When I was a child, my friends always told me that Tony Putnam was a real loon, a really out-there space case. The twins and I watched Tony Putnam during our second-grade days at Eastbrook's Berger Elementary School. The other children giggled in the shade of the sugar maples or played "Railroad Robber" at the wooden train playset. Still others grappled across the monkey bars and the jungle gym, only to fall to the mulch chips below and then run and cry to Mr. Pasternak, our teacher and recess monitor, about bruises and brushburns. He instructed the children to go inside and to the nurse's office. Meanwhile, Tony Putnam took up residence at the Dome, a rounded jungle gym in the playground's corner. He clacked his fingernails against the steel tubes as he orbited the Dome and muttered to himself as if conversing with some ghost.
That morning had been Tony's turn for show-and-tell. He brought in a silver colander with small holes punched in a pattern of starbursts. He called it his "space helmet," said it protected him from cosmic rays, and he donned the gleaming strainer in front of the entire class, his husky frame shadowed by the word "SPUTNIK" on the blackboard behind him. Mr. Pasternak said nothing and crossed his arms over his chest. When Tony took his seat, Mr. Pasternak remarked that it was nice to see colanders used for something other than rinsing vegetables.
On the playground, the sunlight glanced in a brilliant arc off Tony's space helmet as he talked to the air.
The twins and I observed his ritual at the Dome. The twins, Claire and Laura—whom I collectively called "Clura"—were pretty, girl-next-door-types with bright auburn hair and clusters of freckles on their faces. They would become, as teenagers, the sort of girl that every boy wanted to kiss, but when we were little together, their sameness alone mesmerized me. They spoke with the same chirping voice, like a single person split into two identical bodies. "I think he's an alien," one said. "He's too weird to be a boy," the other added.
"I think he's a person," I said.
"No way. He's an alien."
"He wears that space helmet so the sun doesn't bake his big alien brain."
"It's just a colander," I said.
"That's what you think."
"He's an alien. Aliens have space helmets."
"Clura, he's not an alien. He's just a boy."
The twins crossed their arms. "Aliens don't have parents," said one. "I've heard that Tony Putnam doesn't have a daddy," explained the other
"That's silly," I said "Everybody has a daddy."
"Not Tony Putnam."
"He's an alien."
I leaned my back against a maple tree. "There's no such thing as aliens," I said. "My dad has binders full of articles about the space race, and those don't say a thing about aliens."
"That's because your daddy doesn't want you to worry."
"Aliens would probably just scare you."
"They wouldn't scare me."
The twins gasped and hid their mouths behind their hands. "Alien lover!" they shouted in unison. "You're an alien lover!"
"Am not," I grumbled. I slouched against the trunk of the tree as the twins began clapping their hands together in a game of "knick-knack patty-whack." Only, they changed "give a dog a bone" to "please send Tony home."
I hadn't told the girls about my own father, about how he, too, had left several weeks before because my Uncle Jim got him a job in a NASA budget office. I hadn't told them about the months of preparation, about the boxes mailed to my uncle's house in south Florida, about the bookshelves emptied of my father's blue space books. Clura did not know about the sight of my parents' bedroom from the hallway. Their open closet door invited me to stare in as my mother's things—dresses, blouses, shoes—hung as a veil, disguising the dangling hangers where my father had kept his shirts and ties.
The night before my father left Eastbrook, he and I listened to President Kennedy's address from Rice University on the radio. He sat beside me on our plaid couch, his hand on my shoulder and a grin spreading wide across his face. His resignation at Neubauer and Meinhold, the accounting firm where he'd worked, had been effective the previous day, so he was available to hear Kennedy's address. My father wore black jeans and a white t-shirt on days off like this one. His hair was buzzed into a flattop as if he worked mission control at Cape Canaveral. The lenses of his thick-rimmed glasses reflected the ceiling light. We both stared at the radio that sat on top of our seldom-used television set. Kennedy's voice crackled over the airways:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too . . . .
