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Tuesday, 2/1/11 – Night Flight

Millie dries the last of the breakfast dishes, places it in the cupboard, and looks out the window at the silver rocket gleaming like madness in the late-morning sunlight.

An hour ago there were sneakered children lined up in front of the hatchway nervously clutching brown-paper lunchbags, waiting for the door to slide open and their adventure to begin.

She remembers when the rocket arrived, when it set down, right there in her own back yard. And, there was Frank, running around waving his arms – “This way! No, that way!” – directing the big ship. She laughs at the memory; even on fire, Frank wouldn’t run around waving his arms like he did.

There is plenty of talk about the rocket – most of it untrue – but Millie lets it pass. Oak Knoll is a small town and people have little to talk about. Stories of the rocket have run from person to person, twisting and changing like forms in fun-house mirrors. But, the stories aren’t the only things that have changed; all of Oak Knoll seems different, more alive. It’s as if the ship brought with it some carnival magic that has affected everyone, and no one more than Frank.

After thirty-five years of marriage, she thought she knew everything there was to know about Frank Talbot, but lately, he’s begun to surprise her. And, if last night was to be believed then his surprises were welcome.

All of this craziness started with a visit to her sister in Florida. Millie had spoken across the breakfast table to the morning headlines, “Frank, Vera’s just moved into her new place, do you think we might drive down and visit for a few days?”

The silence on the other side of the paper was not unexpected; Frank was not one to speak without first weighing and measuring his words. If it wasn’t for his occasional where’s-my-this or have-you-seen-my-that, they could go for days without exchanging a single word.

“She says that you can see the Space Center from her house. The other night they had neighbors come over, they set up lawn chairs and watched the rockets taking off. Better than on TV.”

Slowly, the paper lowered and Frank softly responded. “We might consider a visit.”

Two weeks later they were sitting on Vera’s front lawn, sipping iced tea, and watching the rockets.

Millie doesn’t know if it was the rocket’s ignition that lit something inside of Frank or if the rumblings shook loose some of the rust that had built up inside him over the years, but whatever it was, Frank started talking, and once he started, nothing could stop him.

“Did you see that?” he asked after the first rocket inserted itself into the clouds. The second pulled him up out of his lawn chair. The third had him pointing. “Look! Look at that!” as if those assembled on the lawn might miss it.

Frank talked halfway into the night, and was dressed and ready to go before anyone else had opened an eye. “Let’s go,” he urged as they emerged from their rooms. “We’ll grab breakfast on the way.”

Millie just shrugged to her sister, “I don’t know what’s gotten into him.” But, they all picked up their pace, dressed quickly and followed Frank to the car.

All day there were stars in his eyes. Focused on infinity, Frank moved through every exhibit at the Space Center. At one point the rest, unable to keep his pace, urged him to go on ahead telling him they would meet back at the car at closing time.

Driving back that night, Frank talked on and on about all he had seen. In the middle of a sentence about the Apollo rocket, he slammed on the brakes and steered the car to the side of the road.

“Frank Talbot, are you trying to get us all killed?” Millie screamed at him while her sister and brother-in-law watched wide-eyed from the back seat.

Frank just stared out the window and pointed. “Look…”

Everyone turned and looked where Frank pointed.

“It’s just a junk yard.”

“No! Do you see what’s in it?” But, before anyone could respond, Frank was out of the car and standing by the fence.

Shaking their heads, they opened their doors and joined him.

Pushing his finger through the chain-link fence, Frank called out the names of the discarded rockets. “Atlas! Titan! Saturn!” Some were full fuselages, others just pieces: nose cones, boosters, first and second stages.

“Frank, come away from there. It’s getting late, time to go.”

But Frank was moving, walking toward a small shack where a single window glowed golden in the fading light.

“Hey! Anybody there? Hey!”

Standing back by the car, Millie watched a hunched man emerge slowly from the shack. Frank spoke with him briefly before returning to the car.

“He said I can come back tomorrow.”

“Now, why would you want to visit a junk yard?”

“He said they sell them.”

“You’re not…”

But, he was. And, he did. Three weeks later, the rocket arrived on a flatbed truck and a crane lifted it off and, with Frank running around giving directions, placed it upright in their back yard.

For the past week Frank has been preparing and making everything right. Last night he declared the rocket complete, and surprised Millie by inviting her to join him on the first flight.

“Oh, I’m not sure,” she said, “it looks dangerous.”

“Safest thing in the world,” he assured her as he escorted her outside, across the lawn and into the open hatchway.

Inside the rocket, Frank secured the door then instructed Millie on where to sit.

“Shouldn’t I have a space suit or a helmet?” she asked.

“No, you won’t need them. Just sit down and relax. Close your eyes.”

Millie sat back in the large, padded chair and closed her eyes. She heard Frank settle into the chair beside her and felt his hand move over hers.

As they sat holding hands, Millie could hear Frank’s barely whispered countdown moving from ten, to nine, to eight… When he reached zero, he gripped her hand a little tighter.

She doesn’t know what she expected, but what happened was not a thundering of engines or a great shaking and rattling, it was Frank’s soft voice recalling events in their life; the weight of his words pushed her back into her seat. She felt herself become weightless as Frank continued telling her things. Most she knew, but it made her feel good to hear them spoken aloud. It had been too long since Frank had said he loved her.

She awoke this morning with her head on Frank’s pillow, his breath soft on the back of her neck, his arm around her, still holding her hand.

Millie hangs the towel over the oven door handle, and gazes out the window at the gleaming silver rocket.

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