AT THE SCHOOL, NICOLE AND TWO LITTLE BOYS were doing sponge paintings. Both of Nicole's sleeves were orange-spattered to the elbows, and she had entered one of those pre-school states of mind that Gershin found both entertaining and draining -- she was excitable and full of jokes, wild and unusually persistent about getting attention and her own way. While he was putting on her sweater and finding everything she had made that day, she and another girl thrust out their tongues to the roots, rolled their eyes, and said "Ullaugh!" as raucously as they could. As soon as they got outside, though, she calmed down and began to tell him, in exact, adult, conversational tones, what she had done during the day. Gershin always felt like a good father when they were conversing; he contained his delight in the logic and intelligence that had sprung up so suddenly in her infant mind. They would be together all evening and all night. They would watch the news, listen to the radio, read the paper. Nothing would take them unawares.
The autumn had reached its brightest moment. Light rains two days earlier had greened the grass without dimming the radiance of the leaf canopy. The ribbon of sidewalk shone like white satin. The long, settled blocks of sparkling board houses seemed timeless -- perhaps, Gershin thought, because his earliest memories were of houses like these. His mother had him by the hand, and they were walking to the store, as they had done since before he could remember, always to return to the permanence of their own clapboard house. Gershin looked down at Nicole, who was holding his hand and talking, then stopped, stooped down, and picked her up. She said, "Jody and Melissa and I didn't lick tongues today."
"You didn't! Do you lick tongues other days?"
Go to part one of this story.
"That's disgusting!" He exaggerated so that she would laugh, which she did, and wondered what Ann would say, whether she would ignore or discourage tongue-licking. Would she be any more likely to know about this detail of third-raising than he was? He put Nicole down and resumed gazing at the houses they passed, estimating the number of their rooms from external protrusions, envying certain sun porches and oval leaded windows.
He could not remember any first fear, but he knew it was early: after the gorilla that had chased him in his dreams and demolished the neighborhood, but before school. By eight his dread was full-grown; he remembered waking to a thunderclap in his cousins' old apartment in Chicago and being certain it was a bomb. The cousins moved from there in the summer before fourth grade. And though the fear was permanent, changing as he grew only in its power, there was little to say about it. Almost the only reference anyone made came during war games in the neighborhood. If you were hit by a bullet or machine-gun fire, you could get up after a certain time and fight again, but if you were hit by an atomic bomb or a bazooka round you had to stay dead until the game was over.
They crossed the street and approached their own white board house, in which Gershin always saw a good deal of charm. Now, especially, with the grass neatly cut and the two tall maples in brilliant leaf, the black shutters and the black door seemed crisp and stylish against the white siding. Safe as houses. The apparent safety of houses, Gershin thought, was in their square lines. They stood with the confidence of solid objects. Nothing was more vulnerable than a house in this day and age.
Nicole settled herself before The Electric Company, and Gershin brought her a peanut-butter sandwich on whole wheat, cut into quarters, some cottage cheese, a bowl of applesauce, and a cup of milk. The child-care books recommended a serving every week of things like liver and green beans and baked custard, eaten and commented upon at the family dinner table, but Nicole liked this, which was fine with Gershin. He peeled himself an orange, into a napkin, and sat with a beer to watch the news as Nicole took her plate, cup, bowl, and spoon into the kitchen.
WHEN HE THOUGHT ABOUT IT AFTERWARD, IT DID not seem to have been the lead story. Certainly Nicole was back in the room by then, pestering him to roll out the Play-Doh with an old Alka-Seltzer bottle so that she could cut it with the cookie cutters. But what the lead story had been, whether it was domestic or foreign, important or routine, Gershin could not have said. The shock, like a blow to the head, banished forever what immediately preceded it. The general, with dark clipped hair revealing an oblong brainpan, stayed as familiar to Gershin as a brother. He had been testifying about nuclear readiness, the bored faces of senators ranged around him.
Some senator, his half-glasses slipping down his nose, lifted a sheaf of papers and asked a question. His aide could be glimpsed behind him, straightening the collar of her blouse in the tedium.
The general's voice rose. He made no direct answer; rather, his answer was, on the face of it, a non sequitur. He said, "War is a virtual certainty," and, as he said it, he was scared to death. "We know," he went on, "that they are going to bomb us."
