Set in Albuquerque, The Vault Apocalyptia imagines a tour through the city’s National Museum of Nuclear Science and History on the day of the apocalypse. Led by docent, readers meet an unruly assortment of displays, each illuminating a chapter of America’s nuclear story.
tok tik tok Years ago, they say, up the hill it happened, devices were made (we were at war, you see), in deific terms they reigned, from myth to mythos, bringing light to the blind, wringing youth from the young, ferocious, majestic, serene when afar. You picture a morning; there’s a crack; it’s weird . . . Noon at daybreak, they called it, the Zero redux, and the sky—well, it did ignite. What promise or folly was read in that fire? Which dabbling pyromancer misaugured armistice and salvation in the lick and curl of its tongue? Ah, but we were at war, you say. So what was ushered? These valleys, these deserts: sunwhite skin pricked to tatters. Off roadways the yokels saw a thing or two, a warlock’s brew of oddities. Twas yonder the sun blowed. The mule turned paralytic. This is something strange, sir, it wasn't for the yucca here I’d swear I’s on the moon, sir. Where cactus bleed. Where cattle slough. Halfbleached cats and gnarltoed larks and rats with cataracts. It’s suicide, some said: those years . . . Some saw stellar impostors of a kind not clocked by dawn or gloaming; others saw the world set free: downwind, spreading gingham, passing plates of pickles, a family gathers; under clouds an era waits. Two stars: one sets, one plummets; you’ll tell them from their fall.tik tok tik
Our admission is always free. Our rules: scant, really: no food, no drink; no smokes, no pets; no toddlers unattended. Cameras, opinions welcome. Yes, boy, do drop that coin!ptunk!
No darker wishes . . .tok tik
Future chronicles record ours as the epoch the dimensions ruptured. Sunder creation’s terrific bond by unordinary power and you arrive at abodes of deity. Look up. Constellations restage the epilogue of a retiring god of muscle and marrow who dimmed before the christ of breath and soul. Hear it recalled in a notion of Newton’s, in the emblem of the age, and in something like a horoscope dream of dear diary: It was after waxing equinox when the fishes scrolled up our globe of sky, and the sun we saw in great ecliptic move out your house, Mars Ares. In the first month of Venus, toward the culminating declination of the sun’s sistere, we thought we glimpsed the changing of the gods, the declension of—you, Mars Ares. Time ago, in your epaulets and plumes, with your flags and folderol, praetorian proud—you taught hate, we learned to adore; you bared death, we yearned to live. You murdered complexity and immanence fell open. Shock of the fleeting mortal. In the direst minutes of our lives you set wings beneath our feet, thickened our brains, gave us sanctified dirt and names to remember: a beach, a bridge, a battlefield—things to hang a memory on. Things worthy of withering. Then morning broke and you stood at the door, now fairhaired boy, looking the Christian gentleman in your woolens, holding hat in foreign nervous hands, thumbs rubbing brim, trembling at the brink, so bright, so young, so grave and strong, telling you had a thing could save us, damnation’s good news, would we listen? It was, you said, most urgent matter. Who could help but love your face. You asked for a day, we gave you a day; we gave you a century. Of course I remember that dawn, sweetness: sky lights, serenade over the airwaves, a wager on a mesa, and should we have the chaplain here? Looking for rabbits feet, plucking clover. You hung one over the desert floor. You waited—could it work?—half hoping it wouldn’t. Spadefoots burped and creaked. Then . . . nothing, just silencesilence: the sound of sun—so it seemed. The sun at the heart. You shot the fundament and transcendence yawned open. That instant of incident, that instant glory. Touch of the supernal eternal. You snared a star, it stupefied mortality. How could loving this dumb flesh compete with epiphany in nihil? Where decay communes with appeal of spirit. Far from these brute devouring suns. In the dark, in the night, with purity restored, where you, your hopes, the stars stood still, still stand.tok
