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2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest Runner-Up
The new kitchen felt bigger than the one in Tulsa, even with the sheaf of cardboard boxes propped against the dishwasher, their insides mobbing the countertop: travel mugs, chip clips, tea infusers, a melon baller. Murphy hated the collective illogic of these items and how careful Vivian was in her filing of them: was the tea infuser a utensil, or an implement? Murphy would threaten to throw it all out if Vivian didn’t hurry up. He’d tell her after work, and he’d smile when he said it, so he could say he was only joking if she got upset. It calmed Murphy to imagine what he would do after work because it meant there would be an afterwork. He did not want to get shot on his first day. Nor any days subsequent, but it seemed the first would be most embarrassing for his wife, who had fiddled with his tie and smoothed his hair before handing him a coffee mug in their sun-pocked entryway. Murphy imagined the phone call from the base, twenty minutes after her rare and wifely moment: “Your husband rolled through the checkpoint and now he is, though neatly dressed and prompt, dead.”
And Vivian a librarian and very bright and cool. She would not understand how Murphy could fail to stop when a big red sign and men with guns told him to. “What’s the problem?” she’d say, if Murphy told her he was afraid he wouldn’t see the checkpoint, that he would forget his feet and hit the gas.
Murphy did not want to get shot on his first day of work. Nor any days subsequent, but it seemed the first would be most embarrassing for his wife.
The problem was that the HR rep had told Murphy the guards would shoot if he rolled through. “It’s happened,” he said. “Just the tires usually, but you don’t want that. Just stop before the line, and know where your trunk release is. They’ll want to see the trunk, you don’t want to be fumbling.”
Murphy did not know where the trunk release was because he had sold his Subaru in Tulsa last week, to a teenager with cystic acne who bagged groceries at Reasor’s. Two days later the boy had driven by the house as Murphy and Vivian were loading up the moving truck. The Subaru’s windows were down and the boy’s dance-beat falsetto shimmied up the driveway to Murphy, who stared at the plastic eyelashes fluttering above the Subaru’s headlights. Murphy had not imagined this. He had imagined the car at tailgates, bear paws tracked across the windows, and later, full of smoke and rocking in the far edge of a parking lot. As the Subaru passed the driveway, the sun flashed in the headlight closest to Murphy, so that the car seemed to wink at him. When Vivian asked, “Wasn’t that the Subaru?” Murphy said, “I don’t think so.”
The moving truck’s radio was broken and Vivian had started singing “Oklahoma” after they passed Oklahoma City, mumbling the parts she couldn’t remember and tapping her hands on the glove box. After the Texola exit, she asked Murphy if he wanted to play trivia—something to do with historical figures and letters of the alphabet. One of her librarian games rigged against him, so Murphy said no, he needed to concentrate on the road. Vivian had propped her feet on the dash and closed her eyes, opening them in time to see the abandoned gas station just over the Amarillo city limit. “JESUS IS WATCHING” was spray-painted on the plywood sheets over the windows, and Vivian asked if he thought it was Jesus watching from heaven or Hey-soos spying from the hedge. “Ha,” said Murphy.
Murphy had taken a job at the nuclear assembly plant because it paid double Vivian’s salary and 20 percent more than freelancing electrical work, and he liked to imagine saying “It’s classified” when neighbors asked what he did for a living. Murphy was imagining this as he walked down the driveway to his rental car, which is why he forgot to locate the trunk release before he pulled out of the driveway, made three sharp turns, and eased onto the one-lane highway.
With the flatness and the mist in the blue morning dark, Murphy felt like he was driving on the ocean. After a few minutes, he saw the lights of the base singeing a hole in the fog, so bright it looked like a small city. The HR rep had told Murphy a story of a bank robber who, a few years back, had gunned it for those lights with the cops on his tail, thinking he could lose them in a parking garage or alley. “And by the time he saw the barbed wire and the floodlights, it was too late,” the man chuckled. “Oh, they were waiting for him. M16s, BearCats, dogs, the whole thing. Later the guy said he wished he’d have let the cops take him. He really said that.”
