Terrifying Tales

Greenwich Village, 1951

(1) The Atomic Bomb

 

My friend Horatio, who went to public school, showed me how to crawl under my desk and cover my head with my arms when the Russians dropped the atomic bomb on New York City. They didn’t teach this at my progressive school, and we didn’t participate in municipal air-raid drills.

 

But by the year I was in the Tens, when we were studying the Middle Ages, the neighbors had begun to look at us suspiciously, so that year when the air-raid sirens started moaning, rumbly and tentative at first, as though they were clearing their throats, then ratcheted up into a pulsing shriek, our whole school stopped whatever it was doing, and all the children lined up in the stairwells holding hands, and marched excitedly out the back door, two by two, each group led by its teacher like a knight with colors flying.

Agatha was my partner. We were best friends. We seemed destined for each other by our differences. She played the recorder, I played the piano. She was the tallest girl in class, I was the shortest. She was the skinniest, I was the fattest. Her hair flowed straight and shiny down her back, whereas when I decided braids were for babies and made Mommy cut them off, my hair didn’t hang in lovely swaying curtains, but curled up every which way all around my head so I looked like the little girl in the monster cartoons in The New Yorker.

Agatha was the only one who didn’t laugh when she saw my new Charles Addams haircut.

On the morning of the atom bomb rehearsal, we walked out of school to see the converging streams of grown-ups from the neighborhood, the students from Holy Name of Jesus in their enviable uniforms, the hoodlums from P.S. 41 swarming toward the same brick castle we were headed for, marked ARMORY. And who should be stopping traffic, with a stiff arm and an upraised hand, but the licorice-haired man who owned the candy store I frequented on Sixth Avenue! He wore an armband, and when he caught sight of me, he waved. Suddenly I was filled with joy at being part of such a crowd, so many faces, just like “What Is America To Me?” sung by Paul Robeson on one of my 78s. Inside the armory, our school climbed up into the balcony, where we stood looking down at everybody else. They tilted their heads and smiled at us.

Then a man held up his hands for quiet and through a megaphone he greeted his fellow Americans and said it would be a while before the All-Clear sounded: ”Why don’t we sing, to pass the time?” 

I thought that was a wonderful idea.

“Join me in our National Anthem!” he said.

And the children from Holy Name of Jesus joined him and the crowd from P.S. 41 and the man from the candy store and all our other neighbors. But we’d never sung that one at my school. The balcony stood silent.

Then the man downstairs began to sing, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies—”

But we’d never sung that either, and Agatha and I glanced at each other, as everybody else burst out with “My Country, Tis of Thee!”

Our school knew the Negro National Anthem by heart. Also “If I Had a Hammer” and “The Banks Are Made of Marble.” We had “The Peat-Bog Soldiers” down cold.

The man with the megaphone didn’t propose these at the nuclear get-together in the castle.

After the All-Clear sounded, we shuffled back to school in deep dark silence, and the next time we had music, we learned all the words the other boys and girls knew about watching gallantly o’er the ramparts.

 

(2) Communists

 

A terrible thing was about to happen to Agatha. She was about to leave our school to go live with her father, who had just won custody of her by telling the judge her mother was a Communist and he had all her subscription labels from The National Guardian to prove it.

I tried not to mention this in Agatha’s presence, but one night at home, at supper, I asked, “What’s a Communist?” 

Mommy and daddy glanced at each other.

“Why do you ask?” said daddy.

“Because.”

He went back to serving stew.

“No carrots,” I said.

“Just three,” he said, and plopped them on my plate. “Mashed potatoes?”

“Heaps!”

I could see mommy thinking how to answer me.

After a while, she said, “You know how your father went to war against the bad guys?”

“Hitler and Mussolini?”

“Hitler and Mussolini and people like them. Those people are called Fascists, and Communists are their enemies.”

“So Communists are the good guys?” 

My mother looked at my father, and nodded.

He was very quiet.

My mother said, “Communists believe in freedom and democracy.” 

“Jessie,” said my father.

“This is important, Max.”

“This is dangerous.”

My mother said, “They believe that we should all share what we have.”

My father closed the metal stewpot with a clang.

Nobody spoke for a very long minute.

Then I said, “I don’t like to share.”

My mommy and daddy looked at me. Then both of them burst out laughing.

So I looked back at them and said, “It’s hard. Sharing.”

