The Half Life of Quentin Hayes
The Bomb was fat and disappointing—a bomb like other bombs, only more of what it was. It was sequence, geometry, like paper creased into a plane or a child’s fortune teller. Cootie catchers. That’s what they had called them in school, doom-saying from their sticky desks. What’s your favorite color, who do you love? the girls would drone, already bored with life’s probabilities. Pick a number, they’d say, opening the cootie catcher like a blossom and snapping it shut, their fingers clipping invisible threads. In the end you would pick the luckiest number, and the girls—slow now, mysterious—would unfold the paper and read your fate.
Hayes stood on the Air Force tarmac and watched the bluster of little men. Socket wrenches and drills, silly clatter. The men fretted while the bomb sunned itself on a dolly like some walrus king. What was Hayes’s job? His job was to flip the switch. He was the last domino in a line that began with President Kennedy and ended with his index finger—once a nose-picking stick, now the flint to flame the world.
After Hayes flipped the switch and the hatch gave way, the bomb would drop, but drowsily. It would puff through clouds and startle flocking geese. Hello goodbye it would say as it fell, past hot air balloons and butterflies. On a far green hill a farmer would stop short, so that the milk rocked his pail. He would push back his cap and watch the speck that might have been a diving hawk— then the flash. The flash would be brighter than the sun. It would be worth the blinding, maybe the best thing the farmer would ever see. And afterwards the farmer would lay in his bed and drift in the dark. Or maybe his blindness would be mottled and shifting, and he would stare into it wondering how to know his life from death, until one day a blob would sharpen into a bedpost, and the farmer would say, Oh. Then the checks of his wife’s apron would blink and join, growing larger, until her long fingers pressed his forehead and her warm breath filled his ear, saying, Rest.
What else would happen? City blocks cooked to steam, the earth rippling like a crashed wave. And the sound. The sky with its mouth ripped open, raging. And in the minute after, the world hushed in cotton batting until the first wail needled through it.
Godforbid, of course, thought Hayes. Godforbid all this, but Hayes felt less disappointed in the bomb and whistled “Yankee Doodle” on his way to mess.
The Air Force had imagination when it came to Hayes: water balloons and flour bombs, rotting fish. The Air Force slid pornographic photos of men under Hayes’s pillow. When he came back from mess and opened the birthday cake from his mother, secreted all morning under his cot, there was a baseball plopped in the middle. Hap thday Q n!, the cake said. Hayes smelled the vanilla and the butter. He set the cake in his lap, pulled out the baseball and rotated it until the words, “EAT A DICK” rolled into view. Hayes looked at the baseball for a moment before nestling it back in the cake. He closed the lid, put the box on the floor, and took a pencil and notepad from under his mattress.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Thanks for the birthday cake, it was a hit with the boys. I’m at the top, just like you said—exams and drills and medical—all that. And it’s perfectly safe, just like I said, all routine stuff (but very important routine stuff, if that can get past the paranoids in the redaction office), though I do miss home and the cots are lumpy. The other boys are pretty dumb and I expect I’ll move up the ranks quick, and then they’ll all be licking my boots.
Hayes folded the note into smaller and smaller triangles and slipped it into his breast pocket. These things did not surprise him. He had known he had cooties even before the diagnosis, delivered in singsong nine years earlier by a ring of fourth graders. It had to do with the sweaty channels in his palms, the way he clutched his wrist, as if he were coveting the thrum of his life. He knew this because the other children imitated him: limbs limp and timorous, head lolling like a new-hatched bird’s.
An old man and an old woman had an old baby, they had said at school. They’re jealous of your potential, said Hayes’s father. They’re jealous of your looks, said his mother. And they in turn were jealous of time and the things it did to their hard-won child, who had arrived in the last moments of their middle age, and almost not at all (scant hips, ample head). Time racked their son like taffy so that his ankles flashed beneath his pant cuffs; time threatened to sweep him into wayward manhood.
