But there’s another boy, Toby—older, shrewder, and quite a bit larger—who has very different plans for the rock, intending to use it as a lucrative sideshow exhibit, complete with fliers: Is it Jesus? Or just a rock? You decide! Hovering over the children and their small-scale war is the general anxiety and dread attending the most perilous moment in our history. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Manderino’s The H-bomb and the Jesus Rock provides a unique, children’s-eye view of that near-Armageddon.
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H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock
By John Manderino
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 John Manderino
All rights reserved.
Good evening, my fellow citizens. Within this past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that Soviet offensive missile sites are now in preparation on the island of Cuba. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the western hemisphere ...
First of all the name is Toby, not Tubs. You want to call me Tubs? Go somewhere else for your cards.
I'm talking about baseball cards.
I've got over twice as many as anyone around, including a card from nine years ago, a 1953 rookie Ernie Banks, fair condition, which I got off this kid Larry Murphy for a paperback called Shameless Lady, which I got off this kid Phil Burlson for a worthless little dime-store turtle I was trying to get rid of.
So there you go.
Here's something funny, though. I've got all these baseball cards, seven shoeboxes full, and I don't even like baseball. I don't like any sports. That's one of the reasons I'm so fat. I'm only thirteen, eighth grade, and I'm already twice the size of anyone around, except my mom.
She's truly huge.
She's at Mass now, even though it's Saturday, praying the Russians don't blow us up. President Kennedy was on TV about it the other night, looking pretty serious.
"Thank God we've got a Catholic president," Mom said.
And I said, "Amen, brother."
She tried to get me to go pray with her this morning but I told her I'd go tomorrow, which is Sunday so I have to go anyway.
She said there might not be a tomorrow.
I told her, "Be that as it may."
I like that. Be that as it may. I don't know where I got it, probably Steve Allen. Anyhow, be that as it may, I'm also twice as smart as anyone around. Which, I admit, isn't really saying very much.
Lou kicked me right in the nuts. She didn't mean to, she was asleep — I'm pretty sure — but it still really hurt. But at least it woke me up. I was having a nightmare. It was morning but it was still a nightmare.
It was all gray out and windy, in the nightmare I mean, and Dad was digging a huge hole in the backyard. He had to hurry up because the wind was bringing all these arrows, millions, you could see them way off in the distance, and at first I thought he was digging a fallout shelter but he wasn't, he was digging a grave. Me and Lou and Mom had to get in so he could bury us because afterwards there wouldn't be anyone left to do it. The wind was blowing loud and the arrows were getting closer and Lou was crying — she's eight, I'm ten — and Mom was shouting, "Who's going to bury you?" and Dad was shouting back, "Nobody! Nobody!" He was all drunk and wild and sorry for himself, like he gets. Then Mom was standing in the hole helping Lou down, telling me, "Come on, Ralph," like it was no big deal getting buried alive. So then we all stood there in the hole looking up at Dad, but he was way drunk now and just kept strumming on the shovel, singing down to us, deep like Johnny Cash: I hear that train a-comin, comin round the bend ...
Then Lou kicked me.
I meant to kick him but not there.
He was moaning in his sleep. Sometimes he does that, he starts moaning, loud. It means he's having a bad dream. It woke me up, how loud. He was having a nightmare and moaning about it so I kicked him, but I didn't mean to kick him there, where boys have their stuff.
He rolled off the mattress holding himself down there with both hands. I wanted to say, Sorry, but then he would know I was awake and kicked him on purpose.
He kept rolling around moaning.
First he was moaning in his sleep so I kicked him and now he was moaning awake because I kicked him, so that was kind of funny.
I didn't laugh though.
The main reason my mom is so fat is because she still misses my father so much. He died when I was a little baby, just keeled right over during supper one night. His face landed smack in the middle of the plate — that's how I picture it, anyway. Mom doesn't remember what they were having, probably something like tuna casserole.
It's not funny. That was my father.
Anyway, she still misses him a lot — there's pictures all over the house — and the way she tries to cheer herself up is by eating a lot of cake and candy, but she just ends up even sadder because of how fat she keeps getting, so she eats more cake and candy to try and cheer herself up, and so on.
Day after day, year after year.
She's never told me how much she weighs, she says that's personal. But you know what I was thinking? Seriously? We could set up a tent in the backyard and make a little money, you know? Get some fliers out: twenty-five cents to step inside and guess the Fat Lady's weight and win yourself a prize, a blueberry pie or a ham or something. Which sounds like a terrible way to treat your own mother, I know, but she'd get her share. We'd go right down the middle.
