John Glenn Orbits the Earth / jody rathgeb

They were three raggedy island boys with two sides to them: sweet as sugar apples to their elders, but wild and rough among themselves, like a pack of potcakes. But just like those dogs, they would sure stick together. I’d watch them from my yard while doing chores for Mama. Joe, Penn and Hammy ran about and shouted, usually throwing sticks or rocks or conch shells.

“Hey, look at me, I’m Bluebeard!”

“Well, I’m Morgan, and I can beat you.”

Joe, the oldest of the brothers, never walked when he could run, and his skinny energy egged on the others. More like a little adult, even at age 10, he always took over as boss and spoke for all of them when grownups were around.

Fearless Penn, just a year younger, always found the sweet spot of danger. You could almost see his mind figuring out the highest tree limb that would be safe for a jump.

Hamilton, barely seven and just following along, would seem dreamy, not as rough, until an idea caught with him. Then he’d add the details, making everyone yell “boom” when they shot the pretend cannon or turning their mama’s pea-shelling bowl into a pirate hat.

They played pirate almost every day. I guess if there’d been television on island back then they would have been cowboys, but we were all closer to the pirate stories. I secretly wanted to be Anne Bonny, but never said anything. Instead, when they did include me, it was, “Maggie’s the governor’s wife,” and I’d be kidnapped.

But everyone forgot pirates the day that John Glenn splashed down near Grand Turk. The news hopped from island to island with food and supply deliveries, and we were all space-struck, especially those Lloyd boys.

“Look at me, I’m John Glenn!”

“Well, I’m Alan Shepherd. I was there first.”

Every jump into the water was a “splashdown!” We heard that one kid from Sandy Point got his head stuck in a fishbowl, trying to be a spaceman. Hamilton decided that I could be Mission Control, and we talked while making static noises.

Everyone thought Hammy and I would end up together, probably because we were the same age and we both took to schooling as we got older. But it was Penn I had my eye on, even back when they were playing astronaut. Hamilton was nice, but he’s the one who took all that play-acting to heart. He wanted whatever was out there. Penn’s future was tied to North Caicos, and so was mine. Even Anne Bonny wanted a man and a baby. I never minded staying here, and this restaurant, our family, island life —it’s enough.

If it wasn’t for his Aunt Tildy dying, I doubt we’d be seeing Hamilton at all. He came back for his daddy’s funeral while he was at college in Miami, then his mommy’s a few years later, but that was it. Hasn’t been to North since, no matter who died, until now. I guess Aunt Tildy was special to him, though it’s been Joe taking care of her over on Middle all these years.

Joe shows up at the restaurant just before Hamilton’s due in. No surprise—he stops in pretty regular, and today I’m sure he’s ready to hide out from the last of the wake arrangements. And Joe and Penn are still OK with each other. They aren’t close like they were, but they can have a beer and be friendly. Hamilton’s the big question. He’s been away a long time. As Penn comes out from the back and I get the men their beers, I realize that we’re all a bit on edge. Doing something will calm me, so I fetch that sack of pigeon peas and start shelling. Penn and Joe drink in silence.

It’s not quiet for long, because Hamilton comes in cursing.

“Goddamn it, Penn! Couldn’t even bring your ass to the airport to pick me up.” He is followed by Reed, who’s left his taxi running.

“Now, pay the man,” says Hamilton. “And give him a beer to go.”

As I move to get the beer, I see Penn and Joe look at each other. Just a second. “Well, hello to you too, Hammy,” Penn says. “Hey, you’re the rich American, you pay Reed.” But he’s reaching for his wallet and pulls out the cash, glaring at his brother. Reed takes his money and gets out fast.

But it’s all over quick. I hand Hamilton the beer Reed refused, and he’s all smiles, asking about the kids and acting normal. He looks older— well, we all are—but his hair is only a little bit gray and he’s neither saggy-skinny, like Joe, nor pot-bellied like Penn. He’s wearing good jeans, clean sneakers and a loose printed shirt like the tourists wear. He looks American.

