APRIL 12, 2001
I CAME ACROSS THE ENCLOSED RECENTLY
AND OF COURSE THOUGHT OF YOU. FINALLY, TO LEARN WHATEVER HAPPENED TO MIKHAIL
ILYICH KORFF! I MUST ADMIT: I WAS SURPRISED TO SEE HE HAD RETURNED TO RUSSIA.
ONCE THE USSR FELL, I SUPPOSE THERE WAS NO REASON NOT TO RETURN. STILL, IT’S
SAD IN A WAY. IF HE WANTED TO DIE ALONE, HE COULD HAVE DONE IT HERE JUST AS
IT GIVES ME A CHILL TO REALIZE MIKHAIL
DIED LESS THAN A YEAR AFTER WE LOST CONTACT WITH THE BRAHE MODULE. DOES THIS
MEAN I’M TURNING INTO A SUPERSTITIOUS OLD FOOL? SEEING SIGNS AND PORTENTS
IN THE PATTERNS OF STARS? BUT I SUPPOSE I SHOULDN’T BE THAT SHOCKED BY
SUCH A COINCIDENCE. WE’RE OLD MEN NOW. YOU AND I. MIKHAIL. THE BRAHE MODULE.
FORGIVE THE MAUDLIN TONE. I THINK
OF YOU OFTEN, MY FRIEND. GIVE MY LOVE TO JEANNE.
Stapled to Ping’s
letter was a photocopy of a page from a Russian newspaper. Edward hadn’t
read Russian since his retirement from NASA, but it was like Ping to presume
he hadn’t forgotten a word. He took the Russian dictionary from his bookshelf,
brushed the dust from it, then carried it and the letter to his desk.
Ping had marked the relevant item on the newspaper page. It was a short notice.
The photocopy was poor: the ink too light, the print fuzzy. Each word floated
above the page and wavered on the periphery of his vision, as in a test an ophthalmologist
might give. He removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. Surely
such a simple task wasn’t beyond him. He perched his spectacles where
his nose broadened and, following the text with his index finger, his left hand
poised above the dictionary, began to translate.
Korff. Died on January 10, 2001. Seventy-six years old. Lived in St. Petersburg.
In his apartment gave piano lessons to children. Decorated for valor in the
Great Patriotic War. No known living kin.
He read the obituary again, but with the same result: in the end, Mikhail had
returned to Russia. It was surprising, surprising and sad—although for
reasons far more complicated than Ping believed. Ping considered Mikhail a figure
from the Cold War, a historical curiosity. But Edward’s surprise and sadness
had nothing to do with politics.
Jeanne called him to dinner. He put Ping’s letter aside and went to the
“What does Ping write?” Jeanne asked.
“He says hello.” He kissed her cheek. “And someone we worked
with died. Mikhail.”
“My God. I haven’t thought of him in years.” She ladled beef
stew into two bowls. “He was ancient when we knew him.”
“He’s my age.”
She pursed her lips, a patient smile. “I meant ancient in spirit. Do you
think they buried him in that funny hat he always wore?”
Edward carried the bowls of stew to the table. “I don’t know what
hat you’re talking about.”
Of course, the Mikhail Ilyich Korff in the newspaper might not be the Mikhail
he had known. Mikhail was a common first name in Russia, and Ilyich a common
patronymic. The obituary didn’t mention Mikhail’s role in the Soviet
space program—that if not for an irregular heartbeat he, not Yuri Gagarin,
would have been the first man to orbit Earth. It didn’t mention his wife,
“A deerstalker,” Jeanne said as they cleared the table.
“That funny hat he wore. It’s called a deerstalker.”
“He never wore a funny hat.”
“No need to snap.” She waved a dishtowel at him. “Go. You’re
in one of your moods. I’ll clean up faster by myself.”
He returned to his desk and read the obituary again. Mikhail was dead. It was
ridiculous to think otherwise. The age was right, and the detail that he’d
taught piano in his apartment was persuasive. From his bookshelf Edward took
a photo album and opened it to the final page: a shot of Mikhail, Ping, and
himself in the backyard of his house in Greenbelt, Maryland, celebrating the
launch that day of the rocket carrying the Brahe module. Mikhail, in blue jeans
and a white T-shirt, the outline of a pack of cigarettes visible in his chest
pocket, looked no less comfortable an American than Ping or he himself did.
