In June of 1981, two weeks after we’d moved to Hanford, my father read about the summer Chinook run in the papers and decided he’d teach me how to fish. He came home from work one day carrying two brand-new fishing rods he’d bought at the general store downtown. We drove north for an hour along the Columbia River, away from the plant’s hazard zone, then pulled over. He and I climbed out from our lost-looking Datsun, and I looked down at the water: hundreds of long, dark shapes thrashing their way against the current. Dad unpacked a picnic lunch, then started threading his new rod. “Watch what I do,” he told me, and stabbed his finger with a hook trying to attach the bait.
Even at ten years old, I could have told you this was never going to work. Dad was a nuclear engineer from Chicago, and knew more about carbon rods than fishing rods. I watched him whip his line into the river’s shallows, which were thick and pregnant with fish. It floated for a few moments, then a salmon leapt out and batted it away. He frowned and cast again. Over and over, his hook would bounce off a salmon’s back or get swatted by a tail. He kept at it while I watched and scooped Miracle Whip onto two sandwiches.
By sundown, the river was still packed and writhing, but Dad had given up his dream of training me to become the Columbia’s next salmon shogun. That didn’t get him down, though. “We learned a good life lesson today, buddy,” he told me as we walked back to the car. “Own up to your mistakes, before they come back to bite you in the butt.” We stopped for dinner at a roadside burger shack nearby, and he stuck French fries in his ears and made me snort Coke out my nose.
On the drive back, I got drowsy and counted salmon instead of sheep: their huge, rippling bodies jackknifing out of the water, glinting blood-red in the spray. Back east, I’d never seen fish that big. In the distance, the N Reactor’s thin plume of steam cut the horizon in half, guiding us home like a smoke signal.
I remember the river more clearly than anything. Faces, days, names all pool together in my mind like puddles after a rainstorm. But the river stays, languid and calm, drifting through my memories of Hanford. Now that everyone else is gone, I follow its path without question.
Every year, the salmon runs seemed to get smaller and fewer. I sat on the same bank with my friend Eric four years later, the summer after eighth grade, and watched Chinook swim under the river’s green skin. “It’s the plant’s fault,” Eric said, not looking up. He’d brought an issue of Silver Surfer and had his nose buried in it. “All the radiation and chemicals leach into their eggs and make them runty and weak.”
I stared out at the horizon, more depressed than I cared to admit, watching the distant white splashes of leaping fish. It was record temperatures that summer, and the river was thin and shallow in the heat. Eric licked his lips and took a sip from a bottled water, which was all his mom ever let him drink. She wasn’t the only one: a lot of people were starting to fuss about the tap water, which came from groundwater. They were certain that Hanford was bleeding into the soil, sending its invisible spiders through our pipes and into our sinks.
Dad said this was ridiculous: the plant was too far away for the town’s groundwater to be affected. He always followed this up by filling a glass with tap water and drinking it all in one gulp. I didn’t see how he could prove anything that way.
“It’s the dams, too,” said Eric. I nodded in disgust. Grand Coulee, Bonneville, McNary: huge concrete clots straddling the river downstream, flooding farmland and trapping salmon. More and more ways thought up by humans to clog up God’s own artery, the Columbia.
“You know that’s why all the June Hogs disappeared?” I asked.
He looked at me, confused. “What disappeared?”
“June Hogs. That was their name for the biggest Chinook.” I rifled through my backpack and pulled out a crinkled slip of paper. On it, a grainy black-and-white photo showed a smiling guy struggling to lift one huge bastard of a fish, almost as long as the guy was tall. “They could get up to eight feet long and a hundred pounds in the old days.”
“Where’d you get the picture?”
“Tore it out of a library book.”
He snorted. “Jesus, Cody.” I ignored him and stared back out at the Columbia, mentally willing a June Hog to heave itself out of the water.
Then I squinted: something big was moving along the shallows on the other bank. Something really, really big.