And so they clung to him. At dinner, the family recited detailed histories of their days so that they might imagine each other’s lives moment-to-moment: From eight until nine, Hayes had read stories and practiced spelling at school, while his mother raked leaves and his father delivered performance assessments to three employees. From nine until ten, Hayes had had snack time and math, while his mother vacuumed and his father wrote a “Help Wanted” ad for the classifieds. At noon, they had eaten respectively: a chopped liver sandwich, leftover pierogis, egg salad.
Inside their dim split-level, Hayes felt the thousand little destinies that knit him just-so —to his parents, his tire swing, his bed. But on the sidewalk or the school bus, he unraveled. He was an accident of matter and place; he was a horse finding itself on a barn roof after a flood, asking How? Why?. And so Hayes grew up a thumb-sucker, a blankie-chewer, a weeper in the night.
Every day, the fourth graders had played, “Monster from the Deep,” on the wooden playground ship, and every day Hayes was the monster. If Hayes wanted to be a sailor, and he did, he would have to make his way on the gangplank through a storm of gravel and up to the ship deck; he would have to climb the crow’s nest while children pulled his ankles and at the top shout “Victory!.” The last person to touch Hayes would be the new monster then, and Hayes would get to be a sailor on deck. But after three weeks of play, Hayes knew he would never reach the top. He raised the problem to the ship captain, a squat, frowning girl.
“If you don’t like it, don’t play,” she said.
“Okay, I won’t,” Hayes said. “There’s no game without me.” “
Plenty of people would love to play the monster,” she said
“I’d be the monster,” called one boy.
“Me too,” said another.
“One of them can be the monster then, and I can be a sailor,” said Hayes.
“No,” said the girl, “monster or nothing.”
The girl’s eyes were small and far apart, as if they had lost each other in a field of tall grass. “Why?” Hayes asked.
“What’s the point if the monster can just say ‘Oh, I don’t want to be the monster anymore’?”
“Someone else can have a turn.”
“And then they say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be the monster anymore.’ Then nobody tries and the game isn’t fun.”
“The game isn’t fun.”
“Then don’t play.”
Hayes looked down at the dirty caps of his tennis shoes, then back at the girl’s face.
“You look like a pig,” he said.
“You look like a wet sock,” she said.
The T-38 flew at 1,037 kilometers per hour and could stay aloft for twenty-four. Fifteen kilometers below it was the ocean, and eight kilometers below that was the ocean floor. There were things in the ocean that would never know a plane, and this comforted Hayes. He imagined whales drifting through sheets of deep-sea light and shipwrecks at the way bottom, with cannons and jawless skulls. He should have joined the navy, he thought, strapped in and vomiting on his first patrol. A ship belonged to the ocean. The ocean carried a ship in her glory and welcomed her in her ruin. But did a plane belong to the sky? It did not. God swatted planes like houseflies. A wrecked ship swooned and gave up ghosts. A wrecked plane dropped; a wrecked plane made scrap and meat.
What was the T-38’s job? Her job—“her,” because it is 1961 and men tramp the skies and believe a plane, like a ship, like a woman, is a lover and destroyer of men, and heavy with secrets—was to ferry the bomb around the world until it was time to drop it. Would she get away in time? She might. Imagine a bumblebee fleeing a tornado, the Major had said in the briefing room. Emphasis on bumble, meaning fat as a zeppelin and dazed.
Hayes thought of this as he stared at the box that held the final switch. Not that it was up to him. It was up to the President. The President gave the order that sent the signal, that cued the CO and the XO to turn the dials of their separate safes and retrieve their separate keys. Then: two keys to open the third safe, one hand to slit the envelope, one man to read the digits to unlock the panel and another to punch them with a steady finger. And behind the panel, the lever that yanked the lanyard bolted to the bomb’s safing pin. And all the while the bomb would be getting heavier against the bay doors, and at last Hayes would open the box bolted to the wall of his compartment and flip the electrical switch, from SAFE to ARM. Could flip the switch. Might, if he wanted.
