January 3, 1961
Paul was so lost in thought that night, driving, that it took him a moment to notice the ambulance heading toward him on the horizon. It arced up over the road, a starry flare against the black sky until it passed him, bright and soundless. A minute later, two fire trucks and the chief’s station wagon followed, traveling in a tight pack, their lights whirling yellow and white and red.
Paul’s heart tightened into a fist. He tried to tell himself that the trucks could mean nothing or anything, that they could be headed to any of the reactors at the testing station, but that was bullshit and he knew it. It was bullshit just like the supervisors had been feeding them for a year: that all the CR-1’s glitches were minor, that when the reactor shut down you just started it up again, when it got too hot you just did what you had to do to cool it off: Use your heads, boys, and make the damn thing work. Keep it alive until that new reactor core arrives in spring. Then this thing’ll be running so smooth, you’ll be sorry you ever complained.
So they’d waited through fall and early winter, holding out for spring. But here it was, the coldest night in an Idaho January, seventeen below zero, and every vehicle in the fire department fleet had just blown past, headed due east for the CR-1.
Paul pulled onto the shoulder and turned his car to follow them, tires grinding on the gravel. He didn’t know what he’d find when he got there. Please let them be lucky, please let it just be a false alarm so they could all endure a nice dressing--down from the fire chief, who’d had it up to here with the reactor’s problems. But it was the night of the restart, the riskiest operation they performed, when they took the reactor from stone--cold nothing to full power. He sent a silent thought to the boys on shift. He thought of his wife, Nat, too, the way he’d left her at home, the awful things he’d said. If he didn’t get a chance to apologize, this would be how she’d remember him, hard and cruel, driving off with a backseat full of clothing. His car bumped onto the dirt road toward the reactor and his thoughts became scrambled by fear. Here were the swirling lights of all the vehicles, the steam pumping in a white cloud into the air, Nat watching him drive away, his daughters in their beds, the fire chief waving his arms at Paul’s car and calling something—-and he felt the sinking sensation that he was too late for all of it, for Nat, for the boys, for his daughters, for everyone, and it was just as he had always feared: When the time came it would happen before he knew it, it would happen without him there; despite everything he had always done to be ready, he would be too late.
Coupe de Ville
Nat was the first one out of the car. She stepped into the dirt parking lot, her low--heeled shoes printing chevrons into the reddish dust. Ahead of them the lake shimmered blue, dancing with sun. They were somewhere in northern Utah, one day out from their final destination in Idaho Falls, and not a moment too soon.
For the past two and a half weeks they’d been driving cross--country: Virginia to Idaho in the ’55 DeSoto Fireflite her husband, Paul, had bought used a couple of years before. Paul was starting his next army tour in Idaho Falls as an operator for a small nuclear reactor. You moved for Uncle Sam, he told Nat, but you still found your own transportation. So, with their two young daughters packed into the backseat they headed west, sleeping in hotels and farmhouses and even, on two regrettable nights, in the car. Nat was beginning to feel that they might be vagabonds forever, nomads wandering the rough western states, eating crackers by the side of the road in a hot wind, loitering at the edge of decent farmers’ land, scrambling after barn kittens, urinating in gas stations.
Paul opened his driver’s side door and stepped out. He bent to help Liddie squeeze past the seat, a damp spot showing at the small of his back. Liddie was one and a half, and she hit the ground running, hustling toward the beach with a toddler’s steady, impressive lack of hesitation or common sense, belly leading the way in pink cotton overalls. Samantha, who was three, scampered out through the passenger seat, her rumpled pale--blue dress flapping around her legs. Nat followed them, shading her eyes to the sparkle of the water and the glow of pent--up energy that seemed to rise from their daughters’ small bodies like incandescence.
The round crystalline lake before them was held between mountains as if cupped in a palm. The spring air smelled sweet, and Nat was filled with a sudden stirring of hope.
She smiled up at Paul. “We just might make it,” she said.
Paul’s brown eyes were weary, a little bloodshot. He scratched his head, two brisk strokes over his close army haircut. “Let’s hope so,” he said. Then he smiled back. “How you holding up?”