“Hey,” I said urgently. “Give me the binoculars.” The thing was swelling fast in the water, kicking up clouds of spray. He fumbled in his bag and handed me his father’s scratched-up pair of Nikons. I squinted to block out the desert sunlight.
In a glittering flash, the fish leapt out of the water. Except fish didn’t have hair, or vaulting legs. It was a girl, her arms wrapped tight around a kicking silver salmon. She waded out of the shallows and threw it down on the bank, then stomped its head until it quit flapping.
My hands were sweaty on the binoculars. She was tall and tan, with a big tangled mane of black hair that dripped down her front and back. Also she wasn’t wearing much. Nothing, in fact. Eric looked up from his comic book and made a noise like a constipated goat. Even across the river, you could tell she’d heard: she looked up and saw us staring, mouths open, frozen in place on the other side. The Nikons were still jammed tight across my face, so I got a great look as she blew us a kiss and brushed her hair back. Her breasts sparkled with drops of river water, and I thought my face was going to explode. Then she stared straight at me and gave us the finger.
We still hadn’t moved by the time she’d climbed up the bank, salmon in hand, and disappeared. The sun hit high noon and our mouths were dry as chalk.
It’s always dry in Hanford. People hear “Pacific Northwest” and think rain, but this is the eastern half of Washington State, which begins where the rain ends. The Cascade Mountains drink the clouds dry after they pass over Seattle, leaving everything east of the last foothill golden, cracked, and treeless. Stand on that border and look east on a clear day, and I swear you can see all the way out to Idaho, staring out over the ocean of sparse, sallow grass in between.
When the Army Corps of Engineers built the plant back in the 40’s, they were looking for somewhere deserted: a place where they could forge the Hiroshima bomb’s plutonium heart without too many civilians in the blast radius. Our town is bigger now, but it’s still hard to argue with their final choice once you leave city limits. Everything’s flat and vacant for miles in all directions, the endless unused space of the West: nothing but sky, the long low hump of Rattlesnake Mountain, and the thin fingers of Hanford’s smokestacks.
Before World War II, there wasn’t anything here except a couple of clapboard houses and some farmland. The Corps bulldozed most of that out of the way; what arose in its place was a federal town, an atomic town. After forty years, government officials still roamed around in long black cars, and our high school mascots were the “Bombers.” Once I heard Eric’s mother say that living here sometimes felt like the war had never ended. Even in ‘86, after most of the reactors had closed, a long slow procession of cars would still file out of town every morning and head towards N Reactor.
I remember when Dad and I arrived for the first time. We’d been in the Datsun all night, lungs still starved from the thin air after crossing the Rockies. The sun had set and we’d been cutting through mile after mile of flat night country, black and endless in all directions. I sat in the backseat, drifting through curtains of sleep. In the front, Dad kept his hands on the wheel. He hadn’t slept since the Idaho border, but I didn’t think he seemed tired.
I felt his hand reach back and nudge my shoulder. “Hey, buddy,” he said softly. “Wake up. I think this is it.”
In the distance, a thin string of twinkling lights broke against the horizon. To my darkened eyes, they seemed impossible: distant streetlamps and lit windows popping out like flowers. There were no power cables along the road we drove; the lights blazed alone. Hanford seemed as if it had appeared overnight, a patch cut out from some distant city and placed here by giant unseen hands.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” I said, tired and cranky. The last town Dad had been assigned to was right on the interstate, ten miles outside of Chicago. We’d lived in a cul-de-sac with three other children next door. “Who even lives all the way out here?”
Dad scratched his chin. “Well, pretty much everyone in Richland, which is where they’re putting us, works for the plant. But we’ll be living right across the river from two other towns. And almost all of the engineers have families—I met a few of them when I had my interview.” He reached back again and tapped my knee. “Lots of kids your age.”
I didn’t say anything.
“This is gonna be good for us,” he said. “A do-over. I think you and I can really build something here.”
For a moment, he looked as if he wanted to say something else. In the half-light, I could see the distant, even glow in his eyes. Then they twinkled. “Or are you gonna get bored just having me around?”
