In the mountains below Vladikavkaz, Johnny’s father splits bricks. One by one with a hammer. On the other side of the POW camp, the shards are shattered into gravel. The gravel is packed into crates, then sent in trains to be churned elsewhere into concrete. The concrete is then piped politely into bricks. The blue of the sky is hard like a knife. Johnny’s father curses the fucking Reds and the fucking Jews. Johnny’s father sits numb in the dirt and stares at his child body. How it bends now. Johnny’s father says– in German– the same thing that he always says: I didn’t do anything wrong.
Johnny’s father had always been good. He had been a delight in school and did not even notice the curriculum start to change. He had dutifully sewed up old shirts to send to the men on the lines. It was good work, to warm another person. It was not like he was manufacturing guns. He had been conscripted at sixteen at the end of the war. In Dresden his mother had wept for him, but women’s weeping never did much. What’s Dresden now? What’s his mother? Ashes and black bone. On the train all the men had wept too, though. They were sent to the Eastern Front to see ten million people die. But Johnny’s father’s gun was always faulty. It never fired a single bullet. I didn’t do anything wrong, he says again, to the glacial sky, which as ever does not respond.
When he gets out Johnny’s father moves to a place called Arizona, where he is promised he will never again see snow. Johnny’s mother turns fourteen in Albuquerque, and she doesn’t notice the curriculum changing either, because it never has.
Johnny’s a good kid, though not very bright. Normal. Most people try hard to be normal, but Johnny doesn’t have to think about it. Johnny plays baseball on the weekends and throws with a good eye. Johnny reads comic books. Johnny climbs trees, steals candy, gets dragged to church. Johnny swims in the creek with the other boys every afternoon, and browns in the orange sun. Johnny fishes with his father. He doesn’t mind if they don’t talk. His father doesn’t ever say much anyway. It’s nice, the quiet, and when they return with their skinned trout his mother smiles rosily and cooks it up, and it tastes all the better ‘cause Johnny caught the fish himself, held it right in his taut, eager hands.
The world is getting smaller, much smaller, and very fast now. The War falls out of adults’ vocabularies with slippery ease, only to return again after a few years, now sardonic, now proud. The Reds send dogs into space to die. In social studies they label new maps. Johnny puts Korea in Thailand and has to rub it out.
Johnny’s science teacher talks one day about nuclear energy. He says that when the nucleus of an atom is split into two it releases an explosion of free energy in a process called fission. New kinds of power stations can harness the energy and convert it into electricity. Soon, he says, everything will be powered this way. He talks about the atom bomb. Same thing, just let free to fly. Johnny perks up from his daydream, and so do some of the other boys, for a time. It is a thrill, to imagine something so big.
That day, when he gets home, Johnny finds a dead thrush in the garage. With a pencil he pokes it, flips it over. He watches for a twitch but there isn’t any. But when he looks at it again suddenly what he sees are atoms, and the atoms make cells, and the cells make structures, and the structures form feathers, and on the feathers a grey film has grown, and Johnny wonders how sharp a knife you would need to split a nucleus, right down the middle, and blow the whole house to bits.
On certain occasions Johnny’s mother will creep down the stairs, smooth out the front of her dress, and stoop to look through the crack in the door of Johnny’s room when he is home from school. She always sees the same thing. Johnny sits idly on his bed, tossing a baseball in his right hand and catching it, up and down. He stares, dumbly, at the wall. Tosses. And catches it. Once she watches him do this for a full hour.
Johnny’s mother thinks it is nice that he has hobbies.
Johnny grows up. Johnny goes to war. He volunteers even though he doesn’t need to. He’s nineteen; then again, they’re all nineteen. His mother asks why, but he isn’t sure, so he just shrugs, and she smiles, finding herself welling with pride for her country, her son— her silly strong American son. Johnny’s father nods goodbye on the last day, silent as ever. He goes out to the front porch for a while and sits with hunched shoulders in the fading sunlight.
