kill both of us in the next few seconds? I think about training, how he does everything perfectly. Whatever this is, he has to be able to do it without killing us. He always knows what he's doing. When we're done rocketing around the turn, we accelerate again, from 65 up to, yes, 175, and when nothing else can reassure me, I try squaring 175 in my head to find our kinetic energy, and then Batman interrupts me mid-math by grunting out a two-word explanation, "Girl killer."

When the acceleration is done, it's a more comfortable ride. We're on the expressway, doing 185. We're obviously going after the killer. Is Batman risking his own life and mine to get the guy? A calculated risk, ends justify the means? Five nines out the window? I'm in Batman's video game now. Where is this going?

We switch lanes to go around a car, and my head snaps to the right, then back to the left. We speed up some more; I see the number 195. Then Batman has time to think, so he talks, two words at a time, this chase straining even his mental abilities. The girl killer has a girl, who's probably in his car. The parents reported a license plate number, and Batman's camera network is tracking the plate as it moves through his private checkpoints. Batman sees on those monitors where the car is and where it's going, but if it leaves the grid onto a side street, we will lose it. And then the guy will have hours before we find him again. The sicko's M.O. has him raping and killing the girl during those hours. So I shut my eyes and think, "Go, Batman. Do this."

Unfortunately, we leave the expressway, another brick wall of deceleration, 195 down to 75. I hate the "squared" in the kinetic energy equation. Why does it have to be there? We squiggle side to side with incredible ferocity, then I'm slammed against my door and we accelerate again. I realize that the girl killer doesn't know that we're coming for him. He's driving past cameras that are giving us his position, but he has no idea that the cameras are there, or that Batman's watching him, and bearing down on him. We are going to catch him fast. Very fast. Less than two minutes. I don't know about Batman, or the girl killer, but for me it feels like two days. Probably longer for the girl, who thinks she is going to die, and is right to think that.

The morning Bruce told me about the second victim's grave, what the grave told him about what happened. The week before, he told me about the first victim's grave, and it was bad enough. But the second one was worse, which means this psycho is getting worse, and it's maybe better that the world had never existed than for this guy to get to do to the girl what he wants to do. He's evil in human form. A reptile. Just awful. And if he gets off the camera grid, he gets to do it. So go, Batman, go.

I grab the armrests and ask myself if I can keep from throwing up. I can't feel if my stomach is still down there. The buildings lining the street are a blur as we throttle down mercifully empty city streets. The pulse in my neck is getting in about two beats per block. I figure out what all of the monitors on the dash are for. Using his network of cameras, he sees the view down each side street, scrolling three intersections ahead so that he knows that the side streets ahead have no cars in our path. If he were to see an imminent collision, he'd have a few seconds to slam on the brakes. Which I hope does not happen. Or speed up, which I really, really hope does not happen. He also has to worry about the reactions of terrified drivers going with or against us, and I can't even guess what we'd do if someone freaked out and did the wrong thing.

When did Batman first think that this was a thing he might have to do? How did he practice? If this is what a Batman has to be able to do, then I'll never be Batman, at least not a Batman as good as this. I imagine future defeats, where Dick Batman will let some girl die because I'm not as good as Bruce Batman. Love the hard part. Is knowing that someone will die because of me the hard part I have to love?

Math is more comforting, until I discover the terrifying fact that we are going through red lights at over one quarter the speed of sound. I look at how Batman is processing those eight monitors and the view out the windshield, and it occurs to me that this is the hardest thing I've seen him do. This isn't a horror show. It's a miracle, a man driving at airplane speed to change the rule that says the killer with the girl in his car is going to get away. But this girl has Bruce Batman coming for her. He says, in a clipped tone, "Call the police." I grab the red phone, the direct line, and forget about the blur and vibrations. A man's voice answers, and I say, "This is Batman and Robin." I hear the brakes squeal as I wonder if that means that we've closed on our destination. Somehow Batman reads my mind and nods. I continue, "We are pursuing a criminal near the twenty-eight hundred block of Drake Expressway. Please send a patrol car for pickup." Did I say that right? I see a car ahead in our lane. The car we're chasing. The voice on the phone says, "Yes, sir," and hangs up. Batman flicks off the headlights and the brakes bite into our crazy airplane speed, smoking tires burning up the asphalt. Batman's like Neil Armstrong now, taking us to the lunar landing. This rocketship will soon be a car, a parked one, as the girl killer drives without knowing what's about to happen, and in that respect, I'm right with him. What will Batman do – flash gumball lights and ask the sociopath to pull over? Whatever Batman's plan is, I'll see it as it happens.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that we've already won. Catching the car before it went off-grid was the hard part (love the hard part). What could go wrong now – that Batman would lose the fight? It's over. The girl will live. But before it's actually over, the ride has to end, and we're still doing seventy, overtaking the psychopath, who only now senses that something's wrong, besides his twisted brain, as we pass him on the left. Then the braking gets very hard, and Batman steers into the other car's path, jamming my door (which is a sturdy door, I'm sure) against the left bumper of our prey, forcing it into a wild, sparks-flying contact with the guard rail on its other side. Whatever the girl killer is doing, the Batmobile's brakes are shutting down his intentions, and then with a lurch, we come to a total stop. My door and the guard rail have pinned the car in place as the girl killer opens his door, steps up and runs over his door and our hood, dreaming that he's going to get away on foot.

