The morning after President Kennedy told the nation about Cuba's nuclear missile sites, my father went to his office at the bank and began hunting for plans to build a bomb shelter.
Five months later, one of the largest private bunkers in Tallahassee sat at the back of our house. It awed me. I gawked at the five deadbolts on the heavy lead door. I could hardly comprehend the yard-thick concrete walls. But what fascinated me most was the only window: a port the size of a shoe box so thick with glass blocks that it dimmed even the brightest sun. If I stood on my toes, I was just tall enough to peer into the swimmy, ice-green glow. No matter how I turned and tried to see, the world outside made no sense.
I imagined life in the midst of war. X-rays broke like brittle arrows against the fortress walls. Inside, Mother cooked on a camp stove. Dad cranked the air pump. Grandmother read a fairy tale about a wolf and a fox to my sister and me, and then we listened, all of us together, while a radio announcer reported on the war and finished by saying, "All we can do is pray."
I could feel the softened shock of bombs exploding in the back yard. With three feet of sand overhead, I thought, nothing can destroy this place. Not even Russian soldiers can break in.
But Dad and I had privileges. Nearly every morning he stopped by my bedroom, woke me, and took me to the bunker. This was father and son time at the de Milly house.
He stripped off his pajamas and hung them on the knob to a cabinet door. Then, standing nude on thebare floor, he faced me and began his calisthenics. As always, I sat on a bunk, watching. He fascinated me, in the way any nine-year-old might be enamored and impressed by his father.
"How come you always do jumping jacks?" I asked.
"Because a man needs exercise."
"I mean, why do you always do jumping jacks?"
"Watch me. Did I tell you I used to do one-arm pull-ups?" Dad flexed his biceps. "See?"
"Yeah. You've told me that a thousand times." I looked at his arm. Dad had a tan, even in winter, but when he flexed his biceps the skin stretched pale and thin.
"How come we have a window if you can't see out of it?"
"So we can tell if it's night or day."
"Why would it matter? There's nothing we could do about it if we were locked in here all the time."
"Well, you'd know when it was time to sleep. And maybe it helps to know that the world goes on."
"I guess." This early in the morning, before the sun, the window-port sat dark and deep.
One morning after Dad finishes his workout, he pulls a fold-down bunk from the wall and lies down, still unclothed. I sit on the floor beside him. I watch his erection. He slaps his tummy with it. He laughs as if he is surprised. "Touch it," he says, holding his penis up, offering it to me. I reach over, hold it with my fingers, and let it go, making a thwack.
He laughs. "Now I'll look at yours," he says. "Stand up." He pulls my pajamas down. He holds my penis between his thumb and forefinger and squeezes.
"Don't," I say.
"I want to make sure it's growing right," he tells me. He studies it, he hums, he tugs and twists.
"Let go." I try to force his hand away.
He ignores me, but then he eases back on his strokes and lies down on the bunk. He pulls at his own penis. He closes his eyes. I watch him, see his lips tighten into thin lines. He lies flat, grim, as if he is extracting some splinter from deep within himself.
I stand by the bunk. I have seen his penis before when it is hard. He'd tried to put it into my bottom. He is going to do it again, isn't he?
"I don't want to be here," I say. "Unlock the door. Please, Daddy."
The bunker sits around me, heavy and grotesque.
Another Walt opens his blue eyes, reverent, paralyzed, the minutes stroking past, father rocking, breathing, bearing upon things the boy cannot understand. Arteries throb at his father's temples. White liquid shoots from the man's penis. The boy backs away, afraid, hurting, choked. The shelter closes in on him. He runs to the door and jumps up to reach the highest bolt, the only one his father locked. He jams his finger turning it.
He runs through the house fast, darting by the kitchen, afraid to look at his mother, afraid that she'll see the naughtiness in his face. And he is certain that his daddy will come running after him with a belt.
The boy runs into his room, falls face down on his bed, and wishes he would die. He waits to die, his nose pressed against the sheet, his eyes cold and still. He waits without moving until he hears his father leave the house. Then the boy rises from the bed. He drifts toward the bedroom window. The glass shines hard. Outside, the morning sun hides behind a sassafras tree.
He watches his father walk along the driveway, carrying his blazer over his arm, tie tight and kempt, his white shirt crisp against his Presbyterian back. The boy watches as the man gets in the car and backs it out to the street. The boy digs his fingernail into the window sash and peels away the varnish. He lets out a breath. He stands all alone and he wants to stay alone. He doesn't want his father to ever come back.
His mother comes to the bedroom.
"Son," she says, surprised to see him still in pajamas, "you're going to be late. Get dressed and let's go!"
Walt inspects his fingernail.
"Did you hear me?" she asks with a rising voice.
He doesn't answer.
"Yes," I mumble, waking up.
I put on my school clothes. I examine my finger, as if it has been injured. I wonder why it hurts, not quite able to think clearly but curious nevertheless and certain that something is wrong with it.
I say nothing when Mother and Caroline and I climb into the car and start off to school. In those days we don't have seat belts, but Mother makes us lock the doors. The drive takes a few minutes.
By the time I sit down in my classroom, I am gone to somewhere new. My teacher soon notices my wayward gaze. "Pay attention, Walt." But her call is not enough to make me let go of what I have. My eyes are fixed on the windows, the perished morning, the far light of God.
