a literary review
They drove up to Las Vegas the day before, a trip cloaked in a lie. People said Las Vegas was the place where you could reinvent yourself, but as they bounced along the two-lane highway toward the city, Irene couldn’t decide what she wanted. Since the early days of her pregnancy, Irene had felt sick. Not even dry crackers could keep the nausea at bay. For weeks she’d made up dozens of excuses to eat anywhere but at the dining table, telling her parents she was meeting friends or had eaten after work. Her mother watched, but never confronted her. Perhaps she’d thought Irene’s situation was a passing thing. Soon, the nausea gave way to a strange lethargy, a feeling of not caring. Her waist thickened, her interest in movies and parties diminished. More than anything, she craved sleep.
Now, when they walked into the chapel, she noticed the minister staring. Did he know? Did he see this kind of thing often? She tugged at her short tailored jacket, straining across her heavy breasts. Blue silk was too hot for July in Las Vegas, but it was the best outfit she owned, purchased on layaway last year for a special occasion, should it arise. This was not the occasion she had planned on. Sweat pooled under her arms. She hoped it wouldn’t leave a stain.
The minister asked if they had a ring. Frank dug into his pocket and pulled out a cheap silver band he had purchased at a pawn shop the day before, a place called The Lucky Silver and Gold. It was engraved with the message: “To my one and only.” Alas, Irene was not the first owner of the ring; the endearment was for her predecessor, and that made her wonder about her own fate. Frank had promised he would buy her something better after he started work at the Test Site, but who knew how long that would be? A lone swamp cooler chugged out lukewarm air. She fanned her face with the floppy bouquet, earning a frown from the minister who said, “We can turn up the cooler if you’d like.”
When she put on her skirt that morning, she was horrified to discover that the zipper wouldn’t close. Two safety pins fastened the back, but her stomach still bulged across the waistband in front. She felt like a cow stuffed into a corset.
The minister flipped open his Bible. “Corinthians 13. Always a favorite,” he said. “Will that do?”
Frank nodded. “That will be fine.”
The minister’s voice droned out their vows. Irene swayed a little. Her matching blue pumps pinched her feet. She wondered if she would develop thick ankles after the baby was born, like her Grandma Emma, who was a square of flesh from her hips to her toes.
Frank nudged her with his elbow. She stood up straight.
“I do,” her new husband said.
“I do,” she responded. Then he drew her into his arms, reminding her of why she was here. If it hadn’t been for a little nuclear test called Hood, she would never have agreed to be married in Las Vegas.
~ ~ ~
Irene lied to her parents, telling them that Frank would be taking her to an all-day Fourth of July picnic in Flagstaff. Her father complained, saying Winslow’s fireworks were just as good and why couldn’t she spend time with the family? Frank was welcome to join them, but Irene knew the invitation was insincere. Unlike Frank, who had a college degree in the science of meteorology, Irene’s father had gone to work right out of high school, taking a job as a brakeman for the Santa Fe. He believed hard work, not book learning, made the man. In private, he grumbled that Frank liked to throw around ten-dollar words to impress.
Irene never found the courage to tell her parents she was in the family way. Her mother would have been heartbroken and her father would have thrown her out of the house. She had heard of places where young women like herself were sent—where you had the baby in secret and then went back to a normal life. But what did it matter now? When she came home from Las Vegas, she would be a married woman, and no one would know.
When they first arrived, they drove up and down the Strip past hotels called The Flamingo, The Silver Slipper, The Sands, The Desert Inn, The Stardust. She was dazzled by the famous names on the marquees: Carol Channing, Ray Bolger, Betty Hutton, even Jack Benny. When Frank first told her he had been offered a job in Nevada, Irene was disappointed. She had hopes of California and movie stars. She tried to talk him into taking a position in Bishop. They needed weathermen there to help with the bomb tests, too. Irene had no idea how far Bishop was from Hollywood, but Frank insisted there were as many stars in Las Vegas. If they were lucky, they might see one on the street.
The day before their visit to the chapel, they had checked into The Sahara as Mr. and Mrs. Frank Wittman. Still, Irene worried someone would discover she was not really married. When they made the plans in Winslow a few days earlier, it had been simple. Drive up on the fourth of July. Get married on the fifth. She had even practiced signing her married name in her diary, scripting it in a rounded cursive she’d used since third grade, but when she wrote the words in the hotel register, she flinched. It was strange to claim to be someone else. Someone who didn’t exist, at least not yet. Irene put down the pen and tucked her left hand into the folds of her skirt, hoping the clerk wouldn’t notice the missing ring.
From the front desk, they walked out to the massive rectangular pool where women with tiny waists and large breasts lounged under daisy-petal-shaped umbrellas. The turquoise water shimmered with artificial light. Cocktail waitresses in skirts and black stockings glided through the crowd with trays of iced drinks. Irene touched her own waist, tracing the unfamiliar convex curve of her belly. At home she swam in Clear Creek, the deep water channel south of Winslow. She had always been proud of her shapely legs and the way her swimsuit accentuated her figure. Not anymore. Pregnant women did not go swimming in public places. Especially unmarried pregnant women.
That night, Frank and Irene dined on the special, prime rib and fried shrimp. Irene picked at her food and stirred clots of butter into her baked potato. She excused herself, and in the Ladies’ room, shed a few tears for her lost innocence. When she returned, Frank had ordered Atomic Cocktails for the two of them. One wouldn’t hurt the baby, he insisted. Then he proposed a toast. “To our new family.”
He sounded confident, as if it was nothing to marry a woman he had known for only part of one summer, as if he had always planned to be a father. Irene raised her glass and wondered if that was true. The drink was sweet but potent. One sip made her light headed, but she kept drinking, slowly. Bubbles tickled her nose. From the champagne, Frank told her.
