In October 1962, before I found the body of the dead woman, Roger and I climbed the Beanfield fence. My Keds slotted into chain link stirrups as I approached the helix of barbed wire at the top, wondering how the hell I would ever make it to the other side. At least the immediate terror of the fence took my mind off the certainty of nuclear annihilation.
“Move fast and don’t think about it,” Roger said. He’d made surmounting the barrier look effortless and taken his jacket with him so it wouldn’t be too easy for me.
Imitating my brother, I swept my coat like a toreador’s cape, trapping the spiked strands, and stood as high as possible on the wobbling fence, only to discover my legs were too short to scissor over. I flopped on the hammock of wire, grabbing to prevent pile driving head first onto the ground below. Searing pain stabbed my palm. Steadied, I focused on the barb embedded in my hand as it plucked out like a cork from a bottle. Blood flowed. The mechanism of the world seized.
“God, Joey.“ Roger said. “You have to keep moving.”
I froze, imagining myself permanently stuck, crows pecking out my eyes, tattered clothes falling from my skeleton. I began to cry.
“Jesus Christ,” Roger said. “Don’t be such a whiner.”
Shame is a powerful motivator. Snot dripped from my nose but I managed to staunch the tears. “Wait for me.” I said, inching back the way I’d come.
Roger kicked at scrub, surely wishing it was me. I wrapped the sleeve of my jacket around my bleeding hand and walked the fence line until I found a matted weed patch where it looked like something had wriggled beneath. A few moments on my belly put me on the other side.
“Watch for rattlesnakes,” my brother said. “All we need is for you to get bit. Come on.”
The Beanfields was our holy grail of unexplored territory. Oilfield pumpjacks studded the rolling landscape, each motivated by a circular rotating drive that caused a steel arm to rise and fall, rise and fall, their motions relentless and unsynchronized. Smog starched the air, as it did most days. The Beanfields were further than the McDonald’s where we’d ride our bikes through clogged LA traffic for fries cooked in actual animal fat— the best fries ever— purchased for the small fortune of fifteen cents. The sign on the golden arches proclaimed “Over 2 Million Served,” an incomprehensible number.
“What are we looking for?” I said, braving a peek at my hand. Blood oozed from the hole, dusty dirt crusting like dried mud.
“A place to build a fort,” Roger said.
We walked crouched below the ridgelines, the way they did in westerns, on the lookout for rattlesnakes and adults who might catch us trespassing. I put on my jacket and saw the holes, knowing mom would patch them instead of buying me a new one, not yet comprehending we were poor. A canine trotted out from behind a storage well and eyed us. “Here boy,” I called.
“That’s a coyote,” Roger said. “Probably smells the blood. He’ll eat your hand.”
I backed away, holding my arm behind me.
We walked until the pumpjacks stood at a remove, a flock of genuflecting mechanical sheep on the low rolling hills. We paused at the lip of an arroyo. Ragged blocks of cement lay at the bottom with a tangle of rusting cable near the black mouth of a conduit large enough for us to walk into— the kind of dark hell where Roger would site a fort. I was relieved when we pushed onward. A short distance away, he scanned the horizon and sniffed the air, hunkering down to evaluate the soil below the crest of a hill, but not so far down it would flood.
Coyotes and rattlesnakes scared me, though not as much as the fear of obliteration in atomic war. We’d done a drop and cover drill that day in school, the second that week. I knew it wasn’t for earthquakes. My hand hurt, but I couldn’t say that. “Can we go home?” I said. “I’m hungry.”
I was nine, Roger two years older. He seemed to remember that he bore some responsibility to care for me. “In a minute, squirt,” he said. “This is the site of our dirt fort. You’ll like it. It’ll be bomb proof.”
This made me feel better. To Roger it was a dirt fort, but to me it was a bomb shelter. The thing I needed most in the world.
That evening, Dad and Mom sat on the couch with my sister Suzy, two years younger than me and six years older than the twins. “Quiet, and pay attention,” Dad said as the news started. “This is historic.”
We always made it home for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, knowing that if we didn’t our freedom might be curtailed. Roger and I shared the floor with our twin sisters still working out how to crawl in their playpen.
Mom was usually too busy fixing dinner to watch the news. That night, both parents nursed tumblers of ice and whiskey, something reserved for the few times when company came over, or when Dad had a stressful day and announced “I need a drink,” which happened more often lately.
“Joey, why are you so filthy?” Mom said. “I’m going to have to vacuum again.”
