There were no animals. No pet store or zoo. No pets allowed in base housing, no back-yard bird feeders. Nothing for wild animals to eat or drink, nowhere for them to shelter. The town hunched under an oppressive sky on a cracked desert plain trapped by mountains, the kind that were always the same eternal distance away no matter how hard Vonnie tried to reach them on her bicycle. The plain stretched out in all directions, dotted with stunted sage and spiky yucca but mostly empty. Rarely did birds fly overhead, and they never looked down. Adults sometimes said what a relief it was to be free of flies, ants, and mosquitoes.
Vonnie saw animals in magazines: a cartoon wolf in Highlights for Children, a palomino show jumper in The Saturday Evening Post, and a grinning chimpanzee in Life. At the movie theater, she saw Dumbo, Bambi, and Old Yeller. From the hobby store, she bought bright-colored plastic dinosaurs as well as circus, zoo, and farm animals. For her third-grade science project, she cut the feet off a yellow brontosaurus, glued its stumps to a piece of shiny black paper, and presented it as a model of the La Brea Tar Pits. Her grade was only a B, but the assignment hadn’t interested her.
The next year, when her fourth-grade class researched the wildlife of Nevada, each student chose an animal from the teacher’s list, looked it up in the World Book Encyclopedia, wrote a report, and gave a class presentation. Vonnie’s animal was the chuckwalla, a big lizard that inflated its body and hissed to frighten predators. Listening to the other students, she learned about the wild burros, kit foxes, bighorn sheep, sidewinders, and iridescent blue butterflies that lived in her state. For the first time, she connected words and pictures with living creatures that grew, moved, ate, mated, slept, gave birth, and died. Each had a real body covered in fur or feathers or scales, a heart that pumped blood, feet or wings or some other method of travel, and sense organs that perceived the world. All these animals lived in Carson Valley, around Ruby Lake, on Mount Rose, or some other place she’d never been. None lived anywhere near her little town of Mercury.
Vonnie raised her hand and waited for the teacher to call on her. “What animals live around here? Can we go on a field trip out into the desert to see them?” She watched the teacher’s face carefully.
That face looked over the children’s heads as the mouth answered. “Well, as you know, our town is named after the old mercury mine that it sits on, and mercury is poisonous. The tests are noisy and shake up the ground, so animals have to find somewhere more safe and peaceful to live.”
Mercury was the only town within the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The military personnel, scientists, civilian contractors, and their families all lived here, fenced away from the rest of the world in the middle of thirteen hundred square miles of empty desert. They lived in dormitories, campers, trailers, mobile homes, tents, and a few regular houses. They all used the same laundry, bowling alley, and cafeteria. Every so often—once a month, once a week—a bomb exploded somewhere in the distance. It would be dropped from a plane, suspended from a balloon, mounted on a high tower, or buried underground. Vonnie had never seen the mushroom cloud or the fireball or the whole sky flashing white, then smoking black. Children were kept indoors at home and school, ducking and covering for every test. She’d seen only pictures of the blasts, just like she’d seen only pictures of animals. But with every test, no matter where she was, she felt the earth underneath her stumble and fall, and half a minute later she heard the thunder that rolled on forever, and for days afterward she cleaned dirt off her teeth and out of her eyes. When she biked out into the desert, she saw new changes in the ground: crushed and cracked rock, mounds and towers of rubble, bowl-shaped craters that made the desert look like the surface of the moon. But never did she see a chuckwalla, a wild burro, or an iridescent blue butterfly.
Vonnie was the only child in Mercury who didn’t live in a house or a trailer. She lived in the Atomic Motel, run by her parents. This was where government officials and privileged reporters stayed when they visited. Tourists weren’t allowed on the military base. Astonishingly modern in this ancient desert place, the motel had been built in 1950, the year of Vonnie’s birth. Designed to resemble an atom, it consisted of a circular central nucleus, which functioned as the manager’s office and living quarters, ringed by four smaller circular satellites, each containing four guest rooms. The satellites linked to the nucleus by long covered walkways and were named Electron, Proton, Neutron, and Atom. Dad assigned the Atom rooms first because he liked to say “Have at ‘em!” when he handed a room key to a motel guest. For rooms in the other satellites, he just said “Business is booming!” In front of the motel was a circular swimming pool, the concrete bottom painted bright turquoise, the sides bordered at the top with tiles resembling overlapping waves. The pool was never filled because dirty fallout from the test blasts would have made it impossible to keep the water clean. Sometimes Vonnie rode her bike around and around down inside the empty pool just to feel like she was going somewhere, leaving the dead desert for a better place. Somewhere with living animals.