(Come browse our shop for that sentimental someone. How would she look draped in genuine trinitite studded jewelry? Too daring to wear! Here’s a pair make a dazzling statement. Yours in silver only $20. Also come plated in real mock Catron County gold, from deep in the fabled Mogollons. Please specify petite or plump. Members with a mind for value won’t let endtime pass without admiring our complete array of attractive mementos. Build the bomb in durable plastic with one of several junior model kits. Jumbo size same low price. Ominous clouds in three colors adorn mugs, jerseys, a whole line of commemorative apparel. The sportive will appreciate quality caps, ruggedly cotton. Hey students, match our facts! We have a broad collection of topics available for the common perusal. A friendly staff gladly desire your questions. Next door enjoy a featured film. It is a historical documentary. When locating the large gallery kindly remember our sponsors, the fit though grossly endowed men at Gaitored, Schlessening, and Sons of Hoffman-Fletcher Unltd, purveyors of all finer copper and magnesium goods.)tik
We arrive at a rendezvous plotted by innocent ancients reconciling immutability to empirical change. We close a calendar that arcs back to unartful science refined ineluctably over centuries' passage. What were once the four classic roots were next seeds giving names naming seeds. Heralding the shout heard to Upperville were whispers of uncuttables buzzing the void (or grinding, uniting in a vortex), cued then reprised as war secrets murmured among piñon and poplar. Inspiration bred grave solution, and along the lineage between what is found and what is hidden lies in the end, down royal roads, our heritage enambered in these quaint distasteful relics. You’ll see the dead come to life. You’ll see life come to an end. Meet the fathers who sired the sons who sired the specters. Here, the movers. There, the meek. (A helpful hint: codes are colored.) Hardly a rumble is spared. Every sight holds a thrill guaranteed, from a town that never was, settled by Smiths and Joneses, bakers and farmers, where men as in a monkery kept vows of silence, to the swift ready sunrise that fused white sand to jade (since the savior of sons overseas)—“Glorious! Wrathful!” “Grand! Menacing!” “Awesome! Foul!” say those who birthed it. Tune in to the times, its hopes, its horrors. Watch the ages fall by. You’ll hear queries and concerns, admonitions and exhortations (stories in song unfold around you!): “Should America build them?” “A fateful decision . . .” “Let the people decide!” “Back to the laboratories . . .” Experience the drama. Explore the history and technology. On one hand, the stone wheels, a popping campfire. On the other, the shining stars. Or ruined cities. This is the universe. This is the sun. This is the biggest thing. This is the smallest thing. These are volts. These are gadgets. While we hazard our pass through the prepostworld, keep clear hands, feet, and all personal appurtenances. As we employ no competent lawyers, follow with care and common sense. Adopt the buddy system. Then with a fact sheet for the curious and for the kiddies, a crossword, we go. Don't see how any could miss this, but believe me whole scads hid like bones or birds when our red invitation rattled their box. But, ah, such is fog. Speaking of which, we seemed quite thick in it when looking to title our spectacle. The Whelp That Walloped the World? The Papoo That Piped a Peace? Yet really, how does one distinguish the passing of such history? Or is that hysteria? Hands down, please; it was mostly rhetorical.tok
Time we pressed on, friends. Can’t keep the showfolks waiting. Don’t want to raise any union hackles. We keep first appointment with a man of immense stature and standing in his field. Great discourse has passed on the nature of his work. He verily invites controversy. He is loved. He is loathed. Few go unmoved. One spectator likened him to the gods (rightly so, though whose and which is subject to terrific debate): “That timeless man,” he fathomed, “ageold yet newborn!” He evokes metaphor: “Our common father,” another proclaimed him, and we “his bewildered children.” And swooned one incisive critic in a penetrating review: “An ape palm weighs the newly discovered element fire . . . A frail pink wrist balances the quiet generations to come . . . Never before so simple! Not until now so clear! A must! Flock to!” Still, we gather numerous complaints. Certain taxpayers of sound mind claim our man's been aiming for years to do them in with that “confounded hardware” of his, and average Joes of no frenetic stripe avow on their honor the hoodwinker has actually threatened them with employment offers making "the front ends of horses" or some such perversity. In truth not a one of us fares brightly under exalted credentials as his. Listen: who taught himself in utero, to pass a dull gestation, the art of knots, convoluting his umbilical in pursuit of the flawless sheepshank, clove hitch, or bowline on the bight; who was the infant savant, a Hermes at the lyre, prattling off at eleven months the lexicons of no less than five major nuclear capable countries; who was the marvel tot, duddy’s little lummikins, in rompers yet and endeavoring nightly to dispel a chronic dyssomnia by enumerating decidedly unconventional sheep: “. . . 