The Nuclear Age

"Nobody wanted to pray, but each of us blessed the bomb without guilt, and Sarah chanted, 'Fission, fusion, critical mass'"

We hit pay dirt on the twelfth day out. By the twentieth day we knew exactly what we had. I'd been confident all along, and the data were there to back me up, but that didn't prevent celebration when Richard ran the clicker over that pile of hot rock. Next morning we bought the mountain. Rancher Roe reckoned we were setting up a commune, or maybe a new close-to-the-clouds religious establishment, but even so he couldn't wait to unload. At the registry of deeds he kept saying how, if he had it to do over, he'd most surely lead the hippie life himself. I never saw a man more willing to please. When it was done, we hauled an electric typewriter up to Sarah's hotel room and group-composed the letter. Janet and Steve and I handled the technical stuff, Ollie the prose, Sarah the legal ins and outs. Then I sat down at the IBM Electric and cranked out seven copies, one for each Sister. We mailed the letters and waited. That was the hard part: two months before the first tentative reply, six months before Gulf brought in its exploratory team, another six months before we got any sort of bidding war going, then eighty days more before Texaco doubled BP and we finally signed the papers. A straight cash deal—it had to be that way. No options, no pie-cutting, no deferred payments. Who needs it? The check was for twenty-five million dollars. Of course there wasn't a banker in sight who'd touch it, so we ended up in Ned's van, all eight of us, heading for First National in Helena. Along the way we stopped. There, on the banks of the Little Big Horn, we conducted a ceremony. It was stupid, but the ladies insisted, so we each tossed a hunk of near-pure uranium into the river, and I uttered a few solemn words, and we left two clickers behind as a gift for the next generation.

In the van, halfway home, Sarah and I stretched out and she cuddled me and asked how I'd be using my cut. It wasn't something I'd thought about. Buy a town somewhere, I said, or maybe a sinecure at Harvard.

"Do they have a decent geology department?" Sarah asked.

"Decent," I said, but of course she was right. "I guess I'll go to Bonn."

"What's there?"

"A girl—that is, a woman. I'm in love with her."

We rode along for a while. Sarah said she'd never seen Bonn. Never even seen postcards from Bonn. Could she come along?

We made Helena at midnight. It was Saturday's midnight, which meant another idle day, so we selected a motel advertising a heated pool and sauna. I guess it was a combination of things—the van, the way Ned had let his hair go, Janet's behind-the-times peasant costume—but, whatever, the night clerk insisted on cash up front. He was just a kid. "We're good," I said, and I showed him the check. "Texaco's good." The boy claimed it was one of those refund checks that the computers sometimes foul up—he'd read about such things in the papers—and we ended up depositing our last hundred or so. The kid was pretty smug about it. When he asked how many rooms we'd be wanting, I held up a finger and said, "One," and before he could smile I moved the finger to his nose. "Day after tomorrow," I said. "Watch out."

"No kidding?"

"Day after tomorrow, you're out of work."

Then the kid smiled. He handed me a room key.

"Yes, sir," he said. "And don't forget, shower before you use the pool. New house rule."

We spent Sunday in the water. It was our last full day together, the family, and there was lots of talk about where everyone was headed. After all the nonsense, it boiled down to exactly what you'd expect. Ned and Ben and Ollie were all returning to grad school. Someday soon they'd be very rich assistant professors. Janet already had her doctorate, and so did Steve and I, and Richard, the only muscle-and-sweat prospector among us, said he might join the crowd. We were smart people. And we were feeling even smarter right then, side by side in the pool, holding hands, feet kicking like crazy, Ben in his cowboy hat and long underwear like somebody he'd seen in a western, me in my socks, Sarah in almost nothing, and we were turning sentimental in the way smart people do, hipping it, finally coming straight out and saying how much we loved one another and how it wasn't the money that made it good and how we all felt older and sadder and how the whole thing was like camp. We hated ending it. Richard said he'd heard tell of rich lodes up in British Columbia. Ned said he'd heard the same stories. We'll do it again, we said, but bashfully, with the sophistication of senior citizens who know better. Janet cried. Everybody hugged and kissed. "Should we pray?" Ben said. Nobody wanted to pray, but each of us blessed the bomb without guilt, and Sarah chanted, "Fission, fusion, critical mass."

In the morning, telegrams between First National and Texaco blew around like confetti, and it wasn't until noon that we each opened a bank account to the tune of just over three million apiece. The "just over" was maybe a hundred and twenty thousand.

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