This night was no different from a thousand others in our time. We would wake nights and feel the cool air turn hot, feel the fire in the wind, or see the walls burned a bright color for an instant, and then we knew his rocket was over our house—his rocket, and the oak trees swaying from the concussion. And I would lie there, eyes wide, panting, and mother in her room. Her voice would come to me over the interroom radio:
“Did you feel it?”
And I would answer, “That was him, all right.”
That was my father’s ship passing over our town, a small town where space rockets never came, and we would lie awake for the next two hours, thinking, “Now Dad’s landed in Springfield, now he’s on the tarmac, now he’s signing the papers, now he’s in the helicopter, now he’s over the river, now the hills, now he’s settling the helicopter in at the little airport at Green Village here. . . . And the night would be half over when, in our separate cool beds, Mother and I would be listening, listening. “Now he’s walking down Bell Street. He always walks . . . never takes a cab . . . now across the park, now turning the corner of Oakhurst andnow . . .
I lifted my head from my pillow. Far down the street, coming closer and closer, smartly, quickly, briskly—footsteps. Now turning in at our house, up the porch steps. And we were both smiling in the cool darkness, Mom and I, when we heard the front door open in recognition, speak a quiet word of welcome, and shut downstairs. . . .
Three hours later I turned the brass knob to their room quietly, holding my breath, balancing in a darkness as big as the space between the planets, my hand out to reach the small black case at the foot of my parents’ sleeping bed. Taking it, I ran silently to my room, thinking, He won’t tell me, he doesn’t want me toknow.
And from the opened case spilled his black uniform, like a black nebula, stars glittering here or there, distantly, in the material. I kneaded the dark stuff in my warm hands; I smelled the planet Mars, an iron smell, and the planet Venus, a green ivy smell, and the planet Mercury, a scent of sulphur and fire; and I could smell the milky moon and the hardness of stars. I pushed the uniform into a centrifuge machine I’d built in my ninth-grade shop that year, set it whirling. Soon a fine powder precipitated into a retort. This I slid under a microscope. And while my parents slept unaware, and while our house was asleep, all the automatic bakers and servers and robot cleaners in an electric slumber, I stared down upon brilliant motes of meteor dust, comet tail, and loam from far Jupiter glistening like worlds themselves which drew me down the tube a billion miles into space, at terrific accelerations.
At dawn, exhausted with my journey and fearful of discovery, I returned the boxed uniform to their sleeping room.
Then I slept, only to waken at the sound of the horn of the dry-cleaning car which stopped in the yard below. They took the black uniform box with them. It’s good I didn’t wait, I thought. For the uniform would be back in an hour, clean of all its destiny and travel.
I slept again, with the little vial of magical dust in my pajama pocket, over my beating heart.
When I came downstairs, there was Dad at the breakfast table, biting into his toast. “Sleep good, Doug?” he said, as if he had been here all the time, and hadn’t been gone for three months.
“All right,” I said.
He pressed a button and the breakfast table made me four pieces, golden brown.
I remember my father that afternoon, digging and digging in the garden, like an animal after something, it seemed. There he was with his long dark arms moving swiftly, planting, tamping, fixing, cutting, pruning, his dark face always down to the soil, his eyes always down to what he was doing, never up to the sky, never looking at me, or Mother, even, unless we knelt with him to feel the earth soak up through the overalls at our knees, to put our hands into the black dirt and not look at the bright, crazy sky. Then he would glance to either side, to Mother or me, and give us a gentle wink, and go on, bent down, face down, the sky staring at his back.