A novel extract, set in the American Southwest around the time of the Trinity nuclear tests.
Try tossing back an Atomic Cocktail:
rinse a cocktail glass with green chartreuse, discard excess,
meanwhile combine 2 oz gin,
1 oz dry vermouth,
1/4 oz aperol,
1/4 oz curaçao,
and a dash of orange bitters in a pint glass over ice,
strain into rinsed glass,
garnish with an orange zest twist
Now we’re all sons of bitches. Bainbridge recounted how he turned to Julius and said that, expecting a response, hoping for a companion as jittery with exhilaration and fear as he was. He said he thought Julius didn’t hear him, that Julius wasn’t even looking out at the explosion, just standing in its direction with a blank expression, face tinted with a slight smirk. Bainbridge thought about it all night he said. Like a nightmare, a goddamned nightmare. I can’t get it out of my head Eli, he told me. He thought Julius was watching his own reflection reappearing in the armored glass of the bunker as the consuming light lost its teeth, a transparent outline, a ghostly doppelgänger being born from the void of fissure and irradiated dust.
Rabi swore he’d never forget Julius’s walk leaving the room, a walk like it was High Noon, a strut. He’d done it, he knew he’d done it, Rabi said. I asked him what he thought about the test itself. You saw it, didn’t you? was his only reply before he shook his head and shut down, eyes vacant, hands patting pockets in search of something – Rabi didn’t smoke, but maybe he had. I don’t know.
Others were more enthusiastic. Teller, moments after, came to me crazed with delight. He described it as if I had not been there, running the white cotton gloves on his hands over his face like he was making sure he hadn’t hallucinated some glorious vision. A bubble of fire, he said, a blazing toadstool, it rose so ungodly fast – here he trembled with what I assume was a shiver of scientific vanity in the destruction of the divine – the light climbing, amazingly bright, yellow then red then the most beautiful purple I’ve ever seen and then, then like colored smoke, yes, how many tons? and, and the hole that punched through the clouds, and the column billowing under the fireball like it was pushing the flames up into the sky, and everyone bursting into cheering and all the hollering! He rubbed his face again, cheeks taut with smile, white gloves stained pink with the run off of his red petroleum skin-guard.
The day after, Lauritsen explained to me how he saw the white flash and the red bloom and then he couldn’t stand to look any more. As he talked he rubbed the stubble on his jaw line. He said he closed his eyes and looked down and shook. I saw nothing, he said, just black. He told me he heard the cheers after the booming growl and he waited with his eyes shut, trying to breathe. When he opened his eyes again he said he saw the grey ash falling like dry snow. He said he felt confused watching people laugh and watching others cry. He told me he knew the world would not be the same. I suppose we all thought that, he said, but we knew it then. I nodded the whole time.
Two days later I went down to the crater with Julius, General Farrell, Bainbridge, a photographer, and a group of MPs with Geiger meters and full body chemsuits. The creaking of their thick rubber coverings and the huffing of their masked faces was hushed by the empty space of the site. The two other physicists and myself, the General and photographer only wore white rubber shoe covers to protect us from the irradiated dust.
We clambered carefully down the crumbling edges of the crater. The dust deadened the sound of our feet. Closer to the center, our shoes made sounds like we were treading on crushed glass. In the atomic heat the silica sand had melted into light green crystals, like translucent jade. The General asked Bainbridge if it was radioactive. Bainbridge asked Julius.
Surely, he said. He kicked at a clump of the crystals. They clattered against other crystals like broken bottles. The crackle of the Geiger meters was incessant and loud.
I asked, How do we process the waste?
Bainbridge responded, There’s a storage site in Utah somewhere.
The General nodded. Southeast of Dugway, Skull Valley Reservation, he said.
I imagined trucks with full beds hauling loads of these radioactive emeralds to be buried like cursed treasure under the feet of the people on that reservation. I didn’t know why we couldn’t leave it here.
I looked from the dust bleached horizon of the mountain-caged plain to the glittering crater we stood in. The lunar landscape didn’t feel hostile, just vacant. I had a sudden urge to recall what it had looked like in the moments before we dropped the gadget. The desert struck me as desolate, devoid of life when we first arrived, but standing in that pit I felt like I hadn’t looked close enough. We had turned an extreme into a vacuum. I never took the time to look in the shade of sage scrub for the movement of some creature adapted to the arid conditions, the relentless but endurable heat. I wanted to reach down for something like that, anything – a bird, an insect, a broken branch of tumbleweed. Instead I bent down to scoop up a handful of crystals.
Eli! Bainbridge shouted once, frozen, face horrified. He didn’t move.