Vonnie’s responsibilities at the motel included changing bed sheets and towels in the guest rooms, emptying wastebaskets, running the carpet sweeper, and supplying each room with sunglasses for visitors to use when they watched the test blasts. Her biggest job was attacking the fine desert dust on everything, everywhere, all the time, old washcloth in one hand and spray bottle in the other. She didn’t mind the work because it prepared her to entertain classmates with tales of the weird things people left behind when they checked out of the motel: an inflatable sheep, an urn with cremains, a cardboard mask of Richard Nixon’s face with cutout eye-holes. These stories distracted the other kids from noticing that Vonnie never talked about herself or her family or the way the motel always smelled of the bleach Mom ordered by the drum to disinfect everything.
Besides ordering supplies, Mom scrubbed toilets and sinks, took reservations by phone and mail, managed accounts, changed pads in the swamp coolers, and climbed up the ladder to repair cracks in the asphalt-and-gravel roof. Dad offered beers to the visitors and drank with them, guffawed at Desi Arnaz and Jackie Gleason yapping at their television wives, and cracked jokes. Oxygen and potassium—they’re OK! Superman—Man of Steel—American’s best alloy! Hey, know any jokes about sodium? Na.
Her baby brother, Harold, arrived in 1960, when Vonnie was in the fifth grade. For Christmas that year, she expected to get a big stuffed animal, always her favorite gift. She already had a floppy donkey lying on its side, a sad-faced white gorilla with a chain around its neck, and a kangaroo with a removable joey. Instead, she received a miniature plastic carpet sweeper and a life-sized baby doll that drank and wet its diapers. These presents made no sense. She’d been using the real carpet sweeper for a long time, and she was already changing the real baby’s diapers and preparing his bottles. “Santa must have noticed that you’re growing up,” said her mom. Vonnie had stopped believing in Santa Claus years before, but she kept her mouth shut and the new toys in her closet.
From sixth grade through high-school graduation, Vonnie was responsible for Harold whenever she wasn’t in school. The babysitting gave her a good excuse to refuse invitations to parties and sleepovers and dates with boys. She didn’t care about sports and fingernail polish and stuff like that. The Beach Boys were babyish; Jim Morrison was scary. She preferred to invent animal stories for her little brother or to show him the living colonies she bought through the mail: an ant farm, a dish of Mexican jumping beans, and a tank of Sea-Monkeys. But when five-year-old Harold decided the colonies needed more sun and set them in a southwest-facing window in the middle of August, the ants and moth larvae and brine shrimp all baked to death. Vonnie didn’t buy any more.
By the time Harold was six and Vonnie sixteen, he’d commandeered much of her toy animal collection. He took three of her old stuffed animals, slit and gutted them, and cajoled her into sewing their skins together into a Halloween costume. With a gorilla body, donkey legs, and a kangaroo head, he lumbered around as a gorookey. After Halloween, he slept in this costume until spring, when the weather got too hot and he got too big, then kicked it under his bed. He also operated on her small plastic animals, replacing their heads with ping pong balls and their legs with car wheels or sawing two different species in half and switching their hind ends. All this surgery reminded Vonnie of when she’d cut the feet off the brontosaurus for her science project. Still, she’d never assumed that footlessness would somehow improve the beast. Harold seemed to think that his operations were enhancements of the originals.
Vonnie came home from school that year to find the motel office locked and the “Gone Fission” sign hung on the door. Letting herself in with her own key, she found Dad in the TV lounge, drunker than usual. “Your mother’s gone,” he said.
“Las Vegas?” Mom had often talked about going there for a family vacation—it was only about seventy miles away—but they’d never been. In Mercury, motel season lasted all year long.
He chugged his skunky-smelling Lucky Lager. “Reno.”
Five times the distance of Las Vegas. “Why?”
A wan smile appeared under his bloodshot eyes. “Her Reno-vation.”
Ah. Washoe County Courthouse, home of the fastest divorces in the country. The rumor among the kids at school was that it took six minutes from entrance to exit, no documentation required.
“What about me? And Harold?”
Dad shrugged. “She didn’t say.”
Vonnie watched him open another bottle. “Miss her?”
He drank. “Should’ve aimed better.” That smile.
She picked up his empties, took them into the kitchen, and got supper ready.
Mom sent a few post cards from Chicago, where she’d gone with her new husband. She promised to bring Vonnie and Harold out to visit as soon as they could all coordinate their schedules. The post cards stopped coming after a year or so.
Harold didn’t show much concern about Mom’s disappearance. He got along with Dad and Vonnie and continued to do all right in school and at home. His surgical work on the plastic animals became more intense and time-consuming.
Dad wanted Vonnie to quit school to be at the motel all the time, but she was determined to graduate. She worked with her guidance counselor to schedule classes during the middle of the day when the motel traffic was lightest. Because she was a good student, she was also allowed to earn elective credits through independent study.