“Yes,” I told him and stuck my tongue out. He gave me a short laugh and turned the radio on. There was a couple seconds of static, then grainy rock chords sprang out as we picked up a signal from Hanford—an early Elvis song, “Hound Dog” or “Burning Love.” It was so cheesy and old-sounding that I wanted to laugh, but somehow that didn’t seem quite right. So I let my eyes close again as we drove into town.
Two years after Eric and I saw the girl, her face—and several other aspects—still flashed before my eyes in quiet moments. I decided that I’d teach myself how to fish over the summer.
Dad snorted broccoli when I told him one night at dinner. “You’re supposed to be working this summer. Not wasting time catching fish. Besides, our track record isn’t great in this area.”
I threw a pea at him. “Your track record.”
He picked up the pea and threw it back. “Get a job.”
It was true, though: I’d promised him I’d find work, maybe at the general store or the Laundromat, and pay back the money Eric and I’d borrowed from him to buy a Nintendo and a Super Mario Bros. cartridge. But all this seemed dry and tasteless compared to hauling a daily catch out of the Columbia. I fantasized about teaching myself to wrestle salmon before the June run, then dive into the river when the spawners arrived and drag out a June Hog the size of a refrigerator. Usually the way I pictured it, the girl with black hair would be standing on the other bank, watching me.
I had to come up with some excuse. “Nobody is hiring for the summer,” I said. “Everyone’s worried about N Reactor finally getting shut down—they don’t want to take on kids in case their parents start getting transferred again.”
Dad snorted. “That rumor goes around every summer. We’re always still here when fall arrives.”
“I’ll work hard and sell what I catch,” I said, changing the subject. “Maybe we can even eat some.”
He coughed and reached into his pocket for his pipe, even though we hadn’t finished eating. “Maybe,” he said. “I could always go for a good steak, first.”
He and I had come late to Hanford. Since Mom had passed a few years back in a car accident, we’d never stayed in one place for long. Perhaps it was his way of outrunning some part of her, this rhythm of packing up our lives every two or three years and casting off onto some long distant highway.
By the time we arrived, then, Hanford’s slow descent had already begun. In my first year at the school, half of my fifth grade class transferred out, leaving workbooks fluttering on their desks. Eric and I met for the first time when we were the only two to sign up for the baseball team. The plant was hemorrhaging after several “temporary” cutbacks, which didn’t seem to be ending any time soon.
Dad didn’t care. If anything, it encouraged him, this state of transience. “I know it’s slow going now, but that just means more overtime for us new guys,” he told me. “We’re gonna change things. Make this place revolutionary again. Did you know the B Reactor was the first in the world to mass-produce plutonium?” He’d chatter like this late into the night as I watched TV, barely noticing whether I answered.
I kept my words to myself. The truth was, no matter what he might have thought, Dad had been summoned here for the same reason as everyone else: to make sure Hanford kept our lights on, and didn’t devour itself from the inside out. But sometimes, hearing him talk so late into the night, you could almost forget these secret truths. He believed in Hanford in the same way some people believed in God; the way I wanted to believe that salmon could grow into June Hogs.
Even though it was still spring and school wasn’t out yet, I wanted to get some practice in before the first big Chinook run in June. On weekends, I fell into a comfortable rhythm: I’d wake up early, strap on fishing pants and boots—no shirt—and head out of town on my mountain bike. Once I’d gotten far enough away from Hanford, I’d pick a stretch of river and set up shop, unpacking my rods, tackles, and baits from a metal lunchbox. Every day, I picked a new length of the Columbia, and caught something different each time: wriggling, repulsive lampreys, mottled walleye, coffee-brown carp that kicked against my line with a vengeance. But no salmon. Not yet.
One day in April, I was sitting in Spanish class when the alarms sounded. Normal schools have fire bells; Hanford High has radiological sirens.
I found Eric in the hallway, running out of third period with his class. “It’s not a drill,” he said before I could even ask. We all poured out of the building and started lining up in alphabetical order. When the teachers weren’t looking, we skipped out of line and craned our necks to see over the fence bordering the school, looking north towards Hanford, trying to get a glimpse. In the far distance, we could see the pale ridges and smokestacks of the B and D reactors. N was blocked from view, but we didn’t see a smoke trail—at least, not yet.
