That night we sat on the mechanical porch swing which swung us and blew a wind upon us and sang to us. It was summer and moonlight and we had lemonade to drink, and we held the cold glasses in our hands, and Dad read the stereo-newspapers inserted into the special hat you put on your head and which turned the microscopic page in front of the magnifying lens if you blinked three times in succession. Dad smoked cigarettes and told me about how it was when he was a boy in the year 1997. After a while he said, as he had always said, “Why aren’t you out playing kick-the-can, Doug?”
I didn’t say anything, but Mom said, “He does, on nights when you’re not here.”
Dad looked at me and then, for the first time that day, at the sky. Mother always watched him when he glanced at the stars. The first day and night when he got home he wouldn’t look at the sky much. I thought about him gardening and gardening so furiously, his face almost driven into the earth. But the second night he looked at the stars a little more. Mother wasn’t afraid of the sky in the day so much, but it was the night stars that she wanted to turn off, and sometimes I could almost see her reaching for a switch in her mind, but never finding it. And by the third night maybe Dad’d be out here on the porch until ‘way after we were all ready for bed, and then I’d hear Mom call him in, almost like she called me from the street at times. And then I would hear Dad fitting the electric-eye door lock in place, with a sigh. And the next morning at breakfast I’d glance down and see his little black case near his feet as he buttered his toast and Mother slept late.
“Well, be seeing you, Doug,” he’d say, and we’d shake hands.
“In about three months?”
And he’d walk away down the street, not taking a helicopter or beetle or bus, just walking with his uniform hidden in his small underarm case; he didn’t want anyone to think he was vain about being a Rocket Man.
Mother would come out to eat breakfast, one piece of dry toast, about an hour later.
But now it was tonight, the first night, the good night, and he wasn’t looking at the stars much at all.
“Let’s go to the television carnival,” I said.
“Fine,” said Dad.
Mother smiled at me.
And we rushed off to town in a helicopter and took Dad through a thousand exhibits, to keep his face and head down with us and not looking anywhere else. And as we laughed at the funny things and looked serious at the serious ones, I thought, My father goes to Saturn and Neptune and Pluto, but he never brings me presents. Other boys whose fathers go into space bring back bits of ore from Callisto and hunks of black meteor or blue sand. But I have to get my own collection, trading from other boys, the Martian rocks and Mercurian sands which filled my room, but about which Dad would never comment.
On occasion, I remembered, he brought something for Mother. He planted some Martian sunflowers once in our yard, but after he was gone a month and the sunflowers grew large, Mom ran out one day and cut them all down.
Without thinking, as we paused at one of the three-dimensional exhibits, I asked Dad the question I always asked:
“What’s it like, out in space?”
Mother shot me a frightened glance. It was too late.
Dad stood there for a full half minute trying to find an answer, then he shrugged.
“It’s the best thing in a lifetime of best things.” Then he caught himself. “Oh, it’s really nothing at all. Routine. You wouldn’t like it.” He looked at me, apprehensively.
“But you always go back.”
“Where’re you going next?”
“I haven’t decided yet. I’ll think it over.”
He always thought it over. In those days rocket pilots were rare and he could pick and choose, work when he liked. On the third night of his homecoming you could see him picking and choosing among the stars.