fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
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"The Nuclear Age"
"Nobody wanted to pray, but each of us blessed the bomb without guilt, and Sarah chanted, 'Fission, fusion, critical mass.'" A short story by Tim O'Brien
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Interviews: "The 'What If?' Game"
(October 30, 2002)
Tim O'Brien talks about his new novel, July, July,
and the urge to wonder how life might have turned out differently.
The Atlantic Monthly | January 1992
hen John Wade was a boy of twelve, his hobby was magic. In the basement, where he practiced in front of a full-length mirror, he made his mother's silk scarves change color. He cut his father's tie with scissors and restored it whole. He placed a penny in the palm of his hand, made his hand into a fist, made the penny into a white mouse. This was not true magic; it was trickery. But John Wade sometimes pretended otherwise, because he was a kid then, and because pretending was the thrill of magic, and because for a time what seemed to happen became a happening in itself. He was a dreamer. He liked watching his hands in the mirror, imagining how someday he would perform much grander magic, tigers becoming giraffes, beautiful girls levitating like angels in the high yellow spotlights—naked maybe, no wires, no wires or strings, just floating there.
The People We Marry
Magic was his life. His marriage was a trick he did not want to explain
by Tim O'Brien
At fourteen, when his father died, John did the tricks in his head. He'd lie in bed at night imagining a big yellow door, and after a few minutes the door would jerk open and his father would walk in and take off his hat and sit in a rocking chair beside the bed. "Well, I'm back," his father would say, "but don't tell your mom—she'd kill me." He'd wink and grin. "So what's new?" And they they'd talk for a while, quietly, catching up on things. Like cutting a tie and restoring it whole.
e met Kathy in the autumn of 1967. He was a senior at the University of Minnesota. She was a freshman.
The trick then was to make her love him and never stop.
The urgency came from fear, mostly. He didn't want to lose her. Sometimes he'd jerk awake at night, dreaming she'd left him, but when he tried to explain this to her, Kathy laughed and told him to cut it out, she'd never leave, and in any case thinking that way was destructive, it was negative and unhealthy.
John thought it over for several days. "You're right," he said, "but it still worries me. Things go wrong. Things don't always last."
"We're not things," she said.
"But it can happen."
"Not with us."
John shrugged and looked away. He was picturing his father's white casket. "Well, maybe you're right," he said, "but how do we know? People lose each other."
In early December he began spying on her. He felt some guilt at first, which bothered him, but he also found a peculiar satisfaction in it. Like magic, he thought—a quick, powerful rush. He knew things he shouldn't know. Intimate little items: what she ate for breakfast, the occasional cigarette she smoked. Finesse and deception, those were his specialties, and the spying came easily. In the evenings he'd station himself outside her dormitory, staring up at the light in her room; later, when the light went off, he'd patiently track her to the student union or the library or wherever else she went. The issue wasn't trust or distrust. It was how the world was. He'd sometimes make dates with her, and then cancel, and then wait to see how she used the time. He looked for signs of betrayal: the way she smiled at people, the way she carried herself around other men. In a way, he loved her best when he was spying; it opened up a hidden world, with new perspectives and new things to admire. On Thursday afternoons he'd stake out women's basketball practice, watching from under the bleachers, taking quiet note of her energy and enthusiasm and slim brown legs. As an athlete, he decided, Kathy wasn't much, but he got a kick out of the little war dance she'd do whenever a free throw dropped in. Her competitive spirit made him proud; she was a knockout in gym shorts.
Down inside, of course, John realized that the spying wasn't proper, yet he couldn't bring himself to stop. In part, he thought, Kathy had brought it on herself: she had a personality that lured him on. She was fiercely private. She was fiercely independent. They'd be at a movie together, or at a party, and she'd simply vanish; she'd go out for a pack of gum, or so she'd say, and forget to return. It wasn't thoughtlessness, exactly, but it wasn't thoughtful either. Without reason, usually without warning, she'd wander away while they were browsing in a shop or a bookstore, and a moment later, when he glanced up, she'd be cleanly and absolutely gone, as if plucked off the planet. That fast—here, then gone—and he wouldn't see her again for hours, or until he found her holed up in a back carrel of the library. All this put a little chill in his heart. He understood her need to be alone, to reserve time for herself, but too often she carried things to an extreme that made him wonder.
The spying helped. No great discoveries, but at least he knew the score.
