Man first walked on the moon on July 20th, 1969, and a woman first walked on a mountain that day, too.
Or at least she was supposed to: it was Penelope Arrabbiata’s first day at Harper Observatory, and she was already an hour late. It wasn’t that she didn’t leave her newly-rented apartment on Bransauer Avenue on time, and it surely wasn’t because she was lost. Harper Observatory was the highest point in Little Aleppo (except for the tall, skinny transmission tower on Mount Lincoln); if you couldn’t see it, it meant you were indoors.
Can’t be lost if you can see your destination, Penny, she said to herself and then she corrected herself. Penelope, Penelope. The sun was setting behind her and the Observatory was shining white through the windshield of her Beetle. Cross the Main Drag, straight for a mile-and-a-half, right on Buchwald for a few blocks, left onto Skyway Drive, boom. It’s not Mt. Doom, she thought, or Everest. Shit, it was barely a mountain. More of an ambitious hill. It was right motherfucking there for fuck’s sake, and had it been the 19th or the 21st of July, 1969, then she would have had no trouble with her commute at all.
But the neighborhood was having itself a Moon Party.
You could already see it in the faded blue sky, over the hills in the east. The moon was in its waxing crescent phase, which means it looked it had escaped from a children’s book, and the points of the crescent were aimed to the left. Just to the inside of the apex of the curve, right on the border between shine and darkness, that was the Sea of Tranquility and it was where the Eagle would land in just a few hours. If nothing went wrong, of course.
Things had started to go wrong back on earth early in Little Aleppo: the place is full of fabulists and fantasists and the fucked-up; the moon landing had captured the neighborhood’s imagination. The Main Drag was overtaken by the sloppy and the wandering by early afternoon, and several spontaneous parades had broken out, died off, reconstituted, gotten into brawls with each other. When the schools let out at three, the children played astronaut in the streets and the teenage boys begged the teenage girls for some space-titty.
The Poet Laureate was drinking plum wine in a rowboat out in the middle of Bell Lake. The moon’s reflection was floating next to the boat, and the Poet Laureate fell into the water trying to embrace it. The Poet Laureate did not drown, but did receive a vicious pecking from the swans.
I just need to get across the Main Drag, Penelope thought. It’s not like there’s police blockades cutting the road off. There’s just, you know, weirdness. This is nothing, Penelope, she bucked herself up. Everyone told you what Little Aleppo was like, and you drove your ass out here anyway, so no use crying over spoiled milk. Her father had always said that instead of the right way. He had always called her Penny, too.
She didn’t have much else of her father, or her mother, either. They were alive, but wealthy. Not rich. Rich people spoil their children; wealthy people send theirs away. One of her first memories is the ride to Newport in her governess’ Chevy. The family summered in Newport. Father ran the family business, and mother was beautiful. He was a philatelist, and she was a philanderer. So she learned to be by herself. Boarding school–don’t worry about which one; you’re almost certainly too poor to have heard of it–and then college (not Yale) and then to California for her doctorate, because California is where the stars are.
Her father bought her a brand-new 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, which was the opposite of what she wanted. It was baby blue and had an engine the size of a hummingbird’s dick. She thanked him with a hug and a kiss, and he smiled. Penelope hadn’t been able to ask him for a pickup truck. She wanted a Chevy C10 in black, but feared that her parents would think she was a lesbian. This was 1969, and these were immeasurably uptight white people, so her thought process made sense. Penelope Arrabbiata wasn’t a lesbian, but she really did want a pickup truck.
Or a muscle car. Or a Caddy. Or an ambulance that was on fire. Anything but this matchbox car. Too friendly-looking, she thought. Eager to please, but that was a lie. Penelope would be pleased to have a bit of power under the hood, but there was no power and the engine wasn’t even under the hood. Foreign crap, she thought, but her father was a fan of German cars. German everything, as a matter of fact. Mother had told her some drunken stories about the family’s business during World War II.
She thanked him with a hug and a kiss, because anything else would be an admission that her father had no clue who she was. It took her six days to drive across America.
An elephant walked in front of the Beetle. It was going south on the Main Drag, and there was a scruffy, blue-tinged dog standing atop the elephant’s head like Hannibal. Their names were Congo and Shep, but Penelope didn’t know that at the time.
She just knew it might take her another six days to get to work, even though she could see her office. She could also see naked young people.
Harper College had decided to take acid for the moon landing, except for the students who decided not to, who had been dosed. The campus overflowed into the surrounding streets; several town-versus-gown fights broke out despite the fact that most of the students had grown up in the neighborhood. All of the art students had taken their clothes off. All of the science students were outwardly contemptuous and secretly envious of the art students. The philosophy students were contemptuous of everyone, but most of all themselves. The business students had stolen everyone’s clothes and were selling them back at twice the price.
“Stranger than usual tonight, Dean Spants.”
“It’s an occasion, Dr. McGlory-Spants. A momentous one. World-changing, perhaps.”
