“Ssssss.” They shoot spit right out onto the sidewalk near our feet.
Pie-face Amy, whose father is a bird colonel, retired, and on Wall Street now, told us pachucos carry shivs pushed into their belts, right up against their naked skin, just like Negroes keep ice picks inside their jackets. Amy said, “Don’t ever look in their eyes. It gives them ideas.”
Our teachers like fire drills. They can stand outside and smoke and gossip. If it’s cold, cooks bring them out trays of steaming coffee and dessert leftovers, usually a sheetcake square.
With A-bomb drills, it’s different. Teachers get almost embarrassed. Nobody brings out cake. “ ‘When will I be blown up?’ don’t ya know, they wonder.” That’s what Amy said Miss McCallister said to Norm, our art teacher. “Miss Man-Crazy McCallister disgusts me,” said Amy, “the way she chases after Norm.”
For A-bomb drills, the school alarm sounds for three minutes without stopping. We crawl under our wooden worktables and guard our heads with our hands until the all-clear: three one-minute blasts, with two minutes of silence in between. Teachers have to get under tables too. Their bottoms stick up. You count out one, one-hundred, two, two-hundred, three, three-hundred, and on up to sixty. That gives you one minute’s time.
When I was four and five, I lived in Arkansas on my mother’s farm. I gathered eggs out from under hens, morning and afternoon. Her hired hand told me to be careful and not hit my head when I stood up quick from bottom rows of nest boxes. “Your head’d break open like one of them eggs.”
Even though I’m not happy, I don’t want to die. Not at nine, going on ten. In olden days, soldiers fought wars on battlefields. They saw who they killed. Now, it’s all scrambled eggs.
Russians would fly over in bombers. New York would be a prime target. The Empire State will topple. St. Patrick’s and Best & Co., the only store that sells my D-width shoes, will turn to dust. For sure, Rockefeller Center, where Atlas leans over with his shoulders bent under the weight of the world, that will be like it was never built.
Around the city, air-raid shelters store food, water, first-aid supplies, Bibles, and games. When A-bomb red-alert sounds, let’s say you are downtown: you must dive for whatever cover’s close by. If you see a round black sign with a yellow triangle in it that says “CD” in black, that’s a shelter. Rush into it. You could live there for up to a month.
You have to get into a shelter in time. When the A-bomb fell in Hiroshima, a Japanese child had on a dress made out of material with roses printed on it. They brought her to the hospital, and nurses saw that the bomb flash had burned roses onto her stomach and back.
Amy’s father saw them bombed in Germany, where it was only regular bombs. In the canals, Nazis boiled up like stew meat. In gutters, they fried in their own fat. “Can you imagine that?” asked Amy. She said, “They deserved it, I guess.”
Mama’s mother says, when bad things happen to some people, “Them that gets it, deserves it. God was never known for bein’ merciful.”
When I asked Mama what we should do at home about the A-bomb, she said, “You won’t know what hit you.” Mama’s like that.
But she pinched my shoulder and warned me, within an inch of my life, “In no uncertain terms are you to talk about A-bombs with your grandmother, do you hear me?”
* * *
Yesterday the preacher ended his sermon with: “The idea of the end of the world has recurred again and again in the past, and yet the Earth has not ceased to exist. God is always waiting. Invite him, brethren,” he said, flapping the wide black wings of his robe, “invite him.”
I was glad when we stood up yesterday and sang the recessional hymn, just like I was glad this morning to get out of the swaying subway and up on solid ground in Herald Square so that my stomach calmed down.
The hymn was “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, You Soldiers of the Cross.” The woman in furs shared a hymnbook with me. The fox heads bobbed when she reached for high notes. Her hands shook. She apologized, said, “It’s a nicotine fit, why my hands are shaking.”
I was tired from sitting and got out from the church fast, pushed past grown-ups crammed into aisles who stood in line to shake hands, outside on the steps, with the preacher. I was grateful to hit fresh air and opened up my mouth wide as the angels’ mouths open up on the pulpit.
Before I went back to the apartment yesterday, before I even put on my gloves, I stood out in front of the church and untied out of my handkerchief the two liberty dimes and a buffalo nickel Mama had given me for offering. Navy blue dress-up coat flying, Mary Janes clop-clipping, I ran, pretending to be a wild pony, down the two blocks to the cigar store on Broadway, and bought a Bit o’ Honey and the brand-new Donald Duck comic.
On Saturday afternoon, I had already known I wanted the Donald Duck.
All the way back uphill to my apartment I had to fight wind coming down off the Hudson River. It was strong wind and bent over skinny leafless trees planted in holes in the concrete. The wind struck through my coat, jumper top, blouse, and undershirt. So I walked backwards all the way home. In the lobby, the smell of Sunday dinners seeped out from first-floor apartments. Before I got in the elevator, I went to the basement storeroom and, deep in my bike knapsack, hid the comic and candy and the dime I had left.
My mama’s mother likes crime. So after Sunday dinner (which included dumplings), she got back out her Sunday papers. She read me from the Daily News: “Mobster found dead, six bullets lodged in head…Deranged Vet Murders Thirteen in Twelve Minutes.” She told me a story about a jealous wife in Michigan who strangled her husband, butchered him into chops, steaks, and roasts, and wrapped up his pieces as Christmas presents.