“In the middle of August?” said Dad, amazed.
“You won’t be here for Thanksgiving.”
“So I won’t.”
He sniffed it. He lifted each lid from each tureen and let the flavor steam over his sunburned face. He said “Ah” to each. He looked at the room and his hands. He gazed at the pictures on the wall, the chairs, the table, me, and Mom. He cleared his throat. I saw him make up his mind. “Lilly?”
“Yes?” Mom looked across her table which she had set like a wonderful silver trap, a miraculous gravy pit into which, like a struggling beast of the past caught in a tar pool, her husband might at last be caught and held, gazing out through a jail of wishbones, safe forever. Her eyes sparkled.
“Lilly,” said Dad.
Go on, I thought crazily. Say it, quick; say you’ll stay home this time, for good, and never go away; say it!
Just then a passing helicopter jarred the room and the windowpane shook with a crystal sound. Dad glanced at the window.
The blue stars of evening were there, and the red planet Mars was rising in the East.
Dad looked at Mars a full minute. Then he put his hand out blindly toward me. “May I have some peas,” he said.
“Excuse me,” said Mother. “I’m going to get some bread.”
She rushed out into the kitchen.
“But there’s bread on the table,” I said.
Dad didn’t look at me as he began his meal.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I came downstairs at one in the morning and the moonlight was like ice on all the housetops, and dew glittered in a snow field on our grass. I stood in the doorway in my pajamas, feeling the warm night wind, and then I knew that Dad was sitting in the mechanical porch swing, gliding gently. I could see his profile tilted back, and he was watching the stars wheel over the sky. His eyes were like gray crystal there, the moon in each one.
I went out and sat beside him.
We glided awhile in the swing.
At last I said, “How many ways are there to die in space?”
“The meteors hit you. The air goes out of your rocket. Or comets take you along with them. Concussion. Strangulation. Explosion. Centrifugal force. Too much acceleration. Too little. The heat, the cold, the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, the asteroids, the planetoids, radiation . . .”
“And do they bury you?”
“They never find you.”
“Where do you go?”
“A billion miles away. Traveling graves, they call them. You become a meteor or a planetoid traveling forever through space.”
I said nothing.
“One thing,” he said later, “it’s quick in space. Death. It’s over like that. You don’t linger. Most of the time you don’t even know it. You’re dead and that’s it.”
We went up to bed.
It was morning.
Standing in the doorway, Dad listened to the yellow canary singing in its golden cage.
“Well, I’ve decided,” he said. “Next time I come home, I’m home to stay.”
“Dad!” I said.
“Tell your mother that when she gets up,” he said.
“You mean it!”
He nodded gravely. “See you in about three months.”
And there he went off down the street, carrying his uniform in its secret box, whistling and looking at the tall green trees and picking chinaberries off the chinaberry bush as he brushed by, tossing them ahead of him as he walked away into the bright shade of early morning. . . .
I asked Mother about a few things that morning after Father had been gone a number of hours. “Dad said that sometimes you don’t act as if you hear or see him,” I said.
And then she explained everything to me quietly.
“When he went off into space ten years ago, I said to myself, ‘He’s dead.’ Or as good as dead. So think of him dead. And when he comes back, three or four times a year, it’s not him at all, it’s only a pleasant little memory or a dream. And if a memory stops or a dream stops, it can’t hurt half as much. So most of the time I think of him dead——”