Two years later, when she was a senior, she wandered around her high school’s job fair, amazed at all the work out there that had nothing to do with Mercury, motels, or the military. She ignored brochures handed out by smiling strangers representing banks, local government offices, and law enforcement agencies. She bypassed seminars on writing business letters and resumes. She walked away from the spiels of smiling reps from retail stores, automotive dealerships, and print shops. She read the list of educational films being shown in the classrooms: Our Friend the Atom. Office Practice: Your Attitude. How to Keep a Job. Introduction to Electricity, Selling as a Career. Ballet of the Blue Whales.
Blue whales? She went in.
She needed to tell them she was leaving, but she just couldn’t get there. Whenever she approached Dad, he grinned at her, red-eyed, and launched into the day’s jokes: Don't trust atoms; they make up everything. Old chemists never die; they just stop reacting. This book about helium is so good I can’t put it down. Itching to get away, she’d escape as soon as possible, announcement still unannounced. And she couldn’t very well tell Harold if Dad didn’t know.
The day after graduation, she forced herself to open Harold’s door to say, “I’m giving you the rest of my animals.” She meant those that he hadn’t already appropriated: the porcelain horses, the carved wooden farm animals, the wind-up tin puppy that hopped on its hind legs as the key in its side buzzed and turned.
Her brother, concentrating on the transformation of a plastic rhino, didn’t look up. “Why don’t you want them anymore?”
She studied the rhino, its back hollowed into a receptacle housing a plastic palm tree, its head replaced by an old hair roller left behind by Mom. “Um . . . well . . . it’s just . . . I’ve got other things to do.”
He continued his surgery. “You think you’re a grown-up now, I suppose.”
“Well . . . yeah.” She watched the rhino acquire sequins for eyes and a conical party hat over its horn.
As Harold bent to his work, a drop fell from his face onto the rhino’s paper party hat and blotched the color. He swiped the moisture off his face with the back of his hand. “Dam, dam, Hoover Dam. See what you made me do.”
“No, you’re not.”
She opened her mouth to apologize again but nothing came out. She shut her brother’s door behind her, slowly crossed the hall into the motel lounge, and turned the TV volume all the way down.
“Hey!” Not looking at her, Dad leaned forward and reached for the knob.
She stepped in front of the set. “Dad. I’m leaving now. I won’t be back for a while. Maybe not for . . . a long time. I don’t know.”
Still not looking at her, he swept his hand to the side, motioning her to step away from the set. After a moment, she did. They both looked at the screen. Adam and Hoss stood, hands on hips and disgust on their faces, staring down at Little Joe, who laughed and splashed in a horse trough. Dad turned the volume up again, louder than before.
“Goodbye, Dad.” She turned to go.
Over the laughter and splashing, she heard her father’s voice. “Just like your mother.”
Vonnie clamped her mouth shut and kept walking. Unfair. Not the same at all. No.
She took the shuttle bus to Pahrump and the Greyhound west until the land ran out. The air was different on the coast, and she felt welcomed by the difference. No more nosebleeds from low humidity. No more dust on everything, everywhere, all the time. No more grit in her eyes and teeth. Colors looked softer; sunlight was friendlier; breathing was easier. Nothing smelled like bleach.
She waited tables in Monterey in order to save money while she researched scholarships and grants, filed applications, and studied for entrance exams. She earned a B.S. and a Ph.D. in marine biology from Scripps. Did internships for private foundations in Maui and Baja. Got hired as a junior cetacean scientist by the Santa Barbara Oceanography Institute. And while all this was happening, she learned where she felt most at home: on the animal-filled ocean.
Back in Mercury, she’d wondered if being on the ocean would be frightening. Living enclosed by mountains, every day seeing the exact limits of her world, she’d guessed that the sight of boundlessness might terrify her. Living within the chemical odors of bleach and diesel, she’d thought that the smell of millions of living and dead organisms might repulse her. But her dread fell away as soon as she got onto the water. It was as though her eyes and nose and skin pores all opened and breathed for the first time. On the boat, she lived. On land, she waited to get back on the boat.
In 1978, ten years after leaving Nevada, she was promoted to senior scientist at SBOI and authorized to hire her own replacement for the junior position. Yohanna Baldursdóttir, native Icelander and citizen of the world, came to work for her—or not so much for her as with, by, and beside her. The last name meant daughter of Baldur, the ancient Norse god of springtime, and she was. Golden-haired and beautiful where Von was dark and plain, laughing and fanciful when Von was serious and literal, Yohanna knew as much as Von did about blue whales and far more about everything else. They worked together like two halves of the same person, like sister souls.
One Friday evening, after they’d worked overtime on a mapping project that kept defeating them, Von surprised herself by saying, “I’m starving. Come home with me.”
