Barbara Wells stopped with a bite halfway to her mouth. "Mr. Farnham! You think they are going to attack?"
Her host shrugged. "The Kremlin doesn't let me in on its secrets."
His son said, "Dad, quit scaring the ladies. Mrs. Wells-"
"Call me 'Barbara.' I'm going to ask the court to let me drop the 'Mrs.'" "You don't need permission."
"Watch it, Barb," his sister Karen said. "Free advice is expensive."
"Shaddap. Barbara, with all respect to my worthy father, he sees spooks. There is not going to be a war."
"I hope you're right," Barbara Wells said soberly. "Why do you think so?"
"Because the communists are realists. They never risk a war that would hurt them, even if they could win. So they won't risk one they can't win."
"Then I wish," his mother said, "that they would stop having these dreadful crises. Cuba. All that fuss about Berlin-as if anybody cared! And now this. It makes a person nervous. Joseph!"
"You fetch me coffee. And brandy. Cafe royale."
"Yes, ma'am." The houseboy, a young Negro, removed her plate, barely touched.
Young Farnham said, "Dad, it's not these phony crises that has Mother upset; it's the panicky way you behave. You must stop it."
"You must! Mother didn't eat her dinner ... and all because of that silly button in your ear. You can't-"
"Drop it, Duke."
"When you moved into your own apartment, we agreed to live as friends. As my friend your opinions are welcome. But that does not make you free to interfere between your mother-my wife-and myself."
His wife said, "Now, Hubert."
"You're too harsh on the boy. It does make me nervous."
"Duke is not a boy. And I've done nothing to make you nervous. Sorry."
"I'm sorry, too, Mother. But if Dad regards it as interference, well-" Duke forced a grin. "I'll have to find a wife of my own to annoy. Barbara, will you marry me?"
"I told you she was smart, Duke," his sister volunteered.
"Karen, pipe down. Why not, Barbara? I'm young, I'm healthy. Why, someday I might even have clients. In the meantime you can support us."
"No, Duke. I agree with your father."
"I should say that my father agrees with your father. I don't know that my pops is carrying around a radio tonight but I'm certain that he is listening to one. Duke, every car in our family has a survival kit."
"My car out in your father's driveway, the one Karen and I drove down from school, has a kit in its trunk that Pops picked before I re-entered college. Pops takes it seriously, so I do."
Duke Farnham opened his mouth, closed it. His father asked, "Barbara, what did your father select?"
"Oh, lots of things. Ten gallons of water. Food. A jeep can of gasoline. Medicines. A sleeping bag. A gun-"
"Can you use a gun?"
"Pops made me learn. A shovel. An ax. Clothes. Oh, yes, a radio. But the important thing was 'Where?'-so he kept saying. If I were at school, he would expect me to head for the basement of the gym. But here- Pops would expect me to head up into the mountains."
"You won't need to."
"Dad means," explained Karen, "that you are welcome in our panic hole."
Barbara showed a questioning look. Her host said, "Our bomb shelter. 'Farnham's Folly' my son calls it. I think you would be safer there than you would be running for the hills-despite the fact that we are only ten miles from a MAMMA Base. If an alarm comes, we'll duck into it. Right, Joseph?"
"Yes, sir! That way I stay on your payroll."
"The hell you do. You're fired the instant the sirens sound-and I start charging you rent."
"Do I pay rent, too?" asked Barbara.
"You wash dishes. Everybody does. Even Duke."
"Count me out," Duke said grimly.
"Eh? Not that many dishes, Son."
"I'm not joking, Dad. Khrushchev said he would bury us-and you're making it come true. I'm not going to crawl into a hole in the ground!"
"As you wish, sir."
"Sonny boy!" His mother put down her cup. "If an attack comes, of course you're going into the shelter!" She blinked back tears. "Promise Mother."
Young Farnham looked stubborn, then sighed. "All right. If an attack comes-If an alarm sounds, I mean; there isn't going to be an attack-I'll go into your panic hole. But, Dad, this is just to soothe Mother's nerves."
"Nevertheless you are welcome."
"Okay. Let's go into the living room and break out the cards-with a firm understanding that we drop the subject. Suits?"
"Agreed." His father got up and offered his arm to his wife. "My dear?"
In the living room, Grace Farnham declined to play bridge. "No, dear, I'm too upset. You play with the young people, and-Joseph! Joseph, bring me just a teensy bit more coffee. Royale, I mean. Don't look that way, Hubert; it helps, you know it does."
"Would you like a Miltown, dear?"
"I don't need drugs. I'll just have a drop more coffee."
They cut for partners; Duke shook his head sadly. "Poor Barbara! Stuck with Dad-Did you warn her, Sis?"
"Keep your warnings to yourself," his father advised.
"She's entitled to know, Dad. Barbara, that juvenile delinquent across from you is as optimistic in contract as he is pessimistic in-well, in other matters. Watch out for psychic bids. If he has a Yarborough-"
"Drop dead, Duke. Barbara, what system do you prefer? Italian?"