“Hammy,” says Joe. “Come tell us about your family. When are we gonna get to see that grandson of yours? What is he now, 20, 21?”

“The name’s Hamilton, Joe.” I can see it doesn’t take much to make him prickly, but he bounces back again. “The kid, Freed, he’s 16. Good boy. Not some lazy-ass island kid. Got himself a job after school, showing people around over at the Kennedy Space Center.”

“Now, don’t be all uppity about island boys just ‘cause you got the breaks,” says Joe. He’s pleasant, though, just teasing. “My boy Frank’s doing OK with the business. Moved out of general construction and does finishing work now.”

They go on like that, bragging on the kids and grands, and I settle in with the peas.

Penn puts his foot in it, though. Same old thing. It’s not like Penn wanted to go off to school like Hamilton, but he can’t let go of it.

“The space, center, huh? That grandson, Sylvia’s boy, he gonna be an astronaut? Gonna launch into space?”

Joe lets out this kind of rumble, and Hamilton’s face goes fishy-eyed. I cut Penn a look, and he just shrugs. It feels like a long time before Hamilton answers, and when he does it’s like we’ve opened the cooler.

“Freed’s going to study engineering,” he says. “He’s a smart boy. Sylvia’s been saving for his college.”

Penn won’t let go. “That’s good. Maybe he’ll make something of himself. ’Specially when he knows he’s using up his mama’s money. Right, Joe?” I want to throw my pan of peas right at Penn’s head.

Hamilton doesn’t say anything for a while. Then he gets off his bar stool all stiff-like, and says he’ll see us at the wake. Joe gets up, too, starts to pace around. “No, Hammy—uh, Hamilton. Don’t go yet. Penn didn’t—we’re not gonna … Penn, you catch yourself.”

I know Penn hates being ordered. “The hell I will. All that money and he didn’t even learn to fly. And then stays over there.”

Hamilton is shaking all over, but he keeps his voice calm. “Daddy gave me that money for school, and I went to school. End of story.”

Joe, still pacing, raises an arm toward Penn. “Yeah, Penn, and being an aircraft mechanic is nothing to sneeze at.”

Penn turns on Joe. “You must be getting Alzheimer’s, Joe. You know you asked Daddy—almost begged him—to let Hammy go. To go and be a pilot.”

Joe stops, looks at the floor. “Yeah. And so did you.”

“And we both know why.” They look at Hamilton, who has gone all still. I’m nervous, and don’t know what’s going to happen, so I say the first thing I think of, which is to remind them of those old days.

“Hey, remember playing pirates up on Major Hill?” I blurt.

Joe chuckles, happy for the diversion. “Yeah. Penn’d be hanging from the tree, poking around with a stick—his cutlass. And I’d be makin’ all these noises—aargh! And Ham …”

Penn interrupts. “And Ham was our astronaut when we changed the game.”

Joe stops. Everything stops. Joe looks at the floor, Hamilton looks out the window and Penn just keeps looking at Ham. Then Hamilton starts to talk. Not like in a conversation, but like he’s telling a story that’s been in his head a long time.

“That barrel was rusty,” he says. “It was rusty, there were jagged pieces, and there were holes. Anyone could see that. I know you could see it. I didn’t want to go, and you knew that. But you were both bigger than me, older. So what could I do?”

“Ham, you wanted to go,” says Joe. “You wanted to be an astronaut, splash down in the capsule.”

“I did not want to go in that barrel. You made me.”

Penn laughs. “Come on, we were kids. Kids do shit like that. Yeah, maybe now we’d say, ‘This kid is going to get banged up if we roll him down the hill,’ but kids don’t think ahead.”

Hamilton slams his hand on the bar. “I almost drowned there. Bleeding, the water coming in, trying to get that lid off. I’ve never, never been that scared.”

“But we took care of you,” says Joe.

“Just because you were scared. ‘Don’t tell Mama, don’t tell Mama.’ And making up that story about me slipping on the rocks down by the landing.”

