While moving books and discs from the other shelves, floor, nightstand, desk, and coffee table, I remember what I said. It’s a new year. It’s time to start again. That’s why I, with more than a little help, finally installed a third bookshelf. All that remains is the filing.
My process is slow. I can’t place a story on its perch without remembering its first viewing or reading. The spiral of nostalgia and memory is powerful. I try to concentrate on my task. I ignore genre and medium, which would’ve made my librarian mother cringe, and focus on names. Only creators matter.
The Ss begin on the middle bookshelf’s first tier. I start alphabetizing the scattered piles and place them in their new home. Salisbury; Satrapi; Schutz; Schwartz; Schwartz and Fredak; Seagle and Kristiansen; Seuss; Shakespeare; Shelley; Shepard; Shooter, et al.; Simon and Kirby; Slater; Slott and Templeton; Smith…
My parents taught me very early on: always pack reading material. Always. If there’s nothing to do, you can fight the boredom. If there’s too much happening at once, you can find an oasis in the chaos. Today will be boring and chaotic.
Dad’s warming up the car downstairs. I skim my piles of unread books – I’ve bought a lot lately – and know I need to finish packing soon. Jeff Smith seems like a good idea. He’s fun. I need fun today. Do I grab the four prestige format superhero comics or the six paperbacks about an epic quest? I go with the slimmer option; it’s a complete story. I’ll read Bone later.
I should just shove the Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil issues into my backpack – we’re in a hurry, remember! – but I gently arrange the series so it won’t bend in transit. I’m the son of a librarian. I run downstairs and get in the car, dreading the traffic we’ll hit in Philly.
The tide of costumed and non-costumed attendees pushes and pulls me from my goal. I stand a few feet away from the table holding an 8” x 10” Strathmore tablet. Is it weird to have this specific request? The series is nine books. Nine! I’ve only read one.
But I want this.
Before the sixth New York Comic Con swallows me, I commit and get in line for Cartoon Books.
“Scholastic?” I pace around the small box generously called a lounge in my junior year apartment. “As in Goosebumps?”
“Exactly,” Mom answers through the phone. “They’re making comics now. Do you think Bone would be appropriate?”
“Weren’t those stories in the magazine you read when you were younger?”
I stand still while mentally scavenging for the info. “Wait, from Disney Adventures? I was ten! How do you even remember that?”
“You always showed Dad and I your favorite art. You still do. I remember Bone’s style.”
She amazes me when it comes to this sort of detail. “In that case, yeah, I think Bone’d be great for the book fair.”
“Good. I have a copy of the first volume. I think the kids will love it. Can you read it when you’re home next week to be sure?”
“Of course.” She never had to ask me to read anything, especially comics. Mom and Dad encouraged me to read whatever I wanted growing up, be it Hardy Boys, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Salinger. The fact I read was all that mattered.
Dad and I finally get into her room after sitting in traffic for an hour. Gray, depressing February filters through the window. Mom’s still asleep. I get as comfortable as possible in the rubber/plastic/metal thing that’s a chair and dive into fictional world like I’m eight years old.
Orphaned Billy Batson lives in squalor. A typical day for him involves battling cockroaches for his food, thieves for his money, and the cold for his health. In spite of these hardships, Billy possesses the heart to help others, like old man Talky, whenever he can. Then he encounters a day less typical: a spectral vision of his father leads him down a subway entrance. There Billy learns about the universe’s magic. An ancient wizard teaches him a most powerful word:
Billy transforms into the superpowered adult Captain Marvel. The Captain is more equipped to fight the battles Billy couldn’t imagine. They confront monsters – human and grotesque – threatening Billy’s city and newly discovered sister.
The adventure flies by. Soon, the siblings; Captain Marvel; a familiar-looking, talking tiger; and even the media make their city a safer place. Jeff Smith delivers exactly what I need.
I almost fall out of the chair. Mom’s awake.
I finally reach the booth. Even after attending cons for years, my words fumble. While handing him my tablet, I explain I love his work.
Smith smiles and asks my name. “What would you like?” He’s referring to a sketch.
“Could you draw Fone Bone? Reading a book? Reading a library book?”
The cartoonist begins his quick line work on the page. I stare in awe. I don’t explain how his Captain Marvel helped me on a particular day. I don’t say I want the sketch because of Mom. I don’t say how she, after her and I read Out from Boneville, made sure Scholastic included it in the St. Michael the Archangel School book fair. I don’t say how much she loved the series. I don’t tell him how Mom bought me every volume when I didn’t have time to read it at college. I don’t explain how she fought to purchase Bone for the school library itself. I don’t tell Smith how many kids read because of her decision and his work. I don’t tell him his Bone family rivaled Harry Potter in popularity at her school. I don’t say how proud I am of her.
“Here you go.” Smith returns the pad to me.
I fight back tears, thank him, and walk away.
I can’t tell if I want to smile or cry as I place the four issues of Shazam! on the shelf. I make a mental note to grab the Bone paperbacks at Dad’s the next time I’m there. It’s time to read the whole story.
It’s late. Mom collapses back into her bed, closing her momentarily wide eyes and unclasping her hands. She’s just received the Anointing of the Sick. It’s the most lucid I’ve seen her all day. Dad and I stand on each side of her. She reaches for our hands and squeezes them for a second.
“I love you, Mom.” I’ll never be able to say it enough.
She moans again before falling asleep.
It’s been like this all day. Mom wakes up in pain; her, Dad, and I talk; she sleeps; and I read about capes and superpowers.
Another hour or two drags by. She isn’t awake to hear “Good nights” or “I love yous,” but we say them anyway. Dad kisses her. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”
It’s true, for him. I won’t make it. This will be the last time I ever see Mom. I’ll never make it back in time…
…because I’m stuck in snow.
…because I’m scared.
…because I’m a child who didn’t find the magic word.