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Wasteland, Wasteland, Wasteland

The binder does not say “mole men.” The mole men are a rumor, a legend. So the old, empinkened blind man with the puckered skin and long, translucent, prehensile whiskers we found in the desert near the Repository is not a mole man.

The binder, given to us ages ago by a gentleman representing the U.S. Department of Energy, says the Nuclear Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain, just up the road from our tiny gamblers’ settlement in the Nevada desert, is unmanned. The binder—which we stored until now as directed: on the wall of the county commissioner’s office in a glass-faced case with a tiny hammer dangling from it—says the Repository is unmanned, that the silent white bullet trains disappearing into the mountain and reappearing out the other side, empty, carry only casks—we read “caskets”—of spent fuel rods and pellets and are unloaded by a gleaming robotic arm. The binder has pictures.

The binder, whose protective glass face we have shattered with the tiny hammer, says the stainless steel caskets are unloaded by the robotic arm and transported by a fully-automated conveyer system (FACS) deep into the hollow earth, down the trellis of tunnels that took one hundred years to dig, to their storage pods, where they will stay interred for one hundred thousand years. There are no people working inside Yucca Mountain, says the binder. The tunnels were dug by a state-of-the-art TBM: tunnel boring machine.

We are soothed by the authoritative acronym-loaded binder delivered to us ages ago by the gentleman-embodiment of the U.S. Department of Energy and stored in its secure glass-faced case beside the MSDS and the Terror Alert Color Wheel, for since there are no people who dug the dark tunnels of Yucca Mountain, nor people working as stewards of the nation’s nuclear waste deep inside, then it is only a rumor that there is a subterranean population at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, only local lore that below us, in a town perhaps identical to ours, move once-human creatures whose genes the Department has tweaked over generations until their skin went translucent, until a scrim of skin grew over their useless eyes, until two thick, cord-like and translucent whiskers sprouted from their faces, sensitive as a catfish’s barbels, and their mouths gone a little catfish too, a side effect.

The not-mole man was discovered sun-singed and unconscious by a gang of teenagers at the Landscape of Thorns. Regarding the Landscape of Thorns, the binder quotes Expert Design of an Architecture of Peril to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Nuclear Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain by Gruber H. Ust (Cornell University), Manuel Brink (Sandia National Laboratories), Ward Goodnight (University of Pennsylvania), Linda Gillis (Eastern Research Group, Inc.), Yuki Takashi (University of Washington), and R. C. Tung (Purdue University): “The marker is pan-cultural, pre-linguistic, post-linguistic, ominous, and repellant [ . . . ] It evinces the repository site as a non-place.”

The Landscape of Thorns was erected atop Yucca Mountain to frighten our distant and curious descendants on a most primal level. It is an assembly of multilingual stone message kiosks and concrete spikes jutting from the mountain, skewering the sky. Our teenagers like to go up there to skateboard, rollerblade, bounce their tiny bicycles off its menacing concrete javelins. We’ve scolded them against this but we live in a dinky desert town with one paved road; our young people are fiends for concrete.

When they were in elementary school, our young people took field trips to the monument and made rubbings from the message kiosks there. Our children once had the patience for a project like that. Now, they dye their hair inky black without consulting us; they push safety pins through their eyebrows. Our refrigerators are still layered with curled etchings of star charts and the periodic table, of symbols that look like snow angels—triangles within circles—and rubbings of warnings in old English, ancient Arabic, and something the placards at the kiosks call French. The rubbings say, This place is a message . . . and part of a system of messages . . . pay attention to it!

They say, This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing of value is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us.

They say, Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

Since he is not a mole man, we assume the blind man our teenagers found is a desert wanderer. We come from a long line of desert wanderers, so we intend to treat him well. We set out finding a cool, dark place for him. We are a gamblers’ outpost in the sun-blanched, sand-scraped Mojave, and we have many such places. The brothel offered him his own swamp-cooled bungalow, but when he came to he seemed bashful somehow, with his humped posture and pinched nose and the way he stood so politely clacking his pale, brittle claws together. Instead, we looked to the casino, a stucco cube with a gravel parking lot. We put him up in a suite, comped. We enrolled him in the Player’s Club, with bonus play, express play and multi-play, all comped. We granted him unlimited access to the buffet, where with a bedraggled claw he points to shrimp cocktail, steak and eggs. He tests the doneness of his eggs by probing the yolks with one slow, slick, opalescent barbel.

Despite being a member of the Player’s Club at the platinum level, the not-mole man finds no joy in playing keno, for though we can see his eyes rolling lax behind the pale vellum of skin grown over them, he is blind as an oracle, and can take no pleasure from the numbers bouncing around the television. He disdains video poker; his barbels recoil from the slots. When we gave him a bingo dauber he tried to eat it, smeared his lipless catfish gape with a shimmer of teal lipstick. He will throw the bones at the craps table, if you ask him, but only after standing for a long time with the dice cupped solemnly in one hand, running his index claw over their tiny dimples.

Though we suspected as much, the fact that he knows nothing of bingo proves the desert wanderer is no ordinary old man and though it says nothing of mole men, the binder given to us by the freckled personification of the long arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, which we have retrieved from its shattered glass case, says there may be ‘contaminates.’ If a contaminant should enter the community, says the binder, you must quarantine the contaminant. Call this number, says the binder. If you cannot quarantine the contaminant, says the binder, kill it.