In fourth grade, Hayes used to pretend he was a hummingbird. He would skip around the classroom at snack time, fluttering his hands, while the other children played jacks and knocked down each other’s block castles. One morning while he skipped a girl looked up from her jacks and said, Look at Quentin go! The girl sat at the desk in front of Hayes and wore complicated braids. When he was bored, Hayes liked to choose a coil of her hair and follow its turns. He had once borrowed A Girl’s Guide to Hair from the school library and learned the patterns: zipper, fishtail, Pollyanna, Heidi. And today: an inside-out French braid woven into a crown.
Some of the others joined in clapping and cheering so Hayes flapped harder and started running. He imagined himself blurring, drawing turquoise rings around the room. He imagined wells of nectar and soft close petals. But they were all laughing; he hadn’t noticed. They were laughing and it was time to sit down again. You’re see-through, I can see your veins, they whispered to him during the long division lesson. Are you alive? Are you dead?.
The next day Mrs. McQuaid brought in a slideshow, “Western Art Through The Ages.” She showed them the Mona Lisa and The Thinker, a painting of a woman’s scrambled face, Michelangelo’s David.
“See the care,” Mrs. McQuaid said, laying the slide clicker on the projector cart and walking up to the screen. Her shadow skimmed David’s arm. “You can see how much Michelangelo loved David. All those details—see the tendons in his hands—to bring a stone to life. It took him three years.” She walked back to the cart, and next was a set of genitals, supple as bar soap. Some of the children laughed. “Yes, that is a penis,” Mrs. McQuaid said, and clicked to the next slide. She walked down the desk aisles. “He’s worried,” she said. Hayes noted David’s squirmy lips and upturned eyebrows. “He’s about to battle a giant; of course he’s worried. Michelangelo respects that. He knows daring men can be afraid.”
From the edge of his eye, Hayes could see Mrs. McQuaid’s domed stomach, her powdery hands. He held his wrist. On another slide, a thigh muscle ballooned in the frame; it was white, with gray lines sketched through it. “Veins,” Mrs. McQuaid said, “veins are mineral deposits that happen when the rock is forming. The veins make the rock more beautiful and breakable. They’re reminders of fragility. We see David’s fragility and humanity in the rock.”
“We see David’s rocks in the rock,” one of the boys whispered across an aisle.
“Simon,” Mrs. McQuaid said. Simon sat up. Mrs. McQuaid clicked the slides. “Do David’s genitals particularly interest you?” she said, the marble member looming over the dark room. Everyone laughed, except for Simon and Mrs. McQuaid and Hayes, who never laughed at another person, for once gone a laugh could turn a corner and scheme. It could gather an army and come back at Hayes tenfold.
“No,” said Simon. Hayes imagined a halo of dark heat around Simon’s head.
“We’ll move along, then,” said Mrs. McQuaid. The slides clicked. David appeared in full, facing the camera. “David has a large head,” Mrs. McQuaid said, and the room giggled. Like Queerton, someone whispered, as Hayes had been afraid someone would. “Michelangelo designed the sculpture to be placed on-high; he made the head large so the expression could be visible. Viewed from below, as it was designed to be, the statue would look proportionate.”
David’s big head wasn’t so bad, Hayes thought. It reminded him of a bull. One of those men with handsome bull heads that he’d seen in a Greek mythology book. And David was made to tower; people massed below and looked up at him. Mrs. McQuaid clicked to the next slide, a bronze statue, The Goddess of The Hunt, but it was David’s white thigh that still drifted in the dark around Hayes.
Hayes had not meant to be an Airman; he had meant to be a groundskeeper. At a golf course, maybe, or a big park where he could drive a tractor mower. There had been a career fair his senior year of high school and Hayes had been late; people were loading pamphlets into boxes and folding banners when he walked through the gymnasium doors. Hayes revolved in the center of the room, his sneakers squeaking on the waxed floor. There were signs for community college and trade school, plumbing and electrical services, a car dealership. Hayes wondered if the car dealership sold tractor mowers. He did not notice the man in the tan shirt smiling and walking towards him fast.
