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.

Ned drove us out to the airport.

"British Columbia," somebody said, and we all said, "Yeah, can't wait, same time next year," but not one of us was feeling too rich.

In the terminal there was more hugging and kissing.

Richard was first. He shouldered his duffel—he was a brave, movie-star-looking guy—and soon Janet and Ollie and Ben and Steve tagged after him.

"British Columbia," Ben called from the gate. "Adventure, lust, greed."

They boarded a Frontier Airlines flight for Denver.

Ned and Sarah and I waved at the windows, then Ned said, "Portland? Seattle?"

I said I was headed the opposite way. So did Sarah. Ned gave us a lift back into town, but this time there wasn't any hugging or kissing. "Well," Ned said, "at least we're rich." We shook hands and then it was down to Sarah and me.

"There's risk in this," I told her.

"Let me guess. Eight to one?"

"Thing is, I do love her."

"You did," Sarah said. She was a precise woman with a precise mind. "Perhaps."

"Perhaps. So?"

"So let's find her," Sarah said. "The uranium, that was a gamble, too."

Wrong, but I nodded. The uranium had to be there, and it was. That was science.


We were on the corner of Elm and Moore. Across the street was a parked tractor, and far off were those mountains we'd plundered, and I could smell horse dung everywhere.


"Okay," said Sarah. She slipped her hand into my back pocket and took out my wallet and put it in her purse for safekeeping. "Let's at least keep the risks to a minimum," she said. "Now how do we get to Bonn?"


irst, though, I bought myself a motel. The night clerk took it pretty well. So well, in fact, he almost ruined the pleasure. Thank God he got testy near the end. A night later we were over the Atlantic. "So let's have the raw data," Sarah said. "Bobbi Louise Haymore."


"She can't help it."

"I suppose not." Sarah levered back her seat.

"She can't."

"I know that," Sarah said. "There was a girl in law school named Bobbi. She entered a convent so people could call her Sister. I think she was raised a Mennonite."

"Do you want the data?"


We were alone in first class. Two of the stewardesses were already sleeping, and the third had gone back to help in coach. The jet was on low-hum cruise.

"Well," I said, "it was like getting shot with a stun gun. She was studying German. I didn't know German and she didn't know geology. When she went away, she used to send me German poems and I'd spend days translating them from a dictionary, word by word—Goethe, Schiller, all those. Real torture. She was at Illinois then and I was still finishing up at Duke. Whenever I got stumped on a poem, I'd call her up and we'd go over it together, all the idioms and so on, and afterward I'd go crazy wondering what the poem meant, and what she meant. Naturally I didn't ask. Poems are supposed to soak through—meanings, I mean. She wouldn't say she loved me, and I didn't ask about that either. Nothing was soaking through. I was pretty dense. One day I got this incredibly complicated poem. I was in Mexico then, so I drove up to Veracruz and called her and some roommate answered. The operator said it was a call from so-and-so for so-and-so, and the roommate said, 'Oh, wow,' and pretty soon I heard these quiet voices, voices trying to be quiet, and one was Bobbi's, and after a while the roommate came back on and said Bobbi wasn't there, she was teaching school in Bonn. I said, 'Oh, thanks.' Later on I got another letter. No poem this time. Actually, she said, she wasn't in Bonn yet, her roomie lied, but she was going, and there was this married guy she was going with. 'The guy's married to me,' she said. She must've thought that was cute. There was some grass in the envelope, the regular cow kind, which she said expressed her deepest feelings for me. I mean to ask her about that. Grass—what's the grass mean? This time I'm asking."

"She sounds swell," Sarah said.

"Yes, but I love her."

"I can pin poems to your ears if you want. 'What is love? 'tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter.' I can even write poems. What about Bobbicakes?"

"No. She copies them out of German textbooks."

"Fission, fusion ... That turn you on, William?"

"Let's just wait. See what transpires."

"I'll eat her alive."

In Paris, the choice was between a train that afternoon or a plane the next morning, so we took the train. Sarah said it was best to keep up the momentum. She didn't want things fizzling out in some quaint hotel room. For the first hour or so we sat up watching the suburbs and grapes go by, then Sarah began making up the berth.

"It isn't just that I love and respect you," she said. "I mean, we've committed crime together. Doesn't that count for anything? Aren't we thick as thieves, you and I?" She pulled the shades and undressed and got into bed. Pillow behind her hair, cigarette in her mouth, she looked jaunty. Sarah was lean and unladylike and smart. "William," she said, "the girl won't even recognize you. Things have changed. You've changed. Plowshares to swords, for example. What's she to make of it? One look, and she'll see you've started trimming your beard. Ban the bomb to boom the bomb. Denim to sharkskin, peacenik turned munitions supplier. How will dear Bobbi cope with all that?"