86000 seconds to a day, 31536000 seconds to a year, 61859136600 seconds since Jesus who loves me was born in a manger . . .”; who was the adolescent wunderkind, graduate cum laude, Massachusetts Institute of Technology class of seventyeight, hardly a year to the day after a razor first traversed those pimplecongested cheeks; who is the minder of machines, whom the experts call expert, with his inheritance of numbers (“No sweeter manna than a conundrum unraveled,” said he), heuristophile, technolurgist, selfstyled philosophizer—see him? Our genius with the bonus gem, he stirs in waiting just ahead. There in diorama, whitesmocked, hunched, and calculating. Now who, ladies and gentlemen, can that be there? It’s not Doppler. It’s not Wheeler. It’s not Planck. Is it Boltzmann? Is it Bernal? Is it Tesla? Barnhardt or Coulomb? R. Hume or Fizeau? Pascal? Laplace? Is it Kepler, Galileo Galilei? No?—Rube, is that you? Exhibit A. Curious beginnings. A misfortunate end. Rube, the scientist.
Item: Ace stringer Rex Dakota, East Bay Argus scoop, dons conservative duds—buttondown, necktie, wing tips—arrives hour early, assumes imperious posture and ducks inquisition at the lab’s personnel desk; his mission: to rib the source, Rube. “Mind we close that door?” ventures Rex. They sit (legend quotes) nearly an hour, tape rolling, Rube discoursing, unreserved, eloquent, intrepid Dakota nodding nonchalantly, not baring incredulity at the earful Rube divulges. Q: What’s got the team juiced this season, Doc? A: That’s your hairsbreadth densely suspended metallic foam lasing rod, Rex. Ah . . . Fingers tap, heads nod, smiles spread, bellies groan. “Doughnuts?” Rube offers, the appointment turning convivial. (“And the air,” writes Rex, “grew lighter . . .”) But in blows Simms Grenadier, feared head of the Int*rr*g*t**n Ev*s**n D*v*s**n, who confiscates tape, pastry, fake ID and, twirling into a stiff barbel above the snarl of a grin his waxed stachetip, bumps our rover out the entry, where, preceded by a more or less swift kick and serving to publish unequivocally, in the demonstrated opinion at least of Simms Grenadier, news that the audition had plainly concluded, he expels on the lapel of Dakota’s sportcoat a meaty logarth of spitsnot (“Whereupon, upon my parting—and my person—he hawked a throaty yield”). Back at his Selectric, from notes and memory, Rex types the decade’s definitive exposé of the invisible industry: “What you are about to uncover is a secret,” he confides, “the essence of a concept that may not yet have occurred to the weapon makers of a dozen other nations . . .” Supping between commas on toffee and Camels, bleary, Rex wraps it, A.M. alighting. While visions of Pulitzers wing through his gourd he tags the title, pausing to tap a tooth with a pen nib: “Death,” he pecks, “Fed Me a Maple Bar!” Next day Rex rolls in to find the article, queerly, returned, censored by unknown hand (“Riddled,” charges Rex, flamboyant, “with dead stars!”), and stapled to the top, a note:
But we do have alternatives. Let us revisit our experiment. Imagine we are again at that hour of foundering diplomacy. Our analyst now proposes a very different tack: what, he asks, would be the effect on our opponent’s resolve were we to take the precaution of leveling New York ourselves? This we call the “monocidal” course. We envision our opponent confounded. We have succeeded in trumping his adventures—and that has aggravated his uncertainty. We can predict his reaction: “The enemy has just obliterated one of his cities. How much less must he regard our own population centers!” or “The enemy is laying ground for his future ambitions. He has preserved our cities for use in augmenting his postwar standard of living!” This can buy time for an effective followup demonstration, if we act with alacrity, perhaps against Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, or some other first tier U.S. city. Our determination to sustain localized strikes will have the purport of declaring to a foe: “We have just destroyed our precious San Francisco. We may be willing to bomb Houston, Cleveland, Boston. You will see that we are relentless or crazy—or both.” We shall have profited through clarifying to him the futility in expending valuable ICBMs of his own. Were he after these initial salvos to sight some noncritical target, say a Des Moines or Grand Rapids, he may very well find it already smoldering.
