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What Goes Inside a Lead Box?

by Marnie Webb

I built a nuclear reactor in the fish tank.

Armstrong's sister wouldn't step into our house after she found out.

"That's nuts," Armstrong said she told him when he invited her over for Thanksgiving dinner. "You'll both wind up with cancer. Your children will be mutants."

She's afraid, Armstrong said, and she won't come over for dinner.

I kept a Geiger counter next to the tank. I used it to show people that my reactor was safe. I was, after all, using very low-grade uranium culled from pre-1959 red-glazed pottery.

My cooling system and fail-safe weren't the best, but, according to my calculations, it wouldn't go critical for over a hundred years at which point none of us would have to worry about it.

"You think I'm going to trust her calculations," she told Armstrong when he called her back. "She's a photographer for Christ's sake. Not a physicist."

The rest of Armstrong's family came over but none of them would go into my darkroom which is where the reactor is and Armstrong's dad insisted on carrying the Geiger counter around with him and, when it started clicking faster, wouldn't go into the bathroom and I heard him telling Armstrong that he was sure nuclear reactors had to be registered with some state or probably even federal agency and didn't he -- meaning Armstrong -- think it was a little bit weird. "How did she get all that plutonium anyway?" Armstrong's dad asked.

"It's uranium," I said. "And I got most of it from garage sales."

Armstrong's father didn't say anything, just carried the Geiger counter out the front door and sat on the porch and smoked.

In bed that night, I told Armstrong his dad had a lot nerve calling me weird when he walked around after dessert sniffing everyone's breath and telling them which they ate -- cherry or pumpkin pie.

Armstrong just pulled me closer and said, "You're both weird," and moved my hair so it didn't tickle his nose and soon his breath was slow and heavy across the top of my head and I knew he was asleep.

I'd wanted to build the nuclear reactor since I was a kid.

I found out about fission from the news and I wanted it because I thought splitting atoms would sound like bowling and even when I didn't think that anymore I still wanted the reactor because I couldn't imagine anything cooler.

The problem was always the uranium.

It wasn't like you could go to Sears and get the Craftsman Uranium Kit, complete with lead-lined gloves for safe handling.

Then, when I was twenty, I read an article about pottery and how red glazes from the forties and fifties were the most vibrant and deep and those true reds came to American place settings courtesy of uranium and, as soon as government officials realized it, they banned glazes containing uranium and the reds after that weren't really red at all but maroons and magentas and oranges.

So, I started buying red pottery. At first I was fooled by the new versions that weren't real red but soon I became expert.

When Armstrong and I met in a bar, he was celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday and I was celebrating the mother lode of red dinner plates I'd just scored from an old lady who was cleaning all the "Festiva" china out of her cupboard. "The red's the only one that didn't fade," she said and I decided not to tell her why.

In the bar, I leaned close when Armstrong told me his name and put on a bad and drunken southern drawl and said, "Why now, that your mama's family name?" and he said no and told me his dad had been watching the moon landing in the lobby and Neil had just finished his famous quote when the nurse walked in and said, Mr. Brubeck, you have a baby boy. Armstrong said his mother'd wanted to name him Samuel and didn't talk to his father for two weeks after the man'd filled out the paperwork without even talking to her.

Armstrong drove me home and even though I was drunk and willing he just laid beside me all night kissing my neck and ears and the next morning asked me out to dinner and so I decided to show him my boxes of pottery as a test. He waited until I closed the twenty-seventh and final box before he asked me what I was doing. I took him into the garage and showed him the fish tank, fifty gallon and perfect for salt water fish according to the man I'd bought it from. I explained everything, even showed Armstrong the piles of articles, of books I'd read.

"How are you going to get the uranium out of the glaze?" he asked, which I hadn't even thought of but I didn't want him to know that so I just shrugged and said, "It isn't hard."

But it was. At least for me.

