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Authors: Tarashea Nesbit

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BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
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W
E CALLED WHAT
we lived on—on the other side of the Jemez rim—a mesa, because we recognized the image from our college textbooks, or we called it a mesa because someone told us that was what it was. But it was not a mesa, exactly; it was a
potrero
, a dry tongue of land. The shaggy forest gave way to sudden cliffs and we could see we were isolated on three sides, like a high fortress with a deep moat. To mostly everything out there, we did not exist. The light shimmered and stretched our own views. And in the eastern side of the sky we saw the alpenglow, a bright red band on the horizon, as if the sun were setting in both the west and the east, and we did not think about the optics; we just thought it was beautiful.

 

T
HE SPARSE LANDSCAPE
felt isolating and disturbing. Or to see so much with so little in it was relaxing, and we admired the quiet. Some of us could understand why, before us, people from big cities visited here to regain their strength in the fresh dry air.

 

W
E SQUINTED AND
wrapped a scarf over our foreheads. Some of us did not burn easily but many of us did. We came from sunny places and we thought the light was bright and cheerful or we came from overcast places and saw the light as harsh and comfortless.

 

O
UR HOUSES, CARS
, and skin appeared covered by another skin, a skin not our own but the sandy, warm-toned skin of the desert. The spring rain created a carpet of yellow and purple wildflowers we could see in the distant desert meadow. And after the rain,
the sagebrush
filled the air with a smell like camphor—sweet, but medicinal. Rainstorms soaked our chimneys, put out our water heaters, and turned the clay of the volcanic soil into a slick adhesive our children’s shoes got stuck in. Our husbands made a boardwalk of pine trees so we could get from the car to the front door.

 

S
OON THE FLOWERS
were withering in the hottest, driest days of summer, and we were hot inside our houses and we were hot outside and we were sweaty and the soil clung to our wet arms, to our lips. We tried to read books in the yard or we began a victory garden, planting tomatoes, spinach, green beans, watermelon, and basil to make our rations go further. Though it rained, rapidly, in the midafternoon, we were not accustomed to gardening in a desert climate and we watched as nothing sprouted; we watched as our victory garden did not grow.

 

T
HERE WERE BUILDING
crews, bulldozers, cranes, the sounds of trucks, the clouds of dust, the roar of diesel, the chaos that comes with construction. The few dignified, original stone and ponderosa pine buildings—the lodge and a dozen homes—were, within weeks, surrounded by barracks, apartments, Quonset huts, trailers, and prefabricated houses.

 

A
T THE HOUSING
Office in a piñon-shingled garage next to the water tower on wooden stilts, we argued with Vera, a Women’s Army Corps member, who did not want to grant us a bathtub. As politely as we could muster we thanked her for nothing and walked back to what she said was ours—a thin-walled little house. Our loveseats and wingback chairs and record players and books were still all piled in the middle of the living room—we had stalled unpacking in hopes we could persuade the Housing Office we needed one of those stone houses with a bathtub. We plugged in the radio for comfort and heard, for the first time, or the first time in a long time, cowboy music. The jealousy of lost love, the sorrow of being a poor man, men telling women, through jolly beats, to put down their pistols—all of this was interrupted by the news that Mussolini had been arrested. And as we looked around at the only things we had to set up—our dining table, our sickly cactus centerpiece, our dishtowel napkins—we hoped this meant we would not have to stay in New Mexico for very much longer. Five days later Italy did surrender, but several cactus centerpieces would die before we had hope that Germany and Japan might give up.

 

T
HE SANDY SOIL
came through cracks in the windows and doorframes, and gathered on the furniture, the floor, and our Army-issued cots, which were stamped
used
. Gusts of sand made outlines of our bodies on the sheets. We stared at the
used
stamp at the foot of our beds. Eventually we learned that
used
did not mean it was recycled, but stood for the United States Engineering Division. But they were used: our beds still bore the names and ranks of boys who had slept on these mattresses before us, who had carved their names into the frame. What had these beds and these men seen? Where had they traveled?

 

T
HE SMALL WOODEN
buildings were all painted the same olive color, which matched the dusty pines and in some seasons blended in with the background of the mountains. Green walls, green chimneys, green tin. One of us set a pot of red geraniums in front of the door so our children, our husbands, and ourselves could recognize our home. One of us put a black bowl of pinecones on the porch. Because the streets were not named and the houses were identical, when we met someone at the commissary and invited them over for tea, or for coffee, the only way we could describe our home was in relation to the water tower, the highest thing in town:
West of the water tower,
third house on the right.
East of the water tower, the last house on the left before the road ends
. It was a landmark that mocked us—a water tower that only sometimes held enough water for us to bathe or flush our toilets.

 

O
UR HUSBANDS WERE
unshaven and within a few days became bristly; for the first time we could not see their strong jawlines, and their faces moving in close, for a kiss, caused our own to sting.

 

I
N THAT FIRST
week we were invited to learn how to run our clothes through the hand-cranked mangle at the community laundry. Before this, we had other people do our laundry, or we had electric wringers, and for many of us our memories of those hand-powered water extractors were of the heavy crank and our mother’s warnings not to get our hair caught in it. We were still wearing high heels and they stuck in the mud and we pretended that we learned what we were taught about the mangle but instead gathered our husband’s shirts in a wet bundle and carried them home, smiling sourly. We hung the clothes on the line and ironed the cotton shirts on our kitchen table. Because our clothesline was erected in one of the only spots on the mesa that was not in direct sunlight, in the morning we brought our children’s cloth diapers and our husband’s boxer shorts in as square little ice boards.