“What’s for dinner?” Roger said, an expert at tactical distraction. “I’m starving.”
“TV dinners,” Mom said. “They’re in the oven. Now be quiet, this is important.”
TV dinners, served in their crinkled aluminum trays on hot pads, were a luxury enjoyed only on my parents’ rare date nights. Another clue that something big was up.
Walter Cronkite said President Kennedy had addressed the nation earlier that day about the ongoing blockade of Cuba. “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war,” Cronkite quoted JFK, “in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth— but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.” Soviet missiles pointed at us even now, a mere ninety miles from Key West. An imminent threat.
“What does ‘imminent’ mean?” I asked, the taste of ashes replacing the anticipation of the apple compote that came with Salisbury steak. I already knew the dictionary definition. I needed a timetable.
“It means,” Dad said. “What’s going to happen is going to happen.” He jingled the ice cubes in the glass, a sign he’d get more whiskey soon.
“What is going to happen?” I said, kicking against a riptide of panic. Los Angeles, the center of the universe, would be a primary target.
“I told you he shouldn’t watch this,” Mom said to Dad. “It’ll give him nightmares. It’s alright Joey. Nobody knows what it means yet. Don’t worry about it.”
“Your mother and I lived through the Depression and WWII,” Dad said. “Nobody shielded us from the truth. What’s going to happen is you’re going to be quiet.”
I lay on the carpet propped on one elbow inches from Roger and tried to breathe.
“Crispy critters,” my brother whispered, his warm breath filling my ear.
We would be burnt to carbon, like the sidewalk snake fireworks on the Fourth of July that disgorged an ever-expanding intestine of black. Imminently. We hadn’t even started digging the bomb shelter.
My Salisbury steak, green beans, mashed potatoes and apple compote tasted burnt and metallic. I tried not to throw up. I took my bath second in Roger’s smoggy water. Mom cauterized the hole in my palm with the liquid fire of hydrogen peroxide, applying a Band Aid and gauze, which provided some comfort. She told Dad maybe I should see a doctor. “He’ll be fine,” Dad said. “Kids are tough. Give him a couple aspirin.”
Dad believed two aspirin could fix almost anything, but I had my doubts. That night I lay in bed sleepless, imagining the pain in my hand amplified two million times upon the instant of ignition.
The work party after school the next day included Ralph, who hated his name and called himself Lumpy after the tough dumb kid in Leave it to Beaver. We flung the pick and shovel swiped from the garage over the fence, then shimmied under, camouflaging the access point with weeds. No mention was made of me finding the entry.
Roger beheaded a small rattlesnake on the trek in with the shovel before I realized what was happening. He chopped off the baby corn-sized rattle and put it in his pocket. Lumpy wanted to roast the snake over a fire, cowboy style, but Roger rejected this as a distraction. I was disappointed because we might have to forage this way if by some fluke we survived the opening salvos of WWIII.
The wounded hand made shoveling difficult, but I tried to hold my own. Loose topsoil gave way to hardpan, steel blades sparking rocks. We dug that day and the next until we could sit comfortably in the hole.
Roger and Lumpy scavenged a trapezoidal plate of plywood to use as a hatch cover, propped open with a length of two-by-four or dropped flat to create a dark, dank space. I crouched inside and imagined a submarine cruising safe below the polar ice cap, like the ride at Disneyland that we knew only from TV. The odor of earth and tar saturated clothes and skin. From outside it looked like a hasty grave.
Mom did endless loads of laundry to keep the twins in diapers and us in clean clothes. She changed the bandage on my hand, stinging the wound that refused to scab with more peroxide. “It’ll get infected if you don’t keep it clean,” she said. It seemed a small price to pay.
I did my homework in the dining room in the evenings because Roger kept his beloved transistor radio on in our bedroom. The Dogwalker lived on some other street but parked his German Shepard named Rex at our front steps to shoot the breeze with Dad. I eavesdropped, espionage one of the few fun parts of the Cold War.
“I envy you, John,” the Dogwalker said. “Your Nancy’s a rock. My wife is a complete fucking mess over this Cuba crap.”
It was thrilling to hear profanity spoken by an adult. Ice jingled in glasses. Dad had recently taken to bringing whiskey out to share with the Dogwalker.
“Shut up, dog,” the Dogwalker said. “I hate that.”
I had once asked to pet Rex. “Back away, he’s a trained guard dog,” the Dogwalker said. “I don’t want the liability if he tears you up.” His face had deep lines, a droopy mouth and a permanent five o’clock shadow. A flat top encircled his bald spot.