They were on the porch of their small Victorian house on the northern edge of the college’s campus. Carter Spants was tall and lean, and he was balding in a very intellectual way. Molly McGlory-Spants had red hair and blue eyes, and they both had books open on their laps. Students, naked and otherwise, bopped by the house in small clusters. They all waved hi, and Carter and Molly greeted every one by name.
A skinny young man with curly hair walked by and fell into a bush.
“Well, the whole world won’t change.”
“There will always be a Joey the Spaz, Dean.”
He smiled and called out,
“Joseph, are you all right?”
“Fine, good, little scratched up but good. WOO! MOON!”
And he ran off.
“Is he the third one?”
“I think so,” she said. “But don’t quote me.”
“Remarkable genetic stability in that family.
“Not a tree so much as a a tree trunk.”
Molly reached her hand out and took his, just for a beat, and then withdrew it. Carter reached into the breast pocket of his jacket for his pipe, and then searched around for his tobacco. Molly handed it to him after she was finished filling her pipe. She had his lighter, too, and they lit their pipes PWOFF PWOFF and Harper College was quiet, except for the three students making a strange and frightening form of love in the Tyndale Pagoda.
The Cenotaph once quoted an expert as saying that Little Aleppo existed in an “ionospheric inversion that resulted in the introduction of randomized wave-strata in the four-dimensional transmission torus.” (When the expert was asked to explain the phrase, he responded, “I don’t have time; I have a bookshop to run,” and hung up. The paper went with the quote, anyway.) Little Aleppians accepted the explanation immediately, and from then on the reason teevee and radio stations came in so shittily was “ionospheric inversion.”
(As you might expect, there have been several local bands called The Ionospheric Inversions; all terrible.)
But you could pick up KSOS clear and sharp, and so the station was the only game in the neighborhood for coverage of the moon landing, and Trusted Meese was the only man to do it. He had a big shellac of white hair, and thick black glasses, and there was a billboard on top of the studios with a giant picture of his avuncular head with “The Trusted Name In News” written underneath. Everyone in Little Aleppo can remember when Trusted came out against the Vietnam War in a scathing editorial, mostly because he did it in 1983, and everyone could do an impression of his sign-off, “What I just said was the news.”
It was a comfort having one source of information, locals thought. Provided security, and also fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Someone was in charge, Little Aleppians knew, and that someone was almost certainly lying to them. Or at least leaving important things out. Or maybe the people in charge were drunken gasbags like Trusted Meese. Whichever it was, someone was in charge.
“The lunar module, er, lander will come to rest, as it were, on the moon’s surface, which is also called regolith. From, er, the Greek rego meaning blanket, and lith, which of course means stone. It is a fine and, er, talc-like covering on the ground that scientists–moon scientists, of course–think may extend down several meters. A meter is roughly equivalent to a yard.”
Trusted Meese had been going like that for several hours, and had a bit to go. It was seven o’clock and still dusky on the west coast, right at the spot where indigo sticks it in violet, and there was crowd outside Hungry Freddie’s Electronics on the Main Drag. He had stacked his teevees on top of each other in the window, and wired up speakers that he hung from his awning, and then he had made a deal with the local pickpocket guild.
Penelope had crossed the Main Drag, only getting tackled once, and then turned south for a mile. 2001: A Space Odyssey was playing at The Tahitian, and far more people were naked than would be expected on an American sidewalk. Her feet hurt because she was wearing shoes with heels, and she was wearing shoes with heels, black pumps, because she was very young and still gave a shit what men expected of her. Also because she didn’t know there were rattlesnakes on Pulaski Peak. Her hair was very black, and long and flat-ironed. If she kept up this pace, she thought, she could be there in an hour. Just gotta keep up this pace.
Then she was tackled by a six-foot tall naked woman.
“No! No, that won’t do!”
A man with messy hair who was not wearing a suit pulled Stacia off of her.
“Stacia? Stacia, look at me. Look at me.”
Stacia was Nordic and frothing at the mouth. The moon landing had really excited everyone.
“The newsstand. You want to attack the man who owns the newsstand.”
The soles of Stacia’s feet were bloodied, and left prints on the sidewalk as she ran north.
Penelope Arrabbiata was on the ground and regretting every decision she’d ever made, and the man extended his hand and said,
“You shouldn’t be hurt. You don’t want to go to St. Agatha’s. Place is a chop shop.”
She took his hand and got to her feet.
“Vunderbar. Stacia’s violent, but she’s…well, she’s violent. And well-built, I suppose. She’s like an angry sculpture. Are you new?”
“To the neighborhood. To Little Aleppo. I’ve seen your expression before.”
“I’ve been here 48 hours.”
“It’s always like this.”
“Is it always like this?”
“I just told you it was.”
Penelope Arrabbiata felt like she’d been punched, possibly because she’d just been tackled. Streets were for calm. Safe passage was guaranteed. A certain respect was paid to those of means. These are the things she had been taught, and now she was being prevented from getting to work by naked people and elephants and violent blondes and men with messy hair.
