Call of Duty

by Danielle Spencer

When I was 12 my parents fought, and I stared at the blue lunar map on the wall of my room listening to Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” while their muffled shouts rose up the stairs. As I peered closely at the vast flat paper moon—Ocean Of Storms, Sea of Crises, Bay of Roughness—it swam, through my tears, into what I knew to be my future, one where I alone would be exiled to a cold new planet. But in fact it was just an argument, and my parents still live together—more or less happily—in that same house where I was raised.

Some years ago I began dating a man whose marriage had broken up just a few months beforehand. Sam’s two sons Marco and Carl were 12 and 15, climbing the craggy precipice between childhood and adolescence, unsuspecting and devastated by the news. He assured them that he loved them very much and that he could explain more about the reasons for what he’d done when they grew older, if they wanted to know.

Both boys were playing a lot of Xbox Call of Duty, the online interactive WWII game, and Sam reasoned that if he played with them it was a way to do something together—in this case shoot Nazis—on nights they weren’t staying with him. Marco and Carl were more or less infinitely better at it than he was, though, and he wanted to become skilled enough to play on their team. Sam is a surgeon, researcher and inventor, possessed of tireless will and determination. And so he resolved to practice until he mastered the game.

Night after night Sam returned home from work and sat on a broken futon in his bachelor rental apartment—galaxy-sized drifts of work going undone, circling comets of deadlines spiraling past unmet—wearing his headset and practicing Call of Duty. His moniker was “Insinuator.” But despite his best efforts he was still basically terrible at the game. He would sit and play intently with adolescent boys all around the world only to see his head blown off again and again, a miasmic scrim of blood dripping down over the screen as his character died a gruesome death time after time. He could hear his teammates complaining to each other: “Insinuator sucks!” Sam didn’t mind being humiliated by teenagers, but eventually he acknowledged that he was having nightmares after his practice sessions. “Maybe it’s that it goes against my training as a doctor to be…killing people”—he confessed.

It was around that time that Sam and I began our relationship. We live in different cities, and after few months I traveled by train for a quick visit, arriving in the evening and leaving the following morning. When Sam picked me up downtown it was already dark and we were planning a late dinner. But as we pulled away from the train station his younger son Marco called, asking Sam to bring him his iPod which had an audiobook he wanted to listen to as he went to bed. Sam pointed out that by the time he arrived Marco would already be asleep, and that he could drop it off in the morning. Dad, no, I need you to bring it tonight, Marco insisted. Will you come tonight?

As we drove into the sylvan suburbs the moon rose fat and round in the sky, casting its pale yellow light over the brontosaurus-sized colonial homes slumbering deep in their glades. I struggled to understand what we were doing, spending the evening trekking out there for what seemed like no purpose. Sam didn’t say much, rubbing the side of his face as he drove. We pulled into the long driveway and he jogged up to the darkened house, leaving the iPod on the stoop—to be found in the morning—and then we drove back home.

I didn’t understand it then, but I kept thinking about that night. I thought about the moon, and I thought about “Slip Slidin’ Away,” and I thought about the verse that always catches me:

And I know a father who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons
for the things he’d done
He came a long way
just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and headed home again

Finally I realized that I wasn’t listening to what it was that Marco needed to know. Marco had never asked Sam to explain what he’d done. He was asking him this: When I call you in the middle of the night will you still come, even if I’m not awake, even if I don’t know you’re here? And his father, hearing his call, was answering Yes.