Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fiction #77: Linda Hutsell-Manning

Balancing Act

Margaret is sure the place will be packed. A controversial film in its day Jan, the local librarian decided, with North Korea threatening nuclear war and Trump tweeting insanities, dusting off The Day After would be timely. In 1983, 100 million people watched the world end, making it the highest-rated TV film in history. Back then, Margaret was immersed in Beowulf and Whitman, too busy with graduate studies to watch TV, unaware of nuclear build up or the Doomsday clock. With no internet, it was a brief horror that came and faded into obscurity. Now, one click warns impending doom, the clock’s hands hovering, the librarian says, at two and a half minutes to midnight.

So why is the turnout less than twenty? Jan says it’s about what she expected. 

No one speaks when it’s over. They file out quickly with only the odd whisper, nervous giggle. Margaret tries to remember why it is she came in the first place - her well-honed guilt over things she can’t control - acquaintances reminding her that, because she’s a writer and cares about the planet, she should see the film?

Now she’s transfixed, impaled with facts and horrors about nuclear war - information she can do nothing about but feels compelled to act upon. Horrific possibilities, Hiroshima revisited. She’s always being told she’s too emotional, too sensitive. The published author of a number of successful children’s books, she writes whimsical stories that keep her demons and traumatic childhood at bay. She has chosen to ignore her past and it’s working. Most of the time. When violence directly confronts her, however, rationality peels off, layer by layer down to raw nerve endings. The film has pulled her into an emotional barbed wire tunnel, forcing her to crawl.

A heady autumn afternoon greets her. Maple trees line the street, their brilliant colors splashing the landscape. She knows she must walk the horror off, like a drunk, one step at a time; concentrate on cars, houses, people, concrete objects that will disperse the black and white images of annihilation.

A young woman and a small child approach - a cherubic blonde boy, his short arm held vertical in his mother's swinging hand. She carries library books; he chatters incessantly. His childish anticipation is obvious, infectious.

It isn't until the two of them are in front of her that Margaret sees the bandage - a clean white patch over the child’s eye.

Red-leaved maple trees blaze even redder. The woman and child stand blackened and burned, the bandage filthy and ripped. They stared at her in mute horror, whites of their eyes multiplying into stricken eyes from the film.

For an instant she thinks she’ll scream, but the Dantean instant is swallowed with their heels clicking on the sidewalk. Margaret clenches her fingernails into her palms until pain reminds her where and who she is: part of the human race, linked to life as a mother, wife, lover, one who has nurtured, comforted, protected. Gender binds her to approximately fifty percent of the human race, fifty percent who should resist what the film warns could be the world's approaching annihilation, the cold clicking of the nuclear clock. Her pain dulls slightly. She breathes deeply and concentrates on the side walk.

Mundane but necessary details of her life filter in as a temporary haven. She’s a writer, has readings, deadlines to say nothing of the endless myriad of homemaking responsibilities. She set this morning aside, apart from career and family, only to feel now that the film’s prognosis could destroy both, the kaleidoscope patterns of her life shattering into small plastic-coloured pieces at her feet.

In exasperation, she discovers she has walked full circle, past her parked car and around the block back to the library. By this afternoon, her children will be home from high school, full of anecdotes, impending deadlines, hopes, frustrations. As she retraces her steps and turns on the car ignition, the film narrator's voice intrudes.

You will be indeed fortunate if you are with your loved ones.

The sound of the car engine pushes the voice back. Tonight is one of the few times they will all be together, the end of the school and work week.

Turning into her driveway, their solid brick house seems suddenly frail. She ignores the relentless attention of two cats and an aging dog, retreats to her third floor office and types in Doomsday clock. Thirty years ago is not now. She needs to know. Google dutifully co-operates with an interminable list of articles and prophecies about current nuclear buildup and political unrest. She has less than an hour before her family arrives home.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, Dan Zak tells her that “according to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the detonation of 100 nuclear warheads — there are about 15,000 on the planet right now — could kill 2 billion people.”

Peter their eldest, will arrive on his motorcycle, tired and work-worn from a job he plans to endure until he can finance more education. He’ll harangue the cost of fuel, his perceived necessities, how they deplete his bank account, threaten his future.

Hillary Clinton has warned that trigger-happy Trump is liable to press the nuclear button. According to Zac “there is no button. It’s a briefcase that follows the US president everywhere: onto Air Force One, onto the golf course, onto elevators. Inside is a manual for conducting nuclear war. A how-to in case of. The briefcase is aluminum, 45 pounds and clad in leather.”* 

Andy in grade twelve, will burst in, rapid firing the day's events, complaining about demands of his part-time job, wanting assurance about taking a year off to work before leaving for university and architecture.