I didn’t like to pretend. We were breathing in immense dosages of floating particles. We all knew it. I looked at Bainbridge and he didn’t say anything else.The crystals in my palm tinkled like jewellery as I jostled them. I imagined them set in a dazzling necklace, on the neck of a dazed woman, her neckline cut daringly low. She would say, how much did it cost, Eli? I would say, Everything.
We were already downwind. All of us.
Experiments continued. A year later we lost Daghlian and then Slotin. The same core took them. We named it the demon.
I wasn’t in the lab when it happened. Slotin was setting up the first steps of a fission reaction: two beryllium half-spheres around that plutonium core. Slotin, like a young fool, was too lazy to take apart the apparatus and put the shims in like he should have. He slid in a flathead screwdriver to keep the beryllium separated. The screwdriver slipped and there was a critical reaction. A burst of hard radiation ionized the air. Slotin, responding to questioning by the medical staff, said that he felt suddenly hot, tasted something sour, and that his left hand burned in the moment.
The other staff in the lab had seen the blue glow and ran to his section. They scrambled for the dosimetry badges in the lock box, not that it mattered. Apparently Slotin screamed for iodine, Give me iodine, again and again.
They rushed him to the hospital. He vomited several times en route. The other men were all hospitalized for observation. They were released shortly after. Their immediate condition was deemed satisfactory. Slotin was back in the hospital a few days later.
The army flew his parents in from Winnipeg. They were there with him as he went from doe-eyed and feverish to nauseated, swollen, dehydrated, unable to urinate, erythematic, massive blisters rising on his arms, his extremities gangrened. Their son was disintegrating in front of them, the strands of his DNA permanently unzipping.
His last day was spent confused and blue-lipped in an oxygen tent with an EKG, a nurse, and his parents.
I wanted to visit him but I didn’t know him that well. I thought if he was older we might have spent more time together.
After Slotin died I had a dream. Men, women, and children, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, the inbred, the dignified, all ran naked across a meadow full of white and red and black and grey wildflowers. The air had a sweet tang and I heard a buzzing drone like bees in a clover patch. The sky was intolerably bright. It was like a thousand suns were dawning at once.
I found myself running with the endless crowd, running and watching at once. We ran so swiftly. Our hair flew behind us and we rustled the flowers under our feet like a gentle wind.
I woke into darkness, my chest twisting with heat, the muscles in my legs clenched tight, my arms spread out. I relaxed my legs, brought my arms to my sides, and stared at the ceiling fan rotating overhead until the thud of my heart marched me back off to sleep.
Rocket Fuel cocktail, ingredients:
1½ oz vodka,
1½ oz cognac/brandy,
1 tsp medium amontillado sherry/oloroso,
1½ oz cold champagne –
add vodka, cognac or brandy, sherry or oloroso to mixer with cracked ice,
shake, vigorously –
strain into chilled martini glass, top with champagne –
garnish, orange zest twist –
(Note: pair sweet brandy with drier amontillado sherry,
dry cognac with sweeter oloroso –
balance in equations and drinks)
Eventually I was transferred from the Los Alamos Laboratory. It was Nevada or Bikini Atoll – a slow burn or an inferno as I saw it. The United States Department of Energy established the NTS on a reservation on January 11th, 1951. 1,360 square miles of sand, sagebrush, mountains, and eventually, craters and trinitite.
I spent my off nights in Vegas. The DOE paid for a suite in the hotel above the Golden Nugget Saloon. The city was unlike any other I’d been to. It wasn’t just the strange fluorescence in barren wasteland. It was the way it repurposed catastrophe into phenomena, taboo into the honey-laced, future fears into present promiscuities, the menacing future into a perversely cushioned present reality. A military escort hurtled me between the test site and the city. It was disorienting – I was in a constant stream of darkness punctured intermittently by violent light. When the MPs dropped me off in front of the casino I’d wait for them to leave inside the lobby before I went back out on the strip, heading for the liquor store.
The sun-baked concrete made the cheap rubber soles of my derbies squish with every step. The city always smelled of dust, alcohol, copper, and the light touch of ozone in the random gusts of stagnant wind. It was a city in reverse, coming to life only after sunset, when the day’s heat faded into the vacuum of night.
The first time I walked to the liquor store there was a homeless man, Mexican I’d guess. He had a cardboard sign in front of him, no hat, cup, or empty guitar case on the ground for passerby’s coins. Incredibly legible, a bold black scripture reference was written on his sign – it seemed unfaded compared to the cardboard or the man himself. I read it four, five times, to remember. I walked in the liquor store, bought a bottle of Wild Turkey. On my way back I tossed my change to the homeless man. It jangled on the ground, the penny spinning in front of him. He waited for everything to stop moving before picking the coins up, one at a time.