“Especially for Miss Only Child,” said daddy.

“How do you not be selfish?”

Mommy smiled at me. “It’s hard, but you keep on working at it.”

“Can I have more stew?”

Daddy gave me another spoonful then he said, “Now look, sweetie, people feel very upset about this these days. Your mother and I see some things differently, but I think she’d agree you shouldn’t talk about this with just anybody. Do you understand?”

“Why?”

He took a breath and tried again. “Good people,” he said, “like your mother, can get in trouble if they talk too much.” He was looking at her now. “There are bad men out there, doing bad things. So you mustn’t talk about this, any of this, outside. Okay?”

“Oh, Max!” said my mother. “How can you knuckle under like that?”

“For God’s sake, Jessie!” 

“Do you really want your child to give in to oppression?”

“Do you really want to be a martyr?”

“What can they do to me?” said mommy. “I freelance. Most of my clients were in the Party too.”

“Well, they can fire me!” said my father, loud. “I work for a rightwing newspaper, in case you didn’t notice.” 

Then I said, in an almost-whisper, “I won’t tell anybody, daddy.”

Though I had no idea what it was I wasn’t supposed to tell.

My father stopped dead in his tracks. He took a sip of scotch. “Good.”

Then I asked, “Daddy? Will you really lose your job?”

He smiled at me. “I’m not going to lose my job, monkey.”

I said, “I don’t want to not live with mommy or you.”

He tilted his head. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Agatha has to not live with her mommy anymore.”

My mother leaned across the table and put her hand on my arm. “We know, darling. It’s very sad. But it will never, ever happen to you.”

So I asked, “How come Agatha can’t live with her mother because she wants to share?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Mommy said.

Which was no answer at all.

 

(3) The Unicorn

 

The day our group went way north to the Cloisters, Robert was my partner.

Agatha was gone.

So now he was my best friend, even though he limped a little and he had a twisty hand.

En route to the subway, I was holding his good hand and walking beside him when I noticed something strange about his face. His hair, as usual, lay nice and flat and tan on top of his head, but somehow he looked rumpled and crumpled. I glanced at him sideways. “You look funny.”

He shrugged.

“How come you look that way?”

“They said not to talk about it.”

“About what?”

He looked down at his beaded moccasins. Then he said, “Do you swear your word is mum?”

“Cross my heart.”

So he told me that on Friday he was moving.

“What do you mean?” 

He said, “My family has to move out of New York.”

I stopped walking. “Why?”

“Because my father took the first.”

“The what?” 

“You guys! You’re holding up the line!” yelled someone.

We began to walk again.

“He took the what?” I said.

Robert said, “The committee wanted him to answer questions and he wouldn’t.”

“What committee?” 

He shrugged.

I was getting cross, just as I did when he spoke Spanish, which was his mother’s language since she was Spanish, even though his father was American.

“My father says the committee wants to put him in jail,” said Robert.

“Your father’s going to jail?” I whispered.

“Not if we leave the country.”

“You’re leaving the country?” 

He nodded.

I couldn’t think of another thing to say.

After a while, Robert added, “My father could have taken the fifth.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“Me neither,” he said.

We walked inside the museum where the unicorns were kept.

“What country are you going to?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” 

Even sideways I could see how sad he was.

“We can’t go to Spain,” he said.

“Do you want to go to Spain?”

“No.” 

So I gave him a piece of Double Bubble.

But we didn’t even get to read the comic strip because we had to listen to the guide telling us how people in the tapestries went hunting for the unicorn.

I didn’t like to see where they stabbed him with spears, or how the unicorn tore into the hunting dog. I liked the one where he was kneeling by the fountain and his horn dipped in the water as if he were drinking through a straw.

 

(4) The Committee

 

One day, a few weeks later, our teacher said she had to do a quick quick errand, would we all work quietly at our desks, and we said yes.

But as soon as she was gone, a bunch of people led by Joshua who was the boss of our class disappeared into STORAGE.

Just before the door shut, he announced: ”Nobody leaves!”

I tried to focus on long division.

But the storeroom door banged open and out marched Matt, straight up to Harold’s desk. “You first.” 

Though I pretended to be too busy to notice, I saw through fuzzy bangs how Harold stood up and his jeans slid halfway down his butt as usual. I saw him hitch them up, then make his clown face, but nobody laughed.