My perception is broken. I haven't even noticed Batman moving until I see him through the windshield, coming at the girl killer, who stops running (which is futile) and turns to face Batman (which is more futile). Batman could put this guy in the hospital by throwing an orange at him. The purple streetlamp lighting makes both of them look crazy, out of nightmares. But the girl killer didn't expect this, didn't prepare for it, while Batman, who did the nerve-jarring driving that left me shaken, is out there calm as always. And I know from past lectures what he's going to do and why. He's not furiously angry, at least, he's not going to wreck the guy's body out of anger. He'll wreck the guy's body because it will be a lesson to everyone who meets him in prison. It will intimidate them. The girl killer is about to become Batman's advertising, and it begins with this moment of intimidation, the inevitability that the girl killer can sense. The psychopath is short, dark-haired, hunched and baring his teeth. He's an evil, wicked animal, no challenge whatsoever for Batman, who is light on his feet, moving like a boxer, a matador, signaling "Come here" with eight fingertips, then moving in, bringing the five-mile chase down to one arm length, and then it slams into the girl killer like a runaway truck. Batman's right hook lifts the girl killer into the air. It doesn't look like the sort of blow that a human could deliver or the sort of blow that a human could survive. Batman gets in two more limb-breaking shots while the girl killer is airborne, and there's a sense of justice, a memory of the two dead girls, that makes my lips tremble and smile, and I feel compelled to say when the girl killer's short flight has ended on the pavement, "Get up." I'm almost crying, so glad that Batman can't see or hear me. "Get up and fight Batman." I wish he would, but he can't. He won't be standing up now or anytime soon.

For a few seconds I stare at the crumpled heap that has just had justice knocked into it. I wonder about the girl, and look to my right. She's in his arms, Batman's arms. He has her, in the same arms that held me this morning. It's going to be all right for her. She knows that now. He has her, like he has me, and the whole city, and I make a silent declaration that anyone who criticizes this man has to be told. Anyone who calls him a vigilante has to know what he just did, has to know that when a girl is in the girl killer's car, there isn't a single idea in the world that makes more sense than Batman. The world and all its rules had her tortured, dead, and buried, but now she's alive and all right, and if this were the only thing Batman ever accomplished, then his every action was worth it.

He's saying something to her, softly, the right thing, like he told me, "You can't bring back the dead." Whatever he's saying has to be right. I open the back passenger door for her, and he leads her inside. I shut the door and follow Batman's bull-horns gesture to the other seat, beside her. Batman's standing in the red and blue flashes of police cars, talking to the paramedics and the ambulance driver, and handing a digital camera full of evidence to the cops. The girl is much calmer than she should be. Whatever Batman said to her must have been perfect. And instead of being alone in the back seat of a scary superhero's car, she's sitting next to me, a minor hero, her age, which is hopefully comforting. She looks very tired, with smiling eyes half closed.

"Who are you?"
"Hi, Robin. I'm Emily."
"You're all right, Emily." She nuzzles into her seat.

The car's moving again. Batman's taking her home. Nobody says anything until we're in the East End, and I'm opening her car door. "Good bye, Robin." Her parents are on the lawn, running to her, deliriously happy. Her mother thanks Batman. I take my usual seat. Before the car starts moving, I say the things I wanted to say before the girl got into the car.

He looks at me.
"There was no way. There was no way she was getting out of that."
He looks through the windshield.
"She's OK. She's with her parents."
"Two aren't." Pure oxygen. Burning him up.

When we're moving, he picks up the phone and becomes someone else.

"Hi, Marty. Marty? It's Bruce Wayne. I know. I know! I just got a call, Marty, and it woke me up. Police. Of course. Hey, I wasn't alone, you know. Listen up, Marty. The police have a guy, the guy's who's been killing girls. Yeah. Name's Raul Castor. I want Danzig to help the D.A. nail this case shut. Starting at eight a.m., he should know right now, him and his team. Saturday, Monday, whatever, get them on it by sun-up. Call it pro bono, it'll be amazing P.R. It's pro-Wayne. One point six if he walks. Three point two with conviction. Yeah, that's wake up at five a.m. money, isn't it? Ha. Make the call and then get back to sleep, Marty. You're the best. I want you in my box at the NBA Finals. Bring sixteen. Write it down so you remember when you wake up! Ha, I bet. Make the call."

"Three point two. Million?"
"I have a lot more money than time."
"Who's Danzig?"
"Larry Danzig. He's the ace of spades."
"He could pin the Kennedy assassination on Castor?"
Bruce laughs. "He could pin the Lincoln assassination on Castor."

Some time goes by. It's getting light out.

"I've got a surprise for you when we get home."