portion of the artwork for Michael Cohen's short story

Fallout
Michael Cohen

In the rearview mirror of our 1955 Battlellac, the car we are riding in, I can see myself wearing my 3-D glasses. There is a red plastic lens over my right eye and a blue plastic lens on the left. I need my 3-D glasses to read Atomic Tales: The Revenge of Superchief, my 3-D comic book that lies open on the seat next to me. Since I turned 10 I get to pick out my own comic books.

“The Battlellac” is what I call the Cadillac, a battleship with wheels, U.S. Navy gray outside with chrome rocket cannons sticking out of the grille. Nobody gets in front of the Battlellac. They could get rammed. And the cannons may be atomic.

My mom smokes Pall Mall cigarettes as she drives the Battlellac across Montana. The upholstery smells like cigarettes. “No smoking when I’m in the car,” Dad used to say. Dad is not with us on this trip, and Mom smokes all the time.

The notched sides of my 3-D glasses hang on my ears. My eyes in the mirror look like they are covered by red and blue food wrappers. I am sure there is lead in my 3-D glasses. Lead stops radiation.

The sky rumbles red and blue through my 3-D glasses.

“Thunderstorm,” Mom says, her right hand holding the steering wheel, her left elbow sticking out the open window. She moves her arm inside and pushes the electronic button, and the window shuts before the rain starts. A boom fills the car.

“Do they drop A-bombs on Montana?” I ask.

My comic book, Atomic Tales, has a big mushroom cloud on the front cover. Inside the comic, an Air Force plane tests an A-bomb but drops it by mistake on an Indian reservation. I don’t think it was an accident. The Air Force code name for any A-bomb explosion is a “Broken Arrow,” so I think bombing the tribe might have been on purpose to break the arrows of the tribe.

Anyway, radioactive fallout is all over the reservation, and the tribe’s dead bodies are in 3-D everywhere. The chief is the only survivor. He goes on the warpath to find the Air Force general who ordered the A-bomb dropped. The radiation gives him superpowers, and he becomes Superchief.

In 3-D, Superchief leaps out of the picture frame onto the page, thrashes soldiers, and flies over buildings. I think he is a real chief. I am pretty sure that Atomic Tales is a true story.

“Does our car have a Geiger counter?” I ask. “Atomic Tales says that Geiger counters show fallout.”

“Sorry, no Geiger counters,” my mother says.

“I think we should get a Geiger counter to check for fallout in the car,” I say.

“I should never have allowed that comic book,” my mom says. “You take those glasses off your face right now.”

Mom wears a pleated skirt and a sleeveless blouse with little brown dots on it. If I stare at the dots, my eyes swim, I get dizzy. Mom blows smoke as she talks.

“They’ll damage your eyes,” she says.

My mom is wrong about 3-D glasses. If an A-bomb went off, you could watch through the 3-D glasses, and your eyeballs wouldn’t melt. I sneak on my 3-D glasses every chance I get as we drive across Montana.

Mom is driving to Custer’s Last Stand, and I help her by looking for the arrow-shaped signs that point the way. Custer’s Last Stand is way off the road, west, way outside radio stations, way off the beaten path.

“Why are we going to Custer’s Last Stand?” I ask. “Are we staying there long?”

“I told you,” Mom says. “We might move out here, move out west. And Custer’s Last Stand is history. A massacre happened there. It is the real Wild West.”

“Maybe we won’t, then?” I wave my fingers in front of my face and make them red and blue.

“Go to Custer’s?” Mom puffs away.

“No. Maybe we won’t move out west. Maybe we’ll go home.” I lie down on my car pillow in the closed-window heat and listen for an A-bomb.

“Maybe yes; maybe no. Maybe we’ll see some Indians.”

Mom barely talks louder than the rain outside the car. Mom likes to start us traveling late. In the old days when we went on vacations together, Dad used to drive early in the morning. I like sleeping late.

My tongue finds a shred of ham that has been stuck in my teeth since breakfast in Miles City. The ham tastes sweet and salty, and I dream about my next breakfast. I dream about food all the time. What if you were locked in a warehouse with your favorite food? Would it be hamburgers, maybe, with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and mustard? Or breakfast? I would always choose ham and eggs. With hash-brown potatoes.