"I've always had one dream," my father said, pointing up to the ceiling. "And that's to get up there." My father fanned the air with his arms and then tousled my hair. But he stared beyond the radio, beyond the living room wall, all the way to Cape Canaveral. His voice—just as far away—whispered, "Kid, your generation will see all of the big things happen." He sighed and sank back into the couch cushions. "I'm going to be a part of that. Can you believe it? Your old man, a part of it. Now, just remember to put this in my space books when we get the Eastbrook Gazette tomorrow."
"Sure thing, Dad!" I knew what he meant—the blue scrapbooks on the shelves beside the television. He collected every article that appeared in the Eastbrook Gazette that revealed any information about the space race. He had articles about Soviet and American satellites, technological mishaps on both sides, monkeys in space, administrative bungling, and botched experiments and off-kilter hypotheses.
My mother peered in from the kitchen. The aroma of a honey-glazed ham and the buttery smell of mashed potatoes and fresh bread followed. "Brian, can't we have one night without space?"
Kennedy had finished his speech; my father waved his hand at the radio, indicating that I should go turn it off. I obeyed. "Of course," he told my mother.
She shook her head and wiped her hands on her apron. "Well, dinner's in about ten minutes. You may want to get washed up."
My father patted my back. "You heard your mother, kid. Go upstairs and get washed up."
I slid from the couch and went upstairs to wash my hands and face in the small, white bathroom. I glanced through the porthole window. Squirrels scurried along the siding. The roar of an engine filled the room; a car was driving down Pemberton Street. I dried my hands, ran downstairs, and perched on the ledge of the bay window like a hawk scouting prey. It was a white station wagon with green, rust-patched doors, and it slowed to a stop in front of the grayish house across the street—the Putnams' house. Tony's mother opened her door and got out of the car. She slammed it shut, and I could see Tony standing at the front door, his space helmet tilted back on his head. His mother fumbled with her keys as Tony watched her and rocked on his heels. I gawked until my mother called me for dinner.
"Tony Putnam's mom just got home," I informed my parents.
"Tony?" my father asked.
My mother answered for me, cocking her head in the direction of the house across the street as she placed the ham—still steaming in its roaster pan—on the table and slid off her oven mitts. She gave her husband a knife-sharp look, one that stabbed her intended message deep into his thoughts—you know about the Putnams, so drop it quickly. "Margaret's son. You know that, Brian."
My father nodded and leaned back in his chair, and I tapped his knee with my forefinger. "The twins say that he's an alien!"
"An alien! Is that so? We'd better call NASA then." My father pushed his chair out and reached toward the phone, mounted on the kitchen wall.
"Brian!" my mother chided. Her eyes were bloodshot; her cheeks, red. "None of that silliness at the dinner table."
He snapped his fingers and pushed his chair in. His fingers steepled together over his plate, and he frowned, drawing down his long, horse-like face as his eyes met mine. "Now listen here. Your mother is absolutely right. There's no such thing as aliens, so Tony Putnam can't possibly be one. If you need to prove this to your friends, you can take my space books into school. Show them the articles. Show them there's not a word about aliens, okay?"
I nodded. "They also talk about how Tony doesn't have a daddy."
My mother returned to the table and pulled out her seat. She exchanged a glance with my father. They both turned ghost pale as if a specter, a poltergeist they had managed to dodge for the last few months, materialized and sat between them, there in the dining room. My parents gazed at each other and my father's eyes seemed very blue, that same sort of faraway blue that the sky seemed to be. My mother's were a terrestrial brown, and ultimately her voice grounded us back into the dining room. Reality penetrated the unearthly atmosphere. My mother simply said, "I mailed the rest of your boxes, Brian."
"Thanks, Ellen. It's going to be great. Florida, NASA. We'll all be down there."
"Oh yes, in a budget office miles from the launch site. Tell me how that's different from what you're already doing."
"It just is," he said, his voice flat. "It's still a government job. Jim still got me in."
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. "Why have we been mailing all of your things to Uncle Jim?"
My mother hushed my father with a gesture. "Your father can't make me understand it. I don't think he'd be able to explain it to you."
The phone rang, and my father answered. "Hello? Jim!"
