By Ira Sher
Published by Free Press
April 2003; 0-743-24218-1; 304 pages
Memory passes below, like clouds over the earth, the winking lights of cities. Florida slipping into the color of oceans; the little figure eight near the shore of the green peninsula, double loop of seven asterisks, like stars drawn by some childish hand. Small stars full of lives, lives full of those small stars that make up a life: the taste of wallpaper, cornflower blue, patterned like a woman's dress in the slender hall between kitchen and living room; the iron crust of water beneath a sink; oily linoleum slipping and burning against my knees -- a playland for trucks without the endless snagging and unsnagging of wheels from shiny loops of nylon carpet.
A world of carpet -- or so I imagined the moon, mirror of earthly lands: beige, woolly, resilient.
One day my father would inform me, voice full of space and static, of how the moon is in fact stony, dusty, brilliant bright -- but that lay in the future. This particular morning arrived with the bleary sound of the radio above the stove instead of his voice. My father had landed, we were told, and was taking turns with his fellow traveler, looking out the window of the lunar module.
I was kneeling, rolling a silver moon buggy from the hall onto the linoleum, looking up at my mother. She wore a long white nurse's coat, as she did every day. Behind her, the sky out the kitchen window had the bloodless look of full-on July. She yanked at her gloves, beckoned, and stooped to pick my shoes out from under the chair by the front door. She was going to be late. My father was placing his foot upon an astronomical body, like a god mounting a tiny silver throne, but she would be late for work, because the baby-sitter was sick and wouldn't be coming this morning.
Taking my hand, she led me down the tobacco-stained hall of the fourth floor to the elevator, where an elderly couple by the name of Stern, tiny American flag pins rippling upon their Hawaiian lapels, had taken up residence several weeks ago, graciously pushing the buttons for passengers even though the elevator was fully automated. They were the tip of a great iceberg of fans and enthusiasts who'd traveled from near and far to be near us during my father's odyssey, and had erected lawn chairs around a small table set with a red Thermos and two plastic cups of lemonade. "It's a scorcher out there," Mr. Stern said, clasping his paper to his chest so we might squeeze inside.
My mother adjusted her sunglasses.
"You're looking especially glamorous this morning, Mrs. Finch," he added, and his wife, reaching into her purse, said, "You must be so excited, Georgie," handing me a worn scrap of candy.
I'd met the Sterns before, but today their eyes burned as if in each of us they recognized a secret grandchild. The candy had the metallic taste of fear, and when the old woman plucked at my sleeve, muttering, "Can you keep a secret, Georgie?" I hid in the folds of my mother's coat, trying to focus all my attention on the shiny moon buggy I still held in one hand. I knew that outside there would be cameras, an atmosphere of carnival and balloons, where my name would be repeated until it lost all meaning.
My mother, for her part, only smiled. "Thank you," she said, her thank-yous generous, conscious of their public like queens, though at this moment she felt only beleaguered. If she considered asking these people to watch me for the afternoon -- there was no doubt they'd have agreed -- she did so only as one revolves any number of familiar and flawed endgame options: the Sterns belonged to that broad category we loosely term fanatics; it would be like giving her child to gypsies. Pursing her lips, she recalled Doris Fitzpatrick's voice on the phone this morning -- the voice that had begun this series of revolutions, even as it elaborated her daughter's illness.
"Again?" my mother had broken in, noting that this would be the third day running.
"She was fine last night -- we thought she was fixed," the woman chirped into the frustrated pause. "Have you heard your husband's landed? On the moon, I mean. I do hope they're OK with everything."
My mother shuddered once more, now, at the thought of these men paddling around in their space suits, playing golf -- the ridiculous pretenses of normalcy they would set up in their oxygenless world; and then we emerged from the elevator, and saw the crowd beyond the smoked glass doors of the lobby. Just inside, Lyle Barnes, Uncle Lyle, as I called him, handsome as a cereal-box hero, was lounging in a suit, chatting with a security guard.
He turned his boyish eyes -- blue with the slightest tremble -- upon us, saying, "It's great, great, bringing the spud with you to work -- bravo, Barb. We've got NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, the Post, the Times" -- he counted them back to himself, glanced toward the doors, where the crowd, catching sight of us, pressed forward like a wet nose against the glass. "It's a rodeo out there."
