“Come on,” said Mother, “let’s go home.”
It was still early when we got home. I wanted Dad to put on his uniform. I shouldn’t have asked—it always made Mother unhappy—but I could not help myself. I kept at him, though he had always refused. I had never seen him in it, and at last he said, “Oh, all right.”
We waited in the parlor while he went upstairs in the air flue. Mother looked at me dully, as if she couldn’t believe that her own son could do this to her. I glanced away. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“You’re not helping at all,” she said. “At all.”
There was a whisper in the air flue a moment later.
“Here I am,” said Dad quietly.
We looked at him in his uniform.
It was glossy black with silver buttons and silver rims to the heels of the black boots, and it looked as if someone had cut the arms and legs and body from a dark nebula, with little faint stars glowing through it. It fit as close as a glove fits to a slender long hand, and it smelled like cool air and metal and space. It smelled of fire and time.
Father stood, smiling awkwardly, in the center of the room.
“Turn around,” said Mother.
Her eyes were remote, looking at him.
When he was gone, she never talked of him. She never said anything about anything but the weather or the condition of my neck and the need of a washcloth for it, or the fact that she didn’t sleep nights. Once she said the light was too strong at night.
“But there’s no moon this week,” I said.
“There’s starlight,” she said.
I went to the store and bought her some darker, greener shades. As I lay in bed at night, I could hear her pull them down tight to the bottom of the windows. It made a long rustling noise.
Once I tried to mow the lawn.
“No.” Mom stood in the door. “Put the mower away.”
So the grass went three months at a time without cutting. Dad cut it when he came home.
She wouldn’t let me do anything else either, like repairing the electrical breakfast maker or the mechanical book reader. She saved everything up, as if for Christmas. And then I would see Dad hammering or tinkering, and always smiling at his work, and Mother smiling over him, happy.
No, she never talked of him when he was gone. And as for Dad, he never did anything to make a contact across the millions of miles. He said once, “If I called you, I’d want to be with you. I wouldn’t be happy.”
Once Dad said to me, “Your mother treats me, sometimes, as if I weren’t here—as if I were invisible.”
I had seen her do it. She would look just beyond him, over his shoulder, at his chin or hands, but never into his eyes. If she did look at his eyes, her eyes were covered with a film, like an animal going to sleep. She said yes at the right times, and smiled, but always a half second later than expected.
“I’m not there for her,” said Dad.
But other days she would be there and he would be there for her, and they would hold hands and walk around the block, or take rides, with Mom’s hair flying like a girl’s behind her, and she would cut off all the mechanical devices in the kitchen and bake him incredible cakes and pies and cookies, looking deep into his face, her smile a real smile. But at the end of such days when he was there to her, she would always cry. And Dad would stand helpless, gazing about the room as if to find the answer, but never finding it.
Dad turned slowly, in his uniform, for us to see.
“Turn around again,” said Mom.
The next morning Dad came rushing into the house with handfuls of tickets. Pink rocket tickets for California, blue tickets for Mexico.
“Come on!” he said. “We’ll buy disposable clothes and burn them when they’re soiled. Look, we take the noon rocket to L.A., the two-o’clock helicopter to Santa Barbara, the nine-o’clock plane to Ensenada, sleep overnight!”