We love this story almost as much as we love Fiona. “Pu-239” is feeling especially relevant right now (that means YOU, North Korea!).
Vol. 12, No. 2
My feelings about this story actually begin with a Ken Kalfus reading I attended many years ago. His second collection of stories, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, had just come out. The place was packed with fans come to see this master storyteller, whose work is so versatile, you get the sense Ken Kalfus can do anything. The woman running the series thanked us all for coming and then asked us please to welcome the author of Poo-239. Poo—which was mortifying for everyone there and yet pleasingly apropos of the very thing Kalfus lampoons in the title story of the collection. I don’t want to say stupidity because I still feel badly for that poor woman, though there is no mistaking the ignorance and colossal blundering Kalfus sends up in “Pu-239.” Still, it would undersell the story to suggest it’s just a satire. No, this fiction has the higher aim of ennobling stupidity—of recognizing its power and aptitude for destruction. In this universe, which is, of course, our universe, thousands of people are dying every day because someone pushed the wrong button. Or the button was in Urdu. Or someone didn’t know her periodic table and couldn’t be bothered to read the book. Just a few weeks ago, I saw Obama on 60 Minutes say that when he took office, the first thing Bob Gates told him was to remember that at this moment, somewhere, somehow, someone in the federal government was screwing up. Which reminder asserted two things: One, that the president will always have someone else to blame, in essence: that deniability is king, and two, that incompetence is the currency most responsible for the buying and selling of our future. Want to know more? Read “Pu-239.” —Fiona
What I most enjoy about this story is its savagery. But what I most admire is how well it’s structured to flout one set of expectations while satisfying another. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to direct your attention to the story’s first few lines. Notice how long Kalfus takes to name our technician, our hero Timofey, by way of teaching us how to read the story, which isn’t about Timofey at all, but about what happens when institutionalized apathy meets hubris; about a particularly combustible time in Russian history when everything loathsome about the free market—greed, e.g.—mixed with the wonky bureaucracies of the East; about the smallness of our preoccupations and the enormities that proceed from them. In a story motored by the mean and petty ambitions of almost everyone in it, we still get lines like: “Plutonium. There was no exit for the stuff. It was as permanent and universal as original sin.” If private lives exist here, they do so only to serve universal catastrophe. Which is scary, and scarier still for being so funny in Ken Kalfus’s hands. Everyone I know who’s read this story walks away feeling like we’re doomed. I expect you will, too. Enjoy!
Woke Up Lonely
Join us in supporting
by Ken Kalfus
Recommended by Fiona Maazel
SOMEONE COMMITTED A SIMPLE ERROR that, according to the plant’s blueprints, should have been impossible, and a valve was left open, a pipe ruptured, a technician was trapped in a crawlspace, and a small fire destroyed several workstations. At first the alarm was discounted: false alarms commonly rang and flashed through the plant like birds in a tropical rain forest. Once the seriousness of the accident was appreciated, the rescue crew discovered that a soft drink dispenser waiting to be sent out for repair blocked the room in which the radiation suits were kept. After moving it and entering the storage room, they learned that several of the oxygen tanks had been left uncharged. By the time they reached the lab the fire was nearly out, but smoke laced with elements from the actinide series filled the unit. Lying on his back above the ceiling, staring at the wormlike pattern of surface corrosion on the tin duct a few centimeters from his face, Timofey had inhaled the fumes for an hour and forty minutes. In that time he had tried to imagine that he was inhaling dollar bills and that once they lodged in his lungs and bone marrow they would bombard his body tissue with high-energy dimes, nickels, and quarters.
Timofey had worked in 16 nearly his entire adult life, entrusted with the bounteous, transfiguring secrets of the atom. For most of that life, he had been exhilarated
by the reactor’s song of nuclear fission, the hiss of particle capture and loss. Highly valued for his ingenuity, Timofey carried in his head not only a detailed knowledge of the plant’s design, but also a precise recollection of its every repair and improvised alteration. He knew where the patches were and how well they had been executed. He knew which stated tolerances could be exceeded and by how much, which gauges ran hot, which ran slow, and which could be completely ignored. The plant managers and scientists were often forced to defer to his judgment. On these occasions a glitter of derision showed in his voice, as he tapped a finger significantly against a sheet of engineering designs and explained why there was only a single correct answer to the question.
