IN THE DAYS WHEN THE SKY WAS COBALT
By Deborah Paes de Barros
The giant earthmovers—the backhoe and the bulldozer and other machines I couldn’t identify—had been gone for three days. There was a gaping hole in the backyard now. Yesterday it had rained and the mud smelled of rot and fungus.
Inside the house there was yelling, then the crash of something heavy falling. I heard a small cry from my mother followed by the howls of the baby. Still nibbling on my toast I moved off the back step and wandered further out into what had been the backyard.
I haven’t slept really for the last few months.
I mean, maybe I have. But all I remember is
looking at the pulsating blue of the digital
clock, marking off the minutes and hours. If I
hear a sound or airplane cutting through the
black I think that finally this is it. I picture the
tiny light blinking on the missile from North
Korea, I wait for a sound so big I can’t imagine
it, the shaking of the earth, the green flash and
My husband sleeps beside me. He tells me to
stop watching the late night news.
As if I could.
I imagine my long hair as flame.
Later, when I think about it, color is what I’ll recall. I had the big 64-count box of crayons and I knew how to match the shades: the vibrant skin of the oranges that hung on the tree, the shiny green of their leaves, the dark of the broken earth, and the deep cerulean blue of the California sky. There were other kinds of blue in the Crayola box too—the smoggy blue of summer days, as well as azure blue, aero blue, beryl , bleu de France, cornflower and, of course, cobalt.
I was six or seven that day, so young that I still wore those little rompers—sun suits they called them then, little flowered or plaid one-piece garments that gathered at the waist and tied at the shoulders.
Our backyard before had been pretty much like our neighbors, a lawn, a rusted swing set and an orange tree. It wasn’t tended like the other yards—my father only made a half-hearted attempt to cut the grass once or twice a month and in the Southern California sun the grass and the weeds grew with abandon.
My mother didn’t garden or plant flowers or weed. She’d made it clear that she hadn’t come all the way from the southern coast of Brazil to squat in the dirt like a peasant. She didn’t cook much either, not like the other mothers. Practically everything she made involved Bisquick or Jell-O, or involved some other kind of instant food.
My mother was from the coastal city of Santos, where she grew up two blocks from the sea in a town so steeped in indigenous magic that every New Year’s the women would dress in white and at midnight throw flowers into the sea. My father worked in aerospace. In the evenings when he came home, even in the summer when the late afternoon heat blazed through the large and un-insulated glass windows and hours of light remained, he preferred to be indoors, nursing the martinis he had taught me to make. When he was home on the weekends he worked on the car.
Still, we were not yet that different. Or at least not in ways that I had learned how to calibrate.
A great yellow machine scooped the orange tree out from its roots and flung it on to the ground where it was quickly covered with dirt. My mother cried when she realized it was lost. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. “I would have dug it out.” This seemed unlikely to me but I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t understand money but I knew my father didn’t like to spend it. We couldn’t have a pool, for instance, like our neighbor Bud, because of the cost. “Do you need it?’ he used to ask me when I wanted to buy anything. “Need it. Not want it.” And for our vacations we went to a vast lake called the Salton Sea where the military had once practiced, and where the sand wasn’t really sand but tiny dead petrified animals. The salty blue gleamed in the hot 104’ desert sun, and I’d run into the water. But when I’d emerged my legs were cut into bloody lace from the omnipresent barnacles. It was obvious that the Salton Sea was an economy vacation.
I knew those trucks had to cost a lot of money and if my father was spending it, we had to need whatever it was that they were building. We would have to hide under the dirt when the Russians came to bomb us, and when the mushroom cloud that I’d seen on T.V. blossomed high over Los Angeles thirty miles away. We’d have to fight for this space, my father told me, when all the other not so forward-looking people attacked and tried to seize our sanctuary. My father had a shotgun for this purpose.
I started then to scan the sky, to watch for signs, to wait for the rockets.
On that third day after the excavation my mother left.
Perhaps she had planned it already. She told us her father had died and that she was needed. She handed me the baby.