“Carrying the briefcase is a job shared among five military aides, one from each branch of the U.S. armed forces. The manual inside is more like a takeout menu, but instead of picking between numbered Chinese dishes, the president would choose cities or military installations in, say, Russia or China (or both) to attack.”

Kathleen, the youngest, unaware of the beauty radiating from her youthful body, the power and perception of her own mind, will alternately ask advice and parade independence. No definite plans, only endless possibilities.

“It’s more complicated in real life, but not less scary. To authorize an attack, the president would use a card of verification codes that is, ideally, on his person at all times. The briefcase is referred to as “the football,” the card as “the biscuit.”

Margaret returns downstairs to peel potatoes, concentrate on oven temperature and table setting. Right on cue, all three children storm into the kitchen, depositing belongings in her work path, full of demanding chatter: vibrant glowing bodies, reflections of herself, her husband, their own uniqueness. Margaret drinks it all in, asks too many questions, hugs each once too often. One by one, they ask her quietly if she's had a bad day. Can they do anything to help? 

“At the president’s disposal right now are a little over 900 nuclear warheads deployed on various “delivery vehicles” around the planet. Some sit atop missiles buried in the ground in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. Some are carried by submarines that are patrolling the North Atlantic and Western Pacific. Others are ready to be loaded onto aircraft in Missouri, North Dakota, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.”

Margaret has pushed her pain into a tight ball and secured it but, at the touch of a warm hand on her shoulder or the sound of a concerned whisper in her ear, it threatens to escape. She laughs a lot, rough-houses Kathleen, pretends she’s fine. Several times their youthful exuberance is almost more than she can bear. Self control may well be sanity’s bottom line.

“Some of these warheads can be launched within minutes of the president’s order, hit anywhere in the world within a half hour, and deliver 20 times the explosive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The president can order this without consulting Congress, without being checked by the Supreme Court.”

She locks herself in the bathroom and turning on both taps, sobs into a towel. Later, face splashed pain clean, she calls shakily up the stairs that she’s going to pick up Russell at the commuter bus, home after a week in the city. Andy's loud rock station provides a convenient diversion. She knows they sense her inner turbulence and have retreated to their respective rooms.

The resplendent afternoon has dwindled into a dour grey evening. Russell is tired and says little on the way home. His 'how are you' and kiss on the cheek turns her instantly into a plastic mannequin whose tough exterior emanates anger masquerading hidden pain. Why, when she is turmoil, does she want least comfort? As if she needs pain and hoards it, embellishes it. Margaret translates Russell's silence into indifference.

“There have been a number of almost mistakes. In 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up over North Carolina and dropped two warheads to the earth; each had the potential to explode with the force of 200-plus Hiroshimas.”

Once home, the children rush down to kidnap Russell’s attention. Margaret bangs things in the kitchen, pretending she doesn't mind. She’s draining pasta when Kathleen bursts in with 'look what Dad's brought you'. Flowers from a street side vendor hidden in his briefcase. The lurch in her chest makes half the spaghetti slide into the sink.

Kathleen hands her the bouquet and, steering her toward the cupboard for a vase, tells her she’ll take over in the kitchen. Margaret knows she’s close to losing control. She lectures herself with the ‘good home, kind husband, healthy children, successful author’ lecture. Once in the dining room with the flowers, she notices a bottle of wine on the table. Russell, outwardly unresponsive, is still wonderfully kind and generous. She hasn't even combed her hair or put on lipstick. She could still but, instead, pours a glass of wine and sits down.

“In 1979, Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was told that hundreds of missiles were on their way from the Soviet Union; a minute before he called the president to coordinate a devastating response, he was told that the military had misinterpreted a training exercise.”
 In the living room, Russell and the boys carry on their usual frenetic conversation, Peter, on one side, into serious details concerning motorcycles while Andy, on the other, pontificates a Chemistry problem. Russell always seems to enjoy this, the back and forth bantering, a three way verbal fencing match.

Kathleen calls from the kitchen that she needs assistance and, moments later,  Margaret's family stream in around her gallantly bearing the feast. They never ask directly but they always seem to sense her fragility. Margaret can’t be sure whether it’s their astuteness or her transparency. The children have seen the film - Kathleen said she and Andy watched it at school earlier that week. They survived. Why can't she?

