“The fox has many tricks. The hedgehog has but one, but that is the best one of all.” – Archilochus
No one took it seriously in our little town. We’d been warned a bunch of times, but the people here was a stubborn kinda people. I guess, in the end, we paid for it.
First, there was those yellow jackets. That’s what we called ‘em, ‘cause of those stupid outfits. Head to toe in yellow, like full grown rubber duckies just floatin’ around askin’ all kinda weird questions ‘bout our old buildings and structures and pokin’ in the thick dirt by Mr. Whitby’s property. He wasn’t too keen ‘bout that. But if you knew Mr. Whitby, you knew that he’d really let ‘em have a mouthful of it. I heard that the third time they went pokin’ around, he pulled out one of his huntin’ rifles and pointed it straight at one of those yellow jackets and told the whole bunch to well, you know, take a hike.
Sometimes I’d see ‘em on my way in for the night shift too. Always followin’ orders from that one fella in the nice clean suit. I recognized him everywhere, ‘cause there was no real reason for suits in Little Belleville.
We wasn’t those kinda people here with lots of money and suits and that type a thing. Just mostly a farmin’ town, hands in the dirt, hardworkin’ kinda people.
I said that we was warned ‘cause those damn alarms was goin’ off lots. It was hard to keep track. Beepin’ was comin’ out of the old rusty Tornado system. You know, most of us was thinkin’ it was broken or somethin’.
Those damn tornado alarms was so loud that I had to wear earplugs on my dayshift sometimes. Even with the big industrial vacuum cleaner goin’, that beepin’ couldn’t be drowned out. It was installed in the first place ‘cause we had one bad tornado when I was ‘bout twelve. Completely flattened Mr. Zhao’s bright red Chinese restaurant. Mr. Zhao lost his leg and it was all my class talked ‘bout for a year.
Then the machine diggers came. They was real loud too. Those damn big things really changed the mood round here. They dug down pretty deep and for ‘bout two-and-a-half months straight. That’s when I started gettin’ real concerned so I went and asked one of those yellow jackets what was goin’ on.
“It’s none of your business sir,” he said.
And then I was like, “This is my hometown, course it’s my business!”
“Well it’s better to be safe than sorry. The government is takin’ the appropriate precautions.”
I felt he was givin’ me the runaround, so I got pretty heated and yelled real loud. “Precautions for what!?”
I told Jackie at Tuesday darts that I was right pissed they wasn’t tellin’ me everythin’. I told her the stupid rubber-ducky man showed me some kinda silver badge and told me the details ‘bout the precautions was secret. Jackie told me to relax. Said her grandpa told her a story when she was little ‘bout the same type of men that came into Little Belleville and did stuff just like this, pokin’ around and all. I told Jackie to put down her cold beer for a sec and really think on it.
This felt different ‘cause I also cleaned City Hall. Sometimes some government men came in and started showin’ videos and givin’ special classes to the important people in the town, like Mayor Fisher and Principal Anderson.
Somethin’ strange was goin’ on for sure.
I think the Gray family had the right idea. I always liked that Mrs. Gray. Real nice smile and she always talked to me politely and with respect. When I saw her at Lennie’s Corner Store right by the water tower, she told me she was stockin’ up on just ‘bout every type of canned good. And that she, Mr. Gray and the kids even went to Home Hardware for some tools that mornin’, just to be safe. Then she said she was watchin’ the news and she was getting’ real scared. Always honest that Mrs. Gray. I probably shoulda told her I was kinda scared too.
That same night I was on the library cleanin’ shift. I usually was in the zone polishin’ the hardwood floors but so much was on my mind. So many questions was whizzin’ back and forth and I just didn’t understand why the people in Little Belleville wasn’t askin’ for more answers. Why wasn’t people more frustrated!?
Right then and there I decided the next mornin’, bright and early, I’d head straight over to Mr. Whitby’s house. Together we’d march over to Mayor Fisher’s office to get some better answers. We would demand it! That’s what my plan was gonna be.
I didn’t hear the first blast, when it came, but I saw what it did. My headphones was in and I was listenin’ to the radio and emptyin’ the metal garbage cans. I was listenin’ to a special on bees and how some fancy scientists was goin’ country-to-country and countin’ how many bees was remainin’ in the world. You go to school for all these years and get all this high praise, and you come out countin’ bees. I just thought that was funny… and while I was standin’ there thinkin’ ‘bout how strange this world was, I looked up and about a hundred books, of all different sizes, just flew right off the shelves at once. You see, I don’t believe in ghosts or any stuff like that, but right then, you coulda fooled me.
