Monday, March 7, 2016

Ode to a Fallout Shelter

Before I was even five years old, my father had started to dig.

It wasn’t safe, you see, it was never safe. Yes, the house was only ten or fifteen years old, and certainly every precaution, every safety feature or code specification was undertaken or met. The foundation was sturdy, the studs in the walls were straight, the roof leaked only later, and never too conspicuously. No, no, there was no visible problem; no rational reason to believe that the house was not safe.

But it wasn’t—when the little tow-headed kids donned their pajamas in the cool evening, they might be doing it for the last time. They might, in a matter of seconds, be vaporized, their flesh and bones and eyes and teeth all becoming an infinitesimal smudge of a huge blast; a blast which would blink out the sun itself. And then, we would be sizzling atoms thrust miles up in the mushroom cloud. Next? The winds would take us, to poison anyone anywhere who had the misfortune to breath, to allow their skin access to the light or air. Yes, we would sear, we would rot the flesh, and claw at the lungs and endure for centuries—long past the measure of our days—as the toxic, radioactive fallout that no amount of scouring or removal could erase.

Yes, in any moment everything could change, or rather, everything could be revealed, since how could we turn so suddenly from something so sweet, so innocent—whiter than the white bread we ate—to something so evil, so toxic, so lethal? No, it was always in us, it must have always been in us, only taking the bomb to rip it out of us. Yes, the bomb—the bomb that we had dropped on Japan, and that now the Russians could drop on us.

And they’d do it, too—without a thought, without remorse. You only had to look at Lenin’s face: the black eyes, piercing without seeing. Eyes meant to bore, not to understand; eyes meant to send armies to their death, meant to see leagues of widows and children wailing in torture, meant to register all, and absorb nothing. No, Lenin would send his mother to the gulags, and never so much as twitch a hair on his mustache.

They were sly, the bastards—that librarian who sang in the church choir with your wife? A communist, with a gold-framed picture or Stalin himself on the inside of her closet door. Yes, he gazes in the darkness at her clothes, and the blouses that will cover her breasts, the skirt that will cover her loins. Yes, all night and all day her clothes will be drenched in communism; she will slip it on as naturally and easily as a dog rolling in a carcass in the woods. And then she will go, spreading her poison even to the woman sitting next to her on the bus.

Safe? Ha ha, no one was safe! They were everywhere, the bastards, and they were hidden, and no amount of searching would find them. No, they slunk among us, masquerading as bank presidents and doctors, even, but when the red army came down the elm-shaded University Avenue? When the Russians drove their tanks onto Library Mall, prepared to gut the men and violate the women? Ah, then we would see them—the people who had lunched at our table and cared for our children.

Dig, he had to dig. Because the house wasn’t safe—the blast would come, and then we would hear the sound coming across the radio waves. Yes, the high-pitched, unvarying sound, the sound made by nerves stretched just before they broke. Yes, we knew that sound, we had heard it before: but always, it had been followed (after several nerve-wracking seconds) with the words, “THIS IS A TEST. The broadcasters of your area, in voluntary cooperation with local, state, and federal authorities, are conducting this test of the Emergency Broadcast System. THIS IS ONLY A TEST.”

No, we knew—this was never just a test. Rather, it was a reminder, a portent, a sign that dig, we must dig. Nothing was safe, and so we dug, dug, dug—though we could never dig enough. No, there was no pit deep enough, because with every shovelful, the darkness and the deepness grew within us as well. And so he dug and dug, and put his eldest son to dig and dig, and put his wife to take the rocks and the earth and make a garden by the pit.

A garden, yes, that the neighbors would see, so that the neighbors would see the pit that was next to the house, and that was within us. For the fallout, it seems, had fallen even before the blast itself, and the rot and filth was growing within us—despite our white bread and tow-headed heads. No, we were as rotten as a pirate’s teeth, and just as black, as black as the soil which poisoned even the worms, the skeletal white bugs that lived under the rocks. And so they dug deeper, and deeper, and drenched themselves even more deeply as they went. They could not stop, and the dirt piled up higher and higher, and the neighbors began to notice and snigger.