Vietnam is in Laos. Russia is in Vietnam. Kennedy is in Dallas. Kennedy is not in Dallas. U.S. troops are in Da Nang. U.S. troops are on the moon. France is out of Algeria. Korea is in Thailand. On the plane above the gleaming Pacific, Johnny sees the world get smaller, much smaller. Very fast now. It is a long stretch, and then a little drop of blue. An atom hanging precariously in the sky.
On the front lines Johnny reads a lot of comic books. The humidity makes the ink bleed onto his fingers. Atomic Man is his favorite. Atomic Man has the power to control matter down to the tiniest material particle. He uses quantum fluctuation. He sees the whole world like playdough; he can reshape it and build it up again in whatever image he wants, because it’s all just matter, just cells. Particles. Johnny has that power too. They hold villages. Holding means a different thing in Vietnam than it did in Albuquerque. The forest wilts where he sprays it down. The stuff stains his hands red. The mangled teeth and flesh are radiant orange in the heat of the sun. But Johnny doesn’t see teeth or flesh. He doesn’t see any bodies at all. Johnny sees a collection of atoms sliding together on the floor. They glow in the dim like cave worms, and sometimes they sizzle, and it sounds like cool rain.
Johnny’s bunkmate Fred gets shelled one day. He does it to himself, firing into the ground in a training exercise. He lazes around the camp and starts talking strange. He says he shot down an angel with a rocket on a raid a couple of months back. One of God’s angels, he clarifies, spread-eagled on the top bunk, his left eye rolling up into his skull: with the million mouths and everything. It weighed a hundred thousand tons and was made of sterling silver, and it was butt naked, a body like a girl out of Playboy. When it hit the ground it didn’t make a mark, so he thought he’d dreamed it, only the birds stopped singing then, all of a sudden, and the sky broke open with white fire, and he heard someone talking to him, right in his ear, buzzing, loud buzzing, and. He doesn’t quite get to finish his thought.
Johnny looks away from him quickly and buries his nose back in his comic book. Atomic Man has transformed a coffee mug into a semi-automatic rifle. He’s going to find the bad guy who beheaded his girlfriend. She had been very blonde. The red of her lips is still on his fingers, or maybe that’s the other thing. Johnny wonders why Atomic Man doesn’t just explode the bad guy with his quantum fluctuation, or nuclear fission, or whatever. Johnny thinks a two-page spread of that would be a sight to see.
Maybe it was an alien, Fred murmurs, once the convulsions stop. Not an angel exactly. Maybe it came down from outer space.
Fred knows what it was, but he can’t say.
Johnny holds. Johnny neutralizes. Johnny is preventative, efficient. Johnny saves the big new world. Johnny uses quantum fluctuation, and around him the mountains melt like the bodies of so many nineteen-year-olds, raising their eyes to breathe in the last of the heat and the light.
Johnny comes home and quickly leaves it. He says it’s rent prices but when he looks at his mother’s face all he can see is atoms creasing. Johnny moves to Nevada. He gets a job as a janitor at Area 51. It’s easy to get government security clearance. They ask him if he has any attachments out of state, and he says, no Sirs. They ask him what he did in the war, and he says, nothing crazy, and they say, right answer. They ask him if he sympathizes with Communists and he just looks at them funny, so they hire him. Fred was always talking about the aliens they must’ve brought back from the moon. Fred, Johnny thinks, wheeling his cart down the linoleum for the first time, should stick to angels. Fred’s dead though. He should stop forgetting that.
There aren’t any aliens at Area 51. None Johnny can see anyway, not in his building at least. There are a lot of hallways. He expects the suited men who work there to be strange and secretive, angry types or spies or something, but they’re just normal people, as normal as him, talking in their board rooms, spilling their ashtrays onto the carpet.
There’s also a nuclear reactor in the basement. It powers three states, but no one’s supposed to know that.
