A hundred miles to the north the hydrogen bubble was growing, was shrinking, MIGHT EXPLODE, WOULD DEFINITELY NOT . . .
There is a legend that in the instant before the New York power grid failed in 1965, a young boy somewhere in the South Bronx kicked a Con Ed light pole with the casual viciousness of youth, and then ran screaming into the night at the blackout he had caused. So, looking back, Paul Woods, a probation officer in a rural county not far from here, thought he might have caused the nuclear accident.
He was making his last call of the day, an unscheduled stop at the Fast-Mart on Route 7, past the new townhouse complex. The store was open 24 hours a day, and the boys in vans came there to hang out and plan mischief. Paul knew that his wife, Jesse, would be waiting at home, wondering where he was; but he had decided to go out there because he knew that was where Robert would be. Robert, who was 15 and on pro as a habitual truant, had missed school, missed work, missed his probation appointment. When Paul called his mother, she had covered as best she could. "He said he was going to the Burger Doodle," she said distractedly. "They're working that boy to death."
There was a van in the Fast-Mart parking lot, and a cut-off pickup with western-style trim. But Robert and old man Moncure were the only people inside. The others had probably met there, gotten into someone else's van, and gone off to smoke dope and break into somebody's house.
"Hello, Mr. Woods," Robert said without looking up. He had 75,000 on the scoreboard and a Vantage 100 balanced delicately on the eadge of the glass.
"Heard you decided to take early retirement," Paul said.
The boy coyly tossed his blonde hair behind one ear with a dip of his head. "Aw," he said, "it was discrimination."
"They told me to get my hair cut, and I did, and then they told me to get it cut some more, and there was this black dude who didn't have to cut his any, so I just said, Forget it. It was discrimination."
That was the Robert Paul had come to know: an excuse-maker. It was always somebody's else's fault; it would be somebody else's fault when he ended up at a road camp.
"You know the judge set keeping that job as a condition of your parole," he said. "You think you can get another one?"
"I got a friend who says he can get me a job working with this band," Paul said. "But it'll take a little while."
"Changing fuses at concerts doesn't count, Robert. You need a job now."
"I don't want to spend my time flipping greaseburgers, Mr. Woods," Robert said, sticking out his lower lip. "Why don't you just go on and violate me? All the judge will do is put me back on pro. I'm a status offender. He can't send me nowhere."
"That's not entirely true, smart boy," Paul said. "There are a couple of things we do to kids we get tired of. One is, we can set you up. We can watch you and lean on you and lean on your friends till we catch you with a beer or a joint or an expired driver's license. Then we send you to the Learning Center, and you're not our problem any more. Or else we wait until you're 16 and then emancipate your ass. Make you an adult. Take bets on how long you stay out of jail."
"That'd be good for you, Mr. Woods," Robert said sullenly. "You wouldn't have to mess up your record book with me."
Robert was doing his hangdog act, and Robert was disgusted with himself, because it had worked on him before. But he said, "I'm going to wait until Wednesday to write a petition on you, Robert. If you want to try another job, give me a call Monday. If not, I'm going to ask the judge to give you unsupervised pro until you turn 16. You can write me from the pen.
As Paul was leaving, Robert called, "mr. Woods, don't tell my mother I quit my job."
"She knows," he said without looking back. From behind the counter, old man Moncure gave him the friendly smile of a man with a cousin on the ABC board.
Standing outside, in the late winter dusk, Paul was suddenly disgusted with himself and the life he lived, playing the fool for a bunch of high-school dopers. He and his friends at the courthouse -- the parole officers, the social workers, the drug counselors -- spent their days trying to plug these kids into the web of life that was supposed to be there: the network of parents and teachers and books and churches. But it doesn't exist any more. These kids lived in a web of Kiss records and homegrown dope, Hustler magazine and "Starsky and Hutch." At that moment, in the dusk, with all the hatred he could muster, Paul hated the world he lived in and wished it gone, swept clean.
