Test-Site Dan

R.D. Hollenbeck

Dan sat on the edge of his bed and rubbed his eyes until he saw sparks. As his vision returned he noticed the drool spot on his pillow and flipped it over. The young security guard who had woken Dan up cleared his throat and fidgeted in the doorway while still remaining at some sort of attention. From where Dan was seated, the tiny gelled spikes that made up the guard's snug flat-top glistened in the light coming from the hallway behind him. The guard was one of those, and there was an entire pack of them guarding the site, who changed into muscle shirts after work and raced home to Las Vegas on brightly colored motorcycles that looked like they were made of plastic. Few of the scientists and not one of the Teamsters who worked on the site took them seriously. They were civilians like everyone else. But the bullets in their guns were real. And, Dan had to remind himself, the reason the security guard woke him up was to inform him that they'd caught his sixteen-year-old son trying to sneak into the test-site.

Dan asked the guard if his son was all right.

"I'm to take you to identify him," the guard said.

"Identify? Is he all right?"

"He's unharmed."

"Thanks. Thanks a lot." Dan wanted to sound surly like the Teamsters he shot pool with, and he watched the guard's face for some reaction. Nothing, of course. No one took Dan seriously either.

Dan stood up and picked some jeans up from the floor and pulled them over his boxer shorts. The feeling of dread stuck with him even though Bobby hadn't been hurt. Dan took a flannel shirt from a pile of them on his desk and put it on over the tee-shirt he'd worn to bed. Then he put on clean socks and the big steel-toed boots he wore every day. Even though he was a scientist, Dan dressed like the Teamsters. The union had the labor contract for the site.

While he followed the guard to the building where they were holding Bobby, Dan tried to imagine what his son must look like now. For years he'd only seen photos, yet he was relieved when they refused to let him see Bobby right away. Instead, they had Dan identify him through a security monitor. There on the black and white screen was Bobby sitting at a desk. The resolution of the security camera was poor, but there was no question that it was Bobby. Dan found it difficult to accept that his son was here, on the site, sitting all alone in some empty office a few doors away, biting his fingernails and spitting them on the floor. Bobby lived four-hundred miles away. And he'd doubled in age since the last time Dan had seen him. But Bobby was here. He still looked just like his mother. He had her black hair, dark complexion and eyes. His mother was less than five feet tall and weighed well under a hundred pounds. Even Bobby's baggy clothes and the poor resolution of the monitor couldn't hide the fact that he was a runt.

They told Dan it would be a while before he could talk to Bobby. Dan began to feel anxious and stepped outside for some fresh air. He'd drunk the cup of black coffee a guard had offered him, but that wasn't what turned his stomach. Maybe it was the intimidating way Bobby was slouched in the chair, or the straggly hair that fell in his face. He had already been arrested for stealing a car. Six months ago his mother sent Dan a bill for the lawyer who kept Bobbie out of juvenile detention. Whatever it was, Dan knew that the kid on the monitor would not like him. Even worse, now he'd resent all the letters Dan had sent him over the years. They hadn't been a hundred percent honest.

The second Dan felt the slap on his back he knew it was Glo.

"Hey there, Doc. You don't look so hot," she said. Glo Machuga was built like Popeye, with short legs and long, beefy forearms. She was ugly as hell, but Dan found himself attracted to her anyway. She was wearing a black cap with a high crown. It had a neon-orange patch sewn to it that featured the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion. Stitched underneath the mushroom cloud were the words "Cholla Test Site: Rockin' and a Rollin'."

"Morning, Glo," Dan said.

"So the word is out that you really do have a son. Always had trouble believing that for some reason." She held an un-lit cigarette between her fat fingers as if she were smoking it.

"They got him locked up in there," Dan said, and pointed to the door he'd just come out of.

"What did you say his name was again?"


"Right. And he's half Iranian or something like that."

"His mother is from India."

"Right. Probably thought they caught themselves a little terroristo."

"Probably," Dan said.

"Well, just came over to offer moral support. Need any help with these bozo's just give me a holler. I know how to handle them."

"I know it. I think they're about to let me see him."

"Okay then." Glo smiled and gave Dan a little salute before heading off.

Dan felt better. He knew that besides Glo, most of the other Teamsters considered him a novelty. Just a funky little scientist who would rather drink beers and shoot pool in the middle of the desert than live in Vegas and take the shuttle in every morning. Someone who didn't mind buying a few extra rounds every now and then.