Then he stopped, the senators stopped, the tape stopped, and Dan Rather reappeared with news that the general was now at the White House, probably being retired. That, of course, didn't signify, because they would retire him for his political error, not for his knowledge of the truth. Gershin's gaze fixed on Nicole, and included, peripherally, his own knees and feet. He was so shocked that for a few minutes he couldn't unfix it. To have his worst private fears confirmed by a man who was supposed to know what he was saying was impossible, yet certain at some time or other. That rising of the voice, that marrow-deep panic struggling out, that was incontrovertible evidence. All their secret knowledge confirmed it, and all their training could not suppress it. Gershin unfixed his gaze by closing his eyes. They were doomed. His earlier fear, that day's fear, was nothing compared with this new fear. He felt exhausted. Where would he get the time and energy for this exponential swelling of alarm? The brain tumor was confirmed, except that unlike the average cancer patient, the victim of acute terminal nuclear exchange stood upright, carried his infirmity through the streets, and got no bed rest even in the ultimate moment.
Nicole climbed into his lap, saying, "I want a cookie, Daddy."
"You had a cookie already."
"Can I have some beer?"
"It's all gone."
"I want a cookie."
"How about something else? How about a banana?"
"No cookie until bed. We've got bananas and apples and crackers and cheese."
Nicole climbed down and went over to the barrel of Tinker Toys. "Let's build something," she said. "Let's build a pinwheel." But when he got down on the floor to help her, she put down the pieces she was holding and climbed into his lap again. "Can I go to bed, Daddy?"
"Right now? It's not even six o'clock."
"Do you want to go to bed so you can have a cookie?"
Nicole nodded again.
"That's not a good reason. Let's have something else. I'll have something too."
"I want to sit in your lap."
"Good." He spoke with self-conscious affection. He never felt more responsible than when she was offering him her love. He put his arms around her in a ring. After a moment, she said, "I want to give you a kiss."
He offered his cheek. She licked it. Once again with self-conscious affection he said, "Don't lick me. I don't like it."
She licked him again.
"Nicole! I don't want you to lick me."
"I want to!"
"Well, I don't want you to, and I'm the one that's being licked. Just kiss me. I like that a lot."
She darted out a lick and he pushed her head away. "Stop it!"
"I want to lick your teeth."
"I think that's disgusting, and I don't want you to do it. Why don't you give me a kiss? You were going to give me a kiss."
While he was talking -- gently and reasonably, he thought -- she licked him on the chin. He exclaimed, "If you do that once more, I will spank you! I told you that I don't like it, and I mean it."
The look on her face was daring and merry. He put her down. "No!" she shouted. "No! I want to sit in your lap!"
"If you want to sit in my lap, then do what I say. We'll cooperate."
"Okay, Daddy." Her tone was calm and mature. He took her in his lap and settled his arms around her again. She turned her head and looked at him. He smiled. She reached up and licked him on the cheek.
In a flash she was across his knees and he was spanking her on the buttocks with more force than he meant. He was saying, "I said not to do that, now don't do it! I said I would spank you and I wasn't kidding." Five blows fell. She was screaming furiously. He put her down roughly but carefully, stood up, and went into the kitchen. Why was he spanking her when they were all going to die? But should she have her way in all things simply because she was doomed? He wondered, as he had before, if moments added up or if they simply followed one another.
The screaming in the other room settled into crying, and then calls of "I want Mommy! I want Mommy!" which made him smile. It was so obvious. After a while, there was only the noise of the TV. They were on sports now. Gershin took out another orange and another beer, peeled the orange and sectioned it, and put the pieces in a circle on a small plate. Nicole was sitting on the couch with her doll. When he sat down beside her and offered her a slice of orange, she said, "Yucky!" and waved him away. In a few moments, although he had tactfully set the plate close to her and had changed the channel to a re-run of Three's Company, her favorite show, she got up without looking at him, picked up her Big Bird doll, and went upstairs. She climbed the staircase with intense dignity, her eyes straight ahead, her steps heavy with effort. Ashamed of having so embarrassed her, Gershin didn't speak.
When he went up forty-five minutes later, she had put on her nightgown and gone to sleep. He tried to fasten the button behind her neck, but she squirmed and groaned. She had never rejected him so completely before. Gershin was afraid to wake her up.