Such an undertaking will not be without ulterior merits, and several comforts arise from these that warrant mention. First, a self-aggressor can set the timing of the offensive, which awards him very favorably, for instance by permitting evacuation of aimpoints, insofar as he carries it out discreetly and does not excite the ire of tangible adversaries. Second, as markedly one sided, the “monocidal” version of “city trading” cannot escalate indefinitely. I write with confidence when I calculate that no more than a handful of American cities should need sacrificing before an antagonist ceases frustrating our national interests and capitulates to demands for an end to the confrontation. Third, the scale of chaos, as when assaults originate from enemy states, could be greatly reduced. I would think it rare in a war that the aggressed could dictate terms of his fate, but here, as self-aggressed, he can. Yield of weapons can be determined beforehand, as can height of detonation, both essential in prefiguring fallout patterns. Furthermore, he is well positioned to ration what is bid in leverage. While vulnerable districts still stand, ideological advantages are realizable by threatening to raze them. Finally, he can better control the conservation of armaments, if throughout the attacks he has remained frugal and allocated no more than what firepower is necessary (e.g., by keeping targets two megatons apart, and so on).
How else might the “monocidal” campaign reward our protagonist? For one, the state adopting this strategy doesn’t risk alienating the affections of a rival’s inhabitants, as obliterating his cities would do, and so prospects for retaining an atmosphere of goodwill after hostilities have ended aren’t jeopardized. Also, the state spares itself any need to rationalize breaches of principles forwarded in The Hague’s 1907 convention, as it can be scarcely shown to have inflicted on an assailant “unnecessary suffering.” However, in this I am considering more material opportunities. As in mutual war the object is still to avoid bearing the brunt of the conflict. (This is what may be meant by “win,” used in a classical sense to suggest one has emerged from a war or “warlike” situation with the political “upper hand” or is “better off.” Here, I should add, “better off” is used in a largely restricted sense to imply one has escaped at least provisionally unannihilated.) Does this mean we target only regions liable to hamper economic momentum in the period of restoration? It does not—though much could be said for what we’ve termed the “slum clearing” or “urban redevelopment” gambit. We may trust a war planner has the perspicacity to include a curriculum of “creative destruction” where, postwar, shrubs may be planted where shanty strips once stood. Culture is always served through “pruning the dead wood”; yet I should like that we specify areas where the larger share of controversial sentiment has concentrated and ask: “Why not here?” The Pacific Coast states and Northeast Corridor are congested with metropolitan forces misaligned with mainstream concerns. New York may retain some logistical worth to New Yorkers, and to much of New York state herself, however, its loss should not induce wide grief—no more, say, than would the loss of Berlin to a winemaker in Burzet.
When one accounts for the benefits to befall our cities, their deliberate and premeditated devastation may seem the least abhorrent course of action. Certainly it could put to rest fears of international dispute and dissolve the specter of a great armed clash; but not uncommonly during play of Gedanken does the thrifty analyst point as well to this objective: so long as we are assailing the country let us do so with a view toward streamlining those extrinsic elements of it that we can. With improved accuracy and moderated yields we can customize the lethal power of the bomb to function as an aid in our nation’s restitution. How? Fringe institutions thought costly even by prewar appraisals could, through careful selectivity, be cleared from the government docket for the foreseeable future. Social Security, for example, is an outdated and bloated bureaucracy. One well placed W54 on Baltimore’s Security Boulevard could decommission it for good and, one would think, free up prime real estate for more fruitful ventures. And what of our schools? Through the precision of contemporary targeting techniques it is not unreasonable to hope for the summary removal of music, arts, theater, and athletic programs altogether while leaving vocational and rudimentary educational facilities intact. Truly, such superb progress is being made in miniaturizing delivery systems that we may look forward with assurance to that day when even our welfare frauds are picked off one by one, as cases come under scrutiny, from the haven of some undisclosed Wyoming missile pod. . . .
