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D E C E M B E R   1 9 8 3

The Blinding Light of the Mind
A Short Story

by Jane Smiley

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

A BOMB, GERSHIN THOUGHT, WOULD SURELY HIT the air base thirty miles south. How had he overlooked that air base when considering his job at the law firm that now employed him? Why had he stopped in Illinois? Why hadn't he gone farther west, to Montana or Idaho? They'd never bomb those places. Or the bomb might fall off-target, randomly closer to Gershin or farther away. His house had a lovely southern exposure and hardly any basement to speak of (to live in for a month, six months, a lifetime). Upon hearing of the incoming missiles -- assuming the presence of a radio or television, something he couldn't always count on -- he would have seventeen minutes. The law firm was in a building with a capacious basement. Gershin often imagined himself there with Miss Taplow, Mrs. Hadley, Fran Huppert, and Emmett Colby, the senior partner, but he didn't know what they would do there. More frequently, he imagined running or driving (he couldn't decide which was quicker) to the Catholic church where his daughter, Nicole, went to pre-school. While he wouldn't care to be on the streets at zero second, even if the missile achieved its goal and hit the base (only) thirty miles away, it was more disturbing to contemplate three-year-old Nicole left to the kindness of strangers when he, her father, might easily get to her and embrace her with minutes to spare.
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As he buttered her toast, Nicole said, "I would appreciate wearing a dress today." Gershin smiled at her condescending tone. "Okay," he said, "but tights, too. It's beginning to get cold. " She pressed her spoon down on top of the eggs in front of her, chanting,

"Five little monkeys jumping on the bed, Melissa fell off and bumped her head -- "

She put a spoonful in her mouth and began to chew. She was a good eater.

On the other hand, the pre-school teachers were well trained, and the church, too, had a deep and roomy basement. How soon after zero second, assuming the blast was thirty or fifty miles away, could they all come up and find one another? Would Nicole remember him? Forgive him for not being there? Love him still? Today he was tempted to take her to the office.

As a child, he had imagined himself escaping to the woods or the mountains with his wax-dipped matches and his ball of twine and his chain of safety pins, but now he was a homeowner and a lawyer. He wondered if he would have the sense to close his eyes, hide his sight, avoid blistering his retinas, and if Nicole, on a walk with her playmates, would inevitably turn toward the great light, curious. He did not really care about surviving; nor did he fear, in the long run, death itself. What he feared, what subdivided and multiplied in his mind, was those final seventeen minutes -- the explosion of knowledge and shock and grief and horror and decision and action and regret and love --

Nicole said, "Yesterday Melissa fell off the swing and cried."

"Did she hurt herself?"


Gershin tried to imagine Melissa, the best friend, falling off the swing, but he could not. His fear was like a large cardboard box inside his head, empty but bulky, leaving room for little else. When he kissed Nicole good-bye and watched her climb the steps to the open door and the teacher, he realized that he had again forgotten to brush her hair. He wondered if only fathers forgot hair, or only fathers who couldn't stop thinking about thermal burn zones and central firestorms. He walked to work, lighting his first cigarette of the morning, covering at a leisurely pace the same ground he would take in a run, going the other direction, at the first hint of the attack.

Once, his office had been merely his office, pleasant when he had interesting work to do, drab when his work grew tedious. He had furnished it himself with a chair, a table, a lamp, and a rug that he remembered liking. By now, though, he had stared so hard at everything in the room while trying to disassemble his fears that the fears seemed imprinted on everything he looked at, even on the changing colors of the Japanese maples outside and the greenish pitched roof of the building across the street. He always wondered how much radiation the maples could survive and whether, dying, they would begin to turn, as they were doing now, or whether the leaves would simply drop. And that roof was so old, attached to such a charming late-nineteenth-century building. No protection at all, all that stone perforated by windows. He shook his head and his eyes fell on the black filing cabinets. He understood that severely irradiated skin turned black and fell off in strips right before the victim's eyes. Gershin put his head down on his desk and made himself think of his work for the day.