And it was fun, too—a challenge.
Occasionally he'd spend whole days just tailing her. The trick was to be patient, to stay alert, ad he liked the bubbly sensation it gave him to trace her movements from spot to spot. He liked melting into crowds, positioning himself in doorways, anticipating her route as she walked across campus. It was sleight-of-body work, or sleight-of-mind, and over those cold winter days he was carried along by the powerful, secret thrill of gaining access to a private life. Hershey bars, for instance—Kathy was addicted, she couldn't resist. He learned about her friends, her teachers, her little habits and routines. He watched her shop for his birthday present. He was there in the drugstore when she bought her first diaphragm.
"It's weird," Kathy told him once, "how well you know me."
"Well, that's love," he said.
"But I'm still amazed. Sometimes I feel like we're one person, almost. Like you can read my mind."
John took her in his arms. "A miracle," he said.
o his surprise, Kathy kept loving him, she didn't stop, and over the course of the spring semester they made plans to be married and have children and live in a big old house in Minneapolis. For John it was a happy time. Except for rare occasions, he gave up spying; he was able to confide in her about his ambitions and dreams. First law school, he told her, then a job with the party, then maybe a run for the state senate, and then, when all the pieces were in place, he'd go for something big. Lieutenant governor, maybe. The U.S. Senate. He had the sequence mapped out; he knew what he wanted.
Kathy listened carefully, nodding at times. Her eyes were green and smart, watchful. "Sounds fine," she said, "but what's it all for?"
"I mean, why?"
John hesitated. "Because—you know—because it's what I want."
"Which is what?"
"Just the usual, I guess. Change things. Make things happen."
Kathy lay on her back, in bed, frowning at the ceiling. It was late April of 1968. She was eighteen years old.
"Well, I still don't get it," she said. "The way you talk, it sounds calculating or something. Too cold. Planning every tiny detail."
"And that's bad?"
"No. Not exactly."
She made a shifting motion with her shoulders. "I don't know, it just seems strange, sort of. How you've figured everything out, all the angles, except what it's for."
"For us," he said. "I love you, Kath."
"But it feels—I shouldn't say this—it feels manipulating."
John turned and looked at her. Eighteen years old, yes, but something flat and skeptical condensed in her eyes, something terrifying. She returned his gaze without backing off. She was hard to fool. Again, briefly, he was struck by a sudden fear of losing her, of bungling things, and for a long while he tried to explain how wrong she was. Nothing sinister, he said. He talked about leading a good life, doing good things for the world. Yet even as he spoke, John realized he was not telling the full truth. Politics was manipulation. Like a magic show: invisible wires and secret trapdoors. He imagined placing a city in the palm of his hand, making his hand into a fist, making the city into a happier place. Manipulation, that was the fun of it.
e graduated in June of 1968. There was a war in progress, which was beyond manipulation, and five months later he found himself at the bottom of an irrigation ditch south of Chu Lai. The muck was waist-deep; he couldn't move. People were committing murder, other people were making odd huffing noises, and the trick then was not to die.
His letters from Kathy were cheerful and newsy, full of daily detail, and he found comfort in her chitchat about family and friends. She told funny stories about her sister, Pat, about her teachers and roommates and basketball team. She rarely mentioned the war. Though concerned for his safety, Kathy also had doubts about his motives, his reasons for being there.
"I just hope it's not part of your political game plan," she wrote. "All those dead people, John, they don't vote."
The letter hurt him. He couldn't understand how she could think such things. It was true, of course, that he sometimes imagined returning home a hero, looking spiffy in a crisp new uniform, smiling and waving at the crowds and carrying himself with appropriate decorum. And it was true, too, that uniforms got people elected. Even so, he felt abused.
"I love you," he wrote back, "and I hope someday you'll believe in me."
He was not much of a soldier, barely competent, but he managed to hang on without embarrassing himself. He kept his head down under fire, avoided trouble, trusted in luck to keep him alive. By and large he was well liked among the men in Bravo Company. In the evening, after the foxholes were dug, he'd sometimes perform card tricks for his new buddies, simple stuff mostly, and he liked the grins and bunched eyebrows as he transformed the Ace of Spades into the Queen of Hearts, the Queen of Hearts into a snapshot of Ho Chi Minh. The guys were impressed. Sorcerer, they called him: "Sorcerer's our man." And for John Wade, who had always considered himself a loner, the nickname was like a special badge, an emblem of belonging and brotherhood, something to take pride in. A nifty sound, too—Sorcerer. It suggested certain powers, certain rare skills and aptitudes.
