Blood is thicker than water. And sometimes, lighter.
The first thing I want to make clear is that I did not ask for this. The only spotlight I ever craved was exactly like the one above my family's two-car garage in Akron, the one that washed across our front lawn on crickety summer nights.
My childhood there was normalcy sanded down with two coats of varnish: Little League, high school band, a solid B average. Straight brown hair that I parted with the majority. Two girlfriends, both named Lynn. I went to the State University in Columbus and majored in accounting; I drank some beer, cheered for the Buckeyes, kept up my grades with little threat of overexertion. This was, after all, 1980, the war over and nothing left to protest, the entirety of Ohio sinking back into a bored state of midwestern bonhomie, which was perfectly fine with me.
Early my last year I met Margaret Glenn in SOC 321, The Sociology of the Family; she was petite and shy, and charmingly diffident. Nice cheekbones and light-brown hair. Hazel eyes set in milk. We made out on our second date, and began studying together on the fifth floor of the library stacks. Within a week I was having dreams about the shape of her knees. Within two I would have picked bugs out of her hair if she'd asked.
My roommate asked, "You know who she is, don't you?"
"Margaret?" I said, wondering what he knew about ring sizes.
"Yeah, Margaret." He looked at me. "Margaret Glenn." He waited again, then gave up. "As in 'daughter of John.' "
Oh. "You mean John Glenn, the Senator?"
"That's right, man. John Glenn the Senator, used to be John Glenn the astronaut, first American to go into orbit." He smashed a fly with a copy of Moby Dick. "Craig, you've just reeled yourself in a big one, man."
"Huh," I said. "Imagine that."
That night I dreamt I was David Eisenhower, wearing two inches of pancake makeup and about to marry Trish Nixon in front of a billion people, only seven of whom I knew personally.
I saw Margaret the next day at lunch, and when I asked about her father she immediately started crying and ran out. I caught her next to a mailbox, both of us out of breath, her cheeks turning red in the autumn air. "Two," she said suddenly, turning to me, agitated and stammering. "Two weeks," the tears pooling in the corners of her big eyes. "That's all it takes, anymore" she said, beginning to sob. "Just two."
The only time either Lynn had cried was when I shut the car door on the hand of the first one.
"Why did I expect you to be any different?" she asked us both, sniffing. "Either guys want me because of my dad, or they don't want me because of him." She stopped while her eyes flashed signs of things I sensed I could never understand. "Just once I'd like it to be me they want." She paused. "Or don't."
She paused and looked right at me.
"What about me, Craig Manney?"
Touching her, I thought she might split in half. I'd never even voted yet. "Well..."
"You know," she said, suddenly trying to sound convincing, "It's not like I'm a Kennedy, for God's sake." Which was true. "Or even Trish Nixon."
I suppressed a wince.
"And they hardly pay attention anymore, once you get your braces off."
I guessed she meant the media, but wasn't exactly sure.
"It's really not so bad, Craig," she said, reaching out to take my hand. She looked at me, into me, searching, waiting for an answer. A middle-aged woman stopped ten feet away, letter in hand.
Looking back now, it was the wait that did it. She asked for the truth, pure and simple, and what midwestern fourth-year college male could ever resist that? Besides, how bad could it really be? A large family picture, maybe, once a year at Christmas?
A swearing-in ceremony every six years? There could be advantages, too--the inside track to cushy jobs, wholesale prices at the hardware store. All of it with Margaret, lovely little Margaret Glenn.
"I'm sure it's not," I said, stepping aside while taking her into my arms.
The mailbox lid was opened and then closed. Margaret held me tightly and pressed her chin into my chest. A maple leaf, still red and yellow, fell to the ground, perhaps a little too soon.
And besides, we'd be on Mars in, what--four, maybe five years, and who'd care about an aging astronaut at the point, anyway?
I met him two months later, when he was in town to speak to the Chamber of Commerce. He took the two of us to lunch at the University Club; by that time Margaret and I were infatuated and inseparable, wide-eyed and syrupy, with a secret set of pet names.