“Good,” she said. They trailed after the girls, Paul rolling up his shirtsleeves, Nat’s shoes dangling from her fingers.
There was a faint, distant splash up the curve, followed by muted applause and whistles, and Nat turned her head. She spied a rock outcropping that jutted into the water and was surprised to see the silhouettes of people atop it. A moment later one of them sprang off the end of the rock, sailed downward in a gentle parabola, and entered the water with only the slightest sound.
“Rock divers,” Nat said as the head bobbed up. She checked the girls’ location—-still a good distance from the water’s edge, their twinlike heads of chocolate--brown hair mingling as they bent to stack rocks—-and turned back to the jumpers. The dazzling water, the leap and burst were so familiar that her heart hurt. She had grown up in San Diego; swimming and diving were the things she’d loved. Some of her strongest memories were of leaping off the Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma, watching the white froth swirl before plunging in.
Paul was watching her from the corner of his eye.
“I’m going in,” she said.
“Going in where?” he asked, the suspicion in his voice showing he knew her well enough.
“Up there. I want to jump in.”
His forehead crimped with uneasiness, and a pulse of guilt ran through her. “That’s crazy,” he said. “You’ll be wet on the drive.”
“With this air? I’ll dry in half a minute. Here, hold my shoes.” Before he could argue she handed them to him and jogged through the sinking, rocky sand, pebbles coating her calves and flinging up around her knees.
“You don’t know those people,” Paul called.
She turned and waved. “It’s okay! Be back in a second.”
The girls hopped and cheered beside their father as she poked her way up the rock. Even from a distance she could see Paul’s disapproval, the tenseness of his shoulders and straight line of his mouth. For that one moment she didn’t care.
When she reached the top she saw the jumpers, two men and two women. They lounged on the side of the rock now, sun-warmed and serene. They seemed about Nat’s age, twenty--four, and she wondered at their lives, at what had brought them to this rock midday, free from the responsibilities that regulated her own hours: children and meals and cleaning and ironing. She had been like them once, only a few years ago, and for a moment she paused as if watching grainy silent footage of herself.
“Hi,” one of the men called, and Nat came to her senses and said hello. Now that she was this close to them she felt a little self--conscious, and she said, “The water just looks so alluring.” As soon as she said “alluring” she regretted its dark, slightly affected tone and wished she had used a more regular word instead.
“It’s wonderful,” said a woman, plucking at the tight--fitting skirt of her red swimsuit. She looked up at Nat, cocking an eyebrow. “But you’re going in like that?”
“I guess so,” Nat said, smiling. She stepped to the edge and curled her toes. Her dress hung around her knees. This was no wild ocean but a placid, glass--smooth lake, and the water below her was clear and blue. She pointed her arms, felt the tendons behind her knees hollow and tense, her back stretch long to the tips of her fingers, and dived.
She fell through three long heart--throat seconds—one-a-thousand, two-a-thousand, three-a-thousand—before piercing the water. She could feel that it wasn’t a perfect entry, feet tipped a little too far back over her head, but she didn’t care. The sheer, pure cold sucked the air from her body and she surfaced, stifling a scream. Then she burst into laughter, paddling back toward her family. She hadn’t done something like that in years. How could anyone not love this sensation? It slapped you in the face and shouted You’re alive!
“Nice!” a man called above her.
Her toes reached sand and she waded toward shore. As she caught sight of Paul and the girls waiting for her, however, the excitement began to dwindle. She suddenly felt silly. Her dress suctioned squishily around her; she was forced to take small, awkward steps. By the time she got back to them Paul was fuming, her shoes clenched in his hands.
“Why did you do that?” he cried.
She squeezed out her hair, avoiding his eyes. “For fun,” she said, her voice small.
Paul shook his head. “You didn’t know what was under the water there. What if you dove down and hit something and never came up, right here in front of your little girls?”
“I knew it would be fine,” she said. And while she’d never admit it to Paul, the relief of not striking anything—-that moment of plunging into the water and feeling herself go down, down, unimpeded, the cold exploding past her face and neck and body until her own air pulled her up again—-was part of the fun. It had to be a little scary to count for anything.
