a short story by Martin Skala
This short story was written by Martin Skala in 1951 for an English class assignment. Its perspective is that of a boy who spent a good part of his earliest childhood running for his life - from Nazi-occupied Austria to England, from bombings to safety along the English coast, finally, across the Atlantic, to the United States, with his family - all before his 5th birthday.
Martin and his family ended up settling in Sunnyside. While the story isn’t about Sunnyside per se, it clearly reflects aspects of the era and the feel of the place. Well-written and mature, the essay was given an A by Martin’s English teacher.
It is a typical nippy morning in early January with the sun bravely trying to pierce the overcast sky, as we peek into the home of Mr. John Warren in suburban New York. Mr. Warren had just arisen and was sitting at the kitchen table with a far-away look in his eyes.
"What would you do if you knew this was the last day of the world?" he muttered to his wife, who was preparing breakfast.
"What would I do? You mean, seriously?"
"I don't know — I never supposed…. " She turned the handle of the silver coffeepot toward him and placed the two cups in their saucers. He poured some coffee. In the background, his two small boys were playing blocks on the parlor rug. There was a pleasant aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the air.
"Well, better start thinking about it," he exclaimed.
"You don't really mean it?" asked his wife.
"Not the hydrogen or atom bomb?"
He shook his head.
"Or germ warfare?"
"None of these at all," he replied, stirring his coffee and staring into its black depths. "But just the closing of a book, let’s say." He glanced in at the boys and their black hair gleaming in the lamplight, and lowered his voice. "It first happened about four nights ago."
"A dream I had. I dreamt that everything would come to an end and a voice said it was; not any kind of human voice, but a serene, heavenly kind of voice, and it told me things would stop here on Earth. I didn't think too much about it when I awoke the next morning, but when I went to the plant, the memory kept popping up in my mind all day. I saw Stan Willis peering blankly out the window in the middle of the afternoon and I said, 'Penny for your thoughts, Stan' and he answered softly, 'I had a dream last night,' and before he even gave the details I knew what it was. I could have told him, but he told me and I listened carefully to him."
"Was it the same dream?"
"Identical. I told Sam I had it, too. He wasn't amazed. He relaxed, in fact. Then we just strolled through the offices, for the hell of it. It wasn't planned. Without uttering a single word, we just took off and walked. Everywhere we noticed people gazing at their desks or at their hands or out the windows and not seeing what was in front of their eyes. I spoke with a few; so did Sam."
"And all of them had the same dream?"
"Every single one."
"Do you believe in the dream?"
"I was never more certain."
"And when will everything cease?"
"Sometime during the night for us, and then as the night goes round the world, those advancing portions will go, too. It'll take twenty-four hours for it all to vanish."
They mused awhile not touching their coffee. Then they lifted their cups and took a slow sip, looking each other over intently.
"Do we deserve this?" his wife asked placidly.
"It's not a case of deserving, it just means that things didn't work out. I notice you didn't even argue about this. Why not?"
"Well, I didn't intend to mention it, but the same dream appeared to me. And the women on the block are discussing it, just among themselves." She picked up the evening paper and held it towards him. "There's no news of it here."
"No, everyone knows, so what's the need?" He took the paper and leaned back in his chair, looking at the boys and then at her. "Are you afraid?"
"Frankly, no. Not even for the children. I suppose I should be hysterical, but I'm not."
"Where's that instinct of self-preservation scientists talk about so much?"
"I'm perplexed. It just isn't here. You don't get too upset when you realize things are logical. This is logical. Nothing else but this could have happened from the mess the world is in."
"Still, we haven't been devils, have we?"
"No, nor angels. I guess that's the trouble. We haven't been very much of anything except us; the majority of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things."
The boys were shouting gleefully as they knocked their house of blocks and watched it come tumbling down.
"I always imagined people would be panicky at a decisive moment like this."
"I guess not. You don't get too excited when something rolls along you can't avoid."
"Do you know, I won't miss anything but you and the boys. I never cared for this grimy city life with the perpetual haste and confusion. The only thing I'll pine for is my family or a glass of cool water during the hot weather, or our nice, cozy apartment or the luxury of sleeping. Just trifles, really. Gee, how can we just sit here and gab this way?"
"Because there's nothing else to do."
"Of course that's it. Everyone will spend a quiet evening with his family, anticipating the final hour. They'll listen to the radio, watch TV, play cards, put the children to bed, go to bed themselves, just like always."
"In a way that's something to be proud of — like always."
"We're not all bad."
They sat a moment pondering over this reflection on humanity. "Then why do you suppose it's tonight?" he erupted. "Why not some night in the past ten years or in the last century, or in the next fifty years?"
"Maybe it's because it was never January 10, 1952, ever before in history, and it is now and that's it, because this date is more significant than any other date in the earth's history, and because it's the year when things are in such a turmoil in the world and we would utterly destroy ourselves anyway. Maybe man is being saved from himself."
"There are bombers and warships on their course across the oceans tonight that'll never see land again."
"That's part of the reason why."
"Well," he said in a tone of despair. "It's out of our hands."
"Let's clean this place up," she suggested.
They washed the dishes carefully and stacked them away in the cupboard with special neatness. At eight thirty the boys were tucked in bed and kissed goodnight, and the little lights by their beds turned on, and the door left ajar.
"I wonder," said the husband, coming out and looking back, standing there a second, with his pipe in his hands.
"I wonder if the children know— if anyone mentioned anything to them?"
"No; of course not. They'd have asked us about it."
They reclined on the sofa and scanned over the paper and talked and listened to some radio music and then sat together by the fireplace staring at the glowing charcoal embers as the clock struck ten-thirty, then eleven and eleven-thirty. Their thoughts wandered into the homes of thousands of other families who had spent the evening, each in their own singular way.
"Well," he said at last. He hugged his wife and kissed her for a long time.
"We've been good for each other, anyway," she said with a wistful expression.
"Do you want to cry?"
"I don't think so."
They went through the house turning the lights out and locking the doors, and entered the bedroom and stood in cool darkness undressing. She pulled off the spread and folded it neatly over a chair, as always, and pushed back the covers. "The sheets are so cool and inviting," she noted.
They slipped into them, and lay back inhaling the clean air deeply.
"Wait a moment," she exclaimed and he heard her get up, and then he caught the creaking of the bathroom door. A second later she returned, "I left the water running, so I turned the faucet off."
It was such a petty thing that he broke out into laughter, and she, knowing what she had done that was so funny, joined in. They stopped laughing at last and lay there refreshed, with their hands clasped.
"Good night," he murmured drowsily.
"And goodbye," she added softly.
Martin became a journalist, and subsequently worked in public relations where he wrote primarily about business and finance.
Martin passed away January 6, 2019.