At the embassy a consul dictates a telegram:
MOTHER SCRUBBING DUDS STOP
SONS DUDED FOR VIC DAY STOP
Agents are briefed, analysts sought. Spy planes blink through cumulus (click-click!). To commission chairs task force leaders deliver solemn prognoses: “Soviet scientists fast converge on perfection of the detergent cycle. A sanitized and fragrant socialist bloc could spell doom for NATO influence . . .”
State assemblies implore manufacturers heed call to speed appliance race. Federal agencies expand purviews. The president speaks:
I call on the scientists of this nation, who have brought us the top loader and tumble action, to turn their talents to the cause of disinfection, to give us now fresh means of whitening our delicates, of brightening our loads . . .
Industries mobilize: steel, glass, rubber, plastic. Bursaries are diverted, projects curtailed; coffers here drain; coffers there fill. In school cafeterias proteins drop off menu; in their place, corn: chips, breads, nuggeted offal. Slogans are posted: “Eat your niblets—for a firm America!” Back in the private sector, Kenmore, Whirlpool rush bids to UC labs. Ads in monthlies run, spots on TV air. In a word from a sponsor an actor in lab gown plucks with tongs slacks from a drum. “New powerful Hercules washer!” He sets the pant under microscope, spins a dial, nods, then declares with wink the spin dry “Swift and sure.” A twee tune starts:
Hercules, Hercules in your home
Tumbles clothes in cleansing foam
Lots of space in his roomy drum
Where even stubborn stains succumb
The Hercules washing machine. A Rovenalux product. Will not shake, groan, grumble, or grate.
One Sunday at cinema, some late breaking news:
flick-flick-flick-flicka . . .
Washington DC: Aired Laundry Raises Alarm: Are Reds Wrinklefree? Tass boasts launch of “Grob Enormoz” twin washer with bold plot for distribution in enthralled Slavic nations. At Kapustin Yar the curtain of secrecy lifts and the excitement turns palpable, while the international community ponders the significance of this epochal event. “You’ve got to hand it to Roosky this time,” frets an executive from Hoover Limited. The VP hotly calls Grob a “damaging blow to our national prestige.” Footage from the International Appliance Expo finds Uzbek mechanics proudly unveiling the chaindriven oscillator. In a heavily reported stunt Kapitans send bolonka “mutnik” Laika through the tumbler. Western ears listen thunderstruck as this plainly clad Pole, asked at Expo her appraisal of world washers, replies in struggling English: “I would too prefer Grob.”
ch-chunga! ch-chunga! . . .
Manrolands clang: Extra! Extra!
Above the bifold Sunday bullpup banners shriek: RED TECH SPURT SPURS GAP FEAR: FALLEN ALLIES SWAYED—POLES UNANIMOUS:
. . . ch-chunga! ch-chunga! . . .
‘PREFER GROB II’
Outrage. Uproar. Panic.
On the Senate floor old protectors take prerogatived umbrage and calculate their indignation. The White House, averting accusation, censures the press; the press, in response, decries intelligence; intelligence rebukes the Capitol, claiming underfunding; and the Capitol, emboldened, neglects the press, deplores intelligence, and, grandly, remits the White House. A pundit carps: “Now we find Grob II everywhere, packed with borate, taking steady aim at our American hygiene.” . . .
August. Sky yellow. Sixteenth Street Northwest. A white van. Inside, consoles, tape reels and toggles. Lit knobs under gauges. Round red lights flutter. Curved above a canary pad, jotting shorthand, a headphoned operative scans a frequency; a voice, stressed Slavonicly, is intercepted, a button, red blinking, is depressed, and a minim of monologue (directing Czech (?) emissary (??) to privy (???)), static white (“. . . you vind eet ground vloor east at vreezevay . . .”), is recorded; then from coffeed lips, sprayed pips (spip!) of espresso fleck a mylar span; the tape, rewound, is replayed; the span, blistered, is reviewed (“. . . ———— ground vloor east vreeze ———— . . .”); reviewed, is transcribed (“. . . ———— ground floor east freeze ——— . . .”); transcribed, is interpreted (“. . . ———— grob for frees east ———— . . .”); and the interpretation, transcribed, reviewed, disbelieved—now news—is leaked; the broadcast: Extra! AMERICA ON ALERT—RUSSIA SCHEMES: ‘GROB IV FREES EAST’!