She remembered that swimming was a different thing for him than it was for her; he’d grown up poor and never learned to swim until he got to boot camp, practicing every night, he’d said, in a pond near Fort Dix. This was one of the few concrete details she had of his youth, and it was a curious, poignant image: thin teenage Paul easing himself into the shallow dark, thrashing quietly along the shoreline until he could glide two strokes alone, three, four. Even then he passed the entrance test by the skin of his teeth, just enough to fill a pair of boots destined for Korea. It was no wonder, really, that the mild risks Nat liked to take scared him: the long swims to clear her head, cliff jumping, diving. But he acted as if she were doing it just to spite him, when in fact it had nothing to do with him at all. Which maybe, from his perspective, was even worse.
What if you never came up? She always came up.
He scooped their daughters into each arm and strode ahead, and she followed, feeling contrite, wishing she hadn’t been so defiant and so stupid. And yet she knew it wasn’t just worry on his part: Having an audience had made it worse. He’d had to sit by and watch strangers cheer her on for something he’d not wanted her to do, as if their approval was more important than his concern.
When she got back to the car he didn’t speak to her. Her dry shoes waited on her seat, side by side.
A day later, after two and a half weeks on the road, Paul and Nat and their daughters made it to Idaho Falls, where they’d been assigned to a small yellow house in a neighborhood near downtown. There was no base housing, so military personnel lived scattered among civilians. Paul began reactor training the day after they arrived, while Nat stayed behind in the empty house with the girls bouncing off the walls. He felt bad about leaving her with so much work, though slightly relieved to get out of the house, even if starting the new job made him nervous.
It took another week for their boxes to arrive, all their belongings jumbled into weird combinations. Each day when Paul got home from work, it seemed that another item or two had been put in its proper place—-towels appearing in a cabinet that had, when he’d left that morning, been bare, the blender suddenly standing on the countertop—-but this was moving at a slower pace than he’d expected. He tried to be patient. He knew Nat was busy with the girls.
He had three weeks of in--class training and observation, then his first week of work on the reactor itself. The CR--1 was as small and simple as everyone said, a reactor that could be run by just three enlisted men. They worked in shifts, and Paul’s first shift had been the overnight with two other guys: a lead man, Franks, and a young enlisted named Webb, who was as new as Paul was. They sweated on a hot reactor floor that churned and groaned with steam, then took breaks outside in a world that felt quieter than the dawn of time. The desert at night looked endless in every direction, pitch--black at ground level with stars overhead, suspended in swaths of nebulous cream.
Now, having finished his training and his first week on the reactor, Paul stepped out into the cool morning air, breathing in the tang of sagebrush and the steamy bitterness of coffee in its paper cup. The modest promise of the weekend sat before him, two days without a lick of work. He liked thinking about it even as the sweat on his forehead began to dry from the last shift. He wedged an unlit cigarette between his lips, patted his pocket for his Zippo. Any minute now the blue government bus would pick him up for the fifty--mile ride back into town, but he couldn’t yet see it on the horizon. Behind him, the CR--1 pumped clouds into the quiet sky, living its vigorous, inanimate life; ahead of him, stretched somewhere across nine hundred square miles of desert, were the thirty or so other reactors at the testing station. He saw a glint of light off a couple of them, but had never visited and did not know their crewmen. All of them were bigger than his own reactor, busier, more prestigious.
The CR-1 was the prototype for compact, portable units the army was building in the Arctic Circle, run by just two or three men. Its appearance was underwhelming: It looked like a silo. It was three stories tall, with smooth, windowless, shiny steel walls, and if it hadn’t been built on testing station land, no one would have thought a nuclear reactor was housed inside. This was, from a strategic standpoint, a plus: The reactors modeled on its design would be small, cheap, easy--to--build units that could be assembled on--the--spot across the Arctic, where American soldiers would wait, able to hit pay dirt pretty much anywhere in Russia if the Soviets did anything stupid.
“Does it make you feel bad?” Nat had asked on the drive to Idaho, in a moment of reflection. “All those missiles pointed at the Russians, and none of them has ever done anything to us?”