"Lyle," my mother said quietly, "I don't want to talk to anyone now, do you understand? I cannot talk to anyone."
He paused a moment, moving his square jaw from side to side, realigning himself behind this proposition.
"Sure -- absolutely" -- he nodded -- "I understand completely." But, pushing through the doors, he seemed to rethink matters. Glancing around, he said, "We have to give them something, Barb. Should I say this evening? Should I offer CBS the exclusive?" until he saw the firm set of her mouth and turned sadly back.
The guard squeezed outside. Police were there already, shaping the mass of people, and the effect of the crowd, seeing not ourselves but my father as they gazed through the glass, was ferocious, like an animal snapping at a reflection; years later I would recognize a perhaps truer likeness in the desperate clinging of a newborn chimp to a terry cloth-wrapped mannequin.
As the doors hinged open all the way, and the light and heat and noise poured over us, I was sick on the worn, pink tiles of the lobby, in the smiling eye of the crowd. The moon buggy slipped from my hand and careened across the floor to come to rest against one of my mother's heels. I watched myself as if from above as Lyle bent to retrieve the fallen vehicle, the crowd made its distant roar, and my mother, giving me a handkerchief from her pocket, hauled me out by the arm into the light.
In the safety of her car, Barbara Finch took off her sunglasses. Beneath the brown bob of the day, she had, you might remember from newspapers or television, one of those angular faces that wear sunglasses well. Perhaps, if you recall her at all, you've confused her with Jackie Onassis in your shoe box of memories; but perhaps you also remember, from those few public photos of my mother without sunglasses, that she had a wandering right eye. She was quite vain about it, and the gesture of removing her dark glasses and revealing that pale face with its single defect always had the quality of an admission.
"I suppose you have what Angie has," she said, pulling out of the parking lot.
My mother probably had little conception of the state into which I'd been plunged, only moments ago, confronted with that wild, unseeing crowd; she was -- and is -- a fearless person, much more so than her husband the astronaut. Noticing, however, that I was still turned, staring back behind us for signs of pursuit, she added, "They love this, don't they? There's really nothing they'd rather do." At the corner traffic light she gazed in the rearview, pressing her lips tight before she said, "But then again, if your father didn't exist, Georgie, someone would have to invent him."
People make such pronouncements all the time, on subjects ranging from hairpins to divinity. I recognized in these words, nonetheless, a parody of my father's own, and suspected that she, too, was thinking now of the night of the parent-teacher conference, one week before Jerry Finch wrote his entry for the astronaut contest, months before his name would be announced in the newspapers, nearly a year before this day, the day the lunar module touched down in a cloud of pulverized glass and rock.
You've probably forgotten Jerry Finch. He wasn't among the famous astronauts, and really, in every respect except the one, crucial point of traveling above and beyond the earth's atmosphere, of walking the surface of the moon, my father wasn't an astronaut at all. Until that summer he left the world behind he was an earth science teacher in central Florida for the Ashtrakan Normal School. If you lived in Ashtrakan or the Greater Titusville area, you might have seen him: a deliberator at the register at McDonald's, a collector of National Geographics at yard sales, a passable swimmer at the local YMCA, and, what is less known, an amateur bird-watcher, populating my earliest memories with impressions of tall grass, ourselves crouching within the still heart of the world, binoculars in hand, following with infinite voyeuristic care the distant domestic scene of a creature the size of a heart.
But you do at least remember the year -- 1975, nearly twelve months before his voyage -- when our elected officials gathered in our televisions to concede that the space program was errant, had forgotten its roots. My mother, seated between my father and me that evening, was putting on her shoes for parent-teacher night, paying little attention, but her brows arched perceptibly, as if what had been implied by this concession was that the astronauts had departed forgetting their lunch. She didn't realize at what future cost to herself these pronouncements were being made, and the nation's trusted representatives, for their part, were as yet blind to my mother, even as she rose, terrifying, to turn off the television.