"I'll explain."

Sarah giggled. She kissed her kneecaps. "Rancher Roe?" she said. "You'll explain how we conned that poor old fairy?"

"We did it sweetly, though."

"Krupp was sweet. Szilard was sweeter. Einstein was the sweetest old geezer who ever lived."

"Yes, but Einstein warned us."

"That's how sweet he was! Invented the end of the world, then sounded the alarm. Isn't that how relativity works? Oppenheimer was a sweetie, Fermi was a doll. Just like you and me, William. Were all such charmers."

"Look, if you're feeling guilty—'

"Guilt?" Sarah stroked the birthmark below her lip. It was a blemish that made me covet the rest of her, an oasis for the ogling eye, a purply little blunder that had finally put an end to her cheerleading career back at Berkeley. Instead she'd become a lawyer. It was the birthmark, she claimed, that made her into an advocate of lost causes—indigents, madmen, radicals. In Chicago, in Miami, in 1968, she'd bailed us out a dozen different times, using that birthmark like a writ, turning cops and judges into jelly. The ACLU lusted after her. She ran circles around the Pentagon. Given a shot, she could've sprung Seale and Rubin. But all that was over now, and the streets were full of tumbleweed, and we hadn't raised a fist or sung a folk song for more than a decade. Who knows what happened? Diminished outrage, no more total wars. These days, it was hard to get angry. Best we could muster was a protest at getting shortchanged at a Howard Johnson's outside Cleveland. Who knows? Once, when we were feeling sentimental, Sarah and I had driven up to Seabrook for a day to watch the younger generation strut their stuff. It was a disappointment. Polite cops, no villains as in the old days, too much talk and not enough strategy. We couldn't even bring ourselves to hum when they sang the old songs. I felt like a doddering veteran revisiting Normandy, full of ghosts and longings, but mostly full of fatigue. I suddenly wanted to rest. Get married, make a buck, buy a big country house. I wanted to take Sarah back down to Boston and rent a suite overlooking the Common and spend the weekend feeling plush, and that's exactly what we did, both of us. We watched the end of Seabrook on television. A week later we began laying plans to make a killing on uranium.

"Guilt," she said, "went out with culottes. I'm talking about realities. Face it, William, we're established. Donated our scruples to the Salvation Army. Buckled, snapped, sold out. Sweet Bobbi will see the change."


"Am I a nag?"

"A little." I watched her massage the birthmark. It was the color of her nipples and it did the same thing for me. I locked the door and got undressed and squeezed in beside her.

"You really love her, William? Really?"

"Pretty much."

"Maybe we should take separate compartments."

"All right."

"But maybe not. Proximity's awfully important. I think I'd best stick close."

"All right," I said.

We made Bonn late the next morning. Sarah wanted to get right down to business—no last-minute waffling, she said—but I demanded a day for orientation and reconnaissance and planning. I didn't want mistakes. Ten years and more I'd dreamt about this, how one day I'd sell everything I owned and pack my bags and take off after her, chase her to the bloody ends of the earth, do it right this time, show her what a fine and exciting man I am, make her beg for me, buy her furs and jewels, show her how life is meant to be lived, show her what she'd missed. I was still an activist, only now it was aimed at something truly critical. Let the world stew in corruption and smog and war and injustice, let the peasants starve, let the dollar rule Washington, it didn't mean a damn next to Bobbi Louise Haymore.

"You want it too bad," Sarah said. "You can't win."

I shrugged. I told her to wait and see.

We found a room near the government district, napped, then went out for lunch and a walk. It was the heart of summer. Giant shade trees cut some of the heat, but even so we stopped twice to eat ice cream in air-conditioned restaurants along the Rhine. We were beginning to feel rich. Bonn was ours, and we took big bites. We rode the riverboats, bought cameras, bought clothes, dined elegantly at a high rooftop restaurant. Sarah looked great. She looked tan and aristocratic, silver earrings and a Cyd Charisse dress that was made to dance in, so we danced slow to fast music, me in my tux, then we hired a hansom that took us clomping through the wee-hour streets.

"Will this impress her?" I asked. "I mean, put yourself in Bobbi's shoes—will a night like this win her over?"

Sarah snuggled close. She had a shawl around her shoulders. Her shoes were off.

"Depends on the vibes," she said.

"How are they now?"