The question had silenced him for a moment. It was just like Nat to think about the other side: sweet, and also impractical. He could still see her concerned brown eyes, the rumple in her brow when she’d asked. Nat, who’d almost never left San Diego, a place so beautiful and floral that it hardly seemed real; Nat, whose skin was permanently divided into tan and white parts from all the teenage hours she’d spent on the beach, who was smart and funny but as apolitical as a wedding or a waterfall: The thought of their American missiles must have saddened her, or she wouldn’t have put the question to Paul. This rankled him a bit because it felt like a judgment, but it also filled him with a contradictory little swish of love for her when the memory came back to him later at work.
He rarely thought about the Soviets. There was plenty of rhetoric going around about them: tough talk, blustery threats. He figured most Russians were probably fine and it was their government that caused problems. Starving its own people, letting the economy go to hell. It wasn’t his job to analyze such things. His job was simply to do his job: to walk onto a reactor floor and keep the machine running, keep the feedwater valves pumping and the rod drive seal from leaking and the pressure from getting too high or too low.
This testing station land, they’d learned in reactor school, had once been populated by Indians, then by the Mormons who built Idaho Falls, and was later used as the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese Americans during the war. After that it spent several years as an artillery proving ground for all branches of the military, with explosives of every kind blasted across the scrub. Sometimes the operators caught Mormon kids sneaking over the chain-link fence on a dare, hunting for the six--inch slugs left from weapons trials.
Paul alternated between the steaming welcome of his coffee and the brisk lung burn of the cigarette, thought of Nat home without him, sleeping on the floor because they still didn’t have a damn bed. The cross--country move and the start of his new job hadn’t made for an easy time. He felt they’d just performed some marathon stunt, like climbing Mount Everest together, only to roll down the other side and land in a dusty pile of their own belongings. His new career as a nuclear operator, after eight often dull and frustrating years in petroleum supply, was supposed to offer all manner of benefits: more prestige, pay bonuses, endless opportunities. So far most of these had not materialized, and he certainly didn’t feel that he and Nat were growing closer. He had no idea if his great personal gamble would work, and, finally in Idaho with reactor school behind him and his young family in tow, no going back, did the gravity of what he’d risked wash over him.
Dust on the horizon caught Paul’s eye, but it wasn’t the slow plume the government bus always made; it was a lower, faster--traveling cloud, and as it got closer he saw it was pulled by a flashy cream--colored car. The car -was the only eye--catching thing on the whole barren desert. It looked almost like a mirage the way it gleamed, speeding along the flat highway.
Behind Paul the door to the reactor building opened and his shift leader, Specialist Franks, stepped out. He stood beside Paul and lit his own cigarette, watching the approaching car from beneath heavy eyebrows.
“Who’s that?” Paul asked, pointing with his cigarette.
Franks looked surprised. “You haven’t met Master Sergeant Richards? He’s the day--shift supervisor.”
“I’ve only worked the night shift,” Paul said. The car grew louder now as it came closer, its engine a steady, throaty rumble. This was their Master Sergeant, this man in the unexpectedly beautiful car? Paul had been told that Richards, who supervised the day shift, worked next door to them in the Admin building but spent most of his time drinking in his office. Supervisors were notorious for boozing their days away on remote assignments like the CR-1; to be stuck in a leadership position on this tour was considered something of a punishment.
But the car was a showstopper, a pearly Cadillac Coupe de Ville, ’57 or ’58. It pulled up in front of the chain-link gate, front-loaded and pristine as a palomino. Didn’t seem like Richards was feeling too sorry for himself.
Paul said, “I thought we were all supposed to ride the bus.”
“We are,” said Franks. “But that does not deter Sergeant Richards from driving his own car when he damn well pleases. He’s not shy about it, either, as you can see.”
Franks strode over to let the car in the gate. Paul tried not to betray too much curiosity as Richards parked and stepped out, waggling his khaki cap down onto his head. He had assertive blue eyes and early graying hair that gave him an air of authority beyond his rank.
When Richards reached them, Paul and Franks stood a little straighter, echoing one after the other, “Good morning, Master Sergeant,” “Master Sergeant.”
“ ’Morning,” Richards said, looking up at the steam that pumped from the reactor into the chilly morning air. “How was the night, fellows? Will I go in there and find a logbook that agrees with me?”
