Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For The Man Who Has Everything

DI: Okay, you brood too much.

B: So I’ve been told.

B: Well, to hopefully get you to stop brooding, I want you to tell me about your best Christmas.

B: No. Because there’s three that are important to me, for varying reasons, and at different times. So depending on what I’m missing in my life at that moment, each is special.

DI: Okay- I will not look in the mouth of this gifted horse.

B: The first Christmas I’d like to talk about happened when I was very young, before I’d even started school. My father said it had been a rough year at his practice, and an even rougher year for the family’s companies, that we’d have no money for Christmas presents. And at first I was devastated. A child that age, on Christmas, with no gifts. But my dad said he had something that was almost as good. “Cookies?” I asked. He shook his head. “Candy?”

“We’re going to help people,” he said. And I thought he’d lost his mind. But we took the family car down to a homeless shelter. Well, technically my father dropped my mother and I off, then walked across the street to a free clinic operated by dad’s colleague, Leslie Thompkins, that dad funded. And at first I was really pouty, and bratty, and I didn’t want to cut carrots or stir the stew, but my mother was a gentle woman, and she had a way about her, that even when I didn’t want to behave, I couldn’t cause her too much trouble, either.

And what I started to see, and realize, as I dished out the kind of questionable looking food, was just how grateful people were. They thanked me for every ladleful I spooned out, and wished me a merry Christmas. And when children ate their fill, and wanted seconds, their parents stopped them, so there would be enough for everyone, and instead fed their children from their own plates.

Spending time with people who had so little, but were so willing to share what they had, and to sacrifice, even as a small child I felt foolish for my selfishness. And I remember when it looked like we might run out of food demanding, rather self-righteously, that my mother buy more. I insisted she must have some money, as, “I’m owed an allowance.” Sure enough, she produced some bills, and sent Alfred and I to the store.

A little while later, I recognized my father beneath a fake white beard in a red suit handing out gifts to children at the shelter. I was still kid enough that everything in me wanted to ask him for one of the presents, but I’d learned a lot of humility that day, and I could see that Santa’s sack couldn’t have enough presents for everyone.

But, at the end of the day, presents were waiting for us back at our home. “It must have been Santa,” my father said, smiling beneath his moustache. I think I knew the truth, even then. But it started a tradition for us. Every year, on Christmas day, we worked with the poor, cooking meals, handing out presents. My father was a philanthropist, spending money all year long to help people, but giving, really giving back in person, it was different.

And it continued until the year my parents died. It was winter, snowing, I remember that. A lot of time had passed without me even knowing it. I didn’t even realize it was near Christmas, even though Alfred had put up a tree, until he shook me one morning and said, “Master Bruce, it’s Christmas, and they’re expecting us at the shelter.” I might have spent the rest of my life in that haze if it weren’t for Alfred. But getting back out into the world like that, seeing people, all the people who still needed help, whose lives hadn’t stopped with my parents’. That’s when I decided I needed to continue on my father’s work, and try and make sure no one ever lost their parents the way I lost mine.

DI: … You were a brat.

B: I was spoiled, but I like to think I learned. Maybe.

But I remember one Christmas, Clark, Diana and I decided to exchange gifts. I suspect it was Clark’s idea, believing as he did that I lacked companionship, and that Diana, being newly away from her sisters, so we could all use the company.

I brought Clark a new species of rose called the Krypton. Diana brought a crystal replica of a Kryptonian city fashioned by Themiscyra’s finest gem smiths. We met at his Fortress of Solitude. Diana was flying that invisible jet of hers, and Robin and I raced her in one of my batplanes. And won.

But inside the Fortress, Clark was catatonic. Attached to his chest was a writhing purple-hued thing, like a sea anemone. Are you at all familiar with Mongul?

DI: Er… big dude? Coast City…

B: Yeah. Large alien. Tough as hell. He was responsible for the destruction of Coast City, killing seven million people. On his worst day he was as powerful as Clark. And he was there.

I’ve never enjoyed feeling helpless, but against him, I was. And I was too much a fool to admit it. I reached for my utility belt, for the strongest explosives I carried. I would have thrown it at him, and probably been crushed into a paste by the first retaliatory punch he threw, but Robin grabbed my arm, and Diana launched herself at him.

She knew she was no match for Mongul, but with a single glance she told me that I had to get that thing off Clark or were all dead.

At first I tried everything I had with me, plastique, acids, even a flesh-eating bacterium, but the Black Mercy, as we came to learn it was called, healed too rapidly. Diana was losing her fight with Mongul. The sounds of bone on flesh are disturbing, but the two of them were so strong, so powerful, that while they’re the same sounds, they’re so much louder. I think Clark could hear them, even in the dream world he was in. And his eyes flicked open.