Mikhail had seemed happy then, satisfied that he’d had an impact on the
Brahe Project, looking forward to his next assignment with NASA. He’d
had no reason to return to Russia. None whatsoever. But he had.
The shot was tilted five degrees on its z axis. Linda had taken it. She couldn’t
hold a camera steady at that point but had insisted on joining the celebration.
Even now her strength during those final months impressed—no, staggered—him.
Jeanne was already asleep when he came to the bedroom. He padded across the
carpet and turned back the covers on his side of the bed.
“I’m awake,” she murmured.
He lay down and pulled the covers to his chin. “You’re angry I snapped
“No. You lost someone.” She nuzzled her head against his shoulder.
“Do you want to talk?”
“You’re too understanding. I don’t deserve it.”
She kissed him on the mouth: her lips were soft, the tip of her tongue ticklish
against the tip of his. His hands moved through the dark toward the gentle slopes
of her hips. He fumbled with the hem of her nightgown. He couldn’t lift
it from her without pinning her head in between her upraised arms. She told
him to lie down. With one hand, she grabbed the bottom half of her nightgown
in a bunch and held it above her waist; with the other, she yanked his pajama
pants to his ankles. She straddled him, her hands against his sternum for leverage,
and he swayed slightly with the rocking of her hips. The tilted picture: Linda’s
trembling fingers struggling to focus the lens. His muscles quaked with exhaustion;
he clutched Jeanne’s hips to halt her movement.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t.” She laid her head against his chest. “The thought
The warm pulse of her breath on his neck slowed. She’d fallen asleep.
The pressure of her body against his made his joints ache, but he didn’t
want to move her to her side of the bed. He stroked her face, marveling at the
soft, smooth skin, at the dusting of freckles on her cheeks. He was more attracted
to her now than when they’d met, twenty-six years earlier.
Jeanne had stopped by his office to introduce herself: Ping’s new secretary.
A short, plump woman in her early thirties, curves that might have been pleasing
flattened by a poorly tailored pantsuit. Face pale and unpainted, hair pulled
back into a bun. Certainly not as beautiful as Linda had been at her age.
He was tall and quite thin then—not handsome, exactly, but with what he
thought a good face: his nose a bit too thick, his forehead a bit too high,
but his eyes bright green, his jaw strong. Now his hair had gone silver and
he’d lost a few inches from his height—several operations for a
slipped disc and the natural curving of age—and after he quit smoking
and stopped walking to his office every day he’d developed a soft, sagging
paunch. He now had to study his reflection for minutes to find the green within
his rheumy eyes.
Only when his son visited from college could he recall how he’d once looked—and
even then this recollection was faint. William was tall and lanky and had his
green eyes, but William’s features were softer—they had the rounded
quality of Jeanne’s—and his hair, like Jeanne’s, was curly
and a rich, chocolate brown. William, a drama student also taking pre-med courses,
had the world ahead of him. Edward wouldn’t live to see all that William
might make of his possibilities. This he’d known since William’s
birth. Yet these bittersweet feelings always turned to frank amazement. He was
seventy-six years old, past the age when the world expected anything from him,
yet he could claim to be the father of this young man. This young man, soon
to become a doctor, an actor, or both, still phoned him for advice on car repair,
to ask his opinion on politics or baseball. He thought this one of the miracles
He’d wanted a child with Linda. It would be easy now to say he hadn’t,
that they hadn’t been meant to be parents. But, oh, he’d wanted
a child—he’d wanted everything—with her. Linda was a tall,
slender girl with sharp features—almond-shaped eyes and a thin, sleek
nose. Her face seemed to split the air as she moved forward. He thought her
a movie star, the tough-talking dame in detective pictures, the one with a wounded
heart. She would have looked good wearing a hat with a black veil, smoking a
Turkish cigarette in an ivory holder.