It did look friendly from far away, and less friendly less far away, and by the time Murphy could see the “Visitor Processing” sign it looked like a prison for comic book villains. Fences within fences, concrete and metal, towers for the sharpshooters scanning the grid below, half-wanting a reason to pull the trigger. The speed limit was fifteen; Murphy did five. He read the signs twice and clamped the wheel when, a few yards ahead, he saw the white line and the STOP and the guard hut. He rolled down the window and tapped the brake with his toe, to make sure it was the brake, and he stayed on it until the car rolled to a stop six feet behind the line.
Two guards stepped out of the hut and the one with an M16 motioned him forward with his fingers. Murphy shifted into neutral and rolled two feet, then stopped again. The guard with the clipboard didn’t object, so Murphy put the car in park and pulled up the handbrake. He took the keys out of the ignition and bent forward to find the trunk latch, his left hand groping under the curve of the dash. He hit the seam where the plastic met the scratchy floor upholstery; no knobs, no buttons. Murphy bent his head to look.
“ID and pop the trunk please, sir.” The guard with the clipboard was at the window and Murphy jerked upright.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Murphy groped in the cup holder for his wallet, which was not there as he had planned. He lunged forward and reached for his back pocket and the guard said, “Woah, woah,” and put his hand on his sidearm.
Murphy stopped. “Sorry, sorry.”
“Easy,” the guard said.
“My wallet is in my pocket.”
“I understand, sir, not a problem. Just, easy.”
He had taken a job at the nuclear assembly plant because it paid double Vivian’s salary and he liked to imagine saying “It’s classified” when neighbors asked what he did for a living.
Murphy’s fingers slipped on the leather. When he had a grip on the edge, he pulled the wallet out and around slowly. His license was jammed behind a stack of credit cards, and as he turned the wallet and wiggled the cards with his slick fingers, a condom fell out of the billfold. Vivian didn’t like to use hormones; Murphy liked to be prepared. He wondered if the guard had seen it and thought Murphy was ridiculous, with his snaggle tooth and sweaty forehead that crept higher every year, never mind what Vivian said.
Murphy freed his license and handed it to the guard, then tucked the condom back into the billfold. The guard stepped back and shined his flashlight on the license.
“Hey,” the guard with the M16 said, putting his hand on the window sill and bending down to look at Murphy, who was startled by the guard’s youth and violent jaw. “Which is cooler, a Mustang or a ’Vette?”
Clipboard, still looking at Murphy’s license, said, “C’mon, man.”
M16 stood up. “Five bucks,” he said.
“You didn’t phrase it right.”
“Okay. Okay.” M16 bent down to Murphy again. “Which gets more girls?”
Murphy squinted into the windshield as if he were reviewing memories. “’Vette.”
“Ten bucks,” said M16, and stepped back to let Clipboard hand Murphy his license.
“You’re killing me, man,” Clipboard said.
Murphy felt he was starting to understand the rules. “Hey, man, I know what I know.”
“All right, all right. Still need you to pop that trunk though.”
Murphy felt under the dash again. He considered asking for permission to check the glove box but imagined the guards watching him scratch around in the dark, their fingers twitching. “I’m sorry. It’s a rental. I don’t know—here.” Murphy took the keys out of the ignition and handed them to Clipboard, feeling flushed and girlish.
The key scraped into the trunk lock. With a panic, Murphy realized he had not opened it since picking up the rental. He toggled through possibilities: child pornography, a body, a bomb. He imagined the phone call to Vivian. The latch popped and in the rearview Murphy saw the trunk’s lid. He closed his eyes until he heard it slam shut. Everything was fine. “Welcome to hell,” said M16. “Thank you,” said Murphy.