The living room was piled high with cans of food that would eventually be stashed in the shelter. Each can was marked with a mysterious code that would tell us in what order to consume the food. My father had been a radio operator during the war and he had developed this code on the nights when he had insomnia. The piles of tinned food had taken over the room, hiding the dilapidated couch. I didn’t mind exactly. I liked looking at those large cans of peaches in sweet syrup and thought of eating them underground when everyone up above us was gone. There were board games too, Battleship and Chinese Checkers, as my father had read that it was important to keep everyone occupied for the six to eighteen months we’d be confined.
But my mother didn’t seem impressed with my father’s system. She moved a can of Dinty Moore beef stew with some disdain before stepping out the front door, clutching her passport and her ticket from Varig, the royal Brazilian airline.
I wanted to tell her that I was certain my father would have the bomb shelter finished before her return and I thought if I kept talking she might change her mind and stay. “He’ll clean up the mess really soon,” I said. I tried to look helpful. “And then we can all go down there and practice.”
My mother looked at me. I’ve been told I resemble my father in his youth. “I stay up here,” she said.
My father did not rise from the kitchen table where he was studying plans for fall-out shelters. “Don’t come back,” he said. “Stay with the dark people and the little brown monkeys. Stay in your father’s mud hut.”
She walked out the door.
I could see a taxi waiting outside on the street.
I wanted to follow her. I started toward the door myself, still carrying my baby brother.
“No.” My father got up, locked the door, and then sat down and resumed studying his plans. “Go and get ready,” he said.
“Ready for what?”
A babysitter came a few minutes later. She was someone I’d never seen, someone sent by an agency my father said. She had a strange smell.
My father and I drove west toward the beach cities of Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa. In the spinach and strawberry fields near the ocean the earth undulated in huge bunkers. Some of the earth swells were shelters my father explained. The others held bombs, explosives, things that would be needed in the war. “These right here belong to Rockwell and the Navy,” my father said, naming his own company’s rival firm. He worked for General Dynamics, which pleased me because they had built the pretend submarines at Disneyland. Beautiful mermaids sat next to them combing their lovely hair that was never snarled or frizzy. It was a good life being a mermaid. Not that my father had anything to do with mermaids. He worked in a giant gray building closer to home on a project named Minute Man, building small missiles that could be fired from a man’s shoulder like a rifle. Whenever the company got a new contract all of the employees stood up and cheered.
My father parked the car.
He handed me my school pad. “Here. Take notes.” He dictated something about the ratio of the thickness of the walls to the tensile strength of concrete and I did my best to keep up with his numbers and to write neatly.
After a while he turned the car around and we drove east again, but not home. Instead we pulled into the parking lot at the county fair grounds, although the fair was not currently in operation. But two of the buildings were in use, and in fact there seemed to be some sort of small fair going on. I was hopeful. Perhaps there would be cotton candy and rides.
“Let me see what you wrote.” My father reached for the pad. The next things happened very fast. He threw the pad down on to the floor of the car. His hand moved toward me and I flinched and turned away so that his flat palm caught me sideways and under the chin. I felt my teeth slam together and something sharp on the inside of my cheek. When I put the back of my own hand over my mouth he came away wet with saliva and a little thread of blood.
“You expect anyone to read this?” He picked up the pad and crumpled the page. “Don’t you learn to write at school? Or don’t you pay attention?”
I looked out the side window.
I watched a family walk across the parking lot.
“I said answer me.” His face got red when he yelled.
“Seven,” I mumbled.
He looked at me. “Jesus.” He handed me a Kleenex. “Wipe your face. And don’t blubber.” He looked at me again. “jesus. Fix your hair or something.” He softened then. “You’re OK, Baby. Just try a little. It won’t kill you to make an effort.” He took another tissue and wiped my face himself. He touched my cheek for a second with his finger. “Don’t be like her.”
I knew who he meant. “Let’s get out of the car,” he said.
“How will you live after the bomb?” a banner strung over the door queried. And a man handing out business cards asked each of us as we walked inside “Are you ready?” There were booths handing out free samples of foods that could sustain us after the apocalypse—a drink that was similar to Tang and a potato dish that we ate out of Dixie cups that the woman in the booth called “a gratin” but tasted like somewhat dry and vaguely metallic mashed potatoes. I liked the food though, although not as much as cotton candy. The food came in packets and demanded only the addition of hot water before becoming magically turning into dinner entrees.