They had the yellow evacuation buses all lined up and were about to start herding us on board, when the principal’s car phone finally rang. He took the call and spoke quietly for a few minutes, then got up and told us that everything was all right; we’d been dropped back down to condition blue. Told us to go back to class and not to worry, as if he’d forgotten that half the school’s parents worked at Hanford.
By fifth period, every classroom was deserted. As I was running out the door, I saw a kid I knew going the same direction: Toby Fredricksen, whose mom worked in the same department as my dad. I ran over and grabbed his arm. “Have you heard anything?”
He was ashen-faced. “They’ve closed the plant. I just called Mom.”
“Are they still there?”
“Everyone is. They’re locked in the bunker under quarantine.”
“For how long?”
“Until the reactor checks out.”
In the end, it was almost two days before the Datsun finally pulled into the driveway and Dad staggered out. He looked terrible: pale and mummified from his time underground, his face a maze of stubble. “It was all just stupid as hell,” he said later, nursing a glass of whiskey—one of the only times I’d ever seen him drink. “They found a hairline crack in the storage basin. The kind of thing that should have been spotted in a routine check, if we weren’t complete dicks about protocol. So of course they had to power down the whole reactor and get everyone into the bunker until they were sure it wasn’t in danger of getting any worse.” Once he’d vented all this out, he slumped forward on the kitchen counter and fell asleep right there. I had gotten some muscle from tugging on fishing nets all day, so I carried him up the stairs. I’d never been strong enough to carry him before.
He never said anything else about the quarantine. Once I’d gotten him into bed, he turned over and slept for two days straight. I didn’t go back to school, though, just walked down to the riverbank and stayed there until dark, waiting for something unexpected. I couldn’t be in the house, even though I knew he was back. It felt as if I was still waiting by the phone for Dad to return: pale, colorless, as if the center of me had been burned stark and hollow.
The N Reactor came back online after a week, and Dad returned to work. Yet after the scare, the mood in town had shifted. I’d go to the supermarket and see people stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, shooting furtive glances at each other and out the windows. One day, I saw a sign next to the fresh fish counter: FRESH LOCAL SALMON, TESTED FOR IODINE-131. Outside, everyone either drove around either stupidly fast, or glacially slow. Once in a while, I saw people sneak a look at the horizon, looking at the reactors’ silvery plumes. Everything seemed poised to tip, like the needle on a Geiger counter, in some unseen direction.
Dad had changed as well, ever since he’d awakened from his two-day hibernation.. One day, he drove up in a brand-new pickup truck that he’d somehow exchanged for the Datsun. “Got a raise,” he told me proudly. “We all did. They’re buttering us up in case some jackass decides to file suit.” He didn’t seem the least bit bothered by this. In fact, nothing seemed to bother him now. It was like his long sleep had energized him, made him arc with a new furious energy. He rose early, made me breakfast before driving to the plant, and got back later and later.
Even Eric had changed. He’d beaten Mario Bros., but now he was onto something different: horror movies. Really sick, horrible ones, like Eraserhead, which gave me the creeps for weeks after he showed me just one scene. Eric wasn’t done, though: he invited me over one night and we watched The Thing three times, our nausea rising and falling in wavelets, until the sun came up and Eric’s father yelled at me to get my ass home. School was out by then, so I spent all my time either at their house or fishing by the river.
Later that month, I was sifting my net through the river’s silty shallows, and caught a two-headed minnow. It flopped feebly as I held it in my palm. From the tiny spine, a second round-eyed head protruded just above the first. Both mouths opened and closed, as if it were speaking silent words.
I threw it back into the river. I had real muscle on my arms by that point, and I hurled it as hard and far as I could. It tumbled in an arc, a glittering fork of silver, and when it hit the water, it barely made a splash.
