The day after JFK’s Berlin speech, Dawson put an ad for Peace-O-Mind Shelters in Newsday, and that first week got 500 inquiries. Some wanted to do-it-themselves, and Dawson was happy to sell them the tools, and supplies recommended by the Office of Civil Defense: cinder blocks, vents, piping, barrels for piss and shit, etc. They didn’t know a cold chisel from a cold cut.
Dawson sold also that his crew could do the work, either in somebody’s basement or yard. For one package he took a basic swimming pool design and turned it upside down. He had no idea if any plans he’d gotten from the government or made up himself would protect against a bath of radioactive debris. But if it ever happened who was going to ask for a refund? This was going to be sweet.
In the coming months, as the Cold War threatened to get Hot, demand kept re-pinnacling. He found more than one bank that saw the potential of customer borrowing needs, and in exchange for that Dawson got multiple loans and lines of credit. He needed more salesmen and more laborers, because he and his original group couldn’t keep up.
Liz, his wife, insisted he give one of the sales jobs to her nephew Paul, a recent Navy washout with a bad haircut, lazy attitude and dubious future. Dawson, convinced they were looking at a guaranteed bonanza, said why not. So long as that bald prick Khrushchev didn’t actually drop the Big One, not even that loser could screw it up.
Paul sat in his mother’s car and snorted the ground-up Benzedrine—the last of what had been a pair of her diet pills. Halfway through his first day, he knew the asshole who had married his Aunt Elizabeth had lied about how easy it was going to be. He should have been working on his music.
He’d spent the first two hours with a crazy old couple in Commack, who, after he asked, “How much are you willing to spend?” fought about whether they should get a fallout shelter or a new 18” Admiral Color TV. Twitchy from habituation, he drove to Jericho. When the man at a stucco ranch asked if he was there on behalf of the federal government, Paul told him no, and was told to leave.
As he got out of the Fairlane for the next one, the crank kicked in. Paul couldn’t shake the lyrics from a song on the radio that he wished he’d thought up… Who put the bump in the bump ah bump ah bump / Who put the spam in the spama lama ding dong… Genius!
He sprinted up the brick walk to the big house’s front door, rang the bell, slapped the brass knocker a quick half dozen. A dog started yapping. He took in the big columns framing the wide porch, the wicker chairs, the potted plants, and the door opened.
“I’m here on behalf of the federal government!”
A little white dog, barking, bouncing, feinted toward him, then scuttled back to the pink-dressed, vinegar-douched, high-coiffed matron of the manor.
“Barney! Barneeey! You’ll have to excuse us… it’s his salon day!”
Paul launched his missiles. He talked optimal siting, melded fact, fiction and the music of the spheres, led with the $495 model decided halfway into his pitch it was unsuitable due to the elevation of the property went for the $2,500 upsell nine inches thick nine feet underground with 4,000% greater chance of survival and after a spewed foodwaterfirstaidbatteryradiocannedheatgamesforthekids received a final “I said you’ll have to talk with my husband!” he jerked and juked back down the porch steps, a new storm braining….
Who put the BOMB in the booma boom ka-BOMB boom / Who…
The little white dog shot out of the house, and chomped onto his left pants leg. Paul, dragging it, tried to shake it off, until at the sidewalk the dog let go and darted back for his wash, clip and groom.
Ed stared out at the giant hole and piles of dirt and rocks that had scarred his backyard for the past year. He looked at the prescription bottle in his hand, what his doctor had said would bring him out of his depression and anhedonia—lack of pleasure in acts that are normally pleasurable.
Would it bring back all the money his bank had loaned out to a thief?
It was Ed’s own fault. He’d contacted them first. After the first salesman they’d sent scared and confused his wife, the owner of the fallout shelter business George Dawson, a contractor from Mineola, had come himself. Ed should have realized it was neither a grand opportunity for patriotic Americans to do their part, nor a sure thing for his bank to make a nice profit. His was one of four community banks in Nassau and Suffolk counties—along with hundreds of customers—that Dawson had variously and creatively fleeced before he disappeared. Worse, Ed had agreed to buy the “super-deluxe model”: one-half swimming pool, the other half a “cabana/fallout shelter combo” built into a man-made hill. Depending on what happened, you could spend your days watching swimmers… or a mushroom cloud.
He hadn’t gone into the bank for two days. He swallowed another pill, dry, and stared out at a fluff of white at the construction site. Throwing an appropriate rock at a certain moving target had brought a pleasurable result. Maybe the pill was finally working and if so, another couldn’t hurt.
He was sitting in the den obsessing on financial ruin when he heard Miriam come back from her shopping. She called out for the dog. When she found Ed, she asked him where Barney was.
Ed watched his left leg, bouncing like he was stamping the pedal of hi-hat cymbals.
“The radiation got him!” he shouted, but he was the one feeling something like it.
The end of his world, crawling all over his skin.
Jon Fain began publishing fiction in commercial and literary magazines in the 1980s. In 2020, his fiction has been published by 50-Word Stories, A Story in 100 Words, City. River. Tree., Fleas on the Dog, Blue Lake Review and (forthcoming) (mac)ro(mic) and The Dribble Drabble Review.