microphone and podium

Summer 2007, Volume 3

The Shelter
by David A. Lipton

Gerald padded quietly down the hall. He stopped at the sound of his mother's laughter, a muffled giggle from behind her bedroom door. He listened for a moment and thought he heard a man's voice. He checked the black plastic Starcruiser digital watch on his wrist: 2:30 P.M. Father never got home from work before four.

"Shhhh!" his mother's voice hissed. "You want the kid to hear?"

Gerald hurried on, hopped down the single step into the sunken den and pushed open the back door. The side door on the garage creaked as he entered the dusty darkness. Even in the unlit garage, Gerald knew his way around. He shuffled to the big door that faced the street and peered through a crack. He watched the gray expanse of the driveway for a moment. The screen door at the front of the house slammed. A man trotted down the driveway and across the street. Gerald recognized the man's curly red hair and broad back. It was Phillip, the grown-up who lived alone in the yellow house on the corner. The yellow house had something no other house in the neighborhood had: a shelter. Phillip whistled as he strode out of Gerald's view.

The garage still dark, Gerald found the stepladder. He climbed the second step, reached up, and yanked the chain. The single bare bulb lit up. He stepped down, pushed the small ladder against the workbench, then climbed back up and clambered onto the chipped wooden bench. One by one he unscrewed the dusty glass jars, each held onto a shelf by a single nail driven through their lids. Gerald fingered the contents of the jars: short screws, long screws, shiny silver and dull gold screws, tiny square nuts that threaded onto some screws and not onto others--

"Gerald!" his mother called. "Are you in there?" He heard her fumble with the clasp on the overhead door. The rusty springs groaned as the wide door swung up. Gerald blinked and squinted at the light that rushed in.

"Look at your hands!" his mother said. "And your face is filthy! Can't you find some other little boys who play baseball or whatever it is that they play? I don't understand why you must spend your entire summer vacation in this dirty garage."

"Because Father has so many different screws and nails and nuts and tools here--"

"It's not normal for a boy your age to spend all his time alone in a dark garage!" She put a cigarette to her mouth.

Gerald climbed down from the workbench. "Father doesn't mind when I play in the garage."

"He doesn't have to clean up after you," his mother said, dropping the cigarette to the ground and crushing it with her house slipper. She glared at him for a moment then turned and gazed down the driveway. "I really can't stand this heat anymore."

Gerald stood behind her, reached up, and took her moist hand. "It's all right, mother. The sun will go down soon." She pulled her hand away.

Gerald never saw Phillip trot down the driveway again but he heard the same grown-up man's voice in his mother's room twice the next week. A strange tightness pinched his stomach whenever he passed her door. The tightness became frequent, then almost constant. He couldn't even concentrate on the marvelous assortment of shiny and dull parts that waited for him in the dusty glass jars. He searched every day in the dark garage, finding all sorts of strange, exotic things: a box of radio tubes, their glass burned and black; a plastic strip that held four tiny screwdrivers; a rusty saw hidden beneath a stack of yellow newspapers, its teeth bent at crazy angles.

Gerald found an old bicycle behind some damp-smelling cartons at the rear of the garage. Father said he could have it. His mother just huffed. Gerald spent a day vainly rubbing the pock-marked chrome with an oily cloth. He heard the strange man's voice in the bedroom the next day. He began leaving the house before noon and riding around the neighborhood every afternoon, not returning until nearly four. His mother thought that he had finally found a group of boys with whom he played baseball but Gerald always rode alone.

Wednesday afternoon, he rode up and down the street in front of his house. Father had mended the rusty chain on the bicycle and had even oiled it but it still squeaked like some jungle bird when Gerald rode. He stood above the saddle, gripped the handlebars, and thrust down on the pedal with each foot. The chain shrieked and then grunted as it snapped off the gear. Gerald's foot plunged down and he pitched forward, over the handle bars and onto the pavement.

"Here now, what's this?" a man's voice boomed. Gerald looked up into Phillip's big, brown, grinning face. Gerald saw that he had fallen in front of the yellow house on the corner.

"Looks to me like you lost a chain," Phillip said.

"Father fixed it."

"Did he now? Well, I think I can fix it better than that." Phillip grinned and stood, plucking the bicycle from the street. His wide back turned to Gerald as he walked up his driveway. Gerald stood and rubbed dirt and blood from a scraped elbow. He followed.

"Now you watch me fix this chain," Phillip grinned as he turned the bicycle upside down. His wrenches glinted in the sun, shiny and new, not dull and rusty like the tools in the dark garage. Phillip worked quickly and easily. He didn't swear and sweat the way Father did whenever he fixed something.