“Yes, Sergeant. Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Franks.
“Glad to hear it. Where’s the young guy?”
“Webb? Latrine, I guess.”
As if on cue, the door opened and Specialist Webb, the last of their three--man crew, flew out. He was a tall, jointy, young--looking fellow with a missing tooth on one side that hollowed his cheek in. He spotted Richards and pulled up crisply. “Good morning, Master Sergeant.”
“That john on fire, son? You came out of there like a bat out of hell.”
“No, Sergeant. It wasn’t on fire, Sergeant. I thought I’d missed the bus.”
Richards chuckled. “Well, don’t get your knickers in a twist about it.”
“Say, Collier,” Richards said with a smirk, “why don’t you come inside with me? We’ve never had our little welcome--aboard chat.”
Paul hesitated. There was the matter of the bus: He could see it on the horizon now, a blue dot wending its way toward them. It was eight a.m. and another one wouldn’t be by until the end of the next shift, eight hours away. Of course the master sergeant knew this. But it was their first meeting, and Paul didn’t think he had much choice other than to say “Yes, Sergeant” and follow Richards into the administration building.
The Admin building seemed an even lonelier place to work than the reactor itself; it was a long, low wooden portable left over from WWII, with tall, narrow windows. Inside, a hallway divided two rows of thin--walled offices, five on each side. Richards’s rank and name had been typed onto a small manila square and tacked to a door on the right, which he pushed open to reveal a modest desk piled with endless disheveled papers. Behind the desk was a file cabinet and a dusty American flag that sagged slightly along the back wall. Richards stepped behind the desk and sat down on a small, creaky black folding chair. He linked his fingers behind his head and leaned back a little, watching Paul, who settled into an identical chair opposite.
“So, we finally get a chance to talk,” Richards said, as if he’d been pursuing Paul unsuccessfully for days. “What do you think of this place? The CR--1, is it like you expected?”
“Just about,” Paul said. “Things are going fine. Thank you for asking.”
“Good. And how’s your family? Your wife like it here?”
“She seems to.”
“Excellent. You’ve got to keep your wife happy, you know.”
Paul nodded uncertainly. On Richards’s desk he spotted a framed photo of an elegant red--haired woman holding a child. With the woman’s curled hair, pearl earrings, and soft, cultivated smile it could have been a picture cut from a magazine, but the toddler on her lap wore the unfocused expression and irregular eyebrows of a normal, non--movie--star child. “Your family?” Paul asked, pointing.
Richards flashed his self-regarding, deep-dimpled smile. “So I’m told.”
“It’s a nice photo.”
“Thank you.” The sergeant stretched in his chair. “So, do you go home and brag to your wife that you work on the smallest reactor the army’s got?”
“I don’t really mind it,” Paul said, unsure why his wife, whom Richards had never met, kept coming up. The CR-1’s size didn’t bother him. He’d rather work in a quiet building than in one of the big-name operations on--site, with all the lab men and scientists around, asking the operators for coffee and treating them like janitors.
Richards leaned forward. “I wouldn’t mind a touch more prestige around here, I’ll tell you that.” His arm snaked into a desk drawer and he pulled out two tumblers and a bottle of bourbon, which he poured neat, passing one to Paul with a grin that was somehow both friendly and challenging. “What is it you like to do, Collier? Do you ski? The skiing’s amazing around here.”
“I’ve never been skiing,” Paul admitted.
“Never have—” Richards swatted his knee, breathless with disbelief. “Why, that’s something. Well, do you fly-fish?”
“I’ve—I’ve fished. I don’t fly-fish.”
“What are you into? Cars? Sports?”
Paul stared at him, drawing a blank, suddenly horrified—nothing. He was into nothing. What was there to be into? He worked, he went home, he fixed things and sat with his wife while she listened to the radio. He’d never had much time or money to spare. The awareness of this seemed to come crashing down upon himself and Richards at the same time.
“What are you, Collier? Some kind of bumpkin?” Richards laughed, baring his teeth. He held up a hand. “No, no. Don’t worry about it.”
