Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

“Ethan is fine,” the professor says when he returns. “He had a tantrum like this last time.”

Last time?,” Sam asks. “He’s been in this class before?” Now he understands how Ethan knew about the chips and the rules, before anyone, and how to exploit them.

The professor stares out at Ethan. “He’ll come back in.”

But he doesn’t. They finish with the fallout meters and nobody learns anything except that gypsum tastes like ash and they can flick balls of tinfoil clear across the room if they do it right. And still Ethan waits in the sun. Nobody comes. Just like the professor said. Nobody will come for them and one day this class, this room, might be all they have.

The next day, Ethan doesn’t show. Or the day after. He’s in the hospital, Jerusha says. Her parents are friends with his mother, and she said he got to the top of the list. She has brought a get-well card for everyone to sign. It goes around the room, and when Sam gets it, he sees a bunch of fancy signatures, as they all took the chance to practice their penmanship.

Sam writes, “I have your hat.”

They never see Ethan again.

On the last day of class, out on the front porch, Mom hugs Latrice and moans softly into her shoulder. Sam is disgusted. His mother never hugged his father on the way out. Latrice doesn’t deserve what his father didn’t get. He tells Latrice, telepathically, that her time in their lives is coming to an end. As they embrace, Latrice turns slightly so she can scan the street, see who is seeing them.

“I’m going to be late,” Sam says.

They separate into their cars, but when Mom turns the key, Sam hears just a small click, softer maybe than what he expected. The engine doesn’t start. Latrice leans at the window.

“What do you think?,” Mom asks.

“No idea,” Latrice says. “I won’t even pretend.” She sounds like she pretends sometimes.

Sam says again that he’s going to be late for class.

“Latrice can take both of us in her car,” Mom says. But that will change the order of things, Sam thinks, the way the future has to happen.

Latrice looks roped. “I can?” And Sam says, “I don’t want to go with her.”

Mom massages her temples. “Come on, guys. Work with me.”

Latrice studies Sam skeptically, as though she can see through to his secret. But at this point, Sam doesn’t care. He can make his loyalties plain.

His mom whispers, “Shit.”

“I wish you wouldn’t swear,” Latrice says.

Mom looks up at Latrice with quick exhaustion. “Really?”

Sam opens the glove compartment, where the secret pack of cigarettes is, and hands them over. Mom snatches the pack from him. “You’re not supposed to know about these. Don’t know about these.”

“We should call Dad,” Sam says.

Latrice now seems impatient. She says she has somewhere to be. She has decided this problem is not her problem.

“I’ll call you,” Latrice says, backing off.

“Sure,” Mom says. Sam hears the no underneath.

Mom goes to the front stoop and sits, fiddling with the fern, yanking off the dead parts. It has more dead parts than green parts. The plant is supposed to be his, his reward for letting his father go, but it’s nobody’s plant, put where nobody’s looking. He remembers his mom bringing it home, so green and springy with life, saying, “You need to learn how to keep things alive,” but it smelled like crotch, and Sam felt betrayed. The person who could give him a plant as a gift was someone who didn’t know him at all.

“Call your father,” Mom says. “Tell him to get his ass over here.”

Sam kneels on the couch and watches from inside, through the blinds, when his father’s van pulls up a half hour later. He’s come straight from a job, overalls crusted with paint, and flecks of white on his cheeks and in his beard. His parents face each other coolly, Mom on the stairs, Dad on the lawn with hands on his hips, as though they don’t need a single thing from each other. His mother points to the car, hood up, and his father peers into the engine.

His father does nothing, just looks up at Sam’s bedroom window and scratches under his cap. A kind of joy warms inside Sam. This is what he wanted.

“Come here, Judy,” his father says.

“No lessons, please,” Mom says.

“Just. Come.”

She goes to him. If she would only keep going to him. They stand together at the open hood and consider the damage. Sam knows he’s been discovered. His father leans on the bumper. Mom puts her hands to her lips in a sort of prayer, even though the Unitarians only bow their heads.

“Sam, get out here!” she calls through the screen door.

When Sam gets on the steps, his father says, “Jesus Christ.”

“Sweetie, what did you do?,” Mom says.

A breeze seems to gather the heat of the day and press it toward him. An old woman in a robe walks by with her little dog and stares.

“I cut my hair,” Sam says. With the kitchen scissors. By himself, while they waited for his father.

Mom sits on the stairs and pats next to her. Sam joins her, his packed bag between his legs. She runs her fingers through his hair and asks if he knows that they love him. But it’s a stupid question. Loving someone is easy—look at Latrice! And knowing someone loves you is useless, like knowing the name of a bird.

“You broke the car, didn’t you?” she says. “And you told some fibs.”

Fibs?” his father says. “That’s the word we’re using?”

Mom gives him her look. “Do you know what he said? He said you come around at night and watch me.”

His father rubs his temples.

“Why?,” Mom asks. “Why did you do it, Sam?”

Under his breath, his father whispers, “We know why.”

“If you don’t tell us, sweetheart …,” Mom says, and he can see her hunt for terms.

“We need to go back and live with Dad,” Sam says.

Mom takes his hand and brings it to her chest, like it’s broken and she can make it better by holding it. “If you want to go live with your father, you can do that, Sambo,” she says. “You can. But I can’t.”

His father turns away and bends over, his chest heaving. It is terrifying to Sam to see his father this way, like a building collapsing. And Sam’s life shudders too, a tremor that started months ago with his mom waking him up, late at night, in the house in the woods, whispering, “Tomorrow everything’s going to change.”

A row of black cars have parked outside the hall, round seals on their doors and flags on their radio antennae. In the shade of the oak, a group of men in suits and sunglasses wilt in the heat, their suit jackets hung on the branches. They seem to be waiting for Sam, a gang of fathers ready to administer punishment.

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