Her eyes widened. "The only Italian I know is vermouth, Mr. Farnham. I play Goren. Nothing fancy, I just try to go by the book."
"'By the book,'" Hubert Farnham agreed.
"'By the book,'" his son echoed. "Which book? Dad likes to ring in the Farmers' Almanac, especially when you're vulnerable, doubled and redoubled. Then he'll point out how, if you had led diamonds-"
"Counselor," his father interrupted, "will you deal those cards? Or shall I stuff them down your throat?"
"I'll go quietly. Put a little blood in it? A cent a point?"
Barbara said hastily, "That's steep for me."
Duke answered, "You gals aren't in it. Just Dad and myself. That's how I pay my office rent."
"Duke means," his father corrected, "that is how he gets deep into debt to his old man. I was beating him out of his allowance when he was still in junior high."
Barbara shut up and played cards. The stakes made her tense, even though it was not her money. Her nervousness was increased by suspicion that her partner was a match player.
Her nerves relaxed, though not her care, as it began to appear that Mr. Farnham found her bidding satisfactory. But she welcomed the rest that came from being dummy. She spent these vacations studying Hubert Farnham.
She decided that she liked him, for the way he handled his family and for the way he played bridge-quietly, thoughtfully, exact in bidding, precise and sometimes brilliant in play. She admired the way he squeezed out the last trick, of a contract in which she had forced them too high, by having the boldness to sluff an ace.
She knew that Karen expected her to pair off with Duke this weekend and admitted that it seemed reasonable. Duke was as handsome as Karen was pretty-and a catch ... rising young lawyer, a year older than herself, with a fresh and disarming wolfishness.
She wondered if he expected to make out with her? Did Karen expect it and was she watching, secretly amused?
Well, it wasn't going to happen! She did not mind admitting that she was a one-time loser but she resented the assumption that any divorcee was available. Damn it, she hadn't been in bed with anybody since that dreadful night when she had packed and left. Why did people think-Duke was looking at her; she locked eyes with him, blushed, and looked away, looked at his father instead.
Mr. Farnham was fiftyish, she decided. And looked it. Hair thinning and already gray, himself thin, almost gaunt, but with a slight potbelly, tired eyes, lines around them, and deep lines down his cheeks. Not handsome-With sudden warmth she realized that if Duke Farnham had half the strong masculine charm his father had, a panty girdle wouldn't be much protection. She dismissed it by being quickly angry with Grace Farnham. What excuse did a woman have for being an incipient alcoholic, fretful and fat and self-indulgent, when she had this man?
The thought was chased away by realization that Mrs. Farnham was what Karen might become. Mother and daughter looked alike, save that Karen had not gone to pot. Barbara did not like this thought. She liked Karen better than any other sorority sister she had found when she went back to finish college. Karen was sweet and generous and gay-But perhaps Grace Farnham had been so, once. Did women have to become fretful and useless?
Hubert Farnham looked up from the last trick. "Three spades, game and rubber. Well bid, partner."
She flushed again. "Well played, you mean. I invited too much."
"Not at all. At worst we would have been down one. If you don't bet, you can't win. Karen, has Joseph gone to bed?"
"Studying. He's got a quiz."
"I thought we might invite him to cut in. Barbara, Joseph is the best player in this house-always audacity at the right time. Plus the fact that he is studying to be an accountant and never forgets a card. Karen, can you find us something without disturbing Joseph?"
"'Spect ah kin, Boss. Vodka and tonic for you?"
"And munching food."
"Come on, Barbara. Let's bottle."
Hubert Farnham watched them go, while thinking it was a shame that so nice a child as Mrs. Wells should have had a sour marriage. A sound game of bridge and a good disposition- Gangly and horse faced, perhaps- But a nice smile and a mind of her own. If Duke had any gumption-
But Duke didn't have any. He went to where his wife was nodding by the television receiver, and said, "Grace? Grace darling, ready for bed?"-then helped her into her bedroom.
When he came back, he found his son alone. He sat down and said, "Duke, I'm sorry about that difference of opinion at dinner."
"That? Oh, forget it."
"I would rather have your respect than your tolerance. I know that you disapprove of my 'panic hole.' But we have never discussed why I built it."
"What is there to discuss? You think the Soviet Union is going to attack. You think that hole in the ground will save your life. Both ideas are unhealthy. Sick. Especially unhealthy for Mother. You are driving her to drink. I don't like it. I liked it still less to have you remind me-me, a lawyer!-that I must not interfere between husband and wife." Duke started to get up. "I'll be going."
"Please, Son! Doesn't the defense get a chance?"
"Uh-All right, all right!" Duke sat down.
"I respect your opinions. I don't share them but many people do. Perhaps most people, since most Americans have made no effort to save themselves. But on the points you made, you are mistaken. I don't expect the USSR to attack-and I doubt if our shelter is enough to save our lives."
"Then why go around with that plug in your ear scaring Mother out of her wits?"