He was older than I expected, wrinkles beginning to show across his forehead. Wise, with two eyes ready to go anywhere. Bald and small, like he was born to be stuffed into a VW bullet, like the first ancestor of a future race. Margaret was his image, small, light-boned, but not quite up to his orbital personality, his confidence, the starlight that still twinkled in his eyes. He loved Margaret, clearly, and said all the right things to me. The meal saw seven requests for his autograph, and by dessert I was calling him John.
I proposed to his daughter on Christmas Eve; we graduated, and a hometown job came through with Sorington and McKyle, Certified Public Accountants. The wedding was that June, a small, private affair at the Cuyahoga Country Club, covered statewide in two back-section inches of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The country had a Democratic president for the first time in eight long years, and better things to worry about.
Margaret and I borrowed the down payment from her parents and took a thirty-year mortgage, three bedrooms and two baths located on a quiet, tree-lined street. When she signed her new name she looked up and smiled, safe now, anonymous and suddenly hidden, no longer conspicuous as a Glenn of Ohio, but simply the newly-married Margaret Manney of 1701 Chaney Drive. We spent our first month trying to conceive and figuring out how to light the gas grill.
"Please be careful," she would always call out to the patio, as if unaware that her father had once been shot into space on a huge version of a propane stove.
"Always, my little kiwi," I would say back, saving my abandon for more reproductive activities.
It was on a Saturday morning, our sixth Saturday of married life as I counted later, when she told me she was sure. I was at my desk, studying life insurance policies before cutting the lawn. She stood at the doorway and said, "Honey, we're going to be a mommy and daddy."
Within the hour I had purchased a half-million dollars of term, payable quarterly.
Our families were thrilled, of course. It would be the first baby on her side of the family, her older sister stuck the '60s with a Brazilian painter in Paris, her younger brother in his third year at the Air Force Academy. Vice-President Mondale sent a gold-flecked card through her father's office, wishing us his best. There were plans to make, decisions on names and a motif for the nursery. "Maybe it's guilt, Craig," Margaret told me, "but I'd like to name it after my father, Glenn or Glynnis, something like that." She was beaming and aglow for weeks, and then for months. "I've never felt better," she said to everyone who asked. She ate, lounged around reading glossy magazines, and ate more, and still she had to take in the waist on the maternity clothes she'd bought for herself.
Looking back now, we might have suspected something. Not a trace of morning sickness. No zits, no hemorrhoids, ankles as slim as ever and not a shiver of pain in her back. She didn't show until well into the seventh month, and by the end her weight gain was only a third of what was normal. In the delivery room she asked for nothing except a hard-tack candy.
"It feels like... a bubble," she said, giggling when Dr. Penrose told her to push.
At least he was sweating.
I was behind Margaret, talking into her ear, looking into the valley of her thighs. "Once more," the doctor said, and Margaret faked a little grunt. The doctor's eyes widened, like he was about to catch a pass. I said something to my wife, I don't remember, something loving and encouraging, and stood up to look. His white mask sucked against his face, the doctor moved quickly, lurched almost, like the baby was trying to slide past him and he'd almost missed the tag.
A boy, I thought, hoping.
At that point events proceeded rapidly. The doctor stood up, my wet, messy baby clamped in his hands. A sharp command and someone swooped in to cut the cord. Dr. Penrose was intent, concentrated, while the baby had yet to make a sound. I thought it strange the way it was being held, high and out at arms length, like you would hold a angry cat, but for what we were paying I assumed it was simply the latest advance in obstetrical technique.
Turning away from us, Dr. Penrose brushed off a waiting nurse and mumbled something through his mask. With a sharp pivot she followed, motioning to a colleague, and together they rushed through a side door with our baby. Took him away.
Kidnapped did not seem too strong a word. My mouth hung open when the second nurse returned just a minute later.
"Is something wrong?" I said to her, my quivering legs pegged to the floor.
"Uh, Mr. and Mrs. Manney..."
"What is it, dear?" Margaret sang to me, still up on a cloud.
"Mr. and Mrs. Manney..." the nurse repeated. Then, faltering, she rushed over to Margaret. She was looking under the sheets when the door opened again.
Two men walked in, one tall and slim, the other short and beefy, both with crew-cuts, both wearing cheap blue suits. White cords came out of an ear and disappeared under their collars. "Mr. Manney," the tall one said in a deep voice. "You'd better come with us, sir."
