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Jeff Fearnside, Winner of the first MMM Flash Fiction Online & in print Contest, 2005


Nuclear Toughskins


My dad built a bomb shelter in our backyard the year I was born, between the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it soon became a neglected cave of concrete and canned peaches over which my best friend Johnny Lynn and I ran barefoot and ice-cream sticky on hot summer days, or stalked fireflies at night, or threw our heads back and stalked stars, my dad standing over us tracing the flight of what we couldn’t see, saying, They’re up there, boys, looking down on us as we speak, that’s why it’s a race to the moon, everything’s a race. Then muttering godless heathens he’d light a Salem and suddenly say, Wave to them hi! and we’d all wave except Johnny Lynn, who’d give the Reds the bird, though you couldn’t tell, he was so tan and his gesture just part of the night. My arms were tan, too, but my legs were as pale as the powdered milk my mom would sneak from our cave when we ran out of whole, because no one in our family wore shorts, it wasn’t allowed, something in the Bible supported this—Sodom and Gomorra, I was led to believe. But Johnny Lynn went to the same church as we did and was as dark as an Indian from the thighs down, and my parents never said he was going to hell, though I knew he swore and gave the Reds the bird and old Mr. Franklin, too, at the five and dime, not because I ever saw it but because my friend said so. I wanted Indian thighs and grass-stained knees but was afraid I’d be turned into a pillar of salt or destroyed by fire. Not even Armstrong’s one small step could change my fear—it took the three channels on our TV, Mark Spitz and his seven golds, the forbidden rock on my transistor radio, and Skylab, which I imagined was manned by Major Tom, and by the summer I was twelve I couldn’t wait to take my protein pills and put my helmet on, so one day I cut up a brand-new pair of Toughskins jeans. It wasn’t easy, because new was when they were best, like Dacron armor, but I figured if you could make a trampoline out of them, then they would make good shorts. The only thing is, I couldn’t cut them with my school scissors or even my Scout knife; I had to sneak my mom’s sewing scissors out of her basket, and I still had a hard time, especially with the reinforced knees, but when I was finished they were even cooler than Johnny Lynn’s. And for one glorious afternoon I ran with the freedom of one who lived free, who felt the heat of sunburned shinbones yet also impossible light and air rustling through downy hair like a breeze through curtains before a thunderstorm, ran as an equal with my friend. We danced and taunted the sky where we knew Salyut lay hidden godless behind clouds, Look, Reds, look at us, see how we live in America! until my mom heard and chased Johnny Lynn away before scolding me inside and stripping me to my briefs, fretting about what to do with my sin. She didn’t tell me to wait until my father got home like she usually did but instead scolded and fretted and then finally made me dig a hole in the garden, where she deposited my new Toughskins shorts like they were a full diaper, covered them up, and said not to tell my father unless I wanted a red bottom.


They’re buried there still, I guarantee it, have outlasted Vietnam, the Olympic boycott, the Cold War, Star Wars. They were probably just getting broken in when the Berlin Wall fell. Someday somebody will dig them up, long after we’ve finished the arms race and visited Mars, long after perestroika, the Second Coming, the two-thousand-year reign of the Prince of Peace my mom still says is right around the corner.