• • •
The woman taking Murphy’s fingerprints had never had this much trouble. After the second botch, she handed Murphy a paper towel and asked him to blot the sweat from his hands. After the fourth, she asked him to go to the men’s room and wash them, hold them under the dryer for thirty seconds, and “scoot on back.” The woman was pretty in a way that embarrassed Murphy: smooth hair, pink manicure, precise makeup, her clothes draped just so, so that nothing bunched or wrinkled. Not a woman who sweated, and there Murphy was, hurrying back with a wad of paper towels clamped in his palms. Again, she rolled Murphy’s thumb through the violet ink and rocked it on the paper. The motion hurt a little at the edges, and Murphy hoped the woman had not noticed him tense. “I think that’ll work,” she said, inspecting the latest blur that looked just like the others. “Let’s get the rest of these quick before they get too damp,” she said, and forced Murphy’s index finger into the ink.
• • •
After Murphy had his biometrics done, the HR rep picked him up in a golf cart for a facility tour. He did not look how Murphy imagined, which was fat and bald and red. He was muscular and very tan, with dark hair gelled into spikes. He talked as quickly and veeringly as he drove, while Murphy gripped the seat edges. In front of the next building was a boulder with a plaque screwed into it that read, “Dedicated to the men and women who each day descend into darkness, so that others may live in the light.”
“I always thought that was a nice touch,” said the HR rep. “You don’t have to be in uniform to serve your country.” Murphy nodded.
The building had another checkpoint. Murphy was to put his wallet, belt, and keys in a bin on a conveyer belt, then step up to the glass booth and enter his PIN on the keypad. When the light on the keypad turned green, he was to stare into the lens of the iris scanner. The doors to the booth would slide open and Murphy would step inside, where his body would be scanned. Murphy would then enter his PIN on the keypad inside the booth and stare into the next iris scanner, whereupon the second set of doors would open, and Murphy would step out to retrieve his belongings. “I’ll go first to show you,” said the HR rep.
He remembered how, when his mother came across a bug too big for the vacuum, she would put a drinking glass over it. Every few days, she’d rattle the glass to see if it was alive.
Murphy got into the booth okay but had trouble getting out. “You looked too soon,” said the HR rep, “wait until the light is green.” “Okay, that wasn’t the right PIN, try again,” he said, then, “Don’t blink so much.” With the door locked behind him so that he could go neither forward nor back, Murphy felt like a bug in a jar. He remembered how, when his mother came across one too big or tricky for the vacuum, she would knock it down from the ceiling or catch up to it and put a drinking glass over it. Every few days, she’d rattle the glass to see if it was alive, and when it wasn’t, she’d sweep it into the dustpan and tip it into the garbage.
After a few more tries the guards had to override the system so Murphy could exit the booth the way he came and start over. After his third time in the booth the guards lost interest in him and leaned against the wall talking, Murphy guessed, about baseball. Murphy worked on his timing and his blinking. The HR rep stood with his arms crossed, staring at the ground. Murphy was relieved when the HR rep stopped smiling and giving him prompts. It reminded him of bowling with Vivian, who had twice been champion of her league back in Tulsa, and who used to tell him, “Try pivoting your ankle, sweetheart,” and, “Don’t pull back quite so far,” until one night he turned and said he didn’t like her to give him advice in public. Vivian had stopped and looked at Murphy in a way that said she had been herself before him and would be herself after, that she did not need to wake up every day and be his wife. And Murphy, frightened, could say only “What? What’s the problem?”
The HR rep said something must be off with Murphy’s biometric baseline and they would have to drive back to the processing center. Murphy was relieved to be out of the booth, but worried about his pants, which he had not realized were too big around the waist and drooped without his belt.
• • •
The Morale and Welfare Committee was hosting a raffle in the cafeteria. The woman emceeing had blond hair that puffed around her face like a tumbleweed, and the man running the display wore a large silver buckle.