Then the second blast came. I didn’t hear that one either. Sure felt it though. Knocked me right out cold.
I woke up and the sun was shinin’ right through where the stain glass window used to be. Was the first thing the librarian talked about when I started here. She said I had to be very careful when cleanin’ it ‘cause it was real old and needed a special chemical to keep it nice. I laughed in my head a bit, ‘cause lookin’ up from where I just got thrown, I could see most of the windows got blasted all out. Most well… everythin’.
Matter of fact, the entire library was caved in right from the top of the roof. Lots of books was split in half too. Ripped pages and history was all over the place. The floor was covered in broken chalky drywall. I laughed again. No way in hell they could pay me enough to cleanup this mess.
I touched the back of my head. It felt wet so I grabbed a page that didn’t have too much dirt on it and stuck it to me. Was I gonna miss Tuesday darts today? Jackie hated when I missed it. She always wanted to get her drinkin’ in. My thoughts was all over the place again, like I was tryin’ to catch them. Everythin’ was covered in a kinda cement dust. I tried lifting myself up and passed right out again.
My Ma always said I had a horseshoe up my… well you know. I was a real shy kid always walkin’ around with my eyes on the ground. Had a hard time lookin’ at people. Never had too much confidence really. But ‘cause of this, I was always findin’ all kinda cool stuff. I had this brown wooden chest filled with it all. Ma tried to get me to throw it out lotsa times. Caused a real big shoutin’ match. She said there was no reason to be collectin’ all that garbage. But I told her, to me it wasn’t garbage.
Then this one afternoon when I was walkin’ home from school, I saw somethin’ shinin’ in the bush. I walked over and picked it up. It was this bright gold watch. A real beauty. The name of the owner was scratched out the back. Maybe someone stole it, scratched out the name and dropped it tryin’ to get away from the owner. Or maybe even the police who was chasin’ him. As a kid that’s what I thought. When I took it over to Percy’s Pawnshop he gave me a whole three hundred dollars for it. I’d never seen so much money. I had a real knack for findin’ things. People around town started knowin’ me for it. If they lost their diamond weddin’ ring or their cat was hidin’ on them, they’d just got to holler over at the Marcy’s boy and he’d come runnin’ to look in the bushes or your backyard, magnifyin’ glass and all. I didn’t think it was luck or a horseshoe up my behind like Ma said it was. I was just real good at findin’ things.
When I got older, I learned to say I had a real good attention to detail. That’s what I said when I inquired about the cleaner job for the city. Ma didn’t want me to be a cleaner and she said there was no real job in Little Belleville for a grown man that’s just good at findin’ things. I know she had higher hopes for me, like a doctor or lawyer or somethin’. I can still hear her sayin’, “Why you want to clean up after people’s dirty selves. Not too much pride in that.”
I was mad at her for thinkin’ I was stupid so I started goin’ to the library and readin’ all the books I could find. I remember readin’ some smart words by a preacher fella. I even cut it out to show Ma… but I don’t think she ever looked at it.
I woke back up with such bad pain in my right leg and on the back of my head, I thought I was gonna pass out again. I tried to lift up a second time but my ankle and leg was trapped under these metal bookshelves. Good thing was, they made some sort of frame and protected me from the ceilin’ comin’ down.
I pulled at my leg for what felt like a whole hour till it finally got free. On the last pull I ripped almost all the skin off. It was damaged pretty bad but I had to get out of there. The rest of library could come tumblin’ down. I dragged myself out in front usin’ my two arms. It all happened so fast and my body was shakin’ like crazy. Felt like I was gonna puke from the pain.
Lookin’ around only a few of Little Belleville’s buildings survived the blast. And me of course. Maybe Ma was right, maybe I got a horseshoe up my… But I didn’t feel lucky at all.
I don’t know if it was ‘cause I wasn’t thinkin’ too straight or ‘cause it was my first plan but when I could move more, I limped over to Mr. Whitby’s property. Or what was left of it. I thought if anybody was gonna survive the second blast it was gonna be Mr. Whitby. He had a real old way of thinkin’, like the world was gonna end at any time. Probably had a bunker he dug himself and everything.
It took me two hours to drag myself ‘cross Main Street. Over both sidewalk humps and through the well-kept corn field in front of Mr. Whitby’s. He lived a lil isolated. My leg was stingin’ and leakin’ red. Looked like a snail just trailin’ blood.
When I got closer to Mr. Whitby’s property I could see his farm house was gone. And the porch he’d told the whole town he was proud of buildin’ himself was gone down into the earth too. Looked like the world was real angry and just pulled him in ‘bout ten-feet-deep.
