EDITOR’S NOTE by Jonathan Lethem
In the annals of baseball, statistics-freaks love talking about the players who came up from the minors and got a single hit, or two, then retired with a batting average of a thousand. (I think I read once of a guy who went 3-for-3 on his sole day in the bigs, the Ty Cobb of one-day-wonders.) Or the pitcher who struck out the only batter he ever faced. Well, I was once party to the writing equivalent — mystery-man Rob McCleary, who offered up one perfect fluttering knuckleball of a short story, “Nixon in Space,” then seemingly evaporated. You can barely even Google up evidence the thing existed, apart from a few LiveJournal pages. The reason I know about it is I was once upon a time a regular contributor to CRANK! Magazine, the now-itself-forgotten venue where McCleary offered up his gem, which humbled those of us prematurely jaded veterans who thought we had better stuff than the rookies. The story is exuberant and rageful, political and eccentric, relevant and timeless. If you wrote “Nixon In Space” or its equivalent fifty times you‘d be George Saunders or Donald Barthelme. Do it just once and you’re Rob McCleary, I guess.
Author of Fortress of Solitude
Nixon in Space
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On July 20, 1969, or so I am told, after forty-eight hours of hellish labor, Leigh was born and some guys walked around on the moon. Leigh had red hair, and was a girl. The people who walked around on the moon were all male, that is to say they had penises. Due to zero gravity, they had erections the entire trip. Even when they blasted off they had hard-ons. The roar of the rocket engines excited them. “It was better than sex,” they said afterwards.
The whole deal started like this: some guys looked up at the moon and said “Hey, let’s go there.” And so they did. They dreamed it up like some forgotten oriental city and put it into action (they had the money to indulge such fantasies in those days). The Americans made it to the moon first, because they had the most cash. Also, they had captured Nazi rocket scientists.
The only other people who were in the race with the Americans to get to the moon were the Soviets. The Soviets lived in a country that was founded by Vikings that sailed up the Volga River, enslaving everyone they met. Those they didn’t enslave, they killed. Eventually, a bald guy named “Lenin” overthrew the Vikings. Then came the Nazis.
All the same: the Soviets and the Americans both wanted to be the first on the moon. They both wanted to see if it was made of green cheese, which all the best scientists agreed it was. Also, they wanted to get up there and drop atomic bombs back on the other side on earth. So they saw the moon and said “Let’s go!” and that’s exactly what they did. Kennedy made a speech that got everybody fired up and it was decided right then and there that somebody had to go to the moon. Men with crew cuts made the journey possible. They used slide rules.
There were rumors of cities on the moon.
So while the men were walking around on the moon, looking for cities made of green cheese, Leigh was being born, red hair and all.
Everything was coming together.
Later, it would be claimed she kept stretching out her tiny hand, as if reaching for something in the air above her, but eventually it would come out that this was merely dreamed up by one of the nursing staff in an attempt to get Leigh’s mother interested in the tiny, bloody being she had just spent the previous two days and nights trying to force out of her body.
“There are men on the moon,” said the nurse as she brought Leigh in for her mother to see. She had seen it on television in the doctors’ lounge and was repeating her observation. The nurse said it as a simple statement of fact, with the same enthusiasm she might’ve said “there are men on the roof.” Fantastic events like that were pretty common back in the days when the money still held out. First they were making radar, then splitting the atom, then putting guys on the moon. The list goes on and on.
The nurse let Leigh’s mother hold her baby for a while, and they talked about the guys who were on the moon. A sign in Times Square, New York said “SOME GUYS ARE UP THERE ON THE MOON!” and everybody cheered. When they came back they rode down the streets in big cars and everybody threw paper at them. This sort of thing went on and on for days: another city, more cars, more paper flying around their heads. They learned to live with it.
“What a lucky baby to be born on the same day as man walks on the moon,” said the nurse, and then she took Leigh away from her mother to take her back to the nursery.
“Look at the way she keeps stretching out her hand, like she knows what’s going on up there.” Leigh’s mother looked bleary-eyed at her daughter. Leigh wasn’t doing anything. She was sleeping.
