All of the fathers but the boy’s have souvenirs from the war–helmets, guns, a bayonet etched, sometimes, in German, Italian, or the strange, unknowable Japanese.
One father has shrapnel in his back. One flings a quick, open hand for failures. One shakes with what the boy’s mother calls “the palsy,” keeping bottles in his garage and car. All of them carry cigarettes in their hands and depend upon blasphemy for speech.
Though the boy often dreams of them, their apartment has none of those things. Not whiskey. Not even the cigarettes and curses. Year by year, his father stays silent, vanished beneath a distant, sealed door.
Because their fathers say never, the boys who live nearby point those foreign guns at each other. Because whoever had fired them is dead, they tumble, quiver, and lie still. Because the boy has no weapon except stealth, he becomes a traitor they execute.
One afternoon, summer arriving, the boy is lost in the public pool locker room, old enough to know his mother is not searching by methodically counting down the lockers, eliminating one row after another to find him. He is embarrassed, not terrified, not yet, except of admitting helplessness to half-dressed or naked men, their bodies so impossibly hairy or fat that the boy, smooth and skinny, could never belong to them.
The boy’s wet suit clings clammy as fever flesh. His mother, who loves to swim, had changed elsewhere. She had talked his face into the water, lifting his legs into the miracle of floating. When she let go, he had panicked into splash and flounder.
Now, by loudspeaker, the boy hears himself summoned, his name and age repeated just before a voice says, “Your mother is waiting for you outside the door through the blue and yellow wall.”
The nearest naked man says, “That you, son?” but the boy shakes his head as if he can’t be lost. As if there are other boys alone among the rows of lockers who need to find their way by colors.
Head down, the boy studies the floor as he walks away from where his mother waits. He turns into a vacant row of lockers and begins to count. Before long, he is somewhere else, someone not almost eight and helpless while strangers examine him, amused by the happy end of a mother’s terror. When he reaches sixty, the boy walks toward the door along the puddled corridor near the open showers where men are busy with their bodies, the rush of spray smothering their hearing as he passes by like a boy who, unashamed, is about to peel off his suit and stand naked among them.
The boy’s school is noise and nuns, as simple as a sidewalk broken by numbered streets, but Mass is an unsolvable labyrinth of soloed Latin. Every day, after school, he creates a maze, each, he tells his mother, a new version of purgatory. When he completes it, he asks her to escape without lifting her pencil.
They live alone, the studio apartment small enough to memorize, the corridors on each floor straight and right-angled, a toddler’s puzzle. When his mother struggles, retracing, he imagines her prayer. When she exits, he believes she has managed penance. Always, he times her.
One evening, his mother, the pencil still pressed to the paper, declares there is no solution. Mute, he taps his watch. The apartment is cluttered with hesitation and sighs. When she retraces again, the line thickens until it fills each alley, until it’s hell.
“You’ve been here before,” the boy’s grandmother says, “when your Momma was carrying you.” When he asks where his mother has gone, leaving him behind for his first overnight, his grandmother says, “To the land of privacy.”
“There’s no such place,” the boy says, but his grandmother presses a finger to his lips, nudging him through a bedroom door with her other hand.
“Your Daddy took a nap here right before he left for the war,” she says. “Your Momma woke him when the time came, and then he was gone.”
Just like that, the boy thinks, but his grandmother doesn’t stop. “Ever since, I’ve kept it just the same as your Momma made it back up that early morning. Never washed a thing, the same sheets and pillowcase waiting for him.” She takes a breath and pats his head. “Now,” she says. “You.”
The boy locks the door. He sleeps on the floor. In the morning, before it is fully light, he wakes and unlocks the door to leave for the bathroom down the hall. When he returns, his grandmother is in the bedroom. She says, “My, first thing, without asking, you made the bed as perfect as she did that day. Your Momma has taught you well.”
When his mother returns, she hugs his grandmother and hurries him to the car.