I finally went ahead and asked her about it one day last week, if she'd be interested. I explained the whole thing very carefully.
She just kept staring at me. "Is that your idea of funny?"
I told her, "No way. I wouldn't joke about something like this."
She stared at me even harder. "You want to put me ... in the circus?"
"Not the circus, Mom. Just in the yard, the backyard, that's all."
She opened her mouth like she was going to say something, but then she turned around and hurried off to her room — boom, boom, boom — and closed the door and locked it.
I went over and listened. She was boo-hooing away in there. It sounded muffled, like her face was in the pillow.
I told her through the door, I said, "Mom, I'm really sorry, okay? I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
She went on crying.
"I just thought it might be a way for us to make a little extra money, that's all. I mean, it's not like you would even have to do anything, you know? All you'd have to do —"
I gave up. What's the use? She'll never be happy.
I peeked in their room.
Dad went to work, I could tell because his greens were gone. That's what he calls his janitor pants and shirt, his greens. He always lays them over the back of the chair in there and they were gone.
So that was good.
He doesn't always go.
Sometimes he feels too sick from the night before, from drinking I mean. Then Mom has to call and make up some excuse. He got fired last year from the canning factory for not going. "Canned from the cannery," he said, trying to make a joke, but Mom wasn't laughing, me neither. He was a machinist there, making good money. Now he's a janitor, minimum wage, a dollar-fifteen an hour, in a building with a bunch of offices, everyone wearing a tie except for him, in his greens. His name is Gino so they probably call him Gino the Janitor.
Mom was still asleep. I could see the top of her hair sticking out.
I went out in the kitchen.
He went out in the kitchen.
Sometimes I do that in my head, I tell what I'm doing, like in a story.
He found the bread. Only two pieces left. He put them both in the toaster.
But when they popped up I only ate one, the end piece, but with so much extra jelly I had to stand over the sink with it. Looking out at the backyard I could see our wagon, me and Lou's, her doll buggy full of dead leaves, my bike on its side, with a flat front tire. The sky was all blue, what I could see of it.
I started thinking, if they dropped the bomb right now I probably wouldn't even know it. I'd be standing here eating my toast, thinking about going down to the park, then just like that I'd be up in Heaven laughing and singing, or down in Hell screaming away. Or else in Purgatory, which is the same as Hell, same fire, only not forever. I've always wondered though, do they let you know you're only in Purgatory?
I said a sincere Act of Contrition in bed last night but I should probably go to confession today. They've been having them all week, practically around the clock. I should get Dad to go, too. Drinking's a sin if you get drunk and he gets drunk.
He never gets mean or anything, he just plays Johnny Cash on the record player really loud or starts yelling how everything is fake, not just wrestling. Last night he was saying how this whole Russian-missile thing is a big hoax. They're just trying to scare everyone so they can control us better. Even the Pope is in on it, he said. I didn't hear Mom except telling him to keep his voice down. She was probably sitting there smoking, making sure he didn't use the car.
I rinsed off my fingers and went back in our room to get dressed. Lou popped up and said, "We gonna go for bottles?"
I promised her the other day we'd go look for empties on Saturday and today was Saturday and she didn't forget. She never does.
"After I get back," I told her. "I'm gonna go to the park for a while — don't start whining — just for a while. Then I'll come back and we'll go."
"Soon as I get back."
"But when, Ralph?"
"Just tell me."
"After Garfield Goose. By the end of it."
I promised. Then I told her about that last piece of bread I left in the toaster. I told her she'd better go eat it before I did.
She got up and went.
He finished getting dressed.
Sister Veronica's had us doing duck-and-cover drills twice a day.
She'll be going on about something, the natural resources of Brazil or something, then all of a sudden, "Down, children, down," and we have to get out of our seats and down on our knees facing away from the windows, foreheads on the floor, hands behind our necks. She never tells us if it's real or not, if we're all going to die now or not. This kid in front of me, Jerome Winslow, starts whimpering every single time. I always whisper to God a quick "Sorry, sorry," in case this is really it.
Once while I was down there I snuck a peek at Sister to see what she was doing, and there she was, down on the floor like the rest of us. That scared me a little, I have to admit, seeing this nun on the floor.
Then she'll say, "All right, people, just a drill," and we all get back in our seats and return to Brazil and its natural resources, mostly timber and minerals.
I hate those drills. You try it at my size.