“It’s a scary time,” my father said.
“Sure, but my wife is made of Jell-O,” the Dogwalker said. “She can’t cook, can’t eat. No action in the bedroom. It’s a disgrace. She wouldn’t have lasted a day under Patton.”
I didn’t get what ‘action in the bedroom’ meant, but understood cowardice as worse than any death imaginable, a constant source of personal shame. My hand hurt, especially at night, but I did not complain. At least I tried not to.
“I’m thinking about building a shelter,” Dad said. “But it’s expensive.”
“What’s going to happen is going to happen,” the Dogwalker said. “Buy a lot of ammo, because the only things that are going to count after this goes boom is bullets and canned goods.”
“I don’t own a gun,” Dad said.
That evening, Walter Cronkite had said that US Navy ships had turned back a Soviet freighter bound for Cuba. Submarines might spark the powder keg that would envelop the earth like a marshmallow catching fire. Now Dad had rendered us defenseless in the snowy wasteland of nuclear winter should we, by some miracle, survive. It seemed inexplicably negligent.
“Well that problem is easily rectified,” the Dogwalker said.
That was at least something.
My contribution to equipping the bomb shelter was a toy periscope fitted into a notch in the plywood hatch. We’d disguised the lid with a layer of weeds— my idea. Roger assigned me to keep a lookout for the maintenance jeep that sped across the hillsides a few times, although it never came near us.
One afternoon, scanning the herd of nodding pumpjacks, a human figure filled the trembling periscope mirror. The Dogwalker stood at the edge of the arroyo. Glowering in our direction.
The plastic periscope grated against plywood as I yanked it inside.
“Guys, shut up,” I said. Static fuzzed the Beach Boys tune playing on Roger’s transistor.
“You shut up,” Roger said. He loved the Beach Boys.
“Rig for silent running,” I whisper-yelled. It’s what they said in submarine movies before the depth charges boomed. I’d rehearsed it in my head a million times.
The radio clicked off. I held my breath, smelling dried earthworms and gas stations. Boots crunched, loud as destroyer engines. Then— nothing. My heart beat so hard I thought the plywood lid would vibrate.
“Hey guys,” called a voice from above. “That’s a great fort. Can I see?”
I shook my head NO in the dark, clinging to faith in plywood and earth. Roger opened the hatch. Sunlight invaded.
“Hey there,” said a voice inside a halo of glare. The Dogwalker attempted a smile. “Pretty bitchin fort you got there, guys. Can I have a look?”
We climbed out, squinting.
“Camo up top and everything,” he said. “You guys will make great grunts someday.”
“Are you going to tell on us?” Roger said.
“Tell?” the Dogwalker said. “Hell no. But the cops do sweeps through here for vagrants. They’ll find your hole easy as I did and throw you in jail. You’d better clear out and not come back. I won’t tell anyone you trespassed as long as you do the same for me.” His eyes darted to the horizon. Something bulged in the pocket of his tan windbreaker.
“What are you doing here?” I said, unwilling to relinquish salvation so easily.
The Dogwalker scanned me and turned back to Roger. “Looking for my dog. He ran away. Have we got a deal?” He stuck out his hand. “We’re men of honor, aren’t we?”
“Deal,” Roger said, shaking the hand.
I shook last, his hard grip causing my swollen hand to throb at a level of pain beyond what I’d acclimated to.
“Who was that guy?” Lumpy asked after the Dogwalker left in the opposite direction from our entry point, travelling through the low spots, head swiveling. He did not call out for Rex.
“Who cares, as long as he doesn’t rat on us,” Roger said.
I did not volunteer that I knew him. It gave me a secret of my own. I had greater concerns. “Are we really going to clear out?” I asked, trying not to cry.
“Hell no,” Roger said. “It’s our fort. We built it.”
We remained cooped inside that weekend by the rain. LA rain doesn’t come in a drizzle. Cement and hardpan shed the downpour, overflowing gutters and storm drains, every gully a torrent. I felt sick and Mom declared I had a cold. I bundled up in a fuzzy sweater that hid the dark blue lines creeping toward my elbow, wondering when the hydrogen peroxide would kick in. My fault if the wound became infected. Walter Cronkite reported that a US reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba, killing the pilot. The seconds ticked down to WWIII, making losses at Risk to Roger irrelevant. He would no longer play me in chess.