"Ho-hum, sort of. You've got to wear your wealth more freely, William. Take it more for granted."

"Okay," I said. "but what about the basics?"

"Fondle her."

"You're kidding."

"Right now? First night out?"

"You'll have to try. Otherwise it gets soupy and she starts thinking of you as something sweet. Like Fermi and Einstein. Guard against that at all costs—squeeze her hard, get violent. Don't let things get nostalgic."

"Like this?"

"Much harder. We're talking violence, William."

The hansom turned into a park. Things were quiet everywhere. I practiced violence for a time, then got sleepy, and Sarah ended up paying the driver and seeing me up to the room. I was a little tipsy.

In the morning I started making calls. I didn't have much to go on—just that a decade ago Bobbi had come to this city to teach English and German to the children of NATO officers. I made the calls from bed. Sarah lay beside me with a phone book and pencil, like a secretary, and after each strikeout she kissed me and winked and said it wasn't meant to be. She did everything but draw a bull's-eye around that magnificent birthmark.

I tried the American Embassy and NATO headquarters and a half-dozen schools and military bases. No one knew anything. Part of the problem, of course, was that I didn't have her married name; that, together with my miserable German, made it tough just asking the right questions.

"It's an omen," Sarah said. She was at the foot of the bed, smoking, legs wrapped around the phone book. "Tell you what. Why don't we get married?"

"I'm not quitting."

"Yes, but we're jet setters now. Let's get hitched in Istanbul. Honeymoon in Spain, settle down in some nifty castle on the river Rhone. Sound good?"

"Maybe I should try American Express."

"We'll have portraits done, William. Those rich, dark oil jobbies that age so nicely. We'll hang them in your hunting den. You'll call me Lady, I'll call you Sir Bub. Dine each evening at eight sharp. I'll run charity balls and you'll chase foxes with your friends. Late at night we'll count the silver."

American Express had never heard of Bobbi.

"William, for Christ's sake, don't you love me?"

We had breakfast in bed, then I tried four or five schools in the suburbs, then Bonn University, then each of the banks. I was getting desperate. Somehow, for all the wasted years, I'd always thought that when the time came it would be easy: ring her up, make a date, sweep her off her feet. I'd run through the image a million times.

"Hey, watch this," Sarah said. She knelt, facing me, letting sunlight blaze trails across her flesh. Then she stood on her head. "See there? How does Bobbi match up?"

"Stop clowning."

"I'll bet she can barely stand on her feet."


"Is she cuter? Perkier? Hell, I can be perky, too." Sarah came down to the kneeling position. "I can be coy and shy and mysterious. Anything you want." She crossed her arms on her chest, bowed her head, smiled.

"Look," I said, "I think we'd better hit the pavement. Can't accomplish anything this way."

"Accomplish me, William. I'm brilliant. I graduated top of the class. You can wear my Phi Beta Kappa key around your neck, we'll go steady. My doctor says I'll bear kids by the litter, and I can cook and sky dive and manage money. I know how to make pickles. Name it, William, I can do it."

"Get dressed."

Sarah sighed. "I hope she's dead."

"Then there'll be ghosts."

"Who cares? Really, I hope she got hit by a tank. Nothing left but tread marks and maggots. We'll build a memorial to her somewhere in southern Illinois."

We spent two days making the rounds of every English-speaking school in the city. Sarah complained that it was too much like FBI work, like tracking down Most Wanteds, but still she insisted on coming along. It was rough. We interrogated teachers and headmasters, wallowed through old yearbooks, wasted hours at the embassy, checked police registration files, drove out to the big American air base east of town, placed ads in the three daily newspapers, cross-examined hotel clerks and bellhops and maids. Nothing. At night, while Sarah slept, I would sit up and study my lone faded snapshot of Bobbi. It was all I really had of her. I'd forgotten the things I once swore never to forget, and now it all came down to that photograph: a single permanent pose, the jaw set forever in its teasing tilt, the hair always catching the wind just so, folded hands—hands eternally folded, like bronze, a statue's hands—the eyes challenging, not mocking, but close. I tried to remember her other ways. Fasting for peace. Stenciling posters for McCarthy. Later, urging me to switch to Kennedy. "Be practical," she'd said, those words, my voice whispering them, trying to make it her voice. "Be practical, William. Politics isn't for romantics." But, Lord, I'd loved Mister McCarthy, dearly, and it made me sad to see Bobbi switch to Bobby, the easy betrayal, the practicality with which she said, "Be practical," it hurt. Even then I'd seen trouble coming. And later, when it was all over and I was down in Mexico avoiding the consequences—resisting, I called it, but it wasn't—later, when Bobbi was married and Bobby was dead and practicality ruled politics, when Sarah scraped me up as the last of her lost causes, later it became clear that both Gene and I, dead-end romantics, had been burned by the same dry-ice pragmatism.