My mother stabbed her ham; my father discussed details—yes, the plane was landing in Orlando in the morning; yes, it was a red-eye flight; yes, yes, Ellen was all right driving him. Yes, Jim, of course—the Galaxie was a good car, it could handle the trip to the airport, and Ellen could drive it as well as he could. No, no, Ellen will be back by morning. Nothing to worry about. My father guffawed into the phone at a jest from my Uncle Jim that only the two of them would ever know. "Right, Jim, I'll give your place a ring as soon as I'm off the plane."
My mother and I ate the glazed ham; my father never touched his plate, and after I had finished eating, my mother scraped his food into the garbage.
The sun set, and twilight fell. I watched Tony Putnam and his mother play catch in the brightness of their porch light. I sat on the ledge of the bay window and pretended to read The Viking Symbol Mystery, a Hardy Boys novel that I'd pilfered from my father's collection; he kept them on the same shelves as his space books. My parents whispered to each other in the kitchen as my mother washed the dinner dishes and my father dried them—their nightly ritual. Only once did my mother raise her voice: "I've been working at that damn bakery for three weeks now. I used to enjoy baking. Now I have to do this in case your escapade misfires. I hate it, Brian." She splashed her hands in the dishwater. "Now, when a woman comes in to order a cake for her husband's birthday—"
"Ellen," my father said.
"I want to tell her that he probably doesn't deserve it."
"Ellen," he repeated.
"Right, you're right, of course," my mother groaned. "Maybe that husband lives on this damn planet. Maybe that husband actually tells his child where he's going to be the next morning."
They mumbled to each other again; my mother frequently sighed in exasperation. I traced the words on the page of The Viking Symbol Mystery with my thumbnail, but I never did learn how Frank and Joe Hardy solved the mystery. I didn't know what the mystery even was because, across the street, Tony Putnam beamed, his space helmet a shining silver beacon, as he tossed the baseball back and forth with his mother on their front yard.
Surely this would quiet Clura! Tony Putnam was just a boy—he played catch like any other boy, lived in a house with a bright white porch light like any other boy, had a mother like any other boy, and he smiled like any other boy. Nothing alien about Tony Putnam, nosiree. I imagined telling Clura about this (although that would require telling Clura that Tony Putnam lived across the street from my family). The twins would jump to their feet and walk in circles, their auburn heads pondering Tony Putnam.
"He's an alien."
"He's too weird to be a boy."
But then I would say, "Watch this."
I would go over to where Tony Putnam stood at the Dome. I would have a baseball and two mitts, and I would give him one so that we could play catch. Then we would throw the ball back and forth, the sun glinting off his helmet like a beacon; we would play catch, like two normal boys. The twins would argue.
"I always knew he was normal."
"Well, I knew it first."
I laid the book, still opened, on the window ledge and jogged to the kitchen to share my insight with my parents. I felt as if I were watching the scene in Pinocchio where the fairy turns the wooden puppet into a real boy, only it was Tony Putnam, the alien, who had become an actual child. I stopped in the door to the kitchen and saw my father holding my mother close against him, his hands on the small of her back. He spoke in a voice above a whisper, one that revealed a latent secrecy, my father's plans, which I was not meant to hear.
I realized then that the world contained more than children discussing aliens and the kid across the street. The world was full of children, yes, but there were adults, too. "Did you ever think of our child?" my mother questioned. "Did you ever think of us, here, without you?"
I heard my father half-mumble into my mother's ear: he must go to Florida and be a part of this. After all, hadn't she heard what Kennedy had said on the radio? It was too late. She'd started the job at the bakery to tide us over, his plane ticket was booked, he'd already made arrangements to live with Jim, he had to give up Pemberton Street and Eastbrook. He told her that he would send for us as soon as he could. He already had a good job lined up, and he would find a nice place. We'd all live in Florida where the sun shines and the rockets blast into space.
"The other parents'll think you're another Jay Putnam, Brian," my mother cautioned. "Just like Tony's father, a Beatnik hippie bum."
My father said that he had nothing but respect for Jay, nothing but respect. He'd cleared it with his old lady before he left for Denver and San Francisco, and that was all that my father was trying to do.
My mother dried her hands on her apron and moved away from him. "You made your decision, Brian," she said. "All you ever asked me to do was drive you to the damn airport."
