A young Catholic girl gets an real education when she takes a summer job at a local Brooklyn newspaper.
When I was growing up there was an angel I used to talk to. I called him Jonathan. His name came to me one night while I was kneeling beside my bed. I was saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” when I felt him in the air hovering over me. So I asked him straight out, “Who are you?” and Jonathan–the word–was there like a voice, but it was inside my head.
I knew he was my Guardian Angel. That meant he was assigned to me from the beginning. From the very beginning in the hospital room, Jonathan was beside me: tall and fair and golden-haired, white wings spread out as he looked down on me, his new assignment just being born. From that moment on, his job was to watch over me constantly, no matter what. Unlike other angels who would come and go, Jonathan never left my side. I never saw him, of course. We can’t see Guardian Angels with our normal eyes–that’s what the nuns always said–but I spoke to him all the time: Oh please, Jonathan, help me get an A on this test. Or if my heart was broken because someone had been mean to me: Show me what to do to make them like me.
When I was very young, as I knelt beside my bed at night. I said, God bless Mommy, Daddy and anyone else I thought needed blessing that day. Then, Amen. But that was not the end. The end was always Thank you, Jonathan. Good night.
By the time I was ten, I stopped kneeling beside my bed. Eventually, I even stopped saying my prayers, especially if I thought there was something more important to think about at the end of the day. Still, my last thought before I fell asleep was always, Thank you, Jonathan. Good night.
I was certain he was lying down beside me, spreading one long white wing like an arm around me, holding me, unmoving, in the dark. Even in dreams, I tried to keep from rolling into the space–his space–at the edge of the bed. In the morning, I sometimes found a white feather under the blankets which I placed in a jar on the windowsill. My collection had grown to almost forty small feathers when my mother saw the jar shining in the sun. She said, “Jeez-us, why are you saving all these pillow feathers? You must be nuts.” But I didn’t believe her.
Kings-Courier–distinguished publishers of Flatbush Digest, Bay Herald, Midwood Courier and The Canarsie Review–was a rundown storefront on the wide boulevard where Flatbush Avenue meets Cortelyou Road. Even the sign seemed to hang a bit tilted over the front window that displayed antique copies of the news–rows of yellowing pages, crinkled bits of Brooklyn’s history.
Across the river to the west, Manhattan stood tall and shining. But from where I lived in Sunset Park, I only saw skyscrapers from afar–just heard rumors of the Big City across the bridge, watched it in movies or on TV.
When I was sixteen and landed a summer job working for Kings-Courier in the heart of Flatbush, it felt like my ticket to the shining city, even if it did take me miles and miles deeper into the concrete grid of Brooklyn.
Every morning in the summer of ’65, I was out by eight to start the long journey. I slammed the front gate of our small house on 47th Street and headed north along my strip of 4th Avenue. First, the walk past Seltzer’s candy store, Pete the Butcher and the Paradise Diner until I reached St. Michael’s Catholic, my church. Its slender, white steeple loomed like a sure finger pointing the way toward heaven. In front of massive wooden portals topped by Michael the Archangel stomping on the head of the devil, I blessed myself, remembering gentle Jonathan, my Protector. Then I kept moving on–past Swifty’s Laundromat and the Puerto Rican bodega to the bus stop at 39th and 4th. Here, old trolley tracks broke through the tar and all the buses came late or ran slow. I transferred at MacDonald Avenue to the Church Avenue Line which took me to where I could catch the #35 or walk the rest along Flatbush Avenue.
If it wasn’t too hot, that’s what I did–just walk it. Back then, I had a long, quick stride. Dad always said I was the only one who could keep up with him, and he started saying that when I was eleven. Now, at sixteen, I could move even faster, but I slowed down for my walk along Flatbush Avenue. I wanted to watch myself passing in shop windows.
There, between left-over spaghetti-strap sun dresses and mannequins in the coming fall fashions, I could see the dark outline of me in a wrap-around skirt, madras blouse, and imitation-leather summer sandals. There, in the dark spot below the pastries and knishes, I made sure my slip wasn’t showing. Somewhere between the Five and Ten and Judy’s Lingerie, I had to decide if I was ugly or pretty. I had to find the right window — the best was the kosher deli’s — where the glass curved in just the right way to make my belly look flatter. At the second-hand bookstore I stopped for awhile, pretended to spy something I just couldn’t resist, say, the Collier’s Edition of World War II Invasions, where I checked that my hair wasn’t droopy or crazy.