Dan went back inside and sat down in the office chair they'd wheeled into the hallway for him. He watched as one of the guards took a folded handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the fine layer of dust off of his polished black boots. Dan knew that a decent father would demand that they let him see his son immediately, but he preferred to rock in the chair, watch the guards, and try to figure a way to a impress Bobby.

After waiting over an hour a guard finally escorted Dan into the room where they were holding Bobby. He was seated in an office chair, handcuffed to the desk.

"A little privacy?" Dan said to the guard.

"No sir."

"Not taking any chances, huh?" Again, he failed to intimidate the guard.

He turned to his son and said hello and smiled. He had no idea what to do next.

"Hey," his son said.

"How you doing?"

Bobby answered by rattling his handcuffs. The lull that followed made Dan's ears buzz.

"Pretty serious security around this dump," Bobby finally said while Dan just stood there. "When you said security I thought you meant some fat guard in a little booth like mom has at her condo. I thought all that talk about guns and razor wire was you trying to sound like a big shot."

"Yeah," Dan said. He sat down in the chair across from Bobby. "Maybe I should have been more clear about that. I didn't know you were going to come out here and try to bust in."

"Mom kicked me out. I thought it would be a good time for a visit."

Dan wanted to tell him that he couldn't visit him here. They spent thirty-thousand dollars on each employee's background check. No visitors allowed. He felt better, realizing at lest one major decision was out of his hands.

"How did you get out here?" Dan finally said.

Bobby lifted his hand, the chain pulled the other against the edge of the desk. He held up his thumb.

"From Vegas?"

"Phoenix," he said.

"All the way, huh?" Dan tried not to let on that he was impressed.

Bobby flipped the hair out of his face but it immediately fell back over his eyes.

"I should call your mother and tell her you are okay," Dan said.

Bobby laughed. "She's not worried. She changed the locks."

"Is that why you're here? A place to live?" He wondered why she'd kicked him out. He wondered if she was allowed to do that to a sixteen-year-old.

"No. Just wanted to visit. I'm going to California or Seattle. So what is this place, really? You don't really make nuclear bombs out here, do you?"

"No. I never said we did. It's a nuclear test site. Or was."

"So you don't test bombs out here either?"

"Not anymore."

"But you did, right?" Bobby said.

"Well, no. Not me. The testing was back in the fifties."

"So what do you do out here?"

"We have to clean up the mess," Dan explained. "They sort of left it all here."

"Left what here?"

"We're not exactly sure. All sorts of stuff. They didn't have to be very careful back then. They just threw it all out here for later. Now it's later, I guess."

"So it's more of a toxic dump than a nuclear test site. You just bury the stuff. Why do they need scientists for that?" Bobby asked.

"Well, we have to figure out what it is first. Determine if it will seep into the water table. We have the deepest water table in the country out here. The really nasty stuff will eventually go to Yucca to be disposed of."

"So what do you do all day? Do you wear those white radiation suits and go out and collect stuff? You said they're Geiger counters everywhere you go."

"Yeah, there are," Dan said. "That's definitely a fact. But we don't wear those suits. It's not like that."

"I still don't see what you do all day."

"Sometimes I go out in the field. Set up equipment and that sort of thing. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer too."

They sat together in silence. Dan still wondered if he should ask him why Bobby's mother kicked him out. A normal father would ask. But he wasn't sure if he needed to know right now. The buzzing in his ears returned and magnified until Dan heard the guard behind him begin to rock on his feet, his leather boots groaning.

"Only-children get themselves in trouble more often," Dan suddenly blurted. "I was an only-kid too."

"What?" Bobby said. He squinted his eyes, showing what might have been contempt. Dan couldn't tell. Bobby's face was smudged with dirt and his black hair, a random wad of it pulled back in a pony tail, was dulled with dust. His dark tee-shirt was faded and torn--old tears that had been through the wash many times and the words Minor Threat were printed in scribbled letters. There were small handmade tattoos on the backs of his hands.

"All that time," Dan continued, "to yourself. No siblings. You get in trouble. I got myself in trouble too."

Bobby looked puzzled, but Dan didn't stop.

"I made mustard gas in my closet. You know what that is?"

Bobby nodded and slouched back in the chair. "Yeah. I saw some of Desert Storm on TV."

"Could have killed myself and killed my parents. The dog. Everything in the house."

