Don’t you know how easy it is to visit someone in a nursing home? We told the man at the front desk the truth, or a version: she had been our teacher, and we were eager to see her before she passed. We thought he’d say, Must have been some teacher. But we could have been the horsemen of the apocalypse for all the man at the front desk cared. He had a box of Cheez-Its and a tied Cardinals game on the radio and we could visit whom we pleased, provided we kept our voices down. This last bit he stressed: voices down. We had heard this before. It was yet another wrong directive. The place was half dead, its residents rotting from the inside—it could have used an influx of life, could have stood some ruckus. How many of these geezers could have heard our shouting anyway, deaf as they were? No one heard our old teacher gasping and croaking when she finally recognized us. No one heard her croaking at her end. Walking past the man at the front desk with our laminated visitors’ badges, some of us still a little drunk, starting down that long hallway toward our past, we wondered again why we were always being given the wrong instructions.
And who had given us the wrong instructions first but her? Why else were we here?
* * *
We’d been surprised, the night before, at our 25th reunion, to hear she was still alive. She’d been our third grade teacher, and we had the usual complaints. She was strict on chewing gum and tucking in shirts. She offered no extra credit. She was known to curtail recess. But really we hated her for the clock. Not the clock on the back wall, the one that in other classrooms we’d turn to out of habit, though it was as if those little instruments had been stopped for years, eternally five minutes until the bell.
No, the clock at the front of her classroom, the one of her own creation. She’d fashioned the face from a circular map of the world and the hands from a drafting compass from the art room, and the authority she usurped from the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who had designed the original Doomsday Clock a decade earlier, in 1947. They’d started it at 11:53, seven minutes to midnight—seven minutes until doom. A little breathing room. By 1957, however, the scientists had wound the clock forward, pegged us at two minutes to midnight, to reflect the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union had tested thermonuclear devices. So this was where we started, too, on the first day of third grade: Two minutes. Two minutes until. Then one of us pulled Janice Meyer’s ponytail, which did not exist but to be pulled, and one of us was caught with candy, and our teacher wound the clock forward. We were one minute and forty-five seconds until doom. We were very, very good for the rest of the day.
* * *
She looked the same, same but different, like a president after he has served two terms. Her room was hot and damp and smelled the way nursing homes do, the way the hallway had as we walked down it, but even more so, like her room was the epicenter of all the nursing home smell on earth. The curtains were closed. Our old teacher was sitting in the middle of the room in a small chair, which unnerved us, her sitting and us the ones standing. Had she ever sat? Had we even known her body could fold that way? Had she always been so tiny? Hadn’t she loomed?
You have to remember, one of us had warned the others on the threshold, she probably won’t even recognize us. You know old people, how they get.
And she did not recognize us, not at first, or at least gave no such sign. She scarcely registered our presence. She was watching a small black and white television that had probably been manufactured back when we sat petrified in her classroom. Nearly every scene unfolded a cosmic love. The actors called each other darling, darling, which was a word we had not heard in many years. Violin music trembled in the background. Our old teacher was transfixed, as if processing the passion on the tiny screen as her own memory. One of us pulled her purple shawl tighter around her ghost-shoulders and then, as if forgetting our purpose there, kissed her gnarled cheek. We wondered if she mistook it for the fuller, wetter kiss on her television. Probably she did.
Then one of us turned the television off and the room went silent in a way we did not like. No one spoke. Our hangovers were wearing off, and we were suddenly not so sure why we were really here, what we had come for, what the joke of visiting her was, if it was a joke at all.
* * *
Her Doomsday Clock! Always it leaned against the blackboard, resting on the dusty ledge beside the chalk, taking up valuable board space on which we could have learned grammar or multiplication. Instead we learned obliteration: how to spell it, what it meant, and that we were on the brink of it. We had to learn, for the clock to terrify us as it did. We had to understand the stakes.
Of course, you too may have practiced cramming your tiny body fetal under your desk, like that rickety thing would protect you. Your own teacher may have shown you the duck and cover video, the one from the Civil Defense, with that lucky turtle safe in his shell. You may have repeated after that turtle: we must get ready for it, just as we are ready for all life’s other dangers. But did your teacher show you photographs from Hiroshima?
It was the first week of school. It was after lunch. She said she had something very important to show us. She said she had some photographs of people in Japan. Which was a trick because these were not photographs of people but photographs of remnants, had-been-people. Where were the people? Here, she said, pointing to rubble, pointing to nothing. The Japanese people were dust now and soon we would be dust too, if we did not line up promptly, if the Soviets had their way, if our cursive wavered, if we did not keep our voices down. Dust—this last part she stressed.