I had a job now. I’m not a kid anymore, I told myself. I’m a reporter.
Well, sort of. I had my own desk with a phone and a typewriter in the Editorial Office adjacent to Production. Every morning I arrived with an English muffin and a take-out tea, just like Jeb, the Editor, except he always had coffee. He rested his crew-cut head in his hand, while we sipped and talked for about an hour. He had interesting stories he liked to tell me about “out there” in the world. Then he gave me a stack of newspapers–not our own but from other publishers–to look for articles of interest to our readers. If I found something pertaining to “our demographic” I was supposed to clip it out and rewrite it. Then Jeb checked it over and slid it in the box, TO BE PUBLISHED, and that was that; that was my reporting.
Every Tuesday afternoon I worked on production, did paste-ups, some proofing–put the paper to bed. Every Friday at four o’clock I went to the bookkeeper who gave me a check: $25 before taxes.
So this was the “real” world my mother couldn’t stop talking about: “Stop your daydreamin’ and get a job, for Chrissake! Get out in the real world with the rest of us!” Now that I was out in it I felt pretty lucky, even though it wasn’t all that I’d imagined. I’d expected more excitement, more on-the-spot reporting, at least an interview, perhaps a column with a byline.
“Do this right and we’ll see what comes next,” Jeb said. So I kept on clipping, kept on rewriting.
“My Sharon is working for a major publisher in Flatbush, you know.” That’s my mother out on 4th Avenue. “Four newspapers,” she tells the neighbors on the stoop after supper. She pushes four fingers, like hard proof, against the air. “She writes for all of them.”
The neighbors nod their heads, smile politely, barely listening. They’re dripping sweat as they fan themselves non-stop and desperate.
“Sure is a hot one,” Mrs. Smolinski sighs. “No sleep tonight.” They all agree. “My Johnny got a promotion down on the docks last week.”
“They’re just jealous,” my mother says later at the kitchen table. “They always have been. People are like that. You can’t trust anyone.”
Next afternoon, Marlene Rabbinowitz walked through the door, pulled up a chair and plunked her feet on Jeb’s desk. “Who’s the kid?” she said, like I wasn’t even there.
Jeb told her I was an intern for the summer. “Her father fixes the printing machines out front on the weekends. He set this up.”
“Humph.” She was dressed all in black with bright red lips and smoked cigarettes one after the other. She had black rim glasses and a black pony tail and white skin. No sign of a tan. Right away, I didn’t like her though everyone else sure was nice to her. They shouted, “Hey, The Great One’s here!” as she paraded through Production like a long-lost movie star making a comeback. I couldn’t believe it. These people barely looked up anytime I walked in. I told myself, maybe they’re too busy, or, maybe they’re not nice. But here they were, friendly and smiling, practically getting ready to lock the doors and throw her a party. But why?
“She used to work here,” Jeb said. He told me how smart she was, a real hipster, lived in Greenwich Village. “But now she’s out of money and back in Flatbush.”
Next morning she was back–rehired–at the desk directly across from Jeb’s, so they were facing each other and talking all the time: about the good old days ten years ago when they were both starting out, about all that had happened to them since.
The first few days, she wouldn’t look at me. Not even a good morning. I felt like an insect stuck on flypaper hanging from the wall. Even Jeb stopped telling me stories like he used to, though sometimes he tried including me in their conversations; like the time he said, “Sharon, did you know Marlene used to be friends with Allen Ginsberg?” And I said, “Who’s Allen Ginsberg?” And she sneered while Jeb explained to me how he was the most important poet of the mid-twentieth century, a direct descendent of Walt Whitman, one of The Beats. And I asked what The Beats were, and he told me about Kerouac and coffee houses in the ‘50s and how great life in The Village was back then, how they all wore black–at which point I figured out that Marlene was probably a Beat. So I asked her straight out, “Are you a Beat?” but she just twisted a paper clip and threw it in the trash basket where it rattled as it landed. “That’s old,” she said. “It’s dead.” Finally, she was talking to me.
“So how’s the job going?” Dad wanted to know as we sat down to hamburgers that night.