“Never mind. You’re a quiet, studious one, I could tell the moment I saw you.” He glanced away as if he’d already lost interest: Paul’s poverty of leisure was not compelling.
Paul shifted in his seat and looked again at the woman in the photo on Richards’s desk. Her expression seemed almost condescending to him now.
Richards sucked on his drink, bored; then a thought came to him and he leaned forward. “Well, listen,” he said, almost brightening. “We have a certain way of doing things around here—you’ve probably noticed.”
“All right,” Paul said, relieved by the change of topic though he wasn’t quite sure what Richards was talking about.
“Deke Harbaugh—you’ll meet him, he’s our lead man from Combustion Engineering,” Richards said. “He’s a civilian, but he understands where we’re coming from better than the other pricks they’ve got up there. Pardon me.” Richards raised a hand again and grinned. “Anyway, Harbaugh’s on our side when things come up.”
Paul absorbed this, wondering: What comes up?
“What we try to do around here,” Richards said, “is keep things close, keep things army. I like to say that the buck stops here. We’re operators.” He made eye contact to check that Paul was following. “If there’s an . . . irregularity, a concern, you can bring it to me before you even write it in the log. It’s a can-do attitude kind of thing. If we fix it before it hits paper, all the better. Otherwise, we’re always having to go to the Combustion Engineering guys, asking permission for every last thing, like teenage babysitters.”
Paul nodded. This was not how he’d been trained; in reactor school they were taught to document any occurrence, large or small, to the point that it seemed overdone. But Richards was Paul’s new boss, and Paul had found it was best to listen awhile before you talked, so he did.
“Excellent,” said Richards, as if Paul had agreed to something complex. “Just a can-do culture around here. I could tell you were exactly the right kind of guy for this.”
Paul wanted to ask what exactly the right kind of guy for this meant but decided to take the praise at face value. So he stood; they shook. Paul hoped Richards would decide to head home around midday, as his reputation suggested he liked to do, and offer Paul a ride to compensate for making him miss the bus. Maybe Richards would even use him as an excuse to leave early—I made this poor Joe stay late, so I’d better get him on home now.
But if Richards had such a plan, he didn’t mention it. “Collier, you go on and have a good day now,” he said. “Close that door for me, will you?” He tossed his feet onto the desk, stretched his chair back so that it creaked, and closed his eyes. Paul hesitated, clicked shut the door.
He’d encountered master sergeants like Richards before and knew his type: men who silvered into maturity, enjoying the flirtations of women and the subordination of men, who remained athletic in that lazy way where, despite the small potbelly nudging the bottom of their brass--buttoned shirts, they could still trounce you in horseshoes or twenty-one at a division barbeque and laugh heartily about it. These were not men Paul generally liked.
He wandered into the lounge and settled onto the small, hard couch, pulling his knees up; might as well make himself comfortable. He wondered if it were admirable that he’d refrained from mentioning the missed bus, or if he’d just been a patsy. Probably a little of both.
He must have dozed, because the next thing he knew he heard a soft noise in the parking lot outside: the distinct sound of a classy car clearing its throat.
He got up and went to the window. His eyes widened when he realized it was Richards’s car leaving without him. Before Paul could even get to the door, he heard the propulsion of tires against gravel.
“What the hell,” he cried. He jogged into the parking lot, waving his hands above his head. “Master Sergeant!”
There was no way Richards could hear him; the car was through the gate now, heading for the highway.
Surely Richards would stop. Surely he’d remember that he’d stranded Paul fifty miles from home in the desert, and turn back. Paul called out again, even gave a pathetic little jump, hoping he’d be spotted in the rearview mirror. But the car glided down the road, shiny as a pearl in the afternoon sun. Richards was headed home to relaxation and family and comfy slippers, leaving Paul outside the goddamn reactor in his uniform.
Do not chase your boss’s car down the road. You are not going to act desperate.
He shuffled back toward the building. Was this some kind of power play? Was Richards drunk, did he just not give a shit, what? Nat was going to ask why Paul was eight hours late, but if he told her this sad little tale she’d pepper him with all sorts of further questions. It would be better just to keep it to himself, but the thought made him feel like a lonely fool. He kicked the doorframe and stalked back inside to wait for the bus, to let Richards’s dust settle on the ground and rocks, which, if nothing else, seemed better than standing there and letting it fall on him.