After Timofey’s death, his colleagues recalled a dressing down he had received a few years earlier at the hands of a visiting scientist. No one remembered the details, except that she had proposed slightly altering the reaction process in order to produce a somewhat greater quantity of a certain isotope that she employed in her own research. Hovering in his stained and wrinkled white coat behind the half dozen plant officials whom she had been addressing, Timofey objected to the proposal. He said that greater quantities of the isotope would not be produced in the way she suggested and, in fact, could not be produced at all, according to well established principles of nuclear physics. Blood rushed to the woman’s square, fleshy, bulldog face. “Idiot!” she spat. “I’m Nuclear Section Secretary of the Academy of Sciences. I fucking own the established principles of nuclear physics. You’re a technician!” Those who were there recalled that Timofey tried to stand his ground, but as he began to explain the flaw in her reasoning his voice lost its resonance and he began to mumble, straying away from the main point. She cut him off, asking her audience, “Are there any other questions, any educated questions?” As it turned out, neither Timofey nor the scientist was ever proved right. The Defense Ministry rejected the proposal for reasons of economy.
Timofey’s relations with his coworkers were more comfortable, if distant, and he usually joined the others in his unit at lunch in the plant’s low-ceilinged, windowless buffet. The room rustled with murmured complaint. Timofey could hardly be counted among the most embittered of the technical workers—a point sagely observed later. All joked with stale irony about the lapses in safety and the precipitous decline in their salaries caused by inflation; these comments had become almost entirely humorless three months earlier, when management followed a flurry of assuring memos, beseeching directives, and unambiguous promises with a failure to pay them at all. No one had been paid since.
Every afternoon at four Timofey fled the compromises and incompetence of his workplace in an old Zhiguli that he had purchased precisely so that he could arrive home a half hour earlier than if he had taken the tram. Against the odds set by personality and circumstance, he had married, late in his fourth decade, an electrical engineer assigned to another unit. Now, with the attentiveness he had once offered the reactor, Timofey often sat across the kitchen table from his wife with his head cocked, listening to their spindly, asthmatic eight-year-old son, Tolya, in the next room give ruinous commands to his toy soldiers. A serious respiratory ailment similar to the boy’s kept Marina from working; disability leave had brought a pretty bloom to her soft cheeks.
The family lived on the eighth floor of a weatherstained concrete apartment tower with crumbling front steps and unlit hallways. In this rotted box lay a jewel of a two-bedroom apartment that smelled of fresh bread and meat dumplings and overlooked a birch forest. Laced with ski tracks in the winter and fragranced by grilled shashlik in the summer, home to deer, rabbits, and even gray wolves, the forest stretched well beyond their sight, all the way to the city’s double-fenced perimeter.
His colleagues thought of Marina and the boy as Timofey was pulled from the crawlspace. He was conscious, but dazed, his eyes unfocused and his face slack. Surrounded by phantoms in radiation suits, Timofey saw the unit as if for the first time: the cracked walls, the electrical cords snaking underfoot, the scratched and fogged glass over the gauges, the mold-spattered valves and pipes, the disabled equipment piled in an unused workstation, and the frayed tubing that bypassed sections of missing pipe and was kept in place by electrical tape. He staggered from the lab, took a shower, vomited twice, disposed of his clothes, and was briefly examined by a medic, who took his pulse and temperature. No one looked him in the eye. Timofey was sent home. His colleagues were surprised when he returned the next day, shrugging off the accident and saying that he had a few things to take care of before going on the “rest leave” he had been granted as a matter of course. But his smile was as wan as the moon on a midsummer night, and his hands trembled. In any case, his colleagues were too busy to chat. The clean-up was chaotically underway and the normal activities of the plant had been suspended.