When my father got towards the end of his life, he spent most of his time asleep. There was an exercise bike in the room that I had gotten him from California to help keep him alive through exercise, but he never used it and it functioned as a clothes rack. The radiator was piled high with books but on top of the books was a layer of health-related impedimenta — pill bottles, a folded-up walker — so he never got to the books. The television was on all the time to a channel that showed violent movies and documentaries about con-men and criminals, but he didn’t pay attention. He was too tired.
I would fly in when I had a weekend to spend time with him while I still could, but sometimes this felt a bit comically futile — just to stand in the room or perch on the bench by the window while he slept. My Dad had been very tall — six foot four — and when he came home from work would throw me in the air so I thought I would get beaned on the hanging lamp, so when he was stretched out in bed he was large, although his skin had become pale and yellowish and he had a wound in his leg (he got it I think either falling down in the ruins of Pompeii or barking his shin on a boulder in Santa Monica) that year after year did not heal. I used to, whenever I left after these trips, count up the hours I would be able to spend with my Dad during his remaining life — figure four visits a year at three days a visit, two hours of waking time per day — four times three times two is 12 — maybe three to five years — 36 to sixty remaining hours — and cry inconsolably, uncontrollably — a big guy like me wracked with sobs like a four year old left alone in the fair.
So as we are wise to do when we have a limited amount of something — candy bars or hours with Dad — I tried to make each one count.
An interesting thing about my Dad is every night before I went to sleep I would have reading time and he would read me usually one or if I insisted two hours of a book. Mostly the Oz books. Also Tarzan and the less known sequels — Tarzan and the Ant Men — Tarzan and the City of Gold. In one Tarzan Tarzan fought the Boche by dropping a lion in the trench. The huge cat ran amok eating Germans! No wonder I was afraid to learn to read, because I thought my Dad would stop reading time. But I was assured by my father and Mady the social worker who lived across Rugby Road that this wasn’t true.
So I asked my father at a moment when he was awake to tell me a story.
“In the future everybody keeps their bodies safe in underground crypts. They live their lives — go to work, meet people, go to parties and so on using robots. The robots are controlled by the people who are in the underground crypts. The robots never let anybody know who is controlling them, because somebody could find the person in the underground crypt and kill him. So you’d meet somebody — this is Bob Jones, this is Mary Smith — and you wouldn’t know who is Bob Jones really? You could meet him your whole life and not know who he was. Or Mary Smith. You could marry her. And not know who she was. But if she kept the same robot all the time it wouldn’t matter. The real body would almost be like the brain and the robot body would be like the body.”
“Not everybody would make a robot that looked like a man. Sometimes somebody would be a monster. Like a mandrake. Or a manticore.”
“They had a guy once who was wondering through mazes. There was a labyrinth. They had a minotaur there for him. But it wasn’t really a minotaur. ”
My Dad closed his eyes. “Dad?”
“The minotaur wasn’t really a minotaur.”
“What do you mean the minotaur wasn’t really a minotaur? Do you mean it was a robot controlled by somebody in an underground crypt?”
“What are you talking about?”
“An underground crypt. You said in the story that all the people were in underground crypts controlling robots.”
“Yes they were. They were in underground crypts. Controlling robots for ages. Sometimes they would have to take an elevator. Sometimes they would take the stairs. You had to do that back there. I think it was on Orchard Street. That was before they did the things which you understand they do now.”
“But what about the minotaur? Was it a robot.”
“There were many minotaurs and many robots and I’m pretty sure many people living in underground crypts. And you couldn’t know, ahead of time, you understand, which was which. One of the minotaurs could have lots and lots of…”
“Lots and lots of different people controlling it.”
“Lots and lots of people controlling the minotaur! And lots of minotaurs controlled by one person. But you wouldn’t know?”
His eyes were closed and his breathing was very faint but regular.
“Dad! Wake up!”
“What about the maze?”
“Well needless to say there was a maze. And an underground crypt. And lots of people controlling one minotaur. Two people controlling one minotaur. Mary Jones and Bob Smith. But also…”
“Also what, Dad?”
“Also there was a minotaur. There was a minotaur who was controlled by several people.”
“Dad, you said that.”
“I did? Sorry. If you don’t want to hear the story we can watch t.v.”
“I want to hear the story.”
“There were also many many minotaurs a whole lot of minotaurs that were controlled by different people at different times. Like there was a schedule. Monday Tuesday and Friday you would control one minotaur. Tuesday Thursday and Wednesday I would control that minotaur. The minotaurs would wander through mazes. They only looked like mazes because of the capacities of the various minotaurs. The minotaurs lived in the mazes and every maze had to contain one or more minotaurs. Needless to say the actual people controlling the minotaurs and the mazes were not in the mazes. They were in underground crypts.”
My Dad closed his eyes again. Was he dead? No he was breathing.
“Dad! Wake up! What happened?”
“What happened with Bob and Mary and the minotaur?”
“They told each other who they really were and they came out of their underground crypts and went…”
“Where did they go?”
“They went up the stairs and up the elevator and they met on the avenue and they had vanilla ice cream.”
“Would you like vanilla icecream?”
He opened his eyes, looked at me, and took my hand.
“You know, I think I would.”