I’m thinking, remember this moment as the voice in my headset and on screen and in everyone’s television sets and radios around the country says, “Liftoff!” I’m thinking, people will ask how it felt.
Here’s how it feels. My headset is pinching my ears. The lamp above our carrel is angled so the light bounces off the readout screens and the brushed chrome of my pencil tin and is giving me a headache. I’ve got a grape soda stain drying on my shirt and I can’t quite get my tie to cover it without it looking even worse. Steve and Richard are crowding me without meaning to, their chairs rolling into mine like bumper cars at a state fair as they crane to see the main screen. The Radio Science System carrel isn’t exactly positioned for its view, and as assistant technician, I’m most in the way. There are whoops and high fives and cigars passed as the Titan booster clears its own explosion—the event broadcasts back to us at the Jet Propulsion Lab from Cape Canaveral, the picture live and wobbly, a washed-out flash. There’s a column of smoke and just like that, Voyager 1 is on its way to Jupiter and Saturn and points unknown. The thing rockets the hell out of here, leaving a visible trail of nothing.
Here’s how it feels.
The background radiation from the Big Bang was discovered accidentally in New Jersey by a pair of radio astronomers. This was twelve years ago, in 1965. They thought it was static interference—I mean, it was; they thought it was just static interference—and spent most of their research period trying to get rid of it before finally documenting it and getting instantly famous. Well. In the right circles. They’re no Redford and Newman, but show me a radio technician who doesn’t know, with caustic, jealous certainty, that Penzias and Wilson are getting next year’s Nobel. Falling sideways into it. Making a legacy on what they thought was a busted plug they couldn’t find. A loose connection. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
I leave as soon as I can swing it without looking suspicious. It should be weird, because it’s launch day, but nobody is paying attention, because it’s launch day. And my job is done, or the exciting part of it, until the damn thing gets to Jupiter and has something to point at. I do radio occultation—I can send radio signal through a planet’s atmosphere and see—“see”—how much it refracts; it shows density, temperature, pressure, water vapor. It’s what you do in my field, if you can’t figure a way to accidentally trip over the birth of the universe.
* * *
There’s traffic on the way to my dad’s, of course, and this gives me time to prepare as well as time to freak myself out. I tap in Morse on the steering wheel, S-O-H-O-W-W-A-S-Y-O-U-R-D-A-Y, but then it devolves into drumming along to Fleetwood Mac when they come on the radio. At least it isn’t one of my dad’s songs. Or, worse, Chuck Berry’s.
Okay. Here’s the thing about my dad. He’s Nate Wilder. There, I said it.
Yes, I did grow up in a Beverly Hills mansion with an in-ground pool. In fact, you’ll see it in a minute, if you can just keep your shirt on and this traffic dies down. Yes, he really did sing for President Eisenhower and the First Lady. She held me and I cried. Yes, my mother is Mae Anne Miller, but she and my dad had shared their last bottle of Jack Daniels by the time I turned four. She’s just a face in the movies to me, same as to you. I don’t even look like her. And here’s the main thing for you to know about Nate Wilder: No. I can’t get him to sing for you. You gotta stand in line with every Italian mother between Ventura and Brooklyn clutching their copies of Nate Wilder Live at the Copa and get your fifty-dollar tickets to the greatest hits medleys he croons in Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden. My father doesn’t use his instrument off the clock. And he gets weird when people ask, so don’t. Please. It’s a complicated enough day as is.
I cruise through the gates and give my tired engine the extra push up the palm-screened hill to the garage. I park crooked and pull the e-brake. If Ben is still around, he’ll valet it whether I ask him to or not. If he already got bored waiting for Dad to sober up or wake up or remember he has an assistant and ask him for something, Ben will be out drinking with his bowling team, but it still doesn’t matter how badly I park because nobody’s coming or going. Except Jane, but she rides that goddamn hippie bicycle.
