The View from Upper High Hog: Excerpt Three
(Opener to Act II and start of Elizabeth’s point of view)
Bebe always said, “If you’re gonna do something, toots, do it big or get off the stage.” She practiced what she preached. When she was ready to make a change, there was no simple announcement. Nothing less than a world-shattering kaboom would do to say, “Hey world, I’m comin’ for ya.”
One chilly night in the summer of my tenth year, Bebe dragged me from my happy perch in front of Leave It to Beaver and herded me outside, showing me a ladder tilted against our low bungalow’s wall.
“Climb it, kiddo.” Waving her cigarette at it as she exhaled a thin plume of smoke, she nudged me with her other hand. “Go on, now. Life’s too short.”
I started my climb.
She grunted below me. “Shorter than ever, thanks to things like this.”
I took that as warning of how deadly the ladder was and stopped climbing, shaking in my thin nightgown. I was just a kid, and maybe I should have been more sheltered and secure, unable to imagine that my Bebe was leading me to anything other than perfect safety. But I’d been raised by an actress who valued comedy over coddling and spent my school years under the careful abuse of Lefton Academy for Girls. I knew life was always ready to go crazy, turn its back on you, or kick you in the teeth — sometimes all three, sometimes just for laughs.
I guess I made it to the roof. I remember the feel of asphalt roof tiles beneath my palms. I had this idea that I couldn’t fall if my hands were planted firmly on the gritty surface. Or maybe I was just reaching for the fading warmth. The wind didn’t always make it down to the ground, but it had free rein up by the vent pipes. (No chimneys for our high desert neighborhood, just logs made of concrete and orange plastic flames that fluttered in the breeze from the heat register beneath. I used to believe in those flames until the light bulb in the back burned out and Bebe refused to replace it.)
I asked Bebe why we had to be up there that night.
She laughed, spreading her arms. “You ain’t seen fireworks like this before, Turtle. Neither have I. These are the kind of bottle rockets that can end the world in the wrong hands.”
I don’t know how long we sat there, just that I was getting antsy and wanting to cry by the time that brilliant flash lit the horizon. A tiny puffy arrow pointed at the heavens, which glowed obediently.
“What is it?” I was afraid that arrow would start pointing our way.
Bebe’s festive expression was gone. She held her cigarette close to her mouth, arm draped across her drawn-up knees. Her face was still, sober, her eyes distant — more distant than the hellish arrow.
I said her name again. Bebe was unreachable enough on a happy day. This colder distance always scared me when it came along, which was more and more lately.
Her eyes were still distant as she turned my way. “A sign.” Focusing, she squinted, took a drag and blew it out. “It’s the big one, Turtle. So big it got the first, most important letter of the alphabet.”
I looked at the arrow. Arrow started with A. So did Arizona.
“That’s all the way to Nevada right there. What they call a mushroom cloud.”
“Who’d they blow up?” Sally at school said Las Vegas was known as sin city. Maybe the president decided to kill two birds with one stone. Test a bomb, rid the world of sin.
“Couple of coyotes, maybe. Paper says we shouldn’t worry about the testing, these things are way out back of beyond.”
Well, then they’d changed their tune.
In school, they scared us that the bombs were right in our backyards. They’d have us watch these stuttery filmstrips with cartoon mushrooms and Tommy the Turtle. I hated him. Not only did he threaten to ruin Bebe’s nickname for me, he made us get under our desks and challenged us to do it better than he did. So I always felt like I was waiting for death and doing it wrong.
The teacher would pass out sheets of newspaper that we had to put over our head for reasons I’m still unsure of today. I was always convinced that it was a practical joke, that only I was dumb enough to follow orders, and that one of the girls would take advantage and bash me over the skull. I’d never hear them coming because the newsprint made me sneeze. A few times I got the obituary page, which I’d try not to read when I’d get bored of duck and cover — I’d just crouch there, imagining some other kid looking up at my name printed there someday.
When I was really little, I remember thinking that Tommy the Turtle was actually a duck in disguise, that one day he’d open his cover and show us his wings. Bebe laughed when I told her that. Said that was the kind of mutation everyone was worried about from the A-bomb.
So we sat on the roof that night when I was ten, risking turtle-duck mutation and not realizing it was the start of our personal war to escape exile.
Or maybe one of us realized. I always replay that part right after the explosion. Bebe saying it was a sign. Bebe always wanting to do things with a bang.
I blamed the bomb later on for giving her the idea, but I think Bebe would have seen the sign she wanted just about anywhere, even if it was just the neon glow of the lounge at the Monte Vista Hotel.