Finally, I just chipped the painted surface off the pottery and ground it up and tested the radioactivity with the Geiger counter I'd bought from a woman who worried about rays emanating from her oven and was convinced the Geiger counter didn't work because it didn't register any unusual molecular energy even when she put it in the bottom baking rack and so she gave me a great price.

After a year of chipping and grinding, I was ready to start making the reactor.

By that time, Armstrong was at my house almost every night. "Aren't you worried that's going to lose its potency?" He pointed at my case of radioactive dust.

"Are you kidding?" I held up the plate I was working on. "This stuff has a half life of like a thousand years."

Armstrong just shook his head at me. "I'll never understand how you figured all this out."

Which is what his aunt said when I called to invite her over for Christmas dinner. "Does it power anything?" is the other thing she said.

"Everything in the darkroom. I bought the generator and converted it to accept nuclear power instead of a battery. It wasn't hard."

Doing it hadn't been hard. Thinking of doing it had been. It hadn't occurred to me until Armstrong had asked that I needed to do anything with it. I'd thought it was enough just to have a nuclear reactor in a fish tank.

"Does it hurt your pictures?" his aunt also asked.

"Nuclear power is very safe," which was the party line. Actually, I'd noticed a fogging on my negatives and had to move the fish tank into the furthest corner of the room. I was still worried and had just started working on a lead case to put over the tank when I was working.

Armstrong said he thought it was a good idea. He patted me low on the stomach. "We don't want any problems having kids."

"Armstrong, we've never talked about having kids."

"We are now," he said and so I shut up.

I hadn't finished the lead case by Christmas and Armstrong said his sister still wouldn't come over.

"Nothing's happened to us."

"I know," he said. "I told her."


"She said 'What? You think you're just going to wake up one morning with an extra arm growing out of your kneecap.' Can't you just take it out for the day? She said she'd come over then."

I shook my head and got under the covers. "No way," I said. "Look. What does she do when she drives past San Onofre?"

Armstrong laughed. "Knowing her, she closes her eyes and floors it."

He stood next to the bed naked and I couldn't help but notice how incredibly beautiful he was. Why did he want to spend time with me?

"It is odd, El. How many people do you know with a home nuclear reactor?"

I closed my eyes and waited for the bed to shift with his weight. "I want you," I said and kissed his chest, his belly, sucked at the inside of his thigh until I felt him hot and hard against my neck.

"You're changing the subject," but when he said it his voice was lower and he was breathing through his mouth and I knew he'd let me.

When he was inside me and I asked him to talk to me, he stopped moving his hips and pushed me up so he look at my face. "Marry me, El." I fell on him without answering and I wanted him to take the question back so I wouldn't have to think about it.

I kissed him to stop him from talking and moved on him and tried to get back to the second before he spoke.

Later, only our feet were touching and he said, well, and I said, well.

And we fell asleep without me ever answering his question.

The next day when Armstrong got home from work, I yelled "I've got it."

"What?" he said and walked into the darkroom. A strip of negatives was hanging over the sink drying, and I had another strip on the light table trying to choose the best of three for printing.

I pointed at my work table and he walked over and held up a blue vest.

"A lead vest," I said. "I got it from my brother. It's what he has patients wear when he X-rays them." I knew having a brother who was a dentist would prove useful one day. "We sewed two of them together to make a front and back. We can give it to your sister for Christmas and then she can come over."

"What about her head?" Armstrong said. "She can still worry about brain cancer."

"Can we just try this?"

It wasn't until we'd finished the pasta primavera he'd made that Armstrong brought up the question.

"It wasn't sex talking," he said. "I really want to marry you."

And there it was.

"Why isn't this enough?" I said. "I didn't shower. I smelled us all day."

"You aren't getting out of it, El. I want to marry you."

"We're living together."

"And we still will be. I want to get married and have children with you."

"Can I think about it?"

"I thought you already were," he said.

But the truth was I'd never thought about it. I just thought it would go on like this forever: his family coming over for holiday dinners, him cooking dinner, me developing and printing pictures in the darkroom. I really didn't understand why anything had to change.