It was June and I was sitting in Eric’s father’s dinghy under the Vernita Bridge, line in hand, ready for the run. They were coming, but I knew as soon as I motored out into the middle of the river that it wouldn’t be a good year. The Chinook were sparse; the few who’d made it looked bedraggled, angry, their olive heads snapping to and fro in the current. I saw two males fighting, ripping at each other with their hook jaws and teeth. They weren’t supposed to do that until they’d made it to the spawning grounds.
“They’re cranky this year.” I turned, surprised—someone was shouting at me from atop the bridge. I motored the dinghy out from under its shadow and peered up into the desert sunlight. Then I saw a mop of black hair looking back at me, and froze.
She didn’t miss a beat. Stepping onto the railing, she leapt and dove gracefully, arcing into the water like a knife. After a moment of silence, her head broke the water, and she paddled over to the side of the dinghy. I was almost biting my tongue off, but I managed to keep enough cool to give her a hand as she clambered on board. Just like last time, she was clutching a salmon—a big male this time, apple-red and furious. Unlike last time, though, she was wearing clothes—a ratty concert shirt, now soaked through, and a gauzy skirt. I bit my lip.
We stared at each other for a few heavy seconds. Then the salmon made a writhing kick, fell out of her hands, and landed on the dinghy’s floor. She raised one foot and stomped it, one blow. It stilled.
“What was that for?” I managed. “And why the hell did you jump off?” Did she recognize me, I kept asking myself.
“A present,” she said, grinning at me. Her eyes weren’t giving anything away. “I was walking across and saw you fishing down here. Thought you could use some help.”
“I could use help?”
“Cause you clearly can’t catch one of these guys yourself.”
“Who says I want one?”
“You’re the one with the dinghy and the minnow rods,” she said, and touched my chin in a quick flitted motion. “I’m Shawna.”
She remembered; I could hear it in her voice now. I choked down the urge to capsize the boat and swim for the border. “Cody. That’s a cool trick you have with the salmon.”
“My uncle taught it to me,” she said. “He’s Umatilla. Passing on tribal wisdom, I guess.”
She was one year older than me, it turned out. Lived with her mom across the river in Pasco, went to high school in that area. Her father wasn’t in the picture or even near the frame, having split for Belize after the first round of plant restructuring in the early 70’s. So instead she got raised by her mother and uncle, who apparently schooled her as a champion salmon-wrestler. She really only caught the fish, she told me, because said “cheap-ass uncle” was too lazy to do so himself, but he still did love some wild fresh-caught salmon once or twice a year.
So that was the end of two years’ worth of mystery and speculation: Shawna. Eric’s and my very own Venus Rising from the Sea, in the flesh. She wasn’t quite the same as I’d imagined: her voice was huskier, her lips slightly thinner. After so many years, I’m not quite sure whether I remember her as she was, or as I’d made her—which version won out in the end.
But she hadn’t mentioned the binoculars incident—that was relief enough. I let her keep talking as we drifted downstream, ragged salmon passing us by.
The N Reactor shut down two more times in June and early July. The first time, Dad told us, was a computer malfunction: no danger whatsoever, just an accidental stop. The second time, we would learn much later, one of the carbon rods in the main reactor almost fell off and caused a meltdown. It happened in the night, while Dad and I were sleeping. We didn’t hear the far-off sirens, or see the emergency fire trucks—not the regular kind, but the heavy-duty ones, armored tanks with hoses—flying through the streets, heading for Hanford’s dark unlit patch on the horizon. The next morning, Dad was jolted awake by a barrage of phone calls. He rushed out the door with his shirt half-untucked and I didn’t see him for a few days after that; I went to the front gate and dropped off food and a change of clothes.
By the time he returned, he was coughing and feverish, and could barely make it through the doorway. I helped him peel off his sweat-stained shirt and pants and lowered him into bed. It was pristine: I had made it, then remade it, more times than I could count while he was away. As if, by remaking the sheets enough times, I would unfold some hidden cypher within them that would set me at peace.