A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER, HE USED THE INCIDENT as an excuse to call Ann in Chicago. The line was busy. He dialed three more times in quick succession, then called the operator and insisted that she check the line. Someone was talking. He nearly asked if the voices were male and female, but it was already all too easy to imagine Ann's throaty, always teasing tones, as well as the tones of the other -- not unlike his own, but deeper, more confident, the tones of a man comfortable with numbers and mechanical forces. He put the phone down, looked at it for a moment, then tried again. This time no one answered. At once he was bitterly jealous. He sat there for a long time, tears of anger and frustration rolling down his face.
He thought it must be getting late, but when he got up at last and went into the kitchen for his fourth, no, fifth beer of the night, it was only nine-thirty by the kitchen clock. He went back to the living room and sat again on the couch, thinking of Annie abroad in Chicago, the falling buildings, the shelters. He wanted to tell her that when the shelters in Dresden were opened after the fire-bombing, some of them were so hot they burst into flames. He got up and turned on all the lights in the house, hoping that would make him feel less lonely, but he only felt wasteful, so he turned them off again. At ten, he turned on the news. If there was nothing on the news, chances were he would get through the night. Among the car crashes and local murder trials, he heard no mention of the earlier story about the general. That it had been expunged, Gershin thought, only showed that it was true. The doorbell rang. Gershin sat perfectly still, and it rang again. When he finally got up and looked through the peephole, he saw Bambi Jensen arranging herself to be bubbly and offhand. Gershin shuddered, but opened the door.
"Hi!" She managed it with extreme vivacity, as if promising untold entertainments were he just to let her in. She had told him once that she felt very comfortable with him -- an inexplicable notion, since she was indifferent to children, hostile to the idea of marriage, and without a profession. "Kid must be in bed. Are you alone?"
"I was about to go to bed myself."
"So stay up for a while. What's up?"
"Not much. How about you?"
"Oh, plenty. None of it interesting. I've been doing money work for the women's art show, but all they really like is crafts, you know. Women weaving table runners for the dishes they made, full of the food they cooked for the old man to eat. It's okay, but I was hoping for some really strong painting and sculpture, and especially some film, and everyone says they want that, but their eyes don't light up until some housewife brings in the last six sweaters she knitted in Icelandic wool."
She sat down on the couch, and Gershin turned off the TV, not without checking the smiles of the news announcers for evidence of surprise or anxiety. Sometimes they knew things ahead of time and kept them quiet. "I haven't seen much of you lately," he said.
"So what, huh?" Bambi tossed her head. "Everyone's busy. Want some?" She held out the inevitable joint. It was tempting, but Gershin declined. Bambi put it back in her pocket. "Look, I want you to go with me to the women's-show opening. There's going to be a dinner and everything. I haven't asked anyone else, even though it's only next week. I can get you a babysitter if you're stuck."
"I really -- " The thought of it was bizarre, almost repulsive. Not only spending an evening alone with Bambi but, even more, breaking his routine, voluntarily abandoning his child, being away from TV, having to depend on sirens.
Bambi's face fell, as it had been prepared to do, and Gershin sighed. But Nicole, alone? The small museum that was hosting the women's show was all the way across town, fifteen minutes away even if the lights were with you. Bambi waited a moment for him to relent, taking Nicole's plastic Slinky in her hand and turning it over, then putting it down. Finally, she said, "Well, don't worry about it. I don't care that much. They would have liked you."
Gershin couldn't think of anything to say.
"I was going alone in the first place, anyway. I mean, it is a women's show, and so a lot of the women will be alone or with other women. It's absolutely insignificant. Absolutely."
Now, when it was too late, Gershin thought he might have offered some excuse, instead of making it so apparent that he simply didn't want to go with her. She said, "Don't worry about it." She dug herself more deeply into the couch. "You look like a wreck. What's the matter with you?"
"Yeah, your skin is sort of gray and flushed at the same time."
"Terrific." Gershin felt insulted. On the other hand, his skin was still his skin, humming with capillaries and resilient to the touch. He said, "The state of the world's been on my mind, I guess."
"I go through that." She was very casual, and at once his recent agony seemed seedy and neurotic. "When I was little, I used to run home every time I heard a siren, even if I could see the fire truck or the ambulance."
Gershin was reminded of his fear of airplanes and thunder. He kept silent.