“Good afternoon, young man,” the man said, clamping onto Hayes’s hand. “Hello,” Hayes said. The man smelled like pine cones and cinnamon gum. Hayes wished he would let go of his hand.
The man did not let go of his hand. “My name is Petty Officer Boggs,” Petty Officer Boggs said, pointing to a lapel pin that read PO2 Boggs, “and if I could have a moment of your time, I have a few questions for you.”
Hayes looked around for something to say.
Officer Boggs dropped Hayes’s hand and wiped his palm on his pant leg. “Young man, have you ever considered a career with the United States Military?”
“Oh.” Hayes had considered gasoline and dandelions in spring. He had considered unruly football fields and onion grass. “No, I’m not interested, thank you.”
“No, thank you for giving me the opportunity to do my job. You see, the United States Military is rife with opportunity for bright young men like yourself. For instance, what brought you to this career fair?”
Hayes thought of walking backwards out of the gym, but he knew Officer Boggs would follow—articulate, aromatic.“I need work,” he said.
“Work, we’ve got plenty of that, along with a steady paycheck and great benefits to boot. Now, what kind of work did you have in mind?”
“I’d like to drive a tractor mower.”
Officer Boggs nodded. “A tractor mower, huh? How’d you like to drive a nuclear submarine instead?”
“I don’t know.”
“And you know what they say, ‘You never know until you try.’”
Hayes nodded and looked past Officer Boggs’s shoulder to an empty folding table. “I suppose.”
“Young man, how would you like to see the world? How would you like to live in sunny San Diego and get a free trip to jolly old England?”
“That might be interesting.”
“It sure might. I can tell you, young man, I’ve been with the Navy six years, been all around the world. Spain. Italy. Guam. Young man, have you ever had a fresh coconut right off the tree?”
“No,” said Hayes.
“There’s nothing like a fresh coconut right off the tree. You take the time to serve your country, and your country will serve you back.” Hayes nodded. Officer Boggs looked at his watch. “Tell you what, young man, I’m going to leave you with this pamphlet and my card. Look all the information over, and if you want to talk more, just come on down to the recruitment center and ask for me.”
“Just don’t let those knuckle draggers in the Army get hold of you.”
“Or those bums in the Chair Force.”
“You’re a Navy man all the way, I can see that.”
Hayes took the pamphlet and card Officer Boggs held out. “Thank you,” he said. “
All right young man, glad to meet you.” Boggs shook Hayes’s hand again. “Enjoy your afternoon.”
When Hayes looked up from the papers in his hand, the tables were empty and the papers were damp.
In fourth grade, Hayes became accustomed to gravel in his face. He did not become accustomed to the other children pointing and saying HA, HA, You LOST at the end of every recess period. One day, before the game began, he watched a sparrow dipping and rising in the sky, and he forgot about the game until the gravel knocked him back into his body.
From above, the children made sounds like crumpling metal. Hayes looked up into their mouths: blood vaults, oily tongues. Their faces twisted and stretched. For the first time, he saw their panic and understood it. He belonged up top—up top, he would be powerful and terrible, and they would all be afraid.
Hayes unlaced his tennis shoe and took off his sock; he put his shoe on and laced it tight. The gravel hit his spine and the top of his head. Hayes opened his sock and scooped fistfuls of gravel from the ground. When the foot was full he tied a knot in the cuff and began walking up the gangplank, his sock spinning. The children on the gangplank said, You can’t do that, and stepped back. As Hayes walked past, one grabbed his arm. Hayes pivoted and swung the sock, hitting the boy in the shoulder. You’re cheating, more of them shouted, and Hayes ran across the deck and spun and hit limbs and stomachs. At the base of the crow’s nest, a tall boy named Ernie said, You’re not going anywhere, and Hayes hit him in the crotch. When Ernie bent over Hayes hit him on the back of his neck, then the side of his head. He dropped the sock and started climbing. It was quiet enough to hear his own breath; he was smiling at the sky. At the top he shouted, I won! I won! You’re the monster now! and pointed down at Ernie, who sat with his head curled into his knees.