After she asks how the night went, he tells her he was afraid. “That’s natural,” she says. “It’s something new, and now you’ll be fine.”
“I locked the door,” he says, and his mother smiles.
“Privacy already?” she says. “You’re too smart for your age, but I’ll tell Grandma about that and next time you won’t have to.”
“I slept on the floor.”
He feels the car speed up as if they have to hurry. A green sign says that within the next six miles there are exits to three towns, two with long names he doesn’t know how to pronounce. “What did Grandma say to you?” his mother says.
“This is your Daddy’s bed.”
“You already knew that.”
The boy rubs his thumbs against his fingers. “She said it’s never been touched.”
He turns his thumbs so the nails are scratching him. “These are his sheets,” the boy says. “This is his pillowcase.”
“She said ‘is’?”
“Yes,” he says. He wants to ask which exit will take them to the land of privacy. He presses as hard as he can, but he can’t make himself bleed.
During the Epidemic
The boy brings a dime every Friday to slide into a slot inside a card featuring a smiling girl on crutches. He loves seeing his card fill up. When there are ten dimes, he starts again on a card with a crippled boy. Sister Rose, his third-grade teacher, keeps everyone’s cards inside her desk. “You wash your hands, all of you,” she says, after the class slots their dimes. “There’s no telling who handled those coins. How filthy he was and what you could catch.”
Every day, just after lunch, Sister Rose inspects their desks. They need to be clean. No crumbs inside or out, spotless before they have public health, which is, Sister Rose says, a lifesaving class. The contagious, she explains, leave filth that hides on buses and streetcars and seats at the movies. You’ll never know who’s been there and given you the itch and fester. The contagious never cover their mouths when they sneeze. They wipe their noses on their sleeves where crusts collect like scabs that bleed. They borrow combs and touch fountains with their mouths.
When the boy raises his hand and asks a question, she talks as if he’s told her time is up. “You won’t know who they are until they carry that filth to you like flies. Look around. You’ll see what I mean. Eyes open, class. Keep yourselves clean. Filth is a welcome mat for polio.”
When June is close, she says, “Polio” at the end of her speech, snarling it like a curse. She takes a deep breath before she says, “Polio doesn’t go away like chicken pox or the measles. You wear braces and use crutches like poor Richard Hartman, who’s missed so much school he’ll fall a year behind.” As always, when everybody looks at Richard Hartman’s empty desk, the boy touches his desktop as if filth has returned while he listened.
“Look at this photograph,” Sister Rose says on the last day of school, walking up and down the aisles so everyone can see. “Those children are stuck forever in iron lungs. Those children will never do anything but lie inside them so they can breathe.” She pauses by Richard Hartman’s empty desk and says, “One last time, remember to keep clean.”
All summer, the boy washes his hands before lunch and dinner. He cleans his crumbs off the table before his mother sees them. He floats inside an inner tube in the county park lake, careful not to drift where the water would be over his head. Jerry Mushik, who sat beside him all year, splashes and swallows the water as if the contagious never peed there. He says Sister Rose isn’t their teacher anymore, but she’ll have Richard Hartman again next year and have to shut up about polio every day he isn’t absent.
In September, Richard Hartman, wearing leg braces and using crutches, is still with the boy’s class. Miss Gardiner, who is younger than his mother, never checks their desks after lunch, but she has new March of Dimes cards for each of them, even Richard Hartman.“The dimes aren’t going to help that boy,” his mother says. “It’s too late for that.”
Jerry Mushik laughs when the boy washes his hands after he inserts his first dime. Mushik puts his on his tongue and closes his mouth. “Fuck polio,” he whispers. For the next three weeks, Mushik licks his dime. In October, in the cloakroom before school, Mushik forces two third-grade boys to lick their dimes, and neither of them gets sick.
The boy’s mother notices that a heavy bag has been hung from a basement beam. “Someone I know would want you to do this,” she says, after she buys the boy boxing gloves and has him watch the Friday night fights with her on their tiny television. “See?” she says, but when he touches that bag with the gloves, he inhales as if sinking in sand.