Bobby seemed interested. Those dark eyes and his intense stare were difficult to read. Dan had to focus on his cheekbones when he tried to look into his eyes. Maybe it wasn't contempt. Dan relaxed a little bit. At the very least he was relieved that he had found a way to fill up the empty room with something, even if it was just his voice.

"I'd just watched Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front on Action Theater. Old World War I movies. We lived outside of Phoenix in the desert. What was the outskirts back then. My parents were pretty old and let me run around all day. There were no kids around there. Nothing to do. I looked up gas masks in the encyclopedia and made myself a charcoal one like they used in World War I. I think I punched holes in a soup can and I cut up a mask and snorkel. Crushed up some of Dad's Kingsford briquettes." Dan didn't want to stop talking. Anything to avoid that silence.

"Later, I got bored with the mask so I decided to make dichlorethyl sulfide--that's mustard gas, so that my mask would serve some real function. I found out how to do it at the library. I had a chemistry kit set up in my closet, though the materials I used came from under the kitchen sink. I bought a mouse at the pet store and tested it out. Killed it dead. In a sealed two-gallon fish bowl. Seconds was all it took. I wore the mask to be on the safe side, though I'm sure it was worthless. Really could have killed myself that day. Then I took the fishbowl outside, stood as far away as I could, and heaved rocks at it until I smashed it and released the gas into the atmosphere. I cremated the mouse in a can of burning paint thinner. Never got caught." The silence immediately filled the room again.

"But I got found-out making rotten-egg gas," Dan continued. "Out of sulfur and candle wax. My parents took away my chemistry set for stinking up the house. Said it was bad for my mother's asthma. So I asked them for a telescope for my birthday. I never got it though. I'd probably be an astronomist right now had I gotten that telescope. We lived next to a mountain and I got interested in rocks and minerals. I collected mica. Had boxes of it. That's how I got into geology. Which is how I became a hydrologist. Which is how I got here in the middle of the Nevada desert." Dan laughed at his own story.

"I'm glad I asked," Bobby interrupted. "But do you think you can get me out of here?" he said, nodding at the guard and rattling the chain that held him to the desk.

Dan turned away and looked to the guard. "What's the deal here, Mac?" he said, unable to conceal his embarrassment.

Bobby stayed behind, still handcuffed to the desk, while a guard escorted Dan to where they had Bobby's things. An aluminum-frame backpack had been emptied, the contents neatly set out on a long table. The guard was overweight and balding, and he was much older than the others. He carried a little old revolver in his cracked holster instead of a semi-automatic, and his uniform lacked the crispness of the others.

"You can pack that stuff up if you want." The guard pointed to the table.

"So what's the deal," Dan said. "Where'd they find him, anyway?"

The guard smiled. "On the south side, trying to dig under the fence. All sorts of shit is going down now. Little guy didn't set off the new seismic detectors they put in last year. By chance a guard walking to his car in the parking lot happened to hear the digging." He pointed to the shovel on the table. It was an olive-drab fold-up shovel. Army surplus. "He must really want to see you," he added. "Why didn't he just ask at the gate? Or call?"

"They're not going to press charges or anything," Dan said. "He's a minor, you know. They can't do anything."

"Oh, you know how it is. Everyone is excited. Something actually happened out here. They want to cover their asses too. They're just going by the book. He had a camera. They sent the film to Vegas to get developed. They'll call from there when they find out if he was taking any spy pictures." The guard laughed. "They think they're guarding stealth bombers or something."

There were some fiberglass poles set out on the table. A dusty tent was rolled out on the floor beside an unrolled the sleeping bag. Three water bottles were neatly lined up in a row. There was a stove that had been completely dismantled. Some screws they'd taken out were fastened to the burner with a piece of Scotch Tape. Unwashed camping dishes and silverware were also set out in rows. Also a can of Hormel Chili and two cans of Dennison stew. A mashed roll of toilet paper by itself. And Bobby's clothes, unfolded and laid out neatly on the table. The worn leather wallet Dan gave him for Christmas several years ago was on the table too. Emptied. Its contents--cash, papers, license, and a condom, were set up in a row along the table.

Quite a little adventure. Dan thought about the things he would have told Bobby after the mustard gas story--had Bobby not humiliated him. How he'd built a tree fort high in the eucalyptus tree then sat up there for hours with his BB gun like a sniper, shooting at targets--attacking Japanese and German soldiers most of the time. And then there was his main fort. It was out in the desert, about a quarter mile away from his parents' house. A camouflaged fox hole with an elevated roof. He booby-trapped the entrance with fishing line so that his father's ball-peen hammer would drop onto the head of anyone trying to break in.