I take a minute in the car, arming myself. I try to think of how I’ll say it went. How did it feel? There are different right answers for different people. My dad’s will be different from most.
It’s important to take a quiet moment from time to time and just stare. Let your mind go blank. Think about… don’t think. By most accounts, this is when the Eureka moments happen. The epiphanies. The accidental discoveries. They come from unintentional, little things; the universe revealing itself to you in what looks, at first, like a mistake. You’d think accidents could only be bad in my field, fire and death and crushing vacuum bad, but that’s only for the engineering side of things. I work with data. You want data to surprise you. In 1896, Henri Becquerel accidentally left uranium salts on a photographic plate and discovered radioactivity when it burned an exposure mark. He was forty-four. That’s how science works. If you’re going to be internally brilliant, discover relativity or calculus, you need to do it before you’re thirty. Otherwise, your hope for greatness is in noticing something accidental. I’m twenty-nine. I stare at the leather stitching on my steering wheel cover. I narrow my eyes.
Gravel crunches behind me and then my door snaps open, Jane already past me by the time I turn to look. She’s got her flares rolled up to the knee to keep them from getting caught in her bike chain. It ought to look stupid. Instead it’s hot, which is frustrating. “You fall asleep?” she asks, and leans her bike against the garage. I disentangle myself from the seat belt and stand. She uncuffs her pants and runs her fingers through her hair. She’s always doing that. I think she’s trying to smooth it out, but it just gets bushier every time she touches it.
“We watched it at Lisa’s,” she says. “It looked good.”
“Sure,” I say. “I mean, I don’t know from looks.”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, pardon. How’d it sound?”
“Fine, I guess.”
Jane is nice. She’s a nice person. And I don’t know what my dad would do without her. She takes care of him in the evenings, after Ben goes. Cooks dinner and straightens up whatever Dad’s wrecked during the day and helps him with his PT exercises and shit. And he doesn’t even really like her, which makes her a saint. I don’t know what I’d do without her, either—she’s someone to talk to besides my dad, or just someone for us to watch when there’s nothing to say. The number of silent, horrible deaths I’ve been spared because we could sit and watch Jane unload the dishwasher and pretend it took all our attention.
What I’m saying is, I don’t know why I’m so mean to her. Maybe because she’s sort of a cross between a mom and a sister, and even though I’ve never had much of either I’ve seen enough TV to know you’re supposed to give them both a hard time. Plus there’s the fact that she’s a homo, and is like “in love” with that chick Lisa, but she doesn’t even look like one, and then still kind of laughed in my face when I made a pass at her when she first started working here last year. She didn’t mean anything by it, but it felt a little unfair that I was just supposed to know. Plus, it’s kind of a waste of a totally straight-looking girl who’s already in my house every night. Not that she—I’m just saying, it would have been convenient, and I’m just kind of in mourning for the idea of how easy that would have been if the world had cooperated better.
“You been in yet?” Jane asks, gesturing with her head. “Is he taking it okay?”
“Nope,” I say. “I mean, I just got here. But I bet he’s not.”
“So, no Chuck Berry,” Jane says, and legs it up the stairs without waiting for me.
She pauses for a second with her hand on the knob, and before I can make a crack about what’s spooked her I hear it too—my dad’s singing. Not singing singing, but there’s a record going, cranked all the way up somewhere deep in the house. Big-band backup, razzing horns and saxes sliding up blue notes on their way to my dad, his young voice time-traveling to us masculine and jaunty as a cocked fedora. He clips his words and leans on the vowels, snaps the mic away as punctuation on each line so you never hear him breathe. Snaps it back like he’s making up with it just in time for the next line. Baaaby / Come awaaay with me / To a place (ba-BA) where the lights (ba-BA) are low… This is side one, track four of Nate Wilder’s Greatest Hits, Volume II. He was twenty-three when he recorded that track. It sounds like a goddamn miracle. That was the year that got him out of getting shot at by Nazis—they declared him 2A, said his voice was “necessary to the national health, safety, and self-interest.”