Then he drove the 12 miles home, and jounced angrily down the long driveway to his house. It was an old white farmhouse, with a gallery porch and a real root cellar. A willow oak, a hundred years old, shaded the green tin roof. The willow oak made the back yard too dangerous to fly kites; but he liked the place for the shade and the driveway; Jesse loved it for the garden. This spring, she swore, she would plant vegetables to can and store in the root cellar.
Usually she left the porch light on for him, but tonight she met him at the door, light streaming from the kitchen behind her, handing him a bottle of beer hilt-first, like a sword."Did you hear about the meltdown?" she said.
He rocked back on the balls of his feet, thinking, this is it; this is disaster, change. The house stood on a ridge, and he could see a faint line of light where the sunset had passed. The place he was standing -- his situation -- seemed suddenly more precise and vivid than it ever had before -- the green boards of the porch floor, the dusty eaves of the roof, the metal cage with the orange insect bulb, a dead wasp trapped between wire and light. From inside the house he could hear the television babbling like rainwater.
She explained the news quickly. Her eyes, which were light green and set slightly farther apart than he would have liked, had a dazed look about them. She reminded him of a cat, staring at signs and portents invisible to men.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"No. I'm pretty upset about this."
He was pleased to be able to do his husbandly duty in a disaster, to be calm and reassuring. "Listen, Jess. I think it's a mistake to overreact to this thing. There's no real danger, I'm sure." He pulled her head gently toward his shoulder, but it wouldn't come. She stayed bolt upright, staring at whatever it was he couldn't see.
"Overreact!" she said scornfully. "What do you know about it, anyway?"
"I know they're not going to let it get out of control. And anyway, we're a long way from there. I think you're getting excited over nothing."
She looked at him out of the corner of her eyers as she often did when she thought he was being a fool. "Paul, I teach this stuff. I know just enough to be worried, and you sure don't know enough to tell me not to."
Whenever she talked about her science training, the hours she had spent in labs before they met, he felt trapped and defeated, like one of the Norway rats she had dissected. "What about dinner?"
"I ate already. There's some chicken in the oven. There's a special on in half an hour I want to watch. About his nuclear thing."
"You didn't want to wait for me?"
"Oh, for goodness' sake," she said. "You can eat dinner alone one night a week."
He took his plate and sat on the green porch glider, pushing idly off from the floor with his legs. The hinges complained like a woman in pain. He stared north, over the grove of trees, to the state road that led to Route 7. Left turn at the stop sign took him to the courthouse, where he worked for a judge with shoe-button eyes who had affection for him, but no respect. "You get your heart broken by these kids every time," the judge had said to him after court one day. "If I did that, I'd have a drinking problem by now."
"Well, Judge, I took this job to try to help some kids, that's why I do it," he said.
"So did I, Woods, so did I," said the judge, closing his eyes like a man who had not slept in years. "But they don't want you to help them. And the legislature doesn't want you to either. You know what I could really do that would help these kids? I could say to 'em, 'Young man, young lady, the next time you miss class, the next time you run away from home, the next time you cut up rough with your teacher, I'm going to send you to jail,' Hell, I don't want to do it, I just want to be able to say it! But they know I can't do it any more. They come down here to have a good laugh! It's better than TV!"
"Judge, if we could get some kind of recreational programs, if we could get some counseling programs --"
"If we could get some Cadillacs we could ride home in style," the judge said. "All we've got in this county is the TV and the Fast-Mart. And there isn't anything either of us can do about it. I've learned to live with it, and you'd better learn it, too." The shoe-button eyes took on a mischievous shine. "You know the one thing you could do that would really help you in this job? Have some kids. And don't read another psychology book until you youngest finishes med school. By then, you might be a halfway decent parole officer."
"Judge, with all due respect --"
"Would I stick it in my ear? Sure. But just don't tell me you're not ready to have children. Nobody ever is."
"Paul," Jesse was calling from the doorway."Can't you hear? It's starting!"
