Willie lies on the floor behind the couch, his back against the wall, because that’s the safest place to be. He turns on his belly and rests his chin on his fist. He hears the wall clock ticking over the fireplace, but he can’t see what time it is. “Smoochy, come-ere.” Smoochy is sprawled on the throw rug, her tail thumping the floor. “Come on girl. You don’t want to die, do you?” Smoochy gets up, shakes her head, her long ears flapping, and then crawls in, her nose pressing against Willie’s forehead. “‘Atta, girl. Now you’re safe.” Smoochy licks Willie’s face.
Willie and Smoochy cock their heads when a siren, screaming like a coyote, goes off again in the distance. He squeezes his dog and closes his eyes. “You’ll be okay, girl. I’ve got you.” Smoochy squirms to get loose, but Willie holds on tight. “Just another minute, Smooch.” Willie presses one ear against Smoochy’s side and cups his other ear with his hand. It feels like the siren is inside his head, right between his ears, whirring, whirring, whirring. “C’mon, enough.”
When the siren stops, Willie sighs and pats his dog. Smooch tries to
wiggle her way out just as the siren blasts again---RRRRrrrrrrrRRRRrrrr. She slips away. “Smoochy! Smoochy!” Willie digs his nails into the carpet. He can’t see his dog. He holds his breath. A spider slinks slowly down the wall beside him. He reaches out and smashes it. He closes his eyes and buries his head in his arms. He inhales carpet dust. This has gone on every day for, like, ever. Test after test. The siren stops and then starts blaring a third time. “Pop! Where are you?”
This must be it, he thinks. The end of the world.
Sounding like air screaming through the pinched end of a balloon, the siren subsides again. Willie shuts his eyes tight, and muffles his ears with the palms of his hands. He curls his toes and tries to pull up his knees. He gulps air and waits for the next blast.
It’s quiet for a few minutes. He takes one hand from one ear and turns on his side to see if he can hear anything. The clock on the wall is still ticking. There are voices outside. Happy voices. Kid voices. He takes another deep breath and blows through his puckered lips in relief.
There is a knock at the door. He pushes as hard as he can against the couch, feeling like a turtle struggling to get off its back. The knock is louder the second time. He slides out backwards inch by inch. Smoochy watches, bemused. Willie goes bug-eyed when he sees it’s 12:45pm. Nuts! Lunch time is long gone. He hasn’t eaten a thing. Another knock at the door.
He goes into the hall and peeks through the curtains. Lucy’s face is pressed against the glass. Preston is walking on the porch railing, his arms out for balance. Lucy smiles and waves. He holds up one finger, he’ll be out in a minute. He races up the stairs to his bedroom where he yanks a Clark Bar from his pillow case, shoves it into his jeans pocket and flies back down. He feels his heart beating against his striped jersey. He looks in the hall mirror. His hair is plastered to his head from all the sweat. Can he soak it at the kitchen sink and quickly dry his hair with a hand towel? There is another knock. He looks in the mirror again, shrugs and runs to the front door.
When he opens it, Lucy is sitting on the porch, rocking in Pop’s favorite chair. Preston is still balancing on the porch rail.
“Hey,” says Lucy.
“Hey.” Willie takes a deep breath.
“How’s it going?” Preston slides off the rail.
Willie breathes hard, his face is white.
“What’s the matter?” says Lucy.
“What do you mean ‘what’s the matter?’?”
“You look, well, you look like death warmed over,” says Pres. Preston shoves Willie and laughs.
“That’s what my grandma says if someone doesn’t look right. She says, ‘What’s wrong? You look like death warmed over’.”
“I’ve seen your grandma. She looks like death warmed over,” says Willie. Lucy sneers and punches him in the arm.
“You still haven’t answered me,” says Lucy.
A group of kindergarteners pass by holding hands, one of their mothers leading the way.
“C’mon, let’s get going” says Preston.
“Yeah, we’re gonna be late for social studies.” Willie jumps off the top porch step and lands with a thud. The September air rustles the sycamore leaves. He squints into the noonday sun.
They fall in behind the kindergarteners for half a block before they pass them up. A group of boys cat-call Lucy from across the street. “Woooo-hooo, Lucy! Ramma-lamma-ding-dong!” “Shut up creeps!” She holds up her fist.
This is new. They’d been friends since kindergarten, but Willie has never thought of Lucy the way other sixth grade boys think of her. Recently, though, he has noticed her long, lush, dark brown hair and bright blue eyes.
Her smile and the dimple on her chin.
He’d asked Preston: “Do you think Lucy’s pretty?”
“My God, man, are you nuts or something?”
Willie puffs himself up and glowers at the boys across the street.
“Oooo, we’re shakin’,” calls the ring leader.
“Morons,” says Willie.
“Hey,” says Lucy, nudging Willie in the ribs. “See that guy?”
“The guy, that one over there crossing the street.” She points.
A guy in a suit, white shirt and tie and walks into Scanlon’s Service Station.
“Have you ever seen him before?”
“Nothing.” Lucy watches the man in the suit as he exits the gas station. He stops, unwraps a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. He turns and looks right at Lucy. “Just seen him around a bunch of times.”
By then, Preston is half a block ahead of them, running as fast as he can without stepping on any cracks.
The school yard is full of kids waiting for the bell to re-enter Wood Street Elementary for the afternoon session. Lucy lays her books on the grass. Willie leans against a tree. Preston chases a fifth grader who’d stuck his tongue out at him.
“Man, I hate those sirens” says Willie.
“Yeah, you know---the sirens. Didn’t they bother you?”
“I don’t know. I was making lunch for my mom and cleaning up the kitchen. So, no, I guess they didn’t.”