The danger is in a particular location, say the rubbings.

It increases toward a center . . . the center of danger is here . . . of a particular size and shape, and below us.

Apparently, and according to the binder, we are the first line of defense against a threat that does not exist.

Quarantine can be tricky here. Ours is a town where tourists stop on their way somewhere else. Ours is a way station where visitors dock in the dark and then, in the hammering sun of morning, look around them at the burnt husks of muscle cars, at the dented trailers welded together and say, Who lives here?

When there we are, invisibly refilling their bad coffee.

Check please, they say.

They move on to the national park, the sin city. We become a story they will tell, the freaks in the desert, the mutants at the mountain, the wasteland. Three times a day the bullet trains spirit into the earth and out again without a sound. Our teenagers ache to go with them, we know. This place is not a place of honor, say the rubbings. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing of value is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us.

But it is autumn, peak season is sliding away from us, and the red brome is exploding across the alluvial fans. Yucca Mountain is magenta with them, the stalks bowing all around the Landscape of Thorns. And the mole man seems to like our bad coffee. The oracle stirs in powdered creamer with one dignified, prehensile barbel.

Someone wonders, What if he’s poisoning us? A good one because we’ve long felt hard, lentil-sized nodes beneath our eyes, unshelled walnuts growing in our throats. Our water has tannins of uranium and we have sores that will not heal, dark motes floating in our field of vision, yellowing sclera, blood in our stool. Our babies are born with webbed fingers and toes. Or none.

This message is a warning about danger, says the negative space within our malformed children’s manic charcoal scribblings. The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

You are in no danger, says the binder.

Also: You are the only thing standing between the rest of the country and radiation poisoning.

The oracle haunts the casino floor, lightly clacking the milky keratin of his claws together. He lurks near the roulette table, listening to the dolly pop along the wheel. Peak season is over and the cocktail waitresses slip outside and cut spears from the aloe plants growing alongside the swimming pool. In the sportsbook, they sit him in a plush maroon chair and glide the slime over his burnt skin.

In the buffet, the mole man gums his flaccid steak with his downturned catfish maw. The teenagers sit with him, build creamer pyramids, jelly huts, stab gashes into the vinyl seats with butter knives. Sometimes they bring maps. Tenderly they trace the mole man’s barbels along the interstate. Blow this popsicle stand, they say.

Kill it, says the binder, but there is something of us in the mole man. Bonus play, express play and multi-play are lost on him, and truth be told they are lost on us, too.

The white bullet trains come in and out thrice daily, soundless, only a slight pressing and unpressing of the air. One day the Repository will be filled and it will be sealed and it will stay that way for 100,000 years, says the binder. One day all the toxic pellets we fear will be stuffed safely inside the mountain. The mountain will be sealed and will stay sealed through flash floods and ceaseless corrosion and the itchy trigger finger of tectonics. The binder says this and we believe it, even though the trains that move through town so silently you cannot hear but only feel them—those beautiful, soundless white bullets—run on the throbbing rods they ferry.

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

We have questions the binder cannot answer:

Is a mole man not a man?

How many times did the U.S. Department of Energy say ‘wasteland’ before this became one?

How many times will they chant ‘unpopulated’ before we disappear?

What utterance will emerge from history’s longest game of Telephone?

Why, of all the rubbings curling on all the refrigerators, all the etchings in all the message kiosks in all the desert repositories of this nation, do none say, We’re sorry?

The oracle does not speak, and we are glad. We could not bear to hear what he might say.

Instead, we put our ears to the dirt at dawn. We can, maybe, hear a steady rock scrape a mile below. There are someones, somethings, moving through the trellis of tunnels under us, tending the pods of stainless steel caskets, inside the caskets rods, inside the rods pellets throbbing like glowworm larvae, though we’ve never seen the glow and never will, promises the binder. We take our iodine tablets. At night, if we lie still, we can feel the silent white bullet trains moving though us.

We have the number to call, but we have long been unable to discern the poisoned from the yet-to-be-poisoned. Peak season is over. Winter is coming to the desert and there are things we want to see: the ground crunchy with frost. The dog’s water bowl froze over. The Joshua trees along the highway decorated for Christmas. The red and green garlands winking in the sun, tinsel swaying in the breeze of the bullet train. Soon, the burros will eat the tinsel and for weeks the good-natured BLM boys will spot strands of it glinting in their dung, and we want to be here for that. We want to be here for the one day of snow, when our teenagers run outside in their pajamas to scrape the fine white dusting from the flat surfaces before it melts. Their flaxen roots grown out now, their eyebrows throbbing and infected, with their webbed fingers they press an entire car’s worth into one hard, divine, infinite snowball.

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” fiction writer, as well as the recipient of the Story Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’s Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many other honors. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, One Story, The Paris Review, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Best of the West 2011, Best of the Southwest 2013, and elsewhere. "Wasteland, Wasteland, Wasteland" is an excerpt from her novel, Gold Fame Citrus, out September 29 from Riverhead Books. An assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Watkins has also taught at Bucknell and Princeton, and she and her husband, the writer Derek Palacio, are codirectors of the Mojave School, a creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada.