"Duck and Cover" by Steve Carr
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
607 Circlewood Dr.
Richmond, Va. 23224
DUCK AND COVER
Melissa wanders in the field behind the house; a large whitewashed stone house with a black slate roof and a whitewashed stone chimney. The doors and the shutters on the house are also black. The structure is a study in contrasts. Melissa wades through the tall grass, some stalks so tall they reach up to her nine year-old neck. It’s late August. The summer has turned the grass, the entire landscape, into the same shade of light beige. The field is alive with grasshoppers. Melissa learned in school that the grasshoppers produce their sound by rubbing their hind legs against their bodies. Nevertheless, it sounds like humming; the vocalizations of a chorus stuck on a single note. They jump all around her and on and off of her as if in a perpetual state of panic. She catches one in her hand, wraps her fingers around its midsection and holds it in place as she stares into its black eyes. She would like to know what the grasshopper is thinking as it stares back at her. She opens her hand. The grasshopper quickly flies off and is immediately lost in the multitude of other grasshoppers that all look alike.
Melissa looks up at the clouds above the field, above the house. They are grouped together in the bright blue sky in bunches, like grapes. Their movement southward is so slow they appear stuck, as if unable to escape the glue that holds them in place. She holds her hand above her eyes, shielding them from the glare of the sun’s rays. She learned a few years before how to protect her eyes in this way from her grandmother, Nana, by watching as Nana frequently stopped while hanging clothes on the line strung across the backyard and stared off toward the rock formations that spanned the horizon. Nana never said what she was watching for and Melissa never asked, but Melissa has learned a great many things from her grandmother during the summers she spends with her grandparents.
Seen through a break between clumps of clouds, a jet crosses at an altitude so high up it’s nothing but a flashing glint of metal. Its contrails make a surgical incision across the sky.
Nana comes up to Melissa, holding an empty laundry basket. “You poor thing,” she says. “While your parents spend their summers working on their marriage you’re left here to stare up at the sky.” She starts walking away. “Lord knows what you’re looking for up there.”
Going down the driveway that leads from the house to the old highway, the tires on Paw Paw’s pickup truck kick up dirt and rocks that form a ring around the truck, like those that encircle Saturn. Squeezed in between Paw Paw and Nana, Melissa pokes at the pink flesh on her sunburned arm. The butter that Nana applied to it has formed an oily sheen, but did nothing to diminish the sting. The cab of the truck has the faint aroma reminiscent of buttered popcorn. It’s mixed with the scent of the Evening in Paris perfume Nana has sprayed on her wrists. The driveway has grooves that run through it like the canals on Mars; ruts created by the tires on Paw Paw’s tractors. Paw Paw takes his hands from the steering wheel, keeps his foot on the gas pedal, and allows the truck to be guided by the ruts most of the way down the driveway. At the mailbox that Paw Paw made in the tool shed, he stops the truck. The mailbox resembles a church, but the steeple broke off during a storm several years before. It’s badly in need of a new coat of white paint. Although there is no traffic on the old county highway – there rarely is – he makes an exerted effort to look both ways before pulling out.
Melissa tries to count the cattle lined up along the barbed wire fence that runs along one side of the highway; they stand there as if waiting to be freed from their confines, although behind them is miles of open prairie land. Losing count after thirty, she turns her attention to where bugs are being splattered on the windshield. She believes that for some of them, she is the last thing they saw. Looking for dark clouds, she leans forward to get a better view of the sky just above the truck. Nana said it was going to rain, but there’s no sign of it. She squints her eyes, trying to catch glimpse of a satellite, although she knows they can’t be seen during daylight. She learned about satellites in school, although she didn’t fully understand what they did. In class she had raised her hand and asked, “How do they stay up there?”
“They are held in an orbit by a combination of navigation, velocity and gravity. You know about gravity, don’t you?” Mrs. Worthall asked as if seeking reassurance that she hadn’t wasted her time explaining it in a prior class.
“Yes,” Melissa answered, lying. Nana would have called it a little white lie.
They pass a leaning, rusted silo that stands a hundred yards off of the highway near an abandoned farm and surrounded by yellow prairie grass. Melissa wonders what it would take to make it fall over. It has been there, almost toppling over, much longer than before she began spending her summers with her grandparents. That was three years ago. One of the first questions she asked her Paw Paw was what it was used for.
“It was used for storing food for the cattle,” he replied.
Since then she has learned that missiles are also kept in silos. All the missile silos buried deep in the ground nearby are no longer used, but whenever Paw Paw passes one he points it out as if it’s a geographical feature. Melissa glances warily at the top of the silo’s conical roof, expecting it to open up, or pop off, or simply vanish, as a missile launches from inside its rusted shell, the way she saw missiles blast from the silos in the films she watched at school. She puts her hands over her eyes and rides that way for several miles before peeking through her fingers and seeing dark storm clouds hovering above the town of Scenic.