Who’s he gonna tell? Johnny doesn’t know anybody. It’s like an indoctrination when his boss tells him. Like a hippie cult. Come see the world exploder downstairs. The engineers run the thing, but someone has to sanitize the buttons. They do nuke tests next door at Yucca Flat, so what’s the difference? Johnny reads the manual until he can recite it word-perfect by heart. On the first day they let Johnny help clean the plant, he stops dead with his wheely cart and stares down into it, spider legs built into a natural cavern in the rock, metal framework digging into the sandstone and yawning with a big bright glowing green eye. He stares at it for a very long time.
Look at that, he thinks. You know what? It really is a thrill.
Johnny cleans his hallways and turbines for twenty years. When he gets waves from the men in black, he dips his head, smiles bigly, and says hey, I’m just doing my part. It makes him happy to make things clean and clear. Black tile, white tile. Simple. In the Windex he sees his reflection glowing blue like a hard sky and scattering in waves of dim grey light. His mother calls once a month to ask if he’s met anyone yet, and he just starts talking nonsense about nuclear reactors. She fixes on a smile and conspires with her book club that he’s shacked up with an FBI agent. Top secret. Can’t say. Johnny goes to bars and just looks, sometimes. It’s hard to meet people at Area 51. Anybody could be anybody. Sometimes he looks so hard at a person their skin starts to come off under his eyes, falling into particles, revealing the alien green beneath.
Johnny sweeps. Johnny sterilizes. Johnny wipes clean, and he makes it all better. To pass the time he watches the reactor and thinks up new storylines for Atomic Man, whose series has long since been discontinued. In one story Atomic Man uses quantum fluctuation to construct himself a new blonde wife to replace the one without a head. Out of the atoms he builds a new white house, and a new pristine suburb, in a new town where everyone is always smiling and kind and sometimes even interesting. But it is not enough. He can’t get her mouth right. He can’t figure out her shape. Every day he goes home to his wife and loves her and then unmakes her again. Then he tries another one. Perhaps she’ll come out better. Atomic Man’s one known weakness is toxic waste, the by-products of his own mangled creations. It’s a neat little Frankenstein thing. The atoms of his dead wives collect in the basement and glow candy-apple green. With every issue Johnny imagines, he waits suspensefully for Atomic Man to notice the thing beneath the floorboards. One day he will. One day it’ll get so big he won’t be able to ignore it anymore. Johnny knows he’s the one imagining it, but it keeps getting away from him. He doesn’t know how to resolve the story.
Johnny’s father dies in his bed. He rants and raves in German in the weeks leading up to it. Johnny’s mother keeps busy cleaning, but the heavy-duty stuff has started to hurt her hands. She braves a dictionary she hasn’t had to use since the beginning, and she tries her best to translate. Eventually she finds what she’s looking for. I haven’t, she sounds out slowly from her notes, done anything wrong. Quite right, she thinks, quite right.
Johnny arrives some time near the end, sopping wet from sleet. Sleet in Arizona, he thinks, shaking his head, and looks out his parents’ living room window. The sky is green and full of ash. It floats and spins like dead cells. Snow, he realizes belatedly. It’s just snow. His mother is curled asleep on the couch, her legs tucked neatly under her. Not a hair out of place.
Johnny climbs the stairs to his father. The lights are off, but the moonlight shatters and reflects off the pale drifts outside. There’s a body in the bed, but it doesn’t look like a person anymore. It looks like matter. Like a lump of multiplying cells, silver in the dark; it huffs and wheezes like mechanical equipment. Johnny resists the urge to clean his father thoroughly with Windex. The cells are mumbling something in German, but it all just sounds like noise.
Johnny doesn’t know what to do. It’s me, he tries to say, John. But nothing happens. I’m here, he says. Johnny’s not there, though. Johnny is thinking about how when cells die, their energy is released and reused and they become other cells, and this process is repeated infinitely, until it isn’t anymore. Johnny moves to touch his father’s arm, or what he thinks is his arm. He can’t see, it’s all blurry. Johnny doesn’t know why. His finger stops before the atoms of their cell membranes can collide.