Gershin did not believe that his recent divorce had much to do with his fears, or that Ann's return would calm them, but he often thought about himself at his office, Nicole at pre-school, Ann in Chicago, with regret that they were so scattered and vulnerable. A person, he thought, was not born alone, and he or she should not die alone. There should be some embrace like the tight, slick, warm embrace of the birth canal to ease his or her passage. When he was feeling optimistic, he thought that attention to the news would warn him when an attack was at hand, and he could take Nicole out of school and keep her with him. When he was feeling very optimistic, Gershin imagined calling Ann and persuading her to come back, just for the end. It was possible that Ann had fallen in love again, but he thought not. She was too busy, too accomplished, and too old to find anyone quickly.

When he was feeling pessimistic, Gershin expected the explosion in his office even as he sat and watched. There came a hair-raising knock at the door, and Miss Taplow entered with letters she had typed. She said, "You have lunch with Mr. Jacks and then a two o'clock with Henry Sorel about the trust. This morning Mr. Colby would like to begin talking to you about the Mead wills."

"Thank you, Miss Taplow." He imagined her skin turning black and falling off in strips, the horror on her face as she realized what was happening. When she turned away, he closed his eyes. He had not imagined that before. He thought it was time for something new, something categorically different from the lectures and orders he had been giving himself week after week. He opened his bottom left drawer and took out his phone book. Gershin turned to Psychiatrists and ran his finger down the list until he came to the name "Anne Belkin." He dialed, although he knew that the worst way to pick a psychiatrist was to find someone who sounded like she should be married to you. A receptionist answered the phone, and announced that Gershin had reached Town and Country Mental Health Associates. He asked to speak to Dr. Belkin.

"Is this concerning an appointment, sir?"

"Yes and no. Before I make an appointment, I need to speak to the doctor."

"I'm afraid that would be impossible, sir. Would you give me your name and telephone number so that the doctor can return the call?"

"No, that'll be too late. I must speak to the doctor!" With some sense of shame, Gershin made himself sound as though he were about to commit suicide. The receptionist became carefully calm, saying that she would speak to the doctor. Gershin waited in mortification, feeling his job, his education, his house, and his fatherhood drain away.

"This is Doctor Halstead." The sound of the man's voice shocked Gershin and made him sit up in his chair. He said in a calm -- too-calm -- tone, "I'm afraid of nuclear war."

Doctor Halstead spoke reassuringly. "That's something we all fear, sir -- " and Gershin took the phone from his ear and hung it up carefully, to appear as polite as possible. That the psychiatrist too was afraid -- and he a white male of the most dominant sort -- was not what Gershin wanted to talk about. The psychiatrist should have gasped and said, "You are a sick man; come see me immediately!" Gershin dialed Miss Taplow and asked her what was new. She laughed, not having heard anything. If the first strike came from Russian subs patrolling New York harbor, you didn't even have seventeen minutes.

DAVID JACKS WAS GERSHIN'S BEST FRIEND. FOR that reason, the first thing he said to Gershin when he reached the restaurant, late, was, "None of that crap about the coming holocaust, okay? And I'll tell you what Dorothy heard from Annie, but you have to swear not to run it into the ground."

Gershin nodded. David called over the waitress and ordered himself a Michelob and Gershin another Heineken. David had a company that restored old buildings. Gershin sometimes painted for him in his spare time. That David had been putting up with him lately, humoring him and being his loyal buddy, David made perfectly clear. A1though David often pretended to be near the end of his rope, Gershin suspected that the length of his rope was actually infinite. David had brothers. He assumed that relationships were for life. However, since all his brothers were younger, he gave a lot of advice. "Now, look," he began. "First I'm going to tell you about the Paul House, and then we can talk about you."

"What about the Paul House?"

"Only that Dorothy persuaded the Historical Society to let her do the landscaping, so the whole restoration is going to be a Jacks family production. You should see the colors we've got for the trim, very classy burgundy -- "

"What's Dorothy's idea?"

