Man Walks Into a Room

Man Walks Into a Room



GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS reads the sign on a chain-link fence and we whistle and cheer as the bus slams past, churning up a cloud of dust in the basin. An angry black fly buzzes against the window and someone tries to singe it with a cigarette. The stubble of sagebrush is endless, and Kohler says you wouldn't be more than a day dead before the coyotes would clean you. Right before we left Pendleton, Kohler got a tattoo of a girl who wriggles when he flexes, and he rolls up his sleeve for the sixth or seventh time today.

When we pass a road sign saying a hundred miles to Vegas we whoop again, leaning out and drumming the bus's flanks until the ribbon of asphalt twists off into the distance. Someone says he heard that the first shot they exploded over Bikini had a picture of Rita Hayworth taped to it, and that gets a few snickers. Kohler's been to Vegas and he talks about how we're going to check into the Desert Inn on our night off, play the nickel slot machines, see Shirley Jones.

At 15:13 we slide into Desert Rock, stretching and jogging around on the tarmac to work out the stiffness. It's a hundred and ten degrees or hotter, the kind of heat that makes your head split. The shower of a distant rain cloud evaporates high in the air before a drop of it ever reaches the desert. We're issued a fresh set of fatigues and afterward there are no immediate duties, so we find a patch of shade and watch as a few guys set out in a ragged band to investigate, joking and pushing as they disappear into the distance looking for craters.

At night the sky is pure astronomy.

We do nothing for days but wait, trying to lose time by sleeping or hunting lizards on the cracked desert floor. We are living on the bed of an ancient lake, someone writes home, there are fossils to prove it. We take a drive to a ghost town near Death Valley, standing at the crossroads dueling with our hands cocked like pistols. Occasionally someone plays a scratchy recording of Johnny Mathis or Elvis over the P.A. We drink to keep our blood from getting thick, water by day, beer by night. We watch the girl do a jerky dance on Kohler's biceps. The wind blows continually in the wrong direction, a strange wind that unsettles us, swirling the dust in restless eddies. We eat our meals with sand between our teeth. When the wind finally shifts, orders come through that the shot will take place at 06:30. We rise at 04:00.

The test shots are named for scientists or mountains, except for the one we've come for, Priscilla, suspended seven hundred feet above the ground in a helium balloon. A bulletin is sent out to civilians warning of damage to the retina caused by looking at the fireball as far as sixty miles away, but miners will still scrabble up to the top of Angel's Peak like it's the Fourth of July.

We ride the thirty miles out to Frenchman Flat in the back of military trucks, pinned with radiation badges, now colored a safe blue. Two thousand yards from ground zero the trucks come to a halt and we stumble down, half-asleep. We get down into the foxholes until we're eyelevel with the desert floor. A thousand of us are almost nothing on that endless flat, like ants from above, like something only a little unusual, not a species but a small event that doesn't think of itself as history. We are mostly quiet now, listening to the coyotes and the scratch of the desert until the bitch boxes start screaming orders through the thinning dark. Later some of us will be sent to Vietnam, and when we are sweating in our tents, crawling with spiders, our skin infected with fungus, we will remember this, the simplicity of it.

While we wait a caravan of trucks rumbles by with the frightened jostle of live animals. A thousand yards ahead we see them push out nine hundred pigs, herding them into foxholes and pens. Some of the pigs wear brand-new field jackets with liners to be tested for durability. A handful of rabbits for the scientists' continued efforts to record the effect of flash blindness.

There are fifteen minutes before countdown. Fifteen minutes for us to think about Vegas, of the time we shook Ike's hand, of drummers in the big bands like Krupa who could finesse a set of drums, make them talk without hammering at them, of the soft piano music in the clubs in California. Fifteen minutes for another Chesterfield, to absentmindedly notch little holes in the trench wall with our fingers. A thousand thoughts, a small crosssection of a moment in America. Our helmets askew, not yet strapped on. The pants of the new fatigues still starchy. The sun rises in glory as if it had yet to invent the desert. Two minutes for the newspapermen to settle into their seats at Control Point, men in suits with tickets in their hatbands who would narrate this to no one.

A thousand men with their arms across their eyes like girls at the movies, listening to the lone, amplified voice count backwards from ten. This is June of 1957, before the countdown becomes synonymous with rocket launches that will send astronauts beyond the earth's atmospheric vacuum.