“On your toes,” his mother says. “The future is furious, a full-time thug. It wants more than you have, so you must learn to juke and shuffle.”
When he hesitates, his mother talks like she’s broadcasting. “Jab,” she says. “Discover weakness. Uppercut, body blows, the hook from your left instead of the right you too much rely on. With or without brains, tomorrow is a brute.”
Nothing is more serious than the speed bag she hangs in their studio. “Again,” she says. “Now.” His shoes skid where his father’s absence lies slick and oily on the floor. In every corner are the things unused for years—vow and promise, faith and joy—each tangled among his father’s pre-war clothes. Fear loiters near the locked door, its glowing cigarette a clock. She tells him to breathe as he shadow-boxes. “Listen,” she says, “that voice you will hear is the undefeated singing.”
Early in the first summer of the Salk vaccine, the boy lives with his aunt in New Jersey for a week. It will be summer camp, but free and without the strangers, his mother explains, pointing out the nearby forest and lake, pressing him toward a cousin his age he’s met twice before.
His cousin loves chess. “I’ll teach you,” he says. He squeals and laughs when he tells the boy to tip his king after every game. When they walk in the forest, they follow a path. Whether they enter the woods or not, his aunt, each night, examines them for ticks. After his cousin tells his mother the boy left the path, finding his own way to a creek and an abandoned cabin, they never walk there again. For the week, they share not one embedded tick.
Though neither of them can swim, they go to the lake daily. The water turns their bodies brown. “Like rust,” his aunt says. “It washes off.” Both of them keep their heads above water. Their lips sealed.
On the last late afternoon, firemen arrive at the lake. With a bullhorn and uniforms, they order everyone out of the water. His aunt says, “They’re going to drag the lake,” and he watches two of them sling and lower a grappling hook while a man who looks older than his grandfather nudges the boat into tight loops with his oars.
A monthly exercise, only practice, his aunt says, but even with the sun still shining, he and his cousin shiver, dry inside their towels, but a chill clinging to their groins. At last, the firemen bring up a body, its arms and legs limp, lake water pouring, then dripping as they reach to embrace it, securing the dead to applause from the shore.
What ends that week is a bus ride from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, his aunt placing him in the front window seat, closing her goodbye with “Stay put and be quiet.” A sailor, moments later, settles next to him with a quintet of comic books, all of them featuring miracles and war. The boy wishes he could tell him the story about floating above the make-believe dead. One by one, as he finishes them, the sailor hands those battles for countries and planets to the boy. Someone dies violently in every story. When the boy finishes each story, he pages backward to examine the bodies.
At Howard Johnson’s, near Harrisburg, the sailor buys the boy potato chips and a Mound’s Bar, escorts him to the men’s room where nothing happens, that episode so ordinary, the boy doesn’t mention it in Pittsburgh where his mother says how proud she is, how he looks bigger after a week away, healthier, too. They wait for his suitcase to be extracted from beneath the bus. He opens it to prove he’s lost nothing she has trusted him with.
“I have a surprise,” his mother says. When she parks in front of a row house double, she says, “One side is ours. All your things are already inside.”She guides him through five open doors until she nods at the one that is closed. Inside is a bed and a chest of drawers that fill half the space. “You need your own room,” she says, but he shakes his head and backs away. “What?” she says. “All of our furniture is used.”
“It’s Dad’s,” the boy says, and there is nothing she can say that convinces him it is not, that she would never do that to him. What she does is drive him fifty miles to see that the bed is still exactly where his father left it, his grandmother saying, “Yes. Yes, it is,” like a defendant before his mother drives him back to the bed that is his own.
Tomorrow is his next shot in the Salk sequence, sixteen days until his birthday. Double digits, his mother says, as if it is a difficult milestone, something achieved, with practice, like a column of report card As, something like surviving serious wounds.
Them! . . . and . . . Tarantula!