"Well, I'll tell you. She was doing some research and she found that all these species of trees had been imported within a ten-year period, right around the time when the house was built -- "

"So what did Annie say to her?"

Hey, Gersh, you've got to stop assuming that's the most important thing. Life goes on, and even improves, you know. It's been almost a year. She ought to be at least halfway down your list of priorities by now."

"So you say. Tell me."

For the first time, David looked doubtful.

"So tell me."

"Well, half of it is that she's going to New Zealand."

"New Zealand!"

"Isn't that something?" exclaimed David, taking Gershin's tone to mean amazement at the distance, when it was really appreciation of her audacity in seeking refuge.

It was impossible not to hope. Gershin hoped instantly, saw instantly Annie, Nicole, himself, hand in hand in that crystalline tropic blue always displayed in tourist ads. He said, "The other half is that she's going with some guy, right?"

David nodded. He drank most of his beer, then said, "I'm sure she hasn't known him long. I'm sure he's the guy she met this summer at that conference."

"Did she meet a guy this summer?"

The waitress brought two large barbecued-beef sandwiches and two plates of coleslaw. New Zealand would be beautiful, breathtaking. It was said that even in an all-out exchange, amounting to thousands of warheads on each side, less than 30 percent of the ozone layer of the Southern Hemisphere would be destroyed, leaving undamaged many of those food crops that would bake farther north in the sudden scorch of ultraviolet sunlight. You could survive with a good sun hat and a pair of reflecting gloves. David was scraping up the last bits of coleslaw with the edge of his fork. "What about Nicole?" said Gershin.

"I'm sure Annie will call her right before she goes and right after she gets back. And send her postcards and letters and stuff. Nicole won't even notice. The kid doesn't go there till Christmas, does she?"

"Annie's not moving there?"

"Moving there? No. She's going two weeks with this guy. He's going on business and she's going along for the ride. Did you think she was moving there?"

"I -- "

"How could she move there? What about Nicole?"

But you made a big deal of it! I thought she was packing up, evacuating for good. I thought she might take Nicole with her, actually."

"It is a big deal, Gersh! She's taking off with another guy. The first other guy."

"I suppose."

"Don't you care?"

David looked at him suspiciously, and Gershin smiled slightly. It was an idea. How did you go about looking for employment in New Zealand? Did they need tax lawyers? Was a tax lawyer too specific, too precisely geared to his own machinery of laws to be exportable? But he wasn't thirty-five yet. How about another line of work? The glow of hope helped him say, "What's this guy of Annie's do?"

"Engineer of some kind. Dorothy says he's older. Ten, twelve years."

"That does seem weird."

"No kids, either. Never been married."

They chewed over the few morsels of information David had about John Wesley -- or was his name John Woods? -- and while the light they shed on Annie's aspirations seemed peculiar and depressing, it was a pleasure to think of her in New Zealand, safe in a thick sweater, standing knee-deep in moist living grass, ten, twelve, fifteen thousand miles away.

Coming out of the restaurant, Gershin nearly stumbled into Bambi Jensen, whom he hadn't seen, to his relief, in about three months. Bambi Jensen was the sort of relic who always carried one or two joints, as a gesture of sociability, and had once called herself, in Gershin's hearing, "a soldier in the sexual revolution." Gershin had gathered from her manner over the past year that she wished him to like her. He could not imagine why. In his present state, he could not imagine "liking" anyone. "How are you?" he said, grudgingly.

"Busy. Do you really care?"

There was no answer to that. Gershin smiled. He could easily imagine Bambi blown away in a firestorm, her waist-length hair flaming up and her Birkenstock sandals spinning in the whirlwind above her head. "Got to get back to the office!" he exclaimed unnecessarily.

"Sure," she said, and in her single word was a mixture of friendliness, skepticism, interest, indifference, and experience that began by making him uncomfortable and ended by refreshing his hostility to such a degree that when he got back to work he was rehearsing perfect ways to tell her that people like her -- shallow, anti-intellectual, thoughtless, but condescending -- were what was wrong with their generation. Abrasive, without manners. Miss Taplow announced Henry Sorel.