My father was less interested in the food. He’d already worked things out. Canned goods were the way to go. Armed with can openers we would eat our rations cold. In the meantime he would watch the dates on the cans and recycle them as necessary. He’d also figured out that we wouldn’t need all those calories that the woman said the au gratin potatoes would supply. After all, we wouldn’t be moving around much. My father looked over at me. “It wouldn’t hurt you to lose a few pounds anyway,” he said. ”At least.” The next booth was handing out tiny chocolate bars but my father steered me past. “It’s not god damned Halloween.”
The second building held the model shelters. Some of them were like plush trailers, only made to go underground, with little kitchens that were so technologically crisp and clean that they put our own kitchen at home to shame. I liked these models, with their television sets, futuristic plastic dishware, and built-in bunk beds. A woman dressed in a uniform like a stewardess let me play in one. There was a miniature metal sink and mess kits, each with its own mug and bowl. This particular kitchen even had a ruffled curtain hanging over a fake window, forever opened on a scene of a duck on a pond in the country.
These places were so tidy and fresh that you could feel that nothing bad could ever happen to you in them.
The room was pretty small of course, only slightly larger than my bedroom. I wondered where we’d sleep but then another attendant dressed in a skirt and sweater showed me how the table in the corner lifted out to allow the cushions to form a double bed. “I’m the mommy,” she told me, and patted her blonde curls. I thought maybe we could put my brother in a basket in the corner. There was a little curtained area over on one side that I thought might be my room but the woman whispered to me that it was the bathroom. When I peered it in held only a large covered can. I tried to put that out of my mind.
I looked at all the shiny stainless steel and wondered how long we would stay buried inside the earth and what I would be like when I got to come out into the world again. I hoped I’d be different, blond and thin like a real California girl.
My father frowned at the polished kitchen, pulling my arm to lead me to the next display unit. He scorned these model bomb shelters. They were only fall-out shelters he told me, in no way sufficient for the magnitude of the onslaught he expected. These high gloss shelters might protect against radioactive fall-out but could never screen against the power of the bombs. His plan would hide us from alpha, beta and gamma ray exposure. A man offered to bring more shiny brochures over to our house and talk about building. My father laughed. “No sir,” he said. “What you have here is a pretend shelter. An imi-shelter. I’m going to build a real bomb shelter.” My father picked up a shiny pan in the little kitchen. “What you got here is a nice bed and breakfast. No offense.”
We walked over into the other building. I knew I should make conversation. “We have real shelters at school, Daddy. We’ve been practicing.” This was true. Once a week we’d rehearse the duck and cover drill. It gave me a stomachache. We’d all race into the new All-Purpose Room that replaced the old auditorium. On of the new building’s many purposes was evidently to serve as a shelter and so it had been built without windows. “We even go under the tables” I told my father.
My father clamped his hand on my arm, tight. “Are you an imbecile?” He didn’t ask again so I knew this time the question was rhetorical. “That building can barely keep the rain out.”
“Listen,” he said. “When you hear that siren,” he said, “ you just run. Run home. Don’t let anyone stop you. If you have to dive under a rock or into a storm drain do it and then keep running. You’ll be safe here.”
I wasn’t sure my teacher, who was far bigger than I, would let me run away and I was certain that Mr. Munter, the principal, would not. And because our shelter was just a big mud hole I wasn’t entirely clear just how much good it would do anyway. But I had learned already to keep my own countenance.
“It might just be you and me, kid,” my father said.
Although my father didn’t approve of any of the shelters he gathered up all of the free literature. He found a man he liked at one booth and the two of them talked about the different mixes of cement and the way to use rebar. When we left I had a free pink balloon tied to my wrist emblazoned with the words “Be Ready.”
On the way home we stopped at a Howard Johnsons, which was a treat because I’d never been there before. “No pie,” my father said, looking at me. “Or ice cream.” But my father relented a little. Our hamburgers came with ice cream and there was no way my father was letting that go to waste. Besides, my father was a big man himself. “You can start a diet tomorrow,” he said. “No bread.”