I went upstairs and got ready for bed without being told to. For a while I watched Pemberton Street from my window. Our Ford Galaxie sat monstrous and aquamarine in the driveway. Several cars cruised over the cracked macadam and hugged the gray curb, except when they veered to avoid the Putnams' station wagon, the only vehicle parked out on the street. I closed the drapes, turned off the light, and went to bed.
I was not awake when my father opened my bedroom door and whispered a "Goodbye, Kid" and promised to call each night, or when my mother eased the Galaxie out of the driveway. She returned hours later as I slept. She whiled the night away with mundane tasks—sweeping, hauling the trash bins to the curb. When I went downstairs the next morning, she sat at the table with a mug of coffee and the last of my father's space books in front of her. The steam wafting from the cup miraged over her face, dissipated the purple circles of weariness beneath her eyes. On the last space book, a small piece of paper read, "Show these to your friends at school. No aliens—I promise. You'll hear from me soon. Love, Dad." I held the album to my chest while my mother gazed blankly at me. She asked if I slept well. I nodded. She pushed the newspaper to me from across the table. The headline on the Eastbrook Gazette read, "Kennedy Addresses Rice University: Man on the Moon before the Decade Ends!" I went to the kitchen to get the scissors and the tape out of the family supply drawer.
It rained frequently in the several weeks after my father left, and the September of Kennedy's memorable speech waned into a long, damp October. I counted the passing of the days with my father's phone calls. He kept his promise, though some nights he spoke for a few minutes and others for hours. Mother paid the bills for the first month and cried. My father sent checks folded in a sheet of teletype paper stuffed in an envelope, never letters. Just checks. The rain came as it had in September, and the leaves fell in accompaniment to the storms. Tears streaked my mother's face after the evening calls, like the streaks winding down the glass panes of the living room bay window. I watched the street, watched the Ford Galaxie, which never brought my father back.
The groundskeepers at Berger Elementary School kept out of the weather and, when it was dry enough, took their time raking the slicked, dangerous leaves. Our homeroom teachers were still forced to watch us during indoor recess. Mr. Pasternak unloaded checkers and chessboards from the bookshelves kept beside the coat closets in the back of the classroom. We dived into the games and fought over who would get the nicest boards and the unbroken pieces, over who would have to play chess instead of checkers. Clura demanded chess pieces, wanted me to play against them. I obliged and noted that Tony Putnam had not joined the struggle for a board. He sat in the back of the room by himself, and he played Memory with a deck of Old Maid cards. He grumbled to himself and shrugged his shoulders. Ever few minutes his head jerked toward the coat closet in the back of the classroom, where his space helmet hung from a hook. As Clura set up the board, I saw Tony flip over one card, then another, and his hands darted to the desktop to quickly remove them. Apparently, a match on the first attempt.
The twins made short work of me in our first game.
"You can't hope to lose your queen and still win."
"If you lose your queen, you're done for."
"You got lucky," I said. "Let's play another game."
We began the second round of chess. Clura talked about that afternoon's round of show-and-tell. They had wanted to bring in their father, an English teacher at Eastbrook High, but he was reviewing material with his students for a test the next day. Instead, their mother would be coming in. The twins chattered about their mother, who was going to bring cinnamon buns for the entire class. The twins wondered what the other two show-and-tell students—Tony Putnam and I—planned to show the class. I mentioned that I'd brought one of my father's space books to show everybody what he did in his free time. If anybody, Clura included, scrutinized the taping of the articles against the cardstock pages, I would have been ratted out; my tape job on the article about Kennedy's address at Rice University was smeared with fingerprints and smudges of newspaper ink, whereas my father's were archived and expertly handled, with only the yellowing of the paper to dictate the articles' ages. I didn't tell the twins that I couldn't have asked my father to tape the article about Kennedy's address, yet alone to come in for show-and-tell, seeing as he was somewhere in Florida, working with my Uncle Jim and managing accounts for some space-related government office. I had not even thought to ask my mother to come in for show-and-tell, and as I wondered about my father down there in the sunshine, probably smelling the exhaust of all those rockets as they blasted into the sky, the twins took my queen a second time. Checkmate quickly followed.