"There now," Phillip grinned. "Good as new."

"Thank you," Gerald mumbled.

"No thanks necessary, young man, none at all. Just being a good neighbor."

"I think I better go home now."

"Home? How late is it?" He pointed at the black plastic watch on Gerald's wrist.

"Three o'clock."

"You're pretty smart for your age. You can tell time."

"Father taught me."

Phillip frowned for a moment and then grinned again. "It's still early yet. Don't you have time to see the shelter?"

Gerald shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Everyone in the neighborhood had mentioned the shelter, even Father. The family that had owned the yellow house on the corner, long before Phillip moved in, even before Gerald had been born, had dug a great hole in the back yard. But it wasn't for a swimming pool like other such holes. The family had been frightened of something so terrible that they had lowered an enormous metal box into the hole and covered the opening with a heavy door so that when the terrible thing came, they could hide safely underground. All the other houses in the neighborhood had garages like Gerald's house but none had a shelter except the yellow house on the corner.

"Well now, you want to see it?"

Gerald nodded. He followed Phillip past the edge of the garage and deep into the back yard. Phillip bent down, grabbed a handle, and with a grunt heaved open the heavy metal lid. Gerald peered into the dark hole. His chest shuddered and thumped.

"What's the matter?" Phillip grinned. "You scared?"

Gerald shook his head. Phillip lowered himself into the hole and disappeared down the ladder. Gerald followed, carefully placing each step, down into the blackness. He reached the bottom and sniffed at the cool, metallic smell. Phillip laughed and a match hissed to life.

"Well, what do you think?"

Phillip lit an oil lamp like those Gerald had seen on television Westerns. Light jumped about and then steadied, revealing a room smaller than Gerald had expected. Bare shelves lined the walls. Phillip sat on the edge of a narrow mattress.

"The people that built this thing had it crammed with all kinds of powdered food and canned juice," Phillip said. "I guess they figured they could survive down here but who'd want to? It's so small, I'd go nuts after a few days. They even kept a rifle down here, just in case any neighbors tried to get in when the war started. Now I couldn't shoot a neighbor, even if there was a war. Could you?"

Phillip grinned. Gerald said nothing and shivered.

"What's the matter, you cold?" Phillip said. "Yeah, it stays pretty cold down here. That's about all it's good for is getting out of the heat. Those folks spent all that money on this thing but not a nickel on central air conditioning. It gets so hot up in the house that I've been sleeping down here at night. At least it's good for something."

"How . . . how do you breathe?"

Phillip pointed to a metal box that protruded from the wall. A crank handle hung on one side. "You turn that and it pulls fresh air down from a duct. The intake's above ground about fourteen inches. In those days, they figured that was high enough to keep from pulling fallout down with the fresh air. They really thought they had something here--what's the matter?"

Gerald stared ahead, the cold air stinging his wide-open eyes.

"What is it?" Phillip said. "This?" He grabbed the big cardboard carton at the foot of the bed. He slid it around as Gerald continued to stare at it. It held a wealth of treasures like nothing Gerald had ever seen. The poor specimens he'd found in the garage at home dimmed in his mind now that he saw what was here: a miniature tape recorder, a single plastic reel stuck on the front, the back missing so that the fabulous array of gears and belts were exposed; a typewriter that had no top, the dozens of slender stalks visible within; a combination lock that rested on top of the pile.

"You like gadgets, do you?" Phillip said. "Well, pick one that you want."

Gerald looked up into the grinning face.

"Go on. But only one."

Gerald didn't hesitate. His soft hand closed on the lock. Carefully he twisted the black dial. The shackle glinted in the glow of the oil lamp.

"What good is that?" Phillip said. "There's no key and I don't know the combination so if you close it up, you'll never get it open again."

Gerald slipped it into a pocket. "I have to go home."

"Still scared, are you? Well, all right. We'll go up."

Gerald climbed the ladder ahead of Phillip and stood by the opening while the man pulled himself out. "See that?" Phillip said and pointed to a curved pipe jutting from the ground. "That's the intake I told you about. And they actually believed it wouldn't pull no fallout."

"Thanks for fixing my bike," Gerald said. He jumped on and pedaled down the driveway.

"Anytime!" Phillip called after him.

Gerald didn't visit the yellow house on the corner again but still rode his bicycle around the neighborhood. The summer crept slowly toward its end. The hot days dragged on. The heavy air made breathing difficult when riding through the streets.

Although Gerald stayed away from home most afternoons, a few times he returned too early and heard the man's voice in this mother's bedroom. Eventually the voice no longer sound so alien and out of place. He knew that if he continued to hear the voice, it might come to sound as if it belonged.