In her last letter, Bobbi said she was tired of campaigning. ROTC and du Pont didn't do a thing for her, Nixon was just a name, she couldn't ring another doorbell or march another mile, she was falling out. War, poverty, holocaust-these made her yawn. "William," she wrote, "I admire you. You want so much and achieve so little, but still you're able to sustain both outrage and vision. I admire that. And when the revolution comes, I'll want you for my commissar. Be lenient. Don't hang the faint-hearted, don't exile us deserters. We shared your beliefs but not your soldierly tenacity; we followed you as far as we could—through New Hampshire to Florida to Indiana to Oregon to California, a few to Chicago—but, dear William, we needed victory at the end, it was the promise and reason, and when it didn't come we simply could not face another campaign. We needed sunlight. We needed our own lives." Then she'd gotten around to the business about being married.

Well, if it was practicality she wanted, acceptance of the world as it is, I was ready now to take her on a uranium ride to the ends of the earth. Sunlight galore. Travel and quiet places and smokeless rooms. I'd shut her off forever from the ugly stuff. I'd build us a fallout shelter and stock it with goodies—caviar and shrimp and walkie-talkies—and then, late at night, when it finally happened, when the concrete shivered and the world as it is was roasted in its sleep, when the established planet went hot like a cinder, then we'd uncork that last bottle of Beaujolais and turn to the civil defense channels and congratulate each other on the time uranium can buy. We'd be practical to the last instant. It didn't bother me a bit. All I wanted was to end the world with Bobbi close by.

And there was Sarah, too.

As we went into the second week of the search, she began moping. She slept on the floor. She wouldn't wash her hair. She drove the bellhops crazy with elaborate late-night orders and penny-pinching tips. "What you want," she said, "is a difficult woman." She was relieved, then depressed, with each new dead end.

Then we got our first hard lead. An Air Force adjutant recognized Bobbi's photograph. She'd been teaching sixth graders at a base forty kilometers south of Bonn—but that was eight years ago, he said, maybe more—and the man had no idea where she'd come from or gone to. Her married name was Irving.

"Bobbi Irving," the adjutant said. "Sweetest thing on earth. She your sister?"


"How'd she hook up with that bastard hubby of hers?"

"No taste," I said. "You don't know where they went?"

"Him. He went, she stayed. That's all I know. Except that Bobbi deserved better—an angel, she wrote poetry you wouldn't believe. Irving left her for some Jamaican broad. Bobbi stuck around another year, then I don't know."

"You knew her pretty well," Sarah said. "I can tell."

The adjutant wanted to smile. He bit down hard on a pipe. He was an elderly dude, maybe forty-five or so, yet he had the health of a long-distance runner, ruddy and tight all over. "Yes," he said, "I knew Bobbi. She was my daughter's teacher—a good teacher, too. The kids loved her. So her hubby splits, she's alone. I took up some slack. But, sir, it was a real romance. Your sister was no runaround. No troop groupie. Understood?"

I nodded.

"She used to slip poems into my pockets."

"God," said Sarah, "she must've been a darling."

"Yes, ma'am. Even my daughter said so."

The adjutant pulled a piece of ruled paper from his desk drawer. Carefully, as if handling scripture, he unfolded it and smoothed the edges and passed it across to me.

"Go ahead," he said. "Read it."

"I already have."

"Your sister's got talent. One day I woke up, she was gone, and maybe a week later I found that poem in my Class A's. Made me feel like a million bucks. She's talented, all right."

"Sure," Sarah said. "Like a Xerox machine."


"Nothing. She writes like Shakespeare."

"Roger that," said the adjutant. "Maybe even better."

It was easy after that. We found Bobbi's records at the embassy, copied down the forwarding address, and booked a flight for New York. This time we went coach.

"The thing that gets me," Sarah said at forty thousand feet, "is the broad's guile. Mona Lisa with a Bartlett's. No kidding, I'd give anything to watch her work a singles' bar: 'Hi there, my name's Bobbi and here's a cute little jingle I copied just for you. My place or yours?' My God, William, that bimbo uses verse like the rest of us use rouge and support bras. A huckster in iambic pentameter."

Sarah's eyes were closed. She was quiet for a moment, then searched for my hand. She squeezed, then held it, then played with the thumb.

"William, I'm quitting."