It was nearly three in the afternoon by the time everybody involved was sure they could let Bobby go without getting in trouble. They told Dan to take his kid away and never bring him back, which Dan had every intention of doing. The guards at the gate didn't return Dan's wave as they passed. From the first day he pulled up in his VW bus they hadn't liked him. Back then he had looked too much like one of the hippie protesters over at Yucca Mountain. But Dan didn't look like that anymore. His pony tail was gone and he drove a truck now, an F-150 four-by-four. He wore jeans and work boots every day and listened to Rush Limbaugh with the Teamsters and wore an OSHA certified hard-hat on the days he got to work out in the field.

"How do you live out here?" Bobby asked him. "Can't you live in Vegas or something?"

"Some scientists out here have one or two-year contracts and they stick it out here in the dorms. It's only three bucks a night. The food is subsidized--the prices frozen since the sixties. Hamburger and fries for a buck and a quarter. Some of the others live in Vegas. There's a shuttle that runs out every morning and back every night. But you have to get up damn early. It's a long commute. A waste of time if you ask me." Dan didn't mention the fact that no one had lived on the site half as long as he had. That he was the test-site freak.

"Still, what can you do out here? You've been out here for seven years."

"It's not so bad. I go to the bar in town. I have a TV and VCR in my room. Over three-hundred movies on tape. And all the Star Trek episodes."

"Still, I thought Phoenix was boring. This is bum-fuck Egypt."

"There's a bar. Two bars including the one in the four-lane bowling alley. And this is the closest county to Vegas where prostitution is legal. People come from all over to visit the brothels. Sort of adds some color to the place I guess."

Dan thought the mention of brothels would somehow impress Bobby, but he didn't respond one way or another. He just watched the trailers scattered throughout the desert among the grease woods. They were situated on huge lots. The nearby test site guaranteed affordable real estate for the Teamsters and the occasional desert rat.

The Lark Lounge was an unpainted cinder block building with a flat roof and a dirt parking lot. Pick-up trucks were parked around the bar in no particular pattern. Dan figured that he should have taken Bobby to the bowling alley to get something to eat--or even Vegas where they could get a hotel room and a decent meal and have a place to spend the night. Vegas was still an option. But The Lark would do for now. It was where Dan spent most evenings after work, so he figured it was as good as place as any to regroup and plan the next step.

"So, this is where you compete in those pool tournaments?" Bobby said. Dan ignored him and went inside.

"Test-Site Dan," was the less-than enthusiastic salutation that greeted them. But Dan was glad Bobby witnessed it. Everyone got the same treatment, but it was a tough looking crowd. The sort of dive that Dan hoped would impress a juvenile delinquent.

"Test-Site Dan, huh?" Bobby said, unimpressed, but interested at least.

"Yeah. There's another Dan. A Teamster."


"No. He's just Dan. They're almost all Teamsters here. I don't mix much with my scientist peers."

They sat down at the bar and Dan ordered them cheeseburgers and fries. Bobby was still hungry and ordered another burger. The bar was filling up as the six a.m. got off.

"Kind of like a beer commercial," he said.

"Work hard, play hard," Dan said and made a phantom toast with his bottle of beer. It was an expression he heard a lot, but Bobby just looked at Dan like he'd farted.

Dan got change for a dollar and gave it to Bobby.

"Why don't you play some pin-ball," he said.

Bobby took the quarters off the bar. "Thanks, Pop," he said.

Dan wasn't sure, but he thought that Bobby rolled his eyes when he turned to go.

Dan ordered another beer. This was turning out even worse than he'd expected.

He was forty-five now, but still yearned to go back to the life he lived before he'd met Bobby's mother. He met her while working on his post-doctorate work at the University of Arizona. Back then he lived in Mrs. Hopkins' guest house and paid no rent. He did her yard work, drove her to the grocery store and the occasional doctor visit, and ate roast beef in her dining room Sunday nights. That had been a pleasant life. Bobby's mother had come to the US at India's expense. She was supposed to get a doctorate that would help them prevent their top-soil from eroding into the rivers and flowing out to the sea but she never finished.

Bobby sat back down beside him. "How'd you do?" he asked.

"Crappy," he said, already slouching.

"So," Dan said, "what are you going to do about school now?"