Refrain: Outrage. Uproar. Panic. Then, in back pages—
It is reported as corrected that prospects of Grob II are admitted overstated, as its imminence remains, relievedly, unsubstantiated. Thus—
Apprehensions over Grob IV, which had circumstantiated an existence of Grob III that skeptics of a Grob II had contended could not exist, as Grob II had itself been determined, after all, nonexistent, are found, in truth, moot. But—
The Grob II, designed in secrecy at Sarov—now, in fact, existent—ships. So—
The current and synchronous nonexistence of Grobs III and IV is adduced to implicate their eventual and catenated certain existence, as Grob II's inauguration proves Grob I is not a plurality singular but a severalty serial. Therefore—
Outrage. Uproar. Etcetera . . .
An urgent statement issued one winter—by State Department, calling Grob II manual “too highly comprehendible” and pressing the House to commission a committee to examine (in language carefully tempered) apparent “underintelligibility of otherwise peerless American washer manuals,” and which has dim hope of quelling dread of looming manual gap soon ripely exploited by dyed-in-the-wools who in televised hearings chasten industry heads in castigatory tones (“America has a right to the facts, sir”) with stagily heightened theatrics (“Give us our glossy gatefolds! Show us our bright cardstock!”)—is echoed grotesquely in assertions that spring—by the Federal Trade Commission, condemning US owner’s guides as “too easily intelligible” and invoking the Senate to empanel a caucus to investigate (in terms diplomatically tendered) evident “overcomprehendibility of what are in other ways incomparably dependable washer manuals,” and which looks little able to stem anxiety over growing spread of washing machine tech leaks played up to hilt by party hacks who in transcripted hearings upbraid industry leaders through insertion of imputational pauses (“Would you so recklessly hand to those who do not share American values, sir”) and cannily mounted suspense (“the entrusted secrets of our top washer capabilities?”)—which culminate in winless compromise come summer—when manufacturers, unable to establish proof that manuals are unclassified, as no records in FTC’s newly empowered Office of Classification exist to clear them, and despite their not needing clearance in past from FTC to publish what would come to be regarded in future as classifiable, compile as yet nonclassified excerpts into single guide, “Our Handiest Manual,” composed of single sheet, “Top Force Washer Words,” a glossary later faulted by FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection as a superfluous collation of terminology (“the power cord: note third prong for grounding”) not widely thought in need of defining.
A Tuesday in September. Manhattan, Turtle Bay.
Mr Vlardescu: The Romanian people are stand with Soviet Unions and demand for this proof!
A handkerchief is shaken wearifully then brought to mop moist brow.
Mr Wadsworth: We wish for peace and concord with all nations, sir.
The Security Council chamber. Gray heads like pears on suit necks sit at crescented tables. Wires curl out ears. A gesture is caught, a motion returned: The chair recognizes the representative from Venezuela.
Mr Merida: I yield my time on the floor to the representative from the United States.
Mr Wadsworth: We await reply, Mr Ambassador.
A mic transmits from Babel to booth, then back to phone in earhole. The diplomat burps behind a fist.
Mr Uritsky: We wish also for peaceful existence with friends in West.
He sparks a Stroganov, puffs at it moneyedly:
Mr Uritsky: Is good fine country. But we are not ones to have churned in the water . . .
Wise proverb is appended:
Mr Uritsky: If he is to live among the wolves—
Mr Wadsworth: Mr Ambassador, we have clear and incontrovertible evidence—
A shoe is doffed, is brandished:
Mr Uritsky: How such evidence is obtained except that friend America spies on Soviet Union!
Delegates hoot and drum tabletops.
Mr Cernada: Falso!
Mr Uritsky: You are like mouse in room with cheese—
Mr Toya: Outarageous!
Mr Wadsworth: Is this the kind of competition you desire, Mr Ambassador?
