My Grandmother in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1943 When They Were Building an Atomic Bomb by Emily Kiernan

Anton Chekhov Award for Very Short Fiction 2020 – Second Runner Up

My grandmother in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1943, when they were building an atomic bomb

Lucy arrived into a city of clattering. Metal on metal on packed dirt on rail ties on muddy standing water on boardwalks on cement on flesh on leather on canvas on metal on metal on earth. She came in on the train, and the trains all ran out empty, their insides shaking voids. She waited for buses that rattled to the curbs, and when they came, the men appeared from houses and shacks and huts and tents and crowded in around her. There were buildings and machines and men everywhere, sprung up, noisy, from the quiet land. Women moved in groups that were like waves, crashing just before the lunch hour, a flow of voices and movement, retreating at one o’clock. She joined them in the mornings, and again at four pm, a riotous processional. She waited with them for the bathroom sink, for the breakfast plates, for the post office box, for the grocery cashier. Some of them she learned the faces of, and some she learned the names of, and some she talked with and befriended and loved. Others were mysteries forever. Most she never really noticed. From the dormitories and the cafeterias an intermittent commotion rose, a shuttling-between sound, a waiting-in-line din. The sounds of an invisible factory, producing the workers to man it.

The bulldozers came and churned up the earth, and everything was wet and heavy. Water hung in the air and pooled in the streets—malarial and warm. Lucy felt her hair fall flat and greasy across her forehead. She woke up sweating—sweat on the sheets. Someone was always in the shower down the hall, and she always thought it was rain falling, and she always woke up glad because she thought the rain would take down the humidity, would tamp the water down into the earth. But it was always only the shower running, and even when it did rain, the water sat on top of the mud, slowly sizzling up around her calves when the sun came out. Like walking in a low fog. Like a meadow at dawn. You might as well be wading, as wet as you get just walking to the school and home again.

Inside the school it was noisiest of all. The children could never seem to calm; they whipped around themselves like little cyclones, all lank hair and dirty hands and growth-paining limbs, little dust devils, always gaining speed and blurring off into hysterics. They cried at nothing, laughed at her. Totally uncontrollable more than half the time. She didn’t blame them, though she did not forgive them either. There was no peace to be had in the town, no soothing for their rubbed-raw nerves. Always the construction crews yelling and clanging just outside the thin walls, always their parents working overnight shifts and returning home, stumbling-tired at dawn. Always the laughing voices in the street—young people joking and dancing through a world not meant for children’s ears. Children require insulation, and here everyone was so exposed.

Here was a city of endless exposures, of uncomfortable proximities, intrusions and stripping bare. Here there was no hiding, no avoiding, only a constant, rattling being-with. Here there was always noise and light and voices and movement and sensation. Close quarters. Sudden intimacies. Here you were pulled open to let the world flow in and out. Everyone else’s voices flowing in and out. Here you could alter or blend, abandon or transform, and who would be the wiser? You could become indistinguishable, selfless. What better place to hide a secret than in the midst of so many revelations?

But the machines were quiet in their concrete cages. Thick walls muffled their work. And Lucy did not know what they were doing in those rooms she could not enter. She wondered some—not as much as you might think.

At night there were many voices—laughing or yelling or urging each other to speak up, speak up over the music. Horns and fiddles and guitars and sometimes even a banjo twanging. Good old Tennessee stuff, some of the voices would say to her. Local color. As if the place was old. As if the place was anywhere except a locus of new noises pounding through the hills. She smiled at the men who said this. She smiled and smiled at everyone she met, because she was a part of this new place with them, and they were a new people together. The hills were old, but they made no noises and gave nothing of themselves to this new place and its people. They all walked home along the hills, men’s and women’s voices echoing.


Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press). Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Pank, The Collagist, Quarterly West and other journals. She is a prose editor at Noemi Press and a fiction editor at Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks. She lives in Pittsburgh with her man and her dog. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.