Short Story: Shelter
In sixth grade, our school started drills in case the Russians dropped a bomb. We practiced rushing our assigned spots even if we were in the bathroom or across the room sharpening a pencil. Once in the mad scramble I tripped on someone’s shoe but slid perfectly under my desk.
The drills didn’t make sense because any idiot could see we’d only have a couple seconds to react before a bomb hit. I suppose if the seating chart survived the blast, they could assume that the person with the face blown off lying next to my limp body was my desk mate. I wondered why we were assigned flimsy wooden desks while the seventh graders got to hide in the tunnel near the boy’s locker room, which seemed safer. One of the seventh graders was the son of the headmaster, so that might have been the reason. Maybe if the bomb wasn’t a direct hit my desk could protect me flying glass shards shredding my neck or eyeballs. But why would the Russians want to drop a bomb near our school in Chicago? Our teachers never explained that, but then again, we didn’t ask. I don’t think anyone wanted to think about it, so we treated the bomb drills like a energetic break in the day.
My next-door neighbor Carrie and I were sitting under our desk on the cool tile floor. “Guess what, Mary? Miss Compton said she taught sixth grade to both my dad and your mom. They were in school together. They must have known each other when they were our age. Did you know that?”
I grabbed her arms. “Carrie they could have been in this same classroom, sat at these same desks.” I looked up at the bottom of the desk. “Look at that wad of gum. My mother or your father might have left it there, it looks that old.”
“That’s disgusting, Mary.” The all-clear toots sounded, and we returned to our desks.
Carrie and I walked home together. “Mary, our bomb shelter is finished and now my father wants us to do bomb drills. Sometimes Dad times us with a stopwatch. It’s scary. C’mon over and I’ll show it to you. It’s in our basement.”
I’d seen an excavator in Carrie’s back yard, but assumed they were building a fancy pool house. She explained that the big, curved pipe rising out of their lawn was the ventilation system, their connection to the outside world. “Carrie, how will you breathe if the bomb crushes that pipe?”
“That’s not the point of the shelter. A bomb doesn’t have to be a direct hit to kill us. The bomb could drop way far away, and the deadly radiation could drift down here.”
“How will you know when it’s safe to come out?” I wondered how radiation could kill you. Would it make you cough up blood?
She shrugged. “Beats me. My father’s in charge.”
We went inside, down some steps, around a corner and through a thick metal door that clicked and thudded behind us. Shelves were crammed with cans of tuna fish, jars of mayonnaise, peanut butter and jelly. I spotted an enormous bag of chocolate chips, my particular favorite. There were four bunks, but Carrie was an only child.
“Who’s the extra bunk for?”
“Ace, our dog. He’s part of the bomb drills too. He always gets here first.”
“Where do you go to the bathroom and where do you take a shower?”
She grimaced as she pointed to a bucket in the corner. “That’s the toilet. We probably won’t have showers. My father says water is the most important thing, we can go without food, but not water, so we can’t waste it. My father was in the Korean War and says this set up is better than anything he ever had, so I shouldn’t complain. He says it’ll be a cozy family time.”
Maybe Mr. Black could make a bomb shelter fun. On the weekends, he did stuff with us, unlike my father who always played golf. Carrie’s dad puttered in his garden and took care of his beehives. We put labels on the honey jars and sold them to the neighbors. Mr. Black let me help him with his crossword puzzles, even though I’m sure he gave me the easiest clues. We both got excited when I added a homonym pair to the list he’d started when he was a kid – humorous (ha ha funny) and humerus (the bone in your arm). Yes, I bet Mr. Black could make a bomb shelter fun.
Carrie shooshed me when I mentioned her bomb shelter at school. She didn’t want the others to be jealous. The shelter became our private clubhouse every day after school, my chance to get Carrie talking about boys. She had turned into one of the boy-crazy girls, sat with boys in the cafeteria, got invited to coed parties. Maybe it was vice versa, the boys saw something in her that they didn’t see in me. I was falling behind and needed some pointers to join the elite group. Carrie sat on the top bunk, her feet swaying. I sat on the other top bunk, which I hoped would be mine. Ace could sleep on the floor.
“Carrie, what’s going on with Colt? He always sits next to you at lunch.”
“He has a crush on me.”
“Did he tell you?” She shook her head.
“How’d you figure it out?”
He kissed me during Spin the Bottle at Debbie’s.”
“How many times?”
“Just once, but then I decided that didn’t count because the boys don’t have a choice in Spin the Bottle. But then at school Colt touched me on the shoulder, definitively on purpose. It felt different,” said Carrie. “It was like this.”
When she put her hand on my shoulder, I felt her thumb press in a little and then move. It didn’t seem like much to go on.
“That’s all it takes to know a boy has a crush on you?”
“There was a little zing to it or something. Guess what? Colt told me that Doug might have a crush on you.”
“Doug, do you mean regular Doug or diabetic Doug?” Carrie shrugged her shoulders.
It was important to know. After Colt, regular Doug was the next most popular boy in the grade. He sat next to Colt at lunch. I’d be excited if he had a crush on me, but it didn’t seem likely since I wasn’t invited to Debbie’s coed parties. I guess Debbie didn’t think I was boy-crazy yet, but if I wasn’t invited to the party, how could I have a chance to prove myself? I hoped it wasn’t diabetic Doug. He didn’t play sports and he wasn’t one of Colt’s friends. Also, I was in the top reading group and he was in the bottom, so I was way ahead of him brain-wise.
I puzzled over the situation as I walked home. My mother was slicing carrots as I walked into the kitchen. At the beginning of the school year, she’d told me I could ask her any questions I wanted. She was probably thinking about boys and maybe sex, but then she didn’t tell me what questions I should ask, so it was a bit of a problem.
“Mom can I talk to you about something? You said I could ask you anything.”
The knife clattered on the counter as she fumbled with the carrots. My mother came over and sat next to me. “What’s on your mind, honey?”
I knew she was nervous by the way she fiddled with her hair. I didn’t know how to start so I began with something simpler. “Mom, were you and Mr. Black in the same grade at our school? Miss Compton told Carrie that she taught you both.”
“You’re spending a lot of time at the Black’s. How’s Carrie?”
I stared at her so she couldn’t evade my question.
She cleared her throat. “Yes, Mr. Black and I were classmates.” She left and came back with her aixth grade yearbook. I picked out my mother sitting in the front row and Mr. Black in the back row. He wore thick glasses and stood i next to the young teacher, barely recognizable as Miss Compton.
My mother whistled and returned to the carrots, my signal she wanted to be left alone. I searched through the cabinets in the study and found her eighth grade yearbook. Mr. Black was still the tallest in the back row, but now he looked gangly and geeky. I flipped to the candid photo section and found a close-up picture of him in science class. His glasses were lopsided, his acne was obvious. No way Mr. Black could’ve been one of the cool kids.
I found a page for predictions titled, “In twenty years…” Mr. Black’s said, “Successful business executive marries his longtime love B.H. and settles in Eastmoor with his two lovely children.” I knew B.H. must be my mother, Barbara Hunter. My mother’s entry only said, “See above, Russ Black.”
I was stunned. They were more than classmates. Mr. Black was so different from my father, who I knew was handsome because people told me he looked like the Cary Grant. Plus, my father was a star athlete in school. Football trophies filled his office shelves. He’d even framed the muddy high school football jersey he wore when he caught the winning pass in the championship game. My father would have been like Colt and Mr. Black like diabetic Doug. People told me that my mother looked like Ingrid Bergman. What was she thinking? If she looked like a movie star, then she should have been going out with one of the cool guys.
At dinner, my father was in one of his usual dark moods. This didn’t seem like the time to bring up an old romance, but I still wanted to talk about the Blacks.
“Did you know Mr. Black built a bomb shelter in their backyard?”
My mother looked up. “Yes, honey, he sent all the neighbors an information sheet. He thinks bomb shelters are the smart thing to do.”
“If we’re not going to build a bomb shelter like the Black’s, shouldn’t we do bomb drills anyway, like the ones at school? We could practice getting under this table or our beds. See how quick we can be.”
My father said “filthy rich” under his breath. My water glass wobbled as he shoved himself from the table. We lived in a fancy suburb with big lawns, some people had swimming pools, like the Black’s and some even had tennis courts. I wasn’t dumb, I knew our family would fall in the category of “not as rich” because we lived in the Black’s old coach house, but we did belong to the golf club and my father drove a convertible. Maybe my father found it hard to live in the Black’s back yard and hard to think about Mr. Black as my mother’s sweetheart, if he knew about that.
“Dad, seriously, what are we going to do if a bomb drops?”
“What makes you think that’s going to happen?”
“If it’s not going to happen, then why are we doing the drills at school?”
“People are over-reacting. The best thing is not to think about it.”
“Well, it’s hard when the alarm goes off at school and the Blacks have a shelter. What are we going to do?”
“Nothing right now. We’ll see when the time comes.”
It looked like my best bet was to bunk in with the Black’s, but part of me agreed with my father. Just don’t think about it. That weekend I showed Carrie my mother’s eighth grade yearbook.
“Do you think they really dated?”
Carrie shuddered. “Let’s go ask my Dad,” she said. “He’s out in the garden with his bees.”
“Can you ask him if he used to kiss my mother?” Carrie punched my arm.
Mr. Black stood in his flower garden, wearing some sort of white suit and a hat with a veil, puffing smoke at the bees. Carrie waved at him. He stepped out of his white outfit as he walked toward us. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. My father always wore a shirt. Mr. Black struggled out of his bee suit, inching it down his body, past his waist and then even lower.
I supposed you had the right to be naked in your own back yard, but I was relieved to see a bathing suit emerge. It was a Speedo. I’d seen them in magazines but had never seen one in the flesh. His was bright red. My father wore these big baggy things. I said to myself “don’t stare.” I didn’t have any experience in those things, but it seemed pretty obvious that a girl shouldn’t stare at a man’s crotch.
“Hello, Mary. Haven’t seen you around for a while.” The sun glinted off his thick glasses.
“Dad, Mary has a question for you.”
This was completely unfair. It was her dad, so Carrie should’ve asked. I dodged the difficult question of romance. Nuclear war seemed like a safer topic. “What happens if you eat radioactive honey? Will you die? How about the bees? Will they die?”
Mr. Black crouched down so that he was looking straight into my eyes. It seemed especially dangerous to look down now. “You don’t need to worry about those things, Mary. A bomb will probably never happen. Is that all you girls wanted to ask me?”
I nudged Carrie but she didn’t say anything. Mr. Black went back to his bees. We sat in the grass on the little hill next to the filtration pipe.
“I don’t get it Carrie. Our parents tell us not to think about it, but if you build a bomb shelter you must be scared a little bit don’t you think?”
We drew maps to see where we would be far enough away to escape a direct hit, but close enough to need protection from radiation. It looked like the bomb shelter might make sense if the Russians targeted Minnesota, Detroit, or St. Louis, but Chicago seemed as likely a target as any of those cities. It was hard to be a boy-crazy girl beneath an overhanging radioactive cloud.
“Carrie, do you think I could stay with you if a bomb drops? Maybe my parents could squeeze in too.”
“You’ll have to ask my Dad.”
I figured my best strategy would be to get Mr. Black to think it was his idea to invite me to his bomb shelter. I complimented him on his bees, his garden and the grape vines draped around his swimming pool. I tried to think up new homonyms for his list. My biggest success was a triple – holey, like your old socks, holy, like a church, and wholly meaning entirely.
Over the next couple weeks, I spent most afternoons at the Blacks and often stayed for dinner. I memorized the layout of their house and scouted the quickest route to the bomb shelter. Carrie decided to move into the bomb shelter full time. She explained that her mother had terrible migraines and couldn’t stand any noise. That’s why she always stayed in her room with the curtains drawn. If we were in the bomb shelter, we wouldn’t bother her. We turned up Carrie’s record player so loud that the music bounced off the walls.
