Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

“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.

“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.

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