Armstrong sat in front of the TV and flipped channels for the rest of the evening and so I locked myself in the darkroom and printed pictures of all the negatives whether they were good or not.

I imagined I heard a hum from my nuclear reactor. I was never sure if it made noise or not and I didn't ask anyone. I wasn't about to ask Armstrong.

I waited until I was so tired I could barely stand to come out. I wanted Armstrong in bed and asleep. I didn't want to talk to him about getting married, and I didn't want him not to talk to me.

When I pulled back the covers, the smell of him, warm and musky, overwhelmed me. I pushed my face against his back, between his shoulder blades and I tried to hold onto that smell. I tried, then, to imagine us married and with children in the other room and I just couldn't. I couldn't imagine that anymore than I could imagine not knowing him. In either case, there was no way my bed would smell the same it did now.

Armstrong left before I got up. I didn't even feel him get out of bed. The Post-it note on my box of Raisin Bran said he'd be home late and he'd call his sister and I had until New Year's to give him an answer and he meant as in yes or no, not as in can't things stay the same.

Two days before Christmas, I was fininshed up holiday portraits from last minute clients who were calling and calling to make sure their children looked beautiful and to ask me to just FedEx the prints straight to relatives on the East Coast. Armstrong took a day off work to answer the phone and help with the mailing.

"We make a good team, El," he said which is the closest he'd come to talking about the marriage question since the note.

The enlarger started flickering on the last set of prints and the exposures were off but I managed to fix them. I thought the light bulb needed to be changed until the red light starting flickering too. I finished and opened the door.

"Look," I said and Armstrong walked in.

He looked at the flashing red numbers of the digital clock over the sink and said, "You've had a power outage."

We both walked over to the reactor.

"It must be the fuel rods," I said. "I must need new ones." I had lots. I'd chipped tons of pottery.

"What are you going to do with the old ones?"

I was already halfway to the garage. "Throw them away."

Armstrong followed me out and watched while I climbed the ladder and reached for the lead-lined case that had the ground glaze in it. "You can't throw it away," he said. "It's nuclear waste."

Which I hadn't even thought of.

I turned on the ladder and looked down at him and noticed for the first time that he was beginning to have a bald spot and I realized how much Armstrong looked like his dad and I had a sudden flash of how he'd look in fifteen years, in twenty. "I guess. I guess I can bury it." That, after all, is the decision the government settled on. We weren't growing anything but grass in the backyard. It would do as well as Nevada.

"You can't do that." He was serious. "You've got to think of what could happen. I mean, what kind of container are you going to put it in? How are you going to make sure no one opens it in fifty years?"

I'd have to think about it. I climbed down and stood next to him. Yeah, I said and tried to sound like I knew what I was doing. "I know. I think I'll wait till after Christmas to change the rods." All I had to finish was mailing and I didn't need the darkroom powered to do that.

On Christmas day, I still hadn't come up with a way of getting rid of the spent fuel rods. Not anything that didn't make a bigger problem anyway. My best plan was to make mini lead barrels and drive them out to the Nevada desert and leave them with the real nuclear waste. I figured then they'd just get incorporated into whatever plan the government had.

Armstrong cooked the turkey and it sat on the stove waiting for everyone to get there and for me to carve it.

"Do you think your sister will come?" We were alone in the kitchen.

"I hope so," he said. "I gave her the vest and told her I'd make sausage and rice stuffing just for her."

I froze. "Sausage and rice stuffing? You mean extra, right? You put regular stuffing in the turkey."

He shook his head and said no, everyone liked sausage and rice. His aunt had made it four years ago and his whole family still talked about it and he got the recipe from her.

"What about me? Why didn't you ask me?"

"You hate dressing, El."

Which was true, but not the point. I loved turkey and I loved turkey sandwiches which could only be made on Roman Meal bread with Best Foods mayonnaise and salt and pepper on the turkey and I didn't know how the turkey would taste if it wasn't stuffed with regular dressing but all I said to Armstrong was it might ruin the turkey.

