No Longer Astronauts
We didn’t go up, but Charlie’s family did. They got picked over us, a fact that didn’t sit well with Dad. “Work hard your whole life,” he said then shook his head and walked out for the graveyard shift at the city paper’s press.
That same night, the night of the drawing, Mom read my brother Robert and I a book about the ocean: bottomless pits, volcanoes, spineless neon squiggles, rock fish. We didn’t read much fiction as a family. Dad said we didn’t need it. “I like things that are real,” he always told us, “An honest man can point to his own work.”
When he came home in the early grey, I could hear mom whispering, the voice she used to calm down Dad. She said that the drawing was random, that it could’ve been anyone in the country that got picked. I heard Dad mumble, “That’s the problem. Anyone could’ve gotten it. Even an out-of-work drunk.” Mom shushed him, birdsong filling the space between their silence and the morning light.
GalaxyGo named the spaceship Leviathan; Charlie talked about it a lot in class before the launch. I thought Ms. Rosen would cut him off, move on, but she just let him talk. The two of them getting picked, Charlie and his dad, that was the most exciting thing that had happened to our little town in a while. At lunch Charlie showed off the pin that the travel company sent every family lucky enough to get picked. It was shaped like a ruby red fish, only bent in a circle so that it swallowed its own tail.
“Yup, first commercial flight in space,” Charlie’s dad bragged when we had them for dinner the next night, “Gonna be damn good to get my feet off the ground again.” He wiped his mouth—the grease from Mom’s roast—with the back of his hand, then reached for the amber bottle he always kept close and took a good long pull. Dad winced, but forced a smile and said, “Good for you, Chuck.”
Dinner was Mom’s idea—“They are our neighbors after all,” she’d said—so I wasn’t surprised when Dad walked out later, even though he didn’t have work. When I woke up he was there, asleep on the couch across from my pullout sofa bed.
A few days before the launch Charlie was over the moon in school and Dad was quieter than usual. The Leviathan was everywhere: On TV, the radio, front page of the paper. Interviews of the civilians—Dad wouldn’t let me call them astronauts—who would go into space played on every channel. “It’s a first free taste of the future,” the GalaxyGo reps always said.
It got to the point where every time Dad heard us say the word Earth, he just grumbled and told us to call it the little blue ball instead.
Charlie’s dad gave me his old fighter pilot jacket on the Sunday before they left. The jacket had a bald eagle emblem on it with frayed gold thread and a stale smoky stench. “Haven’t worn it since my jet crash landed in the Gulf and I got this,” he rapped the hollow plastic of his right leg. He joked that he wouldn’t need the jacket anymore. But when I brought it home from Charlie’s that night, Dad tossed it in the hall closet. I checked for it after he left for work, but it was gone.
The Leviathan launched Monday morning and was set to return Friday night, in time for Memorial Day, the long weekend. It only takes ninety minutes to orbit the Earth. Ms. Rosen taught us that. Then we did the math on how many times the Leviathan would orbit the Earth. It was eighty.
Monday in school we watched the lift off, a success. Tuesday we learned about the first men to walk on the moon, again. On Wednesday, we discussed the life cycle of the sun. By Thursday we were back on quadratic formulas.
On Friday, the Leviathan returned. No bad reports, no incidents, nothing but good news about smooth sailing from the pilots.
Still the next week when Charlie and his dad returned from Texas, they seemed different. Not physically, they looked the same. But when we asked them over for dinner—Mom’s idea again—they talked less, gave short answers about their trip, what it was like, what they saw. Before dinner Charlie didn’t want to play video games with me; he just stared out the window at fireflies winking out back.
I didn’t hear Charlie’s dad’s bellowing laugh from the next room, didn’t see him rub his gut after dinner, his hands weren’t a constant flurry of motion each time he spoke. Instead, when the plates were cleared, Chuck thanked Mom, took Charlie by the hand and left.
We watched them cross the street, puzzled. Dad scratched his head, said, “Huh.” Then he put his arms around Mom, Robert, and me and pulled us gently inside, away from the open door where the hall light bled out into the dark.