My father, on this occasion, stayed her hand, and for a moment we listened together to the sentiments of our president, that great man of words. His logic was deductive, potent: after all, he reminded us, strip away from the Apollo space program the glamour, the secrecy; strip away the military-scientific complex; yes, strip away even the spaceships -- and what is space travel about?
People, surely. People, like you and me.
The president hesitated, mouth modest, eyes dreamy, because for this one moment of his brief term, the representatives of our nation had laid aside partisanship and tendered to him their loyalty and trust. They may have tendered these things as children do, or perhaps, as my mother pointed out, as devious men of politics tender all wares -- this was immaterial. I do not claim that the following actually occurred, but it was as if each senator, as the curtain went down on the Vietnam Era, as the oil crisis hovered in the wings of the decade, took advantage of this caesura to kindle a butane lighter to a single cause.
And even if there was no such stadium drama, and the decision arose through a simple counting of votes, a weary shaking of hands, the outcome was the same: the thing to do, clearly, was send an ordinary man to the moon.
I think by "ordinary," our representatives imagined someone a lot like my father but made of some solid, wholesome fiber, like flame-retardant pajamas. A write-in contest appeared in major magazines, and I remember him reading his entry aloud to us one night -- the scorn with which my mother received his suggestion that the moon might have something to teach us. "The moon," she said, "is a veritable palace of idiots."
My father, drawing his onion-shaped head further into his collar, persevered in his monologue. It was well for him that he did. His essay was entitled "Gentlemen of Space" and would be reprinted in every major paper in the country.
"Gentlemen of Space," in its quiet way, has become a modern classic of the middle school civics class, no doubt because whatever my father wanted for himself, this man who wrote in "Gentlemen" of the beautiful things he'd bring back from the moon, it's clear he'd grasped, even seated there amidst his family, in the comfort of his Florida living room, that people prefer to love their fugitives. They crave human astronauts, not hard, hairless men with weathered faces, those faces with weathers so strange and distant only other astronauts can understand. In the closing remarks of his essay, my father vowed to humanize space; and in retrospect, arguably, he did. My father, with his small chin and broad hips -- he would appear as incongruous on the moon as any ordinary man. Visitors to our home who'd never met him exclaimed over the framed photos in the kitchen hall of his face frozen behind the curved glass of his visor. They sat in his yellow chair, worn in the seat from years of service; they noted the deposit of gray hairs on the fabric; and the visitors, understanding only so much, knew my father, then, as a fellow traveler. If they grew strident and indignant when they next spoke, if the country as a whole would forget at times that space had been not imposed on him but chosen, it was because they felt for him not as an astronaut but as a human being.
Glancing back with my mother to that distant parent-teacher night, however, I see this was all just beginning. The October dark smelled of gasoline as we drove across suburban Ashtrakan's palm-lined avenues in our Country Squire, the yellow butt of the car hanging low above the ground, a rash of fumes condensing behind us beneath the streetlamps. My father was driving, one hand on the wheel, the other sifting slowly through the woolly shadow of his hair, massed against the sweeping headlights of passing cars. He'd been preoccupied ever since the announcement of the astronaut contest a few hours ago, but his brown eyes, until then loitering upon the road, suddenly reflected back at me.
"Do you know where we're going?" he asked, a slyness in his voice.
"The secret night school," I replied.
He winked. "That's right. Your mother doesn't know that yet -- "
"Oh, I've heard all about it, thank you -- "
"Or at least she doesn't really know," my father added, speaking in his "old cowboy" voice culled from Westerns. "Barbara, I don't recall seeing you at the secret night school before."
"I was too busy making the secret night dinner for the secret night husband."
He gave my mother a crestfallen glance, and she reached and took his hand out of his hair. Stealing a look in the mirror again, he winked at me.
The secret night school was something I'd inherited from my father's own childhood mythology. I didn't believe in it, the way he once truly had, but I don't think he wanted me to -- he wanted us to laugh with him, at himself and this invention of his earliest years. For he'd believed for a long time that there really was a secret school the other kids went to after dark, when he was in bed. It was here that everyone learned the answers not to the ordinary questions that could be handled in a multiple-choice fashion -- state capitals, spelling, arithmetic -- but to the true questions: who to pick for your team, which movies were destined for popularity, how to address girls -- all those impossible distinctions everyone else seemed to divine automatically.
