Tin Men

At the time, he hadn’t realised how serious the situation had been.

‘If anything happens to me,’ he remembered his father saying. ‘You have to look after your mother and sister.’

He was 11 then, 41 now. Life was long, he thought.

In the staff cafeteria, he pushed baked beans around his plate. Somewhere outside, the Palo Alto Municipal Band drummed a muffled rhythm. He always ate a hot lunch these days; it spared him the trauma of cooking dinner, a skill in which he’d rarely excelled.

‘It’s just not your forte,’ Jennifer used to say. It was an odd expression. He’d only heard it once since, when he was still off work. He’d been sitting in front of the television, the evening spent, unable to move from the couch with the weight of tiredness and whiskey on him. He moved methodically through the channels, reversing; never looping, once he’d reached the end. Half way through his fifth or sixth oscillation, an English detective appeared on the screen, in black and white, some old movie.

Don’t worry, old chap, the detective said. It’s just not your forte.

It shook him out of his slumber and he took himself to bed with a thick head. He didn’t think about it in the morning.

The cafeteria was subsidized by the company. Groceries were expensive; he’d had no idea.

‘If anything happens to me, you have to look after your mother and sister.’

He stared at his food. The orange sauce was beginning to adhere to his plate. He was worried. He ate beans almost every day. Waffles and beans. Jacket potato, cheese and beans. Macaroni cheese, beans (salad: add 50 cents). Memories were only untethered in bad weather.           

‘We’re going to live in the shelter for a few days,’ his father announced one night, hanging up his coat and hat. He worked in D.C., took the 7.37 every morning, the 6.20 every evening. It was late October. Things were getting ‘hot’, whatever that meant. His parents had been watching the news more than usual and it worried him.

‘There’s nothing to worry about.’

They went down to the shelter. It was 50 cubic feet, sunk low in the garden, a corrugated tin dome surrounded by grass. This is what happens when you have too much money, he thought.

‘What if there’s a direct hit on the city?’ he said. His father looked at him, momentarily surprised. He frowned.

‘It’s not the blast I’m worried about,’ he said.

Days passed. How many, he wasn’t sure. With no school and no daylight, it was hard to keep track. The whole thing was stupid. Bobby Ginsburg’s family had a shelter too, and he knew for a fact that they weren’t using it. He sat on the edge of his bunk with a tin of beans, stabbing at the last few. They were cold and hard and he’d eaten little else since they arrived. He peered into the tin, feeling the tomato sauce dry on his lips.

‘Have you finished?’ his mother said.

‘Yes,’ he said. He always left the last four.

‘When can we go?’ His sister, six.

‘Quiet,’ his father said, sitting by the radio. ‘Kennedy’s about to speak.’

That night, they played cards. After his sister had gone to bed and his mother was dozing fitfully in her chair, his father looked up from his drink and said,

‘If anything happens to me, you have to look after your mother and sister.’

He didn’t know what to say, so nodded, then climbed into the top bunk and stared into the darkness until he fell asleep.

In the morning, he was woken by bright red in his eyes. He opened them and saw sunlight framing his father.

‘Time to leave,’ he said. ‘It’s over.’

He clambered out of bed, the outline of his old man hanging in front of his eyes, and followed him back to the house.


Benjamin Johncock is a writer. His short fiction has been published by The Fiction Desk and he is currently working on his first novel, The Long, Delirious, Burning Blue. He also writes for The Guardian.