I am looking for a key in a Utah hazmat field.
The deer look for leaves in the same field. They look for radioactive leaves. They don’t know that the leaves are radioactive. I don’t know that there’s no key. This is called hazing. This is called being a rookie. A pawn. The nighttime is cold but they have only issued me a short-sleeve shirt. I am hazmat security. I make sure no one tries to steal plutonium or uranium or other things that will melt their skin.
We do not fear terrorists, to be honest with you; we fear bored teenagers. We fear bored teenagers who think NO TRESPASSING signs are solely for Christians, who think DANGER signs are welcome mats.
We have had six arrests since I’ve been here—all of them white teenage bored slightly drunk slightly buzzed slightly stupid kids. My coworker says the deer are the same—stupid; he says we should kill all of the deer on site. The deer all have polyneuropathy. The deer look caught in headlights even when it is pitch dark. They stumble and stare into space and could be extras in zoological zombie movies. The site where I work, I am told, does animal testing and does nuclear experimentation and houses aliens and is one of the leading centers for oncological advancement in the world. The site seems to do everything, but my boss says to me, “Look, all we do is store hazmat material.” I think of that term, what he is saying: hazardous materials material. Even the signs here are redundant: DANGER DO NOT ENTER DANGER and a run-on sign saying BIOHAZARD AREA HAZMAT AREA RESTRICTED AREA. They repeat words like ‘Danger’ and ‘Area’ as if sheer repetition is all that is needed for warning. The police, by the way, rarely come here. They are wise. I had to sign a waiver saying that I am OK with X amount of radiation per year. That was six years ago. I have X times 6 amount of radiation at this point.
We have no employees who have worked here longer than nine years. The reason, I am told, is that they don’t want to give raises. A coworker tells me it’s because the radiation exposure is too high after a decade. Another coworker says that after nine years they worry you’ll find out the truth about the aliens stored in the center hub building. There are no aliens, because aliens do not exist. Hazmat does exist. Deer who can’t walk correctly anymore exist. I look at the deer. I am Sámi, an indigenous people of the Arctic. My ancestors were reindeer herders. They came to the U.S. to escape Russian and Nazi invasion, to avoid the forced sterilizations of Sweden.
My girlfriend is worried I won’t be able to have children because of this job. I tell her I am lucky to have a job. I tell her I am blessed to have a job. She tells me I sound like an evangelical, like a gambler, like someone brainwashed. She tells me I should get a job as security in a bank. I tell her there is no possibility I can get shot guarding hazmat. On average, I see about two people per night. I see the person I relieve and I see the person who relieves me. The night, every night, is so desperately haunted with nothing that I am free to forget my life. I look up at the stars and think of the hydrogen in their cores, their cosmological radioactive guts, their electromagnetic astronomical stomachs.
I have a growth in my intestines. The doctor tells me not to worry about it. I have pretty good health insurance. He says if it gets too large, they will take it out. He says if it were a hundred years ago I would have something to worry about. A hundred years ago I wouldn’t know I have a growth in my intestines; I’d be beautifully oblivious. I look at the deer and speak to it, asking if it knows that my ancestors would have worshipped it. I tell the deer my grandfather moved to the U.S. because he wanted to give us a new life. I wonder if my grandfather would have understood hazmat, the way his grandson would search on hands and knees in a field on his seventh day on the job, a field clearly marked with DO NOT ENTER signs. I think of gastroenterology, the doctor I have been going to. Énteron is Ancient Greek for ‘intestines.’ He tells me the radiation probably entered me from all the times I’ve eaten at work, all the times I didn’t wash my hands and I swallowed the unthinkable. He says he doesn’t know for sure, that it might have happened in a thousand other ways as well. He says anything can happen.
Deer are painted on the sacred drums, have their images woven into holy blankets.
The deer here chews, a leaf on its chin, its eyes frighteningly cute.
My assimilated father used to tell me that God would seep into you. He said that Jesus is like an infection. For some reason, for him it was always disease metaphors with Christ. Nuns would hit my grandfather if he ever spoke Finn. He’d get beat brutally with rulers if he ever mentioned Sápmi.
All of the Sámi languages are critically endangered. We use the same wording with language that we do with the extinction of animals.
I look up. My ancestors believed the stars were the hoof prints of the great reindeer that ran across the sky. I look at the field where I crawled as a newly employed baby. The deer walks in the same path where my body went. I wonder if I am the deer.
Ron Riekki wrote U.P.: a novel (Great Michigan Read nominated) and edited The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press, 2017).