"I am. I can't keep—"

"Look, if you'll hang on just—"

"The end, fini, no more. Give her up, Willie, or I'm bailing out."

"Just another week."

"Send her a Hallmark sympathy card. She'll love it."

"One more week, Sarah?"

Eyes still closed, she glided for a long time over the clouds. "No," she said. "I'm done."

"All right."

"Sure, William. All right."

But in New York she said she loved me; at La Guardia she said she'd give it a while longer. "Where to?" she sighed, and I consulted the embassy data. "University of Michigan," I said.

We took a nonstop to Detroit and then drove to Ann Arbor. It was September, the conference opener was a week away. Freshman season, kickoff, the rush, and the campus was clean with blonds and blue and gold and Heisman prospects and wimps with slide rules. We'd won the peace for them. Adidas was in, hair was out. It was our labor of a decade ago that made all this possible—straight-legged jeans, Jantzen shirts, no belts, no socks, the serenity of higher education. "Memories moribundus," said Sarah. In the administration building, she hummed a tune that had been fashionable during occupations of such places, or in jail, on the line, in torchlit parades for human concord. Her voice was elegant. Boys in letter sweaters stopped to ogle. She wore high heels that went click in the waxed hallways. Her nylons gleamed. She had the posture of a model, a moneyed alumna, classy and chic, stunning; she could still do a Berkeley backflip, a rah-rah for Legal Aid or the Spartans or anyone else. She hummed and ignored the jocks and waited while I bribed the assistant registrar. "Inflation," the man said, "is the evil of our era," for his price was high; then he slipped me the records.

Bobbi had enrolled in 1975. A master's candidate in Germanic studies. She'd completed the program in ten months, record time, and the transcript was monotonous with A's and B's. A professor named Rudolph was responsible for the A's. Sarah and I found him in the faculty lounge, an old coot with a cane. "She deserved A's," he said. "Benson gave her B's—Benson's the one she ran off with—because he claimed she needed incentive. Apparently it worked. I tell you one thing, give me another whack at it and I'd flunk her round little ass." Last Rudolph had heard, she was working as a tour guide at the UN. "The princess of Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza," gummed the old man, eyeballs moist. "For a while, she sent me postcards twice a week. The Statue of Liberty, Christmas at Rockefeller Center. Ach, she could squeeze juice out of a rock, freilich."


"Kaput. I believe he's now translating German comics. I hear she dropped him gently."

In Manhattan, we took two rooms. Sarah insisted. That evening we talked tactics, then we had dinner, then we spent the night together. There wasn't a word spoken after midnight. I traced her birthmark, memorizing the dark splash it made on white, its inky contour, the shape and associations and secret meanings, knowing it would eventually be all I remembered, or almost all, and in the morning she was gone. I spent an hour in a barber shop. At noon, by arrangement, I met Sarah outside the hotel. We went arm in arm toward the East River.

Twice we circled the UN, then Sarah led me inside.

She spotted Bobbi outside the Security Council.

"That's her," Sarah said. "I'll retire to Rio. Good luck."

"You're a neat lady."

"She looks nice. Really, she does. I'm crazy about her uniform."

"If it doesn't work out, I'll—you know—I'll arrange another search party. You know?"

"Rio," Sarah said. She was backing away, still holding my hand.

"Don't stray."

"Hell, no. I'll leave a trail of bread crumbs. You be Hansel, meantime I'll be Snow White."


"Yes, she's nifty keen. Honest, she is. Look at those eyes, like bloody light bulbs, and those legs and lips. You'll get your money's worth." Sarah walked out the revolving door. Then she came in again and slugged me on the shoulder.

"Bye," I said.

"You're an asshole."


Critical Mass

We rented a car and drove to Helena and took over the top floor of my motel.

I stayed away from nostalgia. Sarah had warned me about that. "You were nasty," I said, and I ticked off about a dozen betrayals—me and Gene and later Kennedy and later the whole movement and later the adjutant and Benson and the United Nations. "You can't stick. You don't know what commitment is. You can't want a thing and get it and still want it. You quit. You've got anemia of the will, a sugar high, iron deficiency. No iron, no magnetic glue. You drop off men like leaves off trees, by the season. You don't believe in causes or people, and what else is there? Essence, existence—you can't cope with either. You flit like a fruit fly. Alight, in flight. Commitment's an obscure idiom. You're lily-livered and yellow-bellied and shallow. You're hopeless. You're probably mad. That's what insanity is—inability to stick, always sliding. You're an ice-rider, a melter, a summer soldier, a turncoat, gutless and spineless and happy."