In the parlor, a familiar puddingy voice was intoning, "-- long a fear, from Prometheus to Frankenstein, moved one step closer to nightmarish reality today, with a nuclear accident at this power plant which raised the specter of the ultimate accident, a nuclear meltdown, and unprecedented catastrophe whose effects we can only speculate about." There was professional panic in the tone, which Paul dismissed as the same quaver newscasters used for treaty signings, election-night vigils, and other dramatic but meaningless exercises. Jesse was sitting with her legs balanced on the coffee table, hands drooping in her lap, shoulders slumped forward. She was tall and usually sat with her shoulders back and head erect; now she sagged like a rag doll.
On the screen, a federal official was speaking nervously into a bank of microphones. It was not professional panic in this man's voice. He seemed to be an engineer, used to the safety of quantitative speech; but Paul could tell he was frightened. The fear was contagious; it leaped out of the television set and settled in Paul's chest like a tenant with a long-term lease.
He reached over to rub his wife's shoulder, but then he pulled his hand back, afraid that he might infect her as the engineer had infected him. "Say, Jesse," he said casually. "What happends in a meltdown, anyway?"
"Let me watch this. I'll explain it to you later."
"Okay." He got up and went back to the kitchen, where the day's dishes, by their rotation system, were his to do.
After the show she sat at the kitchen table and explained in the reasonable voice she used for teaching her 10th-graders: the water cooled the fuel, when the rods got too hot they melted the zirconium cladding and fell to the floor of the vessel, melting through the floor, through the earth, until they hit bedrock or ground water. "If they hit water, the radioactivity comes back up in a plume of stream. That spreads downwind, contaminating the land, and it could kill a lot of people."
"How far -- two miles, 10 miles?"
"Nobody really knows. Some people think it could be a 200-mile radius." They were a shade over a hundred miles south of the plant.
"Jesse, are you scared?"
She gave him a look she reserved for slow students. "Of course I am, Paul. It's a scary thing. It's not something on TV. It's real and it's never happended before and I don't think they know how to handle it."
"What about the specialists the government is flying in?"
"You saw that government guy," she said. "Did he reassure you?"
"Let's walk out and look at the moon," he said. The breeze was rustling the willow oak, and beyond it the gibbous moon drifted in the hazy night sky. "Which way is the wind blowing?" she asked.
He felt it lifting the hair at the back of his neck. "From behind the house," he said. "From the south."
"Good," she said. "Let's go to sleep before it shifts."
When he was a child, the family had gathered around the new television set to watch a distant cousin on a quiz show. The two contestants stood in glass booths. The winning question was, "How does strontium-90 get into human bones?" His cousin didn't know; but his opponent explained: "Particles of fallout are carried by the wind away from the nuclear detonation. These fall in raindrops to the ground. Cows east grass tainted with radiation. The strontium-90 passes into their milk, humans drink the milk, and the strontium-90 enters their bones along wih calcium from the milk."
Paul was carried from the room weeping. His parents thought he was disappointed because his cousin had lost.
His father built a shelter under their basement. He stocked it from a list the government gave him: canned foot, bottled water, chemical toilet, Monopoly set. He would not buy a pistol. "I made it big enough for 12, Susan," he said to Paul's mother as if apologizing for a personal failing. "Maybe the first seven will come in and the rest will leave us alone."
He woke, twisted in the sheets, to the tinny babble of a portable radio. Jesse was on the porch, with a road map spread across her angular knees.
"What about some breakfast?"
"You go ahead. I'm not hungry."
But she took a plate of eggs when he brought it, eating without looking up. "Paul," she said between bites, "how would you feel about going to visit Helen?"
Her sister lived in Lexington, Ky., with her husband, a stockbroker, and two children. She was in the Junior League, and once when they had visited Paul and Jesse in the farmhouse, she had begun a remark by saying, "Now when y'all get a real house to live in --" But the sisters were close, and the two husbands had forged a relationship based largely on slapping backs and pouring of drinks.
"It's a long drive for a weekend."
"I mean for a week or two. Earle owes me 10 days' leave."
He realized that she was not talking about a vacation, but about refuge. "Jesse, I can't do that. I've got work to do."
Robert is going to call on Monday, he was about to say, when he realized how lame that would sound. I've got court Wednesday," he said.