And then a noise we've never heard before. Something like maximum volume. Even with our eyes closed we see a flash of hot white light from a bomb four times as big as Nagasaki, so bright there are no shadows. We count to ten and look and what we see is the blood coursing through our own veins and the skeletons of the men in front of us. The X ray of a thousand GIs, their bones like a slide show in the desert. The yucca trees stand out in relief, the mountains are aluminum.

The bitch boxes scream for us to stand up and we rise, stunned, moving without thinking except for the boys who are on the bottom crying and praying. We rise up and as we do we're slammed with a shock wave of hot air like it's going to rip our heads off. It knocks us back, and the ground pitches. We are too panicked to wonder about the logic of our orders. We obey because it's the only way to make it through alive.

The air is dark as a comic book doomsday. How can I explain that we took this personally?

Another wall, a moving flash flood of dirt and debris, pelting us with sticks and stones and other things we can't think about just now, some of us half-buried. There is a moment of strange calm, like a deep pause of respect before the singing of the anthem. Then we can no longer breathe. There is no air left as the pressure reverses and comes sailing back toward ground zero, calmer, sadder now as the detonation begins to collapse in on itself, a vacuum that threatens to suck everything in. We are fighting for air, every man for himself as the debris settles, and then we see it, the thing we have come for: a huge fireball going up on the back of the mushroom cloud like the devil mounting heaven. The most beautiful thing we have ever seen, boiling in its own blood, rising to forty thousand feet and spreading until it obscures the sun, spreading above our heads and raining down the remains of the desert. We cannot think. There is no room left in our minds for anything but this.

Fourteen miles away, at Control Point, it blows the doors off the hinges. The Geiger counters have to be calmed like scared horses. Nearby, highway travelers pull off the road and stand by their station wagons dazed and blinking, scouting the sky for aliens. The blast is felt at Mercury and Indian Springs, heard as a rumble as far as California and Reno. In Utah a wave of heat blows through children's hair, flattening their T-shirts against their chests as they run and twirl under a flurry of ash.

When the silence finally settles we stand and march forward for the assault on ground zero. A thousand men, our film badges blushed scarlet, like girls who've just been kissed.

When they found him he was halfway down the only stretch of asphalt that cuts through Mercury Valley. The two police officers saw him up the road, ragged as a crow. He looked at them blankly when they pulled up next to him, neither surprised nor grateful. They asked him questions that seemed to confuse him, and his gaze slipped past them to scout the desert. He didn't struggle when they frisked him. They opened his wallet and counted out twenty-three dollars and change. They read his name and address aloud to him but his expression registered nothing. The man before them in a filthy suit bore almost no resemblance to the bright, focused face on the New York State license; sun had darkened his features and dust had worn itself into the creases of his skin so that it was impossible to believe he was only thirty-six. They assumed he'd stolen the wallet, and though it was clear he was dehydrated and confused they locked his wrists together as they led him into the car. He sat rigidly in the backseat, at a forward tilt with his eyes fixed on the road. They called him Samson not because they believed it was really his name but because they could think of nothing else to call him.

While they treated him in the emergency room in Las Vegas for whatever he was suffering, one of the police officers put in a call for a search on Samson Greene, d.o.b. 1/29/64. When it was discovered that Samson Greene had been missing for eight days, last seen walking out of the gates of Columbia University and down Broadway into the clear afternoon, things began to get interesting. Someone in the Twenty-fourth Precinct in Manhattan was able to connect the police officer to the social services agency where Samson's wife worked, and after speaking to three people he was finally put through to her. Hello? she said quietly into the phone, already informed of who was on the other end. Is he alive?

There was a short, confused discussion: what did he mean, they weren't sure if it was him, didn't his license say Samson Greene?, to which the police officer didn't want to reply, Lady, Samson Greene could be lying in a ditch somewhere outside Vegas having taken a knife to the chest from the man who's now a card-carrying member of the West Side Racquet Club, the Faculty of English at Columbia University, the Museum of Modern Art. Are there any distinguishing marks?, the police officer asked. Yes, she said, a long scar down the back of his left arm. She paused, as if Samson were lying in front of her and she was inspecting his body. And a birthmark above his shoulder blade. The police officer said he would call her back as soon as he knew anything, giving her the number of the pay phone out of courtesy. She insisted on waiting on the line, so he left the receiver hanging off the hook while he went to check whether it was in fact her husband on the gurney. A nurse passing by picked it up and said, Hello? Hello? When no one answered she hung up. A minute later the phone rang but no one was around so it just rang and rang in urgent bursts, each ring separated by a brief, desperate silence.