"Oh, stop it, El. The turkey's going to be just fine."

And then we heard everyone saying hello and Armstrong's grandma laughing. What's that, she said.

That was Armstrong's sister in the blue vest we'd given her and with some kind of welding helmet on.

"This is heavier than hell," she said and fell into a chair.

Armstrong's grandma wanted to know what she was doing in that ridiculous get-up.

"Protecting myself from the cancer-giver, mutant-maker."

"My nuclear reactor," I said. "She's afraid of my nuclear reactor."

Armstrong's grandma waved her hand. "No such thing," she said. She was the only one in his whole family who didn't worry but that was only because she didn't believe. Just wanted to give us something to think about, she said. Another way to tax us and line their own greedy pockets.

She didn't believe in the moon landing either and told everyone that Armstrong was named after Louis not Neil and when Armstrong's dad argued she told him to hush up in a voice that he still obeyed.

We sat at the table and the turkey did taste the same but I wasn't going to tell Armstrong. At least, not until I'd had a sandwich and made sure that was okay. I tasted the sausage dressing because he piled it up on my plate and stared at me until I put a forkful in my mouth. It was good.

Armstrong's sister sat at the end and wouldn't eat because she wouldn't open the lead-glass face mask on her helmet. I asked her where she got it and she said, "What? You think you're the only one who can figure things out?"

Everyone except Armstrong and his grandma gave me the same thing for Christmas: those orange biohazard stickers. I thought they'd gotten together on it but they hadn't which made them think it was even funnier. Armstrong's grandma got me an electric ice crusher.

Armstrong opened his present from me which was a framed and signed picture of Neil Armstrong in his space suit which sent his grandma off on a rush of conspiracy theories that included her idea that there hadn't been a president that was really elected since Ike and after that they just told us someone won and someone else lost and the ballots were all just thrown away.

Armstrong gave me his present which was big and so heavy he needed help carrying it over to me.

I opened it. A lead box. Great, I thought. Even him.

Open it, he said and I pushed the lid off and on the bottom, looking small in the emptiness of the box, was a diamond ring.

I made no move to take it out. I pretended like it was empty. "I can use this for the waste," I said.

"Take it out, El," Armstrong said.

"Waste." It was his sister. "Do you mean nuclear waste?" She started to get up but then changed her mind. "What? Now, she's dealing with nuclear waste?"

"I told you, dear. It's not real."

"Pick it up, El." Armstrong said.

His father walked over and looked in the box and then at me. "I guess she's just speechless."

Which was true. I stared at the bottom of the box. I couldn't pick it up. If I did there was no way of stopping the cycle of events. If I picked it up, we'd have to get married or not.

"What is it?" Armstrong's grandma asked.

"It's a ring. An engagement ring. I asked El to marry me."

In front of his family. It wasn't fair.

I felt Armstrong's hand on my back before I realized he was standing next to me. "Pick it up, El." He grabbed my wrist and moved it over the box. When he let go, my hand flopped back to my side. Armstrong moved his face close to mine and I felt his breath in my ear. Everyone got very quiet and I didn't have to look up to know how embarrassed they all were. Except his grandma.

"It's about time," she said. "I was starting to think you kids didn't know what you were supposed to do next."

"Look, El. Ignoring me is a decision, too. It's worse then saying no."

I heard his grandma saying something about June and registering at Macy's. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of nuclear waste. I watched the news. I read the papers. I everything I could get my hands on about nuclear power. How could I not have thought about the waste?

"This is a decision too, El. Not saying anything is the worst decision you can make." Armstrong spoke low but I was sure everyone heard him. Even his grandma had stopped talking.

I turned just in time to see Armstrong walk out the door.

His sister had put the glass up on her helmet and was staring at me.

"I can use the box for the waste," I said and then remembered I'd said that already.

Marnie Webb currently lives in Malibu, CA where she writes
short fiction. She has been published in various literary
magazines, both in print and online. She is currently working
on a novel, An Ocelot World.


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