“You just missed it,” said the nurse. “She’s a moon baby. That’s what they’re calling all the babies that are born today.” And then the nurse said the words again with a magical lilt in her voice, in contrast to the deadpan delivery she had used to inform Leigh’s mother that there were guys in the process of hanging out on the moon: “Moon Baby…”
The nurse took Leigh and put her back in the nursery with all the other Moon Babies. Then she picked up another Moon Baby and took it to another Moon Mother and tried to convince the Moon Mother that her Moon Baby was reaching out for the heavens in a gesture of strange, sympathetic magic for the guys bounding around on the moon with hard-ons. Nobody believed her.
Later on, after an early childhood spent attempting to paste her unruly curls of red hair to her head with an eclectic collection of combs, plastic barrettes, and even degenerating at one point to rubber bands (culminating in a tearful watershed moment of frustration and realization that would pave the way for her masses of curled hair to flow freely) we would meet and discuss her birth and the events leading up to it: the Second World War, her parents meeting at a kitchen table littered with empty beer bottles after a party and Leigh’s eventual conception, but neither of us could make much sense of it.
My earliest memory is of Nixon resigning on television. That was back when my family lived in the Yukon. After Nixon came the fire which burned our house to the ground, the tall orange flames playing off the rippling waters of the deep, cold lake full of huge pike we used to catch from a wooden motor boat.
The Yukon of my memories is composed of grays, whites, and red clay, gravel roads, pine trees, and mountain ranges ground into submission by ancient glaciers. All that disappeared in the orange glow reflected in the cold Autumn waters of the lake.
But first, more about Nixon. My father told us to be quiet so he could watch Nixon resign. We saw it all, through the miracle of television. Nixon, in his pale blue sharkskin suit, black hair plastered to his face by sweat, a good three-day growth on his face, his prodigious sweat having soaked through his suit jacket leaving immense stains under each arm. He said his piece: all about truth, justice, and the American way, and then he left. He walked right out of the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue, and just kept walking. He removed his tie and threw it in the reflecting pool. A little kid fished it out to use as a memento of the historic occasion. Nixon kept walking, and the television people played all kinds of sentimental music like “Amazing Grace” and “Kumbaya”.
Nixon walked right down the middle of the street, waving to people, accepting mock-salutes from old soldiers who had served with him in the Pacific, and shaking hands with the rank and file. Several people offered him jobs, but Nixon declined them all. He did try to get into the space program, but they didn’t want any ex-presidents. They told him he didn’t have enough of a science background. Nixon countered by saying that they had offered Walter Cronkite a ride in the spaceship, a charge that left NASA without reply. Nixon left, embittered, and ended up selling his garbage to souvenir hunters to pay the bills. The real reason NASA didn’t want him was that they were afraid his known tendency to sweat like a pig would short circuit the electrical system in the space capsule.
“All the same,” Nixon would later say, after the truth had come out through the Freedom of Information Act, “they should’ve let me ride in the spaceship. Every ex-president should have the right to go to the moon.”
After the show was over the Yanks went crazy. They all cried and pulled their hair out and wanted him back. Those responsible for his impeachment were dragged from their homes and strung up from telephone poles. Entire cities were razed. Finally, the next day, everybody calmed down and order was restored. The papers all cried out that Nixon should come back, but he never did.
“This bull has died too big a death,” he said when the news crews found him living in South Carolina growing yams and writing his memoirs. Everybody agreed that those were pretty much the truest worlds they’d ever heard spoken by an ex-president, and that they should throw their support behind his successor: Gerald Ford. When Nixon found out they had taken his refusal seriously he became distraught and said he was only kidding, that he would gladly resume the office of the Chief Executive. But his recant came too late, as they had already changed the locks on the White House. That same week, Nixon got his rejection letter from NASA, so it was pretty rough on him.
After our house burned down, we gave up on living in the Yukon and moved to Ontario. My father got a job as an electrician, and I met Leigh. She was the first Moon Baby I ever met. She had red hair, and then one day a barn on our concession burned up, the orange flames lighting up the sky for miles around. It got us both so excited we copulated right then and there in the darkness, with the mosquitos biting our bare skin, the sirens of the emergency vehicles wailing in the summer breeze. It was the beginning of the later stage of our relationship, and after we finished we had no idea why we had done it.