“Remember this!” his mother says. Across from the Homestead Theater, the sidewalk swarms with strikers buzzing hell and damn while she buys their way inside where huge ants, within minutes, are screaming at flame throwers, working their claws as they burn. “The End” signals they have entered an hour late, but in minutes, a huge spider stalks the screaming until it, too, is fire-bombed, this time from a jet.
The previews promise two comedies, double westerns, paired romances. When the ants return, his mother mutters, “We know what happens to Them,” and tugs the boy to the door beside the screen. Over his head, a woman ten times his size stands hypnotized by a set of enormous eyes. His mother, when he turns, is waving from the lobby.
Outside, at twilight, the strike-closed mill has turned as radioactive as a test-site emptied by the bomb. Lifting their signs, the men spread into traffic. “Them!” his mother says, as if steelworkers were giants, as if an army would soon destroy them all.
The Nuclear Age
On television, the Head Groundsman at Stonehenge trims the lawn with a push mower like the men in the row houses use on their small patches of grass. He rolls up the sleeves of his white Oxford, a shirt like the one the boy wears only on Sundays, freshly washed, starched and ironed. His mother says the Groundsman is making the grass perfect for the tourists who will arrive for solstice.
A month ago, a man who lived across the street had died. Yesterday, the boy’s mother had shown him the push mower in the dead man’s garage and told him to mow what was becoming a tiny meadow of dandelion, thistle, goldenrod, and milkweed.
Later, when the boy walked the mower into the dead man’s garage, his mother had reminded him to store it exactly where he’d found it. “Sweep up after yourself,” she said. “Make it look like it hasn’t been used.”
At Stonehenge, the Head Groundsman says he loves his ancient church. He trims the base of the miraculous construction, meticulous in each shadow. When the crowds arrive, nothing will be out of place. By now, the boy believes the Bible is only a book of stories. Church is a chore he does poorly. Everything will outlive me is what he never says to the priest.
The next Sunday evening, the boy reads about the villages abandoned in the Soviet Union, the ones whose names have been erased from maps. He knows the villagers are dead or dying in places as mysterious as radiation or ancient relics. By now, the tourists have finished listening for ghosts, leaving behind a clean, well-tended cathedral.
Sister Miriam’s desk is in the back of the room so she can keep an eye out. In her black dress, she walks an aisle from back to front, then loops around the row of desks by the blackboard and comes down another aisle. “A good shaking is what some of you need,” she says as she walks. She means all of the fifth-grade boys. She uses the shoulder grab and the arm squeeze, the wrist tug and the hand clenched on the backs of their necks. She never touches a girl, but she has a grip for every sort of shake to settle boys down.
Outside, during recess, the boy laughs when Ronnie Tomlin says they should shake the shit out of each other. One boy grabs another and shakes while the girls stare. The boy twists the chains on one of the six playground swings and lifts his feet, spinning like crazy. When a girl says she wants to try, he twists the chains for her and she squeals as she spins.
The next morning, Sister Miriam shows the class pictures of the asylum seats a doctor once built to shake some sense into lunatics. Not so long ago, she says, those chairs hung from hospital ceilings. They shook out the madness. They spun the insane for hours to lessen the blood to the brain.
At recess, an hour later, the boy and five others sit on the swings, twisting their steel chains around and around and tight until somebody shoves, and they scream and spin and thrash like crazy.“Smart-alecks,” Sister Miriam says, when they come back to class. “Know-it-alls,” standing so close the boy can feel her breath on the back of his head when she shakes him and the other boys one by one while they sit in their hard-backed seats screwed into the floor. “Do you feel good sense getting into those crazy brains of yours?” she says, standing beside her desk, and all of the boys, facing forward, nod because none of them, they all knew, was crazy.
That night, the boy’s mother says Angie Bechtold’s mother is on the news. “Ruby Bechtold was a funny one,” his mother says. “She had her own ways of doing things.”