GERSHIN ENVIED HENRY SOREL, BECAUSE HE WAS so old that he would probably die without being bombed. If he feared the devastation -- and he never gave a sign of fearing anything -- he probably feared only disruption of the minute provisions he had made for his heirs. Every dime of his large fortune was to go into a trust, which would pay, at the proper time, for what Sorel thought each heir would need. You didn't need a house, for example, until you were twenty-eight, or until your legal wife was pregnant with your first child, and so no money would be paid out for residences until the heir in question reached twenty-eight or potential fatherhood. At twenty-one, there was money for a car. Upon marriage, there was money for another car. When the heirs of the heirs reached school age, there was money for good parochial schools, and there was money for educational travel, if the applicant furfilled all the prerequisites that justified the word "educational." When the heirs of the heirs reached college age, there was money for Notre Dame or Georgetown. The trust was like a large foundation, to which the heirs would apply as for grants. Gershin considered it peculiar at times and immoral at other times, but, because the firm would be the sole executor of the trust in perpetuity, he entertained Sorel's changes of mood and mind with care and courtesy. Besides, Sorel was a likable man. When he came to talk about the trust, he always stayed to talk about Russian music, because Gershin's name reminded him of Russia, which reminded him of music. With Emmett Colby, he talked about fishing in the British Isles.

When Miss Taplow showed him in, he was saying to her, "I've been thinking of the Firebird all morning. Surely you know it?" Miss Taplow smiled ambiguously. He turned to Gershin. "I heard Stravinsky conduct it. You know, Stravinsky always presented himself as a perfectionist, but he made numerous mistakes with his own score. London, it was. Sometime. Sublime, anyway, in spite of the mistakes. Let's call them improvisations? Even though the orchestra didn't know about them either!" He sat down, laughing heartily at his own joke. Gershin smiled. "Now, Attorney Gershin!" he went on. "What's the matter with you? You look down in the mouth. Now, I've thought of something. Take notes. What if one them wants to go into business? Not my business, but something of his own, her own, something profitable. What if one of them shows some gumption? New businesses take money. And what if they show gumption and stupidity at the same time and want to buy a restaurant or a bookshop? How are we going to discriminate? The principle of the trust is that they all get the same chance, but going into business is different from college and cars. I don't want my money frittered away. This is a philosophical problem. Are you a philosophical man, Gershin?"

"Not by profession, sir, but perhaps by avocation." Could obsession with mutually assured destruction be considered philosophy?

"Good, then you think about it. Everything fair and equal, but everything nicely protected, too."

"The utopian socialist estate?"

"Good. I like that. I was a Communist, you know, back in the thirties, right after I first got rich. I used to take the streetcar and go third-class on the train, but standing in line made me want to strangle my neighbor. That's what socialism is, you know, standing in line. Now, what about this Shostakovich book? I think it's a fake, myself." Gershin sat back and listened to the dissertation, wondering about the experience of being brought low. If the attack were to come right now, Henry Sorel, who had had his way for forty years, or fifty, or eighty-five, would be brought low. Speaking of philosophers, some of them seemed to think that being brought low and finding truth amounted to the same thing, that the final, humbled, mortal, suffering thought was the only real one. Gershin, looking at Henry Sorel, doubted that. If he stood, like a Hiroshima victim, naked and holding his eyeball in his hand, couldn't you take just one other moment, the moment of his first big contract, say, or the time he recovered from Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and balance the two? Gershin nodded with apparent interest as both of Henry Sorel's eyeballs rolled wholesomely in their sockets (he was making a point with mock exasperation). Sorel had seen Shostakovich; his mother had heard Tchaikovsky conduct. Perhaps it was people like Henry Sorel, habitually unbridled in imagination and whim, who built and considered using bombs, who saw them as a tool and disbelieved the consequences. It was terribly hard to know.

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

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.

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