Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

“Oh and thanks for the candy,” Sam says. “My dad doesn’t let me eat sweets.”

Latrice checks her watch.

“Candy and smoking,” Sam says. “He really hates both of those things.”

Latrice stubs out the cigarette. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

Mom descends the stairs, in her feathery blue blouse, except now it’s too small and tight. Sam put it in the dryer, trying to be helpful. She smiles weakly. “The babysitter’s still not here?”

Sam shrugs. The babysitter is not coming. She called, but Sam took the message and forgot to tell.

“I can make us something,” Mom says. “I have some left-over chicken.”

Latrice exhales and her breath just keeps going. “I’m vegetarian. Remember?”

Sam planks out the glob of chocolate on his tongue. Mom fingers a cigarette from Latrice’s pack and shoots Sam a look. “Not what I need right now.”

Every class, they war, and every class, the Earth dies. More than twenty thousand nuclear warheads exist, the professor tells them, but thirty-five detonations could erase all life. They have a hundred matchsticks. The twins, playing Russia and Brazil, can’t keep from bullying the planet. Ethan, with his arsenal, makes a point of ticking off Guam in every strike. Sam just waits for the nuclear winter to snow all civilization. One time, the class gangs up on the twins and rains their stockpiles onto Russia and Brazil, all at once. But even then, even with their entire population killed, Russian missiles retaliate automatically. “It’s called ‘The Dead Hand,’” explains the professor. “Even when they lose, they win.”

Jerusha begins to cry. “I hate this game,” she says. “All it is, is getting killed.”

The professor taps his fingers together. “Very good, so what are we learning?”

Jerusha’s small sobs fill the quiet room. At least she believes in angels, Sam thinks. She has someone to get her when the time comes.

“Anyone?” the professor asks.

Ethan says, brightly, “New game.”

His father’s voice booms from under the van. Only his boots stick out.

“How’s Mom?”

Sam leans on the van’s bench seat, unbolted from the vehicle and propped against the garage wall. A newscaster on the radio talks about a West German plane that has landed in Red Square, that this might be the beginning of something. Sam spins a gasket around his fingers. A gasket is the ring of metal that goes between other metals, his dad has said, to make them join. These lessons usually bother Sam. He doesn’t want to learn what his father wants to teach. But now, here is this bright fact of gasket. Even words can grow up and make themselves useful.

Sam stares at the hanging lamp over the van, puzzling over an answer. His father doesn’t know about Latrice, who has been sleeping over and leaving books on the coffee table and storing sand she calls “fiber” on the breakfast shelf. This morning, when his mom was in the shower, he saw Latrice naked, lying in his mother’s bed, scratching the pale bottom of her foot. Her nipples looked like light switches. If he told his father all of this, he knows his father would go quiet and far away.

“She asks about you,” Sam says.

The cranking and banging stop. The voice on the radio says the pilot was a boy.

“She does? What do you say?”

“I told her,” Sam begins, “that you have a new friend. And her name is Jerusha.”

His father glides out on his sled, turns down the radio. “Why did you tell her that?”

The lies are getting hard for him to think through. First strike is easy. But second and third and fourth go further than he can see.

“I wanted her to know you have somebody.”

“I have somebody,” his father says. “I have you.”

This is his father trying to make him feel worthy. But Sam knows that he’s the consolation prize, what you win when you’ve actually lost. “It’s not the same.”

His father taps a wrench against his leg. “Mom just needs some time.”

“How much?,” Sam says. “Because there isn’t always going to be time.”

From here on out, the professor says, class is about the after. He waves his hands in the air like he’s swatting at bugs. “Let’s say we hear the big alarms. Let’s just say we have five minutes before a ten-megaton explosion over New York City.”

Sam’s eyes go instinctively to the windows in the room. It is noon and clear, but the weather doesn’t tell you anything—it was beautiful that morning in Hiroshima too. In his mind, he can see the cloud trails of missiles like rows on close-rule paper.

“Imagine nobody is coming for us,” the professor says. “Now what?”

Their suggestions go up on a blackboard. Store water from the water fountain. Cover the windows. Ration their lunches. Sam has walked through these steps in his head so many times that they are polished smooth with worry.

“I want to be with my parents,” Jerusha says. “In heaven.”

The professor needles into his beard. “I’m okay with that.”

Jerusha lies flat and stares up at the ceiling.

“What are you doing?,” Irwin asks.

“I’m waiting for the angel.”

The professor picks up a coffee can with a plastic wrapper over the top. “Does anyone know what this is?” Sam has seen the designs in a booklet he ordered from the Department of Defense. “It’s a fallout meter,” Sam says. “It measures the atmosphere. It tells you when you can go outside.”

For the rest of class, they make their own meters. The professor passes out the empty cans, and Sam notices flakes of instant coffee stuck to the bottom. A dank and spicy smell rises out. Sam pours in the crushed gypsum, which looks like white dirt, and hangs two squares of aluminum foil on a kite string.

“How do we know these things work?,” Ethan asks. His fallout meter looks broken, the string sagging. He has gypsum powder sprinkled over his lap.

“Well, we won’t know,” the professor says, “until it happens, really.”

“But then we’ll be dead.”

The professor points at him. “That is a distinct possibility.”

“That’s retarded,” Ethan says. He motors over to the trash can and dunks his fallout meter.

“I’m okay with that,” the professor says.

Then Ethan rams his chair into the door to the outside. But it doesn’t open and he’s stuck there, his chair straining. He leans over and shoves the bar to drive forward, but when the door opens, his chair lodges in the gap. From the effort, Ethan begins to cough wetly, buckling over and hacking into his lap. It sounds like he’s drowning on the inside.

Sam goes to him. Everybody should be able to open a door.

Ethan sits up, his eyes gluey and cheeks flushed.

“Fuck off,” Ethan says, weakly, and motors himself outside.

The professor follows Ethan out. He’s gone for a long time. The twins practice strangling each other until they can withstand the fingers at their necks. Irwin has a staring contest with Jerusha even though she isn’t playing. Ethan’s Panama hat lies crumpled on the floor, and Sam takes it. Through the window, he can see Ethan at the curb, waiting in the sun.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.

Video

The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In