Angie Bechtold is absent in the morning. The class listen while Sister Miriam tells them to be considerate when Angie returns. Mary Russo raises her hand and asks, “What’s considerate mean?”
”That’s when you act extra nice to somebody because a person she loves has died.”
The day Angie returns to school Ronnie Tomlin spins on the swings but doesn’t yell anything. Everyone waits for a turn to spin, even Angie. They are all considerate, everybody quiet while they spin and spin.
Twelve years old, beside someone named Len he barely knows, the boy drowns himself in the church camp lake, both of them watching each other for panic or surrender while they stand where their heads nearly crown the surface. No one notices them resurface, but Len is the first to grasp the dock and pull himself up, holding on while the boy counts to eleven before he surfaces.
Neither of them can swim. Carefully, hand over hand along the dock’s slippery railroad ties, they had crept to where a white 6 is painted on the highest tie. A flurry of boys who swim had ignored them while they held hands and let go, sinking until they had stood one step from safety.
Now, neither looks at the other as they work back to the white 4 where an orange-beaded rope stretches to the opposite dock. The lake follows them, shy and silent, to their cabin where it puddles outside, waiting to trail them to dinner, lapping at their feet while they swallow meatloaf and baked beans, drink the sweet, metallic orangeade.
Later, outdoors for a sermon surrounded by evening hymns, the lake ripples between them while they lip-sync. When its waves dampen their shoes, they inch closer together, their knees touching. The boys on either side of them sing each verse of every hymn in a falsetto near helium-squeak that sounds trapped as a damaged soul.
After lights-out, the lake deepens by their beds. In the dark, it soaks their sheets with stories that begins, “Underwater, the seconds stretch into a scream.” Its spray shimmers where thin moonlight seeps through a small, sealed window, its voice now hoarse, then going so thick the words reach them like tongues seeking their bodies to be sure they are not alone.
Two days later, when his mother drives him home, she asks whether he has finally learned to swim, and the boy says, “Yes.”
The Scientific Method
In July, its leash twisted by an hour of pacing, a neighbor’s beagle leaps off his half of the porch and hangs itself. In August, a sixth-grade classmate, swimming alone, slips under the murky surface of a strip mine pool. In September, the boy is starting junior high in a public school, everybody in his home room a stranger.
Before long, Sputnik says he might soon be a Communist. Before long, the Asian Flu half-empties his classes. By November, the Soviets are listening to Laika, their space dog, until she smothers into silence, circling the earth until she plummets into re-entry’s furnace.
That week, the boy crawls into his mother’s closet and sits among dresses stacked for charity. With the thinnest negligee, he seals the space where light creeps in and waits for what the air will teach him. For an orbit’s ninety minutes, he rides weightless in that capsule.
When he re-opens the door and stands, he sees the speed bag is lying behind a blanket on the closet shelf, but he does not touch it. Downstairs, his mother is still ironing. The radio plays Johnny Mathis followed by Frank Sinatra, both melodies so familiar the boy mouths the words as he descends to earth.
In early December, Chuck Kress, who lives in the double next door, pledges to count only to ninety before he opens the door to the freezer left behind in a nearby empty house. As soon as the boy shuts himself inside, back curled and knees pulled tight in a space more suitable for a dog, he starts his own count, concentrating on that metronome for breath.
His heart thrums in his ears, graphing itself against darkness like the strikes of an EKG. He presses one hand between his legs, holding fear, refusing to touch anything but himself while he calculates the mathematics of air. He has reached one hundred and twenty-two when the face of Chuck Kress explains who he has become.
When the boy says he’d counted way past ninety, Chuck Kress says he counted like a launch commander, a man with the job of watching a clock, no longer considering the astronaut who, after all, was only a passenger. The boy slides the shelves back into place as if they are the covers over unmarked wells, ending the experimental age, which he knows wasn’t science at all, just the anecdotal evidence of fantasy’s tiny risk and the chatter of his senses.