They made love for the first time in the backseat of his father’s Packard
the night before he enlisted in the Navy. Her expression then—her head
turned aside, her eyes half-shut, biting a corner of her bottom lip—suggested
however close he might be to her at that moment, he’d never learn her
secrets. Still, he promised her his heart. Three years he was away. On the deck
of the Enterprise in the Pacific, when the evening sky was cloudless and bright
with what seemed millions of stars, he would get dizzy at the thought of those
secrets and the mystery of their future together looming above him, infinite,
They married a month after he came back from the war and a week before he enrolled
at Johns Hopkins. Linda didn’t become pregnant right away, but he didn’t
worry. His time in the Navy had taught him patience. It was easy to forget that
they were young—twenty-one, and he was already a veteran!—that they
still had their entire lives ahead of them. Besides, he believed it wise not
to have children so soon. There was the workload of his studies, at Hopkins
and then at MIT. There was the move from Baltimore to Boston, then from Boston
to Las Cruces for his first assignment with the government, then from Las Cruces
back to Greenbelt for his permanent assignment at NASA’s Goddard Space
Flight Center. This was 1959. They were settled now, but no longer so young.
He was thirty-four, Linda thirty-two. Still, no child came. They sought medical
advice. The doctor was compassionate but clear: Linda could not bear children.
Linda accepted the news much better than he would have imagined. She was firm
in her conviction they would raise a child—they would adopt. But as they
undertook the process, as they filled out forms and sat through interviews,
she grew angry with him. Why had they waited so long to consult a doctor? Why
had they wasted so much time?
They’d been too busy, he told her. Besides, no adoption agency would have
considered them when they’d moved so many times. He understood her anger
but didn’t share it. He didn’t think it rational. They’d already
wasted too much time being frustrated. Their lovemaking had become as rote as
the tests he performed at work. Worse, even. It held no mystery, no chance of
discovery at its conclusion. Now, they had an explanation for, and a solution
to, their problems. For this, he was grateful.
The adoption agent called them an ideal couple. Edward painted the spare bedroom
light blue. Linda knitted booties, caps, and a sweater. Then came her first
bout with illness: a lump in her right breast. The doctors eliminated this cancer,
but Linda said she wasn’t yet strong enough to endure the adoption process.
He worked on the Apollo program twelve or more hours each day. Then he was named
codirector of the Brahe Project. The slow, steady progress of the work absorbed
him: visiting Las Cruces or Houston for weeks at a time; debating with Ping
where to place the radio transmitter on the Brahe module to provide the most
accurate telemetry; knowing five years would pass before the module began sending
back results. It gave him the sense he was part of something far greater than
himself, something that would outlive generations.
Linda took a job at the public library and in her spare time got involved in
Greenbelt’s civic pride association. She put her knitting in a box in
a closet in the basement. The light blue bedroom remained unfurnished. It was
1975. He was fifty years old, his hair had turned silver, and he considered
his and Linda’s efforts to be parents an idea that a better scientist
would have scribbled down, then discarded without lifting his pencil from the
page. He spent too much time at work. Linda never fully recovered her strength
after her illness. The great bawling energy of a child would have overwhelmed
His work could so absorb him that someone wanting to speak with him had to knock
on his office door or call his name several times. Jeanne, the day they met,
knocked once. Later, he would ask her how long she had stood in his doorway,
watching him, before he happened to look up, and she would tell him, “Long
She introduced herself. She’d started the week before when he’d
been in Houston. He noted as discreetly as he could her plain clothing, her
simple hairstyle, her lack of makeup. She would be an excellent worker, he concluded,
quiet and efficient.
“Don’t let Ping work you too hard,” he said. He meant it as
a joke, but he spoke sternly, biting off the end of each word.
“Oh, he’s not. He has me doing calculations for some project,”
she said. “The Tiki Bar Project? That can’t be right. Anyway, it
was a piece of cake once I rounded the decimals up.”
He stared at her.
“I’m kidding,” she said and laughed softly. Her teeth were
small and white, her laugh a low, husky bubbling. “He wanted me to give
you this.” She approached his desk and handed him a manila folder.
He didn’t meet her eyes.
That night, as he did most nights, he heated dinner for Linda and himself in
the oven. They sat on the living room sofa and watched television while they
ate. During a commercial break, Linda put her plate—mashed potatoes and
gravy still heaped upon it—on the coffee table and told him she was going
“It’s only eight-thirty,” he said.
“Because you don’t eat properly.”