"Shit. I was afraid of the nightly news. While it was on, I would sit in the kitchen with my fingers in my ears and hum to myself." Gershin wanted to say that things were different when you had a child, but he was afraid of how it would come out. She sighed. "For people our age, it's like a birth defect, you know. It wasn't your fault, and you can imagine life without it, but it'll be with you forever."
"I'm scared to death lately." He meant to impress her, but he sounded merely querulous. Even so, she was touched, in that woman's way, as if she were being confessed to.
A smile crossed Bambi's face, but her gaze flitted away from him, toward the television set. Fifteen years ago, Gershin thought, they would have come together in a kind of mooing sympathy, and probably have ended up going to bed. They would both have been prettier then, as well as more naive. Now they would stumble along until she finally gave up and went home, and then they would avoid each other a little until the details of the evening had blurred. He suddenly felt sorry for them. Even so, he scratched his head in annoyance and wished he were adept, as Annie was, at getting rid of guests. He could try a yawn, but Annie would get up and turn off lights.
"This is what else I think...." But she did not say it. Gershin cleared his throat. Finally she went on, rather condescendingly, "Usually the only solution for insoluble problems is solidarity or prayer. Your average bourgeois individualist is always dumbfounded by everything." She glanced at him, and he knew, unmistakably, that she had soothed her disappointment by finding him unworthy of it. She stood up. Gershin followed her to the door. When he had closed it behind her, his only real dislike was for himself.
After a few minutes, though, everything was just the same. The general had spoken and the fuse of his fear had set off Gershin's own, like an explosion. That fear seemed to have a life of its own, the way it never flagged or ceased, the way it unrolled the various images of daytime suddenly blackened or nighttime suddenly white, the way it insinuated itself into every moment. What if the bomb came now, while he was looking out the window? The glass would shatter in his face. Could he make it upstairs to Nicole? Would there be an upstairs to make it to? Obviously, this small midwestern town couldn't be a target, but the Russians were well known to be less accurate than the Americans. After 8,000 miles in seventeen minutes, what's a few degrees to the left or right? Gershin turned off the lights, hoped there would be electricity in the morning, hoped there would be a morning, and trudged up the stairs to bed.
Brushing his teeth, he tried to think appropriately of the day's failures, but when he looked into the mirror he thought only of Bambi, her lack of a bra, her tights, and her Birkenstock sandals. His teeth were stained, crooked, full of holes. His nose was pocked; his eyes were red-veined. This is what she would have seen in that last moment of silence. And the backs of his hands, even the backs of his fingers, were darker with hair than they had been. Still it was marvelous, his versatile fingers and the bones of his hand carrying on with the toothbrush over all the surfaces. One marveled at women or children, usually because they looked nice, but one hardly ever marveled at oneself anymore. The certainty of his uniqueness had ebbed away, and Gershin was not sorry to flow with the demographic torrent. Though he remembered his life as a drama of honesty and decision, he was satisfied, after all, to be normal.
He turned off the hall light and turned on the nightlight that would guide Nicole to the bathroom, then went into her room to cover her up. She had apparently awakened, still without calling out to him, had arranged her stuffed animals face down in the bed, and then had gone to sleep among them. Such independent activity shocked him. The roundness of her face and the buoyant flesh he loved looked unfamiliar; he doubted for a moment that she would awaken as his daughter. And what if, right now, with this south-facing window right here -- would she wake up? What could waking up possibly mean at such a time? He put his hand over his eyes. Immediately he saw Bambi Jensen in a bubble of light, saw the shape of her arms and hips and neck exactly, although he hadn't realized he had noticed them. Her deep-set eyeballs with their papery lids, her thinning mouth. Nothing about her attracted him, and that gave her substance. The Bambi of his image slowly turned her head, and he felt as if he should say something, but a simple feeling of truth he could not express. He opened his eyes.
In a few moments, he pulled back the covers, pushed aside most of the animals, and climbed in beside Nicole. She still smelled like his baby, and he pressed his nose into her neck. Her uncombed hair lifted with his breath. She turned partway onto her back and flung out her arm. Past her head, out the window, a large, ashy moon radiated through the trees. What kind of prayer could be suitable for the deadly twentieth century? "Lord," said Gershin. He paused. "Please just let us die one at a time."
Copyright © 1983 by Jane Smiley. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1983; The Blinding Light of the Mind; Volume 252, No. 6; pages 48 - 58.