The silence that covers the Nevada desert on this reddish afternoon in 1951 can only be classified as geologic. Layers of stillness have accumulated like mineral strata, forming a desolate mountain range that raises across the wasteland. Even the sky is somewhat mineral: the thin creases of clouds make one think of streaks at the bottom of a blue deposit, the kind that yield only to the sun’s radiant picks. The air possesses an earth-colored quality that stings the eye and obliges ceremonial blinking; a ceremony that Doug Ferguson has practiced since 1947, when he crossed the anonymous doors of Lookout Mountain Studios for the first time to sign a contract and exchange a good salary for absolute secrecy. More like ‘petrified secrecy,’ the twenty-nine year old filmmaker says to himself while sweeping glassy-eyed over the Ansel Adams landscape. He can’t miss—in fact, he must admit, he has come to love it—the company’s paradoxical vein: founded by the United States federal government in the Hollywood hills, Lookout Mountain Studios has recruited two hundred and fifty people to secretly film nuclear tests in Nevada and the Pacific atolls for the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission. Few contradictions are so flagrant as to appeal for cautiousness in Hollywood: world capital of imprudence, kingdom of deceit and gossip, feud of tabloids and paparazzi that could kill to capture a well-known actress at the height of adulterous fashion in the placid, glistening waters of a swimming pool.
Always, when sent on a new shoot, Ferguson cannot avoid a desperately nostalgic feeling for his tawdry dreams, his champagne splashed fantasies enveloped in cannabissmoke, in which Lana Turner had played the leading role ever since The Postman Always Rings Twice. The postman, however, had rung only once at Ferguson’s apartment on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was delivered a laconic message, ordering him to lend his cinematographic services to the nation; in the end, the message achieved filling his head with smokey illusions, although not precisely of marijuana. Turner’s silhouette disappeared behind the first mushroom-shaped cloud, portentous like the scandal that would bury the diva on April fourth, 1958, after her lover Johnny Stompanato, mobster Mickey Cohen’s ex-bodyguard, was stabbed by her own daughter, Cheryl Turner, with a nine-inch kitchen knife. Seven years earlier, standing in the desert on a crimson afternoon, Doug Ferguson ignores all this; he ignores, what’s more, that Stompanato will be part of the backdrop that James Ellroy uses to hatch his novel L. A. Confidentialand that his cadaver will shine so bright as to hide the writer’s own mother, strangled in June of 1958 and resurrected in My Dark Places, the autobiography where Ellroy sets things right with his angeline ghosts.
The military jeep caravan’s insect-like buzz breaks the geologic silence. Ferguson throws down the cigarette he has just lit and squashes it, not without nervousness; for some reason that still escapes him he’s not allowed to smoke before, during and after the nuclear tests, another paradox imposed by Lookout Mountain Studios. How can one compare nicotine damage to the more-than-likely radioactive waste left in the body? Despite the fact that employees are submitted to regular medical check-ups, Ferguson doesn’t trust in optimistic x-rays, not even in negative results in urine exams. In a recurring dream it goes like this: dressed in a hospital robe—blue as Nevada’s sky—Doug drags his feet across the lonely halls of a labyrinth that has something to do with a clinic and a film studio. A door bursts open and he enters a near empty examining room; there is an x-ray machine that punctures the darkness with an alien brilliance. After moving behind the machine, Ferguson discovers that there is someone else in the cubicle: it’s Lana Turner, her pale face accentuated by a white nurse uniform. The actress’ mouth moves quickly, delivering words that he can’t capture; the only thing that he can hear is the dialect of a radio plugged into some corner of the room, a military transmission like those that each night are tuned in by the war veteran played by Jon Voight in Desert Bloom, a masterpiece of atomic delirium. Lana Turner pushes buttons and switches, and right when the telluric background rumor that has always been there reaches an audible apex, Doug wakes up. An image floats in these first liquid moments of wakefulness: it’s an x-ray of his lungs. His bronchial and alveolar tubes have been replaced with an expanding nuclear mushroom that eats up the entire thoracic cavity.