One day Mr. Black told me I looked exactly like my mother and asked how she was doing. He’d never mentioned her before. He smiled at me. In the candlelight I was finally able to see his eyes through his think glasses. They were blue. Really blue. Maybe that’s what attracted my mother.
“Why don’t our two families get together for dinner? Let’s have your parents over here and I can show them our shelter. I’d like to see your mother. Your father too, of course.”
“Our teacher says that you and my mom were classmates in school. Is that true?”
“We were best friends at school for 15 straight years, from kindergarten through high school. We went to different colleges, but we’d see each other in the summer.”
“It’s funny that you ended up living next to my mom. Your eighth-grade yearbook predicted that.” I left out that they would do more than live next to each other, that they’d be married. I nodded at him to give him the signal that I knew all about them, or at least as much as the yearbook said.
“Mary, this is a wonderful place to live and lots of our classmates came back here to live, so it’s not surprising.”
Mr. Black got up to clear the dishes.
When I got home, I told my mother about Mr. Black’s dinner invitation. “It’s complicated, honey. It’s not a good time right now. Your father is very distracted. He’s considering a new job in Milwaukee. Don’t worry, nothing is for certain and we wouldn’t need to move, since he could commute there. You won’t have to start over; you can still go to your same school.”
This announcement didn’t bother me. My father was always looking for a new job, but we never moved. It was the word “complicated.” My world was so planned out, next summer I’d be in seventh grade, then eighth. Somewhere along the line, I’d get boy-crazy for real, and then there was high school, maybe college, and then off in the hazy future I’d get married, and I hoped the sex thing wouldn’t hurt. When does life get complicated? Maybe it’s when you start kissing boys.
I followed her into the kitchen. I cleared my throat to make my voice lower, to make it sound less like a kid’s voice. “You were his girlfriend, weren’t you?”
My mother brushed a dangling clump of hair behind her ear. “Yes, we dated on and off for a long time.”
“Were you supposed to get married? That’s what your yearbook says, you know.”
She pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and motioned for me to sit across from her. She put her chin in her hands. “Some people might have thought we’d get married but Mr. Black wasn’t the right guy for me. I always knew that, but my parents were good friends with his parents. We were thrown together a lot, on summer breaks when we were in college. It was sort of convenient. But then I met your father and I fell in love. Truly in love. I knew it right away.”
“How old were you when you started kissing Mr. Black? You did kiss him, didn’t you?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. Maybe about your age.”
She said it so casually, like it was no big deal. It could have been a meaningless Spin the Bottle starter kiss, but I suspected something more. Something with tongues. I didn’t want to think beyond Spin the Bottle. My mother and Mr. Black? I was getting a better idea of what complicated meant.
I spent the next Saturday at the Black’s, leafing through magazines, trying to be boy-crazy, but not sure how. The Life magazine with the diagram of a bomb shelter on the cover had been a curiosity, but now it was depressing. Our parents were right. It was best not to think about how I might die.
“Carrie, what sex words do you know? Let’s get a dictionary and make a list.”
Carrie ran upstairs and came back with two dictionaries. Neither helped. At all. Carrie thought “69” meant something, but of course that wasn’t in the dictionary. I had heard of the word fellatio but couldn’t find it because I didn’t know how to spell it. I never seemed to know the right questions to ask. The only sex word that we found with a definition was “pervert,” defined as “someone who goes wrong in sex.”
Mr. Black poked his head through the door. “Mary, I see you’ve chosen that bunk for yourself. It’s too beautiful outside to read dictionaries in a basement. Come sit outside by the pool. Bring some magazines.”
Lounging next to the pool, I imagined invisible radioactive particles drifting onto my arms and into my lungs. I closed my eyes, concentrating to see if I could feel dust settling on my skin. I brushed my arms and got up to go home. “Carrie, why don’t you come to my house for a change? You could spend the night.”
