The summer I sang the lead for Annie it was 1999. My father was in serious preparedness mode. Not since I was five, and the Weavers were under siege, had he been so certain that the Days of Abomination were upon us.
Dad called it Y2K. On January 1, he said, computer systems all over the world would fail. There would be no electricity, no telephones. All would sink into chaos, and this would usher in the Second Coming of Christ.
“How do you know the day?” I asked.
Dad said that the Government had programmed the computers with a six-digit calendar, which meant the year had only two digits. “When nine-nine becomes oh-oh,” he said, “the computers won’t know what year it is. They’ll shut down.”
“Can’t they fix it?”
“Nope, can’t be done,” Dad said. “Man trusted his own strength, and his strength was weak.”
At church, Dad warned everyone about Y2K. He advised Papa Jay to get strong locks for his gas station, and maybe some defensive weaponry. “That store will be the first thing looted in the famine,” Dad said. He told Brother Mumford that every righteous man should have, at minimum, a ten-year supply of food, fuel, guns and gold. Brother Mumford just whistled. “We can’t all be as righteous as you, Gene,” he said. “Some of us are sinners!” No one listened. They went about their lives in the summer sun.
Meanwhile, my family boiled and skinned peaches, pitted apricots and churned apples into sauce. Everything was pressure-cooked, sealed, labeled, and stored away in a root cellar Dad had dug out in the field. The entrance was concealed by a hillock; Dad said I should never tell anybody where it was.
One afternoon, Dad climbed into the excavator and dug a pit next to the old barn. Then, using the loader, he lowered a thousand-gallon tank into the pit and buried it with a shovel, carefully planting nettles and sow thistle in the freshly tossed dirt so they would grow and conceal the tank. He whistled “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story while he shoveled. His hat was tipped back on his head, and he wore a brilliant smile. “We’ll be the only ones with fuel when The End comes,” he said. “We’ll be driving when everyone else is hotfooting it. We’ll even make a run down to Utah, to fetch Tyler.”
I HAD REHEARSALS MOST NIGHTS at the Worm Creek Opera House, a dilapidated theater near the only stoplight in town. The play was another world. Nobody talked about Y2K.
The interactions between people at Worm Creek were not at all what I was used to in my family. Of course I’d spent time with people outside my family, but they were like us: women who’d hired Mother to midwife their babies, or who came to her for herbs because they didn’t believe in the Medical Establishment. I had a single friend, named Jessica. A few years before, Dad had convinced her parents, Rob and Diane, that public schools were little more than Government propaganda programs, and since then they had kept her at home. Before her parents had pulled Jessica from school, she was one of them, and I never tried to talk to her; but after, she was one of us. The normal kids stopped including her, and she was left with me.
I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us—people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World. Worm Creek was full of these people, people whose words seemed ripped from another reality. That was how it felt the first time the director spoke to me, like he was speaking from another dimension. All he said was, “Go find FDR.” I didn’t move.
He tried again. “President Roosevelt. FDR.”
“Is that like a JCB?” I said. “You need a forklift?”
I’d memorized all my lines, but at rehearsals I sat alone, pretending to study my black binder. When it was my turn onstage, I would recite my lines loudly and without hesitation. That made me feel a kind of confidence. If I didn’t have anything to say, at least Annie did.
A week before opening night, Mother dyed my brown hair cherry red. The director said it was perfect, that all I needed now was to finish my costumes before the dress rehearsal on Saturday.
In our basement I found an oversized knit sweater, stained and hole-ridden, and an ugly blue dress, which Mother bleached to a faded brown. The dress was perfect for an orphan, and I was relieved at how easy finding the costumes had been, until I remembered that in act two Annie wears beautiful dresses, which Daddy Warbucks buys for her. I didn’t have anything like that.
I told Mother and her face sank. We drove a hundred miles round-trip, searching every secondhand shop along the way, but found nothing. Sitting in the parking lot of the last shop, Mother pursed her lips, then said, “There’s one more place we can try.”
We drove to my aunt Angie’s and parked in front of the white picket fence she shared with Grandma. Mother knocked, then stood back from the door and smoothed her hair. Angie looked surprised to see us—Mother rarely visited her sister—but she smiled warmly and invited us in. Her front room reminded me of fancy hotel lobbies from the movies, there was so much silk and lace. Mother and I sat on a pleated sofa of pale pink while Mother explained why we’d come. Angie said her daughter had a few dresses that might do.