“First up,” the woman said, “we have this lovely photo album in a beautiful denim, featuring a cheerful cross embellishment.” The man held the album in one hand and waved his other around the album’s perimeter. The denim was acid-washed and the cross was rendered in pink puffy paint. The man winked and blew kisses; the cafeteria laughed. “And the winner is, number one-fifty-three,” the emcee said. The cafeteria applauded and Murphy watched a woman navigate her buttocks down the aisles, looking bashfully at the floor. Her cheeks were shiny and timorous, as if she were made of soap bubbles. The woman smiled when she reached the front, and tucked the album under her arm before hurrying to the back of the room. A buck-toothed mannish type won a black vinyl tote bag embossed with a silver, ivy-strangled cross. A braless granny walked off with a wood cross appliquéd with fake marigolds.
“Ladies and their crafts, eh?” Murphy said to the HR rep through the applause for the winner of a cornhusk doll nativity.
“Hm?” said the HR rep.
• • •
The engineer giving the tour of the operations building was explaining the warhead overhaul. The government wanted to gut the electronics systems and put in new ones. Advanced safeguards, smart guidance systems, lifespan extension. He said the overhaul would cost 500 million more than manufacturing a new series of warheads. When Murphy asked the engineer why they didn’t do that instead, the engineer shrugged and said, “Politics.”
Vivian had stopped and looked at Murphy in a way that said she did not need to wake up every day and be his wife. And Murphy, frightened, could say only “What? What’s the problem?”
Murphy would be on a disassembly team and would work on a trainer for months before getting to the real thing. They went through more doors where Murphy had to enter his PIN. On the last one he fat-fingered it a few times and a siren wailed over the hall speakers. The engineer, who had turned his back to read a notice on the May ice cream social, said “Shit!” and turned to Murphy. “When they come, don’t move, just put your hands up.” The engineer ran to a red phone mounted to the wall. “Henning! Henning. Call ’em off, it’s the new guy. Yeah, call ’em off, call ’em off.”
Murphy stared at the floor with his arms up. He wondered if he should lie on his stomach with his hands on his head or if that would make matters worse.
• • •
Murphy’s coveralls were too short and his shirt sleeves and socks stuck out, but the engineer said it wasn’t too bad and Murphy would get made-to-measure ones next week. They were standing in front of a warhead with its cover off and components lying all around it. It looked just how Murphy imagined it would from movies and pictures. The engineer wore a pair of leather work gloves and reached into the warhead. “Here you go,” he said, and placed a metal sphere in Murphy’s bare hands. “That’s the core.”
“What?” Murphy said. The core was warm.
The engineer laughed. “Not the real one. That’s a trainer. My goodness, your face. Looked like my granddaughter when we told her where babies come from,” he said, and slapped Murphy on the back.
• • •
They were going to the work bay, deep underground. The engineer showed Murphy how to discharge static electricity from his clothes and told him not to touch anything once they were inside the bay. They would be going through a revolving blast door which worked, the engineer said, just like the ones at the mall, except it was four feet thick and would pulverize your hands if you weren’t careful. “Don’t take them off the push bar, or you’ll end up like me.” The engineer showed the back of his hand. His middle finger ended at the first knuckle, and Murphy, knowing the trick, waited for the engineer to flip up the rest of it. “Just joshin’,” the engineer said, and dropped his hand to his side. “That was from a lathe.”
A fluorescent light was mounted to the door but the bulb had burned out last week and no one had bothered to change it. It would be completely dark, but just hold on to the bar and keep pushing, the engineer said. The door was massive; as high and as broad as Murphy’s bedroom wall. The engineer arranged Murphy’s hands on the bar. It was already much darker in the blast door compartment, but with the light from the room behind them, Murphy could make out the edge of the door and note his hands and feet were well away from it. The engineer said they had to enter the bay one at a time; he would meet Murphy on the other side.
The engineer left the compartment and Murphy suddenly felt how tamped down the air was. He bent at the waist and pushed against the door. “Don’t lean too much, just walk into it,” the engineer said behind him. “It will take a little bit to get moving.” Murphy’s hands were already slick on the bar and he smelled metal. He tensed his arms and pushed from his feet, and the door shifted forward with a fwoof. In a moment, the dark blotted out Murphy’s body, and the only sound came from his rubber soles, sticking on the concrete.