Large hands clamped on each of my arms, they rushed me down a hallway and into a conference room, and locked the door behind them. "Please have a seat," the tall one said, motioning to the table while straightening his suit.
"I won't!" I said, loudly, and turned back towards the door. "My wife, my baby... ."
"Please sir," he said, eyes like molten chocolate. He paused, heavily. "Please."
Old man McKyle, I thought suddenly, looking around for a phone. He'd know someone who could help, a lawyer. Maybe two of them. This is my family they're messing with. Hell, for that matter, just go straight to the top and get ahold of her dad in D.C. This was America.
The tall one sighed like a St. Bernard, and reached inside his jacket. "I'm Detective Warring," he said, producing I.D. from his wallet. "Frank Warring. And this is Detective Jaronik." He jerked his head to the short one, the bastard.
"We're with NASA, sir." He tried to smile. "Special Investigations."
Finally Dr. Penrose came through the door, his smock still dark with sweat. He was followed by more men in suits, but dark and expensive, wearing well-polished shoes. Lawyers, no doubt. Jaronik stood next to me, breathing heavily.
"Doctor," I said, rising from my chair. "What the hell's going on?"
"Mr. Manney," he said. "Craig." He looked at me and gestured to my chair. "Please, have a seat."
I did, huffily. "My wife...?"
"And the baby...?"
"He's alive," Dr. Penrose said. "A boy. And healthy, too, from what we can tell." He paused, then added. "In fact, quite buoyant."
I was confused by his choice of words. A finger missing, I could understand. Or even (God forbid) something worse, a birth defect, a hole in his heart. I could adapt. We could adapt, Margaret and I. But buoyant?
"But... I don't..."
Dr. Penrose searched my face, painfully, rapidly, then swiveled his chair towards the wall. He pressed a button on the tabletop, and with a small whirr the wall to my left fell away, revealing a wide window into a lily-white nursery, empty but for three nurses standing near a back corner. They wore masks and gloves, and one held a baby in her arms--mine, I assumed. My baby boy. Glenn.
Doctor Penrose cleared his throat and spoke loudly, apparently toward a speaker in the ceiling. "Go ahead, Nurse Rowland."
A nurse looked at us through the glass, then back to the baby. "It's alright, nurse," the doctor said, and she stepped forward, slowly. Then she unwrapped my baby and held him outward with both her arms, as if offering him up to the gods. Speechless, my nails dug into the palms of my hands. I heard my thyroid flush. Little Glenn was there in her open, wavering arms, smiling, and then... he began to rise. Up. Steadily, quickly. An inch. Three. Twelve--when she reached up and took him back to her bosom.
The room was speechless, even the lawyers. Doctor Penrose turned back and spoke to me with as much clinical posture as he could muster. "Mr. Manney..." he said, and cleared his throat. "Mr. Manney, your baby appears to be weightless."
First I had to see my wife. I found margaret in Recovery, sitting on the edge of her bed, putting on makeup.
"It's a boy," she sang, as if it were the first ever.
Apparently she had not been told everything. I tried as best I could, husband to wife, one frightened parent to another. This was not something that had been covered in Sociology 321.
"...There must have been six lawyers in there, Margaret, more doctors too, and the nurses had on layers of protective garb..." She was crying now, quietly, mascara flowing south across her cheeks.
"...And some guys from NASA, whatever in the hell they're doing here."
"Oh my God," she said, stiffly, shifting suddenly into some kind of feminine survival mode. "Call my father." She jumped down off the bed. "And take me to see my son."
They had emptied the wing and spaced policeman along the hallway. At the nursery we looked in through the glass, still hoping for a simple bassinet, little Glenn's name written in blue, a wreath of plastic flowers nearby. A few spit bubbles, perhaps, nothing more.
Instead there was a stepladder, with a doctor on the top rung reaching upward. Glenn was bouncing against the ceiling, lightly, drifting away from his arms. The nurses were underneath, like firemen with a net.
"Don't let him get tangled in the lights!" one of them yelled, and Margaret resumed her crying.
Detective Warring appeared suddenly behind us.
