Published in Panhandler Issue 2.
Lynna Williams is an associate professor of English/Creative Writing at Emory University. A former political reporter in Texas and Minnesota, she was working as a political speechwriter (and unpaid stand-up comic) in Minnesota when she began writing fiction. Her first short story, “Last Shift at the Mine,” dealt with unemployment on the Minnesota Iron Range, and won a Loft-McKnight Award and a Loft Mentor Series Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Lear’s, The Oxford American, Crab Orchard Review, and other literary magazines. Her short story, “Sole Custody,” was nominated by the Atlantic for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and she was one of four writers featured in an Atlantic cover story on “New American Voices” in contemporary fiction. Five of her stories have been included in the “100 Other Distinguished Stories” list in the annual anthology, Best American Short Stories. Her collection, Things Not Seen and Other Stories, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has won the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship from the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. Her essays have won prizes from the Chattahoochee Review and the Bellingham Review, and have been anthologized in Sleeping with One Eye Open: A Survival Guide for Creative Women (UGA Press), From Mothers to Daughters: I’ve Always Meant to Tell You (Simon and Schuster), and other collections. Her book reviews appear in the Chicago Tribune. She is at work on a story collection, and an essay collection that grew out of a year teaching English to a group of Kurdish women in a small Georgia town.
The Harvest at the End of the World
The house where I lived with my parents and older brother in the fall of 1961 was on a corner lot of Fitzgerald Street, which meant we had only one set of next door neighbors. Their names were Frank and Vera Schmidt, and when my mother thought only my father was listening, she liked to say that Vera could win a gold medal in the Scaredy-Cat Olympics. “Think about it,” my father always said back to her, which I knew had something to do with Mrs. Schmidt being German, coming to America with Frank after the war was over.
My mother still rolled her eyes now and then, but mostly she was kind when Mr. Schmidt was on the road selling shoes and Vera called our house late at night to report a “dark” man near the fence line, or ran for the safety of our porch if a stray dog came down the street.
On our way to school one morning, as my mother slowly backed down the driveway, Vera came out of her house and ran toward us, her arms full of home-canned jars of green beans. “What on earth?” my mother said and stopped the car. She had handed the jars out like Halloween candy to everyone on Fitzgerald Street, and liked to hear how good the beans were.
Vera stuck her face in the driver’s side widow. “This seal, Dorothy?” she said, lifting one of the jars toward my mother. “You would say that was safe or you would say that was not safe?”
My mother turned off the ignition, got out, and took the jars from Vera, one by one. “Safe,” she said. “Safe. Safe. Safe. Safe.” My brother, who spent his life being called out at home plate, was having a fit in the back seat. My mother jerked her head at him, without ever turning around, and he folded himself into the upholstery.
Vera nodded after each word. She was pretty, the way girls who went into the forbidding woods in fairytales were pretty. When my mother had checked every jar, Vera said maybe it would be safer not to eat any of the beans.
My mother said she would be happy to take back any delicious home-canned food Vera didn’t want, wished her a happy morning, and got behind the wheel again. She didn’t say anything about the scene in the driveway until dinner that night, when she caught me poking my green beans with a fork, then taking deep breaths, my face centered above the plate. “No, ma’am,” she said. “We eat our food in this house; we don’t investigate it.”
I watched her expression change from anger to reasonableness, which was never a good sign. “You ate green beans from the same batch last night. Were you poisoned last night? Are you a ghost right now? Are you a ghost in a Brownie uniform?”
My father, a policeman going to Seminary part time to be a Baptist minister, cleared his throat. My mother waved her hand at him, and he got busy applying a neat layer of green beans to the bite of salad on his fork.
I said I hadn’t been poisoned last night, or any night, but I wasn’t sure that meant I never would be. My parents exchanged the look that meant I might be smarter than my brother, and for that I would have eaten rat poison with a spoon straight from the box. I finished my green beans, helped with the dishes, and retired down the hallway to read Nancy Drew. After a while I heard my parents’ voices in their bedroom, not the words, but the tone and cadence. The sharp, hurried words were my mother’s, and I knew she was talking about me: Vera, Jr., a10-year-old girl who refused to give up her lamb nightlight, who couldn’t be coaxed out of the kiddie pool to learn how to swim, who threw up in the car on the way to the doctor, never mind the fuss if a needle appeared. My father’s voice was slower, softer, and I imagined him counseling patience with me, charity with our neighbors.
