Countdown: Jonesy, Debbie, and Michelle
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No, I don’t remember the last time I saw my father.
I know what happened that weekend, because of the home movies. He bought the camera before I was born, and my mother says he took it everywhere but into the shower with him, and I guess he only drew the line there because the water would have shorted it out. Even when they went to bed, Mom says he had it sitting on the nightstand, with the battery all charged up, in case something happened during the night that was worth filming. Something important, like me rolling over. Or sneezing. Or throwing Cheerios on the floor. We’ve got enough weird footage of me to reconstruct the whole first three years of my life.
That’s why we were in
“Higher, Mama, higher!”
“Dan. Danny. Put the camera down, and come here and do this. I need to sit down for a minute before my head explodes.”
“Hang on, hon. I just want to—”
“Daniel Jones, I am asking you to put that damn camera down.”
“Mama, push me higher! I want to go higher!”
I stayed there, with Nana
and Poppa, while Mom went down to the
“So what do you want for your birthday, prettiest girl in the world?”
“Two? How about one kitten?”
“No, two. I want them to be bestest friends.”
“And who’s your bestest friend?”
“I thought I was.”
“No, you’re my daddy.”
“I can be both. See, I’m Mama’s husband, and Nana and Poppa’s son, and Uncle Pete’s good friend, and Uncle Dave’s brother. I can be lots of different things, all wrapped up in one person.”
She waited seven years for him to come back. At the end of seven years, a lawyer told her it was time to declare him legally dead so they could wrap up the paperwork on his estate. I remember her sitting at my grandparents’ dining room table, listening to this man. I heard part of it, until my grandmother took me upstairs. There seemed to be some disagreement about when the seven years was actually up: on the anniversary of the day he left, or the anniversary of the day he was supposed to come back. Either way, by that point, when I was ten, nobody seemed to think there was any chance of that ship showing up.
I don’t know if they finished talking or not, Mom and that lawyer, but she got up from the table, picked up her purse, got in the car and drove away. My grandparents thought she was just blowing off some steam and she’d be back for dinner.
She called them the next
“But why do you have to go?”
“Because I have to help Uncle Alan and Uncle Pete.”
“That’s my job.”
“I think you should have another job.”
“You know what, sweetie? Sometimes I think I should, too. So I could come home every night and tell you stories. I’m going to miss a lot while I’m gone, and I feel sad about that. When I come home, you’ll be almost four years old.”
“I know you are. And next year you’ll be four.”
“Tomorrow I’m three.”
“Then maybe you should have three kittens.”
“Or three tickles. How about three tickles?”
“No tickles, Daddy.”
Somebody was playing a radio, that day we were at the playground. You can’t see anyone with a boombox, so it might’ve been inside a car, or in one of the houses. If you turn the sound up, you can hear it. Mostly advertising, but at one point they’re playing “Unchained Melody.” Maybe a minute or two after he talks about coming home to tell me stories, the lyrics are saying “I’ll be coming home, wait for me.”
“Daddy, what’s a nassernaut?”
“I told you what it is. It’s someone who goes in a ship into outer space.”
Twenty years this week, since the launch. I had another call from a reporter, you know, asking if I’d sit in a room with Chris Virdon so we could be interviewed together. I told them no. It’s different for Chris—he was twelve then, and he remembers his father.
I don’t remember mine.
I’ve tried. A friend of mine suggested hypnosis, but that seems like a waste of money. I have the home movies. Images of his face, his voice, the way he walked, and talked, and moved. You can hear him on the soundtrack even when he’s the one filming and you can’t see him. And I’ve talked to my grandparents, to my uncle, to some of his friends, even with my mom when she’s in the right mood. I know what kind of man he was.
“Shelly bear, do you know who loves you extra special much?”
“That’s right. One hundred and ten percent, over the moon, crazy like a loon, in love with my special girl.”
He and my mom were high school sweethearts. They met when they were fourteen, first day of school, freshman year. I think it took him a couple months to ask her out, then they dated all through high school. Broke up the day after the senior prom, and didn’t see each other for five years after that. Then they ran into each other at the bank, and bing, bang, boom. That’s what he called it: bing, bang, boom.
I hope they landed somewhere. I asked one of the guys at NASA if that was possible and he said yes. So I hope that’s what happened, that they found a, what’s the word, a habitable planet and landed there to check things out. The other possibilities—if it was something bad, I just hope it happened fast. But I want to think something more came out of that mission than their just going adrift somewhere, or, you know—an explosion.
“Dan, she’s going to break that camera.”
“No, she’s not.”
“Shelly, let Mama have—”
“Hush. Let her take pictures of Mama and Daddy. Atsa girl, honey, just hold it up so you can see us on the little screen. There you go, that’s right.”
I wish there were some little thing I could remember. It feels like I have memories, but I’m remembering the home movies, what’s on the screen. I keep trying, but twenty years—I wish I had been older.
I didn’t really lack for anything. I had my grandfather, and Uncle Dave.
“Who loves you, sweetie tweetie booboo cakes?”
“You’re silly, Daddy.”
“That’s me, Daddy Silly Pants.”