"Mrs. Glenn," he said, and Margaret jumped.
"I'm sorry," he said, sighing. "Mrs. Manney... perhaps we can talk."
He lead us back to the conference room, Jaronik grunting along behind us. There Dr. Penrose was talking with a young women in glasses, a plastic badge clipped to the collar of her suit jacket. "The parents," he said to her when we came in.
I was holding Margaret's hand and felt her turning to steel again, ready to fight in defense of her nest. "I'm Leslie Goodall," the woman said, "from the National Security Agency, and..."
"I want to know about my son," Margaret interrupted.
The woman handed me her card. Biological Physicist, Ph.D.
"Yes, of course," Ms. Goodall said with a hint of nervousness. "In light of the extraordinary occurrence that's taken place in this hospital today, let me explain."
There was something buried deep in Margaret's mRNA, she said, which was the first thing I didn't understand. Mutations of the amino acids, and talk of her DNA-sequencing being off the mass shell. Anticodon splits induced by a changing gravitational field. Nothing I had ever learned in accounting.
"Let me get this straight," I finally interrupted. "You're saying our son's genetics have left him without weight?"
"Essentially, yes," Ms. Goodall said, pushing her glasses back up her slight nose.
I wondered if they had yet gotten my baby down off the ceiling. "And how, ma'am, do you account for that?" I asked.
"Oh my," Margaret said, softly. "I bet I know."
I reached the Senator in Mexico City, at a conference of the Organization of American States. It was a bad connection; I was yelling into the phone, and could made out little of what he said. "NASA," I heard near the end, between the crackles.
By then they had let Margaret into the nursery, where she had clamped onto our baby boy like she was fighting for him with the moon. He was smiling still, with dark hair. Skinny, like Margaret and John, but at least you couldn't see through him. "Isn't he something?" she said, with irony only a mother could ignore.
We would probably have to move our nursery up to the second floor and screen in all the windows.
There were tests, of course, and parameters to determine. Buoyancy factors, genetic propagation velocities. They would have turned Margaret inside-out if we'd let them, and wanted six, eight, sometimes ten sperm samples a day. It was tiring, this fatherhood, and we had yet to get the little guy home.
My parents came to the hospital to visit. Not yet ready to explain the levity of their new grandchild, we had a x-ray technician fashion small lead plates from a radiation apron, which we tucked into the baby's diaper. Margaret's mother and father came, straight from the airport. John was beaming and proud, like the mission was finally accomplished. He knew Warring from the Mercury days; the Senator went on about the new possibilities for capacity-to-thrust ratios, talked about the chances of finally leaving the confines of our solar system.
"Let these NASA people take care of you," he told us more than once. "They'll treat you real nice." I still wasn't sure why they were there.
Margaret was adamantly against straps. "He'll grow up thinking he's done something wrong," she said, so we sewed a network of Velcro strips onto little Glenn's pajamas.
He was happy, our baby, in a perpetual state of floatation. Diapers proved to be of limited use. The Senator laughed when he heard. "Same problem they had during the Gemini program," he told us.
The government put a medical lab in our basement, and Leslie Goodall moved into a spare bedroom, to measure and test, poke and prod. She explained to us her theories, the three orbits of Friendship 7 and how they might have lead to this. No other reports, as far as she knew--but then the g-factors of later launches were not comparable.
"What about me?" Margaret asked once. "Why was I born normally-weighted?"
"It's recessive," Leslie said, quickly. "Apparently." She blinked fast, three times. "We think."
He was smart though, my son. Cooing at two months, talking by ten. "His neural pathways aren't grounded," Leslie said once, to which Margaret raised her eyebrows. We had managed to escape attention, except for a thin but continuous stream of high-placed government scientists and officials. We were elated that the story had not leaked, and prayed that our baby's life would be as normal as... well, as normal as possible. We would be as normal as possible. That had been utmost since Margaret and I had fallen in love, and we still hoped that the hoopla would blow over soon.
"Look at the boy in the bubble," Margaret said once to Leslie. "Who remembers him now?"
"But Sweetheart, this boy is a bubble," Leslie said back.