Later they were able to reconstruct most of his journey from the receipts for bus tickets in his pockets, from the few accounts of witnesses who recalled having seen him— a waitress, the manager of a motel in Dayton, Ohio— confirmed by the ghostly flicker of his image caught by the wandering eye of security cameras. When they eventually played these tapes back to Samson he smiled and shook his head because he could not remember where he'd been or why he'd gone there. In a way that she couldn't explain, alone in her own sadness, those images made Anna Greene want her husband terribly, as she hadn't since they began to share a bed, a car, a dog, a bathroom. In one of them, the only one in which you could see Samson's face clearly, he was standing at the checkout desk in a Budget motel outside Nashville. He was holding open his wallet and his face was tilted upward, his expression as peaceful and absorbed as a child's.

While Anna was looking down from the plane on the rucked mass of Nevada cut by a glinting vein leading to Vegas, the neurologist, a Dr. Tanner, was studying a CT scan of Samson's brain. By the time Anna arrived at the hospital, disheveled, wheeling behind her a small suitcase none of whose contents she could remember packing, Samson had been diagnosed with a tumor that, all those months lost in work or sleep, had been applying its arbitrary, pernicious pressure on his brain. The heat during the drive from the airport had been, even in May, almost unbearable. Now Anna was shivering in the air-conditioned hospital, her damp shirt clinging to her back. She couldn't understand, nor was anyone yet able to explain to her, how Samson had gotten to where they'd found him, some nowhere in Nevada. It was with great difficulty that she registered the words of Dr. Tanner, who was sitting across from her now. It's about the size of a cherry, pressing on the temporal lobe of his brain, most likely a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma. And in her own mind—clear, unthreatened by disease—Anna imagined the shiny dark red of a cherry nestled into the gray matter of the brain. Once, five or six years ago, they had pulled off the road in Connecticut to follow a painted sign that said Cherry Picking. They'd driven back through the early summer evening with two baskets and stained fingers, the windows open to let in the smell of cut grass. As she listened to Dr. Tanner's voice and his patient, kind pauses, Anna sensed he was a happy man, one who would drive home in his soundproof car listening to classical FM, to his wife with her bright and easy laugh— a man who did not wake each day to the misery he'd left slumped in the chair the night before. She felt envious of him, envious of the nurses passing in the hall who were happy enough to dress themselves this morning in starched uniforms, envious of the orderlies and the janitor pushing his gray mop along the linoleum floor.

Dr. Tanner continued: After the surgery we'll perform a biopsy and hope it's benign, he said, a word, Anna thought, that seemed unkind as all euphemisms are, and as Samson had once pointed out to her. Dr. Tanner turned the CT scan around and slid it across the desk to her, leaning forward in his chair to trace the atlas of Samson's brain with the cap of his pen. It came to rest on a yellow island in a continent of blue. He seems, for the moment, to be operating on a kind of autopilot, an awareness educated enough to get him across the country alone. Whether or not some or all of his memory functions have been destroyed permanently, or whether the surgery will itself incur such damage, is impossible to predict. Anna looked out the window to the hospital's landscape kept evergreen by the steady dose of water meted out by sprinklers. She was thirty-one years old. She had been with Samson for almost ten years. She thought of the time he'd had a toothache so severe he cried, and also, inexplicably, of the time he'd sent her flowers for her birthday but on the wrong day. She turned back to Dr. Tanner and studied his face. If you remove it and it's benign, she finally said, is there a chance he'll be all right?, though by all right what she meant was the same. I don't think you understand, Dr. Tanner said, his voice filled with the compassion that is sometimes confused with pity. Chances are his memory will be obliterated. He paused, a deep, medical pause, his fingers resting lightly on Samson's brain. He probably won't remember who you are.

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Excerpted from Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. Copyright © 2002 by Nicole Krauss. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.