The bell rang and Mr. Pasternak collected the games and returned them to the shelves. He shepherded us back into our seats, then sat on the edge of his desk, and laced his fingers together over the paunch of his stomach. "As you all know, today we're beginning our second round of show-and-tell." He reminded the class of today's four presenters: Claire and Laura (who'd received special permission to work together), Tony Putnam, and me. We were assigned to either bring in a parent to speak about a job or interest, or we were supposed to bring in a visual aid and talk about our parent's career or hobbies on their behalf. A woman knocked on the glass window in the door, and Mr. Pasternak slipped from the lip of his desk. He let the woman in. "It looks like we'll begin with Claire and Laura."
The twins hopped from their seats and joined their mother at the front of the room. Standing beside her, Clura looked like doll-sized clones. All three shared identical auburn hair and the same pale freckles and delicate skin, and when their mother—who introduced herself to the class as "Amy"—passed a Tupperware container of cinnamon buns around the room, she demonstrated the same flowing, willowy grace that her daughters possessed. Amy discussed baking—that was her hobby—and cinnamon buns, the family favorite. We applauded, and Clura's mother offered us each another cinnamon bun. Only Tony Putnam refused one.
The twins' mother left, and Mr. Pasternak called Tony to the front of the room. "I brought my dad," Tony said, running his thumbs along the edges of a black picture frame. Clura glanced wide-eyed at me, and I sunk into my seat. "Well, I sorta brought my father," Tony corrected. "You see—"
Mr. Pasternak sat in his desk chair and then drummed the top of his desk. "How did you 'sorta bring' your father, Tony?"
"All I have of him is this picture. My mom took it a long time ago. It was right before he left."
Mr. Pasternak propped his elbows on his desk and held his chin in his hands. "What can you tell us about him, Tony?"
I sighed and wondered if I could tell anybody about my father. He was an accountant, yes. But what else? A note appeared on my desk, and one of the twins batted her eyelashes at me. I read the note: "He's an
alein alien!" The piece of paper was signed "Claire." I balled it up and threw it inside my desk.
Tony passed the photograph around the room and told us about his father. From overhearing my parents, I knew that he was called Jay Putnam, and Tony filled in the gaps: Jay Putnam was a poet who'd left Eastbrook to mingle with the great American writers who thrived in Denver and San Francisco, and he didn't expect to make a mint off of his writing. He expected to make poetry and find used bookstores and crummy dive bars—what I would later learn to describe as the brilliant, grimy, bohemian underbelly of our country. Tony phrased it with innocence: "My mommy reads his letters to me. He writes about places with bright lights—neon lights. People give him rides from one place to the next. He writes about beautiful women. And he has a dog named Anselmo. I think he drinks a lot of tea; he sure seems to write about tea a lot." Jay Putnam wanted to find these places and write about their people, Tony said. "And I found one of his old poems. Part of it, anyway."
"Do you have it with you?"
Tony stuck his hand in his pocket and fished around before pulling out a crumpled, yellow square of paper, maybe the size of his palm. "Yup!" Tony replied. "My dad wrote this:
Somewhere, I search for Him.
I do not know what He is,
but He is colorful, silent.
His quiet emanates, glows;
it radiates, but from where?
Mr. Pasternak clapped, and the rest of us followed suit. Tony bowed and performed a two-finger salute, tapping his fingers against the brim of his space helmet. When Tony returned to his seat, I was left holding the portrait of Jay Putnam. Greasy fingerprints smeared over the glass protecting the man's sepia-toned face. I made my way to the front of the room with my father's space book and handed off the picture to Tony. I stood in front of the class as Mr. Pasternak introduced me. I closed my eyes, hoping to see a glimpse of my father. Instead, Jay Putnam was there, stubble-faced and wearing a dirty button-down shirt, a leather bomber's jacket, and a herringbone cap.
I introduced my father's space book to the class and said that my father couldn't come because of work (not entirely a lie). I flipped through some of the articles, read aloud several headlines. I tried to remember my father and his flattop haircut, tried to see him and block the image of Jay Putnam. I don't recall exactly what I said, except that Mr. Pasternak said I provided a great segue to our next unit—the space unit—in which all of our spelling words, math problems, and other lessons would have an outer-space theme. Then Mr. Pasternak told us about the planets. We spent the rest of the afternoon making a model solar system, decorating Styrofoam balls as the Sun, the planets, the asteroid belt, and then hanging those from the ceiling with chains made out of paperclips.