“Must be the moon,” said Leigh. And although I wanted badly to believe it, the only trouble with this convenient explanation was that there was no moon in the sky that night.
Every time her birthday would roll around, Leigh would receive a pair of silver earrings in the shape of a crescent moon. When I came to visit her they would be hanging all over her room, jingling as the wind moved them, reflecting the early morning light. They were all in the shape of a crescent moon, never a full moon, usually with the face of a woman inside the crescent. By the time the twenty-fifth earrings arrived, everybody had pretty much given up on getting back to the moon. It cost too much. The Americans had spent billions of dollars getting a few guys up there so they could play golf. And what did they bring back as souvenirs? Like little children on their first trip to the beach, they brought back rocks. They toured the rocks around all over the place, told everybody about how they had come from the moon in an attempt to drum up more money so they could go back up.
“There may be cities on the moon,” they hinted broadly. They had no shame. They had moon fever. Their entire lives, body and soul, had become devoted to one cause: getting back up on the moon and playing golf. The problem was, everybody had already paid for the show once. The astronauts had already been up there and made it back. People weren’t interested in getting to the moon, they were interested mainly in the danger. To most people, it was a sort of glorified drag race, and everybody knows that the best part of drag racing is watching the cars blow up. The problem with the space program was that they kept trying to make it safer and safer. Also, only a few special people could go up in their capsule every time. Nixon was the loudest voice against the elitist space program:
“If I used to be president, and they won’t let me go up in their capsule, think how long it will be before you, the common man, can go to the moon.”
He said this at every public speaking engagement. NASA fried a few guys on the launching pad in a capsule fire to try and prove the program was still a life and death matter, but nobody bought it. The public rose up:
“We want to go to the moooooooon!” they said.
A PUT NIXON ON THE MOON! committee was formed. The public felt that if they got Tricky Dick up there, it was only a matter of time before they average Joe was up there hitting a few rounds. Dick was to be their watershed candidate. Soon the public was on fire with moon mania. Popular magazines ran in-depth stories with step-by-step plans about how the moon would be colonized. Newspapers ran headlines like “LET’S GET ONE OF OURS ON THE MOON!” A forest fire had been ignited.
Time wore on.
The moon was on everybody’s mind. Leigh and I would often sit and look at it, wonder about it, just like the old days before some guys went up there and desecrated it with stupid sports. Moon watching, instead of drag racing, became America’s number one pastime. You would see people all over the place just sitting serenely looking up at the moon. Artists painted pictures of it and wrote poems about it. People of all ages, sexes, and races were putting aside their differences to join together and put somebody from the rank and file on the moon. Everything was becoming good and sound and pure.
Everybody looked at the moon and agreed it was the most beautiful thing in outer space, and that people must go there when they die to live in great, glorious, silver castles and dress in silk. This idea, proposed by a member of the Great Pacific Northwest Moon Watchers, won immediate acceptance by the vast majority of the population. It was comforting for everyone to think that up there on the moon were all their friends and relatives, and that someday they would join them. Also, it got everybody even more fired up to go to the moon. People got so excited that they tried to build their own spaceships. Each group of moon watchers came up with a plan, pooled their resources, and built rocket ships. These efforts were outlawed after only a few tries. Gravity, always a jealous lover, was reluctant to share any of her charges, and sent one ship crashing down into a crowded suburb of Jersey City. In a farewell speech the pilot said, “I’m going to get to the moon, one way or another,” and he had meant what he said. His body was never recovered, but the crater his impact created was dedicated as a national memorial to everyone’s efforts to get off the planet, everywhere. Delegates from moon watching clubs all over the world came for the dedication ceremony. The keynote speaker, good old Tricky Dick, made an impassioned plea to governments around the world to put ordinary people in space.
“Let not another brave soul fall like Icarus from the sky,” he said, emotion choking his voice. “For although you may fetter us here in fear and ignorance, as surely as the sun which also rises, and the majestic Moon, mother of all things, waxes and wanes, the spirit of mankind will soon soar in the heaven!”