I moved the sheet up over Dad’s chest, which rose and fell in an uneven tempo. The pillow haloed his face, and he looked peaceful. But the skin under his mouth had gone slack, and his eyes were dark and scooped into his face like peach pits.
Just like last time, I couldn’t stay in the house. So I called Shawna’s number, which she’d given me after I’d dropped her off in the dinghy. She lived in a little yellow duplex right across the river. When I pulled up, she was on the front porch smoking a cigarette that she quickly stubbed out when she saw me.
We went down to the Oxbow, and waded into the shallow water. She showed me how to wait, utterly motionless, for a fish to come swimming near enough. When you have it within the triangle of your arms, she said, fall down and trap it with your whole body: legs, arms, neck. After a few tries, I bagged a pissed-off little carp, which Shawna laughed at and told me to throw back.
“Ever wrestle any June Hogs?” I asked, half joking.
“You sound like my grandpa,” she snorted.
We dried off and sat on the riverbank. It was easy to forget about how Hanford was crumbling to pieces, how my father was crumbling with it, about the heavy metals and radioactive blood that lay buried in the earth beneath us, when we lay on the dry grass and dirt together.
I wanted Eric to be amazed, jealous, disbelieving that I was dating the girl from the riverbank. When I told him, though, he shrugged. “I don’t remember what she looked like much.” As if her image hadn’t been scorched across both our eyes for the past two years.
“She was hot then,” I said, jabbing him with an elbow. “She’s hot now.”
He shrugged again. If you say so.
There was a TV rerun of Alien playing, and he turned back to watch. I’d thought he remembered that day as clearly as I had; now I wasn’t sure. We sat in silence until I stood up and left to go meet Shawna. I don’t remember whether he looked up.
Dad missed work for the first time in early August. I came home one afternoon and found him on the couch in his white shirt and slacks, snoring peacefully. For a moment, I didn’t want to touch him: he looked too perfect, too holy. But he was wearing his work clothes, which sagged on him more every day.
I shook him; he snorted and opened his eyes. “Cody? Hey, what time is it, buddy?”
I showed him my watch. He looked at it without understanding for a moment. “Shit,” he said slowly. “Oh, shit. I… I need to go in right now.”
“Might as well call in sick,” I said, pushing him back down as he tried to rise. “You’d only be there for a few hours anyway.”
He looked at me helplessly. Olive rings, the same color as the Chinook’s head, wreathed his sunken eyes. In the afternoon light filtering in, those eyes were pale and elderly, and I couldn’t remember them ever being any other color. I wanted to take this new father, chuck him far away like the two-headed minnow, dive deep until I wrestled the one I knew back to the surface.
Dad must have seen my face. “Hey, bud,” he said, gathering himself. “If I’m going to stay home, I can cook dinner. Go catch me a fish, huh? Make it a big one.”
The word came out in early August: Hanford was officially closed for maintenance and renovation until further notice. It was the same week Dad fell for the first time, smashing against the first floor landing and bruising his entire right side. I tried taking him to the hospital in Wenatchee. We drove an hour and a half, and once we arrived, the nurse took one look at Dad’s medical insurance card and shook his head.
“You’re only covered under Hanford’s provider,” he said. “Until their office opens back up, any procedure has to be paid for out of pocket.” I didn’t say a word the whole way home; Dad sat in the back seat. I could hear a gentle whistle as he breathed through his nose.
Now that Hanford was closed, it turned out, the gates recognized all types of employee ID. Shawna and I borrowed Dad’s parking card and we crept around the outskirts of the plant after dark, skirting around the concrete husks of the B and D Reactors. Another night, she convinced me to steal his bottle of whiskey from under the medicine cabinet. We drove out to Rattlesnake Mountain and hiked up to the top, then collapsed in a giddy drunken heap on top of one another. I’d never drunk before in my life, and the whiskey felt like fire and judgment on my tongue.
“I know it was you,” Shawna whispered in my ear. “Two years back. On the river, when I was swimming.”
“I know you know,” I whispered back.