“Fine,” I said. “Except there’s this new person there who isn’t very nice. She’s a Beat.”
“A Beatnik?” Mom screeched. “Must be a commie.”
“C’mon, Ruthie,” my father moaned. “Give it a break once in a while.”
“All I got to say,” Mom said, “is stay away from her. Those people are dangerous. Sex and drugs is all they think about...and overturning the American government.”
My father put his hamburger in a bun and started telling me how Beatniks like jazz and poetry.
“They should all go back to Russia where they came from.” Mom was screeching again. “They train them in camps over there, you know. Then they give them new identities and sneak them back into the country to make trouble. Poetry, my ass. Who do you think killed Kennedy? How do you think all this protest stuff got started up? What do you think this Civil Rights thing is, anyway? I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a plot. A communist plot. And that nigger, King, he’s one of them. I’d stake my life on it. Jazz. Ha! Don’t make me laugh. My father was right–Patton should’ve just kept on marching at the end of the second World War and wiped those Russian bastards off the map once and for all. Or dropped a bomb...one of those atom bombs like we did on the Japs.”
Mom was really on a roll that night. I decided to just keep quiet and eat my burgers. No point in arguing. No point in telling her how much I hated it when she said nigger. Or when she pulled the corners of her eyes back to show me what a Jap looks like. No point. It would just make her want to do it more.
Marlene never talked about niggers. She talked about black nationalists, black activists. She talked about things like imperialism and capitalism and American domination of the masses, third world oppression and the rise of the military-industrial complex, the establishment. All these big words I’d never heard before came tumbling out of her mouth like dominoes falling into each other, one after the other. She went on and on, day after day. Now she talked to me all the time. “Do you know who puts your dinner on the table?” she asked. “Do you know where your food comes from?”
The answer seemed obvious. “From the A&P,” I said.
“And where’d the A&P get it?” She blinked her eyes, cool and sarcastic behind her black-rimmed glasses. This was the part where I knew she was trying to trick me but I didn’t know how to stop her.
“From a truck,” I said, having seen it at the loading ramp every Saturday when I did the shopping.
“And where’d the truck get it from?”
“From the train,” I said, as if I knew that for certain, but I didn’t.
“And where’d the train get it from?” She sighed with impatience as if I were the dumbest thing she’d ever had to talk to.
“Probably from Kansas,” I answered quickly. I wanted her to see how smart I was. “That’s where most of our food comes from, isn’t it?”
That’s when she laughed and said, “Don’t make me laugh.” Then she sneered and talked about Chiquita Banana and Central America, slave wages and worker exploitation and I never understood a word of it but it seemed important. And made me nervous. Somewhere underneath all those words I understood that the world I believed in was about to be over.
“Oh please, Jonathan,” I prayed each afternoon as I rode the bus that took me back to 4th Avenue. “Help me be strong and show me how to fight her. You and I both know how wrong she is.”
When I walked past St. Michael’s on my way back to 47th Street, I went in, lit a candle and said, “Please, Jonathan, help me stay a good American.” I knelt at the altar, called on Jesus and His Blessed Mother and St. Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian, who stood over me holding a thick, marble book in his hands. “Please, give me the words I need to beat her.” I prayed to all of them, all the saints lined up on pedestals against the walls, all the angels in flight across the ceiling of the church dome. Then I went home and said nothing. I couldn’t let my parents know. Couldn’t bear to let my mother think that she was right.
“So, my little chick-a-dee”–that’s what Marlene started calling me, her little chick-a-dee–“What do you think about Vietnam?” or, “What about the War on Poverty?” or, “What about the Voting Rights Act?” I didn’t know much about any of those things so I started reading the New York Times. I bought it on my way to the bus stop every morning and read it for an hour or more before I arrived at the office where she pounced on me, first thing, with something from the headlines. The least I could do was build up my arsenal of information, I thought, even if she was older and had read more books.
“Marlene is a Red-Diaper Baby,” Jeb told me one morning when she wasn’t there. Of course, I had to ask him what that meant, and he explained how she had grown up inside The Party. “You know, she grew up on Marx and Lenin. She learned to read with Das Kapital,” and then he went off on a whole story about her parents and the Rosenbergs –Who were they?–and what great friends they all had been–going away upstate with the kids every summer, spending vacations together at communist camps–Could it be? Mom was right?–till the end, when Julius and Ethel died, convicted spies, in the electric chair.
