Branchwood – Heroes and fathers

Jonathan locked himself in the basement. He wanted to examine his gun and sit in the darkness. He didn’t intend to lock himself in, but he forgot to check the handle when he went down. Stupid.

There was a small and sparse wooden table that held an old can of yellow paint, a handful of petrified paint brushes, and an empty box of Cheer detergent; no, not empty, it was filled with spider webs.

There was a wooden chair that he bought second-hand (he thought he might stain it and put it in the hallway), a scattering of mice turds, and an old rake. It was a small basement, but its emptiness made it huge. The overhead 40 watt bulb tossed shadows, elongating the brush handles and giving the rake dangerous broken teeth.

Well, I’m here,” he said to no one. He sat in the wooden chair and stared into the corner. His head was aching from a restless night. He slept – or whatever version of sleep the night gave him – with the gun still in its cardboard box on his dresser. His eyes were drawn to it. The street light pried through the curtains and shone on the box like some fantastic secret talisman.

There are no heroes,” said his father. “Only men who do the best they can in a bad situation. Real heroes have shit running down their leg after they do what no one else wants to.”

Was that true? Do men do things they have to — because they have to? There’s no forethought in heroism, just jump right in and save the day. Was that true? Or can you plan to be a hero? Can you sketch it out in your head and wait for that moment, that spectacular moment, when the world smiles and the girl kisses your mouth?

His head ached. He looked up at the door. It was locked, but it wasn’t hard to jimmy, he’d done it before. But it was better to rest and be still, alone in the semi-transparent darkness.

The best conversations were those he had in his head. There was no stutter or stammer, no mangled words, no broken thoughts.

Heroes,” said Jonathan.

Heroes do what most men won’t. They become better than themselves, not out of choice, but out of need. A coward can become a hero, but a hero can never become a coward. It’s backwards.” So philosophized his old man, who was awarded a Purple Heart back in the good old days when everyone went to war.

Jonathan wanted to tell him, “Daddy, you were shot in the goddamn leg.”

I did it for my country.”

You died choking on a pork chop bone.”

I died for my country. Not like you. You’re going to die from a stroke or a heart attack because you sit behind a desk and don’t challenge yourself.”

I’m good at what I do.”

As any sheep would say. ‘I’m good at what I do… I shit in the field and eat the grass. There are none better.’”

I’m not a sheep. I’m–”

And he thought about it. What was he? An accountant who walked out on his job, his career, his future. For what? To go home and die? To sit in a basement because he was too stupid to remember to unlatch the door? What was tomorrow, or the next day? It was waiting. Waiting for something.

And then he saw the woman in the park. She needed something from him. To soldier-up and become a hero for her.

Your need to be needed is pathological,” said his father. “You need a doctor, someone to poke inside your head and pull out the bugs. A hero doesn’t need anyone but himself.”

You’re wrong,” he said. “You needed Mom. You needed your pork chops and gravy, you needed to let everyone know who you were.”

At least I was somebody. You–”

I don’t want to argue anymore, Daddy. You’re dead. I’m not. And neither is that girl in the park. She’s not dead, either. Did you see her bruises? And not just on the outside. She’s wounded. She needs someone to protect her from all the meanness that comes her way. She looks like someone who’s had a whole lot of meanness poured onto her.”

She doesn’t even know you’re alive, Johnny. You’re just some guy she saw in the park. She forgot you the second you walked away. You’re no hero, just a guy muttering to himself in his locked basement.”

I have a gun,” he said. That was true. He had a gun. The great equalizer. It turned cowards into heroes and could maybe turn the voice of his dead father into silence.

His head felt better. He untied the strings from the cardboard box and reached inside. It felt warm, like it was waiting for him to bring it into the scrimpy light.

I have a gun,” he said again, and held it in his palm and felt its solid warmth.

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