 

I
T WAS OUR
first day, our second day, our hundredth day, and bells sounded. Bells sounded in the morning to tell our husbands it was time to go to the Tech Area, bells sounded in the evenings to tell our husbands it was time to get back to the Tech Area after dinner, bells sounded if there was a fire, bells sounded if we were out of water, bells sounded, bells sounded.

In the Day, in the Night

L
OUISE PLAYED POWER
forward for the University of Nevada’s basketball team and helped win the state championship.
She is a great shooter
, her husband bragged. We weren’t surprised—she was a tall, strong woman who seemed to find a solution to everything, as if the belief that she could made it so. And though the weekly dust storms got the best of several of us, when it covered her house Louise just hauled her sofa out into the front yard, pounded the couch cushions clean again, and lugged it back inside without complaint. Others of us said,
What’s the use?
and only cleaned the sofa when it was our turn to host a party.

 

M
ARGARET WAS VERY
pretty, very pregnant, and very helpless. She cried easily—about the dust, the snow, her husband—it did not seem to matter: each day there was something one could be upset about, and she was always upset. She appeared in the evenings puffy-eyed with a scraggly ponytail, dragging herself from the door to the porch post and leaning against it. Her whole body pouted. We guessed a smile had crossed her face on only a few occasions. Since she was our new neighbor we invited her to tea and introduced her to the other girls we were getting to know, but she complained about the same things, again and again, and there was only so much we could do.

 

D
OWN THE STREET
was Katherine, a tall redhead with a thin beak of a nose, who seemed to divine the secret activities in the Tech Area.
Really coming to a boil at South Mesa
, she’d say to us, and sure enough later that afternoon we would hear explosions coming from South Mesa. We never figured out how she knew these things, but we concluded her husband told her.
He must be very important.
Her psychic abilities became even more mysterious when we learned, after the war, that her husband actually had the lowest level of security clearance.
Who was she a private companion to?

 

A
ND THERE WAS
something magnetic about Starla—it was easy to see why Ventura High voted her most likely to be president. She had a way of being friends with everyone while still retaining her own strong opinions. She never told people directly they were wrong, but they were often persuaded by her. In the mornings, just after sunrise, we could see her through our own gauzy, off-white curtains, and through her own, dancing—her daily exercise. She did not move gracefully at all. She was not petite, she sometimes had hamburger stuck between her teeth for whole dinner parties, her arms and legs leaped without any distinguishable rhythm, but she seemed herself somehow, and that was beautiful.

 

W
HAT ELSE WERE
we? Energetic, disheveled, determined, and disagreeable. After teasing our friends’ husbands about their politics—either they were too sympathetic of communism, or they were too trusting of capitalism—a flash of anger would cross their faces and they would tell us we were
quite the character
.

 

W
HEN HE LEARNED
that the Fuller lodge was built by Michigan investors as a resort area but no one wanted to vacation here, we were not surprised. Instead the vacation homes with bathtubs became sleeping quarters for the Los Alamos Boys’ School, a place designed to help harden the young boys of elite East Coast and Midwestern families. All those boys sent to the Southwest to be toughened up: boys who would go on to be presidents of Sears, American Motors, Quaker Oats, who would become the owners of the Chicago White Sox, who would become famous writers of the sixties counterculture. This location of hardening was now ours.

 

B
ATHTUB ROW, LOUISE
deemed those older homes. Those houses were made not with tin and drywall but with stone and hardwood, and also had a claw foot tub, when all we had was a stall shower lined with zinc. Those women—the Director’s wife, three women who were also scientists, others who were somehow considered favorites—took baths that most of us could not, those women got a good soak, those women, we told one another, had maid service more frequently than we did.
Those women, those women
. And if our husbands told the Housing Office they needed a bathtub to get new ideas, it was still no use. Our status symbol was who had a bathtub, even though there was rarely enough water to fill it. Because of the water situation, the most impolite thing we could do was flush another woman’s toilet. Some of us, the spiteful ones, would use another woman’s restroom and exclaim,
Oh my, I can’t believe I forgot!
but no one believed them. When we ran out of water, we wore kerchiefs on our heads, or refused to leave the house. And many of us chortled at the wives who would not socialize on account of their dirty hair.

 

W
HEN THE WATER
came out of the faucet it often came out brown, sometimes as thick as mud. We were told to take
good citizen showers
, to soap up and then turn on the shower. Many times we got prepared for a
good citizen shower
and the water never appeared. And our bodies were left cold, soapy, and sticky and we never took a
good citizen shower
again.

 

B
Y LATE SEPTEMBER
we got news that though Italy had surrendered to the Allies, German paratroopers had rescued Mussolini and now the Germans occupied Rome, with Mussolini, some said, serving only as the figurehead. Our hopefulness of getting out soon was gone. The dry air cracked our lips and Katherine swore she gained a new wrinkle each month because of it. We applied thick cold cream that made our foreheads shiny and our faces smell like, according to our husbands,
rotting flowers
, and we had to choose between our husbands’ noses and our future faces.

 

I
N THE DAY
we wore gingham, at night we wore our prewar silk stockings, our prewar silk dresses. If we were the same proportions and lived close to one another we swapped clothes to make our own wardrobes appear more extensive. We admired Starla’s purple felt swagger brim hat, Louise’s ruby feather skimmer, Helen’s red-checkered skirt, and Margaret’s canary yellow scarf. We had not accounted for the harsh high desert nights and for the first weeks we were cold in our cotton. In the chilly evenings we envied Ingrid’s wool cardigan in blush, which we were unable to buy ourselves due to the rationing. And, we could not believe it, but we even envied—on days we carried two armfuls of groceries home after the sun went down—the Army’s bulky drab-colored coats.

BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
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