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.


  1. Fantastic piece of writing. I enjoyed this very much, as I have your other pieces.

  2. Thanks, Websnap. It took me a lot longer to conclude this than I expected, since life got in the way. This was all intended to be a long reply on the theme of superheroes and their fathers, and the first four parts were the setup to this conclusion; without any particular point being very original, I hope the combination of action and plot and characterization added up for a few readers.

    This was the first morning in the last few months in which this piece was no longer on my agenda and in my thoughts and it felt a little empty to have let it go. For me, the Bruce and Dick relationship is one of the very most important in the superhero genre, and (IMHO) by far the most important relationship between two allies/peers. A byproduct of comic history is that the wide majority of all Bruce-Dick stories were written in an era when characterization was limited. I love seeing new stories that show the old days. It seems like DC might be giving us a lot more of them, but I haven't absorbed the recent news yet...

  3. Thanks for this, the whole thing, it was really fantastic. While a bit less action-packed than the last couple chapters, the bit with Dick and Alfred was a great capstone for the series. Normally I would say that showing how Dick affects Bruce is better than telling, but Alfred's unique perspective really brings out something great in what we've already seen, something that we wouldn't be able to get from Dick's narration. A touching portrayal of some of the best relationships in comics: Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth, and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Alfred keeps Bruce from completely falling apart as a boy, grounds him just enough that he can survive to the point of becoming Batman - but he can't save Bruce. And then Dick and Bruce save each other.

    Five stars, man!

    BTW, a question on the timeline you established: your version of Dick is 15 when he first goes out as Robin, but we never find out exactly when his parents died, IIRC. Did Bruce find him at 12 and train him for three years before letting him go out, or did the Flying Graysons die later in Dick's life?

  4. Spangle,
    Thanks for the engaging response! I battled (hence the long post times between #4 and #5) to keep the final scene, where it's revealed just how much Dick has changed Bruce's life, less talky. On a logical level, though, I thought it made most sense for this information to come from Alfred talking to Dick -- Bruce wouldn't tell him outright. However, there were clues along the way and I thought of this as a kind of low-key villain-less mystery. One major clue is when Bruce says that he once fought 18 men at once and that it was not five-nines degree of security that he would survive the experience.

    The overall structure was meant to point towards the idea of change as well: The first workout is all work and the second workout is playful. I also hammered the theme of "two"ness in lots of places: There are two girls, two workouts, Two Face, and pairs of cards that hold each other up (as Bruce and Dick strengthen each other).

    I also tried to keep reminders that Bruce (and, obviously Dick) are orphans, which is an obvious fact of their backstories, but also here the "fatherless" theme. When Dick says that the girl that they saved is with her parents and Bruce says "Two aren't," the surface interpretation is that he means the other two girls whom the killer got to, but I intended to word it so that another interpretation is that the two who aren't are Bruce and Dick. Which would be a sort of self-pitying comment out of Bruce, but he's smart enough not to say it if he didn't mean it both ways.

    As I imagined the timeline, Dick's parents would have died when he was, say, 13 and six months, and this is about 18 months later, on the day he turns 15. This isn't meant to plug into or go out of its way to contradict any particular comic continuity -- it made sense to me that 15 would be the birthday, if any would, when Dick would be physically strong enough to go out and basically follow Bruce and that a year and a few months would be enough time for Dick to have stayed behind at night while getting trained by day.

    Thanks for the comments!