Mother didn't always let me speak to my father when he called. Sometimes she would, and his voice was frenetic, stumbling over his words, attempting to convey too much too quickly. He spoke only about the Space Race, about accounts and numbers, science and progress. Other people laughed in the background; perhaps one of them was Uncle Jim. He promised to mail articles from the newspapers down in Florida, but the articles never arrived. Eventually I would hand the phone back to my mother. "Brian," she'd chastise when she took the phone back, "ask about school. Ask about classes. Ask about the teachers and the other students." She'd slam the receiver on its hook. "I can smell the highballs through the phone," she'd muttered.
The money continued arriving in the nondescript envelopes. Mother picked up additional hours at the bakery, and when she finally got home, late at night, she smelled of bread yeast and sugar and fruit. She helped me study for my classes. When my father called, she told him to stay on the line only if he gave a damn about the rest of us back here in Eastbrook.
My father's phone calls became more infrequent until we received more checks than news from him. My mother, exhaustedly helping me through math problems one evening, cradled her face in her hands. The textbook and loose papers sprawled over the tabletop. We used napkins for scratch paper. "All this time, my mother told me your father seemed like such a grounded guy." She sobbed. I did arithmetic on the back of a napkin until she took it from me and wiped away her tears, smudging her face with graphite solutions.
I spent afternoons home alone, sitting on the ledge of the bay window, doing my homework and spying on Tony Putnam across the street. I studied our spelling words and repeated them to myself: star, moon, sun, planet, galaxy, alien, earth, orbit. Our Ford Galaxie was docked in a bakery parking lot far away. Tony Putnam dragged cardboard boxes from the inside of his house to his front yard. He had a Kenmore refrigerator box and two RCA black-and-white television boxes. I focused on my homework, word problems for math about a bug-eyed alien named Thomas. In the first one, Thomas was gathering moon rocks to help American scientists. I counted the rocks and wrote the answer. In the next, he was collecting fuel tanks so that he could return home to his family. I examined his little UFO, the American flag emblazoned on the side beneath the letters USA. I dropped the homework sheet on the ledge and went out the front door.
Outside, I shielded my eyes from the sun with my hand and watched Tony Putnam at work. Every few minutes he stopped, put his fists on his hips, and chortled. He talked, to nobody, while he built something out of the boxes. He labeled the side of the refrigerator box The Proud Anselmo and then, using a roll of duct tape, adhered the two RCA boxes to the longer one, a television box on each side. The open ends of the boxes were facing away from the cardboard automaton to emulate thrusters. I crossed the street and stepped onto the Putnams' front yard. Tony mumbled and shrugged while adjusting the various boxes. Was this what he daydreamed of when he orbited the Dome during recess?
"Hey," I said.
Tony ignored me. He spoke to himself in muffled tones and ripped strips of tape from the roll and applied them liberally to the form of The Proud Anselmo.
I stood idly with my hands in my pockets as he covered the body of The Proud Anselmo with strips of tape. "Who are you talking to?" I asked.
Tony laughed, grumbled to himself. "They always think I'm talking to somebody. Can't they see there's nobody here?"
"So you're talking to nobody?" I began to walk away but turned around and scrutinized the taped-together boxes. "What are you making?" I asked, uncertain if Tony would actually answer me.
"The Proud Anselmo," he answered. "It's a spaceship."
"Cool," I said. I kicked the grass with the toe of my shoe. "Why'd you give it that name?"
"My dad adopted a dog in Denver for a few weeks. He told me about it in a letter. He called his dog Anselmo, and he said it was a very proud dog." Tony shrugged. "Sounded like a good name. The Proud Anselmo. It's going to be my flagship. Best in my fleet!"
"You want to make a fleet? That's pretty cool."
"You think that's cool? Look inside The Proud Anselmo! She's got it all. And she's a 'she,' too… ships are always a 'she.' At least that's how it seems when people talk about these things."