The storeroom door slammed shut.

I wished the teacher would come back right now.

But she didn’t and she didn’t, and after what seemed like a long time the door opened, and out came Harold, hands stuffed in his pockets, shoulders hunched, head down. He didn’t look at anyone, he didn’t say a word, he walked right past me to his desk.

On his heels came Matt, who stopped in front of me like a nightmare: “Your turn!”

My heart leapt. “For what?” I kept my eyes on Matt’s blue and yellow T-shirt. There was a splotch of clay across his belly.

“Get up.”

He took hold of my arm, hard, and marched me across the room. I wished my right shoe would stop creaking. My stomach was floating around like a balloon.

Inside STORAGE it was pitch black. I stood still in the darkness. I could smell the chicken soup smell of old sweat. I heard breathing, someone rustled. Then, by the grayish light that trickled underneath the door, I saw they’d pushed the cartons of Medieval costumes back against the shelves of chalk and two-ring paper, and dragged a wooden crate into the center of the room. Beside it, stood Joshua, staring at me. Caroline and Doris stood with their arms crossed in the corner.

“Get up here!” said Joshua and pointed with the wooden lance for jousting that he’d made in Shop last week. “Go on!”

Days like today, he was so evil looking, even only half-seen. Scrunched eyebrows, eyes that hated me, face as sallow and scary as the long-toothed, bloodstained ghoul who drove the phantom subway train that chased the lady off the roof to her horrible death in Terrifying Tales, which gave me such bad dreams that mommy said all horror comics were off-limits. Joshua terrified me.

“Turn on the interrogation beam,” he ordered Matt, who focused his Wheaties Special Boxtop Prize Pocket Light on my shoes, then moved it to my eyes, as I scrambled up onto the crate.

Joshua said, “This is an official hearing, you better tell the truth, do you swear?”

“Yes.”

I glanced at Caroline and Doris, smirking against the wall, as mean as mean.

There was no one here to help me.

Joshua banged his long lance on the floor. “You stole Caroline’s watch!” 

Even in my fear, in that black room, where they could do anything they wanted to me, I felt wronged.

“No I didn’t!” I said.

I heard my own voice, loud and quavery, inside.

“Prove it,” Joshua said, fury in his eyes.

But how?

“I wouldn’t!”

“It’s missing.”

“I would never!”

“Who did?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Who do you think did? Name somebody.” 

I shook my head.

“Guess!”

“I don’t know.”

The pocket light beam was in my face. There was a terrible silence.

Then Joshua snorted and turned his back. “She can leave.”

“Get down,” said Matt.

But Joshua whirled back toward me. “Don’t tell anyone what happened here!” 

“Understand?” said Doris, her mouth a grim line.

Anything, I would do anything.

“Bring in Harriet,” Joshua told Matt.

Out in the classroom, blinking in the sudden light, I kept my eyes away from everybody else’s eyes.

Then someone spotted our teacher on the stairs, and the hearing was adjourned.

Next day, Caroline found her watch in her sweater pocket.

We learned so much that year.. It was astonishing, and some of it scary.

Some of it scares me still.

 

Author's Comment

“Terrifying Tales” is a brief memoir about children caught, uncomprehending, in the maw of adult politics. I was born and raised on the Left, in Greenwich Village, where I attended progressive schools throughout the 1950s – that is, at the height of the McCarthy era. My classmates and I did not drown in the Rio Grande, but lives were lost nonetheless; and when the current United States government started separating children from their parents and keeping those children in cages, it suddenly felt pressing to write and publish this piece, as more relevant to America in 2020 than I would have wished.

Bio

Nancy Kline is a writer and translator. Her short stories, memoirs, essays, and articles have been published widely, most recently, in Asymptote and The Saranac Review. Her memoir “Florida” appeared in Persimmon Tree, Summer 2010. She writes for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and has published nine books, including a novel, a critical study of the poetry of René Char, a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, and book-length translations of a number of French poets (Char, Paul Eluard, Jules Supervielle, and others). She teaches American and French Literature for the Bard Prison Initiative.

2 thoughts on “Terrifying Tales

  1. Whoa! I did not see Part 4 coming; I was, of course, expecting a different committee. You are a very skilled story teller, Nancy.

  2. This captures with succinct and piercing clarity, all the pain, terror and poignancy of being an innocent in a world gone off the rails. It is beyond moving.

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