In Miles City I wore my 3-D glasses at breakfast. Mom ate no food; she just smoked a cigarette with her coffee. My cinnamon roll had sugar icing on the top whipped into little peaks. It had uranium fallout in it; you could tell when you looked through the 3-D glasses. The glow of the icing made my teeth ache. I read in Atomic Tales that fallout is everywhere.

The sky rumbles again. “Was that an A-bomb?” I ask.

The hills drip rain; the road is soft, black, and greasy. It always rains after an A-bomb attack. I wonder if the radioactive rain soaks into the tires or if fallout seeps in when the rain splats on the car windows. I am on the lookout for signs like broken arrows, signs of A-bomb targets.

“We are still in Mountain Standard Time. A good time to make tracks,” Mom says. “Kit Carson probably made tracks in Mountain Standard Time, too.”

Mom is trying to be cheerful in the heat and rain. I push the 3-D glasses back on my nose so that my eyelashes touch the lenses.

“Louis has eyelashes like a girl,” Mom once told a babysitter when I was little. If I blink, my lashes brush the red and blue lenses like windshield wipers. I flip the corner of my glasses so that the lenses move up and away from my eyes; then I let the glasses fall back onto the bridge of my nose. On. Off. Like a wall switch.

Mom just drives while I study the two-lane asphalt road in red and blue. Trucks creeping along slow us way down. I can see around the trucks with my 3-D glasses.

“Pass now,” I urge.

Mom waves her right hand in the air, cigarette in her lips, and says, “OK, OK.” She tromps on the gas, and the Battlellac lumbers around the truck.

“You should try on my 3-D glasses,” I offer.

“I don’t want to see things in 3-D,” she says. “Getting around in real life is hard enough.”

I am hungry, but Mom doesn’t want to eat much. She just smokes.

I wonder where Dad is this minute. Dad thinks that an underground fallout shelter in our backyard is a good idea. Before Mom and I left for Custer’s Last Stand, Dad was out in back pounding wooden stakes into our backyard lawn.

“This is where the bomb shelter will go,” he said. Dad wears a hat with a brim whenever he works outside in the sun. Dad tied a long piece of white string around one of the stakes. Mom watched Dad from the porch as she smoked a cigarette.

“This is the stupidest thing you have ever done,” Mom said. “The neighbors will think we’re crazy.”

“That may be.” Dad walked around, stretched the string to each stake, and then wrapped it all the around, like a string boxing ring. “Fine. Let them laugh away. We’ll see who’s laughing when the time comes. And I’m putting a no-smoking sign on the door. There won’t be any cigarettes allowed inside here, period.”

I didn’t think that an A-bomb shelter was a bad idea, although I never heard an A-bomb go off back in my hometown—only maybe just now in Montana.

With my glasses up against the side window, I can see a rain cloud speeding alongside the Battlellac. The cloud is shaped like a face, like Superchief’s face, flying in 3-D. White haze—it must be radioactive—streaks over the chief’s face. The Battlellac’s windshield wipers thump words into my chest: “Go back; go back; go back.” Or maybe it’s the cloud-face warning me. The thumps get louder, and I get frightened the way I did at the movies when Frankenstein walks out of the castle. So I blink my eyelashes quickly, first against the blue and then against the red. That sweeps the cloud-face away and empties the gray sky.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I say while I look through my 3-D glasses.

“We are almost there,” Mom says. “Custer’s Last Stand. Almost there,” she repeats in her smoky voice. “Just up the road.”

There is a sign shaped like an arrow—not broken—that says, “Custer’s Last Stand,” and Mom turns the Battlellac off the main highway. There are no other town names on the sign. Custer’s Last Stand must be the end of the road; maybe that is why the cavalry all died there, massacred. There must have been nowhere else to go.

Cavalry. I used to say “Calvary” until Julian Packwood, who lives across the street from my granny, made me feel stupid when we were playing cowboys and Indians.

Calvary is where your people crucified our Lord,” Julian said and then pushed me in the chest with his pointer finger. “So don’t say ‘Calvary’ when you mean ‘cavalry.’” I like Julian, but sometimes I think “Calvary” just for spite.

The rain has stopped pouring, and the wet road shrinks in front of the Battlellac. A creek gully curves next to the road. The car has to slow down. Mom puts down her window.