I’m wondering where I’d been that day, because I know I would’ve remembered something like this.

“Well we got in enough trouble for playing down by the landing,” says Joe. He moves toward the window and looks out. “It was a long time ago.”

I can see Joe doesn’t want this to go on, but then there’s Penn. “And then you hold it over us for years and years,” he says to Ham. “Always getting the best, just so’s we’d keep our mouths shut.” Penn turns away, but turns back just as quick. “Damn right I told Daddy to send you, because you made me. Not in so many words, but still. You know, there’s a word for that – blackmail. It was blackmail.”

Penn moves from behind the bar, his fists bunched, and stands right in front of Hamilton. I’m afraid he’s going to hit him, but he goes on talking. “Mama and Daddy are long gone, Hammy. There’s no one to tell. So who you gonna get to fight for you now? Who covers for you over there in Florida? Your wife? Your daughter? Grow up, Hammy.”

Hamilton lets go a little laugh, but not the happy kind. “I did grow up, alright. You two just won’t see it. I’m not a kid anymore, haven’t been for a long time. But you won’t see it. And I’ve done things. I’ve made a good life, but you two—ah, forget it.” But Ham won’t let go, either. “Look, Penn. Don’t blame me if you didn’t get something you wanted. Who does, anyway? No, I’m not an astronaut, not a pilot. I’m not a rich American. I just work and hope I can retire some day soon. You wanna come to Titusville? What’s stopping you?”

Joe turns away from the window so suddenly that he bumps one of the tables and knocks over its centerpiece. Bougainvillea petals skitter everywhere. He looks blankly at the petals, and we all just look at him. “Nothin’ stoppin’ him,” he says. “Nothin now, and nothin’ then.”

Ham, Penn and me, we just stand there like sticks. Joe moves back toward us. “Hell, Penn, you coulda gone to school if you wanted. I coulda too. But we didn’t want to, really. And ’sides, you were too scared to ask Daddy anything at all, thinkin’ Ham had to go first. But you know what? It didn’t matter. Daddy and Mama knew about us launching Ham, almost right after it happened.”

Penn looks stunned, but it’s Hamilton who speaks up. “How—did you tell them?”

Joe laughs. “Nah. Daddy wasn’t stupid. Those barrels might’ve been old and rusty, but he had ’em all counted. And he knew how we played, what we played.”

“How do you know?”

“Aunt Tildy told me. When her mind started to go she got chatty, and it was always about stuff from long ago. She said Mama was plenty mad about that astronaut thing, but Daddy said the scare was punishment enough for us all being so stupid. But they didn’t say nothin’ and neither did we. All that stupidness.”

“Hey guys, lookee.”

“One of Daddy’s barrels. So what?”

“Nah, it’s a space capsule.”

“Oh, yeah! Open it up.”

“Whad’ya think?”

“Kinda small.”

“But Hammy’d fit.”

“Hey, Hammy! Com’ere.”

“What?”

“You wanna be an astronaut?”

“You wanna be John Glenn?”

“In there? Uh-uh.”

“Come on, Ham. It’ll be fun.”

“We’ll roll you down the hill—then spashdown!”

“I don’t know … No! Lemme go! Guys!”

“Get the lid on.”

“Lemme out! Lemme out!”

“Come on, don’t be a baby. We’re gonna tip you now.”

“Lemme out!”

“Ten, nine, eight, seven …”

“Just stupidness,” Joe says again. He starts laughing, lets it swell. He just laughs and laughs, with those two staring at him. Then Hamilton starts laughing too. It’s crazy. Penn slams his beer bottle down, starts to say something, then stops. He looks at those two hyenas and starts to chuckle too. Finally he’s laughing full out, all of them.

•••

Jody Rathgeb grew up in Western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of St. Francis College and John Carroll University. From 2003-2008 she lived on North Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands. She currently lives in Richmond, Va., but continues to visit the islands and draw inspiration from them.

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