He spread out some papers on the table, showing me maps of the state, and pinpointing areas where he had reason to believe that the bombs might fall. He figured we had 35 miles to give from the center of the blast. Not good, but not quite ground zero either. And it could be further away too, igniting instead San Diego a hundred miles to the south or the San Fernando Valley forty miles west. He’d researched the targets, the probabilities, and the payloads of various rockets. He paid the bill and we walked outside. My father looked at the darkening sky. “Might hit Vandenburg even.”
I was quiet on the way home, thinking about how I’d seen a photo of the astronauts who my teacher said would someday go to the moon. I wondered what it was like to blast off in that shiny metal rocket and to drift across the universe alone. My father listened to a baseball game, to the Dodgers. He called them Our Boys.
As we turned the corner on to our street my father cleared his throat. “I didn’t hit your mother, you know,” he said. “Not really.”
I checked on the baby after we got home.
In time, my father began to build a wall—rebar, concrete and cinder block, and when he was done he hired a man with a concrete mixer to cover the roof with eight feet of cement. He found old bathtubs at a salvage yard and filled them with water and hooked them with pipes to the shelter. There must too have been a way to purify the water but I can’t recall. Inside there was a big and noisy air pump and filter that required turning every few hours. We’d be on shifts, my father explained, waking up when it was out turn to move the great handle.
One weekend my father stayed home and cleaned out the closets, throwing away most of my mother’s things. He complained that everything was dirty and said that a real woman would know how to clean. He took me to the San Diego Zoo. I watched the large apes sulking in the shade of shiny leafed trees and later sat in a picnic area and ate sandwiches my father had made.
I thought for a while that my mother would never return and that we had lost her to the parrots on a white beach somewhere south of Rio, where she sat consuming mangoes and black, very sweet coffee. She did not write to us, or at least my father never mentioned a letter.
But seven months later my mother came home, carrying her same over-stuffed suitcase and numerous assorted bags swollen with gifts.
It was like a party. There were sweaters, dolls, a coconut and dented cans of guava paste and tropical fruits. I showed her how I had grown an inch. Her friends all came to see her and I heard one whisper that my father was difficult. Even I knew that this was a different kind of code. The next day her friends all came over and she served them a hearts of palm salad and a jelly roll cake made with guava.
Last night I heard the President speak
about destroying the Korean peninsula.
I counted the words with an N—nightmare,
annihilation, nuclear, nexus, noxious.
No. I thought about the little dictator
with the terrible hair who promised we
will burn. And I thought about how my hair
once caught on fire when I was lighting
candles and how it smelled for a long time.
As far as I know, my mother never went down the shelter steps. She was afraid of ladders anyway—wouldn’t even stand on a chair. Her equilibrium was bad she told us. We wanted her to practice and volunteered to help her. She just rolled her eyes.
“I stay up here,” I heard her tell my father again one night, when I lay in bed comforted by the smell of her cigarettes. I heard my father yelling something so I put the pillow over my head and went to sleep and when I woke up he was eating an egg and drinking his café con leche quietly. He was more careful with my mother now. He would still storm out of the house but he didn’t get angry in the same old way.
There were many things I didn’t understand.
In time succulents and geraniums grew over the domed top of the shelter. My mother planted more fruit trees. Much later my brother got in trouble for keeping old used and purloined Playboy magazines in the bomb shelter. I once held a Halloween party in the shelter. Mostly though I preferred my playhouse that stood on the other side of the hedge from the shelter. It had window boxes with pansies, and paver stones in front that I swept regularly. I cooked exquisite if fake meals for my dolls on a perfect little stove, combed their hair and taught them the alphabet off an easel someone had given me.
I still scan the sky.
I remember a birthday party I went to once where the father was a science professor with a telescope. He let us look upward and view the dark side of the moon and I blinked, astonished at how the silver orb became, on closer examination, pitted and shadowed.
The other children at the party did this with greater ease and a kind of casualness that I lacked. There was lightness about them that I envied.
“What’s wrong with your mother?” a girl asked me once at school. I tried to think. It was true that she didn’t join the PTA or sit with the other mothers during school performances. I thought then that she wasn’t interested in organizations and their boring meetings. But I know now it was her accent.
People said that my brother and I had accents too although we denied this and still today people from time to time insist on knowing where I’m from.