For a moment the darkness was pleasant; Murphy seldom felt alone. Work was work, and at home there was Vivian, who had stories and thoughts and feelings to tell, so that Murphy felt himself always an invaded territory. When she was happy, Vivian moved her hands like a conductor, which, Murphy pointed out, only distracted people from what she was trying to say. She was doing this after work one day a few weeks before the move when Murphy walked into the kitchen for a soda. She was telling him that something funny or cute had happened at the library. Murphy had walked past her, back to the living room, where he had lain down on the couch. When Vivian followed, he put one hand over his eyes and a finger to his lips, and then it was quiet, and quiet for days afterward.
But in another moment, when Murphy could still not see his own feet, he began to feel afraid. He saw himself in a dollhouse cross section of the base, a mannequin wedged in the in-between dark, and all around him secret chambers bloomed into the underground. Above, slabs of concrete and steel mounded with earth bore down, and beyond, towers and lights and kill zones, hemmed by a fence that cut off one sort of life from another. Murphy noticed he was holding his breath and let it go; it could not be much longer.
But it could be and it was, because the door stopped with Murphy inside. Murphy pushed and pulled, but the door did not move. He pressed his shoulder against it and tried with his back against the bar, his arms linked under it, bending deep in his knees. He thought of yelling but no one would hear, and besides, the engineer knew he was in there and was probably already working on the problem, unless something had happened to the engineer. But then, Murphy’s car was parked in the visitor lot, and the processing center still had his license as collateral for his badge, and the crew would need to get into the work bay at some point, though maybe not for days. But Vivian would call; the guards would figure out where he was.
Murphy worried the floor was about to drop from under him, or already had, and he was dangling over an abyss, and if he fell he would fall for a long time, not knowing when or how the bottom would meet him.
In the meantime, Murphy was afraid to let go of the bar. Because what if the door started moving back toward him and his fingers were somehow caught in the gap between the door and the wall? He imagined the slow pulping of his arm, starting with his hands and grinding up to his shoulder, where the door would jam again and clamp him in the dark. And how would they get him out but by spinning the door the other way, the edge of it scraping back down from his shoulder to his fingers, and outside under the lights they would be wearing hardhats and goggles with their hands on their hips, trying this and that, not hearing his screams or imagining them either.
Another reason not to let go: Murphy worried there was a hole in the floor whose edges he could not see. Or, he imagined the floor was about to drop from under him, or that it already had, and he was dangling over an abyss, and if he fell he would fall for a long time, not knowing when or how the bottom would meet him. Whenever he settled on that thought, he tapped his foot to make sure there was a floor under it. But the dark permitted every certainty and endorsed none, and so Murphy’s fears bobbed and leered from a speeding carousel.
Murphy might have gone blind, his eyes shriveled to dark beads. If he could let go of the bar, he might find his hands were not hands, but shovels, the walls and the floor good damp soil, his memories of sunshine a synaptic misfire he would soon forget as he tunneled past roots and pale, knotty fungus.
But Murphy could not let go of the bar. His hands ached and his legs were heavy, and he leaned against the door with his head bowed. The door moved. Or Murphy imagined it moved. He pushed and it seemed to move again. Murphy stood upright and walked and felt he might be going forward. He stopped short and the bar kept going, pulling him after it.
In the next moment, a shock of light: a frenzy of strobing circles that settled into long daggers, all pointing to Murphy and illuminating the drops at the ends of his eyelashes. Below the light, men in coveralls were clapping and cheering. Murphy blinked and did not let go of the bar. The men stopped clapping. Jesus, is he crying? Was he crying? That would not do, after all this, and Vivian at home rehearsing her victory: Oh love, I’m sorry. Come here, come here. Murphy held the bar and bent his head; he pushed without meaning to. The room was a sliver of faces and light; in another moment it was gone. Murphy stopped to rest and the door turned, squiring him safely through the dark.
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