I was back in my room just as the city started to wake. I paced in front of the window, watching the people walking on the strip, the flashing golden light from the hotel, the humming pink light from the Flamingo down the street, the street lamps flickering to life, cigarettes glowing at random intervals like urban fireflies, the halogen headlights, the streaking red taillights, all the light making the air glow atmospheric, an irradiated indigo inversion hazily drifting up, out, a light bubble beneath the starless black.
When the city was teeming, full tilt, I’d take off my clothes, hang them neatly in the closet, and return to the window, naked in the dark above the flickering city. I’d drink until I was staggered. Crumpling into the king sized bed, I’d take the little green Gideon’s bible on the bedside table and flip through it, looking in the dim illumination for the passage that man had on his cardboard sign until I fell into darkness.
It was back at the NTS that I heard about the viewings – I walked the strip too oblivious to see the fliers prepared by the casino owners and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, advertising the spectacles of the century, Atomic Sunrise Parties, only in Las Vegas, Atomic City, the city of the future. I heard two MPs talking about the parties:
Next night you have off, you need to come.
I can’t believe people actually go. They’re not scared?
Maybe they are, hell, I don’t know, don’t think they are anymore I guess. But these parties are something else, I tell you. Drinks, singing, women. The party stops just before blast off, then if you’re lucky, it keeps going long after that.
Where they have them at?
All over. The Flamingo’s the best though. Great view, great views, you know? And they all worship you when they know where you work.
I started paying attention but I didn’t change my routine much. People flooded into the hotels the night before a test. Families with children not allowed into casinos scouted out places for early morning nuclear picnics. Rooms with direct views of the detonations tripled in price.
I figured I had the best seat possible at the NTS, as close as you could get, and the nights I had off I thought were best spent in total isolation, complete oblivion.
Eventually though, I caved. I went to the in-house lounge party at the Golden Nugget – I wasn’t ready for the best party in town on the Flamingo rooftop. I had no idea what to expect.
My first surprise was seeing the lounge decorated with a large banner. It didn’t say welcome, or Atomic Party, but Ichabod, the codename of the operation – some young MP must have told the organizers, in exchange for a drink, a room number. It didn’t matter really. When I walked in, there were some MPs that recognized me. They immediately slipped to the other side of the room. I looked around the lounge.
Showgirls were dressed up like headless horsemen, long coats pulled up above their heads, bare legs streaming down out of them. Men wore colonial style wigs and ran around the room, proclaiming their dread as the horsemen squealed and chased. Small pumpkins and plastic leaves decorated the tables. I went to the bar for a drink.
Hey there bud, you want an atomic cocktail? The bartender wore an attractive white shirt with large brass buttons and a ridiculous felt tricorne. I declined and asked for a bourbon, no ice. The man smiled and obliged.
I settled in with my drink at a high table by the window. I lit a cigarette and checked the time. 0330. Just a little more.
As the time drew near the crowd became more and more loose, loud, libidinous, lewd. The music seemed to increase in volume and pace. I thought I would be turned off after seeing the cloying costumes and precious decorations, but the atmosphere was infectious. I felt my shoulders loosen as my eyes scanned the room.
Women were playing with the black bows tying the fake ponytails dangling on the shoulders of men spinning with drink. One man in particular was trying again and again to work his hand into the cupped dress of the woman talking to him, and though she remonstrated against each attempt, they stayed in close orbit, until persuaded by the fluorescent-looking drinks, or simply exhausted, she allowed his hand to crawl in the space between bodice and breast. Waiters delivered full glasses, removed empty ones in droves. Showgirls took turns resting in seductive poses in the corners of the room. Every smile seemed luminous, the white projections of dozens of magic lanterns, shifting with laughter through the phantasmagoria, floating on the undiminishing cloud of cigarette smoke punctuated in spots by the recessed floodlights in the lounge ceiling.
I only spotted one lonely man, to judge from appearances. He sat at a high table, eyes fixed on his lone reflection in the window. He played with his bright drink, stirring it with a silver swizzle stick. Growing bored, he moved his attention to the centerpiece of his table. He picked up one of the plastic fall leaves, twirled it between his fingers, let it fall back to the tablecloth, sighed, traced the grooves of the decorative pumpkins with delicate fingertips. I mirrored his movements, wondering if he felt the same textures in the same way as I did, but he never looked around at his surroundings, my unaware partner, the only other quiet spot of static solitude in the midst of the festive maelstrom.
Just before 0400 the two MP’s that had scuttled to a dark corner of the lounge came to me, two headless women in tow. I greeted them just before the room went silent. All eyes turned to the window.
The flash was more dazzling than blinding at this distance. Not a soul spoke. I was actually the first to break the short suspension. I looked at the faces, lit electric tangerine, and thought it’ll all catch up with us eventually – Alas, Vegas! If we fuck up, and the right wind blows, in a flash thy judgment comes. I laughed at the ludicrous liaison and the lounge joined me in looping sighs and applause. About twelve seconds after the blast, in the opening moments of our collective approval, the large north-side windows of the lounge shattered, scattering shards of glass into the room with a warm wind.