The camera swings, steadies.
Mr Wadsworth: Do you deny, sir, that the Soviet Union has supplied and is supplying medium load washers to the peoples of the free nations of Asia?
Mr Uritsky: We too are a giant.
Mr Uritsky: You will see: we will answer washer with washer.
Mr Wadsworth: Let’s argue fairly.
Mr Uritsky: I like the way he talks.
Mr Wadsworth: Let’s not beat around the bush.
Mr Uritsky: We have other saying: He who does not like a peppery gherkin—
Gavel on lectern bangs.
Chairman Boland: The Assembly is adjourned!
Mr Uritsky: If you find bay leaf in your borscht—
Chairman Boland: The Assembly is adjourned!
The gavel snaps, the barrel arcs, spinning.
Mr Wadsworth: We insist on liquidation of all depots and service outlets from satellite countries.
Delegates stand gripping table edges. Mugs glower.
Mr Wadsworth: Until that happens we shall speak a different language, sir . . .
The Cairo Declaration. Imperial troops are trotted off the peninsula. Allies patrol the Imjin, the Pukhan, the Namhangang. In villages yuoke tubs are collected with fanfare, rolled to river beaches, splintered and set afire. Baring bamboo smiles, peasants raise sticks overhead like victory guns, and cheer, then kick cinders into the shallows.
Through the gap at the Tumangang—
—T-34s, squeaking portentously, heave and slide down bushy banks, into the valleys of Hamgyong; in their green wake dozers come, crushing the curves. Clunky trucks follow. To Komusan, Hapsu, Changjin. They bring Grobs, sheeny and new. Out huts fly skinny wives, stuffing washer mouths with white sopping paji. Men pluck gaily at komungo. Songs are sung.
South of Kangwon Province, Hotpoints in canopied Deuces await allocation. In Chuncheon, Wonju, Suwon . . . Smoking GIs at garrison stroll round the units. One flicks a butt and pulls up a field glass. From the north, over roads, armored bobiks bounce; behind them, Stalin tanks, the IS-2s, part the trees. The long guns rise . . .
A peal. A shriek. Pops in air.
I knew your son, sir . . .
In creased hands a page of letter trembles:
Dear Mr Maribo: My name is Maxwell Truxton, Sgt. I fought beside your son with US Seventh at the Chosin reservoir . . .
The details turn dark:
All was still until 2:00 A.M. A handful of us fought off three banzai charges. But ammo ran low. We were captured and marched along front lines. At Changsong we hauled logs and built their bridges and camp walls. They fed us millet sorghum. We had to pick out bugs. Your son grew ill. Then they had us put together those machines . . . They would snicker and taunt, “This wash cleaner than boss, you see” . . .
I understand you are distraught, sir. Am enclosing at your son’s request his effects saved from Changsong. His Bible, his tags, a photo of the Seventh. Some socks. He knew he did not have long. “Hold these a while,” he said. Mr Maribo, your son was very specific. “Get these back.” We clutched the socks. “I want them washed . . .” He was fading, but I knew what he meant. “I want them washed”—in an American agitator! . . .
Published by Round Barn Press in Santa Rosa, Sons of Noir is a collection of short fiction by seven North Bay writers. Gary’s piece, “Cigarette Breakfast,” a parody of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, appears alongside work by Jonah Raskin, Waights Taylor Jr., David Beckman, Pat Nolan, and anthology editors Ed Coletti and David Madgalene.
To hell with it. People are a screwy lot, fling you dollops of kindness right up to the point you ignite their personal property. I thought better of asking for my duffel bag, as he looked to have heaved it on the flames. I took it to mean he was still pretty sore. So I slipped off through the scrub, until the sound of his sobbing faded, then scooted back onto the shoulder. When the morning sun hit, I took off my shirt, to let my sweat shine, and saw up ahead a sign for a diner and motor lodge: “The Rusty Griddle, 3 mi.” Could be the kind of place a fellow down on luck might sort his head out, make a new beginning even. Or, at the least, maybe have a go at the proprietor’s wife and make off with the till.
Things were looking up.
