The green fatigues celebrated the bomb clouds mixing the sky clouds. Looking at the jagged line of mountains through binoculars, Rusty couldn’t tell which was which; Graves was thrilled. Rusty floated his way through the screaming. Broadway Bob in an unbuttoned shirt had tattooed a mushroom cloud in blue ink on his stomach. “Party habits, Russ.” On his knees four others poured a metal canister of clear liquid into his mouth, most of it pouring over his face and shoulders.
Rusty drove the jeep at the mountains with his coat hood up. They didn’t understand the consequences, they just wanted to applaud something impressive and new. He steered blindly through swirls of fine dust and tasted dirt, and oddly, the childhood lemon of wood cleaners. He approached a blue light in the fallout. He was so far away from his dream of owning a hardware store, or pumping gas, or installing pools in the redreamed suburbs. But this, here, this endless possibility of desert thought, the experimentation of bombs that poisoned the meditation of clouds, seemed like a dream he was living for someone else, all much darker, but now, reality.
From the passenger seat he grabbed a gas mask and stretched it over his fat face, coat hood still up. At a clearing hundreds of snakes with split skin bubbled over with what looked like melting snow. For the next three hours he drove the perimeter and took notes on rock formations, fallout density, and air pressure. He still liked doing a good job at something. Then a ten-minute break to sit in the jeep, feet up, sketching the mountains.
Back at camp Graves was with the celebrating men, toasting cans of beer. Graves pretended to drink, and when asked for a speech he simply held up a hand and said, “Much work!” It didn’t make sense but everyone cheered. Rusty couldn’t stop admiring the disturbing size of Grave’s forehead, the sick intelligence inside it.
The troops drove into town and returned with drugged girls. They stumbled from jeeps and dissected the dusty sky-bombed camp with a pale but impressive light. Girls who wouldn’t remember this sad chunk of their life contributed to the explosion celebration. Rusty kept his distance, shy and awkward, wanting to be anywhere else, wondering how many years he had left, the girl’s feet slurring dune patterns in the sand. He still wore the gas mask, his breath wet and quick.
Three troops in white T-shirts circled a girl who told them to lift her up because she wanted to touch the destroyed sky. When they flung her upward she swatted the air like trying to collect flying money.
On his way to bed Rusty lonely-danced his way through the center of the party, combining every culture-fucked dance he had ever seen. He was too slow and clapped his hands too much. He hip-bumped a girl and knocked her face first into Graves who shoved her back to Rusty who lightly hugged.
He drank too much and danced with the desert girl for hours until everything including the sky became blurry and warm and close. Then he drank more and the girl grabbed his hands, leaned back, and blew a tube of blue flowers into the sky.
“I like hope,” said Rusty.
When he blinked, trying to focus on reality, they were still dancing, the music louder than ever, and she was pulling him along toward his tent, guiding him, the blue flowers now jelly-like dribbling from her chin.
Much later, Rusty assigned to the boat Lucky Dragon Number 5 where he dressed like a fisherman but didn’t look the part whatsoever. He was to survey what would be the largest nuclear test of all time, located off a tiny island deemed erasable. His last assignment, noted weekly to Lily back home who lived impatient and insane in the redreamed suburbs.
On the first day they fished for hours until the sky lit up. Lots of oohh’s and aahh’s as the boat rocked in the water. The orange sky flickered so much Rusty and some of the others thought they were having a seizure. Twenty minutes later the sky became a smooth rock that glowed.
“Whoa.” He wrote madly in his notebook. “That’s not right.”
No one on the boat spoke English so Rusty’s warnings were ignored when it snowed multi-colored ash that melted into their hair. Men hand-shoveled the ash into burlap bags with little urgency and when Rusty screamed for them to stop they laughed.
For hours the ash fell in a light rain. Some of the men collected the brightest of the ash into medicine jars for souvenirs.
Rusty went below the boat, and recalling Graves’s orders, continued documenting what he witnessed. He thought of writing another letter to Lily, but he was professional, shocked at the size of the explosion and the ash falling at such a steady pace. He’d been exposed before. Besides, the goal was to do whatever and get back home and start the family, own a lawnmower.
For the next week the men lived with cluster headaches and when Rusty had the strength to get out of bed he saw men vomiting what looked like tubes of blue poison into the ocean. He documented it. Some of the ash was still on deck, now streaks of white from narrow brooms. In the wettest spots the ash was clumped into ant hills the men poked and molded into the shapes of babies. A man tasted a baby shaped clump with a fingertip and snuggled himself to sleep.
Walking the perimeter of the boat, Rusty inspected the tuna and saw rotting holes in the flesh of their mouths, similar to what the snakes had looked like in Nevada. When he touched the scales they cracked and fell off, brittle as ice. He documented it and then sketched the sky with his gas mask on.