My mother must have told him she’d give both the old college try–they had jokes like that between them–because for a long time afterward, she let Vera say anything she wanted to say, without telling her that master criminals rarely wore bow ties and lugged discount vacuum cleaners door-to-door. She also let me give up on swimming “for now” and take tap instead, and never said that if I found myself in an ocean one day, a shuffle ball change was not the ability to float.
Things changed the morning Vera met us in our carport as my mother, brother and I stepped out of the kitchen door. She was wearing her bumpy Chenille robe, carrying a newspaper. “War,” she said. “War with Russia. The bomb will drop, it says right here the bomb will drop, and that will be the end.” My mother jerked me into the car by the elbow, so hard my own hand came up and hit me in the chest. She yelled at my brother to get in, and put the car in reverse. As we turned out of the driveway, I lifted my head. Vera was still at our house, not her own, holding the Fort Worth Star-Telegram close to her face like a shield. I hurt in two places, but I kept it to myself for a change. I had seen my mother’s eyes, in the instant before she got into the car. If she was afraid, there wasn’t anything to say.
That night, at dinner, my father–obviously by request–made a little speech to my brother and me about Christians not needing to be fearful because, for us, life on this earth would become life in Heaven. Into the silence, I said, “When? When does life in Heaven start?” and both my mother and brother snorted tiny, identical snorts, like cartoon pigs, and lowered their eyes.
My father, whose war had been in the Pacific, put both hands on the table. “Not for a lifetime,” he said finally. “Just don’t worry, all right? That’s all I meant, that there’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Vera didn’t come back to our house, not at Christmas when Frank brought over discount coupons for house slippers and talked to my father on the porch for a long time, not on New Year’s when my parents invited all of Fitzgerald Street to a potluck in honor of 1962. My mother didn’t cross the driveway to the Schmidt’s house either, but if the power went out, or it was stormy, she sent my father or brother to see if Vera needed anything. Vera always sent them back with something for us, until one night, in a downpour, Marty ran into our kitchen with four plastic rain hats in a paper bag. My mother spread them out on the table and stared at them, shaking the way she did in church when she didn’t want to laugh. After a minute, my father led her into their bedroom. I said, “Weird,” trying to get my brother to explain what was happening. But he just finished clearing the table, went into his room, and played the Righteous Brothers. He played them too loud, but my par- ents still didn’t come out again until morning.
School was almost out for the year when my mother picked me up at S.S. Dillow one afternoon, and swung around to William James Junior High School for my brother. We were still half a street away from our house when we had to stop. A long flatbed truck was blocking our driveway, blocking three driveways, in fact. A crew of men was on the back of the truck, surrounding two halves of a giant steel box. When I looked past them, I saw Mr. Schmidt in the front yard and behind him, on the porch, his wife. Over a roar of sound, my brother named the yellow machinery filling the Schmidt’s driveway.
My mother said a word so terrible I knew the world was ending, all right. We were cooked. That night, when my father came home, he spent some time in our yard, talking over the picket fence to the workmen. “Bomb shelter,” I heard him say when he came into the kitchen.
“No kidding,” my mother said. “I thought it was Carnegie Hall.”
The bomb shelter was buried deep in the backyard next door, a gentle rise and a patchwork of new sod marking its place. If I pushed the kitchen step-stool to the sink, and climbed up it to face the window, it looked as though the Schmidt’s had decided to grow themselves a tiny hillside on a quiet street in Fort Worth. I decided the hill was verdant, a word I’d learned for the fourth grade spelling bee, but had never used in a real sentence.
If I was on the stool when my mother came into the kitchen, she reminded me, mildly, that I could join the Army anytime and see the world. But she didn’t tell me to quit staring at the bomb shelter because she refused to use bomb shelter in a real sentence. All that summer when the other mothers called to pump her for information about the Schmidt’s, she changed the subject or hung up the phone. Some of the women tried again, showing up at our door with flowers or homemade cookies. My mother said them how glad she was to see them and then, when tea and cookies had been handed around, she asked for their support in reforming the PTA bylaws. Nobody stayed long.