"Nothing. I was kicked out. That's why mom booted me. For that and stealing her boyfriend's car. And that other car you had to hire the lawyer for."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to Seattle. Maybe San Francisco first. Some place where there is something to do."

Dan had never been to either place. He'd hardly been anywhere.

"You're only sixteen. What are you going to do?" Dan thought of those stories about runaways living on the streets, addicted to drugs, selling themselves to old perverts.

"I'll get by."

"It's dangerous."

"I know karate. Nobody fucks with me. Whites. Blacks. Mexicans. They all left me alone." He held his hands up in some sort of karate pose.

"That's not what I mean. The world is a lot bigger than that. I'm not only talking about fighting."

"Then what are you talking about?"

Dan didn't know what exactly. He just knew how easily he'd become lost once he left school and Mrs. Hopkins'. To his relief Glo came up and slapped Dan on the back.

"Hey there, Doc." She held a pitcher in one hand, a mug in the other, and a cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth.

"This is my son, Glo. Bobby this Glo Machuga."

"Ah, the mole man. What are you doing up here causing your old man such a hassle?"

"Just passing through."

"Well, you got your old man out of a day's work. So tell me. Why didn't you go to the gate?"

"I wanted to check out this place I'd heard so much about. I wanted to surprise him."

"I'm sure you did that, kiddo. Bet you just loved all the attention."

The cigarette bounced when she spoke. Bright pink lipstick was smeared halfway up the filter. Dan noticed Bobby looking at her huge breasts. Dan remembered the condom in his son's wallet and realized how unattractive Glo must seem to him.

"Well sit your fat butt down here and have a drink with us, Glo," Dan said. It was the way everyone talked to Glo. Everyone but Dan. Something happened to her face when he said that. Something barely discernible. Like all the cells in her face shifted a few microns, or maybe it was smaller than that. It was as if the atoms that made up her face ceased motion for a split-second.

"Think I'll shoot some pool, Doc," she said. Dan smiled at her and nodded, opening his eyes and raising his brows, desperate to somehow express his desire to take back those words.

"Bum a cigarette, Glo?" Bobby asked, slouching further in his chair.

"You can kiss my fat butt," Glo shot back. "I'm Miss Machuga to you. What you really need is your ass kicked. Pronto."

A quivering under bite formed on Bobby's face that put the finishing touch on the portrait of a brat. Glo stared him down before she turned and carried her beer back to the pool tables.

Dan didn't even stay to finish his beer. He got up to leave without saying anything and Bobby followed, pouting. They made their way towards the door. The bar was lively, the first beers of the day starting to hit. Nobody said good-bye to Dan on their way out.

"What a freakin' dump," Bobby said when they got outside. "What was that bitch's problem?"

He wished that he was the type of person who could slap his son across his face. Even beat the hell out of him. But he did nothing. They drove a mile in silence.

"So what should we do?" Dan finally said.

"You tell me."

"Well, you can't stay with me. You know that. We can drive into Vegas and spend the night there. Chow some prime rib. Take it from there. That would be fine."

That seemed like the simplest solution. Bobby would probably want to see Vegas at night. It would put off any decisions for a while. The distractions would ease some of the tension.

"You think I could gamble?"

"I doubt it. We could maybe find a place to do it together. Some dive might let you sit at the blackjack table if you aren't doing the actual gambling. Or at least stand behind me so we could bet together."

"Sounds pretty lame."

"Or I can drive you to the airport and buy you a plane ticket to Phoenix."

"No way."

"Well then, San Francisco or Seattle. I don't want you going to those places but I'd rather not have you hitching around either."

"Well, I want to hitch. It's the way I want to do it."

"Well you can't. You're not even eighteen."

Bobby turned and looked out the window.

Dan dropped it. Bobby was going to do exactly what he wanted. That was about the only thing Dan knew for sure. Maybe Dan could buy him a car. A van he could sleep in.

"Well, what should we do?"

"I'd like to camp out here, I think," Bobby said. "Catch a ride to LA first thing in the morning."

"Do you need any camping stuff? Supplies or anything?"

"I'm all right."

"Let's go to the hardware store anyway."

At the hardware store Dan thought about buying Bobby a gun for protection, but the idea quickly passed. He decided against the big buck knife as well. Too much romance involved in a weapon like that. He settled on a small camping hatchet and a red Swiss-Army knife. The Swiss-Army knife had a slot that held miniature tweezers as well as scissors and a clever magnifying glass that folded out for starting fires in sunlight. He also bought Bobby a small propane tank refill for his stove and a poncho for the rain. Afterwards they stopped at the convenience store in town. Dan tried to load him up with food, but Bobby said he could only carry so many cans of Spaghetti-O's in his pack. He said he'd take the difference in cash.