“Because of the heat,” she says, as we creep along slow and hot, cars in front, cars behind.

No air can slip inside at this speed. My skin is thistle sticky, my pant legs damp. They won’t slide over the felt seat. I can’t sit still; my legs twitch from the heat. I want to wave my hands and arms and whoop out loud.

“Stop that kicking,” Mom orders. “You are trying to irritate me. I’m doing this for you. This is special, Louis. You’ll feel this was worthwhile. You’ll see.”

The road ends at the bottom of a hill in a gravel parking lot surrounded by yellow fields. At the far end of the parking lot is a large building. The cars leaving and arriving pass each other, but nobody waves. All the cars need a wash and wax.

My mom steps out of the Battlellac. I fold my 3-D glasses and place them in my back pocket.

“There’s the center,” Mom says, taking my hand. As she and I walk toward the building, I grab the front of my pants with my other hand, and Mom sees me. “So, go to the toilet if you have to.”

When I was real little, that meant I could go to the bathroom with her. I ask if she’ll take me to the ladies room.

“You stare too much,” she says. It’s true. I could see women’s bare legs with crumpled underpants under the stall doors.

The men’s bathroom at Custer’s Last Stand is past the souvenir shop, past the postcards. On the walls of the hallway, there are black-and-white pictures everywhere, pictures of dead cavalrymen lying on the ground. Old pictures. Even when I look at them through my 3-D glasses, the dead stay inside the picture frames. They don’t come alive, like Superchief flying off the page in Atomic Tales.

The bathroom has a long white trough and a lot of flies. The floor around it is wet. Because of the fallout, I worry about my shoelaces getting soggy. I try not to lean against the trough edge while I pee.

Outside, I don’t see Mom, but there is a girl walking around. She looks about 12 years old, maybe, and is wearing a striped T-shirt, and her front teeth overlap a little.

“Hey, kid.” She squints, her hands tucked in her jeans, hip sticking to one side. “Seen the guns yet?”

“What guns?” I only remember the pictures of the dead soldiers.

“I saw them in there.” She points. “Past the souvenir shop over there.”

“Have you ever seen an atomic bomb?” I ask. “I think one went off this morning. I heard the boom. I saw the rain and the fallout.”

She squints again. “What are you talking about, kid?”

“Do you have 3-D comic-book glasses?” I ask. “The glasses help you see the fallout, but you have to look through glasses to see it. I brought some.” I hold out my glasses, the red and blue plastic blinking on and off like a neon sign in my hand. “Want to try them on? They change everything.”

“Comics are dumb,” the girl says, but she puts the 3-D glasses on her nose anyway. Reflections down her cheeks make her look like she is blushing red and blue while she waves her hands back and forth in front of her face.

“I don’t see no atomic anything.” She looks disappointed. “Where’re you from, anyway?”

I don’t think it is a question by the way she says it, but I try to answer. I want to know the answer myself.

“I used to be from Minnesota,” I say, “but now I might be from a new place.”

She hands the glasses back to me. “I think you’re from Creepsville,” she says and runs off toward the cars in the gravel lot. I watch her jeans; she runs like a boy.

“Got to go. See ya,” I say to the girl, although she is already gone. I never asked her name; at least I can’t remember that I did. I never asked her where she was from, either. It doesn’t mean as much now, since I am unsure where I am from.

Mom is waving at me with one hand, hard like a windmill. She holds out the other for me to take.

“We’ll walk together,” she says. “The monument is this way; the real last stand. This is true life, real history.”

The gravel crunches under my foot. The gravel has puddles of brown mud, and wooden arrows point through the high grass toward the monument. One of the arrows is cracked in half. Quickly I slip on my 3-D glasses.

“There’s a broken arrow,” I say, looking over the hilltop for a mushroom cloud.

“There are vandals everywhere,” my mom says. “Even at national parks. It’s terrible.”

My mother lights a cigarette at the Last Stand monument, and I watch the meadow change from yellow to red and blue through my glasses.

“So this monument marks the spot where it happened.” My mother blows smoke. Without 3-D glasses, she can’t see the bodies when the wind swishes the grass, slams it around in waves, can’t see the grass turn dark when it sways. I am sure that the dark parts must be the fallout.