The men in Bravo Company seemed to agree.
In January, when a kid named Henderson got shot through the stomach, John Knelt down and pressed a towel against the hole and said the usual things: "Hang tight, easy now." Henderson nodded. For a while he was quiet, flickering in and out, and then suddenly he giggled and tried to sit up.
"Hey, no sweat," he said, "I'm aces, I'm golden." He kept rocking, he wouldn't lie still. "Don't mean zip, man, no sweat at all."
Then his eyes shut. He almost smiled.
"Go on," he said. "Do your magic."
In Vietnam, where superstition governed, there was the fundamental need to believe—believing just to believe—and over time the men came to trust in Sorcerer's powers. Jokes, at first. Little bits of lingo. "Listen up," somebody would say, "tonight we're invisible," and after a second somebody else would say, "That's affirmative, Sorcerer's got this magic dust, gonna sprinkle us good, gonna make us into spooks." It was a game they played. Partly tongue in cheek, partly hopeful. At night, before heading out on ambush, the men would go through the ritual of lining up to touch Sorcerer's helmet, filing by as if at communion, the faces dark and young and solemn. They'd ask his advice on matters of fortune; they'd tell each other stories about his incredible good luck, how he never got a scratch, not once, not even that time back in December when the mortar round dropped right next to his foxhole. Amazing, they'd say. Man's plugged into the spirit world.
John encouraged the mystique. It was useful, he discovered, to cultivate a slightly reserved demeanor, to stay silent for long stretches of time. When pressed, he'd put on a quick display of his powers, doing a trick of two, maybe offering a vague prophecy of things to come. "Wicked vibes," he'd say, "wicked day ahead," and then he'd shake his head and gaze out across the paddies. He couldn't go wrong. Wickedness was everywhere.
"I'm the company witch doctor," he wrote Kathy. "These guys listen to me. They actually believe in this shit."
athy did not write back for several weeks. And then she sent only a postcard: "One's born every minute, I guess, but be careful with the hocus-pocus. One of these days you'll make me disappear."
The card was signed "Kath." There were no endearments, no funny stories.
Instantly, John felt the old terrors rise up again, all the ugly possibilities. He couldn't shut them off; even in bright daylight the pictures kept blowing through his head. Dark bedrooms, for instance. Kathy's diaphragm. What he wanted was to spy on her again—the wanting was almost a craving—but all he could do was wait. At night his blood seemed to bubble. He couldn't stop wondering. In the third week of February, when a letter finally arrived, he detected a new coolness in her tone, a new distance and formality. She talked about a movie she'd seen, an art gallery she'd visited, a terrific Spanish beer she'd discovered. His imagination filled in the details.
arch was a wretched month. Kathy was one problem, the war another. Two men were lost to land mines; a third was shot through the neck; Henderson died in the hospital.
And the pressures did not let up. In the middle of the month Bravo Company was choppered into a string of hamlets in the densely wooded foothills northwest of Chu Lai—a spooky area, full of ghosts—and morale was low. As they plodded from village to village, the men talked in low voices about how the magic had worn off, how Sorcerer had lost contact with the underworld. They seemed to blame him. Nothing direct, just a general standoffishness. There were no more requests for tricks. No banter, no jokes. As the days piled up, John felt increasingly cut off from the men, cut off from Kathy and his own future. A standard sensation—he felt totally lost. At times he wondered about his mental health. The internal terrain had gone blurry; he couldn't get his bearings.
"Something's wrong," he wrote Kathy. "Don't do this to me. I'm not blind—Sorcerer can see."
She wrote back fast: "You scare me."
And then for many days he received no letters at all, not even a postcard, and the war kept squeezing in on him. The notion of the finite took hold and would not let go.
In the second week of April a lieutenant named Reinhart was shot dead by sniper fire. He'd been eating a candy bar. He fell in the grass under a straggly old palm tree, his lips dark with chocolate. The day was bright and humid, very hot, but John Wade found himself shivering. The cold came from inside him. A deep freeze, he thought, and then suddenly he felt something he'd never felt before, a force so violent it seemed to pick him up by the shoulders. It was rage, in part, but it was also humiliation and illness and despair, all kinds of things.