“So, my little chick-a-dee.” It was like she was drooling to get at me, but I was ready. And I wasn’t afraid. I’d read about the riots in Watts that day. It was all over the front page, pictures of fires and looting, a whole string of articles about the problems black people were facing. Yes, it was true the schools were poor and overcrowded. Yes, there was discrimination in housing. Yes, the police would beat them up for no reason and they were right to be angry and strike back. But what about the law? That was my question. Would the riots get them what they needed was my stand, and I was ready to fight for it.
“Tell me,” she said as she rolled toward me in her desk chair and leaned forward, her elbow on the front page of my newspaper, on one of the fires. “What do you think about the Jews?”
“What do you mean?” That threw me. It was completely unexpected. “I don’t think anything about the Jews.”
“Oh, come now.” She had that cold look, that tricky blinking of her eyes. “A good Catholic girl like you dressing up in your little uniform to go to school with the nuns all your life and now you’re here in Flatbush with all us Jews–you’ve never been around so many Jews before, have you?” She leaned even closer, right up to my face. I could see the crinkles in the corners of her mouth pulled up in that sneering grin. “You must have some feelings about being around all these strange people who killed your lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Right?”
A sudden wave of nausea rolled over my stomach. Something was true in what she said, but I didn’t know what it was. It was true that I’d never been with Jews before, and it did feel strange, like I was an outsider in a world where there were words I didn’t understand and rules about dressing and eating, certain ways of talking that were not my own. I kept trying not to hear my mother saying bad things in my head, even when they weren’t nice to me. Sure, I told myself: Maybe it’s because I’m not Jewish. Maybe it’s because I’m not one of them. But even so, I knew this strangeness I felt, whatever it was, had nothing to do with Jesus. “Jesus was a Jew!” I said loud and fast. “And besides, it wasn’t the Jews. It was the Romans who killed him.”
“That’s not what your Pope says.”
“Well, the Pope is wrong!”
“Oh, really?” One of her eyebrows went up in shock over the rim of her glasses. Then she smiled and I knew that the trick was over and she had won. I was afraid I would have to confess this.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession and these are my sins.”
My confessor’s head was bowed behind a square of wire netting in the small wooden window between us. His hand was stretched across his forehead, unmoving, blocking his eyes. He said nothing as I ran through my usual list of sins–five disobediences, eight lies, excessive pride. I had no impure thoughts to report, though in general I wasn’t clear what an impure thought was, which I had once confessed.
I’d said, “I think I had an impure thought, Father, but I’m not sure. Could you give me an example of what an impure thought is?” and the priest, who was Father Haulk, and who was famous for being strict and mean, which was why I chose him–I thought I should always face my sins with the strictest and meanest priest there is–chased me out of the confessional waving his cape in the air, shouting that I was a deceitful child trying to get him to talk dirty.
But for this confession–which had nothing to do with sex–I had chosen Father Stevens, who was sweet and kind, because I knew that what I had to confess was big, much bigger than a sin.
“Father,” I said, and then I hesitated, unsure of where to begin. “I’m confused and full of doubts about everything I believe in.” He remained motionless and silent as I told him the story of my life, right up to the part where I’d always dreamed of being a famous journalist and now I had this amazing opportunity. “And Jeb really is a nice man. It’s just this Marlene who’s mixing me up and making me say things I don’t mean, or I’m not sure if I really mean them, but it doesn’t matter anymore because already I’ve stopped crying when I hear the Star Spangled Banner and how can that be? I always loved my country. And I always loved the Church. This is my home, the place I can come to when nothing else in the world makes sense. But now I’m not sure if it still makes sense anymore. I mean, how could the Pope say the Jews killed Jesus when everybody knows it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order? I mean, we’re all just people right? Jews and Christians, blacks and whites, we’re all the same aren’t we?”
Father Stevens dropped his hand from his forehead and leaned back, closing his eyes. Finally he sighed and said, yes, people are all the same, but it would probably be best for me to remove myself from harm’s way.
What did that mean?
He said my job had become a source of terrible temptation. He said it was posing problems for me that I wasn’t ready to cope with. He said that if I went on working there, my faith would be in danger. He said, God willing, it wasn’t already too late.
