the wax paper

Elegy for a Bomb Shelter

Alex Long

Growing up, we had a bomb shelter.    

Every birthday, my friends and I would wear conical white party hats that Mom would have worn in her childhood. It didn’t seem weird to me until high school that she would play popular music from the 1950s, and not introduce herself as my mother but as “the hostess of this swell shindig.” 

After the sock hop in the living room she always handed out cake slices and I would begin to unwrap the presents. “Read the card Albert. Who is it from? Make sure to thank them.” She stood there a gargoyle amidst children sitting criss-cross-applesauce­, a granite guardian from a gone era. 

Then, she would scream. On my fourth or fifth unwrapping, usually. “The bombs are falling! The bombs are falling! Get in the bunker children!” By sixth grade, everyone knew the drill. Forming a single file line we would migrate to the backyard. Mom running before us, yanking open the metal door in the lawn like she was tearing off a long suffered scab. “It’s happening! I can’t believe it!” In her head the Heavens freckled over with Soviet pox. 

I apologize if my imitation of my Mother’s voice appears disrespectful. She is not offended by it I am sure. 

For half an hour or so we sat and watched Mom. She would squeeze my hand and say it’s finally happening. Dirt drearied her floral blouse. Her fancily curled hair stuck up alert like springs. It’s finally happening. It’s finally happening.

Then she blinked, and smilingly she announced, “False alarm, little ones.” She surveyed every tilted up face, the rim of her nostrils bleating with intakes of air, “we can finish unwrapping Albert’s presents. And you brave children can have an extra slice of cake.” 

I accepted this behavior as something benign, and Mom as a neurotic entertainment. I knew that on one level she knew the bomb alerts were not actually there. That she was happy we always returned to the house to complete the birthday party. 

Every day, there was the possibility of cosmic nuclear annihilation. It was the foundation for everything Mom said and did. Albert, pick up your room. You may be unable to tomorrow. Albert, of course you are going to the eighth grade dance. You won’t be able to see your friends later if you all turn to ash. 

By herself, sometimes she would go to the bomb shelter for hours without explanation. On the night before I left for college she took me down there. We had a sleepover. “Maybe when we go back up, there will be nothing left.” She fell asleep after just one hour, but I could not find sleep for many more. It’s been over sixty years since that night and I still remember the way the shadows pulsated in the corners and behind the furniture like blood vessels. When I did go to sleep I dreamt we were cave-people drawing monsters on the walls, speculative representations of chthonic rumblings. 

I majored in Environmental Science at a mid-sized city university. She would call on the phone and expectantly inquire if I had been mugged yet. I’d say, no, "Mom, Iowa City is not Los Angeles." 

“You can never be too careful these days,” she would explain, “there are muggers crouching behind every parked car and snaked around every rafter just waiting to pounce.” 

When Dad had his heart attack I was drunk on a friend’s couch. “Hi Albert’s Mom. Ha ha.” Spit bubbled past my lips and melted across my chin. 

“Sweetums! Guess where I am!” My friend stooped down into my phone yelling I was a whore. Where are you? “The hospital! Your father had a heart attack. The ambulance came with that shrill squealing sound and the lights flashing. And you always did walk around like you were open for business, which is alright. Hagar the pious prostitute and her family were the only ones to survive the destruction of Jericho, you know. Oh, think of the injuries this Emergency Room has had! Axe attacks, rifle shots, decayed limbs. People have died here! Right where I’m standing!”  

Dad was alright by the time I got there the next day. We were both so used to Mom. I’m just realizing how unusual she was, and I want you to know who it is you are here to mourn. She lived a long, pleasantly peaceful life. She liked her job. She liked my spouse and our children, her grandchildren. The only stain on her life was that she had to live everyday without the The Bomb going off. She had nothing to regret, that we would understand. 

After graduation, I lived with my parents for a year. One night she drove someplace without telling us where she was going, or that she was going at all, and returned the following evening with an ear of corn she gave to Dad. He laughed and said she didn’t need to go far to find corn in Iowa, but she disagreed.

When she was missing I woke up around one in the morning and I went down to the bomb shelter. I was probably dreaming of the little girl that I saw in there. She was small and wearing a white pyramid atop her skull. “Mommy says everything’s going to go boom up there.” She had open before her a book with photographs of prisoners from Auschwitz. She pointed to a girl skeleton, lips shriveling between needle-sharp cheekbones. “She’s my age, and her favorite color is orange.” I didn’t think to ask her if she was frightened. It seemed beside the point.

And that was it. Nothing else big happened to her that I know of. She lasted a decade after most people expire. She never had dementia or alzheimer’s or anything. Some arthritis, yes, but that was just her bones  and not her brain. 

I let her take my kids into her bunker, and we watched that “Duck and Cover,” Bert the Turtle movie. Sometimes we’ll be having dinner and my daughter will look out the window and say there’s a mushroom cloud above the houses, “just like Hiroshima.” Last week she learned that her Grandma had passed. Next time she thought she saw a mushroom cloud she said my Mom’s face was in it. 

I drove by the old house and asked the current owners if there was still a bomb shelter in the backyard. It had been converted into storage space. Boxes of Christmas decorations and blender lying sideways on the floor will be totally safe if The Bombs ever do go off, even if their owners are not. 

Despite hearing about the hazards of life all my life, I am only just now having nightmares about nuclear war, now that their great advocate in my life is gone. Streets zig-zag before me, blurring paths forward, and buildings lurch above me, casting starveling shadows. Eyes make cornices and window fronts their sockets, and the clouds in Heaven look strangely fungal. Mom’s ghost manifests itself in muggers behind every parked car, and a nuclear apocalypse after every meal.

Alex is a churchy college kid in Virginia, a native Midwesterner temporarily relocated, who loves hiking and attending free Shakespeare plays.