“You won’t change it. You can’t. I mean, you will just by the observer effect, but nothing you’ll do on purpose. Little Aleppo will muster its chaos and stupidity against you if you marshal any force of change. You need to know this upfront.”
“I don’t want to change it; I just want to get to work.”
“Where is that?”
“Harper Observatory,” Penelope said.
“In those shoes? You’ll never make it.”
Penelope stepped out of her black pumps. She was two inches shorter, and the man smiled and ran his had through his messy hair.
“You won’t make it like that, either. Do you have five dollars?”
“Because I am a destitute beggar. Or perhaps I’m being sarcastic. Do you have five dollars?”
“Does this sarcasm endear you to people?”
“Not at all. Drives virtually all away. Do you have five dollars?”
Penelope did have five dollars. She would wear pumps but not a dress, not even in 1968, because it was cold at night when you were sitting by a telescope, and so she dug a fiver from her grey corduroys and held it up and half-yelled,
“Yes! I have five dollars! Yes, I do.”
The man with messy hair who was not wearing a suit snatched it from her fingers and walked south down the Main Drag. Penelope followed. He turned left onto Fontaine and flagged down the first car he saw, leaned in the window, argued with the driver a little, withdrew from the window, opened the passenger door, and he said,
Penelope was half-sure she was being set up to be murdered or sold into sexual slavery. On the other hand, she was really, really late for work.
She got in the car and said through the window,
“You have a name?”
“Is that your first or last name?”
“And who are you?”
And she said,
The car drove off before she could correct herself.
KSOS shone from every window, and the simulcast on KHAY blared from every parked car. Those men up there had left the ground on the 16th at dawn, which is a good time to start an adventure. Twelve minutes to orbit. One-and-a-half times around the planet, and then they fired their secondary rockets and left this gravity well for that one. Took three days to get there. They could see the moon–it was right motherfucking there–and it still took three days. Then they fired their rockets again to put themselves into lunar orbit.
And there they were. Three guys and a moon.
Round and round she goes.
“The lunar lander will detach from the, er, command module and fire its retro-thrusters to push itself out of orbit and down towards the surface of the moon. Mr. Collins will remain with the command module and Misters Armstrong and Aldrin will descend to the moon. This is an American triumph and if John Kennedy were alive, then he wouldn’t have been assassinated.”
Trusted Meese had a microphone and a glass of water on his news desk. The microphone was a prop, and the water was not water.
“And we have, we have, we have separation. The Eagle, as it’s been named, has detached from the command module and is beginning its descent towards the surface. And we shall soon, er, see the moon claimed for America.”
The future was a gimme. The moon! Man had walked on the moon, and even better than that: American men had walked on the moon. It was ours, and so was the future and anything else we could dream of; the neighborhood threw its arms around each other and bought each other drinks. The moon was above the earth, and to command what was above was to rule what was below. America walked on the moon, so America owned the earth. And everything was possible, and only the good things were probable. Industry was good, but technology was better. America had technology and the moon, and the future was a gimme.
The Main Drag held its breath. Five minutes to the surface, and the two men had left the command module too late. They would be long on their approach. The lander had computers, but they were puny and so the men superseded them and guided the ship down with just 25 seconds of fuel left in the tanks. On Sylvester Street, the regulars at the Wayside Inn spilled onto the sidewalk; Manfred Pierce brought a framed photograph of a tall woman, happy with her friends, out to watch with him. Across the street, Madame Cazee looked up and so did the drunken washerwomen of the Wash-N-Slosh.
Arwen Bright had built the hundred-inch telescope that was the point of Harper Observatory in 1938, and in 1968 he was still in the building telling people what to do. He was brilliant, and he wore suspenders and had hair everywhere but the top of his head. Penny Arrabbiata was sweaty and barefoot and late.
“You’re sweaty and barefoot and late,” he said.
“True,” she answered.
And there was no comeback to that, so he took her up to the eyepiece which was focused on the landing site. There was a radio in the Prime Focus, a cylindrical room 80 feet up, and it was tuned to the simulcast; the two could hear the men land on the moon as they watched the men land on the moon, and like good scientists they wrote it all down in carefully legible letters in a notebook.
7:18 pm. The Eagle landed.
The Main Drag leapt. People hoisted the Town Fathers in the air, and sang drunkenly; there were virtually no stabbings. The whores on Eighth Avenue halved their prices, unless you were ugly, and the descendants of Vikings rolled logs in the harbor. American flags were rolled up and whipped WA-PASH at the naked buttocks of lesser countries. We did it, the neighborhood proclaimed, even though they had done nothing at all. All the church bells on Rose Street rang out, first the Calling Judge in the belfry of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and then the rest roiling upwards and out towards all the Americans, all those goddamned Americans, out on the Main Drag, which is the main route through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.