Dad sat in the green lawn chair and told me I wasn’t marching right. I wasn’t lifting my knees high enough. The gravel driveway was the perfect place to practice these drills. Mom had taken the car back in July and the driveway hadn’t been used much since.
That was the week football stopped. A week after dust swallowed a city whole somewhere across the country while we tried to watch highlights on a Tuesday night. I didn’t mind missing the games too much. Our satellite dish was dead. It hung from the roof like a broken hearing aid amongst the old Christmas lights. Some nights I plugged them in to look at the yellows and pinks—former greens and reds that had expired. Raccoons liked to play in the Christmas lights. They gnawed at the cables.
We lived down by the airport. Mom said we’d never sell the house with all that goddamn noise. Dad said he liked the sound—a constant hum like a pulse. But there were no planes flying that week either.
After three hours in the driveway, Dad went inside to wait for a phone call. They would need him after this, he said.
“Football isn’t coming back, Frankie. Not after this. Not after what happened.”
Instead we watched taped games. We watched highlight reels and speeches from the greats. Most of all we watched Jim Brown. We watched the rushes over and over as Brown dodged every tackle or pushed for that extra yard with three defensive linemen clinging to his back. Dad said the closest most men could get to any true conflict was in a football game. That football players were the closest anyone could get to battle without any real blood. And nobody wanted to see that blood, he said. They just wanted everything up to that point—everything but the aftermath.
“And you know what, Frankie?”
He got up from his chair, swinging his bad leg forward. Its metal joints squeaked.
“You watch a game now and everyone is running out of bounds or taking a knee. No one wants to get hit anymore. Not ever.”
His breath smelled like TV dinners and mouthwash.
“Nobody knows how to take a hit like Jim Brown.”
He started walking me to school the week football stopped. I was only ten. He wore his helmet and his desert uniform. Prepared at all times. We had to leave an hour early to make it there on time. He worried about missing any important calls, but he trusted the answering machine. He knew they would need his help like before. The sky still was empty and you could hear the bugs if you were up in the middle of the night. No planes.
“They’ll know where to find me when they need me. They’ll come.”
I avoided his eyes as we walked.
“Who played in the Pro Bowl every single season he played in the NFL?”
“Who was the first player to ever break the 10,000 mark for rushing yards?”
He made me wear a football helmet. Just like Jim Brown, I would always be prepared for that blindside tackle. It was orange and too big for my skull. It made me into a walking target.
Each day I waited for the kids at school to call him names–names like the ones Mom yelled at him over the phone, the ones that made him snap records in half and tear up the carpeting at home. But they never did. They just stared until one of the big ones asked him if he could call him Robocop.
Dad stood above them, his metal ankle showing beneath the pants he’d pulled up a little too high. He’d said the older you got the higher the pants were supposed to go. He thought that was funny.
“Is he a bad guy?” Dad asked.
“No, no he’s like the ultimate good guy—sort of. They have to rebuild him after he’s murdered and then he comes back and he—”
“So he’s not a bad guy?”
“No. Definitely not.”
When he walked me home after school that day, Dad told me he had rented all the Robocop movies. The best one, he said, was the first because Robocop could never really die. And so Robocop became another staple of our daily training. Dad left it on repeat inside the house. I marched up and down the driveway listening to the dialogue in between his commands.
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
Football came back though. Other kids at school told me the stats. They spouted off numbers and names to one another and I just sat there unable to keep up. They showed me newspaper pictures and magazines full of tackles. Dad did not believe me though. He said that they were lying. It was all part of another scam, another way to rip off the fans. It was just a mirage, a mess they broadcast to keep anyone from asking any questions.
When I woke up Wednesday morning, the television was broken. The power cord was torn in half. The newspaper had been torn into little wisps of paper that floated around under the ceiling fan. There were bandages stuck in the kitchen sink, as if someone had tried to push them down the drain. Dad lay on the floor sleeping with his leg in his arms. I went to school without him and I didn’t wear the helmet.
Dad stopped walking me to school after that. He said he couldn’t take people lying to his face every day. The newspapers piled up on the porch and so he burned them in the fire pit behind the house. I started taking off the helmet as soon as I was out of sight. No one thought it was funny anymore. Kids began to throw dirt clods at my head. Dad was no longer Robocop. He stayed at home with a dirty hand cradling the telephone and his metal leg lying beside him on the floor. He waited for a call from the government and befriended telemarketers.