For a few seconds he hugged himself, frozen there, and then he was moving.
He made no real decision. He'd lost touch with his own body, his own sense of violation, and in the hours afterward he would remember how he seemed to glide toward the enemy position—not running, just a fast, winging, disconnected glide—circling in from behind, not thinking at all, slipping through a tangle of deep brush and keeping low and letting the glide take him up to a little man in black trousers and a black shirt. He would remember the man turning. He would remember their eyes colliding. Certain other things he would remember only dimly: how he was carried forward by the glide, how his lungs seemed full of ashes, how at one point his rifle muzzle came up against the man's cheekbone. At that instant his memory would go wet and red. He would feel an immense pressure in his stomach; he would see Kathy's flat eyes reproaching him for the many things he had done and not done; he would review himself as a boy—at his father's funeral—fourteen years old, and scared, and wearing a necktie and a new white shirt; he would smell the terrible flower smells; he would remember his mother weeping, the minister saying words that made him want to search for his father in the pews and aisles as if for a lost nickel. At his right shoulder he felt a fierce shaking. He heard no sound at all, none that he would remember, and everything was wet and red.
Afterward the guys in Bravo Company couldn't stop talking about Sorcerer's new trick.
They went on and on.
"Poof," one of them said. "No lie, just like that—poof!"
At dusk they dragged the sniper's body into a nearby hamlet. An audience of villagers was summoned at gunpoint. A rope was then secured to the dead man's feet, another to his wrists, and just before nightfall Sorcerer and his assistants performed an act of levitation, hoisting the body high into the trees, into the dark, where it floated under a fiery red moon.
ohn returned home in November of 1970. At the Seattle airport he put in a long-distance call to Kathy but then chuckled and hung up on the second ring.
The flight to Minneapolis was lost time. Jet lag, maybe, but something else, too. He felt dangerous. In the gray skies over North Dakota he went back into the lavatory, where he took off his uniform and put on a sweater and slacks, and then carefully appraised himself in the mirror. His eyes looked unsound. A little tired, a little frayed. After a moment he winked at himself. "Hey, Sorcerer," he murmured. "How's tricks?"
In the Twin Cities that evening he took a bus over to the university. He carried his duffel to the plaza outside Kathy's dorm, found a concrete bench, and sat down to wait. It was shortly after nine o'clock. Her window was dark, which seemed appropriate, and for a couple of hours he compiled mental lists of the various places she might be, the things she might be doing. Nothing wholesome came to mind. His thoughts then gathered around the topics he would address once the occasion was right. Loyalty, for example. Steadfastness and love and fidelity and trust and all the related issues of sticking power.
By midnight, he'd worked himself up. He was yelling in his head, half dizzy, and he almost missed her when she turned up the sidewalk to her dorm.
She carried a canvas tote bag over her shoulder, a sack of groceries in her right arm. She'd lost some weight, mostly at the hips, and in the dark she seemed to move with a quicker, nimbler, more impulsive stride. It made him uneasy. After she'd gone inside, John sat very still for a time, not quiet there, not quiet anywhere; then he picked up his duffel and walked the seven blocks to a hotel.
He was still gliding.
That dizzy, disconnected sensation stayed with him all night. Exotic fevers swept through his blood; he couldn't get traction on his dreams. Twice he woke up and stood under the shower, letting it beat against his shoulders, but even then the dream-reels kept unwinding. Crazy stuff: Kathy shoveling rain off a sidewalk; Kathy waving at him from the wing of an airplane. At one point, near dawn, he found himself curled up on the floor, wide awake, conversing with the dark. He was asking his father to please stop dying. Over and over he kept saying please, but his father wouldn't listen and wouldn't stop, he just kept dying, and so then a hard, killing rage rose up. He was fourteen years old again—the funeral, the necktie pinching tight—and he wanted to kill everybody who was crying and everybody who wasn't. He wanted to kill the minister. He wanted to kill the choir and the skinny old lady at the organ. He wanted to kill the flowers. He wanted to grab a hammer and crawl into the casket and kill his father for dying. But he felt helpless; he didn't know where to start. After the service, while his mother slept, he'd gone down into the basement and practiced magic in front of the full-length mirror, making white mice disappear, reading minds that were no longer present, performing miracles of love and healing.
Now he felt only coldness.
When dawn came, he hiked over to Kathy's dorm and waited on the concrete bench. He wasn't sure what he wanted.