It stopped raining Sunday night. I did not make a bid to stay home from school, desperate to see whether the bomb shelter had turned into a mud puddle when we needed it most. On Monday afternoon we shimmied under the fence. A strange ringing in my ears caused me to stagger as I stood. Roger and Lumpy didn’t wait for me, perhaps no longer concerned about rattlesnakes or coyotes for no better reason than they hadn’t gotten us so far.
I glanced down into the arroyo to see the effects of the flood. Something odd jutted from the silt, like an ancient statue thrusting up where a trickle of water flowed past the cement and tangled cable on its way into the dark maw of the conduit. Buried treasure. Only a coward would turn away from such a discovery, and I was determined to demonstrate valor. I forced myself to stagger down the slope.
The object was part of a larger something emerging from the mud. Clods fell away as I peeled back what turned out to be a blue blanket, unswaddling a nose and a hazel eye staring straight at me.
I recoiled in horror. The eye contained frozen terror, hers and mine.
Logic abandoned me. Could it be that WWIII had started without Walter Cronkite’s knowledge, the incineration incomplete, bodies already tossed into mass graves?
I staggered to the bomb shelter, too breathless to scream. Dragged Roger and Lumpy to the arroyo. Crouched at the rim hugging my trembling knees as they unwrapped the head and torso.
Roger stopped and looked up at me. “We have to get the cops,” he yelled. “Mom will kill me if she finds out I brought you here. Go home. Don’t say anything. Are you listening? For god’s sake, stop crying.”
Somehow, I made it home. Mom saw the tears rubbed out of my mud-smeared face. The way I shivered. She checked my fever with the back of her hand and unpeeled the muddy sweater sleeve to reveal the web of black lines past the elbow. She stuffed my sisters into the back seat and drove to the emergency room, blowing through red lights, me afraid we would be arrested.
I awoke in an enormous bed with chrome rails like a dragster, arm encased in a mummy wrap of gauze tight to the armpit. Six feet away in the shared room lay a kid who’d had his tonsils removed. There was a big TV. A miracle called a remote control. The tonsillectomy kid got ice cream with lunch and so did I. I felt woozy, but better. I’d never been in a hospital before. It seemed pretty bitchin.
A doctor with cotton wool hair in a white lab coat sat on the edge of the bed, the disk of his stethoscope ice on my chest. “You’re a lucky kid, Joey,” he said. “You picked up one hell of an aggressive bug. We had to open things up and clean out your blood vessels. Thirty years ago you would have lost that arm. Probably worse.”
“It’s my fault,” I said.
“Nonsense,” he said. “How’s the pain?”
Once he mentioned it my arm hurt a lot. The nurse delivered a little origami paper cup with two white pills that I downed with watery Kool-Aide. I felt better in a bit. A lot better.
The detonsilled kid and I watched the old movie station with the endless used car ads. It showed The Atomic Kid starring Mickey Rooney as a uranium prospector caught in a nuclear weapons test, reminding me the world still danced on the razor edge of extinction. A mushroom cloud of panic threatened to obliterate my newfound peace.
The irradiated Atomic Kid passed by Las Vegas slots, causing them to pay off. I laughed. A surprise. The tonsillectomy kid couldn’t laugh without hurting his throat, but he laughed too. We laughed and laughed. The nurse came in to tell us to quiet down or she’d commandeer the remote.
That evening my arm began to throb with its own heartbeat, but it didn’t hurt that much. I realized that the woman in the mud wasn’t a hallucination. Fear returned from vacation. I pressed the call button and asked the nurse for more pills, which she brought. I slept worry free in the big chrome-railed bed. The best night of my life.
Dad came the next morning with a bored man in a suit who introduced himself as a detective. I was sure Roger, Lumpy and I were going to jail.
“Your brother didn’t tell us you found the body until we sorted out the footprints,” the detective said.
“He’s in a lot of trouble,” Dad said.
“Sir?” the detective said.
Dad put up his hand.
“Your brother and the other kid— Ralph?— couldn’t tell us much. We don’t know the identity of the Jane Doe. So I need to ask if you noticed anything unusual out there in the Beanfields?”
“There was a coyote once. I thought it was a dog.” I remembered Rex, who supposedly ran away.
“Anything else?” The detective had already closed his notebook.
“No,” I said.
I would like to say that it hadn’t occurred to me that the Dogwalker killed the woman, but that wasn’t true. I was nine, but I wasn’t stupid. I was afraid of what he might do if I ratted him out. Besides, we were men of honor. We’d shaken hands, so what could I do?
