Where the River Makes a Noise

TaraShea Nesbit
| Essay


Such joy it is to be the first to bend
the cool, sweet grass.
—Peggy Pond Church


They are sleeping next to the secret. White curtains flap along the bedroom windows. The wind turns the pages of books left open on the tables and the sand brushes in and covers them. A man wakes hot and lies on top of his white sheets. He gets up from the bed and walks into the bathroom. Dust outlines where his body was on the bed. Full moonlight and in the distance, the sound of a train arriving. We are in the desert now. This is the landscape of scrub brush, sage, rattlesnakes, grouse, dust, the Columbia River, a newly built dam harnessing energy from water. Young children open their eyes or close them. The windows are open. Fruit flies process motion and movement at speeds humans cannot, but not as fast as the atoms moving in the nuclear reactors, atoms excited by their proximity to one another, shape shifting from uranium, to neptunium, to plutonium.

The trains in the evening transport the fuel cells, a liquid collection of unstable atoms, to a concrete building a few miles away. There, chemicals are used to separate radioactive sludge from radioactive plutonium. One is buried in the ground. One is hand delivered in a briefcase to Nevada for bombs. Other trains come in the morning, whistling. Men and women arrive here not knowing what they are working for, hop off the train, and feel the sand and dirt in their teeth. Some are paid double what they could get in another town. Some get back on the train before the sun rises. The most essential thing to bring with you is a padlock, the 1944 recruitment brochure announced. Do not bring your cameras. From the train depot they are picked up by a bus and transported down several dirt roads, past billboards like this one: a man with an arrow in his chest, planes bombing in the background, the words: At the Front, the Only Absentees Are Casualties. A grey and beige landscape with towers rising from the desert. The heat creates a blurry image of moving towers in the distance. The workers have their own baseball team, their own court, their own jail. The windows of the bars are hinged so, when there is an uprising in this male-dominated town, the police can spray tear gas into the bar windows with ease. By August 1944, four people will commit suicide, five will die violent deaths, and sixty-nine women will report rapes. One woman will put a gun to her head. One man will slash his throat. Many will be homesick. Thousands will be arrested for intoxication, drunk driving, assault, and burglary. Others find the remoteness of Hanford ideal for evading the draft.

White Americans can buy a home with electricity and plumbing. Black Americans must live on the other side of the river, without electricity, with one fountain of running water. Black Americans cannot work as permanent employees. Black women work the mess halls. White women work the phones. Men work side by side but eat in separate dining halls and celebrate at separate dance halls. The circus comes into this secret city to entertain the white people. So do opera singers. And minstrel shows. And acrobats. A brewery is built. Candy is banned and then it is allowed. In late spring, Chinook salmon are moving their way back up the Columbia River to spawn until it kills them. The water is warm, warmer the closer one gets to any one of the four nuclear reactors, where water is used to cool the fuel cells, left to rest for a few hours, and then pumped back into the river. This is the desert of Eastern Washington.

Women back home are encouraged to save their fats and greases from cooking to be used for the soldiers’ ammunition. Natalie Mirenda writes her husband after not hearing from him in over two weeks: Frank, when I walk alone, I seem to feel you sneaking up on me…I turn around and you’re not there.1 Melissa Faulds Meeth thinks standing in line for milk is a necessity, but she refuses to stand in line for non-necessities. Her son, Rick, and his friends stop by the grocery store daily and when a scarce item is put on the shelf, like soap powder, he hides it behind a less popular item, like canned beans, and runs home to tell his mother. Blue stars in the windows of homes with family members in battle, gold star if he dies.


TaraShea Nesbit is the author of The Wives of Los Alamos, which is a Spring 2014 Indies Choice Debut Novel Pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. Her writing has been featured in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Collagist, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and is forthcoming on NPR and in Necessary Fiction. She teaches at the University of Denver and is the nonfiction editor of Better: Culture & Lit.

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