* * *
The television being off confused her. Probably it had been on for years. We had brought some mementos to the nursing home to help her remember us. But the problem with her remembering was that we had to remember, too. That old dread, still right here. A box of chalk, a miniature American flag, a rusted pencil sharpener. We laid them out on her bed. Math tests someone’s mother had preserved. A few photographs, yes. And then: the clock. One of us—Richard, the famous actor—had brought this, and we wondered how he’d made it so similar to the old one on such short notice, if he’d stayed up all night to recreate it. We wished he hadn’t. Seeing it terrified us, dragged us back to that classroom where our smallest transgression meant the end of the world. Some of us were sweating. When our old teacher saw Richard pull the clock from his leather jacket she made a sound—a croak, really, it was a croak. They become frogs, old people do. Human, amphibian, corpse. It is a regression of sorts. Oh, she remembered us now. She did. Darling, one of us said to her, because we were now nervous, and we all laughed for the same reason. Richard propped the clock on her dirty pillow. He was wearing sunglasses, which did not seem strange since he was a famous actor. Our old teacher rubbed her eyes, as if trying to wake from a long dream. We had felt this way for decades. She looked wildly at us, then at the clock, then at her bare wrist, as if out of instinct, as if late for afternoon pudding or bingo. Well, she was late for something. Maybe we would help her get there.
* * *
So we learned to duck and cover. We learned to walk in shadow, to save us from burn. We learned that there were two ways an attack might come, with warning or without, and for a time we were not sure which would be worse. When we passed notes, when we did not all recite each word perfectly, when we pulled on ponytails, she would take her ruler and gently nudge the second hand forward. We’d rather she’d have beaten our knuckles, or washed our mouths out with soap. But we got the clock. The other teachers could not fathom our hatred for her, and in a strange way they came to envy her. What was her secret?
Once, Richard asked her: Why was the clock so close to midnight to start with? It hardly seemed fair.
There was such small hope in his voice, like reason might win the day, like things might improve.
Because the Soviets do not care, she said. And because last year’s class was extraordinarily bad. Almost as awful as this year’s. Guess who did not turn in homework today? She nudged the clock forward, one minute closer to midnight. When this clock strikes midnight, she said, do you know what is going to happen? You are going to die, your families are going to die.
Bright flashes terrified us. It was always close to midnight, and later, as teenagers, writhing half-naked on couches, we’d see a grandfather clock in the corner ticking perilously toward the hated time and we would lose our enthusiasm. Our stomachs would clench, our teeth grind. Our parents could not have set a more effective curfew.
* * *
As we said, we were surprised, at our 25th reunion, to hear she was still alive. Even in 1957, she’d seemed to be holding out on death, cheating it the way we’d never dared to with her (in other classes, our eyes slipped almost automatically to our neighbor’s spelling tests).
We’d fallen out of touch, as people do. Fallen out of touch, but we’d lived the same lives. All these years: we’d married and destroyed our marriages; we’d screwed no one or we’d screwed everything that moved; we’d gambled away our retirements; we’d learned what food was really made from; we’d scraped ice from our cars in the morning dark and we’d watched our kids get arrested; we’d seen prostates kill our fathers and breasts our mothers and we knew that this would be our fate, too. And none of this has happened because of the bomb, or the Soviets, or any other sort of nuclear obliteration she’d promised us. We’d been gripped with constant fear—it had been installed onto us, like computers before we came to know computers, but we’d been given the wrong program, we’d been taught to fear something that would never come. We’d done what she’d told us—and still! The wall had come down! And still.
It was Richard who pulled us aside, and then outside, at our reunion, to tell us: she was alive, and not only alive but alive in the nursing home across town, and we could visit her tomorrow morning, if we did not have early flights. We’d come to the reunion alone, or with our plush, embarrassing wives. We were terrified and so obviously unsuccessful. We had had a few drinks. We reconvened out in the parking lot, which transported us back to our school dances—not to the dances themselves, always lame, whimpering affairs unless you were handsome, but to our idea of what we had been like, or might have been like. The air was piercingly cold, and we pretended our crystal breaths were smoke from a joint we might have passed around a quarter century before. Richard had flown in from Hollywood, probably on his private jet. We were surprised he’d come; he was rich and famous and had nothing to prove. But maybe he did. Once, after all, he’d been a little boy who’d wet himself out of fear. We’d seen his house in the tabloids, always referred to as a pad, though it seemed far too large to be described as such. It pleased us—it touched us—to know that even in his pad, with his sleek white furniture and personal chef and ocean view, even there: the same nightmares haunted him as did us. He was famous now but once he’d sat next to us at a tiny desk, as tiny and scared as we were. Yes, Richard said in the parking lot, let’s pay her a little visit, and it felt like we were in one of his movies, though we were not. Be a real trip, Richard said, huh, boys? We laughed and said we were game. He lit a cigarette but he was holding it like he had never held a cigarette before in his life. It was disappointing, seeing a movie star up close without the makeup. Everything was disappointing when you understood what it actually was.