The world did move on, in its way. I went back to work, with congratulations all around. Other fathers called home to see if their baby had yet taken their first steps; I called to make sure mine wasn't pegged against the ceiling. Elvis died, for awhile. The Iranians took over the U.S. Embassy. "If you only knew," Warring said to me shortly after it happened, "what is really going on in Teheran." Pressed, he would only say, "Let's put it this way: Half of the leaders in this world are afraid of your son, and the other half want one for themselves."
A week later we were taken to New Hampshire, rushed away in the middle of the night, given a picturesque cabin on the edge of the Whites. It was nothing like Ohio, green mountains instead of the fruited plain, no clipped lawns or suburban strip malls. Run by the same government people in charge of Camp David. "It's all yours, for now," Warring said, sweeping his hand over the woods and fields around us.
"And by the way, you've been classified."
Looking back, it was for the best. There was clean air and plenty of privacy. The Senator choppered in once a month, and Jaronik fashioned a seat belt for the commode. There were families who had it worse, that much I knew. We got Glenn a couple of dogs, and a leash with a clip on both ends. Leslie continued her studies, eventually taking over as Glenn's tutor, and filling the role of his aunt. "Very, very smart," she said of him.
"On top of everything, huh?" Warring said, smiling, until Leslie and Margaret stared him down.
He picked apples for us, and kept the gutters clean. There were therapies and medications--iron supplements, lead belts, suction cups on the soles of his shoes. We used a tether on windy days, after once chasing him three miles down the valley and plucking him from a large oak. But over years it came to be something like what Margaret and I had wanted, peaceful but full, filled with the unexpected mutations of life instead of the ungrounded visions of youth.
"You'll never believe what Glenn did today," Margaret would often say to me when we were lying in bed at night, and usually I didn't.
Most sports were out, especially the high jump. Glenn took to chess by mail, and slept with books like Modern Chess Openings. When we had cable installed we watched the Ohio State games on television, two generations rooting for the same team, father passing his heritage down to his son.
"Dad," Glenn asked once, "if you carry the ball through the uprights, does that count for three points, or a full six?"
I hadn't ever thought about it that way.
We weathered the Senator's run for the Democratic nomination for president. He had been insistent in the beginning, sure he could keep us under wraps, the old test pilot ready to break new ground. Margaret had asked him to reconsider, begged him to withdraw, pleaded, one letter after another. You have to think about what this means for your grandson, she told him over and over. But he quickly found that the world had moved past the hero and astronaut, past the glories of the space program and into the wonders of junk bonds, past Chevrolets and into K-cars, the melodies of the Beatles replaced by the bellowing of Bruce Springsteen. Illegal PAC money hadn't helped him any, either. At least he had been able to spend some extra time with us in New Hampshire.
He wouldn't have beaten Reagan anyway. Ironically I sometimes think it was the one thing that might have protected us, Margaret and Glenn and I. The Republicans stayed in power, the President piled deficit upon deficit, vast sums spent on armaments, defense technologies and satellite-based theories. Eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviets, he threw down two dollars for each of their rubles, and still they couldn't keep up. There were no manned flights to Mars, but the Russian bear was finally declawed, the Cold War over, and cultural exchange again on the horizon. Records began to be released, long-secret information declassified, a lengthy process that would go on for years.
In the process, mistakes were made.
The first rumor showed up when Glenn was eighteen and we were trying to decide what to do about college. It was one paragraph in the back of Jane's Defense Weekly, half the facts wrong but half of them right. "Rumors of monkeys born gravitationally-impaired," it said in small print. "Soviet experiments could provide new capabilities."
A week later there was a report that the United States had a program of its own.
Someone claimed evidence of a laboratory accident. Detective Warring doubled our cabin's usual complement of security personnel, just to make sure. I spotted a camera crew in town, with New York plates, and in the permanent media frenzy of the nineties, reporters fed on hair spray and O.J., it didn't take them long to find our front door.
I didn't really believe it myself until I watched Connie Chung on the evening news, standing on the edge of our front meadow, reporting that a no-fly zone had been declared within five miles of the house. (Warring denied it when I asked, but said his foremost concern was always the security of the boy.)
The next day a telegram arrived from Moscow. "
Glenn Manney," it said. "
It is imperative that we meet. We have much in common."