Dad caught me without the helmet Thursday afternoon. He could see me from the roof as I made my way down the driveway.
“Put that back on, Frankie!”
“No, it’s too hot.”
“Put it on!”
“Get off the roof!”
“I’ll get off the roof when you put that goddamn helmet back on, do you hear me? Don’t make me come down there and get you to do it, Frankie!”
“Why are you on the roof?”
It must have taken him an hour to climb the ladder without falling. His army helmet was titled to the side on his head. His fatigues matched the trees that swayed around him with the heavy wind.
“Who said you could ask questions?”
He was fiddling with the satellite.
“Okay, I put the helmet back on, Dad. Come down, please.”
“I am not coming down till I fix this.”
He stumped across the shingles, clutching the useless chimney for support.
“How was I supposed to know they don’t use phones anymore? Now it’s all satellites.
He had a tool box up there with him.
“No, they aren’t going to call. You need to get down from there.”
He grunted and stared back at me.
“Is it because of this, huh?”
He yanked up his pant leg.
“I gave them this Frankie, and now they don’t want me back? Is that what you are saying? You’re the messenger now delivering their divine goddamn wisdom?”
“No I’m not the messenger I’m not, I’m not anything, I’m just.…”
“Yeah, you’re nothing. But I’m not nothing Frankie, even like this. You think this holds me back? It doesn’t Frankie, it fucking doesn’t. I don’t care what your mother says. It won’t stop me from getting what’s mine. I’m not nothing Frankie, all right?”
I noticed I was standing on the oil patch Mom had left behind.
“Dad, they brought football back. It all came back.”
“That doesn’t mean anything! That means nothing! They are all cowards now, running off the sidelines because no one wants to drive for that extra frikkin’ yard. They’re all so afraid of getting hurt that they don’t even know how to play anymore. Look at all the timeouts they’re calling! It’s just a load of bullshit now, Frankie! Don’t you see it? It’s not football. It’s nothing!”
“Come down! All right? I get it. I get it!”
“They are going to call me!”
“No, they aren’t. They aren’t going to call you. Not through the satellite!”
“Do you see any planes up there Frankie? How come they haven’t been flying? How come the television isn’t working anymore? How come they have buildings falling apart out there? Everything is on fire there. Everything on fire and covered in ash. They call it dust, buts it’s ash from everything they’ve burned. And you’re telling me they don’t need me because of this? I gave them this. They have to take me. They have to.”
In the distance, I heard a rumble. The trees began to shake.
“Dad, they aren’t trying to call you through the satellite. They aren’t trying to call you through the phone either. Nobody is calling you except Mom.”
“How do you know? You’re at school all day!”
The sound began to drown him out. A plane cracked through the sky overhead and I watched him lose his balance. His bad leg shifted underneath him as the shingles rattled. He fell backwards. I never heard the scream. My ears were filled with roaring engines.
I ran inside to dial the phone, but it was already ringing. I picked up.
“Hey, honey, just calling to check in on you two. The car ran out of gas again. We’re in Texas. I was hoping your Dad could wire us some money or—”
I hung up the phone and sat down on the floor. Dad was laid out flat in the backyard. His good leg was broken in three places. He was screaming about the planes and the dust. I tried to block out the sound. I remembered Mom taking the car and telling me to come with her. Didn’t matter how big her heart was, she’d said, this place was toxic. I remembered finding bloody gauze in the toilet and a dead raccoon tied up in the old Christmas lights after she left. Its legs were broken. Something had been eating it in the middle of the night. And I saw my father lying out there in the sun now, his good leg bleeding and his eyes full of nothing but me and Jim Brown and some pain he couldn’t explain, couldn’t parse into words outside of the broken dialects he’d chosen. No one was calling him and he was mangled. He’d always been mangled. His metal leg had bounced down into the ravine somewhere, and soon the sun was going to go down. Planes were flying again, worlds were moving again, cities were falling into dust all over again—new cities I couldn’t name. Everything stayed the same even as it changed.
Dad was still quoting Robocop when they put him on the stretcher.
“They’ll fix you. They fix everything,” he said.
I didn’t tell him any different.
Andrew F. Sullivan was born in Peterborough, Ontario. He has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, where his project WASTE: a novel won the Adam Penn Gilders Scholarship in Creative Writing. Sullivan’s fiction has recently been published by Little Fiction, Joyland: a hub for short fiction, Dragnet Magazine and Riddle Fence. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse. You can find him at http://afsullivan.blogspot.com.