Mother waited on the pink sofa while Angie led me upstairs to her daughter’s room and laid out an armful of dresses, each so fine, with such intricate lace patterns and delicately tied bows, that at first I was afraid to touch them. Angie helped me into each one, knotting the sashes, fastening the buttons, plumping the bows. “You should take this one,” she said, passing me a navy dress with white braided cords arranged across the bodice. “Grandma sewed this detailing.” I took the dress, along with another made of red velvet collared with white lace, and Mother and I drove home.
The play opened a week later. Dad was in the front row. When the performance ended, he marched right to the box office and bought tickets for the next night. It was all he talked about that Sunday in church. Not doctors, or the Illuminati, or Y2K. Just the play over in town, where his youngest daughter was singing the lead.
Dad didn’t stop me from auditioning for the next play, or the one after that, even though he worried about me spending so much time away from home. “There’s no telling what kind of cavorting takes place in that theater,” he said. “It’s probably a den of adulterers and fornicators.”
When the director of the next play got divorced, it confirmed Dad’s suspicions. He said he hadn’t kept me out of the public school for all these years just to see me corrupted on a stage. Then he drove me to the rehearsal. Nearly every night he said he was going to put a stop to my going, that one evening he’d just show up at Worm Creek and haul me home. But each time a play opened he was there, in the front row.
Sometimes he played the part of an agent or manager, correcting my technique or suggesting songs for my repertoire, even advising me about my health. That winter I caught a procession of sore throats and couldn’t sing, and one night Dad called me to him and pried my mouth open to look at my tonsils.
“They’re swollen, all right,” he said. “Big as apricots.” When Mother couldn’t get the swelling down with echinacea and calendula, Dad suggested his own remedy. “People don’t know it, but the sun is the most powerful medicine we have. That’s why people don’t get sore throats in summer.” He nodded, as if approving of his own logic, then said, “If I had tonsils like yours, I’d go outside every morning and stand in the sun with my mouth open—let those rays seep in for a half hour or so. They’ll shrink in no time.” He called it a treatment.
I did it for a month.
It was uncomfortable, standing with my jaw dropped and my head tilted back so the sun could shine into my throat. I never lasted a whole half hour. My jaw would ache after ten minutes, and I’d half-freeze standing motionless in the Idaho winter. I kept catching more sore throats, and anytime Dad noticed I was a bit croaky, he’d say, “Well, what do you expect? I ain’t seen you getting treatment all week!”
IT WAS AT THE Worm Creek Opera House that I first saw him: a boy I didn’t know, laughing with a group of public school kids, wearing big white shoes, khaki shorts and a wide grin. He wasn’t in the play, but there wasn’t much to do in town, and I saw him several more times that week when he turned up to visit his friends. Then one night, when I was wandering alone in the dark wings backstage, I turned a corner and found him sitting on the wooden crate that was a favorite haunt of mine. The crate was isolated—that was why I liked it.
He shifted to the right, making room for me. I sat slowly, tensely, as if the seat were made of needles.
“I’m Charles,” he said. There was a pause while he waited for me to give my name, but I didn’t. “I saw you in the last play,” he said after a moment. “I wanted to tell you something.” I braced myself, for what I wasn’t sure, then he said, “I wanted to tell you that your singing is about the best I ever heard.”
I CAME HOME ONE AFTERNOON from packing macadamias to find Dad and Richard gathered around a large metal box, which they’d hefted onto the kitchen table. While Mother and I cooked meatloaf, they assembled the contents. It took more than an hour, and when they’d finished they stood back, revealing what looked like an enormous military-green telescope, with its long barrel set firmly atop a short, broad tripod. Richard was so excited he was hopping from one foot to the other, reciting what it could do. “Got a range more than a mile! Can bring down a helicopter!”
Dad stood quietly, his eyes shining.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a fifty-caliber rifle,” he said. “Wanna try it?”
I peered through the scope, searching the mountainside, fixing distant stalks of wheat between its crosshairs.