It was quiet for a moment. Is he the only one who pays attention to these things? Is he the only one who understands what’s at stake? “My mom says it’s just a big nothing.” “Really?” says Willie.
The bell rings and everyone pours into the school, bees to the hive.
“I hope she’s right.”
Once in his seat by the window, Willie forces a smile as his classmates clamor in. Maybe if you put on a happy face, you won’t feel so jumpy, Pop had told him. He waves to Preston. It helps that everyone is loud and boisterous, not a care in the world. He nods to Linda, Sally and Frank. He wonders if any of them were hiding behind their couches just a few minutes before.
Mr. Highmark enters the room, Mr. Clammerman close behind him.
Oh no, not this, thinks Willie.
Mr. Clammerman is wearing a civil defense badge on his sleeve and a broad smile on his even broader face.
“Good afternoon, kiddos!”
“Hi, Mr. Clammerman,” several kids call out in sing-song rhythm.
“Good afternoon, gang!” Mr. Highmark is the new social studies teacher. He doesn’t look much older than Willie’s brother, Denny, although Mr. Highmark has a bushy moustache that looks like an upside-down U. Willie’s brother can barely grow fuzz. Pop told Denny he didn’t need to shave. He could just dust his lip.
“We have our friend Mr. Clammerman with us this afternoon. He’s here to help us be aware, stay safe and---(he pauses for effect)---avoid the red menace. Mr. Clammerman, welcome!” He bows slightly and sweeps his arm out in a regal gesture. The class giggles.
“Thank you, Mr. Highmark.” He faces the class; everything about him is paunchy. “As you young citizens of this great nation know, we are in a time of peril…”
Of my God, thinks Willie. He looks out the window, breathing as evenly as he can.
“…the Soviets are not our friends…”
A bead of perspiration drips from his forehead to the inside corner of his right eye. He doesn’t touch it.
“…the threat of nuclear war, something we here in America won’t tolerate…”
The words of Willie’s neighbor, Mr. Ashwood, ring in his ears: “They don’t just want to destroy our way of life, they want to destroy us. It’s coming, I’m telling you.” He snorted and hawked a loogie onto the sidewalk. Pop flicked his Camel into the street. “You think?” was all he said.
Later Willie asked Pop if there was going to be a nuclear war. Pop said, “Nothing for you to worry about,” and walked away. He was like that. Didn’t say much. Willie asked if he could call Denny. “No, you can’t call him, it’s long distance; I’m not made of money.” said Pop. That was that.
He talked to Preston, but it didn’t help much: “I’m telling you, man, America is like Popeye and the commies are like Bluto, you know? Popeye never loses to Bluto. He always finds his spinach. We’ll kill the Soviets to death if they try anything!” His father had fought in World War II and Korea. “My dad says we should have bombed all our enemies to smithereens when we had a chance.” He had a battery-operated toy machine gun on his front porch that was mounted on a tripod. He shot at any suspicious looking car or truck that passed by---RATTA-TAT-TAT! “They don’t stand a chance, man.”
Willie watches as two students struggle to set up the movie screen. Mr. Highmark finally steps in to hook the screen at the top. Mr. Clammerman attaches the movie reel and threads the film through the projector. There is a fifty-fifty chance the projector won’t work. Willie crosses his fingers. No luck, though. Soon jaunty music fills the room as smiling children with bows in their hair and bright smiles on their faces appear on screen. A pretty young teacher, also smiling, talks to them when, suddenly, a loud bell rings. “What do we do?” she calls in a pleasant voice. All the kids say, “Duck and cover, Miss Woodson!” Their knees hit the floor. They slide under their desks and fold their arms over their heads. The camera, at floor level, films their fresh scrubbed faces. They all have freckles and happy grins. They remain perfectly still until the bell stops ringing. “Wonderful, boys and girls!” says the teacher.
With that, Clammerman stops the projector. Mr. Highmark leans against the wall, his arms folded.
“Okay, boys and girls, now it’s your turn.” Everyone claps and whoops. “Here we go. Mr. Highmark, please turn off the lights.” Highmark pushes away from the wall and flicks the light switch.
“Here we go. I want you to imagine that the sirens are about to blast and we have to get as safe as we can as quickly as we can. Okay?” Everyone yells, Okay! “One, two, three----SIREN!”
There is a flurry of activity, kids pushing chairs aside, shoes scuffing the floor, some boys tripping and falling, one calling out that his nose is bleeding. Soon, though, everyone is under their desks. Mr. Clammerman keeps yelling “Siren! Siren!”
Willie is in a fetal position under his desk and can barely take a breath. He hopes the smaller he makes himself, the less likely he’ll be incinerated.
He wants to raise his hand and ask Mr. Clammerman a question: If an atomic bomb was dropped near us and we were hiding under our school desks, would we be safe? But he is afraid of the answer.
By now, Willie is sweating “like a pig,” as Pop would say. He feels lightheaded and wishes he’d eaten more than a Clark Bar for lunch.
Mr. Clammerman stops yelling “Siren!” and tells the kids they can get up on their feet and stretch. Clammerman praises the students, as they stand by their desks like budding soldiers: “Take your seats. Good job young Americans! You have done your country proud!” And then he calls each student up to give them a civil defense patch. It is a blue circle with a white triangle in it. Inside the triangle are the letters ‘C’ and ‘D’. Willie has ten civil defense patches at home in his underwear drawer.
When it’s Willie’s turn to go forward for his patch, he looks up at Clammerman but all he sees are cascading spots before his eyes. He tries to stand once, then twice, but when he does, the room whirls and his stomach whirls with it. He tilts back and forth like a top slowing down, about to fall. He calls out, “Help!” but the only thing his classmates hear is “OoooooUuuugh.” Before he knows it, he’s lying on the floor staring at the hissing radiator.