Yohanna didn’t seem surprised. “Yeah, me too. You never told me you cooked.”
Yohanna laughed and turned off the lights. “I’m in.”
On the way to Von’s rented room, they stopped to pick up tamales and beer. Inside, they kicked off their shoes, dropped the tamales on the table, opened the Redhooks, and sat cross-legged on the rug to drink.
“Mmmm . . . amber golden color with a soapy off-white head,” said Yohanna, closing her eyes and cat-smiling.
“Scent of sweet malt, caramel, toffee. Sour nectarine and apricot.” Von laughed at her own silly words and scooted closer to extend her legs over Yohanna’s. She felt the beer-bubbles inside her brain and belly.
“Mmmm . . . sticky mouthfeel.” Yohanna smacked her lips lasciviously and unbuttoned the top three buttons of her silky shirt. She wore nothing underneath.
“Faint bitterness at the finish, but worth the trip.” Von opened her mouth to show her tongue. With the hand that wasn’t holding the bottle, she undid the front of her tight cords. “Ah, relief.”
“Thick head of froth gradually sinking to a final lacy bubble.” Yohanna undid the rest of her buttons and shrugged the shirt off her shoulders onto the floor. She arched back and leaned on her hands to raise her tanned breasts.
Von pulled her T-shirt off over her head and leaned back to mirror Yohanna’s pose. “Umm . . . sweet caramel with baked bread, biscuit, and toffee . . . crisp spice and mild fruitiness.”
Yohanna stood, wriggled her jeans down over her hips, and stepped out of them toward Von, who buried her face in the lovely hollow belly and spoke into it, words muffled.
“What? Didn’t hear you.” Yohanna sank to her knees and touched her nose to Von’s. When Von tried to kiss her, she leaned back out of reach. “What did you say? What? What?”
Von reached to capture the prize. Mouths, breasts, and bellies pressing together, they toppled sideways onto the rug.
The next day, they ate the room-temperature tamales for breakfast. Afterward, they shared Von’s toothbrush.
Now, regardless of the calendar, Von’s breathing felt relaxed, the inhalation of an eternally fine morning. The women rented an old guest house in West Hollywood and watched Barbara Stanwyck films on VHS. They planted birds of paradise and filled red glass hummingbird feeders with sugar water. They hit the saints’ festivals sponsored by the nearby Eastern Orthodox churches and stocked their freezer with spanakopita, sarma, pirozhki, and other exotic delights.
Nights were different. True, once they snuck onto a private beach at midnight and made love in the ocean, salt water stinging their eyes and lips and between their legs. But most nights, Yohanna wept and moaned in her sleep. She didn’t say anything about her sadness the following morning—or ever. Von wasn’t sure Yohanna even knew about the weeping, so she couldn’t bring herself to mention it. It seemed too private, a thing that belonged to night and silence. They just needed to get used to each other, she thought. The crying would stop in time.
The first time Yohanna saw one of Von’s post cards from Mercury, she held it up in wonder, inspecting it fore and aft. “So mysterious! What does it mean?” The card’s front showed a black and white photograph of a living room that looked like it had been destroyed by a tornado: floor boards and walls splintered, carpet and upholstery shredded, window glass shattered. A male mannequin lay headless on the floor, clothes curiously intact. On the card’s back was written “What do you do with a sick chemist? If you can’t helium or curium, you gotta barium! —D. & H.”
“It’s from my father and brother. They’re just letting me know they’re alive and okay.”
“By sending you that?”
“It’s one of the dummy houses used in the test blasts.” Von inspected the photo. “Looks like from the ‘50’s. I was probably ducking and covering a few miles away when this happened.”
“They built fake houses just to blow them up?”
“The point was to document the conditions under which people might survive.”
Yohanna’s eyebrows rose. “So they populated these fake houses with fake families? Fake pets, too?”
“Well, I don’t know about fake pets.” Von looked out the window, not wanting to admit that they’d used living pigs in the test blasts. Pork roasts, some of the kids had called them.
“This was your childhood?”
“Yep. That’s my family’s very own living room, right there in the photo.” Von fake-grinned. “So was your childhood really worse than this?” A lure.
It failed. Yohanna just said, “Do you send cards back?”
Von sighed. “Not often. I never have anything to write.” She phoned the motel once in a while to check on Harold and Dad, but the conversation was always brief and thin. After the hello-how-are-yous, the fine-just-fines, the what’s-news, the not-muches, and the weather reports, silences largely replaced words until Von said, “Well, I know you’re busy. Won’t keep you.” She felt that she no longer spoke their language. And the language she now spoke was one they would never know.
“Ah. Shame.” Yohanna looked more concerned than Von felt. From the Kodachrome picture post cards stuck to their fridge with magnets, Yohanna grabbed one and wrote for a minute. “There. Send it.”