The meatloaf was forgotten. We charged outside. It was past sunset; the horizon was dark. I watched as Dad lowered himself to the frozen ground, positioned his eye at the scope and, after what felt like an hour, pulled the trigger. The blast was thunderous. I had both palms pressed to my ears, but after the initial boom I dropped them, listening as the shot echoed through the ravines. He fired again and again, so that by the time we went inside my ears were ringing. I could barely hear Dad’s reply when I asked what the gun was for.
“Defense,” he said.
The next night I had a rehearsal at Worm Creek. I was perched on my crate, listening to the monologue being performed onstage, when Charles appeared and sat next to me.
“You don’t go to school,” he said.
It wasn’t a question.
“You should come to choir. You’d like choir.”
“Maybe,” I said, and he smiled. A few of his friends stepped into the wing and called to him. He stood and said goodbye, and I watched him join them, taking in the easy way they joked together and imagining an alternate reality in which I was one of them. I imagined Charles inviting me to his house, to play a game or watch a movie, and felt a rush of pleasure. But when I pictured Charles visiting Buck’s Peak, I felt something else, something like panic. What if he found the root cellar? What if he discovered the fuel tank? Then I understood, finally, what the rifle was for. That mighty barrel, with its special range that could reach from the mountain to the valley, was a defensive perimeter for the house, for our supplies, because Dad said we would be driving when everyone else was hotfooting it. We would have food, too, when everyone else was starving, looting. Again I imagined Charles climbing the hill to our house. But in my imagination I was on the ridge, and I was watching his approach through crosshairs.
CHRISTMAS WAS SPARSE THAT YEAR. We weren’t poor—Mother’s business was doing well and Dad was still scrapping—but we’d spent everything on supplies.
Before Christmas, we continued our preparations as if every action, every minor addition to our stores might make the difference between surviving, and not; after Christmas, we waited. “When the hour of need arises,” Dad said, “the time of preparation has passed.”
The days dragged on, and then it was December 31. Dad was calm at breakfast but under his tranquillity I sensed excitement, and something like longing. He’d been waiting for so many years, burying guns and stockpiling food and warning others to do the same. Everyone at church had read the prophecies; they knew the Days of Abomination were coming. But still they’d teased Dad, they’d laughed at him. Tonight he would be vindicated.
After dinner, Dad studied Isaiah for hours. At around ten he closed his Bible and turned on the TV. The television was new. Aunt Angie’s husband worked for a satellite-TV company, and he’d offered Dad a deal on a subscription. No one had believed it when Dad said yes, but in retrospect it was entirely characteristic for my father to move, in the space of a day, from no TV or radio to full-blown cable. I sometimes wondered if Dad allowed the television that year, specifically, because he knew it would all disappear on January 1. Perhaps he did it to give us a little taste of the world, before it was swept away.
Dad’s favorite program was The Honeymooners, and that night there was a special, with episodes playing back to back. We watched, waiting for The End. I checked the clock every few minutes from ten until eleven, then every few seconds until midnight. Even Dad, who was rarely stirred by anything outside himself, glanced often at the clock.
I held my breath. One more minute, I thought, before everything is gone.
Then it was 12:00. The TV was still buzzing, its lights dancing across the carpet. I wondered if our clock was fast. I went to the kitchen and turned on the tap. We had water. Dad stayed still, his eyes on the screen. I returned to the couch.
How long would it take for the electricity to fail? Was there a reserve somewhere that was keeping it going these few extra minutes?
The black-and-white specters of Ralph and Alice Kramden argued over a meatloaf.
I waited for the screen to flicker and die. I was trying to take it all in, this last, luxurious moment—of sharp yellow light, of warm air flowing from the heater. I was experiencing nostalgia for the life I’d had before, which I would lose at any second, when the world turned and began to devour itself.
The longer I sat motionless, breathing deeply, trying to inhale the last scent of the fallen world, the more I resented its continuing solidity. Nostalgia turned to fatigue.
Sometime after 1:30 I went to bed. I glimpsed Dad as I left, his face frozen in the dark, the light from the TV leaping across his square glasses. He sat as if posed, with no agitation, no embarrassment, as if there were a perfectly mundane explanation for why he was sitting up, alone, at near two in the morning, watching Ralph and Alice Kramden prepare for a Christmas party.
He seemed smaller to me than he had that morning. The disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this. He, a faithful servant, who suffered willingly just as Noah had willingly suffered to build the ark.
But God withheld the flood.