As long as I was up on the stool, the hill in the backyard was the least of what there was to see. Some people stood on the sidewalk opposite the Schmidt’s house, pointing and talking, without ever crossing the street. But other people marched right up to their front door: mothers pushing baby carriages, and neighbors bringing out-of-town company, and once, four ladies who had been playing bridge up the street. Vera greeted them dressed in what I thought of as church clothes, her blonde hair swept off her face with a heavy silver clip. She looked older that way, less like a girl afraid to go into the woods alone. When her visitors asked to see the bomb shelter, Vera came out of the house, smiling, and led them around to the backyard. The shelter’s door was to the left side of the hill, and even if there was a man there to help, Vera leaned over and pulled it up herself, directing people onto the first steps of the ladder, one at a time. I saw their legs disappear, and then their arms, but I tried to jump down off the stool before their heads could follow them. It scared me: watching, waiting, holding my breath, timing my jump for the instant before the heads disappeared. But I did it as many times as I could get away with, and then one night I went to bed and woke up screaming.
When my parents ran into my room, I was sitting up, my brown bear, Ed, in a stranglehold under my chin. My father pulled me into his lap, and used a washcloth my mother brought from the bathroom to cool my face. “Tell us,” he said, and, crying, I explained that Ed couldn’t breathe in the dark. It took me a long time to get even that much out, because as hard as she was trying to look sympathetic–so hard her eyes were almost crossed–it was a fact that my mother was not Ed’s friend. I was six when Greg Pomerantz, a boy at our church, died of leukemia. Weeks after the funeral, his mother brought his racing-car toy box to Sunday School, and divided up what was inside. Ed rode home with us in the car, but in the front seat between my parents, who were arguing over whether to give him back to me, or swing by the donation box at the Salvation Army. I was wailing, and my mother alternated between asking me to hush, please, and asking my father what kind of parent gave a bear with Ed’s past to a six-year-old, never mind a six-year-old who was a-f-r-a-i-d of every single thing under the s-u-n. My father, who hated being spelled at, suddenly braked for a light and flipped the bear over the backseat, right into my lap. Nobody said a word the rest of the way home.
I was still crying, but there wasn’t much breath behind it, and my head kept slipping down onto my father’s shoulder. My mother turned around, and without a word began to work Ed from my arms. I tried to hold on, but she made a wet popping sound with her mouth when he came loose, and I was so startled I laughed. No force could hold my mother in a room when the Three Stooges were on TV; no joke that involved noises a human body made was funny to her. My father and I were both staring at her when she stood Ed up on the bed and helped him take three steps toward me, wave, and take three steps back to her. She used her right hand to make his head turn toward me, and then my father, making little sniffing noises through her nose, for Ed, because his nose was a button. “Ed’s a peach,” she said, and I waited for the rest of it, a snappy little parable about little girls and the bears who were braver than they were. What came instead was my mother’s hand, sliding Ed onto my pillow, where he could get fresh air all night long.
“Close your eyes, honey,” she said to me. “Take deep breaths and close your eyes.” I did both, and my parents walked into the hallway. They were almost to their room when the fight started. I forgot about keeping Ed’s airwaves open and used him to cover the ear that wasn’t on my pillow. But I heard my mother say bomb shelter anyway. Clear as day.
The house was quiet when I woke up the next morning, which meant my father and brother were gone to work and to Scout Camp. I had tried sleep-away camp, too, but both times my parents had to drive to Oklahoma to get me after only two days. The last time my father, who believed sarcasm was unchristian, had suggested straight-faced that I streamline the process by having hysterics when my madras duffle came out of the closet, before anybody got into the car. My mother was in the kitchen when I went looking for her, and she made cinnamon toast and watched me eat it. When I was done, she said to come on, we were going for a walk. Outside, I turned toward school, and the park next to it, but my mother shook her head.
We were at the Schmidt’s front door before I believed that was where we were going. I opened my mouth, and my mother rang the doorbell. Vera answered, already smiling; when she saw us, she dropped her head, so that the smile was just for me.