Back in the lounge he paced, agitated, humiliated almost out of proportion. Being made to stay eight extra hours for a ten--minute meeting seemed an infuriating absence of consideration, or an act of outright hostility. Richards had shown no respect in assuming Paul would stay, and even less in leaving him there, fifty miles from home with no ride.
He was too steamed up to sit still. Richards’s smug questions dogged him: What are you into? Skiing? Fly-fishing? I knew you were exactly the right kind of guy for this. Whether it was logical or not he felt that Richards had somehow seen right through him, deduced in minutes that he was a man who could be dismissed, no repercussions.
Paul was used to being snubbed; he was from people with no money and learned early on that this made him easy to brush aside. All the tokens and symbols he used to armor himself—his uniform, operator’s badge, wedding ring—meant nothing to Sergeant Richards, who blew them off in an instant and made Paul feel groveling and worthless. He didn’t want to be angry now, didn’t want to knock around hostile, pessimistic thoughts for the next few hours, but he had never found a way to fight that train of thought once he got on it.
He had grown up in a rural Maine cabin as quiet as a deep snow, punctuated by outbursts of inexplicable and embarrassing violence. More than once he could recall standing flat against the log wall, breathing shallowly as if he could avoid being noticed while his father, drunk, swished past in an itchy rage like some creature from the zoo. When his pa did address Paul it was mockingly, making Paul stammer and squirm, squelching his hate. His mother was not much better. She’d taken to drink as far back as Paul could remember, and one of his earliest mem-ories was of sitting by her bed, playing with her limp fingers as she snored.
The lack of control people showed repelled him. They brought their trouble upon themselves, one person after another, and it was impossible to feel sorry for them. He wasn’t surprised when his mother sought relief in bars and men; he wasn’t shocked, either, when she was brought home one cold morning on a wooden sled, her eyes punched in, and left in the shed for the ground to thaw and the serviceberries to bloom.
At sixteen he stole his father’s boots, hitchhiked to Portland, and enlisted in the army. When he first joined up he trusted everyone, all these people he’d dreamed about for years who were not his family, who’d decided to live upstanding and useful lives. These, finally, were his people! But he learned, to his disappointment, that they were often just as flawed as his own family had been; that even with all the military did to raise them up, they settled back into their character defects like a dog curling into a round bed.
That first spring away from home, still in boot camp, he’d received news of another nonsurprise: His father had been discovered by hunters a few miles from home, having fallen through the ice on one of his -weaving walks back from town. Paul was an orphan, and he was relieved.
It turned out that his parents’ deaths neither cured nor worsened things. Paul embarked on a program of self-control and betterment. In his locker he taped a Robert E. Lee quote: “I do not trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.” Amazingly, as the years went by, he won the job, the girl, and an amount of respect that seemed neither stingy nor extravagant: It seemed just right. But like many hard--forced things his veneer was delicate, and he found that he became easily panicked. He’d fought so hard for what he had that he could imagine countless ways it might be taken away.
Which brought him back to Sergeant Richards, this day, this room. This disastrous blowing-off, this bitter, stupid stranding. Maybe Richards was just an asshole who would’ve left anyone at the reactor; maybe he had simply stayed in his office, gotten mildly drunk and let Paul slip his mind easily as any other minor chore. But Paul could not stop it from driving him crazy. There was something satisfying about the way an obsession fired up every spot on his brain all at once: pain, pleasure, anger, desire, defiance. Fuck everyone who had treated him like he was nothing; fuck Richards for treating him like nothing now. He would revel in this small torment, his mind churning cycles of concession and resistance, anger and acquiescence until he wore himself out.
He knew better than to fight it. There was only one thing that could soothe him and that would be walking in his front door, calmed by the golden kitchen light like a violent, rogue archangel. Nat would smile at him, knowing exactly who he was, the man he’d made himself to be, good provider and husband, father of the two little girls who would be skipping toward him, kissing him with their little crumb-covered faces: All this goodness he’d made for himself out of nothing, scaring his old self right back from where it came.