MEGHAN LAMB / excerpt from ALL YOUR MOST PRIVATE PLACES
They drive together through the night. They roll the windows down. The air surrounds them as they’re driving through the desert. It’s everything. It’s what they hear. The wind made by their movement. Wheels on asphalt. Pinkish river-pool of neon lights receding.It’s the city.
He turns up the headlights, turning down the radio. The static crackles, gravel, road fades into dust. The road becomes each line of white revealed by the headlights. Great black jaws of mountain swallowing the swimming pools of pink.
She thinks, the city feels like a volcano. It is not the first time she has had this thought. She feels foggy. Sweating. It’s the desert heat. Volcano. Neon lava. Or whatever. But, she thinks, there’s more to it than that.
You want the radio? he says.
Not really. She’s not listening.
He says, me neither. He’s not listening. He turns it off.
The city feels dormant in the day. The neon lights are not yet lit, but they’re still felt. She feels this pulse. This throb of buildings pumping false metallic air. The cooling which she understands creates a greater heat.
As they drive from the city, she thinks, it is strange just how easy it seems when you’re driving away. In the daytime, when lights are just rhythms, she feels like the city is all that there is.
In the darkness, the desert is always erupting. It’s something that everyone knows. It’s a looming, their knowledge, these dark crags, this bright neon magma, this charge to the air. The night sky smells like sagebrush, sand, which is to say, this powder, ammunition, dust. The smell of heat. The cactus flowers bloom.
Meanwhile, a line of cars pulls into Station UA1. The station workers scan their cards. The gate goes up and down. A sign above the gate says: An Environmental Research Park. The sign below that says: Buckle up. It’s the law.
The workers wait there in their line of cars, sipping their coffee from plastic or tin tubes, styrofoam or paper cups. They check the time. They clear their throats. They yawn. They stretch in place. They sift around in pockets for their ID cards.
They look out of their windows and they wait. Long black lines of lamps cast cold white lines of light.
Their own white jackets sit beside them, folded into rectangles. They wait. They have so many sets of clean white jackets just like these. They sip their coffee, think of stains. These clean white surfaces. Such a responsibility. They think, it is only a matter of time.
They sit there, sipping. The beginning of another day. They think of darkness turning into white, try not to think of stains. They think of home. They think of pulling their clean jackets from the wash. The soft clean smell. They’re like spare sheets for some strange guest who never seems to leave.
They feel this unnameable dread when he pulls their car into the driveway. It’s the sound of splintered blacktop, hissing. Then, the way it stops. The respiration of exhaust, for just a moment. Then, the way it stops completely. Then, the feeling they are home. They have arrived.
They take off their clothes and they mill toward the bedroom. She waits for him by the window, palms flattened against the ledge. She hears him click the light on, so she squints. He comes up from behind. He puts his hands upon her hands and presses her into the glass.
The blonde-lit linen drapes move as their bodies move. The edges stick. She grips the ledge. She looks. She peers outward into the night.
She sees the feathered silhouette of their acacia tree. Then, she sees fog. She squints. Then, fog. Then, branches. Fog. Then, branches. Fog. Then, branches.
She closes her eyes. Her nipples rub against the linen. Sweat gleams on her stomach. She feels like she’s floating, falling, into nothingness.
Her hands slip from the ledge. He grabs her hands. He grabs her wrists. He grabs her arms. He grabs her legs. He gasps. He comes.
They lie together on the bed. She’s turned toward the window. He clicks off the light. He’s turned toward her back.
Good night, my dear, he tells her back.
Good night, she tells the window.
I love you, he tells her back.
I love you too, she tells the window.
The tourists turn to face the viewing platform. Its window is the front wall of UA1’s so-called bunker. The tour director, Lee, directs them to the glass, assures them it is bullet-proof. The bunker’s built to standard. Whatever that means.
Lee distributes small plastic binoculars to the tourists. He directs them to the model subdivision. Rows of square lawns, picket fences, and split-level houses. Built to standard. Desert stretches out on every side.