We soaked in the big green pool. At night we watched television, anything but the news, and then we got married. We honeymooned in the Sweetheart Mountains. I took her up to have a look at the uranium strike. The season was pre-winter, twiggy and bare, and the radio wasn't working, so we drove in a vacuum, and at last we came to where the mountain had once been. Well, it hadn't ever been a mountain, not by these standards, but surely it had been a hill, a very big hill, and now it was a plateau inseparable from all the other plateaus. The former mountain, or hill, was surrounded by barbed wire. If you didn't know it was a plateau—or a former mountain—you would've sworn, it was a pasture, Kansas-flat, already rich with pasture weeds and mesquite bent east by the wind. I pointed up to where the mountain had been. With my hands, I shaped the thing for her, explaining how there'd been this creek trail we'd followed for the first three days and how we'd held the clickers over the water and just followed the clicks toward riches, which was the plan all along, and how, way up there, where that cloud was scudding, we'd come across the source. A regular furnace, hot as the sun. Of course we'd doped it all out in advance. It was science. The cold-blooded application of fact and theory. Turning nature against herself. Nothing to it. I showed her where, in midair, we'd set up our camps, and where we'd been ambushed by grizzlies one night, and where Sarah and I had sort of fallen in love, up where those two giant boulders, gone now, had formed a snug nest bedded with pine needles and open to the stars, and how, at a spot roughly between Orion and the Little Dipper, in the age of flower children gone sour, we'd made a pact to love and cherish, though not forever.

Bobbi and I spent a day and a night out there. We slept where the mountain had been. On foot, we followed the scars left by man and machine. Once we found a pickax; we found a burnt-out bulldozer left to rust; we found No Trespassing signs with the Texaco star preserved by heat and cold, bright red, friendly looking as imperatives go.

"Somewhere," I said, as I stashed the sign as a souvenir, "the mountain is now tucked away in silos across the Great Midwest. The mountain isn't gone, it's just redistributed."

Bobbi asked if this scared me.

It didn't, not then. But back at the motel, twelve years later, it did. I was sleeping. Bobbi was at the desk, checking youngsters for wedding rings, for now she was big on marriage, and it was a Sunday afternoon, the gentlest Sunday of all time, summer again, and I was out by the pool, not too flabby yet but getting there, as men my age will and must, richer now than ever, business was booming and Montana was the Energy State—it was on all the license plates, it was on the governor's seal-napping, and I heard the lap of pool water and tourists splashing and a naive calm that glowed like Sundays forever, world unto end, a lawn mower somewhere, a child, a hum, a fire so hot it clenched without a crackle, a wind that wasn't even a wind and made no earthly sound but still swept the Sunday like a Hoover. This was sleep. This was the day of rest, when Christians barbecued. A day of picnics and lazing. Shoes off, nose in the grass, watching ants close up for hours, smelling things, seeing, witnessing the continuing creation. My stomach was light. I wasn't dreaming. The sun—oh, yes, that sun, that full sun over the land and continent, giving butterfly heat to the Sunday—the sun was part of it. I basked like a lizard, the sun was there. It was a day without spite or malice, not an evil thought abroad, not a word of blasphemy, not a sickly deed; a day when, by some incredible bit of chance, one shot in ten billion, the human race quieted as if in church. I felt like fragrance. Drifting, dusty, I could've made chlorophyll. I could've joined the elements, and maybe I did.

Afterward, I told Bobbi how it happened: "It was just a drone. Maybe a bumblebee, like that. I looked up to swat it. But the sound was way, way up. Way up. Nobody else noticed. Everybody in the pool was splashing, having a fine time, and those two old hens from New Jersey were prattling away. Then there was this funny whine, like ... like I don't know what, like from outer space. I saw weird ripples in the pool. Then this vortex, you know, like when water goes down the toilet, swish, a whirlpooly thing, but nobody else saw it, just me, and then—who knows, maybe it was the heat or something, maybe I'm bonkers—but then I had the feeling the world was coming unzipped. That's all it was. A zipper opening up."

Well, finally I spotted it. Just a Piper Cub flying low. The other stuff was folly, but it cared me.

Bobbi was gentle. She kept close to me that night, and for many nights afterward. If I wanted, she said, we could make some radical changes. Would I like to run for office? We were still young, she said, no kids, plenty of money, we could take the governorship in a year, then the Senate. She didn't mind. Wasn't this commitment, hadn't she proved herself? She'd shake a thousand hands. She'd make any sacrifice I asked. Or did I want to do repentance some other way—rebuild the mountain, stop paying taxes? Start a new peace movement, donate every last penny to Amnesty International? Name it, she said.