I got over to the giant hole and there was Mr. Whitby. He wasn’t breathin’ no more. His black hat was over his chest and his right arm was missin’. Looked like part of his porch was stickin’ straight outta his stomach. “I put that last coat of blue on it myself you know,” he just told me last summer. His left hand was still grippin’ his huntin’ rifle. That old cowboy was just waitin’ for the fight to come to him.
I crawled around to the other side of the hole and found a half-busted ladder to drop myself down to Mr. Whitby. It was hard pullin’ that rifle outta his grip. Stiffness was startin’ to set in. I had to pull back his fingers one-by-one to get at it. Then I checked his pockets for his truck keys. I lay there for a while next to him trynna catch my breath. The sky was a color I’d never seen before. I remember he used to help Ma with groceries when I was real young.
Bout ten minutes later, I got outta the hole and limped to his old beat-up truck. I swear that thing was as old he was. I pulled myself in and tried the keys. The tank was full. Good man that Mr. Whitby.
I headed to Mrs. Gray’s house usin’ my better leg to push down hard on the gas. They lived in one of the biggest houses in town. It was a real old sturdy thing off of South Road. Mrs. Gray’s husband was a real handy man too, so he musta set somethin’ up. Mrs. Gray was talkin’ ‘bout how they was preparin’ in case the reporter on TV was right.
When I turned right on Mrs. Gray’s lane, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The lane was split down the middle and the real nice maple tree that was always there at the top, looked like it was hit by lightnin’, or somethin’. There was just pieces of it everywhere. I kept goin’ down the lane for a little bit to where the house was supposed to be. There was a bend left before usually. But when I turned I saw no house. Nothin’. Just some of the foundation. The blast took the whole damn thing away. All I could see from the truck was a bright green shape right under where Mrs. Gray’s was before.
I drove the truck off the lane and towards the green shape. I was hopin’ it was what I thought it was. But when I got closer I could see more. I stopped the truck cold. Stickin’ outta the bright green trap doors of her own bunker, was Mrs. Gray. She had a deep bloody cut on the side of her neck.
I stood there for a good minute just starin’ at her face. She didn’t look scared. She was smilin’. I went back to the truck and got in. Anger was boilin’ in me. I slammed my head into the steerin’ wheel settin’ the horn off. I got all dizzy and stopped.
That’s when I heard the whistles.
I used the truck to push away what was holdin’ the door stuck. Then I yelled to stay away from the door. I used the truck again to roll over the door and bend it enough that it snapped. It took me four times tryin’.
Lookin’ up at me and their dead Ma was Mrs. Gray’s two young daughters. Big blue eyes on the both of them. Whistles danglin’ from their mouths. It stuck with me what they said. “Mister, our mommy isn’t movin’ anymore. I think … I think she’s dead… but we can’t see her face.” I grabbed them one at a time and lifted them out, past their Ma, and into the truck.
Mrs. Gray’s family built a real deep bunker. She gave her girls some music with big headphones to listen to. On the second blast I think she got trapped trynna get back in. Poor girls said they gone to another part of the bunker when their Ma’s legs stopped movin’. Mr. Gray was nowhere to be seen. Musta got blasted away too.
I put Mrs. Gray’s two daughters on my right side with the rifle over our laps. The girls was holdin’ hands and cryin’. I had another stop I had to check.
When I was a kid I loved Chinese food. Ma would sometimes have to stay late at work so she’d leave me a fiver on the table to pick up some noodles from Mr. Zhao’s. I’d run over, cash in my hand, to order my chow mein. I liked it with extra sauce. Sometimes I’d get so excited running back home, it’d leak out and go everywhere. And I’d just eat it right out the bag. I’m sure if Ma knew, she’d think her boy was dirty… but she wasn’t there.
There was no alarm to tell me what was comin’. I remember the sky turned all black and the wind trynna blow me ‘cross the street. I was bout fifteen yards from Mr. Zhao’s red door when the tornado came. I saw it all.
The ceiling crashed down on top of Mr. Zhao’s. I stood there and watched the whole thing happen. I was so scared. Mr. Zhao was just screamin’ and screamin’. He was trapped. I just stood there lookin’ at him. He was begging me and screaming at me to help him. But I was just frozen doin’ nothin’. I shoulda helped him but I was so goddamn scared.
It felt so long before the others came and pulled him out. He was all smashed up and the bones in his legs was all stickin’ out. I still couldn’t move. I thought I just watched him die and he was carried him away.
