Mercury Falling by Jean Boler

Mercury Falling by Jean Boler

Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014

That summer, Weldon Springs, Missouri, was so hot that John Barry’s three oldest children spent almost every waking hour in the trailer court swimming pool. Their northern skin baked under that hot sun, and John’s oldest daughter, Joyce, had skin the color of paper that turned a raw shade of pink the first week. After the last tender layer had peeled away, Joyce’s mother made her wear her brother’s long-sleeved dress shirt in the pool. When she jumped in the water, the stiff white cotton ballooned around her like a defeated sail.

John Barry had quit his engineering job with a construction firm in Minneapolis and brought his young family to Missouri so he could intern for McDonnell Douglas on the Mercury space capsule project. He wanted something more than a steady job and four children with one on the way; something more than a pretty wife who took the children to church, wore red lipstick, and could feed a family of six on an intern’s salary. President Kennedy had vowed to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. Before the TV tube blew out, John watched the news each night and, when he saw Kennedy, he’d lean forward and study the eyes, the smile, the way the president waved to America on the steps of Air Force One.

During the day, the aluminum siding of their trailer glowed in the sun, reminding Joyce of the way the Mercury capsule would light up like a shooting star as it returned to earth through the atmosphere. When one of the children pushed another into the siding, it burned exposed skin like the coil of a stove. The air was so hot the yellow jackets emerged only in the mornings from the hive under the trailer. One morning, Joyce’s brother was stung on the lip as he shielded the baby from an angry bee. After John called him a hero, Joyce took to waltzing around the cement slab patio with the baby on her hip, slowly eating a jam sandwich.

At night, when John came home to the trailer court in his wilted white shirt, tie hanging loose and coat slung over his shoulder, his children would run to him for a hug, those three burnt faces looking up at him with his own blue eyes under the natural curl of his own black hair. He’d sit on the frayed lawn chair with the baby on his lap and observe the bright red of his wife’s lipstick, noting the mound of her belly already stretching against the waist of her sundress. Joyce sat close by her father, close enough to remember, years later, the aroma of gin and the scratch of his starched white shirts against her burned cheek.

The cicadas sang loudly in the afternoons, as if in praise of the punishing sun. In the early evenings, the children sometimes went spider hunting, shining flashlights into dark holes at the bases of trees and along the stream bank. The boy in the trailer next door found a black widow spider in an abandoned house in the woods. They each paid him a penny out of their plastic space capsule banks to see the spider. It waited, small and lethal on its web in a high corner of the house, looking like any other spider, until the boy pointed up at the golden-red hourglass on its sleek black belly. When it suddenly dropped down from its web, the children ran screaming out of the house and down the path all the way to the trailer court as if they heard the whizzing of eight running legs behind them.

Sometimes John would stare at his own smooth, handsome face in the trailer’s cramped bathroom, squinting like Kennedy under the fluorescent light. After a while, he’d turn off the light and grope his way back to where his pregnant wife slept, on the bed that converted into a kitchen table. Sometimes he’d go quietly out the door, stand on the cement slab beside the trailer, and look up into the sky, trying to imagine the path the Mercury space capsule would take among the stars.

His children loved Kennedy too. In later years, Joyce would take out the tattered Life magazine that covered the assassination and the funeral and study each and every picture carefully. She tried to make out the faces in the crowds in Dallas and later in Washington, D.C. to see if someone who looked like her father might be among those smudged, grieving faces. But the crowds were always too blurry and the faces forever unrecognizable.

As the summer slunk along from one day of sticky heat to the next, John came home later and later in the evenings. After their mother ordered them to bed, Joyce would listen hard in the dark, straining to hear the sound of the family car beyond the loud breathing of her brother and sister next to her. Mostly she was asleep long before he came home, but one night she saw the headlights reflected on the ceiling and heard the car door slam softly once and then louder when the latch didn’t catch the first time. She knelt on the bed at the window. Outside, the patio glowed like snow in the moonlight and crickets had taken over the cicadas’ noisy song.

In the shadows beyond the whitened cement, her parents leaned together against the station wagon, her father’s white shirt and her mother’s ballooning sundress shimmering with moon rays. Her mother’s arm stretched across her father’s chest, holding him back or up, Joyce couldn’t tell which. Then he shook off her embrace and staggered forward, pulling the glowing shirt over his dark head. When his hand caught in the sleeve he hadn’t unbuttoned at the wrist, he stepped on the shirt and ripped his hand free, sending a button clattering across concrete.

“John, for God’s sake,” Anne said, stooping to pick up the crumpled shirt.

“I’m done, I said.” His voice had a strangled sound. He slapped the side of the trailer.

Beside Joyce, her brother moaned and shook his head in his sleep.

“You’ll wake the kids.” She hovered next to him.

“I’m sick of the damn kids,” he said.

Too late, Joyce slapped her hands over her ears and fell back on the bed, her heart battering her narrow chest. She pulled the pillow tight around her head until all she could hear was a muffled whoosh like wind in space. She felt the trailer rock slightly and imagined her mother taking down the kitchen table and setting up the bed. Late into the night, she strained to see into the dimmest corner above their bed, sure she saw a dark spot moving there, something sleek and black with a gold-red hourglass glittering on its belly.

The next day, Joyce left her brother’s shirt in the trailer when she went to the pool. All day long, she could feel the skin slowly tightening along the top of her shoulders and the bridge of her nose. She dove deep into the chlorine-blue water and looked up from the bottom at the wavy sun trapped on the surface. That night she had blisters the size of quarters on her shoulders, puffy bubbles that dribbled warm water when she worked them open with her fingers.

After her brother and sister fell asleep, Joyce got up and found her mother sitting at the kitchen table with her head on her folded arms. Joyce went to her and put her hand first on her mother’s forearm and then reached up to stroke her hair. When Anne looked up, her red lipstick had smeared onto one cheek and the mascara had smudged under her eyes. She pulled Joyce down next to her and put her face on the tender burned skin of Joyce’s shoulder. “He loves us,” Joyce told her.

John came back the next morning, and the next Sunday he went to church with his family for the first time since they had moved to Weldon Springs. After church, he took the children for a walk in the woods behind the trailer court. They showed him the black widow spider in the abandoned house. They showed him the place by the stream where Joyce’s sister got the fishhook caught in her thumb and went crying all the way home. They raced and hugged and fought to hold his hands. They sat on a log, one behind the other, their feet dangling over the sluggish stream while he took a picture that forever captured the row of three childish faces full of bursting love.

That evening, he dropped the children and their mother off at the Greyhound bus depot to catch a bus to their grandparents’. They all watched him as the bus pulled away: a handsome, thin man, really more like Robert Kennedy than Jack. He went from the bus depot to a bar and after three martinis he called the woman he had been seeing. She came down to meet him and later, in her car, she let him feel her small breasts and flat belly, and the red shadow inside him became hotter than the night air.

Because Joyce begged, her mother let her watch the Mercury space capsule launch on TV that winter. Joyce knew he wouldn’t be in any of the footage. She knew he didn’t even work on space capsules anymore. But somewhere she was sure he was watching that same liftoff, that same line of light reaching up into the sky. Somewhere he, too, remembered that Mercury would make three orbits, streaking across the day and night skies. And then, as he told her, way above the Pacific Ocean, Mercury would begin falling.

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