Around ten o'clock she came out and headed toward the classroom buildings. The routine hadn't changed. He followed her to the biology lab, then to the student union, then to the post office and bank and gymnasium. From his old spot under the bleachers he watched as she practiced her dribbling and free throws, which were much improved, and after lunch he spent a monotonous three hours in the library as she leaned over a fat gray psychology textbook. Nothing out of the ordinary. Several times, in fact, he came close to ending his vigil—just grabbing her, holding tight and never letting go. But near dark, when she closed her book, he couldn't resist tailing her across campus to a busy kiosk, where she bought a magazine, and then to a pizza joint on University Avenue, where she ordered a Tab and a small pepperoni.
He stationed himself at a bus stop outside. His eyes ached, and his heart, too—everything. Beneath all that, though, he felt the dull pain of indecision, a kind of puzzlement, a moral fatigue. At times he was struck by a fierce desire to believe that the suspicion was nothing but a demon in his head. Other times he wanted to believe the worst. He didn't known why. It was as though something inside him—his genes or his bone marrow—required the certainty of a confirmed betrayal: a witnessed kiss, a witnessed embrace. The facts would be absolute. In a dim way, only half admitted, John understood that the alternative was simply to love her, and to go on loving her, yet somehow the ambiguity of it all seemed intolerable. Nothing could ever be certain, not if he spied forever, because he would always face the threat of tomorrow's treachery, or next year's treachery, or the treachery implicit in all the years beyond that.
Besides, he liked spying. He was Sorcerer. He had the gift, the knack.
It was full dark when Kathy stepped outside. She passed directly behind him, so close he could smell the soaps and oils on her skin. Just briefly, he felt a curious jolt of guilt, almost shame, but for another ten minutes he tracked her back toward campus, watching as she paused to inspect the shop windows and Thanksgiving displays. At the corner of University and Oak she used a public telephone, mostly listening, laughing once; then she continued up toward the school. The evening had a crisp, leafy smell. Football weather, a cool mid-autumn Friday, and the streets were crowded with students and flower kids and lovers going arm in arm. Nobody knew. Their world was safe. All promises were infinite, all things endured, doubt was on some other planet. Neptune, he thought, which gave him pause. When he looked up, Kathy was gone.
For a few moments John had a hard time finding focus. He scanned the sidewalks, shut his eyes briefly, and then turned and made his way back to her dorm.
He waited all night. He waited through dawn and into early morning.
By then he knew.
The knowledge was absolute. It was bone-deep and forever—pure knowing—but even so he waited. He was still there when she came up the sidewalk around noon. Arms folded, powerful, he stood on the steps and watched her move toward him.
hey married anyway.
It was an outdoor ceremony, in the discreetly landscaped yard of her family's house in a suburb west of the Twin Cities. Balloons had been tied to the trees and shrubs; the patio was decorated with Japanese lanterns and red carnations and crepe paper. Altogether, things went nicely. The minister talked about the shield of God's love, which warded off strife, and then recited—too theatrically, John thought—a short passage from First Corinthians. Oddly, though, it was not the solemn moment he had once imagined. At one point he glanced over at Kathy and grinned. "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge"—her eyes were green and bright. She wrinkled her nose. She grinned back at him—"and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains..." A lawnmower droned a few houses down. A light breeze rippled across the yard, and spikes of dusty sunshine made the trees glow, and pink and white balloons danced on their little strings. "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
Then the minister led them through their vows.
They promised to be true to each other. They promised other things, too, and exchanged rings, and afterward Kathy's uncle opened the bar. Her mother gave them bed sheets. Her father presented them with the keys to an apartment in Minneapolis.
"It's scary," Kathy whispered, "how much I love you."
They drove away in a borrowed Chevy, to the St. Paul Ramada, where they honeymooned for several days on a package deal. The secrets were his. He would never tell. On the second morning Kathy asked if he had any misgivings, any second thoughts, and John shook his head and said no. He was Sorcerer, after all, and what was love without a little mystery?
They moved into the apartment just after Easter.
"We'll be happy," Kathy said. "I know it."
John laughed and carried her inside.
He would be vigilant. He would guard his advantage. He would go from year to year without letting on that there were tricks.
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Copyright © 1992 by Tim O'Brien. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1992, Vol. 269, No. 1, Pg. 90.