He met some boys who lived around the corner. They played basketball around a dull red hoop that flopped from above one of their garage doors. Gerald didn't like to throw the ball and almost never could make it pass through the frayed string netting. The other boys laughed at him but he continued to visit them in the hot afternoons.

"Hey, look who's here!" the biggest of the boys sneered when Gerald rode up the final Thursday before school was to start again. "What're you doing away from home?"

"What do you mean?" Gerald said.

"Shouldn't you be home . . . taking care of your mother?"

"Oh, no," another, smaller boy cut in. "She's got someone else to take care of her."

"Yeah," the first boy said. "Phillip takes care of her."

They laughed. Gerald's cheeks burned. He stood silently, staring at the ground, his soft hands thrust into his pockets. He fingered the combination lock that huddled in one pocket.

"Ah, forget dumb old Gerald," the first boy said. "Look what I got!"

The boy pulled a broad, red handkerchief from a pocket and unwrapped something. He dropped the red cloth and held up a transparent round glass attached to a silver handle. The others oohed and ahhed. They dropped to the ground and formed a circle. After a moment, they giggled and smirked, pushing one another but concentrating on the ground which they surrounded. Gerald moved from his spot and stood over their shoulders. The first boy held the glass a few inches above the concrete driveway. Something smoldered beneath it. Gerald leaned forward and saw what had once been a snail now smoked and bubbled beneath a white spot of light. Gerald's knees jelled and he sat down on the concrete. The others were so intent on the spectacle that they didn't notice him. After a moment, the weakness left his knees and he found the red cloth in his hand. He stood and smelled the burning creature. He clapped the cloth to his mouth, turned and ran. He waited down the street for nearly an hour before the others left and he could return for his bicycle.

Father's car sat in the driveway when Gerald pushed open the back door. He shuffled down the hall towards his room and stopped outside his mother's bedroom door. Now Father's voice rumbled through the door, familiar, but filled with a strange moaning quality, almost sobbing. His mother spoke with a hardness that Gerald had grown used to over the summer.

Gerald stood in the dark hallway and shuddered as the voices rose until they were shouts and screams. His parents shrieked at each other, their words undefined as their bellowings clashed, drowning out any meaning. Gerald recognized only one word, repeated again and again by both voices: Phillip.

Gerald huddled in his bedroom for hours, after the yelling stopped, long past the time he usually fell asleep. He pressed the button that lit his plastic watch and knew that his parents, exhausted from their battle, now slept behind their closed door. Gerald pushed his own door open silently and moved down the hall, treading on the floor lightly lest a floorboard creak. The back door opened and closed without sound and Gerald stepped down the concrete driveway and into the hot, quiet night.

He found his bicycle on the side of the garage. Its squeaks mingled with an occasional cricket chirp. No street lamps lit the neighborhood yet he rode easily through the darkness as if he were in the dusty garage. There was no moon but the yellow house on the corner glowed just enough in the blackness. Gerald left his bicycle at the curb and padded up the driveway and around the edge of the garage. He stopped and listened for a moment, then realized that the rhythmic grinding he heard was snoring. He looked about. The noise radiated from the pipe that seemed to sprout from the ground.

Gerald stood over the black hole in the ground. He bent, his small muscles straining as he pulled on the heavy plate, but he didn't groan. He made no noise as the plate swung up. He clenched his teeth and lowered the plate over the opening. He ran a hand over the edge of the plate and found the hole in the metal tab, the hole that lined up with that in another tab connected to a frame sunk deep into the earth. Gerald fingered the combination lock that lay in his small, soft hand, slid the shackle through the hole, and closed the lock with a quiet but definite click. He stopped for a moment, breathing hard, listening to the snores that rasped from the pipe. Gerald shuddered at the harsh groans that rippled along his back. He found the red cloth in a pocket, balled it up, and thrust it into the pipe. The noise stopped.

When he got home, Gerald left the bicycle against the garage door. He moved down the hallway, stopping at the bedroom door to listen to the faint rumble of Father's snores, a sweet sound, a pleasant sound. Tomorrow he would put the bicycle back into the garage. He wouldn't need it anymore.

BIO: David A. Lipton’s fiction has appeared in small (some would say miniscule) literary magazines including the now-defunct Thin Ice and Crazyquilt. (He does not confirm any connection between his work and those publications’ demise…nor does he deny it.) His screenplay, Jayne Foole (written in collaboration with David Sanger), won First Place in the 2003 American Screenwriters’ Association International Competition. He has taught composition, literature and creative writing at Long Beach City College for almost as long as he (or anyone else) can remember.

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