“I eat fine.” She stood from the sofa. “But right now I’m
“You said that last night.”
“Edward, please, I just want to go to bed.”
Her skin was gray in the room’s dim light, the bags underneath her eyes
blue tinged with black. The face he’d loved for its secrets was now too
sallow and pinched to hide anything. She seemed less a person than a sketch
of a person. She was sick again, he thought, and this thought immediately became
a certainty. Suddenly, he wanted to embrace her as he had after that first time
they’d made love: lying spooned across the back seat of his father’s
Packard, her back to him, her breasts resting in the crook of his arm, his nose
pressed to her neck, burning the scent of soap and sweat into his memory. The
ferocity of this desire shocked him, but as he stood to embrace her, he found
it wasn’t desire he felt but rage—rage that thirty years had brought
them no further than this: she standing over a plate of cold mashed potatoes,
exhausted, barren, miserable; he able only to put his arms around her and tell
her what she already knew.
“You should see a doctor,” he said. “It’s probably nothing.
But if it’s not—if it’s not, you know we have to find out
as soon as we can.”
She rested her forehead against his shoulder but said nothing and didn’t
return his embrace.
“I’ll call tomorrow to make an appointment,” he said. “I’ll
schedule it for when I’m back from Las Cruces. We’ll go together.”
Even as he said this, he wondered what they would do if it wasn’t nothing.
They’d lived so long in the shadow of her first illness that darkness
and solitude seemed the normal course of their life together. He feared another
illness would reveal their marriage to be a sham, a way to pass time between
crises. No, he didn’t believe this. Not really. What was a marriage if
not two people constructing something to withstand the relentless passage of
time? But Linda’s first illness had ended the hope of their becoming parents,
and he didn’t know what remained for a second illness to end, except for
the marriage itself. As estranged as their marriage might be, he couldn’t
imagine himself separated from it, from her.
In Las Cruces, at White Sands, he observed a test firing of the Brahe module’s
thrusters. The thrusters ignited, twin ribbons of white heat against the desert’s
hazy gold. Then the entire apparatus—thrusters, engine, test platform—exploded.
Debris fell hundreds of yards away. Black smoke towered above the test site.
A catastrophe, said the head engineer, covering his face with his hands.
Edward called Linda that night and said he would be coming home several days
later than he’d planned. She should reschedule the appointment he’d
made for her.
“I already went,” she said.
“What?” He switched the receiver from one ear to the other. “Why?”
“I wanted to get it over with. I went yesterday. I’m fine. Nothing’s
wrong. I’m taking a week off from the library. It’s what the doctor
“We were going to go together.”
“Edward—” It sounded as if she were stifling a yawn. “When
have we done anything together? If you’d come home when you were supposed
to, you’d have found another reason not to go.”
“I wanted—” he began, but she’d hung up. He slammed
the receiver into its cradle. Of course he was relieved Linda wasn’t ill,
but in one sense it was as bad as he’d feared: the threat of illness had
revealed the fissure between them. A small fissure—but perhaps an even
smaller fissure, a microscopic rupture in a fuel line, had caused the destruction
of the thrusters.
He accompanied a few colleagues to a bar in Las Cruces to commiserate over the
accident. The bar was dim and smoky, not much bigger than the living room of
his house. The hostess led them to a table in the back, and a waitress brought
them pitchers of beer. He drank several glasses of the watery beer, then ordered
a Scotch. One of the engineers laughed at his drink order, but then thumped
his back with the palm of a hand, no hard feelings. He’d wanted to nurse
the Scotch but downed it in two burning gulps. Johnny Cash was playing on the
jukebox. It was too loud to follow conversation. A woman now sat beside him.
She had red hair teased into a cascade and wore a black dress that showed a
constellation of freckles above her large breasts. He ordered a second Scotch
and asked the woman what she wanted to drink. She shook her head no. He asked
what she did. She was a singer, she offered. She was working to earn money to
go to New York City to audition for record companies. He finished his Scotch
in one swallow. She rested her hand above his knee and asked what he liked to
do. He spoke of the Brahe Project, its general idea: to establish a sensor platform
beyond Earth’s gravitational pull; to learn how this distance would impact
long-term data accumulation; to build the foundation for future devices—a
space telescope, say—that wouldn’t be restricted to Earth’s
“No,” she said. Her lips brushed his earlobe. “I mean, what
do you like?”