It’s called Survivor City, he explains. The tourists murmur-nod with grave expressions, like this means something to them. The window’s amber tinted, so the light looks gold. It frames the subdivision with a soft, uncanny glow.
It has a retro look, a tourist says.
Another tourist says, it’s like a 50s photograph. Looks like my mother’s neighborhood.
A man in a Hawaiian shirt is really getting into it. He says, I feel like I’ve stepped back into another time.
Lee shakes his head. He says, it’s not another time. It’s meant to look like anywhere in any time. Timeless, in other words.
The man says, Lee. He looks at him like, I don’t know you. He says, Lee, I think I know what I am feeling when I feel it.
Lee does not respond. He details the history of the museum, the legacy of the test site, the ways that it has changed throughout the years. He leads them through a hallway filled with stainless steel beams, then ducks them down into a tunnel filled with pipes. Some pipes emit a slight sulfuric smell. Please watch your heads, he says, directing them to shelves of safety goggles and hard hats.
The tunnel begins to get dark, but there are headlamps on the hats. The on switch is on the left side, Lee tells the tourists. Click, click, click, click. The clicking echoes like the dripping of a cavern wall. The dim-lit tunnel flickers like a line of lightning bugs.
Eventually, the tunnel opens out into a larger viewing platform filled with many periscopes. Lee tells the tourists they’re invited to look through the periscopes, to get a clearer picture of Survivor City.
Are those people in the houses? someone inevitably asks.
Lee shakes his head. Test figures. In a minute, I will demonstrate.
The periscopes allow the tourists to peer into the model houses. Through the windows, they can see the ways the figures were arranged.
One model home reveals a set of figures in the living room. Two child-size figures sit together on the love seat. A man-size figure lounges in an armchair by the floor lamp with a glass beside him and a magazine spread on his lap.
A woman figure in a dress stands by the window. She is close enough for tourists to gaze at the details of her face. She wears her hair styled in a simple mid-length bob. She has long, black-lined lashes, blue eyes, and a pale sort of almost-smile.
Survivor City is outlined with huge ominous craters. From this angle, now, within the periscopes, their full scale is revealed. Most craters are the size of many houses. If they panned in closer, in the corner, they would see a tortoise peeking from its shell.
Do they use real nukes? Hawaiian shirt man asks.
Lee says, of course not, no. They don’t use nuclear explosives. They have not conducted real tests in decades. Things are different, now, he says. This is a research park. They’re simply recreating an experience.
So, they’re not real nukes? the shirt man says.
Lee says, they’re not. They’re meant to look and act as much like real nukes as possible.
Lee does not like to hear himself answer this question. In all honesty, he doesn’t know what happens at this site. He’s never seen the real testing site, the part that’s confidential. When he asked his boss about it, he was vague and cagey.
That’s not your job, he said. That part is science. Visitors don’t come for science. That is not what they are looking for.
What are they looking for? Lee glanced down at his boss’s gun belt, then quickly looked back up into his gleaming metal badge.
They want reassurance. They’re just making sense of things, he said. This gives a good face. Humanizes the whole operation.
Lee’s boss moved closer, then. He noticed he smelled slightly musky and his breath had just a bit of an acidic tinge. He patted his hand on Lee’s shoulder. You do good, he said. You do important work. It is important to preserve our own humanity.
He looks across the table at his wife as they eat breakfast, which is flaxseed waffles served with slices of banana. She’s arranged the waffles on their avocado green Fiestaware, banana slices laid like petals on the plate.
She is wearing her work clothes, a powder blue shirt dress with buttons buttoned to the neck. It is classy, he thinks. There’s a small gap between the two buttons above and right below her breasts. He can see a slight trace of her bra. He thinks that this is sexy. She looks at him while she is sipping her coffee. She raises one eyebrow. He raises one eyebrow. He thinks, she is classy, but sexy.
He has this fantasy. He thinks about it often, but he hasn’t brought it up yet. He is waiting for the right time.
He looks down and scrapes his waffles. She gets up and takes the plates. Her heels click. The water hisses. Plates clink. Now is not the right time.