My mother said we were sorry to bother her, but if she had a minute, we would like to see the bomb shelter. She said it so matter-of-factly that both Vera and I nodded, before I understood we were going into a hole in the ground, every part of us: legs, arms, heads. I started to cry, which made Vera stop smiling and come outside. My mother said she knew we were imposing, but she thought looking inside the bomb shelter would help me.
“You think now she is afraid of the shelter?” Vera said. “Not of what is outside the shelter?” There was something in Vera’s voice I couldn’t place, but I thought she was glad we were there, glad that my mother was like everyone else now.
Next to me my mother’s shoulders lifted, and she said again we were sorry to be a bother.
Vera waited. After a minute, she told us she would be glad to take us to the backyard another day, but this morning she needed to get some grocery shopping done.
“We’ll come again then,” my mother said, and poked me in the back. I told Vera thank you, and we moved down the steps. We were on the sidewalk when two women and a little boy walked past us to knock on Vera’s door; she looked right at us as she came outside and took her visitors around to the backyard.
My mother said it was such a beautiful day we should take a real walk.
We were stopped at the Coleman’s yard, admiring their gardenias, when I told her we didn’t need to go back to Vera’s.
“Mrs. Schmidt,” my mother said automatically. She told me she thought I’d stop worrying if I went inside the bomb shelter and saw it was nothing there to be afraid of.
No way was I telling my mother I was afraid of the steps to the bomb shelter. “We read about bomb shelters in school. We saw a picture of one. It was just a little room, with a generator for light, and some cots, and some shelves with food and water.”
My mother looked at me as though I were level-headed, which startled us both. “That’s exactly right,” she said. “It doesn’t sound that scary, does it?”
I shook my head. I thought she probably wanted to quit while she was ahead, but when we sat down in the bucket swings at the park, she asked if I wanted to talk some more about the bomb shelter–not what it was like inside, but why the Schmidt’s wanted it in their backyard. It came to me that she was asking me, for the millionth time, to tell her what I was really afraid of.
I pushed backward in the swing, and dragged my tennis shoes in the dirt coming the other way. We had had this same talk about electrical sockets, and spiders, and the junior girls’ cabin at camp, about singing in the choir, and big dogs, and field trips, and the dark. But this time I really thought about the answer to my mother’s question: dreaming of heads disappearing down the bomb shelter steps was baby stuff, but Vera in her blue robe, Vera announcing the end of the world, that was something else. It made me feel grown-up to be afraid of something that huge. It was like being at the Grand Canyon two summers before, when I had refused to get out of the car because I was afraid of all the bugs flying around. When my father had enough of talking with me about the glories of God’s creations through my rolled-up window, he pulled me out of the car and spun me around to face the canyon. I didn’t say a word about bugs for the rest of the trip.
Now I watched my mother in her swing, and wondered how she was going to tell me the end of the world was nothing to be scared about. I thought about her walking Ed down my quilt, and making cinnamon toast, and taking me next door to see the bomb shelter. I wanted to give her something.
“I might want to take swimming again,” I said. “Do you think there’ll be a class that starts this late?”
My mother said she would find out, and I told her I needed a costume for the tap recital. I thought I’d wait to say that it had to be a costume of a building because the recital was a salute to American cities and I was the only girl tall enough to be a skyscraper.
She slid out of her swing and stepped behind mine. “Think about flying,” she said, and gave me a push. Houston was the biggest city I had ever been in, and I had never flown on a plane. I was probably going to be afraid when it finally happened– but I closed my eyes and let her take me as high as I could go.
I had been in fifth grade for six weeks when my father called home from the cop shop at dinnertime to say the President was on TV. My mother told him she loved him, and left the food uncovered on the table. She let my brother and I take our plates and sit on the floor too close to the television, without once telling us to move or we’d be blind by high school. I scooted back by the couch anyway, but I could have kept right on going out the front door. No one was paying any attention. I watched my mother and brother, and they watched the President, who we hadn’t voted for, and didn’t trust, but not because he was Catholic. When he had finished speaking, my brother asked a few questions to prove he was the oldest child, and my mother asked me if I understood what was happening. “Cuba,” I said, thinking that was a solid one-word answer. My mother explained it to me anyway: the Russians had put missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy wanted the missiles removed, and what the United States was going to do with our ships in the waters around Cuba was called a blockade. My brother went to get a World Atlas, as if Extra Credit was actually possible in the home, and my mother told me we could have ice cream sundaes when she’d finished cleaning the kitchen. When I didn’t offer to help, she asked why I wasn’t outside getting some fresh air. Because it was night, I thought, but I followed her into the kitchen and stepped out the back door.
