I had tailed The Captain for hours before my launch, watching for signs of angst. A Navy man, he was trained to stay calm in times of distress. I watched him go about his business as usual; pulling up that slick green flight suit, shaving his face, then packing for a deadhead to Pensacola. When he was ready, I followed him outside in my own space-gear of snow boots, fool-proof suit and blue bicycle helmet to wait on the tailgate as he warmed up our car. While the old wood paneled wagon choked to life, he hollered back that I could get brain damage from the exhaust. I told him not to sweat it. I told him I knew a thing or two about brain damage and exposure to toxic elements.
He leaned, ass on hood, boot jacked up on fender, calling me out front and center. "What gives, Olive?"
I saddled next to him and motioned to his chin. He plucked the piece of bloodied toilet paper from it. I explained that I’d be MIA by the time he returned. With him being my father and all, I figured he should be in the loop about my inevitable exit.
"That right?" he said and lowered his head, running a hand over freshly clipped hair. “How so?”
I pointed toward my ship, which was stationed in the middle of our one-car garage and reminded him that I was almost voyage-ready.
He lifted his head and squinted hard. "Will that thing float?" he asked.
I informed him that it would not have to float, because it was a rocket ship. Once a thrice-used moving box, my vessel was now foiled up like leftover meatloaf— a side window and big moon roof carved into the cardboard bottom for optimum viewing.
He wondered about the escape hatch. "You've always got to have one of those," he said. "We want you back in one piece now."
An escape hatch? Big whoop! "I don't need an escape hatch, Captain. I've got everything planned out. My technician and me are ready."
He sighed long and reminded me that even the best-laid plans can turn to pure shit on you now and again. "Plus, you’re the Captain's daughter. What will Mama do without you?"
I shrugged. "Manage?"
He gently touched my cheek. "How's the shiner?"
"Don't pull any of that shit while I'm gone, okay?"
I had to explain for the zillionth time that brother Teeny was not so teeny anymore. He was swinging wild lately. "But it's not his fault," I added. "I'm a real pain in the keester sometimes, Captain. I could stop being such a pain and things could get better, maybe?”
"That's like asking you not to breathe, Olive."
I waited for him to tell me something to make me feel inspired. Make me want to clear the decks and not look back.
"We're just done in," he said, gazing far over my head through blood-shot eyes. "Look, someday you'll understand. But for right now, your mama is not 100%."
That was it? That was the inspiration? "I know," I told him. "It’s not like I didn’t hear you guys last night."
"What'd you hear?"
"Well, now the air conditioning's cooked," my father claimed. "Plus, the sun rose this morning, and I’m still breathing-- so cut her some slack. We need a little mercy, baby."
"Roger. Mercy. Copy that."
"Keep Teeny out of her hair?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
“What the hell's that suit made of anyway?" he asked. "You look mighty hot in there."
It was hot all right. A scorching summer, blackberries on backyard fences had all bloated and split with ferment. The air was woozy with scents of rancid wine and melted asphalt. Every house on the base had baked to dull brown like a pressure-cooked pot roast. But my suit was one those guys wore when they removed stuff like asbestos from our school. It looked just like Armstrong’s. And mine was flame retardant, customized by silver spray paint. "Salvation Army," I explained. "A buck."
"You in shape for the journey?" he wanted to know. "It's a long one."
I rolled my shoulders back one at a time. Tossed my head around and started to run in place for a moment, my arms moving much faster than my short legs. It was a quick 50 yard-dash and I was winded, bent, hands on kneecaps before it was over. I was not your school athlete. I was scrawny and marred. My flour-paste skin was splattered with the smallest of freckles that I felt certain were mishaps. As if the Divine Creator had spilled some paprika across my mug and forgotten to blow it off before he kicked me to the curb. And my overbite, as my mother pointed out, was simply tragic, leading my whole face the way it did. I was always following my teeth around.
And Teeny, he was always following me around. My genetic shadow. We were a spectacular team of retards. That summer the pack of neighbor girls had taken it upon themselves to decide if I was plain as cabbage or down right ugly. And to my mother’s woe, I had settled the debate by finally stealing the clippers and buzzing my waist-long red hair down to scalp like Father’s. I may very well have resembled an underfed Irish Setter with mange— thus, I enjoyed wearing helmets and masks and costumes of any sort.
"Looking good," he said. "Hey, we okay, Olive?"
"Well then, God's speed," he announced, offering a funky hand-sign and kiss on the nose. "Na-noo, na-noo, and I will see you on the dark side, Little One."