Our beach cabin sits atop a sugary-white sand dune at the southern boundary of raw, simple country, the pine woods and great savannas of northern Florida. A state road a half-mile inland follows the coastline. Cars pass infrequently, their whine burning through the sky.
From its walls the cabin gives a faint, even historic, scent of marsh grass and rusty bed springs. Army bunks sit everywhere, even on the front porch. The hallway descends into photographs of my father, my grandfather, my nine-fingered great-grandfather, their wives and their boats and their children. Faded inscriptions say, "Papa with his boat, 1913," "Summer, 1955: Pat frying the big trout that daddy caught," "The children, July 4th, 1960. (Little David is in bed sick)."
It is my seventh year, the summer of 1960. Mother takes my sister Caroline and me on a long walk, down to the marshes' edge. In the afternoon wind the saw grass bows to the land. Sandbars swell and ripple. A carpet of fiddler crabs appears, stopping to flutter in place. They hum and they crackle.
"Honey," Mother says to me, "behind your ankle. There!"
I turn around and pick up a crab with an iridescent lavender shell and long-stalked, wiggling eyeballs. I hold it to Mother's face.
"My goodness!" she exclaims. "That's a pretty one. You wonder who he's looking at!" She smiles a silly smile, slants her head with the crab's, and rolls her eyes.
The crab sits on my palm. I look at its claws. One is tiny and the other is enormous, bigger than its shell.
"God sure does make peculiar creatures," Mother says as she cups her hand under mine.
I think of God as an old man putting pieces of crab together. "Do you think God made it this way on purpose?" I ask.
"Why I'm sure he did," she says. "Don't you think it's pretty?"
"Yeah," I say, holding the single large claw. But I think God made a mistake. Maybe he really tried, but his fingers were just too big and he gave up halfway through.
My sister has found another crab and hurries it into a plastic bucket. "Mama," she yells, "look!"
Mother takes my sister's hand in hers while they both bend over to watch the tiny crab trot sideways around the edge.
"Can I take mine to Cub Scouts?" I ask her.
"No, Mommy," says Caroline, "he'll let it go in the house and it'll die somewhere and start stinking, like those hermit crabs he caught last year."
"Well ..." Mother says to me. "If I let you take him, you'll have to bring him right back here and let him go."
For a moment she stands nobly, filled with power and beauty. I am amazed. We turn back toward the cabin. Caroline swings the bucket in her hand and looks into it again and again.
"Let's name him," she says. "Let's name him Purple." We decide we're going to set up a little house for Purple. We run ahead of Mother, up the path to the cabin, flying to the front porch. We fling open the screen door and find Dad painting the window sill; we show him the crab.
"I got it," I announce.
"No, you didn't," Caroline says. "I got it."
"Well, go get some salt water and sand so he can have a place to burrow into," Dad tells us.
"How come?" I ask.
"He needs a place to sleep," Dad says. "He sleeps in his burrow."
Together we swoop down to the shore and hurry back to make Purple's home. We put the bucket atop the old tube radio. Mother sets up a card table and gives Caroline and me a mountain lake jigsaw puzzle.
We can put it together while she makes sandwiches. This is our quiet hour. I wait at the table, searching for the edges, purring. I love her so much.
My mother grew up in polite Southern society, protected by her parents from the vulgar and the base. But she fully understood human beings' capacity to cause horror. In a speech against war in her college years, she addressed the audience like mother who is waking a child from a dream. Exquisitely sensitive to the necessity of patriotism, effusing sweet idealism, her speech about World War II got the attention of the local paper. It printed the text, gushing as hometown papers are apt to.
Her consciousness was formed in the embrace of a bright, accomplished, religious family. They had come to Florida from the Tennessee country, at the northeastern border, a place some call the Lost State of Franklin. Nearly every generation of her ancestors occupied high officesenators, governors, and a commissioner of Indian affairs, Nathaniel Taylor. He admonished the army for its stupidity in slaughtering the Indians on every possible occasion. What he wanted most was for the Indians to maintain their culture.
"He fought to keep Native Americans under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior," Mother told me. "But Congress had other ideas. Upon his departure from office they put the Indians under control of the War Department. Isn't that awful? They're just like children up there."
She mothered us in the fifties, a time when the word pedophile did not exist in the vocabulary of fine Christian women. For that matter, no word or phrase connoting any sex act could, or would, be spoken by my mother or any of her friends.
So she did not know that people like my father existed, certainly not before marriage, not even after my sister and I were born. He concealed from her his worship of me. But clues emerged in my childhood, vague indifferences on my part, lost gazes and long measureless breaths, which, on the afternoon of my twelfth birthday party in December 1965, sent me skulking off from my friends. Mother found me behind the house, crying for reasons I couldn't explain. And I did other things that worried her.
As I would learn thirty years later, she took those clues, and Dad, up the street to a psychiatrist, Dr. Saunders. Practicing at a time when father-son incest was unheard ofand prompted by fears that I would be irrevocably "marked" as a psychiatric patienthe dismissed my idiosyncrasies as a passing sadness, best left for me to deal with alone.
Mother didn't dumbly accept his opinion. She went to the state library to find books on child development and psychology. She read everything she could find. But the literature did not tell about the kinds of fathers who pierce their sons with lies and terror. Psychologists considered incestand the mental disturbances arising from itso rare that it would have taken twenty towns the size of Tallahassee to incubate just one guilty father. Even then, such a father would not have fit the description of Walter de Milly.