I fell to the floor. Someone in the room hollered at the top of their lungs, Goddamn, the yell laced with delight. A roar broke out from the crowd, singing, laughter, calls for more atomic cocktails at table nine. One of the MPs, platinum blonde, cobalt blue-eyed, picked me up.
I stood over the table, shaking. The sheetrock in the walls had cracks running through it like petrified lightning. I tried to take a drink. The glass slipped from my hand, thudding dully on the maroon carpet.
You alright sir?
I ignored the MP and reached for my cigarette and dropped it. The orange tip sizzled on the damp blotch of bourbon below. I left the lounge, went straight to the elevator, down to my floor, trembling steps leading me to my room.
I fumbled with my key, opened the door, and went straight into the bathroom. I turned on the shower and slid to the floor between the tub and the toilet. I was still shaking. I started to undress. My tie cinched into a hard knot – the more I pulled, the smaller the knot became. I yanked back and forth, hyperventilating. Pieces of glass caught in my pocket square leapt out from my harried movement onto the checkered tile floor. The sound broke the anxious moment long enough for me to suck in a few deep breaths and pad my hand along the floor, feeling for the glass. I touched them, careful to not cut my fingers, picked them up, tinkled them together in my palm and cried.
El Cortez’s signature beverage, Apricot Fission:
(mashed apricots, sugar, water),
and lemon juice
Over the next few weeks hotels around the Strip announced that Ichabod was a fluke and everyone gobbled it up. They said any worries about fallout could be alleviated with a hot shower and a strong drink just before bed. I thought it was funny. I didn’t know how close we were to the water-table, but it was all a matter of time – heavy rain, heavy showers. It was in the air already, absorbed into our cells through light and heat. We couldn’t feel it, but we were unraveling. Eat, drink, be merry.
Not that it mattered, really. I kept going to the parties when I was not on direct observation, at the Golden Nugget, Sahara, El Cortez, the Flamingo. I noticed different MPs on their nights off. We always shared polite greetings and light conversation, perhaps because they received no anonymous complaints in the weekly briefings about Operation codenames leaking to the public. On site we shared knowing smiles and brief pleasantries.
I was often on duty as well, calibrating, measuring, an idle stare behind my goggles illuminated by the bloom of white light, the blossom of yellow dust, the shower of red burning, the eerie hole doughnutting the pre-dawn cloud cover, the sizzling indigo afterglow. Between the work at NTS and the parties in Vegas, I didn’t miss one.
I kept a pocket size notebook with the codenames of the detonations I attended in the city, scrawled at the bottom of pages beneath notes and appointments – Operation This, Project That. I liked to imagine how the names would spice the parties at the different hotels. Some names were conducive to themes and decorations. The names that didn’t grasp the imagination of party organizers – no special décor, no festive costumes – were always compensated with by an increase in free drinks.
Sometimes I couldn’t stop my curiosity, so I would pass by the lounges and rooftop entrances a couple of hours before midnight. Bartenders and waitresses and tan kitchen boys would be hanging banners, decorating tables, cleaning table tops, arranging chairs and barstools. I’d watch, wait for the kitchen boys to walk into the hallway, try to speak with them. They always said some variant of No speak no Ingles. I would nod politely even if I thought they only spoke English. They were all so young anyways.
Eventually I had an extensive list of operations/parties: Ichabod (written smaller than the rest), Anvil (an all black affair), Mercury (showgirls painted silver), Buster, Elvis (of course), Crosstie, Oklahoma (cowboys, Indians – an American obsession), Mohair, Everett, Dillinger (pinstripe suits and red dresses), Europa III, Arbor, Teapot (long live the queen), Hardtack, Dominic, Emery, Sunbeam, Trojan (togas), Reginald, Odysseus (togas), Yellowfish, Enchilada (ponchos), Rodeo (cowboys, no Indians – an American reality), Onyx, Fishbowl (cute decorations, mermaids), Whetstone, Obsidian, Ranger, Latchkey, Dominic II (a truly excessive bacchanal), Snapper.
Looking through it, at five parties a year, give or take, and thirty-seven entries, I’d been there nearly a decade, drowning, waiting to burn.
My life swirled away between detonations, up close at the NTS, far away in the city, up close, far away. In the lifeless haze, the parties were milestones that reminded me that time still moved, Las Vegas a giant neon watch face, the punctuation of plutonium to the northwest the ticking of atomic clockwork. Before the last party I went to, I stood in front of the mirror, shower-fresh, clean shaven. I stared into my pupils until I felt like something, someone, was staring back out of that abyss. I told myself I was apathetic, but I was lying – I’d been lying for a long time. I didn’t want to be alone anymore.