He was, I see now, the kind of man who often impressed his students as a well-meaning crank. His hair, despite my mother's best efforts, rose in a peppery fountain as if from some youthful trauma. He had the bad habit of beginning stories in the middle. He had a blue felt-tip drawing of a watch on his wrist at the moment, left over from some classroom science demonstration.
Twiddling with the dial on the car radio, from which the word moon gently and periodically lowed, my mother said, "Why this fuss all of a sudden about the moon? We've been to the moon, and there was nothing there."
It was a question my father was frequently forced to counter over the next months, and to which he never grew accustomed. He could only marvel that anyone, given the same chance as himself, wouldn't do the same. "Barbara, it's not like a trip to Dallas. It's -- well, it's hardly a place at all. It's like being allowed to speak with the dead."
She looked at him with distaste, and he stuttered, "Just think of it. Any person who's ever walked the earth -- if you could talk to anyone, who would it be?"
My mother, as my father seemed momentarily to have forgotten, was a hospice care nurse and from her slender stock of romantic notions had long since excised anything related to death or dying. She said, "I don't want to meet any dead people, Jerry."
With a baroque rattling, the car turned a corner at this point, and ahead, limp above the avenue, trembling in the fronds of the palms, was the controversial satellite.
"But just look at it," he said, brown eyes flickering between the moon and the road. "It nourishes us, I think. It's as necessary as mother's milk" -- intercepting my mother's protest -- "because if the moon didn't exist," my father insisted, a satisfaction entering his eye now, "we would have to invent it."
There was a palpable silence in the car, ruminative or dismissive, as you will.
"Can you imagine the night sky without the moon, day after day? We'd go mad, not even realizing what was missing -- " He held his hand over it so we'd see what he meant. "And it's just sitting there. It's a whole continent, waiting for us.
"Do you know -- do you know," he continued, noticing he was speeding up, "when Jim and Kay -- Jay and Kim -- came back from their vacation -- "
My mother's gaze focused for a moment. She smiled. "Georgie," she asked in the mirror, "when was the last time we went on a vacation?"
It's the look I associate with her -- this pained amusement. If one could lay claim to such a thing, she could certainly be said to own it. It washed in and out of her face, gone the next moment as she turned around in her seat, wet her thumb, and adjusted my hair. Behind her, the school loomed like a toy prison, and then we were pulling into the parking lot.
Parents milled on the front steps, smoking or loitering in the evening heat. A large woman in a red sarong -- I recognized her as a classmate's mother, Kitty Shank -- touched my mother's shoulder at the door, and for a moment the two women confabulated. There weren't many other children around, but Mr. Rectin had especially asked my parents to bring me, which didn't bode well -- like the crowd. Whenever there was a crowd outside in warm weather, it meant the air-conditioning was down; and, sure enough, inside it was a greenhouse.
Adults in the halls said hello because my father taught middle sections here -- his parent-teacher night would be next week. He ambled from friendly face to friendly face, stopping to pick a crumpled piece of paper off the floor, as if he were in his own home.
Mr. Rectin, two damp patches under the arms of his shirt, was standing at the darkened windows when we came into my classroom. He was middle-aged and fond of sweater-vests, and with his wife, Kim, would sometimes go bowling with my folks on weekday nights.
"Jerry, Barb," he said, coming forward, "sorry about the heat."
Everyone shook hands. My mother gazed around the room with its party-colored pictures and letters spelling out things like "Congratulations" and "Welcome Back," and then my father sat down, patting the knees of his pants. "Before we start, Jay, I want to know what you think about something."
Probably sensing the turn the conversation was about to take, Barbara wandered toward the back of the room and the drawings the students had made during the first weeks of class. Mr. Rectin fussed with his papers and nodded. He had a small mustache with which he dusted his lower lip.
"If you had the chance to go to the moon -- " my father began.
"We were just talking about that in the lounge." Mr. Rectin smiled, sitting down on a desk as my mother rolled her eyes.
"Yes, yes -- but what did you think?" my father asked, sitting forward a bit and rolling up his plaid sleeves. "Would you go?"