It was signed, "
His grandfather flew in the next day to explain. "Must be Yuri's daughter," he said as soon as he read it.
"Granddaughter, probably," Leslie said.
"Whatever. Son of a gun." His eyes began to shine with the reflection of earlier times. "He only got one orbit to my three, but still they beat us by almost ten months... I remember the..."
"Dad, later," Margaret said. "What about Gagarin--where is he now?"
"Dead," the Senator said flatly. "A huge fireball in an early test of the Soyuz program." He looked up at us while reaching for his handkerchief, and blew his nose loudly. "I've always admired him for that."
Later, Warring took me aside. "Of course, Craig," he whispered, "we've known all along." He quickly looked around and then continued. "Didn't you ever wonder why we were waiting at the birth?"
"Yes, but..." and he held up a hand to stop me. A quick finger across his throat, and that was all.
It turned out Natalia was nineteen years old, conceived by Gagarin's only daughter and born in '77, one year before Glenn. She had been hidden away in a bunker in the Urals, her parents no more sure what to do with her than we were with ours. Glenn wrote back immediately; she sent him a picture. She was beautiful, slim, and light-boned. She had taken to weightlessness as a fish to water, like a bird to air.
My son was smart, but he had led a sheltered life, that much I knew. And he was eighteen years old, full of things I could only vaguely remember.
Margaret's dad pulled in every favor he had, and the Air Force offered to fly my boy to Sverdlovsk in a modified C-14 transport. Glenn left on a warm day in June, tall and still growing, weighted down with a new pair of lead boots. (Thighs the size of a horse, that boy had.) I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry. I wanted him to stay and I wanted him go, to fall in love on a sunny autumn day all his own. He was ecstatic about it all.
"Promise me you'll write," Margaret said to him in a hug.
"I will, Mom."
"And promise me you'll keep your sheets tucked in tightly at night, OK?"
And then he was gone, jumping onto the turbulent winds of the world.
They had their coming-out party in Amsterdam, after informing us of their decision. Glenn and Natalia were an instant sensation, bigger than Michael and Lisa Marie, and married three months later atop the Eiffel Tower. Time has just named them Man and Woman of the Century, and Margaret is busy writing a book. Darlings of the worldwide media, our son and his wife are followed around the globe by a medium-sized city of fans, admirers and not a few kooks. Some think they are angels. Some think them to be callous experiments of a New World Order. There are many who believe they represent the Second Coming on the cusp of the new millennium. Glenn and Natalia smile and laugh and treat them all with respect.
"They're just people," Glenn said to me once on the phone, "and they're just looking for some hope." He gives inspirational speeches, floating over the outstretched arms of the crowd. "And besides, dad," he said, "it's fun."
Leslie has left New Hampshire now, traveling with them to take care of their medical needs, writing papers speculating on their reproductive expectations. A permanent group has taken over our front yard, camped in perpetuity, waiting for Glenn to visit home, hoping to glean something from the place where he was raised. We've tried to have them removed, but it's of no use. The Church of Scientology has a swollen membership and new headquarters down the road, and the recently-formed Gravitationalist Party preaches that the end of the world is near. We have quiet dinners, Margaret and me and Detectives Warring and Jaronik (who actually is capable of speech), and once-Senator Glenn could not be happier. I stand at the front door some nights, taking it all in, my wife by my side, still slim and petite. I'm lucky to be married to the former Margaret Glenn, if somewhat confused by it all, lucky to have her in these run-down, messed-up days of the late nineties, lucky to have a son who has also found someone special. And who knows--maybe the two of them can make a difference.
"Look," someone shouted from the crowd last night, pointing at us. "It's Mary and Joseph, come anew."
I turned out the spotlight over our garage and tried to get some sleep.
David Appell (email@example.com) is a freelance writer determined to exist outside the corporate paradigm. His work has appeared in Audubon, The Seattle Review, Sycamore Review, Hawaii Review, and other magazines. He currently lives in central New Hampshire.
InterText stories written by David Appell: "Understanding Green" (v7n2), "Baby Glenn" (v9n1), "The Posticheur" (v9n4).
This story originally appeared in The Seattle Review.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 David Appell.