I stepped closer to the cardboard spaceship and shoved my hands into my pockets.
"Oh wait," Tony said, and he leaned into the Kenmore refrigerator box. His feet stuck out in the air. When he dropped back onto the ground, he produced a plastic Rubbermaid stepstool. "You can use this to get in. Just step up… and hop on in." Tony watched me ascend the plastic stairs and lower myself into the refrigerator box.
A red steering wheel was taped into the cardboard nose of The Proud Anselmo. Dials and gauges were hand-drawn in permanent ink. I ran my fingers over the controls—a fuel gauge, an odometer, a speedometer (much like a car's dashboard!), and other dials labeled ALTITUDE and AIR PRESSURE. A brake and a gas pedal were also drawn onto the cardboard interior. A moment later, Tony joined me inside. The light reflected from the colander on his head blinded me.
"Isn't she great?" he asked.
"A real piece of work," I said. "What do you want to do with her?"
"Fly her around," Tony said. "Do you want to be my first mate?"
"Is that hard?"
"No. Being the captain is the hard part. The Proud Anselmo is a solid, but fussy, ship. And I have to fly her."
"Where will we go?"
"Well, first, you need to get a space helmet." I crossed my arms and sighed, waiting for Tony continue. "But we'll fly to Denver, then to San Francisco. Since I'll be the captain, people will call me Captain, and you can be called Lieutenant."
I paced the length of The Proud Anselmo's cabin. "Can we go to Florida after that?"
"Why would we do that?"
"Well…" I stammered, "I was, uh, thinking that we could show all of the space people how great The Proud Anselmo is."
Tony grinned. "Your dad's down there, isn't he." It was not a question. Tony tapped his foot and I said nothing, and then he added Florida to the flight itinerary.
Tony Putnam was at home the school day that we planned the launch of The Proud Anselmo. He asked me to carry a note to school and give it to Mr. Pasternak when he took attendance first thing in the morning. I dropped the note on Mr. Pasternak's desk and walked through the rows of student seats before Clura could notice my secret delivery to Mr. Pasternak's desk.
During recess Clura asked me about my dad's space books.
"You should bring more of them in."
"Those were really neat."
The twins led me in a hike around the playground. We tugged at each other's thin, autumn scarves and adjusted the zippers on our jackets. They stepped gracefully, like leaves bending on the wind, and clasped their hands behind their backs. Their dresses fluttered in the breeze.
"But you should bring one that talks about aliens."
"I bet there's even one about Tony Putnam."
"I can't bring any more in," I said.
"Why not?" asked one.
"That's really mean of your dad if he doesn't let you," the other added.
"It's just, it's the only one he left—" I stopped and exhaled, a rush of breath escaping me.
The twins pirouetted and examined me. They quirked their eyebrows, and their pale foreheads wrinkled as if they were examining an unknown specimen.
"He left the others at work," I tried.
The twins smirked.
"You have a secret!"
"Tell us! Tell us!"
"It's just that he left—," I said. My face felt warm, and I turned and walked the other way. "It's not important."
They caught up with me. "You're blushing!" they yelled together.
"Where did your dad take the space books?"
"I bet he has ones with pictures of aliens!"
I looked at each of the twins. "The space books aren't in Eastbrook," I whispered. "They're in Florida."
"That's silly. They don't belong in Florida."
"Why are they in Florida?"
The twins gasped and stepped back. "You don't have a father," one of the twins said. "You're like Tony Putnam."
I insisted that it was different, pled with them to understand. I stepped closer; they shied back. The bell rang, and the sisters ran toward the school. I stood there until Mr. Pasternak called my name.
Clura watched me in class and cried. They slipped a note on my desk when Mr. Pasternak began the math lesson. "Don't become an
alein alien!" Both the twins' names appeared at the bottom. I slouched in my chair. The twins watched me and dabbed at their eyes, but it was too late. Their crying had already pushed me far off course and finished the transformation.
Tony Putnam wasn't there. His space helmet wasn't hanging in the coat closet. Now, I was alien to them all.
When I got home from school, Tony Putnam, his space helmet slipped to the side so it eclipsed his left ear, sat on the front stoop. Our breath puffed white into the cooling autumn air. "So," he said.