She was the first person I saw when I entered the Griddle, the dame was. She was a looker all right, but bitter in the eyes, like she’d missed the Lotto by a digit or’d only just realized the words to “American Pie” didn’t add up to jack after all. And then I saw him. He came rushing over. I’d pulled my shirt on and run fingers combwise through my hair, trying to rub the road off, but he must have seen through it, seen a man in need.
“Come een, frien, come een.” He was Italian, I could tell. Or maybe German.
“I’m Greek. Luke the Greek. Take seat. Smokey?” He offered a cigarette.
I pointed to the “No Smoking” sign, but he only giggled and clawed it off the wall, then kissed me on the cheek like they do in foreign movies.
“You’re good man. Have a breakfast. On–a da house, as you American say. Har har.”
He shoved a pimpled kid at me who handed over a menu. When I asked for a recommendation, the kid said, “Eat elsewhere,” which I thought out of line, given that his employer had just planted a tender smooch on my phiz, and I told him so. Then I noticed a pack of cards stuffing his shirt pocket. “You a gambling man?”
“No, I ain’t,” the kid explained, gouging a bit of bacon from an incisor with a toothpick and stabbing the whole shebang at me like a schoolmarm’s pointer, which I didn’t like one bit and would have told him so only he was still yakking, “a gambling man.”
“Whatever suits you,” I said, and thought, “Not a bad pun,” but this mook mustn’t have thought so, wasn’t laughing, so I cracked him on the craw and booted him out the front door, then tied his apron round my waist.
“I’m your new sous chef,” I said to the dame.
She gave me a cockeyed look, called me a dingbat. “He was the dishwasher.”
I told her I didn’t mind.
“He took out trash, separated the recyclables.”
No problem, I said.
“He cleaned the john too. With a small brush.”
My prospects were sinking faster than a lead piano on the Titanic, but “Crikey!” I thought, at least the broad was soft on the eyes. I could get used to that. I stepped back for a finer view. Yoiks. She had a rack on her could shade a family of four on a picnic, and legs long enough to run a freeway up, and something in the general region of my loins told me I sure could use a joyride north.
I must have been drooling from the eyes, ’cause just then in walked the Greek and saw me going weak at the knees. He patted me on the back.
“Har har. No you worry. Everybody go gaga at me espousa, Lola. Ain’t she a beaut!” He pinched her on the dumper and wandered back to the kitchen, whistling the title theme from Zorba. But I’d seen it, the look on her face: a wince when he touched her. And that’s all I needed.
She showed me to the sink then, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the job. I felt the old wrath stirring inside, like a snake was in there, snacking on my duodenum. I hadn’t even noticed, when I finally looked down, that I’d been throttling the detergent bottle. Soap spilled over my knuckles, but I pictured blood—warm, oily blood, slick, lemony fresh . . .
I was outside plucking empties of Nehi from the can, thinking to myself, “Hell!” when Lola showed up. She was carting a bucket of trash. I had my shirt off.
“Thought that was my job,” I said.
She eyed a tricep. “I don’t mind garbage.”
I took that as a compliment. “I’m bananas about you, baby.”
She looked troubled. “You’re a moron,” she said. She was a tough, as they say, cookie. But broads are all the same. Hard as a hammer on the surface, but inside it’s all sentiment, Chihuahuas, and daisy petals.
Lola turned to go but something stopped her. Maybe another tricep. They were glistening a little now under the late morning heat.
“Look,” she said, “I wanted to—”
“Tell me, sugar bowl.”
“No, you don’t understand—”
“I want to understand, sweet meat.”
“It’s got to do with—”
“What I’m trying to tell you: we don’t have single stream service. Dammit, you need to use the separate bins.” She was holding something back. “... metals, paper, glass—just keep them separate. Otherwise, he gets angry . . .”
Something over the years had gotten to her. She looked, for the first time, frightened of something. Or not something: someone.
Leaving, Lola turned and tossed me two Menthols. “Smoke one for me, Rick.”
My name was Nick, but what the hell. That no–nonsense skirt of hers let me get another peek at those gams. Mercy. Slender, shapely, smooth as paper, and right about then I was thinking was high time I wrote home to momma . . .