But it wasn't guilt, it was fear.

A year later we sold the motel for a handsome profit. We toured Asia, and South America, then we returned to buy Rancher Roe's place in the Sweethearts. We got it for a song. The old pigeon died without leaving a will, no kin, and Bobbi and I were the only bidders. She took up gardening, I fatted a few lambs and whiled away the days. The world was stable. Somehow the balance of power held, lunatics were kept away from the buttons, the silos stayed silent in winter wheat, Texaco prospered. But the world seemed too dense. You could feel, if you tried, a general tightening of things. The stars, for example, seemed closer together, defying physics; the mornings were too short; the nights were crammed with dreams that bounced off one another like billiard balls; every day was Sunday. To make space, I bought up neighboring ranches. We tore down Rancher Roe's house and built our own from scratch, a huge, rambling thing with windows and decks and sweeping vistas, and Bobbi and I would roam it like predators, room to room, careful not to collide too often. We rode horses and hiked. Bobbi said it was a lovely sort of life. I feared, of course, that someday I night wake to find a poem in my pocket, but it never happened. She seemed more durable than the universe. Each day, each dawn, the sun performed its miracle, but with every miracle the odds shortened, sure as the sun rises. Density: Delhi was a madhouse. The graveyards were full. Submarines collided and sank without a whimper. Atomic stockpiles overflowed. As if to bow out before they were tarred and feathered, the fathers of our age passed away. Einstein's brains were pickled in formaldehyde, Teller made his final appearance on Issues and Answers, Lemay went quietly in his sleep, von Braun went like a gentleman, Rickover was buried at sea. Each of them beat the clock. And me—I stewed. What else was there? Sometimes I would hear the whine in my sleep and I would wake to squeeze Bobbi for all she was worth, which was the whole works, everything. We had a child this way.

"Precautions are silly," I said, "but let's take them."

I did the spade work myself. No hurry, no obvious trouble in Africa or the Middle East, so I pursued it as other men pursue butterflies and stamps, a hobby. I kept at it over three summers. First it was a hole, then a very deep hole, then I needed ladders and a pulley system. I poured concrete and lined the walls with asbestos. Bobbi helped decorate the interior. We stocked it expensively. When it was finished, the summer our daughter turned four, we used it as a weekend retreat. No tourists, no crowds, no Interstates. It beat fighting mosquitoes at Yellowstone. Alone, fifty feet down, buttressed and sheltered, breathing filtered high plains air, we vacationed as a nuclear family. We were disengaged. We were safe. The world spun on one axis, we spun on our own. When newspapers warned of catastrophe, we simply stopped reading; global issues—issues of any sort—were stopped cold by those vault-thick walls; we escaped, as others do in the Catskills or St. Moritz, the pressures of the day. The shelter was a way to get away from it all.

Implosion, not explosion, would surely end the world.

But, no, it wasn't an obsession. We coped. We did the ordinary things, we frolicked, we had our disputes and found solutions, we raised our daughter with discipline and love, we observed the standard rituals. By and large we were happy. Bobbi worked on a translation of Erlkönig and I puttered with the shelter's ventilation system, seeking perfection, that ideal mix of oxygen and nitrogen. We were homebodies.

One day in winter, near Christmas, Sarah came calling.

She came in a jeep, in the company of a black bodyguard named Nethro. They needed a hideout.

"Just for a month or so," Sarah said, kissing me, then Bobbi. "Till things quiet down."

She was wearing mink. Piled high in the back of the jeep were Christmas presents, boxes of Swiss chocolate, two turkeys, and an armed warhead.

"We swiped it last month," Sarah said. "So far, the Air Force doesn't even know it's gone. Ignorance breeds calm."

Bobbi fixed turkey and I put a record on and Sarah chatted about the life of a terrorist, how it wasn't all glamour and fun. "You wouldn't believe how tough it is," she said. "Nobody gets terrified anymore."

After dinner, after Bobbi and the bodyguard were asleep, in front of a winter's fire, Sarah said, "I wanted to be wanted. That's all. I wanted to be chased. By you, by Interpol. Somebody. Six years I waited—Rio was miserable. Six years, William. But not a peep. Not even a wedding invitation. So, what the hell, I decided to invest in the future. Bought a guerrilla training camp in Iraq. Oh, William, you'd love Iraq—perpetual summer. Look at me, I'll be tan till I die. See there? Like bronze, like crème de cacao. Anyhow, the basic training business was wonderful and I made myself a bundle—Jordan, Pakistan, Zambia—I was even selling franchises, the works. They call me Mama Mink. I'm famous."