I hadn’t been afraid of the dark, really afraid, for a while, but I didn’t spend a lot of time in the backyard after sunset either. The air was cooler than I’d expected, and I hugged myself walking toward our swing set. There were kitchen lights on up and down the street, and I wished I could see inside, could know if everyone else was afraid, or getting ready to have ice cream like us. I was headed back inside to report there was nothing to do in the dark when I saw the Schmidt’s back door open. Vera came out, and then her husband appeared in the doorway. He was calling to her, telling her to come back inside, but she didn’t turn around. I could see Mr. Schmidt clearly by the kitchen light, but now that she was in the middle of the yard, Vera was only a shape and a shadow. She was going into the bomb shelter, and I didn’t wait for the door to open. I ran.
Inside the house my mother and brother were still in front of the TV. The President was talking about Cuba, missiles in Cuba, and America’s responsibility to the rest of the world. “Go to bed, honey,” my mother said when she finally saw me, but when I slid down in front of her chair, she didn’t tell me again. She was leaning forward, one leg tucked under her skirt, as if she hadn’t told me a million times how ladies sit, as if she and John F. Kennedy were alone in the room. It took my brother dropping his history book to break the spell. “Go to bed, both of you,” she said, and my brother gave me a look that said, Not now.
In my room, he asked me if I understood what was happening. I shook my head yes, because I knew if I didn’t, he’d explain it to me. When he said good night, I took my Brownie uniform out of the closet to wear to school, and got on top of the covers with my clothes still on, trying to think what I would want to be wearing when the world ended. I wouldn’t be allowed to wear heels for another two year, so that was out. If the world ended that week, my choices would be school clothes from 8:30 a.m-3 p.m., shorts and a t-shirt if I was home playing after school, or flannel pajamas if I had already been sent to bed. If the world ended on Sunday, I would go out in a red a-line dress and a fitted jacket with fat, black trim. The trim was called soutache, which I hoped to use in a sentence someday.
After the President was on TV, two more families, one down the street and another three blocks over, ordered bomb shelters. I saw Mr. Schmidt in his car once or twice, but not Vera. I didn’t let myself think of her down in the ground.
My father was still working nights, but he called home more often. The TV stayed on all the time, and on the phone my mother called Walter Cronkite by his first name.
My mother was afraid, I knew because she never asked if I was. At school, girls who started to cry were allowed to go to the nurse’s office. I was not one of them, even though Mr. Shipp kept walking down my row during Social Studies to spot check my face for moisture. At Wednesday night prayer meeting, a bunch of kids went down the aisle to re-dedicate their lives to Jesus. I didn’t go there either. I didn’t tell anyone, but it seemed too much like going next door to Vera’s, being nice to her because she had figured out a way to save herself. We had bomb drills every day after lunch, ducking under our seats on command from the teacher. I was always one of the last ones down because I was watching everyone else try to disappear under their desks. I didn’t believe a bomb wouldn’t find us there.
A couple of days later, my mother was late picking me up. I was walking up and down the street in front of the school when she honked and pulled over. My brother wasn’t in the car, and she told me he had gone home with a friend, and my father had to work late again. The world wasn’t going to end if the four of us weren’t together, and I relaxed against the seat. I was harvesting a last bit of fingernail, when my mother slapped her hand against the steering wheel.
“Ladies Night Out,” she said. “Do you know what that is?”
“We’re going somewhere?”
She nodded. “Downtown, and we can eat at the Picadilly and maybe shop a little.”