The boat’s captain, Aikichi, spent the week on his cot, a vial of ash kept under his pillow as a good luck charm, although Rusty advised not doing so. He planned to give it to his daughter, Keiko, who was a student of science and who had recently fallen in love with motorcycles. She liked sneaking out at night with boys Aikichi didn’t know the names of. From his bedroom window he watched the parachuting of her dress, sitting with legs open on the back of a motorcycle, her black hair streaming from a mock army style helmet.
She typically returned at sunrise, when Aikichi rose, drinking tea at the kitchen table. When she came in smiling, legs muddied, he never said anything because the point was for her to see him sitting there, not hear him say something that would allow for emotion. Besides, Keiko wasn’t doing anything wrong. Her interest was in the mechanical ways of the motorcycle. How does a human build a machine like that?
Her favorite spot in the world was halfway up Mount Rokko, in a field with pressed grass from the bodies of others, a place her teachers said was ideal for viewing stars. Aikichi imagined boys who worshiped violence with long fingers and leather jackets and skull rings.
Keiko was capable of slapping those hands away and she did. She burned her fingers on the engine of a motorcycle lying in the field of Mount Rokko. In the darkness she learned to sketch what she saw in the sky while a boy lay next to her fisting grass and sighing. Like the shirts said, she was the future, and she understood this.
On the boat, at the center of his back, Aikichi had grown a white lesion in the shape of a coin.
And Rusty couldn’t stop vomiting. One fisherman, who began with a big block of hair chopped in a severe cut across his forehead, lost half in a breeze. It just blew right off. He put it in a jar. At night Rusty had visions of a girl who walked on the ocean. He puked white slush over the side of the boat, a metallic burning that he had never experienced before, looked up, and talked to the girl. She had a smear of sunrise across her mouth that fluttered and opened like a rubber orifice and she told him he’d be fine, this was part of the process, look inside, the future is waiting.
The Lucky Dragon pulled into the harbor where family and scientists waited with hugs and tests. Aikichi, serious-faced as always, searched for his daughter, the buzz of a motorcycle, but she wasn’t there and he appeared the worst of the men, would be the first to die from the radiation burrowing through his veins and expanding the coin lesion until it became him.
The scientists were scared to come aboard. The news had been in the papers. The largest bomb test of all time. Rusty wobbled through the crowd, somewhere Lily would show herself, tell him she was ready to begin their life now, she had been ready, he was ready, his citizen duty complete. He moved into the streets.
People avoided Rusty who walked like a drunken bull, head down, swerving forward. He asked a girl if she wanted to dance and she said the name Aikichi like a sad question. Rusty pointed behind him and continued forward, vision unfocused and slanted and ugly.
“Lily! Where you?!”
School girls in skirts laughed and threw a Twinkie which Rusty picked up and ate. He imagined himself as a beast of radiation, light bridged from both eyes, stamping buildings and pulling down power cables like spit between lips, but it had already been done before.
Two men in suits who adorned body tattoos and had several fingertips chopped off horse-collar-tackled Rusty and dragged him into the backroom of a porn shop. Rusty tilted his head from left to right, pouting, eyebrows cartoon-raised. “You lost those fingertips to a tuna, I know who he is,” he said and then vomited radiation onto the table. It looked blue and jelly-like, no flowers ever again, and crawled across the table before flinging itself from the edge.
“I’m ready, Lily.”
The room was decorated with cherry blossom scrolls, old clay pots, Budweiser ads.
“Bring Lil’ out already.”
Rusty thrown back into the street. Not the guy they were looking for. He felt like something close to death but still walking and with feelings. He wanted to exist before Nevada, before a job, before having a real life. Is there a place? Hahahahahahahahahaha. A before birth that is safe and not exactly beginning? Hahahahahahahahahaha. When fighter jets flew over, Rusty drunkenly saluted the sky, his eyes blur and radiation-swirl, the sky trailed with silver and gold.
He thought how simple a life could be just pumping gas into cars you would never see again, how they would go into new places of hurt, but not him, he’d stay safe and dreamless, comforted by routine and flowing liquids of need.
Somewhere in America Graves stood under the bomb recently exploded and clinging to the sky. He danced, hips only, and the explosion tilted with, sunshine-yellow radiation pouring like water from an open gutter onto Graves in a shower, his expression more pleased than ever, youthful and energized. The bomb fed him forever-life; skull-soft death for everyone else.
“Lily?” said a voice.
In a grassy field Rusty woke with hundreds of others, motorcycles on their sides with warm engines were there too, and Rusty said he couldn’t take it anymore, fuck everyone because I love you, and Keiko said with the same touch as Lily, “Okay, you go now.” Rusty dreamed helplessly as troops, no, citizens, ran from the star-netted forest, everyone two-foot jumping into rain puddles of radiation, splashing, and singing songs with the voices of children.