* * *
One morning in October, in the middle of a geography lesson, there was a soundless explosion outside our classroom window. Though this, too, was some trick of hers we could never figure out; no other classes reported seeing it, and our parents did not believe us. But we saw it. She must have known we would run to the window, that we’d be drawn to bright flashes as children are. Richard was quickest out of his seat, quickest to the window, quickest to die.
Dead, she said. Richard is dead first. She pointed her ruler at him, then at each of us in our turn. One by one we all died.
What have I told you? she asked, and we knew: the attack, when it came, and it would come soon, would begin with a bright flash, brighter than the sun, and we were not to go to the window to look. You were never to go to the window; there would be heat and flame and shards of flying glass. Don’t you know I am doing this for your protection? she asked, and for the rest of our lives, whenever anyone said it was for our protection, we knew it was not. Don’t you know this will pay dividends? she asked. Don’t you—oh, Richard. Richard—what have you done?
He had wet himself. That was what he had done. First to die, first to wet himself. I’m sorry, he said. So were we. She scrunched her nose and sent him to clean up. When he trudged sniffling out of our classroom some of us had the idea that he really was dead, that he would never come back. But he would return to die so many times. We all would.
Phew, she said when he was gone. Let us practice again. But first: she touched her ruler to the second hand, pushed it forward.
* * *
We asked her so many questions. Did she know her name? Did she remember the pledge of allegiance? Did she remember the Cold War? Did she remember her trick by the window? In her hot, dark room it felt a little like a séance with someone who was still alive. But when we looked more closely at her, we could see how soon she would die.
Does she know the time, Richard wanted to know. He was big on the time.
None of us wanted to be there, but for reasons we could not articulate it seemed impossible to leave. We’d been drunk in the parking lot the night before but now we were sobering in a dark, foul room and we understood with sober clarity what was going to happen, what we would do. One of us had the urge to hide in her closet, amid her robes and folded-up wheelchair, as if that were a safe place to be. But there was nowhere safe to be.
Afterward, we left the nursing home and caught our flights, we returned to our wives with the fleeting feeling that things would get better (they didn’t) or, at least, that an equilibrium had been reached. A few of us kept our laminated visitors passes, though they retained that nursing room smell and brought it into our houses, into our beds.
But first: Come to the window, we said. We wanted her to say, Have I taught you nothing? But she was silent. She tried to stand. One of us helped her, and her wrists felt like wet bark. One of us pulled back the curtain and brightness flooded her room. It was brighter than the sun though it was only the sun. We made her look. She squinted, but it was hard to tell because her face had already warped. Richard was still wearing his sunglasses but he was nervous now and he turned the pencil sharpener very fast. This was what we thought of a few months later, when the tabloids said his overdose came with the lifestyle: how he turned that sharpener in a too-bright room. One of us put a hand on his wrist, which felt like fire, to stop him, and the room ought to have gone silent again without the sharpener squeaking. But instead there was a screech from the television. No one would admit it, but one of us had turned it back on, like a little noise would help. Romance was over; a new show had come on. Animals galloped across the screen, running toward or away from something, we didn’t know. Probably away, one always ran away. Our old teacher said, Well, tell your mother I say hi, Brian Sarlusky. Which angered us further, because he was none of us, nor did we know him. Probably some poor student from last year’s extraordinarily bad class. Probably he had been the first to die at the window, too. Please, we begged—we wanted her to say something that would make sense, something that would make room for our second thoughts, give us a way to leave. But she never did. She wiped her gray lips. She seemed less scared than we were. Richard’s hands were shaking when he put them around her neck, gently at first, as if to steady her. Then: not gently. Our poor Richard. Our poor teacher. She seemed so very small. And in her final moments with us, we were right there, holding her hand that now seemed more branch than hand, helping her to understand what losing felt like.
Ben Hoffman is the author of a chapbook, Together, Apart. His fiction has won the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award and Zoetrope: All-Story’s Short Fiction Contest and appears in The Missouri Review and tinhouse.com. He is currently the Carol Houck Smith Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.