"I've never had an automobile accident. But I carry auto insurance. That shelter is my insurance policy."
"But you just said it wouldn't save your life!"
"No, I said I doubted that it would be enough. It could save our lives if we lived a hundred miles away. But Mountain Springs is a prime target ... and no citizen can build anything strong enough to stop a direct hit."
"Then why bother?"
"I told you. The best insurance I can afford. Our shelter won't stop a direct hit. But it will stand up to a near miss-and Russians aren't supermen and rockets are temperamental. I've minimized the risk. That's the best I can do."
Duke hesitated. "Dad, I can't be diplomatic."
"Then don't try."
"So I'll be blunt. Do you have to ruin Mother's life, turn her into a lush, just on the chance that a hole in the ground will let you live a few years longer? Will it be worth while to be alive-afterwards-with the country devastated and all your friends dead?"
"Duke, you aren't married."
"Son, I must be blunt myself. It has been years since I've had any real interest in staying alive. You are grown and on your own, and your sister is a grown woman, even though she is still in school. As for myself-" He shrugged. "The most satisfying thing left is the fiddling pleasure of a game of bridge. As you are aware, there isn't much companionship left in my marriage."
"I am aware, all right. But it's your fault. You're crowding Mother into a nervous breakdown."
"I wish it were that simple. In the first place-You were at law school when I built the shelter, during that Berlin crisis. Your mother perked up and stayed sober. She would take a martini and let it go at that-instead of four as she did tonight. Duke, Grace wants that shelter."
"Well-maybe so. But you aren't soothing her by trotting around with that plug in your ear."
"Perhaps not. But I have no choice."
"What do you mean?"
"Grace is my wife, Son. 'To love and to cherish' includes keeping her alive if I can. That shelter may keep her alive. But only if she is in it. How much warning today? Fifteen minutes, if we're lucky. But three minutes could be time enough to get her into the shelter. But if I don't hear the alert, I won't have three minutes. So I listen. During any crisis."
"Suppose it happens when you are asleep?"
His father smiled. "If the news is bad, I sleep with this button taped into my ear. When it's really bad-as it is tonight-Grace and I sleep in the shelter. The girls will be urged to sleep there. And you are invited."
"I didn't think so."
"Dad, stipulating that an attack is possible-merely stipulating, as the Russians aren't crazy-why build a shelter smack on a target? Why don't you pick a place far from any target, build there-again stipulating that Mother needs one for her nerves, which may be true-and get Mother off the sauce?"
Hubert Farnham sighed. "Son, she won't have it. This is her home."
"Duke, have you ever tried to make a woman do anything she really didn't want to do? Besides that, a weakness for the sauce-hell, growing alcoholism-is not that simple. I must cope with it as best I can. However-Duke, I told you that I did not have much reason to stay alive. But I do have one reason."
"If those lying, cheating bastards ever throw their murder weapons at the United States, I want to live long enough to go to hell in style-with eight Russian side boys!"
Farnham twisted in his chair. "I mean it, Duke. America is the best thing in history, I think, and if those scoundrels kill our country, I want to kill a few of them. Eight side boys. Not less. I felt relieved when Grace refused to consider moving."
"Because I don't want that pig-faced peasant with the manners of a pig to run me out of my home! I'm a free man. I intend to stay free. I've made every preparation I can. But I wouldn't relish running away. I-Here come the girls."
Karen came in carrying drinks, followed by Barbara. "Hi! Barb got a look at our kitchen and decided to make crepes Suzettes. Why are you two looking grim? More bad news?"
"No, but if you will snap the television on, we might get part of the ten o'clock roundup. Barbara, those glorified pancakes smell wonderful. Want a job as a cook?"
"What about Joseph?"
"We'll keep Joseph as housekeeper."
Duke said, "Hey! You refused my offer of honorable matrimony and turn around and agree to live in sin with my old man. How come?"
"I didn't hear 'sin' mentioned."
"Don't you know? Barbara ... Dad is a notorious sex criminal."
"Is this true, Mr. Farnham?"
"That's why I studied law, Barbara. It was breaking us to bring Jerry Giesler all the way from Los Angeles every time Dad got into a jam."
"Those were the good old days!" Duke's father agreed. "But, Barbara, that was years ago. Contract is my weakness now."
"In that case I would expect a higher salary-"
"Hush, children!" Karen said forcefully. She turned up the sound:
"-agreed in principal to three out of four of the President's major points and has agreed to meet again to discuss the fourth point, the presence of their nuclear submarines in our coastal waters. It may now be safely stated that the crisis, the most acute in post-World-War-Two years, does seem to be tapering off to a mutual accommodation that both countries can live with. We pause to bring you exciting news from General Motors followed by an analysis in depth-"
Karen turned it down. Duke said, "Just as I said, Dad. You can take that cork out of your ear."
"Later. I'm busy with crepes Suzettes. Barbara, I'll expect these for breakfast every morning."
Excerpted from Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein Copyright © 1994 by Robert A. Heinlein. Excerpted by permission.
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