Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

His parents were separating, but all Sam could think about was preparing for nuclear holocaust.

Since his parents’ separation, he’s started to clean the living-room rug with his fingers—he has no problem working at carpet level. A girl with braces scratches his hand in desperation and he scratches back. A boy stumbles, and the others set on the scattering chips like feral animals. Somehow the carpet is covered with black chips and white chips, and Sam doesn’t remember the professor saying anything about them. Now the black and white chips are all that’s left.

At the end, Sam improvises a bowl with his shirt and Ethan plucks five red chips from it. This makes sense for a moment, since Ethan can’t reach the floor. But that leaves Sam stuck with the remaining colors.

“Don’t you want to trade?,” Sam asks. “Aren’t we supposed to?”

“No, not really,” Ethan says.

The professor whistles again. The game is over. Ethan drives his wheelchair to the front of the room, where the professor counts the chips and Ethan, with the five red chips Sam gathered for him, ends up the winner. “Congratulations. You get to choose your country,” the professor says, and Ethan flashes the headlights on his wheelchair, basking in praise. He doesn’t even look at Sam, who feels lied to, or at least not told everything other people know. Like two weeks ago when Mom dropped him off at the video arcade with a twenty, and he came home with most of it unspent, feeling thrifty and proud, only to find the front door locked and a strange jeep parked out front. He knocked until she answered in the silky gown she only wore at night and her hair all crazy, and she said, like she was sad to see him, “Oh Sam, please help me out here.”

Sam needs lessons in people.

At the afternoon pickup, his father asks, “Who blew up who?” Kids stream out of the hall into the waiting cars. Sam slumps into the passenger seat of his father’s truck and watches as an elevator hoists Ethan into a van driven by his older brother. His father feeds in a Beach Boys tape in a preemptive bid for affection. It’s the one tape Sam ever said he liked. On the dash sits a twisted-up bag of peanut M&Ms, opened already and therefore tainted, the dumb reward for spending another night with his father.

“Okay then …” his dad says to the silence. “What do you want for dinner?”

“Pizza.”

On his old bed, in the house in the woods, Sam pores over the class textbook, a catalog of ballistic missiles—their ranges, payloads, blast perimeters. He reads about the Trident, a missile that scissors the clouds and orients itself by the stars. It’s more powerful, more beautiful, that way: a missile that looks up. Now he has a favorite missile. He wonders what the stars will see the day the war begins, the whole planet brightening, then going gray like a dead bulb.

Sam cinches a piece of floss around his two front teeth, to close the gap between them. He wants to teach them a lesson, and the dull ache in his gums is the proof that they are learning. The sounds of the television rise up through the floor. Downstairs, in the dark, his father watches sports with the unsalted, least-fun peanuts. The house is dim and cavernous now, since they left. He remembers that Mom was the one who kept all the lights on, and his father would follow behind her, turning them off.

Earlier, in the garage, his father showed off the car engine he had taken apart, the grimy pieces laid out on newspaper like bones from a dig. The front grille of the VW van, the one his father uses for his house-painting company, gaped open in front of them, a face with a staggered aspect. His father pointed out the ways the pieces came together, the Wite-Out dashes he’d made to remind him how they joined.

Sam thought: My father will be useful in the afterscape.

He sets the book down and stares out his bedroom window. The night is clear and the trees behind the house are almost purple. A sheet of plywood covers the old well, just a ring of crumbling stones. Sam can make out, nestled up in the crook of the maple tree, the tree house his father built for him. If necessary, Sam can pull up the rope ladder and survive up there. His fingers trace the Fire Emergency decal on the windowpane, the one they passed out in school. KID INSIDE. No one will notice this sticker in the war, Sam thinks. No one will be looking for stickers.

“Sambo,” his father says at the door, beer in hand. “What’s happening?”

Sam tells him about the arcing paths of Centaurs and Tridents, so much more powerful than Hiroshima.

“Jesus,” his father says. “That’s what they’re teaching you?”

“That’s the homework.”

The next morning, his father comes with him to class. Having your parents, the Big Robots, come is pure weakness. Sam separates as much as possible, trying to look like he barely recognizes the man who tinfoiled the leftover pizza for lunch and who quizzed him on the state capitals on the drive.

Ethan motors over. He’s dressed in the same shirt and pants from yesterday, only different colors. His Panama hat dangles from one of the handles of his chair.

“Is that your father?” he asks.

“Maybe,” Sam says.

His father shakes hands with the professor and points Sam out. The professor’s beard is bigger than his father’s, and Sam theorizes he has unknown capacities, subterranean holds of grown-up. His father waves him over and Sam drags himself to his side.

The professor leans in close. “If anything we do in class makes you feel uncomfortable, you can opt out.” This close, Sam notices a gap between the professor’s front teeth, just like his own, and he feels a sudden, covert allegiance.

“I’m fine,” Sam says.

“Good,” his father says. “As long as it’s on the up-and-up.” He holds up his palm. “High-five.”

But if Sam high-fives, in front of the class, the gesture will cost him. Enjoying the company of your parents is a form of offsides. His father pats him on his shoulder instead, swipes his bangs out of his eyes. “Be good,” he says. “And tell your mom you need a haircut.”

The class unfolds a world map, the size and wrinkled texture of a Twister mat. Last class, they chose their countries. As the winner, Ethan took the U.S.A.—large country/large resources—and became the most hated person in the room. Out of spite and boredom, Sam chose an island, a speck in the Pacific. Guam.

“Every Goliath has a David,” the professor said to him.

“Who’s that?,” Sam asked.

“Just a kid,” the professor said, “who changed history.” Though this was his way of making Sam feel better, stories like this only made him sick to his stomach. He doesn’t want to change history, just outlive it.

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