It’s never a good sign when he breaks out this record.
“Well,” Jane says. “Now we know.”
* * *
We have to follow the music to the second floor to find him. Jane makes me walk up first, but cocks an eyebrow and un-fixes her hair so I’ll know it’s not because she’s scared or anything. Jesus.
He’s in his study, stretched out on the couch in this saggy silk dressing gown made to look like a kimono. He’s had that thing so long he shows through pink at the elbows. His right arm dangles to the floor, knuckles nearly hitting a tumbler of watery Jack. He’s keeping the beat with one hand and the toe of his left slipper, fingers twitching on the offbeats like he’s thinking about snapping. His eyes are shut, his eyebrows moving with the lyrics. He’s almost smirking.
Part of me wants to tap Jane and sneak away, clomp loudly back up the stairs so he has time to prepare. It’s fucking sad to look at, and I don’t want to have the conversation that’s about to happen with a man we’ve just caught in the midst of a metaphysical jerkoff. But while I’m standing there, trying to decide which of my impulses is the least stupid, Jane says “Mr. Wilder?” and then we can’t unring that bell.
He freezes, somehow rigid in that relaxed pose. Without opening his eyes, he first crumples and then smoothes his expression. A slow-motion wince. His hand flips and he feels around for the Jack. Finds it on the third grab. He opens his eyes and looks at me. “You’re back,” he says, and I can barely hear him over himself.
“Yup,” I say.
Jane dials back the volume on the record player and straightens a landslide of slick album sleeves. My dad’s face grins at us from various angles, hats in black and navy and gunmetal gray, cufflinks in gold and silver. Snaps and winks and what the New York Times once called his “crooner’s smolder.”
“Did you see Don’s launch?” Jane asks brightly.
He heaves himself off the couch. “I did.” He switches off the record player and shuffles for the door. “It got out, huh? Didn’t blow up.”
Jane looks at me like I’m an asshole for not following him. I try to, sort of. I sort of try. Mostly I’m waiting for an epiphany. In 1911 C. T. R. Wilson accidentally proved the existence of subatomic particles when he was trying to create a cloud indoors by moistening the air in his lab.
Jane huffs and takes one stomping step for the doorway. She jerks to a stop like she’s reached the end of a tether. Wheels on me. I flinch; she puts her hand on my bicep and squeezes once. It hurts. Jane jogs downstairs after my father, asking what he feels like for dinner.
In 1675 Hennig Brand accidentally synthesized phosphorous for the first time from the fifty buckets of his own piss he was keeping in his basement. He was trying to turn it into gold. Strike a match, any match, right now. That’s the legacy of that idiot. Ongoing.
* * *
If you don’t know what this is about, I’m tempted to keep it that way for my sake. But I’m too turned on by the idea of someone getting to hear my side of this first. So. The folks upstairs at work and Sagan at Cornell got together and gave each of the Voyager probes—seriously, where have you been—a Golden Record full of sounds and images and data from Earth. For aliens, in case they find the thing after it leaves the solar system. It’s got “hello” in fifty-five languages and pictures of scenery and X-rays of bones and a little politicking from Jimmy Carter and a baby crying and laughter and, you probably saw this coming, music from all over the world. A United Nations of pop songs. And guess who didn’t get to be the American delegate.
He got beat by Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night,” and so far I just haven’t been able to convince him that it’s not my fucking fault. He’s not an idiot; he knows that radio occultation has nothing to with music. The density of Jupiter’s atmosphere has nothing to do with my dad’s 1939 Live at the Copa recording of “One of these Nights.” And I have nothing to do with Sagan and grand symbolic gestures about humanity’s place in the cosmos. I’m a grunt at JPL, a barely-published assistant technician crunching numbers and waiting for a career-making epiphany that’s hopefully been a long fucking time brewing. And you know what probably isn’t hastening its arrival is babysitting a pouting lounge lizard as he passes sixty and drinks away the shakes.