He handed me a stack of envelopes. "I got the mail out of your box for you and your mom. Looks like there's something from your dad." He had placed the envelope from Florida on the top, our address scrawled in blocky letters. "Maybe he sent you something?"
"It's nothing," I told Tony. "It's never anything. Just money."
Tony chewed on his lip. He glanced up at me. "I was going to write you a letter," he announced while rubbing his hands together. "To tell you this. But he's coming back, you know. He always does."
I leaned in toward Tony. "My father?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "No, my father. He's finally coming back from San Francisco. I was 'home sick' from school to clean the house while my mom worked today." He pushed himself from the stoop. "We don't need to go out in The Proud Anselmo. I wanted to tell you."
He hugged me, and I dropped the letters to the concrete stoop. Tony Putnam smiled and patted my shoulder. He skipped across the street. I imagined his mouth moving as he talked to himself, and I imagined myself turning around and running after him. I wanted to remind him that we had a deal; we were both going to use The Proud Anselmo to find our fathers! Tony's space helmet reflected the sunlight and bounced atop his head as he jounced back to his yard. My scalp felt warm, like the sun was baking it through my hair. I suspected that Tony never had that problem.
That night, my mother and I ate roast beef sandwiches on slices of rye from the bakery. We waited for the phone to ring, but it was silent. I told my mother about how Tony and I planned to fly The Proud Anselmo, but we probably wouldn't need to do that now. Tony's father was coming back, I told her. She said, "Be happy for Tony." We ate our sandwiches, and as she stared at the phone, I watched her fingernails clack against the tablecloth. I noticed the fabric and her nails were the same red, and I excused myself from the table.
I was scarcely aware of leaving the house with a baseball mitt tucked under my arm and closing the front door behind me. The candescence of the yellow-orange streetlights illumined the cracks in the asphalt as the soles of my shoes scuffed against the pavement. I knocked on the door of the Putnams' house and thrust my hands into my pockets.
Tony answered the door and pulled off his space helmet. "Hey," he said. "I'm sorry about your dad."
My mother wanted me to tell Tony that I was happy for him. Instead, I asked, "Do you want to play catch?" It seemed like the only normal thing to do.
He grinned. "Sure thing." He donned the helmet, and a white beam glanced from its metal surface.
We tossed a baseball back and forth. Our mothers watched, each from her own porch. Tony lobbed the ball in my direction, and I returned it with a snap of my wrist. The small ball glided back and forth between our mitts, as if in slow motion, across the gentle glow of the streetlights. The ball flew like a thought, like a slow star, streaking over all of us until our mothers called us inside. They extinguished their porch lights with the flick of a switch.
I couldn't sleep that night after because I was imagining Jay Putnam returning to his wife and son. I saw Tony's father, with his herringbone cap and several days of unshaved stubble, standing in the illumination of the porch light, his wife in his arms and his lips pressed against hers. Young Tony, the space helmet crowning his head, watching his mythical father with starstruck reverence. My thoughts revolved around this reunion and I threw off my blankets. I spied on the Putnams' house from my window, but I saw the house was dark, slumbering as deeply as I should have been.
Certain that my mother was asleep, I crept downstairs to the kitchen, my every step firm and slow, like the sneaking characters in the Sunday funnies pages. If my mother woke, she would send me straight back to bed with a speech about how she had to work in the morning, and I shouldn't be sneaking around late at night anyway. I would not have a fighting chance of explaining my actions. I remained silent so as not to wake her.
A stack of Eastbrook Gazettes had accumulated on the counter beside the sink. The scissors my father used to snip out the articles rested beside the stack. I grabbed their plastic handles and studied their shape in the dark, then dropped them onto the stack of papers. I looked away and opened the cabinet under the counter, rifling through my mother's pots and pans. I pushed aside a double boiler, a Bundt-cake pan, and a wooden rolling pin before laying my hand inside the colander. It was plastic, slotted, instead of pierced with small holes like Tony's, but it would do. I slid it from the cabinet and clutched the handles on the side. I placed the colander on my head and sat in front of the stove to gaze into my own distorted reflection.