I told her I wasn't up on current events.

"Oh, well."

"So what about that warhead?"

Sarah poked the fire and then lay with her head in my lap. She was skinny now, and, without the mink, poor-looking. The birthmark below her lip had grown enormous.

"Actually," she said, "we could just as easily have built our own, but that wouldn't have had the impact. These days, it takes real drama." She kissed me. She sighed. "Ah, William. So, anyway, there were six or seven of us. Remember Ollie and Janet? They were in on it, and so was Ben. They've all gone mod-rad. Except Richard—he's got a gold mine in Lesotho. So we got organized and planned the job and pulled it off like you wouldn't believe, like ticktock, like finding that uranium. Nothing to it."

"And now?"

"Yes, now is always the problem." Sarah pulled off my wedding band and popped it in her mouth and swallowed. "What happened was this: the others wanted to use the damn thing."

"You mean—"

"I mean they wanted to blow up Fairbanks. Some terrorists! I told them it was nuts. Told them, 'Hey, you don't terrify dead people. Threats; that's what scares folks.' But they wouldn't listen. So Nethro and I, we reswiped the warhead. Packed it up one night and took off. And now we're badly wanted."

"By the cops, you mean."

"By our own comrades. That old gang of ours. They want the bomb back.

We were quiet for a time. The sound of the fire made me sentimental. I remembered a lot of active times, but then I remembered the grief.

"Look," I said, "can I have my ring back?"

"In due time. Consider it a threat."

Later we put on our coats and Sarah led me outside. It was snowing. Sarah lay down and made angels in the snow, then she cried, then she went to the jeep and pulled back a tarp and showed me the warhead.

"Eighty-six pounds," she said, "but think what it'll do to Fairbanks. Pretty, isn't it?"

"Sarah, I don't think I want to be involved. It isn't—"

But she stopped me. She put her hands on my waist. 'All I need is a place to dump it, William. Look at it as a good deed. You and me, we're helping preserve the peace, just like old times. Maintaining equilibrium. If the gang gets hold of it again, bye-bye. Be a sport."

So I agreed.

We lugged the bomb down into the shelter, covered it with rugs, hugged each other. Then I gave her a tour of the place. I explained how the electrical system worked, how we had supplies to last a lifetime, how Bobbi and I loved to spend weekends down there.

"Well," Sarah admitted, "it's cozier than I would've thought."

"We like it. It's home. I'm sincere about' that. Sounds loony, I know, but what's a home but a shelter? Walls and roof and floor? Someday I reckon we'll move down for good."

"How will it stand up to a biggie?"

"Anything but a direct hit," I said, not boasting, still feeling some pride.

Sarah glanced at the bomb. "Wow," she said. "Talk about a direct hit."

We celebrated Christmas like a family. Nethro and I chopped down a tree, Bobbi and Sarah made pudding and pies, there was mistletoe everywhere, we opened gifts, we drank rum toddies, Nethro—a weapons expert—helped me set up an electric train, we went snowshoeing at dusk, we caroled and felt fine. Sarah returned my wedding ring.

The days afterward were lazy. Somehow there was odd comfort in having a warhead socked away in the shelter, a sense of duty-doing, reprieve, and my dreams were all calm. Once, for old times' sake, Sarah and I skied over to where our mountain had stood. We marveled at the change. It was a bright morning, clean as nature, and we had fun tracing the old routes and happenings, all was well. Almost: Sarah's birthmark bothered me. In the white sunlight, it seemed monstrous, bruised and ill-shaped and dangerous. I told her this.

"Rio did it," she said. "Too much time in the sun."

"I told you—"

"Sure," she said, "you told me."

"Anyhow, it should be looked at. By a doctor, I mean."

Kissing her, it was hard to forget the ugly birthmark. Things weren't the same.

Sure, it was cancer. At the end of January, she complained of fatigue. Bobbi's pea soup didn't help a bit. A local pediatrician made the diagnosis, she was operated on in Helena, she came back to recuperate, she died in March. Her bodyguard, whom I'd come to like for his silences, bawled all night long, and in the morning he left us. We buried Sarah under her real name. Not long afterward, the gang showed up. Ollie and Ben and Janet and some others I didn't know were fully saddened by the news, their grief was genuine, and for weeks afterward we catered to a morose household. They left without asking about the warhead. Later, I understand, they perished by gunfire in Minneapolis. And, to cite the poem I found in my shelter the following autumn, "The balance of power, our own, the world's, grows ever fragile."