excerpt from Bad Apple Jack  

"Have I ever told you that I love you?" I asked Sally, as we walked down the interminable road.

"Just five minutes ago," she said.

"I love you," I said.

"I love you, too," she said, a smudge of dirt on the tip of her nose.

"Just so we're clear on that," I said.

"We're clear," she said.

And yet it was a guilty love. A love mixed with lust. A rumble in my pants. There we were, walking umpteen miles home, constantly scanning the skies for a nuclear fireball, and it was turning me on. The threat of death. The dehydrated march home. Images of Sally naked in the meadow and of plaid-shirted Kakanian stoners mixed in my mind with my flesh being burned off my bones, my skull irradiated.

It turned me on. It made me feel guilty. It mainly horrified me.

It was late afternoon. We marched on.

"What does a fireball look like?" Sally asked me at some point.

"A mushroom," I said, ever knowledgeable.

"Tan, like a mushroom?"

"I see it as more brown. A brown death. Billowing. With orange flames at its base."

We looked at the sky. There were fine wispy clouds. It had cleared up. There was now a stiffish breeze, the better to disperse the radiation. By the side of the highway, a mother robin fed its late-season baby a worm.

"What does incineration feel like?" Sally asked at some point.

"We're not going to be incinerated," I said flatly.

"How do you know?"

"Because we're going to die of radiation poisoning," I said.

There was a brief silence. Cars streamed by. Far, far too many cars for our rural byways. Something was up. People were busily fleeing from somewhere to somewhere else. Noses were pressed to windshields. I saw husbands fighting with wives. I saw fathers turned toward back seats, slapping children. No time for conflict resolution or mediation during a nuclear holocaust. Civilization was quickly sloughing off. My boots were muddy and still soggy. There were tire tracks on my left foot from where a Volkswagen Beetle had earlier run over it. No one offered to stop and give us a lift. In fact, it was as if we were invisible. The living dead. Negligible refugees, on foot, far inferior to those in leased Lexi and omnipotent Infiniti.

I thought of Sally's breasts. I imagined the plaid shirter's breasts, melon-like and ripe, hanging delectably. An image of my Aunt Ginger's breasts, summer 1979, Lake Ozonia, in the north country of New York State, suddenly irrupted into my mind. In her halter top. Leaning over me to get another scoop of fetid potato salad off the picnic table. She had leaned over me on purpose. Braless. It was all a very conscious act of taunting, teasing seduction on her part. I was still young. In late adolescence. She was fifty-seven, one of her legs was shorter than the other, she'd lost half her tongue as a child when she'd licked the aluminum ice cube tray in the freezer, and her breasts weren't doing all that well, either. I scanned the skies, and, my god, I saw my aunt's breasts hanging there, between wisps of cirrus clouds. What complex and hopeless creatures we humans are.

"If they were going to nuke Valmont, we'd be dead by now," Sally said. For the first time I noticed that she was lugging the big book on Motherwell that Ms. Donatello had given her, such was my state of fear and distraction.

"They aren't nuking Valmont," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because it would be a waste of a perfectly good nuclear bomb to nuke Valmont," I said. I was suddenly taken by my newfound confidence. Impending disaster had made me decisive and firm, a font of all knowledge. In my past, shallow life, just a few measly hours ago, I would have had to ask Sally how to dig ice cream out of the carton, with a spoon or a fork? But now, faced with issues of life and death, I was the source of all wisdom.

"Then why did our air raid siren go off?"

Seeing the massive book hugged to her chest, I was overcome by what having a small child must be like. Always the pointed and annoying question. I then knew what it must have been like to be Jack Lord playing Steve McGarrett, surrounded by sniveling underlings in the Hawaii Five-O headquarters, asking such inane questions as, Steve, why is the sky blue? Why is the rain wet? Why did my dog die? Why do my aunt's breasts give me a Stage Ten erection?

"For purposes of excitement," I said surely. "Valmont civil authorities are envious of New York or Philadelphia or whatever real place has been nuked. We want to get in on the action, not feel left out."

Overhead, suddenly, were seven black helicopters, flying in tight formation. Together they made the exoskeleton of what looked like a giant flying insect. I expected to be showered with bullets or sliced in half by xenon death rays. But the choppers just flew past, headed north in haste.

Were they fleeing the ruins of the big city downstate? Or headed into battle with some foe in the Great White North?

We trudged along. A small child in the jump seat of a Nissan pickup truck gave us the finger. We were too tired to give it back.

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