She led him to a small bedroom upstairs above the bar. There was a thin mattress
on the hardwood floor, beside it a jar of Vaseline and a strip of condoms like
the coiled skin of a snake. The room smelled of incense and bleach. She sat
on the edge of the mattress and removed her dress in one motion. Stretch marks
striped the mound of her stomach. Yellow bruises splotched the lengths of her
He leaned against the wall to keep his balance. “I left my wallet downstairs,”
he said. “I think I’d better go.”
He sat by himself in the bar, sipping from a glass of water, waiting for the
other engineers to return from upstairs. It was four in the morning back east,
too early to call Linda. He pinched the bridge of his nose. His stomach was
bubbling with guilt and Scotch. He didn’t think he could wait several
days to talk with her. But hadn’t he waited thirty years already?
In fact, he returned to Greenbelt the next day. The director of Goddard called
him back for an emergency meeting. The failure of the thrusters had panicked
NASA. They feared the project was losing momentum and needed a stronger sense
of direction. Edward took this to be a criticism of his leadership and offered
to resign. The director laughed and said it wasn’t that serious. NASA
was sending a senior consultant to work directly with him and Ping. Mikhail
Korff, once the shining star of the Soviet space program. A test pilot and an
engineer. He’d had a crisis of conscience in the early 1960s after his
wife’s death in a plane crash and defected to the United States.
Edward got home late that night. Linda was asleep. He wanted to wake her but
thought of her doctor’s advice that she rest. He went into the bathroom.
When he came back, she was sitting up in bed.
“You scared me,” she said. “I was going to call the police.”
“I’m sorry. They flew me out first thing this morning. I didn’t
have a chance to call.” He changed into his pajamas, telling her about
the meeting at Goddard. “If I don’t get my act together soon, I
think they might replace me entirely.”
She yawned. “Can we talk tomorrow?”
“I think we should talk now.” He sat down beside her. “I want
to know why you went to the doctor without me.”
“I told you it’s no big deal. I’m fine.” She fluffed
her pillow between her hands. “I need rest, Edward. That’s all.”
He considered telling her he’d slept with the whore in Las Cruces, but
it occurred to him she might not even care. This realization wounded him more
deeply than the guilt he carried for following the whore upstairs. He removed
his pajamas and put on the clothes he’d worn all day. Linda sat up and
asked where he was going.
“I feel restless,” he said. “I’m going to my office.”
“It’s almost midnight.” Then, more softly, she added, “You
need rest, too.”
“I have too much work to catch up on.”
Goddard was quiet but by no means empty. In scattered windows of every building
the fluorescent lights flickered. As he approached his building, he saw a light
in a window of Ping’s office. He unlocked the door to his office, then
went down the hall to say hello. Jeanne stood at her desk in the office’s
anteroom, loudly declaiming a poem. When she seemed to have finished, he cleared
his throat. She looked up, her mouth round with surprise, then smiled.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Ping’s not making me
“I saw the light.”
“The acoustics are better here than at home.” She pointed to a plate
on her desk. “I made brownies.”
He told her to be sure to lock Ping’s office when she left. In his office,
he began sorting through the paperwork that had accumulated while he’d
been in Las Cruces. He’d made almost no progress when Jeanne knocked on
his door and said she was leaving.
“Are you sure you don’t want a brownie?” she asked.
He eyed the plate, held now beneath her chest. “Maybe one.”
She crossed to his desk. He took one and nibbled its corner.
“Ping told me what happened with the thrusters,” she said. “I’m
sure it’s a temporary setback. Maybe you can just adjust the fuel-to-oxygen
ratio rather than redesigning them from scratch.”
A brownie crumb fell from his lip to his lap. He brushed it aside.
“I majored in physics,” she said. “Acting’s just a hobby.
Which reminds me.” From her purse she took a sheet of paper. “We’re
performing Julius Caesar this weekend. The Greenbelt Dinner Theater Collective.
I’m playing Calpurnia.”
He took the sheet from her and placed it atop his pile of paperwork. “Thanks,”
he said. “For the brownie.”
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