And we went to California and up and down the Pacific Coast for a day and a half, settling at last on the sands of Malibu to cook wieners at night. Dad was always listening or singing or watching things on all sides of him, holding onto things as if the world were a centrifuge going so swiftly that he might be flung off away from us at any instant.
The last afternoon at Malibu Mom was up in the hotel room. Dad lay on the sand beside me for a long time in the hot sun. “Ah,” he sighed, “this is it.” His eyes were gently closed; he lay on his back, drinking the sun. “You miss this,” he said.
He meant “on the rocket,” of course. But he never said “the rocket” or mentioned the rocket and all the things you couldn’t have on the rocket. You couldn’t have a salt wind on the rocket or a blue sky or a yellow sun or Mom’s cooking. You couldn’t talk to your fourteen-year-old boy on a rocket.
“Let’s hear it,” he said at last.
And I knew that now we would talk, as we had always talked, for three hours straight. All afternoon we would murmur back and forth in the lazy sun about my school grades, how high I could jump, how fast I could swim.
Dad nodded each time I spoke and smiled and slapped my chest lightly in approval. We talked. We did not talk of rockets or space, but we talked of Mexico, where we had driven once in an ancient car, and of the butterflies we had caught in the rain forests of green warm Mexico at noon, seeing the hundred butterflies sucked to our radiator, dying there, beating their blue and crimson wings, twitching, beautiful, and sad. We talked of such Things instead of the things I wanted to talk about. And he listened to me. That was the thing he did, as if he was trying to fill himself up with all the sounds he could hear. He listened to the wind and the falling ocean and my voice, always with a rapt attention, a concentration that almost excluded physical bodies themselves and kept only the sounds. He shut his eyes to listen. I would see him listening to the lawn mower as he cut the grass by hand instead of using the remote-control device, and I would see him smelling the cut grass as it sprayed up at him behind the mower in a green fount.
“Doug,” be said, about five in the afternoon, as we were picking up our towels and heading back along the beach near the surf, “I want you to promise me something.”
“Don’t ever be a Rocket Man.”
“I mean it,” he said. “Because when you’re out there you want to be here, and when you’re here you want to be out there. Don’t start that. Don’t let it get hold of you.”
“You don’t know what it is. Every time I’m out there I think, If I ever get back to Earth I’ll stay there; I’ll never go out again. But I go out, and I guess I’ll always go out.”
“I’ve thought about being a Rocket Man for a long time,” I said,
He didn’t hear me. “I try to stay here. Last Saturday when I got home I started trying so damned hard to stay here.”
I remembered him in the garden, sweating, and all the traveling and doing and listening, and I knew that he did this to convince himself that the sea and the towns and the land and his family were the only real things and the good things. But I knew where he would be tonight: looking at the jewelry in Orion from our front porch.
“Promise me you won’t be like me,” he said.
I hesitated awhile. “Okay,” I said.
He shook my hand. “Good boy,” he said.
The dinner was fine that night. Mom had run about the kitchen with handfuls of cinnamon and dough and pots and pans tinkling, and now a great turkey fumed on the table, with dressing, cranberry sauce, peas, and pumpkin pie.