The photo showed a fabulous breach by a young humpback. Half its body length was raised straight up out of the water, and Von’s mind felt the tremendous splash and wake that would occur in the next second. An action of joy in power, of power in joy.
On the reverse, Yohanna had written this: “Call me Fred. I am the mincer, guardian of the unaccountable cone longer than a Kentuckian is tall. —V. & J.”
Von read and reread the writing, one eyebrow up. “Um . . . what?”
“Don’t you remember the mincer in Moby-Dick? The guy who skins the whale’s penis and wears that skin as a raincoat?”
Von was embarrassed. She’d never read it. “They won’t get this.”
Baldur’s daughter smiled and tilted her golden head. “It’s just to let them know you’re alive and okay.”
The best part of their life together was spent on the research vessel Whale Finatic, an eighty-footer fitted for year-round coastal work. They often stayed out for two or three weeks at a stretch. The big boat carried the small, an inboard twenty-foot rigid-hulled inflatable called Eat My Wake. The crew was always the three Reséndez brothers and their friend. These guys knew every bay, channel, beach, and island from Mendocino to Ensenada.
Von and Yohanna watched for blue whales along the coast to identify individual animals with photography and acoustic tags and to collect fecal samples for analysis. They updated their data bank annually, funding the project with grants from universities and private research institutions. This identification was vital to scientists who tracked the distribution, movements, abundance, and behavior of the few blue whales remaining after the mass slaughter of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If the largest and loudest animals ever to live on earth were to avoid extinction within Von’s lifetime, it was up to people like her and Yohanna to help them survive and thrive.
Their favorite blue was Erma, BW#1066, a mature female they spotted almost every September off the coast of San Clemente. Their girl, they called her. They’d be out on the endless ocean, in heavy fog, unable to see anything past the side of the boat. They’d cut the engine to listen. Hear nothing but the waves slapping against the boat. Slap. Slap. Slap. Soporific. Monotonous. Hypnotic.
Burst of thunder—the blow of a blue! They’d steer blindly toward the explosion. The fog would thin, their vision would clarify, and then . . .
. . . their girl’s huge head would split the waves; two watermelon-sized blowholes would gape; a thirty-foot column of vapor would pierce the sky.
And. Then. She. Would. Roll . . . and roll . . . and roll. Her unique color pattern would pass slowly, slowly in front of their eyes—shades of smoke, shadow, and ash in painterly streaks and splotches, vivid against the dark sea. Eons would transpire in a minute.
At the end, the small dorsal fin—the tail stock like a tree trunk—the wing like flukes—would cross their vision in stately display. Afterward, only the shadow under the surface.
They’d watch, silent and small, insignificant in everything except their witnessing. Glory, splendor, grandeur, brilliance—for that minute, they’d have possessed it all.
In June of 1982, Von and Yohanna watched two males calling, racing, and head-butting while tailing Erma, so they crossed their fingers. If they were lucky enough to score a fecal sample from a pregnant blue, it could be analyzed for important new hormonal data about gestation. When they found their girl the following year, Yohanna maneuvered the Whale Finatic as close as she dared while Von recorded the sighting with the still and video cameras. They saw the dark cloud expelled from Erma’s body, they pumped their fists in the air, and whispered “Yes!” They assumed the cloud was feces, as red as the millions of tiny krill— “krillions,” Yohanna’s happy neologism—trapped by the baleen curtain of Erma’s mouth and swallowed whole and alive into her digestive system. While the whale swam ahead, the women waited for the cloud to float to the surface so they could scoop their sample.
Erma surfaced to blow, always an awe-inspiring moment. But their awe ratcheted up several notches when a second blow, much smaller, erupted near her. The women froze and stared. The red cloud was not feces but blood, dispersing and disappearing too fast for sharks to notice. Their girl had given birth right under their noses. For a few seconds, Von felt emptied as she’d never felt before—emptied of past and future, of uncertainty and pain, of regret and fear—emptied and wholly joyful.
There were no recorded sightings of blue whale births in the scientific literature. This was the first. The two dark shapes under the surface, big and small, dove and disappeared from view. The two sunlit shapes in the boat held hands, watching to remember. No matter what happened next and after that, this moment would be the apex of their lives. They recorded their new baby in the data bank as Mincer, BW#1492.
Seven winters later, Erma was found beached near Mazatlán with broken bones and bloody wounds, dying from a ship strike. The authorities exploded her with too much dynamite, so gobbets of flesh and blubber rained down, injuring rubberneckers and damaging their cars. That spring, Mincer showed up in the Tokyo seafood market, discovered by an undercover agent monitoring the illegal whale-meat trade and identified by matching the steak’s DNA with Mincer’s. That summer, Efren, the youngest of the Reséndez brothers, was diagnosed with leukemia and returned home to Chula Vista for good. Of course, Anselmo and Che went with him. Lonny, who never wanted to see Chula Vista again, disappeared into the nightmare abyss of Compton. During the whale-spotting season of 1990, therefore, the Whale Finatic was uncrewed and grounded. Yohanna called this year their annus horribilus.