"Oh, great," she said. "We'll stay here and wait for the radioactivity so you can report how often your kiddies made it to middle school."
"Jesse, has something happened?"
She shook her head. "I just heard the radio. Everything's the same. They've got this bubble and they don't know how to get rid of it. Anything they try might make it worse. The company is lying, the federal people are scared, and the reporters are ignorant. They're getting ready to move people out; but they don't want to make any moves until the wind is blowing toward a less populated area."
"Which way is that?"
"They don't say."
He slipped on his blue jeans and came out on the porch, blowing on his coffee mug. The whole line of her tall body, on the porch glider, was defined by tension. "Look, Jesse, I'm worried about it, too. But it seems insane to leave here and go to Kentucky when nothing's happened yet and may not. If they start evacuating people up there, then maybe it's time for us to think about going. But right now -- well, one, the chances are against the worst happening up there. Two, even if it does, the chances are against it reaching down here. Three, even if it does get this far, we're bound to have some warning, so we can get out then. So it seems to me that the benefits of staying outweight the risks."
"Risks and benefits! You sound like those morons on TV!" Her long thin hands flew up in disgust. "What if we stay and we do get radiated? I want to have children, Paul!"
Lately he had been sleeping badly; in the mornings he noticed gray hairs in his sideburns, aches in his joints. Until their wedding, time had seemed to stretch in front and behind him, without limit or motion; now it seemed, they were locked together in a race toward children, menopause, death. "Me too," he said. "Some day."
"Well, then, don't just stand there flat-footed and tell me that you god-damned juvenile delinquents are more important than that!"
"Jesse, it's my job. It's what I do with myself. If you feel that little respect for it, maybe you should be with somebody who does something a little more dynamic. A stockbroker, maybe. Or a nuclear engineer."
She ran lightly over to him; her ungainly stride made her look like a bird in a heavy wind. "Paul, I'm just upset," she said. "Can't you understand that? Why don't you do something? Why don't you take care of me, instead of acting like I'm crazy?"
He slipped his hands around her waist; she was quivering like a taut spring. "I don't think you're crazy, Jess," he said."I'm worried too. But I don't think it makes any sense for us to uproot outselves --" He stopped, the glimmer of an idea bubbling up.
"What were you going to say?" she asked.
"I know just how to handle this."
"The root cellar! Look," he said, leading her around the side of the house to the double doors leading down. "The foundations of this old place are at least a foot thick. This would make a pretty damn good fallout shelter."
She looked skpetically though the doors. The cellar was too low to stand up in, but there was room enough for them to sit, surrounded by concrete and dirt. "We're a hell of a lot safer there than we would be out on the road, with no gasoline and every maniac in the world trying to pass us."
"Are you serious?"
"Damn straight," he said. "All we need is some food and water, a radio, first aid kid --" The list of essentials came smoothly back from childhood. He realized that he had come to think of shelters, of bombs and radiation, as something from the distant past, like Chubby Checker or the hula hoop. How does the world creep up on us like this? he thought. They have been building these things all around us and I never understood that they were real.
"I'll get some paper," she said, and he knew she had been captured by the idea. He loved her, among other reasons, for her swiftness; by the time he pulled on his shoes and T-shirt, she was already tooting her car horn.
"Are you going to wear that earphone into the Grand Union?" he asked when they got to the shopping center.
The button on the radiophone in her ear gave her more than ever the appearance of someone receiving secret knowledge. "The news will be on in eight minutes," she said.
They grabbed cans of lima beans, grapefruit juice, Dinty More beef stew. He was picking a loaf of bread, for the first time in his life trying to find one that had a lot of preservatives, when she said, "The company says the bubble is smaller, but the NRC says it isn't."
"Don't none of these people know what the hell they're doing up there?" said a man passing by with a shopping cart.
Paul looked at the man's cart: ice cream, milk, frozen hamburgers. If he thinks there's danger, he wondered, why isn't he stocking up on thing that will keep? He started to ask, then clamped his mouth shut. He didn't want to spread panic, he thought; but in truth he was afraid that the man -- that all the people in the store -- knew something he did not, that he and Jesse were locked in a private insanity. "Well," he said to the man, smiling carefully, "it sure shoots your weekend, anyway.