Ah, the neighbors! For the alarm would sound, and it would not be a test. No, finally, finally the moment would come which we had dreaded and yet welcomed, since really, doesn’t the neck beg for the guillotine, once it has been decreed? Yes, bring it on, send that bomb and that blast and that heat and that mushroom cloud of all of the children and the houses and the trees and flowers and everyone and everything. Give us, please, give us the bomb. Because we can no longer dig, we can no longer pretend that we can out-dig the poison rotting through us. We laugh and smile and go to school and then to the library, where we check out books to inform and entertain us. To keep us from looking at what no amount of digging can conceal.

Yes, he dug, my father, and he dug, my brother. Together they dug, until Mother, peering over the abyss, could barely see the tops of their heads. They dug, and then the poured the concrete, into the tomb that had the two right angles necessary to keep the fallout out. (For fallout falls straight down, and cannot turn corners….) Yes, even Tut himself never had such a tomb, never had the shelter that we would have.

The neighbors? Would they storm the house, beat down the door, surge down into the basement, and seek to enter our redoubt? Yes and let them try, since for all the birthdays we celebrated, and all the cakes we baked, and all the Christmas cookies and cranberry bread that we had wrapped and exchanged—they were not us. Not us, and especially not us when the bomb was halfway across the Atlantic, and the alarm was sounding, and the friendly and official voice had grown graver and less polished.

Yes, he was no longer reading a script, he was at last telling the truth, and it was not just about the bomb, and about the fallout, and about the emergency precautions. No, finally, at long last, he would be announcing the truth. The father, who looks at his wife and wants to tell her, and cannot. Who sees his sons and thinks they are soft, in need of toughening, not strong enough to take the commies. Hell, who may become commies themselves!

The mother, who hates to cook and so does it badly—each burnt offering a tribute to her sacrificed life, her house that will never be clean enough or pretty enough. She moves the furniture around constantly in the living room, always trying to find a room that will comfort, that will please. Soon, she is banging the chairs against the walls, all but puncturing them; she grows maddened and frenzied, and sends the sofa spinning to all corners of the room. But still the room will not be right.

The children, whose white teeth and towheads are camouflage, or perhaps a shroud covering the pus-seeping corpse of the starved dead. The white bread had never reached the cells, so polluted and bloated with rot that nothing could be absorbed. The eldest would know success, but never happiness. The middle might know both, but only after a wrenching struggle.

The youngest? As much as anything, the father had dug the pit for the babe of the family, for it was all too clear. Yes, he had to dig and dig, but there was no pit deep enough to bury that secret, which was worse, far worse, than becoming a communist. Yes, it was a thing so black that it could cloud out even the nuclear blast, even the fallout itself would shudder, turn back, and refuse to face the horror.

Yes, the youngest had the blackest of secrets, the darkest of futures. He would be found dead, most likely, with his pants down around his ankles and his throat slit and the blood pooling, and most horrific, the semen drying on his chest. The police would come and talk to the family, and could they keep out the disgust they felt? He would not look them in the eye, could not look them in the eye, could not see the shame and pity and horror and disgust.

He had dug and dug, dug further than any man had dug, and had it been enough? For the more he dug, the darker the darkness grew, until it had consumed them all. And now, his youngest son had died in a park where everyone knew that only those people went. A park never spoken of, but sniggered. A park where no mother would take her child on even the sunniest day, since who knew, who knew….

He knew, he had always known. And he had dug, dug, and dug deeper, until it was clear that there was no digging deep enough, and that all of the digging only made it worse.
And so he dug, and tried to put the darkness back into it, and planted a garden on its side, and a patio on its roof. All so that we could go on, watering the flowers, sipping the lemonade, greeting the neighbors we would kill, when the time came. Yes, we would go on about our lives, never mentioning and never forgetting the pit and the shelter for all our darkest, worst selves.

The towheads had been peroxided—our hair was as dark as Stalin’s, Lenin’s. And our souls?

Darker still!