Jay Rectin picked up a pencil and was about to draw a parallel between lunar exploration and some famous historical moment, the way he would in class, bobbing the pencil up and down between thumb and forefinger. But he looked from my father to my mother, pressed too attentively toward the pictures on the back wall, and saw there was a disparity of views. He put the pencil behind his ear. His mustache nibbled. "Well, it doesn't really matter -- it's not like they're going to pick one of us."
"There," my father said, turning to his wife.
"He didn't say anything," she protested.
"But the point is you would go," my father pressed as the man looked at my mother apologetically.
"Thank you, Jay," she said, her eyes trailing over the drawings on the wall. "Though I admit it would be a real kindness to me -- when you two finish filling out your applications, of course -- if we might talk for a few minutes about Georgie. I presume there's some reason you asked us to bring him here tonight?"
It's true that the request for my presence there was remarkable: I was quiet, not given to raising trouble or even my voice. "Barbara," Mr. Rectin remonstrated.
She shot a glance across the room at the two men, slumped on the tiny children's desks. "Georgie," she said, "come show Mother your pictures."
The mustache lifted delicately and brought itself down. "Georgie's pictures aren't up." Clearing his throat he added, "I have them over here, Barb. I think you should have a look."
Mr. Rectin removed from his yellow briefcase a blue vinyl folder in which he kept his attendance rolls, and from this he extracted a handful of papers. He laid the drawings out on the desk, and it's true there was something immediately striking to them. There were four in all, and I was pleased, primarily, with my mastery of the conventions of realism: specific details, such as the upturned head of a dinosaur, its great eye rolled toward the sky as if staring at the viewer; a whorl of hair upon my father's own head, his binoculars like a capital H before his face; the seven asterisks of the Magnolia complex scattered in their figure eight on a green field; a blue and green sheet of water, with a man inside, silhouetted like a chalk outline as he swam or slept amongst aquarium fishes.
My parents drew back before bending forward to inspect them more carefully, the silence in the room palpable.
"They're quite well done," Mr. Rectin suggested, to which no one seemed willing to add anything until my mother said, "Georgie -- why are they all drawn this way?"
Every image, you see, was drawn as if viewed from above, from a greater or lesser height -- I didn't know why. I didn't remember, even then, making any of these pictures. Not that I doubted they were mine -- I know they were.
The adults waited briefly for a reply and then turned to one another.
I remember the conversation falling around me, above me, like gray rain; Mr. Rectin asking, "Does he have many friends outside of school? Does he show affection?" I felt myself fading into a set of abstract and anomalous behaviors, fixed to some impulse or action whose origin I didn't even recall. When I looked at my mother, I saw she thought my father was somehow to blame.
We all, I think, saw that these were pictures drawn from a point of view that orbited, rather than rested upon, the earth. That my father had only on this very day voiced more than a passing fascination with things lunar didn't matter: we'd sensed in him for months now a nascent fantasy life, a dreaminess that my mother recalled from his previous forays into crop circles and the language of whales, but of which I, like an animal living above a fault line, had registered the larger significance far in advance of human auditors.
It was, she must have felt, as if I were channeling his manias -- things invisible to us before tonight; and it could only have seemed frightful and irrational that, before my father's desires were even articulated, they would loom up here, inside me.
"I think he spends too much time alone," Mr. Rectin said. Someone murmured the word psychologist, and for a moment it bubbled around, my father following the whole thing with the habitual expression of panic he wore for practical situations.
When my mother brought the conversation up short, at last, she placed her hand on my head, grown warm and perspiring brightly. "But it's probably nothing," she murmured. "Isn't it? We can talk about psychology until we're blue in the face, but it's much simpler, I think -- "
Jay's mustache quivered. "I didn't mean to alarm you -- "
"No, no, thank you," my mother said, standing. "You did the right thing." She couldn't explain to this man that the root of the problem was in fact quite clear. Or perhaps she didn't have to. We all glanced at my father.
He had the pictures in his hands still, marveling at the accuracy with which his own sparse yet electric hair was depicted; and my mother was walking toward the door, turning and reaching back her hand to say something to him. She would explain to him that he was setting a poor example with his spongy, inarticulate fantasy life -- that it could affect his students in the science classes; that it was the kind of thing that acted subliminally, without anyone meaning anything. If he would just put away the idea, for a little while, of some cowboyish escapade in space -- But she slipped just then and skidded on her feet. Looking down, thinking one of her heels had given out, she let out a short scream.