“Pervert,” she growled softly, then grabbed my ear and yanked me over. “I should call the cops and have you arrested for peeping.”
I looked up at her. “Not if I get you first for public indecency.”
She shrieked and rolled away. I lay back and watched the stars, impossibly clear and fixed. And then suddenly Shawna was back and I was kissing her, feeling her shoulder blades, the smooth slick nape of her neck. We held one another tight and it was like holding a fish.
Eric and his family moved away one day, without calling or telling me. I showed up one day at his doorstep to see a realtor tacking on the FOR RENT sign that was like seasonal decoration in our town. He hadn’t left me his new number. Alone, I hopped on my bike and rode out of town, then took a left onto a dirt path and followed it for miles, bumping over tall grass and tumbleweeds. The plains’ emptiness curved like a great domed bowl of sky all around me.
August wore on. As Hanford ground to a halt, so did everything else: stores held fire sales and closed, the roads yawned wide and empty of cars. People were leaving in caravans now, dusty U-Haul covered wagons carting their belongings away into the great grassy expanse of the plateau. Dad was still sick, so we couldn’t leave. Everything seemed to stick together in a strange wet heat, as if the steam from the N Reactor’s plume had fallen back to earth. Coating our lungs with fine, minute dustings of lead and polonium.
Maybe because of this, I started having trouble sleeping at night. I’d lay awake on my bed, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible to avoid breathing in particles, the radiation that, ghostlike, wafted through everything.
When I did sleep, I’d dream. Sometimes it was Shawna, vaulting out of the river in a constellation of spray, arms clenched around the struggling salmon. Or we’d be lying together on top of Rattlesnake Mountain, watching the stars reorder themselves in the sky.
Other times I would dream about fishing. In those dreams, I’d be wading into the Columbia until I was waist-deep. From deep beneath the surface, the two-headed minnow would swim up and snap at my legs. As I reeled, it turned in the water and became a June Hog, vast and silver and inhumanly strong. It hammered me with its tail as I climbed onto it—and wrapped myself around and around, squeezing it until its strength gave, the river frothing around us.
When it went limp, I’d wade into the shallows and let go. By the time it floated back to the surface, it had already split open, putrefied, eyes hollowed. Other fish came up from beneath, steelhead and coho and walleye. They started tearing chunks off, exposing the tiny fragile nest of fish bones underneath the skin. The bones were bright and glowing, and shone like suns.
One time I made too much noise in dreaming, and Dad ran in. He’d been a little better in the last few days, but his brief burst of energy had vanished. Now he looked like I felt, as if every breath took in the same polluted mix.
“What’s wrong?” He put his hands on me; my sheets were soaked with sweat.
“I’m okay,” I told him, breathing hard. It was strange, I thought, for him to ask me that question.
“Like hell,” he said quietly. We sat in silence for a minute, the August air thick and breathless around us.
He cleared his throat. “I’m thinking of getting a transfer.”
I sat up straight. “You mean, move?”
That threw him. He thought for a second. “Just weigh our options.”
“I got an offer from a plant near Seattle,” he said. “Over the mountains. They called me a few days ago. Pay’s not as good, obviously.”
“What do you think?”
“Well, it’s just an option to consider.” I wanted to see his eyes, but it was too dark. “I think this one should be a mutual decision. You and me.”
“So what do I think?”
Silence. The invisible sound of dust blowing in through cracks, through screen doors, under the furnishings, settling into us.
“I’ll think about it.” I still needed to catch that June Hog.
The Chinook came back in the first week of September. Shawna and I were ready: we’d packed a tent, a kerosene stove, a lantern, the last dregs of Dad’s whiskey. We wanted to catch enough salmon to feed an army, then have a weeklong cookout on top of Rattlesnake Mountain.
We sat together, feet overhanging the Vernita Bridge, watching the red tide of fish surge underneath us. We were both tipsy and trying to push each other off. Sunset lasts a long time on the plateau, and the light was still burnt orange.
“Do you think…” I gasped, holding onto the edge as Shawna rocked with laughter. “Do you ever imagine… what this would all be like without the plant?”