In his fantasy, they find a local call girl from an ad. They call the number. They tell her what they are thinking. She tells them she is excited. She senses they are attractive. Classy/sexy. Something he thinks that call girls are not used to.
This is all part of the fantasy, this need to give her something. They provide the call girl with something exceptional. They’re not just there to give her money. She enjoys herself. She feels relaxed. They talk together and they listen to some music.
He pours champagne. When the call girl finishes her glass, she gets a look. She leans in toward his wife and starts unbuttoning her dress. Her eyes are on that gap between the buttons. The call girl is wearing something slutty, something that his wife would never wear.
He asks, is it okay if I take pictures? She says, yes, of course. Please feel free. As many as you need. He snaps a picture of the girl unbuttoning his wife’s dress, panning in on her expression, capturing her smile. He takes a picture of them kissing as their bodies fold together, capturing her smile as it melts in someone else’s mouth.
Lee says, now, count down from 10. The tourists glance up, back, and forth. They clutch their wrists. Hawaiian shirt man’s dripping sweat. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Silence. Light. Explosion.
They see the flash before they hear the sound, which is so deep, it barely registers as what they know it is. There is a second flash. The shutters and the roof tops seem to splash in one direction, riding on the arc of an invisible wave.
The windows shatter. Paint begins to blister, bubble, singe. The edges of the roof are licked with tiny temporary flames. The flames burn quickly. All the houses stand just as they stood. It is a testament to standards, Lee says, how well they were built.
The tourists look out through the periscopes. They see the figures in the houses were not harmed. Although, the fringes of the woman’s bangs are black. Her lashes charred and feathered. Bits of glass gleam on her shoulders like scattered necklace.
One of the children now leans to the side, like she is pulling back. The man leans forward, like he’s doubled over in some kind of shock. What does this mean, they think, this delicate destruction? Tourists file toward the exit. They do not know what this means.
They fiddle with their pamphlets. Thanks and come again. You’re welcome. They came here to learn something. They don’t remember. They leave, feeling they’ve learned nothing. They pull out onto the desert highway, turn the AC up, turn on the radio. Hawaiian shirt man says, it was a museum. That is how they did things in the past. His wife nods and the desert stretches all around them. He says, honestly, we’ve come a long way. The sun glares. He adjusts the mirrors. He smiles at his wife. They are relieved, but disappointed.
There is a moment in her drive to work that always catches her. It is the moment where the highway meets the turnoff to the desert. It’s the turnoff that they take on their long night drives. She has never driven on this desert route during the day.
She thinks of driving through the desert to wherever. Gnarled scraps of brush and cactus trees, cracked spiderwebs of dirt becoming graceful slopes of dunes, becoming sky, becoming nothing, nothing but potentialities that she cannot envision.
Instead, she pulls off at the donut shop. She buys two mixed dozens and a box of coffee. The pink cardboard sits beside her. Its smells sweet and sticky. Sticking her to what she needs to do and where she needs to go.
What does she need to do? Where does she need to go? She barely knows, these days, but it involves getting their coffee and their donuts. She deposits them onto a table in the break room with a note. Please take one, says the note. She draws a smiley face. The smiley face’s eyes are spread too far apart. She feels that this makes it look a little crazed and desperate.
At her desk, she edits photos of rich people at events. She blurs and touches up and does what’s needed to make them look good. Most of the women wear these shelf-like strapless dresses. They look stupid. They’re intended to be flattering, but everyone looks fat. Nobody understands themselves, she thinks, fixing the images. She thinks, it’s posturing. The things they do to make themselves look classy.
He looks out onto an overwatered golf course. He can hear the sprinklers run throughout the day. He forgets them for short intervals while sending e-mails, processing new data, or setting reminders on his calendar. After awhile, he pauses and looks out of the window. He hears three spritzes of water, a short revolution, six thin sprits of water, then a revolution, then one longer, louder stream of water, then a revolution, back to the beginning.