Now it was I who was silent and motionless as I knelt upright in the dark, wooden box.
He said, “I realize this job means a lot to you. But you’re young, yet. You’ll have other opportunities.” He said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re going to have to choose. There will be other jobs. But you only have one soul.” Then he told me he would pray for me and I should come back and talk to him, later, when I made up my mind. He told me to say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, then he blessed me, and slid the door shut.
Later that night, Mom and I sat together on beach chairs in our concrete front yard. It was a peaceful moment in our small, open space between the walls and windows of two tenements. So I asked her, “Mom, do you think the Pope is always right?”
“He’s the Pope, isn’t he? Of course he’s always right.” She puffed her cigarette, hard, thought again, pointed and said, “Except when he talks stupid about birth control.”
I should have known. Ever since I was twelve she’d been telling me how unfair it was that she was practically excommunicated, sentenced to hell, just because she didn’t want to get pregnant again. “And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna give up havin’ sex just cause some dried-up old man who never had any–and who knows if that’s even true–tells me I have to.” That’s what she always said, and she was saying it again, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna give up havin’ sex...” till I cut her off fast.
“Mom, is there anything else that the Pope’s not right about?”
“Hm-m-m,” she said, “let me think.” So while she puffed on her cigarette and kept on thinking, I lifted my head to the lighted windows in the apartments all around us. Mrs. Weeden was stooped over the stove in her kitchen making coffee. Mrs. Smolinski was right above her, screaming at Johnny. Alice Sweeney’s shadow slid across the window shade. She raised her arms and shimmied out of her dress. Bucky Hansen–on leave from the Navy– was somewhere up there on the third floor. I couldn’t see him, but I heard him cursing at his mother. The cars on the street and streaks of headlights whizzed by us. The Sea Beach Express rumbled under our feet.
“Your father says the people at the newspaper are happy with you.” Mom’s given up thinking about the Pope. “They say you’re smart...”
How would they know?
At rewriting articles?
“They say that someday you’ll probably go far.”
What a joke! I feel like laughing. Instead, I sit and watch my mother, the outline of her face against the dark. Her legs are spread. She’s hunched forward, still smoking, still thinking. She lifts her cigarette. Its crimson tip turns into ash.
“I just want you to know, we’re all proud of you,” she says.
I say, “Thanks Mom, but what about the Pope?”
“For Chrissake, what’s with all this Pope stuff?” She straightens up. “What are you doin’? Turnin’ into a holy roller? You know, there are things in this world that the Pope doesn’t know about. Only God can know the truth that’s in our hearts.” She lights another cigarette, shakes the match and tosses it. “You’re such a weirdo. Always have been. Always thinkin’ in your head. It’s Saturday night, for Chrissake. You should be out like a normal girl. Get a boyfriend. Go have some fun.”
Later that night as I lay in the dark, I thought about the things she said. About how everyone is proud of me and how the people at the newspaper say I’ll go far and only God can know the truth that’s in my heart. What if she’s right? I wondered. Maybe Beatniks really are communists and I’m just a weirdo with no boyfriend and nothing to show for it.
Jonathan, I prayed, whatever happens, don’t ever leave me. I reached out and stroked the air, felt for wings in the space at the edge of my bed.
By Sunday night I made up my mind that no beatnik commie was going to cause me to lose my faith, so I’d just go back there on Monday morning and show her what it’s like to stand up for what you believe in, even if it isn’t cool or hip or beat, even if there is no way to prove that it’s true. I’d show her just the same.
So Monday morning I marched through Production and said out loud, “Good morning.” I said good morning to everyone, whether they answered me back or not, and when I got to the Editorial office I said it again, “Good morning,” and I didn’t wait for her or Jeb to notice me, I just said it and they both looked up surprised. Marlene said to Jeb, “What’s got into her?” but Jeb acted like she hadn’t said anything. He just smiled and told me I looked chipper.
“I guess she had a good time at church yesterday,” Marlene said, and I said, “As a matter of fact, I did,” even though it wasn’t true. I’d had a terrible time at church yesterday –just going through the motions, just following along with my missal, no heart in it, no longing for the bells, the moment of consecration and then, finally the joy, the bliss of my communion. I usually had to hide my tears as I walked back from the altar, tasting the dry host, the body of Christ, melting on my tongue.