Before getting all the way down the street, our wagon stopped and he leaned out the window to look back where I stood curbside, sweating and still steady in a two-finger salute. My chrome-suited glory radiated in the noonday sun. I could see myself reflected like a hubcap in Lieutenant Johnson's living room window across the street. I guess my father had thought of one last order, attempting to explain what actions to take in times of crisis.
"You check your six," he yelled. "And keep the faith, swine!"
A thumbs-up and he was gone again, leaving me to my mission. The Green Lantern would soon have to look for me from his cockpit twenty thousand feet above cloud cover.
My mother, she carried around our molting tabby and a beading jelly jar of whisky the day I launched. Once The Captain left, she’d proceeded to get all worked up while scuffing around the house in those bowed cowboy boots and sheer pink nightgown. A necklace of fresh teeth marks shown plum around her reed neck from the evening before.
"He’s taken the goddamn car again," she muttered. "How will I get out?"
I asked, "What do you need, Mama?"
"Christ," she moaned. "I don't know. How will I get to town for cake mix? It's your fucking birthday, isn't it?"
“Shoot," I said. "There’s always the Commissary. I can bike that in five flat."
Mother dropped her glass instead of the cat, retorting with a shit, shit, shit. She kicked the shattered pieces across cracked linoleum, and began twining her long auburn hair around her tongue.
I took the cat, switched on the box fan, and standing her in front of it, instructed her not to worry. "I do not need a fucking cake, Mama. I am going to the moon today."
This seemed to calm her. “Don't swear, Ollie."
"I thought that was only in public?" I reminded her and tossed the cat into the garage. "We gotta look good in public."
"You know, I'm twenty-eight," she announced. "Twenty-eight!"
And I thought, Whose fucking birthday is this anyway?
She narrowed in on me for the first time all morning and laughed soft and low. "Well, for goodness sake, Ollie. I sure like your dress.”
I removed my bicycle helmet, placed it on my hip and posed with my chin jutted toward our cracked ceiling. As if this would make her understand my mission.
“It’s a space suit.”
"Huh. To the moon,” she whispered and looked at me for a lovely silent moment. I held my breath when she reached out— almost to my sore cheek— and then back away to finger her own neck. Those worn-out green eyes got all weepy and unfocused. “Don't stay away too long, baby. And take your brother."
"I'm not taking that asshole!" I screamed, surprising myself. "What if he tries to bite my head off, too?"
My mother started to cry, boohooing, "Poor, poor baby," until I barked, "Oh, okay! Carry on!"
Teeny was sprawled belly-down on the kitchen floor in his Super Man Underroos, stirring soggy Frosted Wheat with a headless Skipper doll. His black hair stuck to his face, slick with sweat. He was zonked on meds but looked around and grinned when I yanked him up to lead him toward the shade of our garage. I figured he could be in charge of crimping the ship's aluminum antenna. He stayed on task and was attracted to its shine like a magpie, blissfully distracted while I proceeded with the business of packing for my voyage with booty from the pantry.
Fortified powder drink?
Sure, I was only nine, but you never can tell how long it will take, this getting to the moon business. I had heard rumors about what the future might bring. It was not pretty.
By late afternoon, we saw from the garage that Mother had actually made it through the front door, only to wind up sitting in the flowerbed, crushing all the wilted pansies. She patted the dirt like a child in a sandbox while across the street, Johnson’s sheepdog leap impressive heights into the rainbow air, attempting to eat sprinkler water. Mrs. Johnson’s binoculars sat poised for the five o’clock neighborhood watch as I licked filling from a blueberry fruit pie and fed Teeny the rest, his pills tucked into the sugared crust.
"Maybe they'll think she's weeding," I whispered. But the nightgown would need some explaining. Some fancy footwork.
"What do we care?" I nudged him. "We’ll never need a car. Right?"
Teeny did not look so certain. While his lazy, lima-bean eyes stayed in soft focus, he drummed eight fingers slowly over loose wet lips.
"This is no time to stop," I told him. "Let's get your protective gear on."
My technician was almost seven, already five feet big, and what Father called "touched." Though he could not speak so well, Teeny was always my right-hand man. He drooled and ticked and rocked, and now wore the headset I had made for him of kudzu vine and dandelion flower that wrapped around his own permanent crash helmet. He donned an oversized blue jumpsuit I'd found for fifty cents in the clearance bin at Senior Thrift; it even came with our father’s name, B-O-B, stitched crudely into an orange patch over his heart. He had sensible black boots for all his rocking, but there he stood on the hour of my departure, fists on hips, legs apart, feet flat on the ground stable as bedrock. Just how I had shown him.