The waves crash into a body, a sprawled body that separates the grass, arrows sticking out of the body. Through my glasses I see the arrow feathers in 3-D wave in the wind. I see broken arrows lying on the ground. I see other dead cavalry in the dark, swaying grass, uniformed bodies stacked up, arrow pincushions. The summer bugs whiz around the bodies.

I turn away and look up the path. There is an Indian with a blue and red face like Superchief’s, but he is wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a cowboy hat, no feathers. His boots are covered with that mud from the path—red through the right eye, blue through the left eye. Radioactive. He looks at me, or maybe he looks at my scalp. He laughs, his eyes cold. I think he is enjoying all the dead soldiers. I can’t see his hands, but he might hold a tomahawk, a tomahawk with a blood-blackened blade.

I step back and tug on my mother’s sleeve.

“I want to go home.” The sound doesn’t come out of me right. It slips a little, so I tug at my mother’s arm to be clear. “Let’s go back now. Can’t we?”

“What are you talking about?” Mother’s smoke is sucked away by the wind.

“I miss Dad. I miss Granny. I miss Julian. Can’t we go back?” I wipe my nose on the back of my hand and push my 3-D glasses up at the same time.

“No, we can’t go back there, for reasons that you’ll have to leave to me. That’s all. We’re going to a new place that you’ll like just as well. You’ll see.” She lights a new cigarette and snaps her purse shut.

When Mom and Dad were together, I could figure out which one would agree with me and side against the other. But here with Mom, I am all alone.

“I want you to buy some postcards,” Mom says. “Send one to Granny. She’ll enjoy knowing that this trip was good for you educationally. Custer’s Last Stand is in all the books, you know. Send one to your father if you like.”

“I don’t want to send postcards home. I want to go home.”

“Don’t you care about your granny?” Mom shakes me by my arms. “She will never be here, and if you thought for one minute, you would know how much it would mean to get a card from her only grandchild. If you don’t care about her, then don’t get a card. I couldn’t care less.”

Mom starts walking fast toward the parking lot, pulling me along.

“If we had just stayed on the road, we could have been in Missoula by now,” she says. “But we didn’t so that Mr. Grateful here could see Custer’s Last Stand. But I guess you can’t please some people, ever.”

I try to keep up with Mom. I want to ask if she, my mother, wants to be together with Dad and with me again, all of us together again, but the words in my throat won’t come out. The only thing I can do while I walk alongside her and hold her hand is to stare through my 3-D glasses.

I look at the red and blue hills with Custer’s monument behind. I see my mother next to me in red and blue, the colors of my grandmother’s apron, the colors of the clown wallpaper in my bedroom at home. All the time the wind blows the grass and the fallout around the bodies and the broken arrows.

After Custer’s Last Stand, Mom and I stay in a Missoula motel. I dream we are back home in the new fallout shelter Dad built: Mom, Dad, and me. We are so happy to be inside. Over my bed in the shelter, there is a picture of cavalrymen being chased by Indians, but they are never massacred; they are never dead.

In the corner of the shelter, a periscope shows the surface where atomic winds have piled radioactive fallout on streets, cars, lawns, and houses. But down here, underground, the air is fresh and still. I set aside my 3-D glasses for now, and pull my red and blue quilt around as the warm buzz of a Geiger counter whispers, “Don’t ever leave; don’t ever leave.”



Michael Cohen’s Comments

“Fallout” comes from a short riff I recorded in my journals in 1997. As a 10-year-old I visited Custer’s Last Stand in the ’50s during the advent of the nuclear age. Russia, like today’s North Korea, had atomic weapons. The air then was filled with ominous talk of nuclear annihilation.

I connected Custer’s massacre and the fear of atomic war. My 10-year-old mind seized on 3-D comic-book glasses as a shield against radiation poisoning. This was really nothing sillier than our school safety drills, ducking under our desks when warning sirens would announce a simulated nuclear attack. Wearing 3-D glasses I felt secure. My parents had to pry them away when I went to bed.

As a matter of course I set my journal ideas aside, sometimes for decades, before returning to them as stimulus for essays or stories. Over time I have refined this fragment into the story now before you.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 50 | Fall/Winter 2017