But yesterday, there was none of that. I was just painfully aware that whatever Monsignor O’Brien said from the pulpit sounded stupid–all that talk about how our reward was in heaven and we should show our love for God by putting more money in the collection basket. It made no sense, but I wasn’t about to tell her that.
Instead, I ignored her and got down to work, reading the stack of newspapers on my desk, looking for articles I could rewrite. Everyone’s proud of me, I told myself. Somebody here says I’ll go far.
“So tell me,” she said, “what do you people do in church, anyway?”
“We pray.” I kept turning the pages of the newspaper while I pretended to keep on ignoring her.
“Yeah, but you Catholics do something special, don’t you? You’ve got this Mass thing going on.”
Then suddenly, it occurred to me: Maybe the reason I’m here is to convert her! Everything that seemed like luck until then–that Dad just happened to be working weekends at this place and he just happened to tell them about me and they just happened to offer me a job–that all of this was part of God’s plan, which was for Marlene to meet me and be transformed by the experience. So I made the sign of the cross inside my head, called on Jonathan, and seized the moment. I told her everything I knew about the meaning of the Mass. She was quiet the whole time I was talking. She seemed impressed. It looked like she was actually listening. But when I finished, she started that tricky blinking of her eyes, and said, “That part about the body and blood, I don’t get it.”
So I tried again, ignoring her tricky blinking, and placing special emphasis on how this was in remembrance of the Passover supper and His body was the unleavened bread–it was important for her to see how the Mass came from the Jews so that when she converted she could still feel at home.
“Yeah,” she said, “I get the connection. But the part where the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ, is that for real?”
“Yes, of course it’s for real.”
“So that bread isn’t bread anymore. It’s Christ’s body?”
“Yes.” It was working. Finally, she understood.
“And then you eat it.” Her eyes were blinking faster now. I should have noticed, but I was so pleased with my success. I thought I was getting through to her.
“Well, sort of, I mean, we don’t call it eating, we call it receiving communion. It’s a sacrament.”
“So let me get this straight...you’ve got this ordinary bread and wine and then the priest does some mumbo-jumbo over it...”
“He says prayers. It’s not mumbo-jumbo.”
“...and then he holds it up in the air and poof! It’s the body of this guy who lived 2,000 years ago–for whom, by the way, there’s no definitive historical evidence that he even existed but let’s just say for the moment that he did–so now there’s this 2,000 year old guy right there in the flesh and what happens next? Everybody sings a song and they eat him. Doesn’t all that sound a little primitive and gory to you, if not downright ridiculous?”
I was stunned.
“Sounds like some weird form of cannibalism, the more I think about it. Or a vampire thing. What about the blood? Do you drink that too?”
“Only the priest is allowed to drink Christ’s blood.” Even as I said it, I heard my voice going hollow.
“Aw, let’s face it,” Jeb jumped in, running his hand over his crew-cut and looking worried, finally, trying to save me. “All religions have their odd little customs and rituals, and you either believe in them or you don’t. And that’s the end of it.”
As I walked along Flatbush Avenue later that day, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back to that job again. I kept hearing Father Stevens’ soft, deep voice, telling me I only have one soul. Then I’d hear Marlene’s sharp, sarcastic whine, “It’s all nonsense. I can’t believe someone like you believes this crap.” What did she mean, someone like me? “You’ve got half a brain. Why don’t you use it? You should learn how to think.” She told me I’d have to give up these fairy tales and face the world straight-on for what it was. “Grow up,” she said. “Give up this baby stuff.” What stuff? “This holy ghost and angel stuff.” Then she grinned the wicked grin of the winner who will always win. She sidled up next to me and cooed in my ear, “You don’t still believe in guardian angels, do you?”
The next day, I quit. I just stopped showing up. Never called in, never told anyone. For three days straight I went to church in the morning: begged the saints lined up against dark, marble walls to help me save my immortal soul; called on God and His Blessed Mother and the Holy Ghost. Still, I couldn’t stop crying. I tried talking to Jonathan but I wasn’t able to feel him. He wasn’t anywhere in the air around me. I lit candle after candle as if each new flicker of light would bring back the comfort and sureness I used to know. Then I went to the movies and stayed in the air-conditioning until it was time to go home.
