A LITTLE POOR TASTE WARTIME HUMOR / TOM SCANLAN

“It was supposed to be a radioactive sneeze,” my wife said. “A painless moment before the Milky Way wiped us off their sleeve.”

Her flair for speaking in rhyme within profound statements, such as a euphemism for WWIII being a metaphor about snot, is why I loved Bridget. The woman was a mouse with square red glasses. A frail creature, skin always goose-bumped. Sitting at her desk in the living room, drinking tea and writing children’s stories in the vein of Shel Silverstein. I loved Bridget.

We went to the Cape house in East Sandwich when the news anchors started to screech war war war war war. Big warships sluiced through a black Atlantic and fired at one another, exploding holes in starboards and larboards, while the news cameras struggled to pan fast enough to capture the massive moving vessels in frame.

“It’s always more complicated,” I said. “We should drive in-land. The Chinese or Russians or whoever are going to attack by land from the coasts.”

“You don’t know that—”

“Keep your voice down, don’t wake Kara up.”

“You never know, Russ. They might reach shore and then launch an aerial assault in the heartland.”

“You’re overthinking it, like everything else.”

“Well, we need to think.”

“And I think we should drive in-land. The coasts are all anyone cares about.”

Bridget parted the white bedroom curtains. The warships had come farther down the eastern seaboard. I could tell she thought they would arrive any day. Probably in Provincetown. Or at the base of the Cape, on either the North or South Shore. Either way death blew in from the water.

“Another option is on the table,” she said, “if you think we both are able.”

“Can you stop rhyming?”

“It’s a nervous habit.”

When I was ten my dad thought that the Gulf War would blow up into a third World War. He became unhinged. He tried to convince my mom that they needed to spend their savings on a fallout bunker. I looked at him differently then and I was disgusted by seeing an adult, and especially my father, not in control of a situation. A father was supposed to have all the answers. Being disgusted was easier than being terrified. I didn’t want Kara to experience that.

“World War Two ended. People thought the world was over back then,” I said.

“You know as well as I do that things are different today. The problems the world has won’t just go away.”

“Children’s books are all about staying positive.”

“I think the positive thing to do, is to use your gun to kill Kara, me, and you.”

“If you rhyme one more time I’m going to let you.”

“Where is your gun?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Come on, Russel, be serious. The political turmoil’s been depressing enough for years. THE SKY’S BEEN FALLING FOR YEARS! It was bad enough putting up with it then. Don’t tell me you want to deal with this. We don’t have a choice.”

“What about Kara?”

“What about her? We would be doing her a favor. Do you have any understanding of what happens to women in wartime?”

“I’ll protect both of you.”

“Don’t try to be romantic about this. Or protect your ego, honey. It’s done. You can’t save us from what’s done.”

“Great, now I want to kill myself.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, do you think you could handle Kara?”

“HANDLE? You want me to kill my daughter?”

“It’d be horrible not to.”

“No.”

“She’s my daughter, too.”

“Yeah, I was there.”

Bridget had a cold streak. I’d catch her looking away from out of the bottom corner of her blue eyes when we made love. After that many years of marriage, sex was hard. But the hardest part for me was that when she went from a good start to looking off sadly, I realized that she was playing a part, and that I was an idiot for thinking otherwise. In less obvious ways than mid-sex she looked off and away too.

“Fine,” I said. “If you don’t want to give it a chance. Don’t want to just wait until our military defeats the enemy. Don’t want to wait until everything is back to normal. I’ll get the gun.”

“Thank you.”

“But I will not murder Kara.”

“Me either.”

I handed her the gun, a Sig Sauer .9mm. The chamber was empty and there was no magazine in. Bridget couldn’t tell the difference between that and a loaded gun.

Her eyes got wet holding it.

“Please don’t watch,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to have such an intimate act watched. It’s the same as when you love a song and then you play it in the car for friends and they don’t get it.”

I sat on the edge of the bed. It took up almost the whole loft bedroom. I looked at the patterns in the wood of a dresser drawer. “Love you,” I said.

“Love you, too.”