“In 1983 and 1995, Moscow came within minutes of retaliating against false alarms — the first prompted by sunlight reflecting off clouds, the second by a NASA research rocket.”

She knows she’s too quiet at supper but her quiescence lets Russell monopolize the children. She feels their energy wash over him, watches him drawn into spirited discussions and rivalry. It soothes her, a momentary respite.

Afterward, Russell builds a fire in the Franklin stove and turns on the radio. On Friday nights, their ceremony involves sitting a guarded distance from one another,  each recounting the week's events, putting out silent antennae to re-establish a relationship polarized by the week's separation.

“In 2007, six warheads were mistakenly flown from North Dakota to Louisiana before anyone realized that nuclear weapons had been in the air over the United States.”

Still Margaret says nothing about the film, and Russell, sensing her self-imposed distancing, retreats into the newspaper. She watches him, his strong features, large sensuous mouth - she’s adored him since they first met. Adored, and at times, hated him, often at the same time for the same reasons. He still has such a pull on her, even after thirty-three years.

“The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic estimation of global peril, has ticked closer to the midnight of Armageddon since 2010. It was six minutes to midnight then. In 2012, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the clock to five minutes to midnight. In 2013, to three.” Since Trump and Kim Jong-un have begun sparring, two and a half.

The fluid-voiced radio announcer says twelve cellists from the Berlin Philharmonic will play the Beatles' Yesterday, a taped concert with the audience clapping passionately as soon as they recognize the piece. She can see them - twelve cellists of international stature, alone on stage, twelve sets of strings in plaintive ritual, the voice of humanity. As the piece ends, audience response is tumultuous.

Margaret stares at the crackling fire licking seductively at the blackening wood. Why are they clapping? Music is nothing but a drug to lull them, art a distraction from death’s reality. The artist, and she includes herself, is no more than a propagator of lies, lulling a humanity that could, within minutes, turn into indifferent gasses, mutilation.

The cellos begin again. She drifts into their melancholy. A piece of wood snaps violently, sending a spark through the grate. Margaret jumps up to snuff it out and is impaled by sound and flame.

To be instantly dead. To be vaporized. But no, she would be burned and blinded, left groping through the rubble. Cold, sleet, wet snow. The sound of pain everywhere. Death dancing off to one side, mocking burned flesh, protruding bones.

The cellos play on, tripping across notes until audience applause and the commentator's voice pull her back into the room.

Russell looks up from his reading. "Going to sit down again?" His voice runs down her spine but the pain tells her that loving him right now is weakness.

"Margaret?"

She sinks down against his male presence, momentarily aware that the film's finality may not be inevitable, that this reality is still possible.

He places his hand on her knee and runs it up the inside of her leg, turning her pain to instant lust. She wants to ravage him right there on the couch. Impossible, of course, as the children could appear at any moment. Lust snaps back to pain and a voice reminds her she is not worthy of enjoyment, happiness, that her purgatory has not yet played out.

"Let's go to bed." He’s either unaware of the shift or ignores it.

"I should let the dog out."

As they stand, Russell grasps her shoulders firmly, gazes at her. "I love you," he says quietly, then disappears up the stairs. Numbness has set in, her body's reaction to anguish overload. She’s tired and it’s too heavy. 

Margaret stands in the doorway watching the dog sniff his way into the evening's damp grass. An over-ripe moon hangs low on the horizon, the sky star-speckled. From the doorway, she watches his dark form move along the front hedge, faintly hears TV sounds from inside. The children have stayed home this evening - must be a good movie. She whistles for the dog but he’s ignoring her, on nightly patrol.

That a two hour film should have such an effect on her is irrational. Is she going mad? Middle aged women do that sort of thing - one of the escape hatches. To escape what: A wonderful husband, three talented vibrant children, continuing book sales, a good middle-class life with more love, more comfort than she ever dreamed of as a child?

No. To escape herself, though at this point, she is not ready to admit it, that invisible line of black pain that shadows wherever she goes, whatever she does. It tags onto things, situations, people, wrenching her into knots, distorting reality. The film is exactly the kind of thing it feeds on.

She turns on the porch light and steps outside, listening to the TV’s drone, the dog sniffing somewhere in a distant flowerbed. She imagines Russell's body outlined under the sheets, waiting. You will indeed be fortunate if you are with your loved ones. The pain snaps and she spins into it again. It would be best if it happened now while they are together in the house. They could comfort each other. Ridiculous because nothing is going to happen. She’s locked into a mental pattern that insists she must simulate pain in order to fully understand. Understand what and why?