The recruitment center was in a small brick building across from the courthouse; Hayes had told his parents he was going to put air in the car tires. He ran his thumb along the edge of his birth certificate, folded inside his jacket pocket. The lobby wall was hung with round emblems depicting stern birds and anchors and guns. Hayes followed the lobby sign that said Recruitment Office, where a uniformed man sat writing at a desk.
“Excuse me, is officer Boggs in?”
“No,” said the man, who continued to write.
“Oh. That’s fine. Is there another Navy recruiter I could talk to?”
The hallway behind the man was lined with closed doors. “Will Officer Boggs be in tomorrow?” Hayes asked.
The man shrugged.
“Can you sign me up for the Navy?”
“Navy’s for faggots. Join the Air Force,” the man said.
Hayes looked at the oil painting hung on the wall behind the man, an eagle trailing an American flag in its talons. “The Navy recruiter said the Air Force is for bums.”
The man kept writing. “Sounds like something a faggot would say.”
“He called it the Chair Force.”
“Did he, now?” The man put his pen down and leaned back in his chair. “Know what we in the Chair Force call the Navy?”
“We call it 20,000 Leagues Under the Semen.”
Hayes nodded. “Okay,” he said.
The man leaned forward. “The fuck is wrong with you? That’s a funny joke.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hayes.
“I just made that joke up.”
“I never saw that movie.”
“That doesn’t matter. It’s s-e-m-e-n. Under the semen.”
“I think I get it now.”
“You think you get it now.”
“Okay, kiddo, how about you come back when you’re done being a killjoy sea-cum-loving faggot.”
“I’m not a faggot.”
“Well, if the Navy is for faggots, and you want to join the Navy, I don’t see how that’s the case.”
Hayes had no argument; he joined the Air Force.
Hayes stopped throwing up after his fourth patrol; by his sixth, he was bored. On his seventh he thought about new nicknames for himself and whether to part his hair on the left. By his ninth patrol, he had run out of things to think about. There were no windows in the belly of the plane, and Hayes would stare for hours at the box that held the switch, smelling metal and oil, the roar of death in his ears. He got headaches. The headaches lasted even after landing. His brain jittered in his skull at mess and at night as he lay in his cot. When the Major found the rotting cake under his bed and ordered Hayes to clean the toilets, Hayes said, “I have a headache.” “You are a headache,” said the Major. And then some men had come up behind him—Hayes didn’t know who, though he had many guesses—they had come up behind him and pushed his head into the water, and for longer than could have been funny to anyone. Hayes did not know if they would let him up again, and when they did he gasped and spat on the floor. He slid onto his belly and stared at the the veins in the cement while he waited for the men to leave.
Hayes remembered how the girl with the braids had told his fortune. He remembered the smell of pencils and warm apple juice, the white pyramids swishing open and shut. R-E-D, the girl said, M-O-T-H-E-R. Pick a number, she said, then, You’ll never marry, you’ll live to one hundred and one. Hayes had made her show him the fortune.
“I don’t like that one,” he said.
“Too bad, it’s your future,” said the girl.
“I want to do it again.”
“You get to live a long time. That’s a good fortune.”
“I don’t want to live a long time. Do it again.”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“Did you see what I did to Ernie?”
The girl looked down at the cootie catcher. “You’re not fun,” she said.
“Did you see what I did to Ernie?”
“Do it again.”
B-L-U-E, the girl said. N-O-O-N-E. Pick a number. Then, You’re a homosexual. You’ll die soon.
“That’s not what it says,” said Hayes.
The girl looked down at the fortune teller. “It says you’re a cheater and a bully.”