Teeny knew exactly what all the buttons meant and which ones not to press when warning lights flashed. If all else failed, I had instructed him to quickly abort and take cover. The pantry was a safe bet. I'd left some rations in there for him. I told him to hide when trouble came. "Hide and breathe very, very quietly," I said. "I promise I'll come back someday to get you."
Thus, I reasoned, with all his training, he could manage without me.
And so at dusk, when all was quiet in the house and our mother had finally found refuge from life under cool cotton sheets, I kissed Teeny goodbye and crawled into my rocket ship. Of course, just before takeoff, he plopped down to lean against the ship’s hull. Got mad and ripped off that antenna. Whipped the ship with it, then wadded it into a ball and threw it at our lawn mower. He missed. He missed and came undone, sinking his teeth into his own hand. I tugged and tugged at the hand, but he would not give.
"I'm coming back!" I screamed out the window. "I, AM, COMING, BACK!"
He eyed me in suspicion, but would not let up.
"Suit yourself!" I cried. "See if I keep in contact!" Then, in a whisper, I reminded him of his duty: "Remember, Teeny, you are The Captain's son."
He did not falter. He snapped to and spit out the pierced hand. It was the pink button he pushed to launch me.
I readied myself. Arms braced against the ship's ribs and eyes closed to better sense the changes in atmosphere, I prepared for egress. My rocket wiggled a little like a loose bone, but held. I should have remembered to take off my headset, though. Instead of air whooshing past, all I heard was his voice. Even without the antenna, I caught the mantra of stutters and groans that was vintage Teeny. He moaned toward the heavens after me— a slip of drool trailing down his chin like a comet. Then he began to sing his hymn (my name) again and again and again until it ruptured into a wail of great volume and despair -- "Olllieeee!"
I told him to put a cork in it and listen up. "Over?"
I told him to close his eyes and relax. "Over?"
I said he wasn’t missing a thing. It’s quite silly to eat freeze-dried ice cream anyway. I went on and on about Tang being bittersweet up here in the ozone. How it reminded me of my last camping trip, days before he was born. Days when mosquitoes sucked me dry and I sipped the orange elixir from a sweating wax cup while our mother used her very own fingertips to smear cool cornstarch on the bleeding wounds. It was the last time I stretched fireside with my back flush to the solid earth. Stars burned and fell and never ever did I imagine that one day I would have the desire to join them.
That was before the years and years of doctor visits. Before Father quit calling Teeny "son" in public and refused to acknowledge the doctors. My mother kept on, hauling me in tow so I could sit on the cold tiled floor, picking my scabs while Teeny wrapped his arms around her neck like an anchor and banged his head against her soft chest and the doctor explained twenty-times over that there was nothing she could do. It was nobody's fault. He'd just never be right. Never fit the mold. This was before my parents gave up their plan of having a mess of beautiful children. Before Mother quit throwing her shoulders back, because she was an Officer's wife, and threw back whiskey instead. Before we all wore wounds given to us by baby Teeny in his mournful fits of frustration. Love me, love me, love me! Before we began covering the wounds with nice cotton clothes and smiles. Before we fed Teeny wicked dope to keep him properly zoned at base parties where children were trophies atop Fathers’ shoulders. Before we knew that someday Teeny would be too big to save by wrapping him up with our bodies like a shield from himself. He would simply claw at the shield, tearing into our hearts. Before they finally came for him, carting him off in the veiled night to be with his own kind. Before we would move from base to base where no one suspected The Captain even had a son.
* * *
When I reached the moon, I told Teeny how I had a great inferno in my belly. How my legs were long as latitude and my shoulders as massive as continents. How I slipped Jupiter's ring on my finger and held Mars in my palm till it cooled blue as an opal.
I slid off my heavy space boots and stuck a bare foot through the window. Moon dust felt soft as cat fur under my rolling toes.
"How 'bout that," I whispered. "I am coming back soon and I'll take us both far away, Teeny.” I made promises I'd break. I went on and on about the man in the moon and assured my baby brother that he shouldn’t worry a dime about us because we would have a noble protector in the man in the moon. For, where could the man go?
Teeny, however, had fallen asleep at the controls. I was not distressed. While the earth crept slowly over the horizon, emerald and cobalt in a distant curve of life, I stepped out to wander slowly atop the moon's smooth surface. I didn't get very far before I'd managed to cut my sole on a shard of glass left there by the last lonely traveler.
I sat down, took off my radio and helmet, and my lungs began to ache. I did not bother to tell my brother that I was running out of oxygen and might not make it back.
I simply lied. I whispered that I was sorry, but I planned to make it back. No matter how far away I was, I had always planned to come back someday.