The Black Mercy gives a person their heart’s desire. Just that year Clark had found out about his Kryptonian parents, so more than anything he wanted to be back with them, to live out his life on Krypton. He was married in this dream, had a son. But the sounds of Diana’s pain, of violence, polluted his fantasy world. The planetary cataclysm that hadn’t destroyed Krypton began anew, he started fighting with his wife, and father. Even his people became embroiled in a war.

I don’t know how successful I was, but I talked to him, tried to reason him towards understanding where and how he was trapped, and how to break free. But I know, somehow, he did, and I’ll never forget the cry he let out as he tore the Black Mercy off his chest. Then he was gone.

When he wanted to be, when he needed to be, Clark could move faster than the human eye could perceive. In an instant he set upon Mongul. The violence of that first blow sent a shockwave through the Fortress that knocked me off my feet.

Unfortunately, I fell into the grip of the Black Mercy. And suddenly, I was there, the night my parents died. Every hair on my body stood up; I knew the moment so well, knew that it was seconds before my parents would die. Joe Chill was holding a gun, pointed at my parents, and then- my father slugged him, right across the jaw. Chill dropped the gun, but he gave him another anyway. He hit him, again and again, until Chill collapsed. It was the kind of savage, bloodless victory that happens in adventure movies and I thrilled at it.

And a whole, happy life flashed before my eyes, watching my parents grow old, have another son. They attended my graduation, and eventually, my wedding… and the birth of my son.

DI: Wait, who was the wife and mother?

B: Batwoman.

DI: But isn’t Batwoman a lesbian?

B: I didn’t know that at the time. And, you didn’t just out her, did you?

DI: I think she was pretty well outed when Us Weekly snapped pictures of her making out with the Question in the back of her car while they were on a stakeout.

B: My slightly convoluted fantasy of the moment aside, Robin talked me out of it, just as I’d done with Clark. As I emerged from the dream, I found myself back in that moment, before my parents’ murder, and as I pulled the Mercy loose, I had to watch, in slow motion, as the bullets tore through them.

And I watched as my dad, riddled with holes, rolled mom over and started to perform CPR, watched helplessly as Chill slunk up behind him, put the revolver to my dad’s head. He felt it there, I knew it, I saw it in his eyes, but he couldn’t stop trying to keep mom alive- until another bullet killed him. I don’t know if that ever happened, or if the Mercy elaborated it into the memory, but I froze there a moment, unable to look away, unable to think of anything but their death as it happened again before my eyes.

And by the time I’d come to, Clark and Diana were fighting Mongul in the armory. I ran there as fast as I could. I understood Clark’s rage, and I took up a pair of gauntlets. I hopped onto Mongul’s back and just started pummeling him. I nearly broke both my hands on his face. I was crying-

DI: Ooh, like that scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie beats the crap out of Scott Farkus.

B: Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I’ve never been more conflicted in my entire life. I saw my life as it could have been, and got to be with my parents again. But removing the Mercy from my chest killed them again- in my mind, if only for a moment, I murdered my own parents to be free. The Black Mercy’s vision was a gift, both horrible and beautiful.

Of course, this was Mongul, so no matter how hard I hit him, even in those Kryptonian gloves, he laughed it off. Mongul may have killed us all, except Robin managed to fling the Mercy onto him. He stopped moving, and a smile crept over his face as he dreamed of interplanetary genocide.

DI: That’s… creepy.

B: After that we sat down to dinner, and exchanged gifts.

DI: Just out of curiosity, what did you get for Wonder Woman?

B: I donated a substantial amount of money to a charity fund for her. She’s proven to be an excellent philanthropist.

DI: So you gave her money to give to other people? That’s…

B: The only thing Diana could ever want. Her stipend, as ambassador from the Amazons, more than covers her needs. But the one thing she can never have enough of us helping people. It’s the reason we were easy friends, and I think the most important point of mutual attraction.

DI: That is a story you will one day have to tell.

B: But not today. Today we’re talking about Christmas, and the last is actually last Christmas. This was after I’d finally decided to stop being Batman. I sat down to dinner with Alfred, and my two adopted sons, Dick and Tim. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince Alfred to hire a caterer or even go out to dinner, so he cooked, and when he wasn’t looking we’d try to help, which he said meant dinner took twice as long because he had to redo many, many things.

But sitting down to dinner, with the three of them, it was the first time, I think that we all celebrated Christmas together, though maybe it wasn’t. Regardless, it was the first time I really felt that, since my parents died, my family was complete.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a broken home

DI: Don’t patronize me; you know everything from my instep to my credit score.

B: Okay, your parents divorced, I know that. But not all divorced homes are broken. I didn’t want to presume. But you know the old adage, that you can’t go home again? It’s largely true. But that doesn’t mean you have to be alone, and I wasn’t anymore.

DI: Okay, by my count that’s three and a half Christmases, or maybe two whole ones and then some chunks of other Christmases, but I appreciate you sharing.

B: It’s a time of the year I genuinely enjoy. A chance to spend time with people you care for, and an excuse to make the world a little better. We could use more of those.

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