Von earned money by preparing environmental impact statements for government agencies, guest-lecturing and expert-witnessing, and creating multivariate statistical analyses for other researchers whose vessels still had crews and whose pet whales still lived. But, no matter what she was doing, the back of her mind worried. Less and less did Yohanna work, swim, read, eat, or talk. More and more did she drink beer, stare at ghosts, sleep with her back to Von, whimper and weep at night.
After one particularly bad night in late August, after Yohanna finally lay silent, her face to the wall, Von quietly left the bed in the early morning to buy a few groceries. She returned home to find a post card reading “Gone to Penniac. It is not down in any map; true places never are. —Y.” Moby-Dick again, Von figured. One of the few facts she’d gleaned about Yohanna’s family was that there was a brother in New Brunswick with a horse farm. But how long did she mean to stay? Until next week? Until the Whale Finatic was recrewed? Until the night-weeping ceased? Forever?
Unlike the blast-pierced stasis of the Mercury years or the steady march of the university years or the summer morning of the Yohanna years, this new life seemed to have no tempo or weather. It was only a slow fading of everything in front of and behind Von’s eyes, a gradual freezing of her joints. She made appointments with an ophthalmologist and a rheumatologist but stood both doctors up. She colored her eyes in fierce black and green in order to treat herself to dinner at Dan Tana’s but cancelled her reservation at the last minute. She registered to take a course in Advanced Naturalist Training at the Center for Whale Research but forfeited her tuition when she decided it was too much trouble to relocate to Washington for the duration of the course.
A month later, still no word from Yohanna. Von spent hours on the phone with Canadian operators trying to track down a phone or address for anyone named Baldursdóttir in New Brunswick. A sympathetic operator finally explained that the brother’s last name would not be Baldursdóttir but Baldursson. Embarrassed—she’d known that, of course, but her brain wasn’t working properly—Von began her search again with the correct name. She finally got a phone number and called it dozens of times at different hours of the day and night, but no one ever answered.
The red glass hummingbird feeders dried up; the birds of paradise wilted and died. Inside the house, silence seemed preferable to music or television. The only reading Von could focus on was the basket of post cards from her brother, still working at the motel in Mercury. Harold had kept up his silly correspondence with Yohanna over the twelve years that she and Von had been together.
“I’m reading a great book about helium. Just can’t put it down. —D. & H.”
“I guess my chemistry jokes are bad because the good ones argon. —D. & H.”
And then the ones that came after Dad’s death from thyroid cancer three years ago:
“Old chemists never die, they just stop reacting. —H.”
Two months later, still no word. Von moved around the guest house quietly and slowly, gathering Yohanna’s abandoned belongings and consolidating them into a pile on the bed. At night, she kept their bedroom door closed and slept on the couch. Late one night, she picked up Yohanna’s copy of Moby-Dick, leafed through it, pinned an arbitrary page with her fingertip, and read the impaled sentence: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” That was the past, riding her bike again and again toward the constantly retreating mountains, riding it around and around inside the empty motel pool. But could it also be her future? New Brunswick was about as remote as it got. A new ocean, new whales, new work and weather, new challenges—and maybe Yohanna. But even if they couldn’t be together any more, Von would at least know why. She was forty years old, and certainty felt more necessary now than it had when she’d been younger.
Decision made, she crashed into exhaustion. Her watch said almost two; her window said still dark. She’d catch a few hours of sleep, get up early, eat a good breakfast, pack intelligently, rent a modest Ford Taurus or Honda Civic, and take off at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sunrise.
The next morning, she overslept, ate too little too fast, forgot to pack the atlas, and got hustled into renting an embarrassing Lincoln Continental. Getting out of town was a three-hour nightmare, and she actually had to fill the tank a second time before saying goodbye to the tangled mess that was the Los Angeles Interchange. The stupid Lincoln got less than sixteen miles to the gallon, and summer gas prices had soared to nearly a dollar a gallon, leading Von to wonder if she could afford this trip after all.
After a stultifying four hours of Mojave Desert—sky punishingly bright, car’s air conditioner on freeze—she was startled from her highway hypnosis by a road sign signaling the exit for I-95 north and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Twenty years before, the place hadn’t been signposted. Random passersby weren’t supposed to stumble upon a nuclear test site. Only those with the appropriate clearances knew how to get there through the anonymous dirt roads. Neither the test site itself nor the town of Mercury had been shown on any map. And now here was this huge sign blaring the site’s location to every passing car.