“No radiation in the groundwater?” she said. “No heavy metals in the dirt? God, it’d be like the Garden of Eden.”
Then she went quiet. I tried to give her a shove off, but she swatted my hands away.
“God,” she said, her voice hushed. “Look. Look.”
It made its way slowly forward, almost invisible except for the wake it cast on the surface. As it passed the sun’s reflection on the water, I saw the light glint off a long, moving brown back. Silently, Shawna and I counted the seconds until we lost sight.
“It’s not a hundred pounds,” I said slowly. “Or eight feet long.”
“No,” Shawna agreed. “But maybe seventy and six?”
I looked at her. “Only one way to find out.”
We dropped and hit the water like stones. Chinook collided with us, hitting us all over our bodies. I dodged and weaved, jerking away from the males’ teeth. She swam off to the right; I matched her on the left. I was in shallow water before long, and could stand with my head above.
“It’s coming at you!” Shawna yelled. I glanced wildly around. There it was, barreling forward, the green Columbia water parting in curtains. I tensed, bent with my arms and formed a triangle, and fell forward.
The water crashed around me, filled my ears and lungs and mouth. In the swirl, I could feel something kick at my ribs, sending me plunging to one side. I coughed, struggled back up and treaded water. I was flailing my arms around, but there was nothing in my fingers.
My chest burned. Maybe I could have stayed longer, swinging around in some vague hope of making contact, but by then the disappointment was already stinging my eyes and lungs. Slowly, I started for shore.
Shawna joined me. She didn’t say anything for a few moments. We just sat there, on the burnt bank. I felt dull and red inside, snaggle-toothed.
“I don’t know what I saw,” she started, finally. “Really. I wasn’t messing with you.”
If I’d said anything, I’d have yelled at her. But I knew, somehow, that was more than I could ever do. So I just gave her a glance, asking her not to speak. The sun dipped over the bridge, burning everything the color of a Chinook’s belly, lancing the water. We stayed for a long time, sitting side by side in silence, until it was dark. Then I went home.
That was my last summer learning how to fish. Dad got worse and worse and couldn’t go back to work, so I got a few jobs to pay the rent: the general store, the Laundromat.
Fishing stays with you, though. Even now, living on the other side of the Cascades, I take my dinghy out sometimes and sit on the water, casting a line until I reel in a rockfish or herring. I let them go, these days. It’s not as much of a challenge.
There are other memories I have of Hanford, but they seem to orbit that summer like moons, reflecting its light. I remember walks with Shawna in fall, clutching each other against cold gusts of wind. Climbing back up Rattlesnake Mountain with her, stripping off her shirt in the clear frosted air and feeling the swells and edges of her. After we broke up later that fall—over some stupid reason I can’t for the life of me remember—I couldn’t sleep for weeks, my gut churning. I still feel it, pounding like waves.
Or the next spring, when Dad’s cancer finally ate him from the inside out, left his bones hollow and birdlike until he collapsed one day in the kitchen. I sat with him in the hospital for eight hours before they came and took me away. The moving trucks would have been there in two days, to pack up our lives and take us, all of the dust and water that had settled within us, across the long highway again and over the mountains.
I sit on my own porch now, watching the sun set over the distant blue Cascades. Somewhere beyond those mountains and years, I often imagine, the last concrete shell of Hanford is crumbling, sending its spiders of radiation into the air and earth and water. In a hundred years, grass still might not grow where it had stood. And every five years, the salmon who’d been born there will come back to spawn, carrying a little of the poison that had leached into their egg, that they’d cradled within them.
I’ll go back one day. When I have a son of my own—it’ll be just the two of us, driving through the night. We’ll cross the mountains and pass into the sallow sea of grass, riding the highway until we see a fringe of lights along the long dark spine of the Columbia. I’ll take my son along the river’s banks and sit for hours with a fishing line, catching nothing, just so I can tell him about that summer. And maybe he will ask me, if I tell him enough of the story, whether I ever caught a June Hog. Then I’ll tell him.