"That's for sure," the man said again, and passing on, shooting an impersonal backward look at Jesse's legs.
In the sporting goods store they bought a small camp stove and a can of Coleman fuel. Paul passed by the gun counter, remembering his father, his guilty look when he announced he'd decided not to keep a gun in the shelter. "Help you?" said the clerk, a wizened man with white side whiskers.
"Let me see, ah, a .38," Paul mumbled. It hung in his hand with a feeling of finality, bluish-gray.
"I was thinking of doing some rabbit hunting," Paul said.
The man laughed out loud. "Son, that ain't for hunting. That firearm is for your personal self-defense. It's a fine piece, and small enough so the lovely lady can learn to use it as well."
The county's gun laws were not strict. He could sign his name and take this stranger home to live with them. "No, thanks," he said, handing the pistol back with a mixture of relief and guilt.
Back at the house, they outfitted the root cellar; neat rows of canned food beside the camp stove, new first-aid kit, blankets, five-gallon tin of water, radio and six sets of batteries, electric lantern, Army mess kit, two decks of cards. She swept the dirt floor, haunching her shoulders in the cramped quarters. They spread a picnic cloth and sat in the middle of the cellar, afternoon light filtering through the open door, with their arms around each other.
In the half-light, with her perfumed air against his shoulder, feeling the soft weight of her at his side, Paul fell into a half-dream of the days after the plume, after the holocaust -- the two of them emerging from hiding into a ruined landscape, houses tumbling to dust, the world swept clean of people, police cars, Quik-Marts, the probation reports and social histories in the courthouse blowing away like cobwebs in the hot wind.No more judge, no probationers, no intake duty; just Paul and his lithe wife, planting corn and beans in the empty valley. Their nights in caves, in tents of skins, raising children and living by the sun, by the old family Bible that was all that remained of a world gone forever, and then dying, full of years and honor, in the singing desert, a great nation, their descendants countless as the dust.
"-- almost time for the news," Jesse was saying. She twisted the knob: "-- situation remains stable tonight, but authorities are concerned about that potentially explosive hydrogen bubble. Utility spokesmen, meanwhile, disputed reports --"
The wind came through the bedroom window, ruffling the white curtains, from the south. He slept soundly, but toward morning Jesse called out incomprehensibly, her long legs thrashing the bedclothes. He slipped an arm around her, nestled her head on his shoulder, and she quieted; when he woke, his right side was tingly and numb.
"No news anywhere," she said, flipping from one evangelist to the next. "It's a beautiful day. I'm going to call Katy and see if I can borrow her horse."
"I'll fly the kite," he said.
The barn was on a hilltop, overlooking a pond and pasture. He watched from the hill as Jesse let herself through the gate and chased Katy's horse. Her long legs were flying after the horse, and the two seemed to fall into the same gait. Then she stopped, and the horse, a dappled mare, stopped too, and he could imagine her clucking and talking to it through pursed lips. He felt the breeze, the tightness in his chest, and wished suddenly he were a horse, to be gentled and soothed and bridled by her love.
The wind was from the west. He looked about for a place to fly the kite, and noticed for the first time how the stable lay like a spider in the midst of a web of electric lines -- lines to the barn, the farmhouse, the pumphouse, lines marching across the pasture. The lines connected this spot to the great powr grid, and thus to the reactor to the north, and Paul wished he could break them down and wipe out the connection forever. Who were the people who were changing his life, driving him underground, and what did they have to do with him?
The only bare spot was a cornfield at the top of the next hill, beyond the pasture where Jesse was now leading the horse back toward the barn. He met her at the gate. "Going up there," he said. Her attention was on the horse, and he felt again that he would like to have her turn toward him that way -- her eyes, her mouth, her hands yearned toward the animal, determined to gentle it and keep it near her. "I'll ride up and see you after a while," she said absently.
