Nobody went up there, though, even though the view might have been better. Folks were down in front of Snell's double-wide in a sort of semicircle, like a crescent moon of lawn chairs and checkered blankets and bean salad. No trees blocked the view; the only Joshua trees were way down at the foot of the alluvial fan, probably five hundred or more yards, a low, prickly fence that separated the fan slope from the flat playa floor. The wind was pretty mild, and from the southwest, and a dust devil could be seen scooting along the far side of the valley. It was almost cool. The heatwaves wouldn't interfere as they had last year. No, the year before that.
Old Man Snell sat on his porch and greeted everyone who pulled up. An old refrigerator door hung above him, serving as a shade, of sorts. It was his show, after all. He sucked on a tall lemonade and was wearing his wife Maureen's sunglasses--the cat-eyed kind. Maureen was still in her kitchen-- which had a view of the valley--rolling out another pan of Rice Krispie treats. For this occasion she always used the colored marshmallows. Through her window she caught a glimpse of a tiny flash, a reflection, from the valley floor. It flashed again, and there was a smattering of hoots and clapping from the assembled picnickers. Maureen rapped on the window with a marshmallowed knuckle, and Old Man Snell--Arvin--looked up in time to see the last flash. He nodded, clicking his upper bridge. Nearly show time. They'd tried this one year after dark, but the ambience was missing without resorting to floodlights. And floodlights, of course, meant bugs. Bugs nearly always ruined ambience. And so it was twilight at the latest.
A trail of dust appeared, a rooster tail of brown haze, pointing away from the location of the reflection. Somebody said something about "a bat out of hell." But no one else mentioned it much. Last year somebody had counted "one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand"--like when lightning flashes--as the far-off pickup truck sped across the playa and away from ground zero. No counters this year. A combined schools band at the far end of the crescent struck up a version of "Liberty Bell," which seemed heavy on the percussion, especially the bass drum. Arvin pulled the switch box onto his lap. Maureen bustled through the screen door (more duct tape than screen), a plate of treats in her oven-mitted hands. She handed the plate to a young tyro with red hair, and the treats disappeared into the crowd. Maureen took up her position on the first step of the porch, as always. She crossed her arms, still wearing her oven mitts.
The crowd quieted as Arvin thanked them all for coming again, glad that he could bring them this annual celebration. He enjoyed a hearty round of applause. Maureen beamed. With a slight raise of his old hand the countdown began, and everyone turned to gaze out onto the valley floor. In near unison they began to count backwards from ten. The speeding truck was nearly out of sight now, and just the Joshua trees, the scraggly fence, and a nearly invisible structure--like a miniature oil derrick--could be seen. Nine. Eight. The little frame structure--it kind of looked like the decal on the old Houston Oilers helmets, but not blue, of course--sat in the middle of a low depression in the valley, a saucer-shaped footprint probably half a mile across. Seven. Six. Five. Most of the folks, kids included, slipped on their dark glasses as they counted. Four. Three. The kids, and some of the more playful adults, held up brightly colored pinwheels, arms outstretched toward the little structure below. Two. One. The line of lawn animals--the ones where the legs or wings could spin--stretched like a happy army in front of Old Man Snell and his trailer. Zero. With his right thumb, Arvin pushed the single button on the switch box in his lap.
Silence. A momentary flash--the shuttered sun unshuttered for an instant--exploded and was gone. A blast ring of liquified sand expanded around the little tower, which had suddenly vanished. The sand wave rolled outward toward all sides of the valley, and the center of the saucer collapsed a few feet. A muffled sound, like a sonic boom heard underwater, reached the gathered crowd just before the first blast of heated air. Lips were clenched as the air first pushed them all away, then pulled the swaying crescent back toward ground zero. The pinwheels and yard animals sprang to life. Some folks covered their plates. The coup de grace, the inimitable mushroom cloud, rose into the blue sky that now tinted yellow. Little cloud streamers, like tendrils of a plant reaching up and bending back to earth, decorated the mushroom's sides, a bouquet.
The clapping began spontaneously, and Arvin waved appreciatively, laying the switch box back down beside him. Kids began the ritual of looking for animal shapes in the cloud as it slowly dispersed, and pictures and videos of previous year's blasts were produced and clucked over. The fairer skinned folk compared flash burns. Many shook Arvin's hand, commenting on the height, blast radius, ground slump, and on. Maureen wondered if her nephew had reached the safe distance before the show. She also wondered if she'd need another pan of Rice Krispie treats. Arvin was already thinking about next year. He'd been toying with the notion of an atmospheric event. A few miles up and 500 kilotons. Now that would be a show.
Darl Larsen, 35, is the married father of five. Originally from California, he is now a film faculty member at Brigham Young University, Theater and Media Arts Dept., where he teaches screenwriting, film history, theory, criticism, and genres. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature.
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