We didn’t eat out very often, and it was never just the two of us. My father kept the car radio tuned to an all-news station, and my mother fiddled with the dial before she turned it on. The song playing was about young love, sweet love, and she laughed at the horrified expression on my face. All the way downtown she told me the story about going to church with my father all her life, but not falling in love until he came home from the war. For the first time I wanted to know about the war, not the love that came after it, but I didn’t know how to ask.
In the line at the Picadilly Cafeteria, I pointed at anything that looked good–baked chicken and dressing and two kinds of salad we didn’t eat at home–and my mother didn’t say a word about what it cost. After we ate, we walked across the street to Leonard’s Department Store. I tried on big picture hats in front of a mirror, and my mother bought me a package of Paisley barrettes I couldn’t wear unless my hair grew out. I didn’t tell her that I had figured out that the only good thing about the end of the world would be that I would never have to get a Pixie haircut again. The store was open late, and it was starting to get crowded; I watched other kids as they went by, wondering if their parents were afraid to go home.
We took the escalator to the top floor, and my mother waited for me to jump on and off four times, without telling me to hurry. There was a wall of televison sets opposite the escalator, and a crowd was gathering in front. My mother put her hand in my back and steered me past people, but not fast enough to miss the news. Russian ships were closing in on Cuba. An elderly woman who looked like my first grade teacher walked by us in tears. My mother reached around and took my hand, and we didn’t stop until we were in the furniture department across the store. A man behind the counter was talking too loud on the phone, telling someone named Judy not to worry, to put the kids to bed and ask her mother to come over.
Above us a bell sounded that made me jump, and an announcement that the store would be closing in 15 minutes. I started toward the escalator, but my mother caught me. Everything was too bright, and she looked smaller than I wanted her to be. “We have a minute,” she said, and shook her head at how that sounded. She went over to a fake living room, filled with furniture she said was called Danish Modern. She walked around each piece, a sofa and a coffee table, two end tables and a book case, before she raised her hand at the salesman behind the counter. When he didn’t come, she went over to him, fishing in her purse for her checkbook on the way.
D r i v ing home, my mother told me we had needed new living room furniture forever, and there was no time like the present. I thought she might be crying, but I didn’t want to think about what it meant if she was. I told her the furniture was pretty, and everything I could remember about the principle exports of Denmark.
She told me to go to my room while we were still in the driveway, and in a few minutes I heard her on the phone with my father. “Tommy,” she said, “Oh, Tommy.”
The world didn’t end, and Vera came out of the bomb shelter.
After Christmas, my mother took a job at Monning’s Department Store without saying that she was helping to support our new living room furniture.
We were dressed for church one Sunday, eating breakfast together and watching the rain pelt down outside for the third straight day, when Vera called. My mother said hello as if the two of them talked all the time; she told Vera she was sure everything was all right, and hung up. My father looked a question at her, and she shook her head. “Frank’s away,” she said, and told my brother to go get our raincoats and umbrellas.
After church, I was in my room taking off my good clothes when I heard my father yell “Jesus!” from the kitchen. My father did not take the Lord’s name in vain. I ran in the hallway in my slip, and collided with my brother, who stuck out a hand to keep me from falling. My mother came out of her bedroom, and the three of us ran down the hallway.
My father was at the kitchen window. “Look,” he said to my mother. “Will you look at that?”
She edged past him, her hand cupped over her eyes. “What is it?” my brother said. “What’s happening?”
“The rain,” my mother said. “The top of the bomb shelter is out of the ground.”
My father was already lifting his raincoat off the back of a chair when he said we should see about helping Vera, but he was waiting for my mother.
“You go,” she said. “She’ll feel better if it’s just you. You didn’t tell her it was nothing to worry about.”
My father told her she couldn’t have known this would happen, and anyway, we couldn’t have stopped the rain. From the window, my brother said, “Where will it go? Will it come into our yard?”
My parents were talking to each other. They didn’t stop even when I opened the carport door and stepped outside. Outside the cover of the carport was a curtain of rain, everything shimmery and grey. I walked to the concrete’s edge, and stood looking at Frank and Vera’s backyard. The hillside was gone. In its place a corner of the steel box was tilted to one side, mud and broken sod everywhere around it.
“Honey, go inside now,” my father said behind me. I went slowly, thinking all the time that I had seen something miraculous, but without a miracle, something like the end of the world.