The white and blue Comet Gas Station sign is shaped like a golf tee with a round comet-like ball in its cup. It’s the tallest thing in Scenic and probably the tallest thing for miles around. It’s made of hard plastic and is so tall that standing at its base Melissa has to lean far back to see the picture of the comet painted on the ball. Streaks of white paint that trail behind the comet indicate it is hurdling through space, the same as meteors, asteroids, shooting stars and rockets. Melissa has learned about those things in school. With her hand held over her eyes to deflect the glare of the bright afternoon sunlight she stares up at the comet while holding on to Nana’s hand. When it catches her attention peripherally, Melissa turns her head and watches a tumbleweed roll across the gas station lot, blown by the hot wind that carries the scent of the rain-drenched prairie, a mixture of earthy aromas: soil, grass, and animal droppings. The downpour that Nana had predicted was brief. The dry earth thirstily soaked it up, leaving behind humidity that lay on the landscape like a thick blanket.
Nana’s hand is damp with sweat.
The town of Scenic is very small with less than a hundred residents. It sets in the middle of a wide swath of plains, the definition of being in the middle of nowhere. It has the Comet station, a small grocery store, post office and saloon. Paw Paw has gone to the saloon. Jerry Two Ponies is sitting on a rickety stool outside the door of the Comet station. He’s part Sioux. His skin is dark brown, deeply tanned, and lined with wrinkles that make him appear much older than he is, although he is already elderly.
“I’m thirsty.” Melissa says as she tugs Nana to where Jerry is sitting.
“Hi Jerry, can we get two Coca Colas?” Nana asks him.
He looks at Melissa and with a toothless grin, says, “You look more and more like your mother every summer that I see you.”
“You said that last summer,” Melissa replies.
He chortles, rises from the stool and goes into the station. He returns a few minutes later carrying two cans of Coke and hands one to Nana and one to Melissa.
Melissa opens the can and drinks the soda in large gulps, taking brief gasps of air between each gulp. Her eyes are fixed on the comet on the sign. “How do you stop a comet?” she blurts out to no one in particular. Coke dribbles down her chin. “Could one fall on us?”
Nana giggles nervously. “The things you say!”
“Things like that burn up when they enter our atmosphere,” Jerry says as he sits down on the stool.
“Not all things,” Melissa says. “Not missiles.”
Nana takes Melissa’s empty Coke can from her and tosses it into a tin trash can. “My goodness, what they teach you in that expensive school your parents have you enrolled in aren’t things children should be concerned with.” She hands Jerry the money for the Cokes, takes Melissa’s hand and begins to walk away.
“I’ll see you next summer,” Jerry says as he waves to Melissa.
Melissa waves back, glances up at the comet, certain she saw it move.
The windows in the truck are down. Wind blows in filling the cab with hot, moist air that circulates the smell of beer and cigarettes that emanates from Paw Paw’s hands and clothes. Melissa’s eyes follow the windshield wipers as they sweep dead bugs from the glass. She can feel the anger and tension in the stillness of Nana’s body. Her grandparents had a loud argument before leaving Scenic about Paw Paw having too much to drink. Whenever they go to Scenic he drinks too much and Nana always gets angry about it. Paw Paw is gripping the steering tightly with both hands, his knuckles white, as he pours all of his concentration into staying on the right side of the road, although the truck swerves a little now and then. Melissa thinks of him as a “loose cannon,” a term she heard from Nana. She’s not entirely sure what it means, but she knows that many years ago, long before she was born, cannons shot round balls. In school the teacher showed a video of a war where cannonballs were fired from cannons. If a cannonball hit you directly in the head, it killed you. Melissa leans forward and looks up at the darkening sky and wonders if a person could see a cannonball about to land on their head if it was nighttime. At that moment the back left tire of the truck, punctured by some object in the road, gives off a loud pop. The truck shakes and bumps until Paw Paw pulls the truck to the side of the road. He gets out but Nana remains sitting as if frozen in place, but mumbles discontentedly under her breath.
While Paw Paw changes the tire, Melissa watches the first stars begin to crowd the night sky. She turns to Nana and asks, “Do stars ever smash into each other?”
As if she has been doused with ice water, Nana snaps her head in Melissa’s direction. “Why on Earth do you even think of such things?”
It’s nearly ten o:clock when Paw Paw drives the truck into the driveway, catching a coyote in the beams of the headlights. The coyote freezes for a moment before rushing into the tall prairie grass and out of sight. When they reach the house, Melissa’s mother is leaning against her car, her arms crossed. In the beams of the truck’s headlights she glows as if irradiated.
“Why is your mother here?” Nana asks aloud, the first words, other than three, she has spoken since Paw Paw got back into the truck after changing the tire. He smashed his left thumb doing it and when he complained about how it hurt she said, “Serves you right.”
“Where’s Dad?” Melissa asks.
The three climb out of the truck, with only Melissa rushing to her mother. As Melissa throws her arms around her mother’s waist, Nana says from a few feet away, “I thought you weren’t coming for another week to pick up Melissa.”
“Tom and I have decided to get a divorce,” Melissa’s mother says. “We’re going to place Melissa in a boarding school until we get everything settled.”
Melissa drops her arms, stares up at her mother, mouth agape. Tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She looks up at the sky and sees a shooting star, one aimed at where she’s standing. It turns into a comet, an ice cream cone, Pinocchio's nose, and then a missile, just like the ones she saw in the films in school. She ducks down and covers her head with her hands. And then she screams.