The detective closed his notebook. “Okay then. Let me know if you remember anything because it might help find whoever put a slug through that lady’s heart.”
I lay exposed on the slab of the hospital bed staring into that poor woman’s eye and the shared terror that inextricably bonded us. “Did you ask the Dogwalker?” I blurted. “He was there.”
“Who’s the dog walker?” the detective said.
“Dad’s friend,” I said. “He said we need a gun. He’s right. You have to buy a gun, Dad. Please?”
The questioning shifted to my Dad, who knew the Dogwalker’s name and approximately where he lived. They left in a hurry.
The detonsilled kid was already gone. I had never felt so alone.
Lunch came with green Jell-O, which reminded me of what the Dogwalker said about his wife. I asked the nurse for more pills, though my arm didn’t hurt that much. I flipped through the four broadcast channels with the remote and tried to recapture the relief of the day before, but that proved elusive.
Many years later, I flew back from my Paris apartment to LA to help my sisters clean out the house. It was the least I could do, my sisters having already fought the war of moving Mom into a memory care facility. We piled things in the living room, which looked far too small to have ever contained all of us.
“Holy shit,” Suzy said. “Look at this.”
The .38 caliber police special revolver lay pristine in its original box, discovered in a larger box of Dad’s stuff. There was no ammunition anywhere.
“I didn’t know he still had that, Roger,” my mother said in the nursing home dining room that evening. I didn’t bother to correct her on my name. Roger died many years ago leading a jungle patrol in Vietnam. The nursing home looked like a decent place, as those places go. The old movie channel ran continuously on a big screen. I wondered if it ever showed The Atomic Kid.
“Why did he buy it?” I asked, taking advantage of her rare moment of lucidity.
“You know,” she said. “During that Cuba thing? Your Dad was terrified. He wanted to dig a bomb shelter in the backyard. Like we could afford a bomb shelter.”
Dad had been dead for over a decade, the steady drinking in the last half of his life taking its toll. After he died, I researched the Beanfields murder. The newspaper accounts were brief, domestic murder more common in those days. Zane Davis killed his wife in a fit of rage at her weakness. He buried her in the arroyo, not reckoning on what would happen when it rained. Muffling the kill shot with a pillow qualified him for first degree murder. He might have gotten away with it with nothing to identify the body, no missing persons report, no witnesses. They caught him preparing to take off for parts unknown, his only mistake being placed at the burial site by an unnamed kid. Davis was also a war hero, winning a Silver Star for single-handedly taking out a machine gun position in the Battle of the Bulge, which did not dissuade the jury from sending him to the electric chair.
“Why weren’t there any bullets?” I asked Mom.
“Because I threw them away,” she said. “So I didn’t shoot him when he was drinking and being stupid.”
Suzy laughed at this, possibly for the benefit of the other families there to spoon feed pureed dinners to their frail loved ones.
I sometimes wonder what went through Davis’s head when he discovered us in the bomb shelter. Whether he had a gun in the pocket of his windbreaker and how close he came to leaving three bodies in a pre-dug grave. Something else I will never know.
“The Cuban Missile Crisis,” I said. “Were you afraid?” Really I was wondering about being married to an alcoholic who had trouble holding a job. Worrying about how we’d eat. Roger going to war and never coming back. All of it.
“Oh hell no,” she said. “I gave birth to five children. What did I have to be afraid of?”
Which was the answer I should have expected from Mom.
I declined my sisters’ invitations to dinner that evening, pleading jet lag. They had their own jobs, headaches, marriages and children to worry about. I stopped at a liquor store and bought three bottles of decent Bordeaux for another long evening of self-medication, unwilling to put up with the inferior quality in the hotel bar. Sliding the cork out of a good bottle always reminds me of that single barb puckering from the stigmata in my hand. The scar is still bright, though crosshatched with lines.
I have tried all the great drugs, from cocaine to therapy, hash to meditation, heroin to philanthropy. I’ve served as Senior Principal Architect on many versions of sophisticated bomb shelters across five continents, earning and squandering multiple fortunes through three failed marriages and many affairs. Sometime after three in the morning, no matter how much good red wine I’ve consumed, the eye of the dead woman will appear. I will be nine years old again, stuck on the fence, unable to find the call button for the two white pills in the origami paper cup. I will try in vain to pull the periscope inside the bomb shelter and rig for silent running.
Visual art by Jeff Hersch