The sign jogged something inside her. It felt like she needed a toilet. She took the exit.
What had been the site’s main security checkpoint was now unmanned. Its guard booth offered informational brochures, maps of the area, bus schedules to and from Las Vegas, and a pay phone. She called the motel to let Harold know she was on her way and was surprised to get an answering machine. Lousy public relations.
She drove slowly through her changed home town. After the nuclear test ban treaty and the end of the military work on the site, the population of Mercury had shriveled. Abandoned buildings now baked between sun and hardpan. Unrepaired wire fences drooped, some lying flat on the ground. The school, cinema, and hobby store were closed. The air seemed clearer and hotter. Only the number of living animals had stayed the same: zero.
At the Atomic Motel, business was no longer booming. Some of the letters on the neon sign had burned out, so a pale orange TOM MOTE flickered against the white-streaked afternoon sky. The blue paint of the doors and windowsills had flaked away, leaving behind a blotchy gray surface that stopped Von’s breath with its resemblance to Erma’s mottled skin. And, even all these years after the fallout had ceased, the swimming pool was still empty, the ghost of the girl she’d been still riding around and around down inside.
The flabby, middle-aged brother who hugged her briefly across the motel’s registration desk was an uncombed, stubbled man with sweat-wet armpits. “What’s the occasion?” His voice sounded cautious.
Von extricated herself and stepped back, looking around the motel office. She couldn’t admit that she’d been passing and needed a toilet. “Cross-country road trip. Seeing the sights.”
“Including you.” She looked at him and smiled.
He smiled back. “Well, I’m a sight to see, I guess.”
“That you are. Where’s Onofrio?” After Dad’s death, Harold had hired one of the base’s laid-off cafeteria workers to spell him at the front desk.
“Gone. Not enough work now for two guys.”
“Not bad, just nonexistent. Where’s your pal?” Her face furrowed. “You know—your buddy, the one who writes all the postcards? She’s not along for the ride?”
“No. She’s . . . visiting family in Canada.”
“Just us then.” He brightened. “Great. What happened to the guy who was stopped for having sodium chloride and a nine-volt in his car?”
Von stared at him.
“Charged with assault and battery.” His grin requested reciprocity.
“And speaking of cars.” He nodded towards the window that framed the Lincoln, squatting outside in the orange dust. “Pretty fancy.”
Von’s face heated. “Oh, no—it’s not mine. The rental guy mowed me down. I hate the damn thing, but I’m stuck with it until next week.”
Harold pulled a What-me-worry? face. “Not necessarily. The next G.I. going to Vegas would be happy to drop it off at the rental office there. Save himself bus fare. I’d just call the barracks and leave a message. I guarantee we’d have a taker within a day.”
Her bladder insisted. “Ah . . . well, right now I just need the bathroom.”
He gestured grandly. “All yours. Still in the same place.”
She passed the closed bedroom doors—Harold’s, hers, Mom and Dad’s—to get to the bathroom at the end of the hall. She’d forgotten how dark and cool that hallway was. One hot, bright summer long ago, she’d closed the lounge door, shutting herself alone inside the hall to read with a flashlight. At the time, she’d never wondered why they all kept their bedroom doors closed all the time.
In the bathroom, a pine-scented air freshener shaped like a cartoon Sasquatch dangled from the ceiling vent. Better than that awful bleach smell of the Mom era.
Bladder relieved, she followed the television’s noise down the hall and into the lounge. Harold was in one of the two Barcaloungers—Dad’s, the one upholstered in brown fake leather—watching a rerun of the old Lloyd Bridges Sea Hunt. He raised his voice above Lloyd’s and pointed his thumb toward the TV tray set up between the two chairs. “Eat.”
She automatically fell into the other chair—Mom’s gold plush one—leaned back to raise the footrest, and scanned the tray’s offerings. A glass of milk, cold—Harold must have just poured it for her—and a big plastic bowl of Lorna Doones. She hadn’t tasted either in years. Yohanna hadn’t approved of adults eating what she called baby food. Von nibbled an edge, closed her eyes, and pushed the rest of the cookie in. The bland, crumbly sweetness flooded her mouth and mind, and her eyes dampened at the taste of the cold milk—whole milk, of course. She’d forgotten that food could feel like this, so easy and safe. Eyes still closed, ears tuning out the television’s noise, lying back like the sluggard she’d never been, she finished both milk and cookies and let go.
When she opened her eyes, the outside light was dark orange and an old episode of The Twilight Zone had replaced Sea Hunt. She blinked through blurry eyes while Sebastian Cabot laughed demonically at some younger actor whose name she’d forgotten, and the show ended. The theme music, those dissonant up-and-down intervals, now struck her as funny rather than spooky.