I hear my dad zap on the television in the living room. Jane is hanging up the phone as I enter the kitchen, unwrapping the rust-orange cord from her shoulders. For once, she looks almost sheepish. “I asked Lisa to come over,” she says. “Be a new face, a new fan.”
“Oh, man.” I say. “Okay. Just don’t—I mean, I’m sorry, I—don’t, you know.” My hands tumble in front of me, extravagantly miming nothing. “If he knows you’re fucking each other, he’ll be really weird about it.”
“Unimaginable horror,” Jane says, like she learned the phrase phonetically.
Jane heats up a lasagna for dinner. She makes them in bulk in the catering kitchen downstairs and then defrosts one a week. Sometimes Dad gets an impulse for comfort food. They’re pretty easy to predict, as impulses go. Jane hikes up one leg and toes open the oven. We sit at the breakfast bar and flick sugar packets at each other while it reheats. The TV is a conspicuous mumble from the next room. Silences don’t have to be awkward. This one is.
There’s something weird about the way we live in this house. I don’t even technically know any better, having nothing to compare it to but the fucking Brady Bunch, but even I know it’s not right. This house is enormous—it has an echo—and yet you can tell it’s intended for a single man. Not “borderline elderly and divorced by a boozy actress” single, either. More like “thirty-something up to his cufflinks in pussy” single. If you eat in this house, it should be out of takeout containers over the sink—either drunk at two a.m. or hungover at two p.m. But you shouldn’t eat in this house, because whoever owns this house should be getting his meals comped at Casa Vega or drinking his dinner at the Troubadour. But instead we pretend it’s four rooms and a shared bath, and Jane makes housewife food in family-size casserole dishes, and I sit between her and Dad like The Beav except I’m almost thirty and nobody can stand me. If you’re asking why I still hang my hat here, you’ve clearly never tried to give up living rent-free in a mansion owned by an emotionally manipulative parent. It breeds lack of moral wherewithal.
When Jane calls dinner, Dad slouches to the table like Jesus rolling into Calvary.
“I’m not sure what’s keeping my friend,” Jane says.
“Could be anything,” Dad says, like he means, could be anything, but it’s probably a horrific car accident. Jane looks at me. I burn the roof of my mouth on a scab of cheese.
The doorbell rings. Dad shrugs, like, whaddayagonnado.
Lisa is short, like, short short, and cute. Big eyes and curly hair. God, two people with that much hair. Their drains must clog twice as often as normal peoples’. She has a bottle of wine in a paper bag. Lisa gives Jane a hug, a just us girls hug, and I might be imagining things but it seems weird. I watch Dad watch them. Nothing. Okay, so it’s not weird.
Lisa fucks up the plan right off the bat by turning to me first. “Congratulations!” she says, and shakes my hand. “We saw it on TV! You must feel amazing!”
“Um,” I say. I look to Jane for help, for damage control or just general Lisa wrangling to redirect attention towards the Diva Wilder, who is sulking visibly now. But Jane is messing around with a corkscrew and won’t look at me. “Thanks,” I say. “I mean, I’m just an assistant technician. But, yeah.”
“Mr. Wilder,” Lisa shakes my dad’s hand. She kind of has to reach down to grab it; he’s either offended or zoning out and doesn’t meet her halfway. “Thanks for having me over.” And that’s it. I mean, that’s it. My dad gets this look on his face and I know he’s not here anymore, that’s he’s been driven deep inside himself by the unbearable and continuous disappointment that is the year of our lord 1977. He’s live on stage in ’44 and my not-yet-mother is wearing something slinky at a front-row table as he sings I can only promise you / fooorever / I can only promise / to be truuue.
Lisa puts a wine glass in my hand and shapes my fingers around it so it doesn’t fall. She clinks her own against it. “Outer space,” she says, ambiguously.
I look down. It’s motherfucking white zinfandel. And at that, at that, I smile. You got me.