Meanwhile, Mom's been filling up the basement with canned goods. She's got quite a collection down there, plus a hot plate, pots and pans, throw rugs, pictures on the wall — of Dad, of Jesus — and a deck of cards in case we get bored.
I told her if they drop a hydrogen bomb on us it's probably not going to make a lot of difference whether we're down in the basement or not.
She said what about fallout, don't forget fallout.
I didn't forget. But what is fallout anyway? I always picture something like dandruff, only radioactive. But what's "radioactive?" Full of radiation, right, but what's that? I know in movies it makes a Geiger counter crackle and ants grow bigger than cars, and there's this one where the guy starts shrinking — ever see that one? Pretty soon even just his cat is like this giant monster, compared.
So I don't know. Radiation. It's not good for you, I know that.
Anyway I was saying, Mom's been stocking up on canned goods, and I'm glad. Let her. You think I'm scared? Are you kidding? I love canned goods. Especially Del Monte apricots in extra heavy syrup, heated up. Ever try them like that? Heated up? You should.
We will bury you.
Ralph better come back. He said we'd go look for bottles today. He promised. And if you promise something and then you don't do it, that's like a lie — it is a lie — so that's a sin and you have to tell Father.
I went last week. I got Father Clay.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession. The sins that I remember are: I lied to my teacher, I quarreled with my brother, I hit a kid at school, I disobeyed my parents, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
That's what Ralph said he told Father Rowley.
It's from a record our dad always plays when he's drunk. Johnny Cash. He has a deep voice. Daddy was playing it last night when me and Ralph were in bed. Our mom made him turn it down but then he started yelling about the president and the Pope being in cahoots. I asked Ralph what's cahoots. He told me never mind, just make sure I say a sincere Act of Contrition before I go to sleep.
In case they drop the bomb, he meant.
I told him I went to confession last week.
He said my soul had to be spotless.
I said it was.
He told me to say one anyway.
I told him it wouldn't be sincere.
He told me just say it.
I asked him if he was scared.
He didn't answer.
I asked him again.
"Little bit," he said.
So that scared me a little, Ralph admitting it like that. So I said a sincere Act of Contrition for everything I ever did — every sin, I mean — especially the sin of hitting people, that's probably my biggest fault.
So now I'm spotless.
But you know what I would like to tell Ralph? What puts a nice big spot on your soul? Promising something and then not doing it. So if he thinks they're going to drop the bomb on us today he better get back and go looking for bottles.
I had to watch Road Runner.
I usually watch Bugs Bunny before Garfield Goose but it was all news except Road Runner. I hate Road Runner. I wish he would at least talk, or the dog, say something. Sometimes the dog will hold up a sign that says Help or Oops or something, but they never speak, either one of them. Road Runner just says Beep-beep, with that smile on his face.
I wish the dog would kill him.
It was nice out for being practically Halloween, plenty warm enough for baseball, so I brought my glove and wore my Sox cap, and sure enough a bunch of guys were already in a game. They let me in, out in right field.
I like baseball. It's one of my favorite things. I wouldn't mind being a pro when I'm old enough, you know? Playing baseball for money? That would be perfect. Right now I'm ten so I should be in Little League this year, except we didn't have the money, and anyway I didn't really want to join. They got uniforms and coaches and umpires and dugouts and chalk lines and brand new white balls and people in the stands — I'd be way too nervous. I'd be so afraid of making a bad play it wouldn't be any fun.
But I like it at the park.
I like doing the play-by-play in my head, even when I'm in the play:
High fly ball out to right field, Cavaletto camping under it, aaand he makes the catch. Throws it back in. Trots on back to his spot. Spits on the ground. Tugs at his cap. Looks up at the sky. Not one little cloud up there. Not one little ... single little ...
I started picturing a giant mushroom cloud going up and up, spreading out, filling the whole sky, rumbling like thunder but a thousand times louder, and I punched my glove, the pocket I mean, trying to get back in the game:
Cavaletto hoping for another one hit to him, look at him out there punching his glove, punching it, punching it ...
It was warm out this morning so I was sitting on the top step of the front porch with my boxes of cards, open for business, trade or buy, a tall stack of toast and jam on a plate beside me.
Mom made the jam herself, with actual strawberries.
She still wasn't back from Mass. She probably lit some candles afterwards in front of Mary and said a rosary. Plus it takes her a while to walk from there. It's only a couple of blocks but it takes her quite a while.
Excerpted from H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock by John Manderino. Copyright © 2010 John Manderino. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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