The Day of the Triffids
The boy turns thirteen, summer stuffed with science fiction movies and books, the unpaved road below the house split along the shoulder, guardrails slumping level with the gravel. Nearby, a dump deepens with tires and trash, appliances, mattresses. Beyond it, the state game land is a place, when entered, to gather fear like berries. When leaves smother the sky, he is underwater; when branches snap, the played-out mines are graves, his mother’s “Never alone in there” insistent as a fire alarm.
In July, he is in love with the Triffids, the alien trees that advance like guerillas after the world goes blind from watching a meteor shower. The forest becomes malignant. The Triffids flourish in the Earth’s soil and have an appetite for all those sightless humans. He has watched it twice.
The paths he follows in the game lands are half-eaten by locust and sumac. Just outside of their boundaries, mine entrances are labeled like poisons; a thin canal carries runoff to dunes of silt.
On screen, the Triffids are so easily killed by salt water, they might have arrived from West Oz. The world is saved. Every tree in the woods is rooted or dead. But when August begins, the boy reads the novel, where nothing in the final scenes ends those aliens, even on the last page.
One late afternoon, among a thick stand of pine trees, the boy finds a striped shirt and black socks soaked and faintly rotten as if they have wintered there. The shirt hangs so small in his hands, that whoever had worn it begins to scream. The boy listens hard for heavy steps. He checks the trees for movement.
Although nothing happens except fantasy following him home, he picks up a heavy branch and carries it toward the road, clutching it like bravery. In his room, the novel still lying beside his bed, the boy closes his eyes and sits in his wooden chair that strangers have cut and shaped and fitted into something so common that one would always surround him. He keeps his eyes pressed tightly shut until he cries.
Raunchy is a word the boy doesn’t recognize, but he is in love with how loud his neighbor Chuck Kress turns up that song on the radio in his spotless used car. Especially the saxophone, what the boy dreams of playing.
Chuck Kress is sixteen and taking him for a spin, two miles up and two miles back on the familiar road that runs so straight and flat, Chuck can reach 100 on the speedometer. “Buried,” Chuck says, laughing, though they are down to sixty, their street a quarter mile away, when a car backs across both lanes from a roadside garage. Chuck brakes hard, the Chevy four-wheel-drifting toward a row of junipers that fill the passenger-side window as the boy grips the door handle and braces, the world turning dark green just before it brightens, Chuck’s car spinning and stopping so close to the one straddling the road that the boy can see the shape of that stranger’s inaudible scream.
Neither of them make a sound during those moments of lost control. Raunchy fades into a deejay’s voice, but they still do not speak while the other driver straightens and drives away. Chuck, when he talks as he turns into their street, says, “Good thing I knew what to do.” The boy says nothing because he has no idea what Chuck has done to save them. To himself, he says, Good thing I didn’t open the door.
Chuck’s dog, chained outside, barks as the boy gets out of the car. “You won’t forget this one,” Chuck says. “Not ever.” The boy doesn’t even nod. “Say ‘thank you’ the next time you see me,” Chuck calls after him. The boy’s mother is at work. He creeps to his room and huddles on his bed.
Long after the boy lies down, Chuck’s miserable dog keeps up with its yammering. The boy’s quiet hysteria gradually fades. Remembering his hand about to yank the door handle, he thinks, Good thing I hadn’t had an extra second to act. Good thing I didn’t have time enough to do what was worst. Good thing that lesson was a private one. Good thing I hadn’t spouted that wrong answer out loud. He makes a vow of a future filled with caution, something that sounds, at once, like it has been copied from the answers someone else is writing for an exam he is not prepared for. Like he has been caught cheating, and the teacher is furious.
Gary Fincke‘s collections of stories have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize and the Elixir Press Fiction Prize. Other collections have been published by Coffee House, Missouri, West Virginia, and most recently, Stephen F. Austin (Nothing Falls from Nowhere, 2021). Individual stories, essays, and poems have appeared in such places as Harper’s, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, American Scholar, and Ploughshares as well as being reprinted in The Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays 2020.