Harold turned off the television. “Wow, you really zonked out. Now that you’re awake, come see my new prize possession. You of all people should appreciate it.”
Von levered herself up from the depths of the recliner and followed Harold to his bedroom. “Tah-dah!” He flung open the door. “The Mercury Cryptozoology Museum!” He stood back so she could enter first.
Taxidermy trophies filled the walls and shelves. She narrowed her focus to see a trout, a baby rhesus monkey, and a hare all staring with glass eyes. But the trout was tufted in fur, the monkey’s head topped a crow’s body, and the hare sported antlers. “Um. What did you call this stuff?”
“The one and only Mercury Cryptozoology Museum.”
“And this is your new prize possession?”
“Well, not all of it, of course. But you need to see the rest before you see the best. Sideshow gaffs, most of them. Look over here—the battle of the lamia and the griffin.” He gestured to a shelf on which two creatures opposed each other in eternal combat: a squirrel monkey’s head and torso atop a snake’s body; a gull’s head, breast, and wings growing from the back end of—what? Von pointed and raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah, it’s hard to recognize. Dog. Miniature poodle shaved into a lion cut. You know, to get that tufted tail effect.”
“Um. Someone’s pet? Shaved before or after death?”
“Beats me. This stuff comes from Vegas. The guys who sell ’em aren’t the ones who make ’em.”
“Vegas? I thought cryptozoology was tracking Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster and so on.”
“Yeah, well, I’m no world traveler. Citizen of the motel, that’s me. I’m an Atomican.” He grinned.
She wondered if he’d ever been out of Nevada. “Okay, so this is your big trophy room, and this”—the battle of the lamia and the griffin— “is your big trophy.”
“Nope. My big trophy is—tah-dah!” He turned her by the shoulders to see the behemoth standing to the left of the door.
How could she have missed it when she entered the room? It was a seven-foot-tall plush gorilla in a King Kong pose, holding a terrorized, almost-nude, plastic woman in one hand while the other fondled his giant, fully erect penis.
Von glanced at Harold, who was laughing at her frozen-faced reaction, then inspected the penis more closely. Stretching above the gorilla’s head nearly to the ceiling, it was more than six feet long. Probably weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds. Conical, not tubular. Not humanoid. She closed her eyes.
His voice lifted in excitement. “Yeah, I needed to check this with you. I sent photos to the Icelandic Phallological Museum asking if it was from a blue whale, but they said they couldn’t tell for sure without an X-ray. How come?”
She turned away from the gorilla, keeping her eyes shut. “If it has a baculum—a bone in the penis—it’s not from a whale.”
“So what do you think? Without an X-ray and all. Is it possible?”
Eyes still closed, she nodded.
“Yes!” Harold hugged her, his sweaty armpits dampening the skin of her bare arms. “I knew I could count on you to back me up. To baculum me up. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.”
She took a step back and opened her eyes. “When did you get this?”
“Oh . . . I guess maybe five . . . no, about seven years ago.”
Around the time she and Yohanna had watched the males courting Erma. Could have belonged to Mincer’s father.
She stepped forward, tracing her finger in the dust on the old specimen. Her voice rose. “You know that killing blue whales is illegal, don’t you?”
Harold winced. “Hey, I didn’t kill it! Besides, you don’t know for sure that it was killed on purpose. It might have just beached.”
“They don’t ‘just beach,’ dammit! They beach when they can’t swim because some asshole with a ship or a big-game rifle disables them.” She stood, rigid, glaring, the air between them solid as a wall.
“Oh, Vonnie.” Harold stepped through the wall to embrace her.
Vonnie, the name and the person she’d left behind. She quivered in her brother’s arms, breath slowing.
“And here I thought you’d like it.” Unlike his previous hug, this one was dry and solid. He sighed. “I’m sorry.” Arm around her back, he turned her toward the door. “You’ve had a rough day. You need some real food after all those cookies. C’mon out to the kitchen. I’ll heat you up some Chun King.”
She shook herself out of his grasp. “Give me a minute.” Her eyes met his, they both nodded, and he left the room.
She stepped to the gorilla, gloved her hand in the untucked hem of her oversized T-shirt, and slowly, carefully, wiped the dust off the penis.
Kathleen R. Sands, Ph.D., has taught literature, writing, and other humanities courses at universities and colleges in Arizona, Scotland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. She has also worked as a zookeeper, animal laboratory technician, and state government policy analyst for criminal justice and environmental agencies. Her history books, An Elizabethan Lawyer’s Possession by the Devil and Demon Possession in Elizabethan England, are cited in many scholarly texts. Her collection of short fiction, Boy of Bone, received an honorable mention in the New York Book Festival.