Last year's cornstalks lay spiky on the ground. He faced away from the wind, looking back toward the lake, and unfurled the kite. It was a plastic dragon with a 25-foot tail, and he had 800 feet of string. If the wind was right, he could hang it over the barn, above Jesse, and let her marvel, draw her eyes up from the horse, dazzle her with his daring and skill.
The wind caught the light plastic tail and rippled it gently, like a wave. He let the string out slowly, like a fisherman playing his catch back into the water, and the round head of the drgon swiveled at eye level as the long tail began to billow behind it. The trick was to move back slowly, not to use up the distance between him and the trees at the far edge of the field, to give the kite all the string it could use, and no more -- to get it above the trees and find what wind was there.
But the wind was equivocal, tentative, treacherous. It caught the kite and sent it climbing, then slowed, shifted, died; the dragon flunged, dipping back and forth. Paul took in string and let it out, trying to keep tension in the line. The kite went no higher than 50 feet; he could hear the wind ruffling the plastic tail, a hissing slap like gas escaping from pressure.
He began to sweat in the spring sun, running crazily back and forth across the field. The sharp stubble would cut the filmsy plastic if the kite fell to the ground; he was determined to keep the dragon in the air, to keep it up as long as he chose and then bring it to his hand, to keep control. Sunlight dazzled his eyes, and his ears heard, not the calls of doves or the distant voices from the stable, but the hiss of gas, of the kite flapping in the breeze. It seemed to him then that he was at the same work as the men so many powerlines away, at the reactor, bent over controls, listening, watching for surprises, trying to hold their slender tie to something out of their control, something that might fall to earth at any second. The gauges on the panel rose and dipped, there was a hiss of escaping gas, and the operator rushed to fill the gap, to keep tension in the line. The silver dragon dipped suddenly in the air, horns sounded, men came running in masks and boots, lights flashed, he took in string hand over hand, dashing suddenly backward. It was time to bring it in, to bring it to shutdown. The wind was dying and he might lose it. He coiled the string neatly and the kite danced above his head, then skipped forward, spiking upwards, dipping; he backed up, not daring to turn to see how close he might be to the trees. If he could get the kite to his hand, the string safely coiled, and furl the plastic tail, then that operator to the north could bring down the bubble. Only a few feet more now; it danced willfully just out of reach; he turned the coil once, twice, then he had it, it was over, the hissing stopped, the kite was safe, it was saved.
"I said, 'What are you doing over here by the trees?'" She looked down at him from the saddle, and then her face drew toward him as it had drawn toward the mare. "Paul, what's the matter?" she said. "Paul, you're crying."
He tasted salt, and wondered if he could explain to her that the danger was past. "It's nothing," he said, "It's just -- just some dust in my eyes."
The listened to the garbled bulletins: the bubble was growing, was shrinking, might explode, would definitely not. There would be an evacuation, there would not; the situation was stable, not that the reactor was stable, but just nothing would happen until something happened, at which time there would be an announcement, or shortly afterwards. Everyone was watching the situation closely from a safe distance, and tomorrow the regular anchor reporters, who understood it much better than anyone else, would be back to explain it all.
They were easy all that day; she seemed cheered by the thought of canned food, bottled water, of a plan; but he knew that the operators had the kite on a string, that they would bring it in by skill or determination of just dumb luck; and in his heart he was glad for them, and for all the people around him who would go on living: the judge with his shoebutton eyes, Robert with his excuses and self-pity, old man Moncure with his cousin on the ABC board -- the sloppy web of life strung across the tidy earth.
That night he sat on the porch, under the old willow oak, and stared to the north, where the false dawn would come. But the light came from behind him, from the doorway where she stood, arms akimbo, offering him a glass of beer. "Jesse," he said. "I've been thinking --"
"What about?" Here eyes looked at him as they had at the horse, and his heart dipped and soared like a dragon in the air.
Later, after the baby was born, someone told her there had never been any danger at all. Someone else told him that the root cellar would not have shielded them. A third person said that the first two were wrong. They kept gas in the gar, and visited the cellar from time to time. On fine nights, they carry the baby out under the willow oak and check the prevailing winds.