I couldn’t see, but I imagined what the gun looked like and felt like to her, as she burrowed it against her skull through her dirty blonde hair. Right above the ear. I’d thought that I’d be able to laugh at her, a suicide prank, a little poor-taste wartime humor. But it wasn’t funny.

I heard the empty plastic trigger pull. The spring went thunk. Then she pulled a second time. A third. Like she wanted nothing more than to escape.

“It’s not even loaded,” I said.

Her small body trembled. She’d taken her red glasses off, and put them on her nightstand, and without them her eyes looked swimmy and unfocused. I hugged her. Her tears wet my cheeks. Her soft cries of a death embraced and avoided vibrated in my ear.

“My God, thank you, Russ. I love you so much.”

“You see now?”

“Wyoming? What about Wyoming? I read an Annie Proulx essay on birding there once. We can probably settle on a ranch. Instead of the ocean let’s have a ranch. Let’s leave now.”

“There’s probably already been a run on gas.”

“And?”

“You might have to settle for Tennessee.”

“Okay, I’ll wake up Kara.”

 

The car ran out of gas in a pocket of the Appalachian Mountains where West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky met. Roanoke was twenty miles east. The famed original American colony where all of the settlers disappeared. It seemed like a lot of West Virginia folks fled up into the mountains. I let Bridget and Kara pick out the home they wanted. A brick colonial with a lush green backyard, and a turnaround driveway circling a large water fountain.

The Appalachians were close enough to touch. In the mornings the base was wreathed in fog, and at sunset blood-orange explosions hovered at the green upper limits. When we looked out as far as we could, the mountain tops dulled from green to shades of dark and then light blue shadow. Kara counted them. If I said I saw five before the horizon, she’d say six.

For weeks we scanned the AM radio on the previous family’s SUV. There was no news about the war. The one good thing I could do for my family was walk to a Home Depot and drag a generator and gasoline back on a cart. Bridget cooked non-perishable meals for us. In the evenings, in the electric light and with the hum of the generator outside, she read children’s books to Kara.

Bridget didn’t talk to me much. I thought she was embarrassed. Childishly I hoped she was just disappointed we weren’t at a romanticized ranch with land and horses and Annie Proulx’s birds in Wyoming. I tried to make love to her one night in the master bedroom we were borrowing. She turned me down. I was mad. I thought that the intimacy would help us forget our current problems. My heart raced as I swallowed back the nasty things I wanted to say to her. I wanted to hurl at her the truth that I could’ve killed her by letting her kill herself. That she should be grateful that I did her a favor. And was she really going to waste it by moping like this? After five minutes too long I asked if she was all right.

“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” she said.

“Of course it is.”

“Of course nothing, Russel. Of course nothing. You should’ve let me be. And you should’ve handled Kara. Don’t you see?”

“There’s that word again. Handle.”

“A man handles things for his family.”

“If you want to be handled so badly, go right ahead.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.” Then she cried. Two minutes later she rolled into my arms. The heat was awful. If we stayed I’d have to put in the air conditioner. “No, I want to live. I’m just nervous about the future. What if America doesn’t win?”

“America always wins.”

“I feel it in my chest that this one is different from all the rest.”

“America always wins,” I said again. I tried to think of a more clever way to reassure her. I couldn’t think of anything to say about patience, everything being okay, or me protecting her. Truth was my heart didn’t know what was true any longer. If America did live on what would become of it anyway? It wouldn’t be America. Christ, maybe she had a point about handling things. “Yeah,” I repeated. “America always wins.”

 

 

 

Tom Scanlan is a Boston-area writer. After graduating from Emerson College with a degree in creative writing, he went on to work for the Massachusetts Department of Correction as a correction officer. If he isn’t writing, he’s work-shopping with his Rhode Island-based writing group Hypergraphiacs Anonymous, watching horror movies, BBQing some meats, or cuddling with his rescue dog–a majestic red Dachshund–named Louie. He publishes short fiction while finishing his first novel. He also blogs about culture and does short story reviews on his website tomscanlan.me. He’s on Twitter @TheTomScanlan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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