We both wore corrective shoes. Our feet firmly encased in heavy leather, preventing us from soaring as we ran or jumped rope. We could speak about payloads and rockets.
But there was so much we never talked about.
The next summer my father took me camping. He rented a small boat and each day after lunch, because it was vacation, he’d have a whiskey and water and lie down. I took the boat out alone on the deserted lake. I put the oars in the oarlocks and let the boat just drift while I lay back and watched the passing and vivid blue of the Sierra sky. The water was very deep and cold and there was no one else around. We didn’t even own a life jacket.
It was only later that I learned how all these little details can make a difference, can make a person stand out, and that standing out is just another way to think about isolation.
My mother closed the windows on the nights when my father was especially angry. “Don’t think about it” she instructed us.
But as we got older I knew the neighbors could hear us. The lots were small and our windows were only a few feet away from theirs. It changed things I think. We weren’t invited to parties sometimes and when I was older I could tell from the way the other girls slanted their eyes away that they knew.
The other kids in our neighborhood turned to bronze in the hot afternoon sun. My brother and I stayed inside and watched for light of a different kind—the atomic flash, the wall of flame, Oppenheimer’s white wind. It gave weight to our limbs like heavy water.
It wasn’t just my father, of course. In the 1960s approximately 100,000 bomb shelters were built in the U.S. and there was an Office of Civil Defense.
But in our suburban college town, where the pepper trees draped their faded greenery along the cracked sidewalks, where the black asphalt cracked in the summer heat, no one else lived as we did.
“Some people have swimming pools,” I told my father once.
“You can try and fit in,” my father told me then. “Or you can worry about living. And some people are never going to fit in very well no matter how much they try.” I knew he was talking about both of us.
My father died first and then my mother. It’s been more than ten years. My brother and I sold the house. We started to clean it out ourselves, keeping a few things and sharing the silver. I asked my brother if he wanted the old everyday table ware, turquoise colored Franciscan with little ceramic waves around the edges of the plates. He said no. There’s not watch we want to remember. My brother is a lawyer and the law sits heavily upon him. I picked some blood oranges that remained on a tree and we left and let the real estate agent deal with emptying the rest. He hired someone—you can hire someone to do anything these days.
Some days I still drive by the old house, or park across the street and watch for a bit wondering about the back yard. The orange groves that grew so near to us were long ago cut down to make way for a shopping center, but it seems to me that the scent of the blossoms, the perfume that would reach us even in the dead of night in the winter, reaches me still.
And then a few weeks ago, as I drove slowly down the old street, a man with a neatly trimmed beard and a yoga mat waived at me. I put my car in park. “Do you live here?”
“I grew up in this house,” I told the man and his family. And I pointed out my bedroom window to one of the little girls who nodded happily. That was her room.
I walked into the backyard with the man and his less enthusiastic wife. It was verdant and lush—despite the drought in California. The lawn undulated in gentle hills. I asked about the bomb shelter.
The man laughed. “That’s why I’m glad to meet you,” he said. “One of the old neighbors up the street says it’s right here, buried somewhere.”
The lawn is very thick on the tallest of the grass swells, not too many steps from the back door. I tell the family that this is where the hatch is, its heavy steel door still yawning open above the steep steps as they fall off into the ceaseless dark.
I talk for another minute or two before I leave about the Cold War and my father and engineers. But it’s time for the girls to go to gymnastics and for the man to meet his music class at the college. I don’t know if the man believes me or even understands as he stands in the hot October sun. This is a happy family. Their curtains are open to the light and there are cartoon characters on the children’s backpacks. For the bearded man, I suspect, the color of cobalt has little significance.
My childhood sleeps beneath the deep greenery of grass, buried—of course—in a bunker. As if the past can ever really be sealed away. My mother’s accented voice haunts me still.
The family drives away in the grey SUV with bumper stickers celebrating their children’s prowess at school. I sit for a moment and watch the way distance and polluted light paint the nearby foothills in shades of lavender and blue. Then I drive away toward my own home.
I still watch the sky.
I still watch the sky.
About the Author:
Deborah Paes De Barros is a professor of English at Palomar College. Her published works include the booksFast Cars and Bad Girls, and On Kevin’s Boat, as well as numerous other essays articles and poems.