* * *
“You know, the thing about white zin,” I tell Lisa as I near the bottom of my second glass. “You know, the thing is, it was an accident.”
“Wait, how?” Lisa asks. She shoulders open the French doors to the patio and slides through. She has a tumbler of Jack in each hand. She sets one on the bistro table by the deck chair in which Jane has deposited my father and hands the other to Jane, who is skimming the leaves off the pool in the twilight. It’s chilly. Jane thanks Lisa and knocks the drink back like she’s a cowboy about to get something amputated.
“How can wine be an accident?” Lisa asks again.
“Well,” I say. I can’t be drunk, not on this fruit punch, but I feel like it, so I go with it. Bubble-headed and floaty. Outer space. “They were trying to make something else, and then there weren’t enough nutrients or something and the yeast died.”
“Ew,” Lisa says, inspecting her glass.
“It stopped fermenting early,” I say. “Which is what makes it sweet.” I sit in the other deck chair, heavily. The back is reclined into the lounge position. I take the suggestion and lie down. “Eureka.”
Jane snorts. Not unkindly.
My dad heaves a sigh. He rises with difficulty and goes inside, shimmying through the not-quite-wide enough gap in the patio doors. Jane is aggressive in her refusal to notice.
We’re all quiet for a while. I’m estimating how long it takes a sad bastard to shuffle up an imperial staircase and fiddle with a record player. If it takes longer than that for Nate Wilder’s Greatest Hits, Volume II to start up again, I’ll assume he’s smothered himself in the last of the lasagna.
My dad’s voice was a Eureka moment. He was discovered as a kid in a school concert—left school for a record deal at seventeen, but he looked twenty-five so they gave him a ladies’ man tomcat image from the start. Being Nate Wilder fell into his lap. That’s how it works for some people. Who you’re gonna be just falls into your lap.
“Well,” I say, settling back and closing my eyes. “We tried.”
There’s a swishing sound and then something painful and slimy hits my cheekbone. Lisa honks with laughter. Jane lifts the pool skimmer off my face and goes back to work. “He loves you, asshole,” she says.
“Nah,” Lisa says, sarcastic. “What good’s having a kid who’s a rocket scientist if he can’t get you on the space radio?”
They’re both wrong, they’re idiots, they don’t know what they’re talking about, but there’s a little nugget of useless warmth in me as I realize that Jane has told Lisa that I’m a rocket scientist. It’s like my heart forgot she’s a homo.
“His problems,” Jane says to me, pointing to the house, “you don’t fix with a trip to the moon.”
“It’s not the moon, it’s interstellar—”
“—shut the fuck up,” Jane says. Not unkindly. “And your problems,” she levels the skimmer at me, dripping. “You don’t fix by accident. You listening?”
“Yes ma’am,” Lisa says, sidling over to Jane with her left hip ahead of the rest of her.
“I don’t have problems,” I say. Which isn’t quite not true.
Music starts upstairs, muted trumpets struggling through the window playing the intro to my dad’s most famous song. Jane throws down the skimmer. She huffs a sigh. She pivots, fails to smooth that goddamn hair, and then—I’m not kidding—belts the lyrics. She’s a little rough-edged—the whiskey, the volume. It sounds like she’s singing out of her range, if she even has one. But it’s loud; it drowns out the noise from upstairs. I bet my dad can hear it too, and I like that.
Shoot the moon with me tonight Baaaby / You’ll look swell in the starlight Baaaby. Lisa, laughing, grabs Jane and waltzes her around the pool. I hope my dad is watching this through the curtains. I hope he’s not insulted. I hope he is. Don’t keep looking backward / All our luck is —Jane dips Lisa on the sting note, still scream-singing–man-u-fac-tured / Shoot for the moon with me toniiight.
I’m giggling and can’t stop. It’s beautiful and stupid. I know nothing has changed, but goddamn if it doesn’t look just like an epiphany.