The jeeps stop short, shaking up a dust cloud that cocoons around Ferguson and his small crew. The highest military officer is a colonel with sunglasses that hide—they say no one has ever seen them—eyes of a blue steel that call to mind Paul Newman in Fat Man and Little Boy. Lowering himself from the vehicle that heads the caravan, his solemnity is a bit démodé. Followed by two fearful soldiers—their naked eyes resemble animals entering enemy territory—the colonel reaches with a few broad steps the crew from Lookout Mountain Studios: a cameraman and his assistant besides Ferguson, who has decided to do without a sound recordist—otherwise useless—after the previous one, once witnessing his first atomic test, said during a meeting that he couldn’t get rid of the white noise that precedes all explosions, a growing tremor that now he could hear everywhere: opening the fridge for a beer or starting up the Oldsmobile early morning, on the radio behind the songs of Doris Day and Bing Crosby, coming out of the speakers in supermarkets and department stores, filtering through his wife’s languorous moans and his son’s night cries, a sonorous anguish in his dreams that washed away any visual record—a syndrome like that of war victims, which crystallizes in the old woman who survived Nagasaki in Rhapsody in August.
Finding himself in front of Ferguson, the colonel, who according to gossip alleviates the infidelities of his wife—one can imagine her as Jessica Lange in Blue Sky—with an unbreakable martial rigidity, clicks his patent leather boots together and grumbles only two words: Five minutes. To which are added, after an almost imperceptible hesitation, four more: Are we all set? Doug nods and glances at the cameraman and his assistant, who watch him with a mix of euphoria and anxiety. When he glances back, the colonel has raised his right arm. It’s the signal that the rest of the procession waited for to abandon their jeeps: soldiers, military men of varying hierarchy and four men dressed in black with sunglasses. Drawing from his shirt pocket his protective glasses, a dull logo written in silver letters, Ferguson turns to the camera that mounted on a tripod in the middle of the dessert looks more than ever like a specimen that has fallen from outer space. The cameraman and his assistant pull down their glasses as well, unleashing a choreography of dark twinkles in the uniformed group that approaches. While he fixes the frame, Ferguson remembers the afternoon of his first nuclear test, the abysmal impression that it caused him to see the epilogue of the explosion: a crater of surrealistic dimensions, like the one the astonished members of the Hat Squad discover in Mulholland Falls. But now there is the colonel, foreign to all Proustian mechanisms, barking orders through a receptor whose antenna wiggles obscenely in the reddish evening air. There they are, the military entourage crossing their hands behind their backs, the cameraman and his assistant taking their positions in front of the tripod, the countdown that starts in a gush of static: One minute. There it is, the tickling that Ferguson feels climb suddenly up his left ankle, the scorpion that scurries towards his calf and the panic that detonates a rough jerk, the leg that shakes madly to the oblivion of the rest of the procession, the fingers that search and sweep and the head that leans forward and the protective glasses that come out flying and fall, followed by the scorpion, into a crack in the earth. There it is, the rumor that has always been there, occupying a dreamy background and now fracturing Nevada’s mineral stillness, demanding to be at the center of the landscape that begins to shudder through its last clouds. And there he is, Doug, with a sudden explosion of disbelief in his eyes that he manages to cover with his hands just as the world’s most blinding light bursts the air, the twilight, the horizon, the desert in its entirety.
Forty six years later, in 1997, after a special effects technician reveals the existence of Lookout Mountain Studios and the details about the films they shot—six thousand five hundred—between 1947 and 1979, Doug Ferguson will remember the explosion before a Los Angeles Timesreporter and say, “The blast was so bright I could see my bones through my skin.” He will also remember—the recorder will already have been turned off by nicotine-stained fingers—that his nostalgia would not relinquish that image: the exact x-ray of the hands in which grows, God only knows marking the beginning and the end of what, the most beautiful of all atomic mushrooms.
Translated from the Spanish by Debra Herrick
Mauricio Montiel Figueiras (Guadalajara, Mexico, 1968) is a writer of prose fiction and essays, as well as a poet, translator, editor and film and literary critic. His work has been published in magazines and newspapers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Italy, Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He has been Resident Writer for the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in England (2003) and The Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Italy (2008). In 2012 he was appointed Resident Writer for the prestigious Hawthornden Retreat for Writers in Scotland. Since 1995 he lives and works in Mexico City. Since 2011 he has been working on a Twitter novel, The Man in Tweed, in two accounts: @Elhombredetweed and @LamujerdeM
Author photo by Christopher Brown