Hayes grabbed for the fortune teller, but the girl pulled it to her chest. Hayes and the girl looked at each other before Hayes lunged. The girl turned and ran out of the classroom, and Hayes followed. Mrs. McQuaid shouted something. The girl was only a little ways ahead of him, trailing paper flakes. She turned into the girls’ bathroom, with its pink tile and pink stalls, and Hayes followed, his feet heavy on the tile. The girl shrieked and turned into a stall. She tried to shut the door, but her hands were full of paper, and Hayes pushed it open and grabbed at her closed fists. The girl turned her back to him and leaned towards the toilet, but Hayes grabbed her elbows. She kicked his shin with her heel and Hayes loosened his grip enough that she leaned forward and threw the paper in the toilet. Hayes tried to push past her, but the girl kicked out her leg and pressed the lever with her foot. When she turned around, Hayes saw that her face was red and her braid had come unraveled, and she began to cry.
On his tenth patrol, Hayes opened the box bolted to the wall of his compartment. The switchboard was black. It had a silver toggle with OFF, POWER, and EMERGENCY POWER printed around it in white letters. It had a dial that could point to SAFE or ARM. Hayes pinched the cold toggle and clicked it to POWER, then EMERGENCY POWER. He clicked it to OFF. He ticked the dial to ARM, then SAFE, then ARM. What’s your favorite color? he thought, his fingers on the toggle. T-O-R-Q-O-I-S-E he thought, shifting the toggle with each letter. Hayes let go and looked at the floor. T-U-R-Q-O-I-S-E, he thought, shifting the toggle again. T-E-A-L, he tried.
Hayes was hungry. He chewed on the chin strap of his helmet; the intercom crackled like bacon grease. It was the pilot, who said there was a fuel leak, the wing tank gauge was dropping or spinning or both, Hayes couldn’t make out what, and he thought of flames and the burnt edges of hash browns. The pilot said, coordinates and emergency landing and et cetera. Who do you love? Hayes thought. He ticked the dial to ARM, then SAFE. He spelled an answer: ARM-SAFE-ARM-SAFE-ARM.
Hayes cracked his knuckles and rocked on his heels. Something was off. He considered the dial. He needed to spell the whole thing, he thought, for formality’s sake. The plane was louder and pitching forward. The pilot scratched over the intercom again, saying, impossible, eject, godbless. Hayes turned the dial back and forth, counting off letters. The floor dropped from under him and he slid into the forward wall of the compartment; no matter, he was done.
The plane was very loud. Hayes pulled himself along the side wall to the seat. Sitting and strapped, Hayes hung face-forward, perhaps spinning a little, though it was hard to tell without windows, and Hayes was trying to remember procedure. He remembered his face mask and the hinged box on the chair arm, the ENGAGE button and the EJECT switch, the hatch beneath him that should blow out and the parachute that should deploy. Should and did, and as Hayes shot up—up, because the T-38 was now upside down, showing its whale-belly to the sun —the T-38 lost its wing, and split in two and then into thirds so that the lanyard bolted to the bomb’s safing pin ripped away, taking the pin with it, trailing like the reel of a lost kite. Hayes didn’t notice; he rocked from his parachute strings and wondering if below, an amazed North Carolina would take him for a god. Then the bomb slid out of the blown-open plane and into the sky.
There had been no order from the President or keys or codes, but the pin was gone just the same, and the bomb had electrical instructions, though it did not know whether to follow them, and Hayes and the T-38 had already slipped up through the clouds, leaving the bomb alone with its bomb-thoughts for the first time in its life.
The bomb lost altitude and considered: was it an innately immoral object or were objects exempt from schemes of human morality? Should it explode or not explode, and why? And if explode, how much to explode? And if it chose to explode, would that be an act of determinism or free will? And if the bomb got all the way to the ground without deciding—as seemed likely since the bomb was a cautious and methodical thinker—what would happen and who, if anyone, would be to blame for it?
Hayes maybe, thought the bomb, since he was a known killjoy and a suspected faggot, liking turquoise as much as he did. Or does. The bomb did not know what had happened or would happen to Hayes. Would it be fair to blame him for exploding or not-exploding? Perhaps Hayes would pick again if he could. But it was useless to wonder; Hayes couldn’t pick again, and anyway, there were only so many futures to choose from. The bomb observed its blue shadow, gathering on the treetops.