"The Colliders" by Jennifer Bannan
It is 1960 when they unveil the Westinghouse “W” on the atom smasher, a year since the death of Madeline’s husband. In that time her son learned his times tables, they bought their first TV at Sears and her car broke down. Which means she has learned, walking the two miles to work each day, that the rising and falling land that gives Forest Hills its name reminds her of the weave of a basket, knitted together loose and lumpy and giving her a giddy feeling. But maybe that’s because she’s also just recently fallen in love.
Her ten-year-old is off ahead in the crowd, probably watching the man in the truck wind cotton candy around a stick, or by the clowns. She grabs the hand of her new love and he smiles down at her.
The atom smasher looms five stories above them, a giant bulb draped in a sheet. The sheet is pulled off limp and silky and disappearing somehow, dissolving into those imperceptible particles you’re always hearing about around here. The metal orb she’s seen a thousand times, the orb with the secrets of energy, the secrets of our very beginnings, is now marked with the sticky frog fingers of the enormous W-shaped logo. She’s seen this metal wonder a thousand times, but only now has its blooming roundness reminded her of a womb.
Perhaps a woman should be fearful in a moment like this, about to tell the man she loves she’s pregnant. Worried at least. But not Madeline. The heady floating months leading to this moment have smashed out the grief, left her with an electric buzzing. She expects this man of science to have nothing but excitement about this collision and all its reactions blooming inside her.
Joy can be stupid.
He hears her news and takes off his hat. Mangles it in his hands. “I was going to tell you,” he says. “I’m moving to Nevada for better research.”
She’s more confused than upset. How is his leaving bad news? Unlike the smasher, she’s portable, even with the reactions at work inside her. But he seems so unhappy. She’s afraid to ask, afraid to process the flood of tragic images, another child and still no man, her mother’s frown, her husband’s head shaking in the beyond. She grasps for her new second nature and asks this man of science about his work, pointing to the smasher and asking how it gets better than this – one of the world’s first particle colliders!
Oh, that’s history, he says. Hasn’t he told her? The smasher won’t be used again. It hasn’t been used for two years.
He begins a detailed explanation, and she finds his talk of physics and theory cruel in this moment, when he should be asking her to come with him.
“But why do they put the logo on it if they have no use for it?”
“Look at it,” he says. “Of course they want to mark it.”
A day later he comes to the house where she has lived with her mother since the death of her husband. Two widows, one young and one old.
It is like this, he explains. Over his shoulder in the distance she sees a sliver of the metal womb.
They’ll begin fresh. They will move to Nevada for his work and they will raise their baby there. Exciting research calls and he’s a man in high demand.
The ten year old, he explains, can stay here in Forest Hills.
Her mother will care for him.
This is his plan.
She thinks of the atoms in the smasher, ripped through the confined space, the confined time. Inside their metal encasement, carried on fabric ribbon at terrifying speeds, forced to plummet downward for the planned collision.
Suddenly she’s talking about her son’s father. “After the accident I held him in my arms. They let me do that. Though I was too late for last breaths. I held him and the blood pooled under me. He was still beautiful. I’d have had to turn him to see the shattered side. I didn’t turn him.”
She’s trying to tell him that her history is sacred to her. That there is no splitting it from her future, no matter where she goes. But he’s grimacing. He’s shaking off her story and taking a deep breath.
“We need a fresh start,” he urges, and this seems to be all he can say. He is, like so many of his field, obsessed with beginnings. Where did we come from?
Because a mother is too boring an answer.
“You want to rob my son,” she says. She doesn’t bother hiding her anger. She hates that he can move the toy truck with the toe of his loafer while they talk. Back and forth with no awareness.
He knows nothing of ten year old boys, he tells her. The boy and his grandmother are happy together. This is my life, he says. “I have only one proper way to make a family. Only one chance at the proper beginning.”
Ten years later he returns. He takes her and the two boys to see the atom smasher again. He tells the young one he is his father, the one who sends those checks on the holidays. That he has chased the same science, the kind in that atom smasher, all over the world. The boy is ten, he sees the useless orb whenever he’s out walking. He and his friends dream of climbing the curved ladder to its top, but they never do.
The man asks Madeline about her mother, who died two years after he moved away. He doesn’t seem to realize what that would have meant for her oldest.
There are rumors of layoffs at the research center stretched before them, with its three brick stories. No one weeds around the base of the building anymore, around the base of the fence. The corners of the windows weep rust. The W for Westinghouse, up high on the curved aluminum, is peeling along its edges, the blue faded.
The boys wander off. The one who is now twenty, who has been like a father to her youngest, who still dutifully visits every Sunday, puts a hand on the shoulder of the young one. This Sunday is no different except for the strange visitor.
He relays in a dull and halting way (is this an apology?) that his career did not peak as he’d expected. All the peer reviewed journals and his name always a secondary, except for one, and that one not well received. He believes sometimes, he says, and this time he’s turning a pair of sunglasses in his hands, he believes it was the way he left them here. He should have insisted.
Insisted what? she asks. She’s older now and not afraid of much. Insisted on your fresh start? Insisted I leave my son?
Maybe the failures were a punishment, he says. He looks at her long, the atom smasher behind him framing his head like a metal aura.
He is taking her hand when he asks to take her hand.
He wants to put his mark on her, make his claim before it’s too late.
Madeline thinks of energy, of its unknown origins, its endless replenishment. She thinks how some audacity is its own stupid joy, beginning and beginning again. Endings are fueled too, though. There is more than enough energy for endings.
JENNIFER BANNAN's publishing credits include a collection of short stories published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2003, Inventing Victor, as well as in Autumn House Press’s anthology of emerging writers, Keeping the Wolves at Bay (2011), and in the Kenyon Review online, ACM, The Chicago Review, Passages North and other literary magazines. She has credits in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Millions, The Rumpus and more. She completed her MFA in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and has been an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked more than 20 years in marketing communications, representing a range of companies and products, from canned beans to computer chips.