Physical pain for herself she can manage, being acquainted with its power, something to be endured, fought against, ultimately mastered. But this pain would be for everyone - her own beautiful children, almost grown, yet a mere breath from being infants gazing with trusting eyes. She thinks of children clustered around her feet at libraries and schools, so easily enraptured by fantasies she spins for them.

Thousands of faces watching, waiting. Their bones to litter a dead earth gone mad in pursuit of power.

The sound of a piano sonata drifts now into the night air, Kathleen playing the piano. One of life’s miracles, watching talent spring from her children, abilities she can only dream of. Notes drift through the darkness to surround her, demanding she acknowledge the life flowing through them - Kathleen's young arms, strong fingers, the dip and scratch of a pen transcribing the original manuscript - all reborn through the yellowed keys of their old upright. Kathleen, woman-child sitting at the piano, nurtured and loved, waiting for life to begin.

Only the blackened ivories of the piano remain, askew against a projecting section of the stone foundation. The pen, the sound, the hand swallowed like the ozone layer, evaporated into a cold, dead earth.

The wind picks up and a sharp gust chills her face, throwing dead leaves in drunken swirls across the light-streaked lawn. Calling the dog again, she moves into shadow, squints to locate his moving form. In the back corner of the yard where autumn-weary flowers lay flattened in their beds, she sees the dog’s tail thumping furiously. At the sound of her footsteps, he turns to nose her legs, his body rippling with anticipation. “What is it?” she says, giving his back a pat. “Find a treasure?” He dives forward again and she bends over to see he’s discovered a small lifeless form. “It’s dead,” she says, turning away. “Come on, now, time to go in.” The dog noses her again, bends toward the small lifeless shape.

A dead bird on the blackened earth.

She stands impaled like a moth, staring at the thing. She could get a shovel and bury or leave it. What difference will it make? Drawn by the dog’s seeming urgency, she bends down to take a closer look and notices a slight opening and closing of its yellow-edged beak. She picks it up, cupping her hand around its faint heartbeat, a fall migration casualty, survival only for the fittest.

Margaret has rescued birds before, more than she cares to remember, but always in the spring or early summer when baskets or boxes can be rigged on clothes lines or window ledges. She can't take it in the house, not with two cats, not this time of year.

She walks toward bushes alongside the house, the dog following close behind. Light from the window spills onto the lawn, the branches black beneath. If she leaves the bird underneath this thick foliage, it will be out of wind and rain to survive or not. As she tips her hand under the bush, the bird, which to this point has remained perfectly still and listless, clamps its overly-long claws around her finger. She pushes gently with her other hand. The grip increases.

"I can't take you inside," she says, pulling her hand back, staring at its small grey body. The bird opens hooded lids, staring back. Something snaps then, like a door opening unexpectedly, its back draft dissolving the afternoon’s apocalypse, closing to restore sanity. 

The bird opens and closes its beak again, more precisely this time. "All right," Margaret whispers, "you win," and only after she tucks the bird inside her open jacket, will it release its claws from her finger to rest in her hand. For tonight, she’ll make a place for it in the basement furnace room. With luck, tomorrow it will be able to fly.

The visceral effects of the film have slipped back into the screen, the Doomsday clock’s ticking lost in the night wind. Just before reaching the porch, over Kathleen’s piano chords and the TV’s drone, Margaret hears a faint chirping that resonates into her fingertips.

*

Quotes from Dan Zak’s article “Nervous About Nukes Again? Here’s What You Need to Know About The Button. (There is no button)” 3 August 2016 The Washington Post. 

Linda Hutsell-Manning has eleven published children’s books as well as short fiction and poetry in Grain, Quarry, lichen, Litwit Review, Prairie Journal Trust & The Danforth Review. Her latest novel is That Summer in Franklin, Second Story Press. In 2017, a play, A Certain Singing Teacher, was premiered; “Finding Moufette”, a children’s story,  published online, Common Deer Press and an excerpt from her memoir re teaching in a one room school in the 1960's, published in Hill Spirits III by Blue Denim Press. She is currently completing this memoir.

6 comments:

  1. Brilliant writing and weaving between thought and action. Lovely to read and educational

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  2. Beautifully inspired writing, I found myself completely immersed in the story and unable to put my iPad down until the end.

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  3. "a faint chirping that resonates...." great ending!

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  4. What a wonderful story, a fine blending of hard fact and soft fiction, of the horror and the humanity, of the local and the global. It brought back many memories of the time I witnessed the movie in 1983.

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