Dan also bought a six-pack of beer. He drove across the street and parked in the lot belonging to one of the brothels. He had no idea why he decided to park there. But he was at a complete loss what to do. He'd never been inside a brothel, but he thought about it often. Someday he might get brave enough or drunk enough to go through with it. He might finally sleep with another woman. Get to know one of the women inside on a regular, personal level, yet maintain some sort of safe distance. But it was just a fantasy. "What are we doing here?" Bobby said.

"Watching the sunset."

They sat in the parking lot and sipped the beers. It was Dan's favorite time of day. Bobby stared ahead and sipped his beer. If he knew what the building was he didn't say anything.

"So how is your mother, anyway?"

"Who knows? I never see her."

"What is she doing."

"Same shit. Selling real-estate. Going out with assholes."

"Is she happy?"

"Same as always."

For years Dan thought that he could make her happy if he continued working hard enough at it. Both their lives would be so different now if she had only let him. All three of their lives. But he also hated the possibility that someone else could change her. That somebody could love her more than he tried to.

"Well, she's got some things to work out I guess."

"How did you two end up together?"

"We met in graduate school."

"I know that. But how--or why you?"

The buzzing returned. Dan crushed his beer can and put it behind the seat. He opened another. He watched as four men in cowboy hats stepped out of a new black Chevy Suburban and went inside. The sun had disappeared, but it was an amber dusk that made everything look clearer than it really was.

"Your mother didn't know anybody when she came here. We got to be friends that way."

"You're nothing like the men she dates. You're nothing like the man she married after you. Was she different then?"

"She was the same. She had never planned on going back to India. I don't think she'd meant to get pregnant tell you the truth." He couldn't help taking the cheap shot. It was the truth and it made him feel better. "Don't worry," he said, beginning to feel guilty. "The only reason she chose to marry me is so she could stay in the US," Dan said, though he knew it wasn't true. At least in the beginning. "That's what she told me one time when she was pissed-off because I wouldn't leave her front yard. Back then I couldn't comprehend life without her. I thought I'd have to die first."

"She says you're crazy. Paranoid about everything. She says that she had to have you arrested to leave her alone. That you were freaking her out. She says that's why you moved here and that's why I stopped getting to see you."

"You've probably never been in love before. It makes absolutely no sense. You lose all control like a seizure or something. You lose all sense of the big picture."

"So it's better to move out here in the middle of nowhere--surrounded by guards and barbed wire?"

"Well, let's just say it isn't something I'm planning on going through ever again."

Bobby opened another beer.

"So now you just go to the whorehouses?"

Dan didn't answer. He had already said too much. He started the truck and pulled out of the parking lot.

"It's getting dark. We should get you set up somewhere."

On the way out of town they stopped and bought another six-pack. Dan gave Bobby all of his cash, a few hundred bucks.

"Don't forget," he said. "Give me a call and I'll wire you cash if you need ever need it. When you figure out what you're going to do, maybe I'll buy you a car or something. You have to finish high school. Remember--camping is okay, but when you get to the city you have to promise me you won't spend one night on the streets. Stay at the Y. I'll pay. And sleep with that hatchet in your sleeping bag. And you know what? First thing you do when you get to another town is buy some of that pepper spray. That's what I should have bought you. Get that and have it ready when somebody offers you a ride. And don't get into a situation where somebody is sitting behind you. That karate stuff isn't going to help if somebody has a gun stuck in your back."

"Okay, okay. I'll get some pepper spray. Pronto. Don't worry."

"Good. I know a place where we can camp. Then I'll drive you to the truck stop in the morning to start off on your adventure. They'll probably sell that pepper spray there and I can buy it for you. Hopefully they'll have it there."

"You spending the night out here?" Bobby asked.

"Yeah. Why not. I'll sleep in the cab."

They drove along a power-line road looking for a place to camp. Bobby wanted a spot where they couldn't see any lights from the town or trailers.

"That Glo has some serious tits," Bobby said.

"She sure does," Dan said. "Hooters the size of Winnebagos."

Bobby started to laugh. "If her bra ever snaps look out. Someone will lose an eye."