Back in their room, Irene laid out several of the pillows to create a dividing wall on the bed. Frank thought it was silly, since they were going to be married in the morning. Irene didn’t tell him, but she had reservations about the whole scheme. The more she thought about it, the more she realized she really didn’t know Frank. He’d grown up in Texas. She knew that much. They had never slept together in the same bed. Did he snore? Have cold feet? She didn’t know if she wanted to marry him. She knew she didn’t want to live in Las Vegas, even if there were movie stars. Sly sexual currents flowed everywhere: the pictures of showgirls in the lobby, the billboards advertising gambling and debauchery, the people who threw their heads back and laughed too loudly at jokes she didn’t understand.
Tonight she would sleep; tomorrow morning she intended to be on the Greyhound bound for Winslow. And next week she would find the doctor—other girls knew about him—who could take care of the problem.
~ ~ ~
Early that morning, hours before they were to arrive at the chapel, Frank woke her. She blinked. It was still pitch black outside. He had already dressed and combed his hair. Holding out his hand, he said, “Come on. I’m going to show you something you’ll never forget. And bring your sunglasses. You’ll need them.”
Sunglasses? Who wore sunglasses at night? Only heroin addicts and alcoholics as far as she knew. She dragged on her clothes, thinking he really was crazy. Yet, she had never met anyone so willing to act on impulse and that appealed to her. She didn’t bother to tie the laces on her tennis shoes.
They drove out on Highway 95 past stands of ghostly Joshua trees toward the exit for Mt. Charleston. In the distance, a line of cars snaked up a narrow dirt road into the foothills. Irene clung to the armrest each time they curved around a switchback, fearful of the precipice outside her window. A sheriff’s car blocked the way near the summit, and the train of automobiles slowed as he waved them to the right. They turned, and the car lights flashed on a hand-painted sign that said Kyle Canyon. Frank had read about the Dawn Bomb Party in the paper. According to the article, this was the best place to view the blast, a nuclear test named “Hood.” The car dipped and bottomed in chuckholes on the final stretch, each thump making Irene’s stomach churn. They parked on a rise far away from the others. He took her hand and led the way with his flashlight, winding around stumpy pines to a clearing. Then, after spreading out a blanket borrowed from their room, they sat down.
Irene leaned back and gazed up in amazement at the night sky. The multitude of stars glittered and sparkled, seeming to spin across a charcoal canvas.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Frank asked.
A cold wind ruffled the bushes. Irene shivered.
“Are there snakes?”
Frank laughed. “I doubt it. Not with this many people. You’d better take out your sunglasses.”
They were cats-eye frames with white sparkles, like the ones Jane Wyman wore in “Magnificent Obsession” after she went blind. When Irene first tried them on in the drugstore, they made her appear mysterious and glamorous. Now she scooted closer to Frank, acutely aware of her awkward movements and swollen belly. On the other side of the hill, a raucous group shouted out the lyrics to Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song.
“Forget them,” Frank said as he stroked her hair. “They’re drunk.” He kissed her ear; his fingers slipped down the front of her blouse, brushing her nipples. Irene felt a stirring of heat in her body, something she didn’t want to happen—again.
The singing stopped abruptly. The revelers began the countdown: Ten…Nine…Eight…
Frank sat up, pulling her upright with him. “Quick. Put on your sunglasses. If it gets too bright, turn away.” He reached for the shades in his shirt pocket.
She slipped on the frames. “Too bright? Why—?”
A brilliant flash lit up the eastern sky. Heat lightning? No, brighter than that. A sun exploding in the blackness, turning night into noontime with a white light that bleached out all shadows. Even with the sunglasses shielding her eyes, she could feel the heat of the monster. She gasped, clinging to Frank’s arm. On the hill, the revelers were silent. A second flare surged from the horizon’s edge, a fireball that seemed to consume the very earth beneath. It roared without making a sound, flames boiling beneath a slow-forming cloud. The shape drifted upward, dragging its tail to create a mushroom that hung suspended in the atmosphere like a pale shroud. Two puffy knobs burst from the mushroom’s cap, as if desperate to escape the creature’s fury.
Years later, Irene would learn that Hood was the largest atmospheric atomic bomb exploded over the continental United States. The revelers on the hilltop were not the only witnesses to the bomb test: the fireball could be seen for hundreds of miles, and the shock wave broke plate glass windows in Las Vegas.
But that night, they watched without speaking. The cloud continued to billow as Frank removed his dark glasses and slipped her frames from her face. He pushed her gently down, his weight pressing her against the blanket. She closed her eyes, falling into the pleasure of his lips moving over her neck, his hands massaging the taut skin around her pelvis. He slid her slacks over her hips. Just before he entered her, she took a breath and stared over his shoulder at that widening mushroom gracing the heavens. For the rest of her life, Irene would pretend that this was the moment her son was conceived.
Afterward they lay together, his body draped over hers. Other voices, other lovers, murmured in the distance. A Las Vegas tradition, it seemed. The ground vibrated beneath her, like a rumbling motor. “Feel that?” Frank whispered. “It’s the shock wave. Takes about seven minutes to get here.”
Her fingers traced the hollows along his spine. “What’s it called again?”
“If it’s a boy, we should call him Robin.”
But Frank thought that sounded too feminine, so in the end, they named their firstborn Ray, after the beams of the sun.
~ ~ ~
Jeanne Lyet Gassman holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has received fellowships from Ragdale and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Her novel, Blood of a Stone, is forthcoming from Tuscany Press in the spring of 2014. Jeanne’s work has appeared in W.I.S.H., WOW!, Switchback, Barrelhouse, and LQQK, among others. She is currently working on her second novel about a family whose lives are intertwined with the nuclear industry.