Early on the fourth day, Jeb called. He asked no questions, just said, “I have a special assignment for you. You should come in.” I couldn’t resist. All the way from my house to Flatbush Avenue I tried to pray, but no words would come. All I could think about was my special assignment.
When I got to the office Marlene looked up and smiled politely–though not sincerely–but from then on, she never blinked her tricky eyes again or tried to provoke me. I could only imagine that Jeb had finally told her to “cool it.” I could see him rubbing his hand over his crew-cut, could almost hear his raspy voice after I stopped showing up, “For cryin’ out loud, can’t you give the kid a break?”
The newspaper stacks were gone from my desk and replaced by my special assignment: pictures of space.
“There’s a lady in Midwood who’s the mother of some guy at NASA. Find out what he does and how he does it. Get some quotes from Mom, how she feels about it, you know, that I’m so proud of my son routine. Get on it.”
I had a story and a lead, a scrap of paper with a phone number and a name: Shirley Hoople. This was big. I shuffled through the pictures attached to articles clipped from magazines. Jeb had done it. He said he wanted to inspire me.
There was our galaxy, as seen by telescope, a starry arm stretching toward infinity. There was a close-up of the surface of our moon, cracked and cratered like bad skin, just as Ranger 9 was crashing into it. There were shots of Baja and the Gulf of California, yellow emptiness beside blue water, the mouth of the Colorado a twisted vein. And Alexandria, Egypt, where lush green stopped suddenly and turned into a desert that had no end. There were pictures of capsules and rocket boosters, robots we could send to Mars, and a cross-section of a space suit made of miracle microfibers that would protect man from everything at only thirty-three ounces.
I began to wonder how Mrs. Hoople’s son figured into all this magnificence. When I finally reached her she told me it was Top Secret. But yes, she was definitely proud of him, though she wished he’d call more often and come home for Thanksgiving this year. I convinced her to send me a picture she had of her Harry graduating from M.I.T. One way or another, I’d write this story. That was easy. More important was making a plan for myself in the future. It only made sense that some day they’d need space journalists, on-the-spot, direct from the universe: “This is Sharon Thomson, CBS lunar correspondent, reporting live from the Sea of Tranquility.” Yes, I’d be there in my space outfit, fully equipped, fully prepared. That’s why I had to begin my research.
For the rest of the summer I went to the library after work; took the bus downtown to Grand Army Plaza and prowled through the Science Division. I read about thrust monopropellant hydrazine engines, Si solar cells and quasiomnidirectional antennas. I read scientists’ predictions of what life they might find, not in our solar system which they said most likely contained none, but out there, on other planets around other suns. I read futurists’ speculations about how humans would adapt, create new cultures in space cities, evolve into a higher species, a finer race. Or not. There were those who said humans were humans, and that was that. Wherever we went we would bring ourselves and more of the same: war, greed, ignorance, hate. Expect no great changes, they said, except for the landscape, and perhaps the number of moons on the horizon.
Years later, when I left home, left the Church, left it all and took to wandering the streets of Greenwich Village at night, I found a poster in a psychedelic window on West 4th Street. It was astronaut, Ed White, walking in space back in that summer of ’65, except he wasn’t walking, he was floating over the clouds.
The clouds, puffs and dots spread far across the background, reminded me of my feathers, the collection I kept until the end of ’65 when I emptied the jar out my bedroom window on New Year’s Eve exactly at midnight. It was time. I was learning to think.
Unscrewing the cap, I shook the jar over the yards behind our house. Guy Lombardo was playing Auld Lang Syne on the TV downstairs. Firecrackers popped over neighbors’ shouts. Happy New Year! My white pillow feathers drifted on the wind. They clumped together, sad swirls of raggedy white not knowing where to go until a gust swooped them up like a wing and they disappeared. That’s when I said, “Thank you, Jonathan. Good-bye.”
It felt like floating, like I was Ed White high above the clouds, spread-eagle over the Indian Ocean. Whipping through space at 17,000 miles per hour at the end of a golden cord, he reported no sense of speed, no fear of falling. I, on the other hand, was terrified of flying so far from the world that used to hold me. I had no cord, no suit, no special fibers, no miracles, no visor reflecting back the sun. I could only lie on my bed, face-up, one body drifting through the pitch black, no one to save me, no way of knowing what would come.