We followed her eyes between the desks, and there on the tiles was a brown starfish the size of a hand, one of its appendages -- probably the one just trod on -- curling slowly back.
"Damn it," Mr. Rectin said, blushing as he stooped to retrieve the animal. "They do this whenever the air-conditioning fails. We have an aquarium full of stuff for the kids, and they just crawl out when it gets too hot..."
I came over and stared at the little creature, of whom I'd never taken much notice in its tank beside the geraniums. It was harmless, blind with a vegetal life; but my mother looked as if she'd seen a ghost.
I know there are those amongst you who might wonder at a grown man remembering so much of his early childhood, presuming at all to know the minds of his parents at so tender an age; but imagine for a moment the story that overwhelmed my family, and you will understand that these events were part of the great central myth of our lives that we told amongst ourselves again and again.
All the same, perhaps this isn't the place to begin. There are lives, like shoelaces, which require only a single strand to work themselves into complex, mathematical knots; but my father's is not such a life. There are strands here I cannot touch yet -- I don't want to touch.
So let's start anew. Let us leap forward, out of the dark of that parent-teacher evening. And while we could return to the side of my mother, driving silently through the bright Ashtrakan morning -- and we will again, soon; I promise we will make good on all our false beginnings -- let us now begin anew entirely:
" -- I can still perfectly picture North Court, like a mirage of light cast against the wall of my study: the sunburnt grass between the brick towers, the brightly colored lawn chairs; the huffing, red faces with their white plastic visors, tipped up toward our window.
"I would be there, looking out, chin crooked against my hand, and the phone would ring -- "
Let us begin, then, on this day, between the parents' night and the morning of the moon landing. My father had risen long before us to go to the NASA training camp, and my mother would have gone to work. We were driving together with her a moment ago, and we will leave her in her car, alone now, as she goes to visit the dying. From the window, I'd watched her depart, reflecting that every place she worked had the name of a person, or of people -- the Roberts', Mrs. Morris's, Mr. Osseau's, the Ludens' -- and when at that age I imagined her in these places with people's names, I saw the name ghostly in a blue glass, like a set of teeth, bubbles striving over the enamel letters, the name growing deeper, more luminous, most perfect.
It was already summer, and I was out of school, but this was during the infancy of my father's fame, and the court contained just two or three local reporters and a handful of elderly, heatstroke-prone gentlemen hoping to point my father or a member of his family out to their grandchildren. Let us begin here, then, safely on earth, where we can breathe.
© 2003 Ira Sher
Magnolia Court is not the most magical place in Florida, but to young Georgie Finch, this outsized housing project in the heart of the suburbs is the center of the universe. In this superbly crafted, imaginative, and intelligent novel, Georgie tells us the story of when his father, Jerry, won a competition in 1976 to become the first civilian man on the moon. He also tells us about his beautiful baby-sitter, who has a crush on Jerry; his Jackie O-like mother, Barbara, the long-suffering wife to an everyday genius; Jerry's high school friend Lyle Barnes, running for local office on his coattails; and the mysterious journalist Bob Nightly, who seems the only person determined to get to the bottom of who Jerry Finch really is.
Once Jerry is shot into space, Magnolia Court turns into the worst sort of American media circus, replete with card tables, Winnebagos, cookouts, and telescopes. Georgie tentatively navigates this space, dodging the starstruck commoners who have come to worship at the astronauts' feet. When Jerry goes missing, the camp turns into a vigil, punctuated by potluck suppers and banners. Eventually the astronauts come back without Jerry and likewise descend on Magnolia Court -- in their spacesuits -- to show their respect. All the while Georgie gets phone calls from his father in space, but no one will believe him. Should we? Or is his entire story just that, a story?
A feat of
literary ventriloquism, Gentlemen of Space is surprising, captivating,
and wholly original.
Ira Sher's short fiction has been published in the Chicago Review and The Gettysburg Review, and broadcast on This American Life. He has been a finalist for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories. He lives in New York City.