Now, I am become death, destroyer of worlds-
J. Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad-Gita
She didn’t want to see the last remaining American Cold War Titan II missile. He did. For weeks, Lavender had wanted to go back to the Tucson Botanical Gardens. She slid into the driver’s side of Angelo’s blue ’51 Chevy truck, and slipped off her cleavage heels. He tossed his smokes on the dash, and they rolled down the windows some. She drove from Phoenix through the Sonoran Desert on the highway, and the cool breeze blew wisps of her auburn hair free. Angelo slid over on the seat close to her, and tangled a finger in one of her curls. He flashed an engraved flask and took a drink. She didn’t drink but loved smelling alcohol on his breath. Sexy. Dark clouds backlit the surrounding mountains, palo verde and mesquite trees, saguaro and cholla cacti, and wildflowers. After driving two hours, they arrived on the outskirts of Tucson at the missile museum in Sahuarita. She slipped on her heels, and he unclipped her hair.
The tour guide, a graying man, suggested Lavender ride the elevator down with him because her heels could be dangerous on the stairs. Her spiked nude cleavage heels were a perfect match for her vintage sixties black dress. Angelo took the stairs with everyone else in the group, while she descended in the creaky, outdoor metal elevator with the guide. A gust of wind blew her flaming hair, and the dark cloud of her gathered skirt flashed. Holding onto the fluttering silk of her skirt, she imagined emerald Australian Cairns Birdwings butterflies, wings as big as small bats, on exhibit for a few more days at the gardens’ tropical greenhouse, and gone for another year. The elevator screeched to a halt.
Lavender’s cleavage heels echoed through the launch control center. She looked for Angelo. His thick, dark hair braided down his white t-shirt-covered back. He wore his grandfather’s tigerstripes and hiking boots. His grandfather had worn the fatigues in Vietnam. Angelo had taken her to Guadalupe to visit his grave in the Yaqui and Hispanic cemetery, filled with waves of wooden crosses and mementos of the dead. After, he had taken her to his old elementary school to view cases of Native artifacts in the cafeteria.
The tour guide talked to the group about the complexities of the missile. Lavender slipped her arm around Angelo. The people in the group knew about eight-foot thick concrete walls and other insider information. Angelo’s rosary sparked around his neck, and he asked if Tucson residents were aware of being a plausible target during the Cold War. The guide said missiles weren’t an exact science then, if you tried to hit someplace, you’d most likely hit someplace else. Lavender felt warm and fanned her hand across her face. She wished Angelo had dropped her off at the gardens. She visualized herself snapping photographs in the greenhouse for painting and drawing botanicals.
There was no elevator in the lower levels of the complex. Lavender clutched the cold, metal rail, spiking slowly down, descending deeper into the missile complex with Angelo. Pipes snaked through the corridors. She thought the museum should’ve hung some black-and-white Cold War posters on the walls. Sexy photos of a much younger uniformed Fidel Castro smoking a Cuban, Che Guevara wearing his beret, or the Kennedy brothers with Marilyn Monroe. Even a photo of Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe at the UN would add some interest. An emerald Cairns Birdwing fluttered through the black-and-white Cold War images in her mind.
Inside the silo, Lavender reflected in the radiant missile, and other people lingered. Her breath quickened, her hands shook, and she felt dizzy. Did they see the same thing she did? She pulled out her camera, and snapped repetitive, mindless photographs. The rivets contoured and compartmentalized the missile into Gothic window shapes. Angelo broke her trance by playfully pulling a fiery spiral of her hair, and it sprung back by her cheek. He walked her out of the silo.
Outside the complex, they drank water, and he reached into his tigerstripes’ pocket for a lighter. She felt numb and shared his cigarette; the first time she’d smoked in months.
Dark clouds streaked the sky, and the sun bled mineral orange and red, highlighting the surrounding mountains and cacti. Ancient ribbed saguaro cacti with burrowed out Gila Woodpecker nests hovered above them. Purpling into green prickly pear cacti bloomed and clustered around them. She longed to be in the gardens with the butterflies, photographing and drawing them. Lavender’s hair flamed, her dress fluttered, and a prickly pear caught the hem of her skirt. Angelo crushed their cigarette with his boot, pulled her skirt free, without a scratch. She swore about the cactus pulling the silk strands of her dress.
She drove his truck out of the missile complex, and her neck and shoulders felt tight. Her thoughts lingered on the missile as she drove down the highway. He put in a John Prine and told her to pull over at a rest stop. She parked. He ran his fingers through her hair, massaging her neck and shoulders. Listening to “Angel in Montgomery,” she tranced in the beauty of the music and Angelo’s hands, and she felt her tension dissolving into the colors of the music. Her thoughts drifted back to the Cairns Birdwings and the tropical plants, and they talked about stopping off at the gardens.
Her pulse pounded when she pulled into the gardens. She slipped on her heels before she slid out of the truck. The setting sun blazed across the cloudy sky, and the gardens were still open. Lavender was disappointed that the butterfly exhibition had closed, but they would be able to view the butterflies and the tropical plants through the greenhouse windows. She could smell alyssum drifting from the flowerbeds. Her spiked heels dug into the soft, moist earth. Beneath the trees, she slipped her hand into the belt loop of Angelo’s tigerstripes. They walked in the cool of succulents, oleander bushes, dwarf citrus, olive, and pomegranate trees, and entered the herb garden. Other than a gardener, they were alone. Beyond them, she could see the spectacle of Indian fig prickly pear, looming and sprawling like trees in a surrealist mindscape. Her eyes riveted on the tropical greenhouse.
In the shade of grapefruit trees, Lavender and Angelo looked through the window. Butterflies fluttered among hibiscus, ferns, and pitcher plants. She followed a flutter of Cairns Birdwings, flapping emerald and black wings like hinges of stained glass windows. Languid and buoyant on the oceanic air, most likely they had recently emerged from their chrysalides. She wanted to be in the green house; her body’s memory could feel butterflies, resting on her hands and body. Asian Paper Kites fluttered black-and-white against colorful greenhouse orchids. She blinked her eyes. South American Blue Morphos battered their iridescent wings against the window. She saw the flashing of emerald and black in the cluster of carnivorous pitcher plants. She gasped when she saw a Cairns Birdwing frantically pounding a free wing, the other wing torn, tearing, caught in the stickiness of a sultry plant. A wave of nausea rippled through her. Stepping back, her heel caught, she slipped and flailed, losing her balance.