That year the kids in my class called me all kinds of names. Cause’ sometimes, out of nowhere I’d just have these fits. I’d stop breathin’ and just start smakin’ my head on over and over on my desk. Like I was thick or something.
I wasn’t lucky like Mrs. Gray’s daughters. Maybe it isn’t luck but I didn’t have no bunker to protect me and hide me.
Maybe that’s why Mrs. Gray was smilin’ when I found her.
I pulled up in front of what was left of First Ave Primary and told Mrs. Gray’s daughters to stay in the car. I didn’t want to leave ‘em there but they’d seen enough and who knows what was inside there. I reached for the truck door to hop out, and then the older girl grabbed my arm. I turned around to look at her. She wiped away tears and put her whistle in my hand.
I knew my way around the school but it was gettin’ dark. My eyes was stingin’ from all the dirt and dust and my head still poundin’. What a sight I was, wanderin’ around on a busted leg with a piece of book stickin’ out of my head. I was so tired.
The right side of the school was destroyed. I twisted and bent myself just to get in the broke front of the lobby. Principal Anderson’s office was fully wrecked. I got to the set of doors that separated the front of the school and the main hallway. If I could just get to the end that hallway.
I pushed the doors. It was easier than I thought. And that’s when I saw the yellow pile of jackets. It looked like a dead-end or underground cave had crumbled down at the end of the hallway. I moved over a bunch of tumbled lockers and sat down at one of those student desks. It was in mint condition, even though it looked like grenades blew up everywhere else.
I figured about 10 maybe 15 yellow jackets was lyin’ there on the ground in front of me. They got smothered. They wasn’t movin’ anymore. Just like how I found Mr. Whitby and Mrs. Gray. The hallway had crushed them all. I didn’t like ‘em one bit but to go like that… well I don’t think anybody deserved that.
I had to get back to the girls. My leg was changin’ colours. I hurt all over. My eyes was closin’ and I told myself if I could just… just … rest a little. The whistle dropped out my hand and hit the ground. I laughed when picked it up. Maybe someone could come save me now. Then I just blew it.
I heard a scream. Thought I musta been dreamin’ or somethin’. Then another scream. Then scratchin’ and bangin’. It was comin’ from right after the pile of yellow jackets.
I got up and move towards the sounds pullin’ at the yellow bodies. All of them was stiff. I moved pieces of rock and pipe. Pieces of the buildin’. I kept blowin’ the whistle. Kept diggin’ at a steady pace. I thought about Mrs. Gray and Mr. Whitby and the town I lost. I removed another big piece of concrete. The bangin’ was getting’ louder. I got to the other set of doors. I picked the biggest pipe I could find and just smashed over and over until a hole opened up in the door. I reached for the hole and started pullin’. I could feel the inside of my hands rippin’ but the hole was gettin’ bigger. I was still whistlin’. I was whistlin’ so hard.
There was these little hands that wrapped around my arm tryin’ to pull me forward. Towards them. They was hollerin’ for me. I pulled one last time and opened a hole in the earth. I looked at my hands and my fingernails. They was little bloody stumps. I was cryin’ and my legs just stopped workin’. I found them.
It’s been about a year now since I dragged myself and my broken leg outta that library and onto the street. After I found those kids in the school, I went lookin’ for whatever those government men and those yellow jackets was diggin’ for before the blasts. I found that too. I went lookin’ till I collapsed all bloody and tired in the dirt. They was diggin’ bunkers, just like Mrs. Gray’s. They just didn’t tell us in time.
Seein’ those empty bunkers… well just broke my heart. We coulda put Mrs. Gray and Mr. Whitby in there. I never found Jackie. I think ‘bout her lots. We coulda put all those kids that died. We coulda put the whole town.
I know they’ll be lots of challenges comin’ up. Before the blast I was a cleaner ‘cause I guess it’s what the world wanted of me. But the blast changed me.
I do lots of different jobs now. Some days I’m a doctor, fixin’ up scrapes and bruises. Learnin’ from any books that survived the blast, tryin to fix the bodies of the kids that was left. Other days, I gotta fix their minds. I gotta be a shrink or a preacher. Like when we had to bury their brothers, sisters, Mommas and Daddies. We even had to bury their dogs.
And most of the time I’m the teacher, readin’ out loud from leftover schoolbooks or showin’ the older boys and girls how to shoot and scavenge and protect themselves from whatever may come. I’m not always real good at these different jobs so sometimes I need help from the older kids. Though I always try my best. But there was one job I was always pretty good at.
I was always pretty good at findin’.
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” – Martin Luther King Jr.