It’s snowing, he says, lamely.
Johnny’s father turns his head with a creak. His eyes blaze open. For a long moment his mouth opens and closes, like a fish.
There’s something— Johnny’s father murmurs, finally, in English— very wrong, with…
With what, he doesn’t get to say. The wind breathes. A sheen on the feathers of dead cells. Snow in Arizona. At night, all deserts look like moon landings. Johnny goes to his room downstairs and finds an old baseball in a drawer, and he throws it mechanically up and down in his right hand, staring calmly, plaintively, at the wall. But on the fifth throw he misses. It’s like the ball falls right through his hand, like the bonds between his atoms have dissolved, and everything in the world passes through him and never lands.
Johnny finds Jesus. Or rather, Jesus finds Johnny. He goes back to Nevada. At the roadblock outside of Area 51 there’s a line of protestors throttling the entryway. Nothing new. One of them is in white robes; he seems like the ringleader, and he has a gentle smile.
Johnny gets out of the car. He’ll just walk. The man tugs on Johnny’s shirt sleeve as he shoves through. He says, they can’t be paying you enough for this, man.
It’s enough, says Johnny.
You know what they’re doing in there? Jesus leans in. You heard of MK-Ultra?
Johnny says, quietly, I just clean the floors.
A flash of inexplicable violent thought, then it’s gone. Jesus says, that’s not enough. Then: I am trying to save your soul.
Johnny thinks if there were souls in the world, he’d have seen one. It would be matter. Have mattered. Whatever.
He leaves, before the guards come.
After he signs in and scans his eye and all, his boss comes to see him. He tells Johnny they’re transferring him to Yucca Mountain to clean the offices there while they start it up and running as a nuclear waste repository. It’s not far, and it’s under the same upper management. Just a little more risk, maybe. He laughs. A little more risk than a secret underground nuclear reactor.
Johnny says he thought the funding hadn’t been approved. That nothing at Yucca Mountain had been approved. His boss just looks around, gestures at everything. Johnny nods. It’s a new world, he thinks, but he thinks that every year.
Johnny says his goodbyes to the building. At Area 51 everything happens suddenly. He mops the hallways until they sparkle fresh and clean. He thinks about waste. He stares out the window at the wide expanse of Yucca Flat, where a silver jet drops a bomb in the distance. It looks fake, like something you see on TV.
Everyone else goes home.
Johnny circles the nuclear reactor beneath the rock. He does this endlessly for hours. The heavy metal eye in the floor of the cave grows soft like a body and begins to stare. The steam line and the turbines make their musical whirs. Johnny keeps circling the viewing platform, round and round. He wheels his cart around with him, but nothing gets clean.
Somewhere upstate, machines are churning gravel into concrete, and pumping concrete into bricks. When fission occurs, a particle is fired at an atom and it splits. This releases neutrons, which hit other atoms, which splits them too in a chain reaction, and releases more neutrons, and so on. It also releases heat, which boils water, generating steam, which powers turbines, which makes electricity, and left behind is waste, also splitting in halves, divorced from its energy, emitting ionized sieverts; chromosome deletion, tumor growth, million-year half-lives, buried under the earth, in the basement, here— here beneath America.
He looks at his hand and sees cells, but they’re not his cells. Little dots of deep brown, nearing purple. He can almost see the green beneath. The red. The red stain. What was it? He’s had that since before Area 51. He watches the cell membranes dissolving. Forest dissolving. Faces dissolving. Into red. The eye of the reactor blinks headily. It buzzes in his ears like cool rain. Like how an angel sounds. He can feel it through his cheek on the metal floor. Johnny sees the world get smaller, much smaller. Very fast now. It is a long stretch, and then a little drop of blue.
Johnny wants to make good.
But. Johnny wants to make good, but.
But there is something wrong with. What? Johnny asks the floor, wondering when he’ll fall through it. With what? Johnny doesn’t know how to finish the story. There is something wrong with something.
He knows what it is, but he can’t say.