Sometimes, he looks beyond the golf course to the mountains, which stand, looking back at him, above the false green slopes. In the morning, they’re violet flickers emerging from lavender clouds. By midday, they’ve unfolded a gold-green expanse that recedes into shadows of blue. By the end of the work day, the sky has accumulated a thick yellowish haze. He powers down, flicks off the lights, and stands to close the blinds. He thinks, I have changed through the years in all these ways I can’t articulate. The mountains always still themselves, a looming gray suggestion.
As a child, he spent a lot of time inside his best friend’s partially finished basement, on the unfinished side, exploring stacks of Playboys. They both sat on these rickety metal-frame lawn chairs. They drank Diet Rite because that’s what they had. The crushed cans piled up. The basement smelled like dirty socks.
He was filled with a sense of discovery then. It had little to do with the images. The women were okay, but they mostly looked the same. The pictures blended with the sound of turning pages. The sense of discovery came from the things that they found themselves saying.
I like that one, his friend pointed out. I like when they have puffy nipples.
Puffy? he said.
Yeah, his friend said. When they look like that.
He asked, what do you call them, then, when they’re not puffy?
I don’t know. He shrugged. He crushed his can. Just regular, I guess.
I like that one, he said. The red lace panties.
His friend nodded his approval. Yeah. All girls look good in red.
I guess they do, he thought. He spent a silent moment thinking, why? I like how bright it is, he said. It just stands out.
This way, they both established their taxonomy of parts, their lexicon for subtle preferences in color, size, and shape.
While driving home, he thinks of Diet Rite and red lace panties. He thinks about his wife, how she is beautiful. He’s lucky. He wants to share that sense of mutual discovery. He wants to see what she sees, create a shared language.
As a child, his wife was frightened of discovery. She was a quiet girl. That’s what her mother said. She preferred empty spaces; after all, she lived within the desert. She should’ve been able to be happy where she was.
It doesn’t work like that, her mother said. She told her, in a perfect world. She sighed, of course, because the world wasn’t perfect. She felt her pocket with the lipstick and the box of cigarettes. She pulled two sticks of spearmint gum out of the other pocket. In a perfect world, we’d all get what we want, she said, but we don’t really even know exactly what we want, most of the time.
Her mother took her swimming. She’d swim while her mother lounged beside the pool. She crawled out of the pool whenever she felt hungry. Pool water seems to designed to make you hungry, she complained. Her mother told her to be patient. She was happy lying in the sun. She tried to lie there with her mother, but her body felt exposed, so she turned over on her stomach, spread a towel on her back. She felt her stomach pinched between the plastic chair slats. She looked through the space between the slats and watched a spider drowning in a puddle.
She went to slumber parties where they looked at magazines. The magazines asked questions about what they wanted, who they could become. Could you be a model? the magazine articles asked. Could I be a model? the girls at the parties would ask themselves. They didn’t know. It seemed like a good question.
They stashed the pizza boxes in a greasy corner by the trash. They dug around the junk drawer with this stupid urgency. They found the measuring tape tucked inside an old tin can of cookies from the days when cookies always came in old tin cans.
The girls lined up—they actually lined up—and a girl would measure ankles, wrists, waists, leg length, shoulder width, hips, height, and neck circumference, comparing their measurements to lists of model ranges in the magazines, the standard units used within the industry.
As it turned out, none of them could have been models. Some girls came close in some ways but fell short in others. They were tall enough, but their hips were too wide. Their waists were small enough, but they had scrawny calves or weird thick ankles. Their shoulder width, hips, waist, were all in perfect ratio, but for some reason, one leg was a little longer than the other.
While driving home, she thinks of how she hates her insecurities. They’re childish, of course. They haven’t changed since childhood. She contemplates this concept, childhood. When did it end? She looks out at the endless desert, thinking that it never did.
Meanwhile, something horrible is happening at the test site.
Meghan Lamb is the recipient of an MFA in fiction from Washington University and the 2018 Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing. She is the author of the novel Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017), the poetry chapbook Letter to Theresa (dancing girl press, 2016), and the novella Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance, 2014). Her work has been featured in Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, Passages North, Redivider, The Collagist, Nat. Brut, Artifice Magazine, and elsewhere.