“Dad says I have to stay here, just in case of you know what.” Carrie pointed to a passing airplane. “Besides, I always read to my mother at night. It helps her fall asleep.”
Mr. Black joined me as I walked to the pool gate. Every inch of his body was tan. He was naked except for his Speedo. “Why don’t you spend the night and test out your bunk?”
His hand cupped my shoulder. His thumb pressed a little harder into my shoulder and then he moved it the tiniest bit. I felt a little zing, something like electricity. I squirmed away and ran home.
I burst into our kitchen. “Mr. Black says I can have the extra bunk in their bomb shelter, and I used to think that might be a good idea since we don’t have one, and maybe they could fit all of us, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Slow down, what are you talking about?”
“We don’t have a place to go if a bomb drops, so I thought we could squeeze in with the Blacks. But Mr. Black just touched me on my shoulder, but then his thumb moved a little, pressed a little harder.”
“You’re not making any sense. He was just being friendly, just the way your father puts his hand on your shoulder.”
“It’s just that when Mr. Black touched me, it just felt different.”
“I don’t understand the big deal. What do you mean different?”
I couldn’t tell my mother the exact truth, which was that I was looking down where I shouldn’t have been. That’s when I felt his thumb move. According to Carrie that was an important sign, but maybe I was being hysterical. I struggled to change the subject, which I seemed to be doing on a regular basis. “Did you break Mr. Black’s heart when you married Dad?”
My mother smoothed the apron out on her hips. I stared. “You told me I could ask you anything, so now I’m asking. Did you break his heart?”
She looked up and said in a steady voice, “Yes, it was a mess. Mr. Black was terribly angry with me, and so were both sets of parents. But then a friend of mine told me that Mr. Black had another steady girlfriend in college. That’s who he married. That’s Mrs. Black. This is just between the two of us, okay, no telling Carrie or anyone else. Promise.”
I whispered, “Was he a sex pervert?”
She burst out laughing. “Of course not. He’s a really nice guy and I hoped we could stay friends.” She paused. “Where are you been getting this?”
“The dictionary says that a sex pervert is someone who goes wrong in sex. If he had more than one girlfriend, that’s wrong, isn’t it? So maybe he was a sex pervert.”
“A pervert is something else, something that the police would get involved in.”
I wanted my mother to be right. Maybe it was just a friendly pat on the back, maybe I was the one who moved. Maybe Mr. Black was staring at his bees, and lost track of his thumb while he wondered if his honey was radioactive. Maybe it was me, the first sign that I was boy-crazy, because the truth was, I couldn’t help but stare at his Speedo, which was sloppy and jiggly as he walked me to the gate. I saw a pink line where he wasn’t completely tan. Anybody would have looked at it, just out of curiosity. Mine was only a quick look, it wasn’t on purpose, but maybe he noticed me looking. Maybe he thought I was flirting.
“But he moved his thumb. I thought he might be coming on to me.”
“Coming on, where are you getting these ideas?”
“Mom, I promise I didn’t do anything.”
“Honey, of course you didn’t.” My mother stood up, turned her back to me, her arms pressing against the counter.
In that moment of stillness, in that freighted weight of suspension, I knew our conversation had ended. I could have asked her more, asked her if she had ever seen Mr. Black’s pale white line next to his Speedo, if she had ever felt this thumb pressing into her shoulder and what it meant. It wasn’t true that I could ask her anything. I was grateful for the things I didn’t want to know and for the things she didn’t want to tell me.
My father came into the kitchen and put his hand on my shoulder in the regular way. He nudeged me into the living room to play gin rummy.
“What are you two ladies gabbing about? Mary I’ve got the cards all shuffled up.”
“Mary and I were just talking about having Carrie over here more. We don’t see enough of her.”
‘The president just said that the Russians aren’t going to drop a bomb after all.”
I looked at my mother. We shared a nod.
“Mary, go on in a play cards with your Dad. I’ll clean up here.”