"Someone will lose their head," Dan said.

"Man, if her ass wasn't so big she'd be kind of hot. She's not even fat. Just a wide load. Maybe you should go for it."

"Maybe I will," Dan said.

"Just don't piss her off. I thought she was going to bash my face in for a second."

"Yeah, well maybe you'll have to teach me some of that karate one of these days."

After Bobby set up his tent the two of them collected mesquite wood and made a fire. Dan backed his truck up to the fire so they could sit on the tale gate and drink the rest of the beers. Bobby was a little buzzed. He leaned back in the bed and looked into the sky.

"Goddamn there are a lot of stars out here," Bobby said. "I had no idea there were so many stars. There are more stars than night out here." He pointed to the Milky Way.

"It's a new moon. But over there you can still see the glow of Vegas this far away." Dan pointed to the horizon. "There's too much light thrown off by the city to see many stars in Phoenix," Dan said.

"I know that. But I didn't know there were this many. You remember those glow-in-the-dark stickers you sent me when I was a kid? Stars and planets and the moon and stuff. To stick on the ceiling above your bed."

"Yeah, I guess I sent you a lot of science stuff. Probably not too interesting."

"No. They were okay. That's about the only way I knew what you were like. Through all that stuff you sent me."

"Did you use the stickers?"

"They're still there in my room. They don't glow very long after you turn off the lights anymore. But they're still up there."

Dan pictured Bobby's room and imagined tucking him in at night. Of course, he was too old for that now. Now he wished he could just hug him. Side by side, on their backs, Dan began pointing out the constellations. He could name them all. He even sat up for a while and pointed to the horizon to show Bobby which constellations would rise. Bobby watched in silence. Dan found a galaxy and three planets and the place where there was believed to be a black hole. Dan had read once that only ten-percent of the cosmos consisted of visible material. He thought about mentioning it, but instead pointed out some stars that probably didn't exist anymore--but their light was just now reaching the earth. Bobby said he learned about that in school though he still had trouble believing it was so. Lying next to each other, Bobby's arm lifted skyward, Dan tried to name every bright star or constellation Bobby pointed to.

"It's like those connect the dots books," Bobby said. They spent over an hour like that even though Dan wasn't always sure if they were looking at the same things.

"It's hard to imagine they're so far apart," Bobby said. He had gone off to pee and was now standing on the edge of the truck bed, up above Dan who was still on his back. Bobby tipped his head back but kept his balance on the narrow ledge. He raised his arm and held his thumb and forefinger an inch or so apart. "This far," he said, "From here is like a billion miles or something out there."

Dan watched his son's silhouette surrounded by the Milky Way. It looked like he could swim off into space.

"Not just across, either," Dan said. "You have to remember, they aren't on a ceiling like your stars at home. That's what man used to think. That they were fixed on an umbrella over the earth. Or that they were holes in the umbrella that covered the earth. Holes that let the light in from heaven." Bobby jumped down onto the tailgate with a thud. He remained standing, though he wasn't looking at Dan.

"See," Dan continued, even though he knew he should shut-up, "you have to remember the third dimension." He pointed to the big dipper. "Those two stars next to each other in the handle could be a thousand times farther apart than that star there." Dan pointed randomly to the opposite side of the sky. Then some stars are so close together that they revolve around each other. Can't tell them apart without a telescope."

"Right," Bobby said softly. "But even when you know things like that you don't really realize it most of the time." He looked down at Dan. "You want my jeans jacket? It's a little cold out here," Bobby said. "I'm ready to hit the hay."

Dan sat up and Bobby handed him his jacket then hopped off the tailgate. After Bobby crawled into his tent Dan listened to him zip up his sleeping bag and roll around until he got comfortable.

"Goodnight, Bobby." Dan said.

"Goodnight, Test-Site Dan."

Then it was quiet. Dan could hardly hear him breathe.

Dan laid back down in the truck bed, his arms spread outward, and recalled how Bobby's silhouette had seem to float among the stars. He pictured Bobby going to sleep every night beneath the paper stars in his room. Out here there were too many stars to name. And so much space. Expanding by light years every second. But for a moment Dan believed the stars were fixed on a huge umbrella. And then he was no longer in the Nevada desert; he was lying on his back on the sandy floor of a huge sea, the clear water pressing him down. Stars floated on the surface above, gently drifting in the currents. And for a moment he really was Test-Site Dan.

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©Copyright R.D. Hollenbeck