The speech was well received, even though most people didn’t know who Icarus was, and it was reprinted in newspapers all over the world. People started comparing it to Kennedy’s inaugural address. Soon everybody was rioting in the streets and calling for the scientists and their slide rules to be handed over to the public. The government made a token gesture of handing over the slide rules, but of course without the scientists they were useless. This made the public even angrier. Leigh and I watched the rioting on television. It was now well over two decades since the original astronauts had landed on the moon.
“There has to be an easier way to get to the moon then launching somebody in a big tin can,” I said as we watched on television as a man who, for some reason was buck naked except for a pair of black combat boots, was running through the flaming streets of Munich with a microwave oven hoisted over his head, an insane look of glee on his face. In Vancouver, people had gathered in Stanley Park to burn a dummy across the front of which was pinned a sign saying “GRAVITY” written in an angry, scraggly hand.
“I think it’s the idea of getting to the moon people like,” said Leigh. “It’s the challenge of the unreachable goal. Like Everest. It has to be tried.” On television, a London mob had somehow gotten the statue of Nelson off his dizzying column in Trafalgar Square and were committing unspeakable indignities on it.
The chaos continued for several days. The armies of the various nations were called out to put down the insurrections. Unfortunately for the powers that be however, their ranks were filled with closet moon watchers, who joined in the disruptions as soon as they were deployed. Just when things seemed on the verge of descending into total anarchy, a lunar eclipse cowed everybody, and most people showed up for work the next day. The Soviets took advantage of the confusion to launch an orbiting space station they called “MIR”. On board MIR was a woman about to give birth. The Commies wanted to see what would happen to a baby born in space. They tried to make out like she was just a regular woman, trying to steal world approval for their program, but then some journalist uncovered that she was in fact a KGB Colonel, and the USSR was forced to give Gary Powers back to the United Nations.
The Space Baby was born perfectly normal, and was raised in total isolation by specially trained chimpanzees until he was twenty-one. Me and Leigh sat up on the roof of my parents’s house to watch his spacecraft go over the night he was born. It looked like a moving star.
“Wow,” said Leigh, looking up at the little blip, “somebody’s being born in that thing. That’s gotta be a first.”
“Do you believe in astrology?” I asked.
“You mean like ’what’s your sign’?”
“Sort of. Do you think your parents planned it so you would be born on the day of the moon landings?”
“Don’t be gross!”
My only answer was a cold stare from Leigh. Obviously she was not eager to combine the subjects of parents and sex. I decided to continue my line of questioning anyway.
“They must’ve planned for a certain time. Why not the moon landing?”
“Because I doubt they planned it for a specific day. Besides, I was born late. My dad had to take my mom for a ride in his father’s truck to induce labor.”
“Maybe you wanted to wait until the moon landing.”
I arched my eyebrows suggestively. The Space Baby and his mother streaked silently above us in the firmament. I went over the equation in my head: moon landing, Leigh’s birth, Nixon resigning, Nixon trying to go to the moon. I could come to no firm conclusion. Nonetheless, I could tell that watching the spaceship up in the night sky was getting Leigh excited, and before long we would make love for the second time in our relationship. When it was over, we still couldn’t figure out why we had done it.
Then, in August, the unthinkable happened: it was announced that Richard Nixon was going to the moon. The announcement was greeted with stunned silence by the general population. The entire world, faced with the prospect of the event which they had worked decades towards with no serious belief it would actually happen coming to fruition, was flabbergasted. Without the glue of common purpose, the population’s unity began to dissolve. The different moon watching organizations battled for control of the world’s faithful. Instead of huge riots, the various factions engaged in pitched battles in very major city, fighting tenaciously for territory in street-by-street battles. Nixon appeared on television, calling for calm, but the situation was beyond repair. The PUT NIXON ON THE MOON! committee (formerly the most powerful of the plebeian moon race organizations) was torn apart by infighting, and was unable to induce a peaceful end to the hostilities. Finally, after days of impassioned pleas for calm, Nixon appeared for one last time on television and said:
“Fuck you all, I’m going to the moooooooon!”
The population grew dejected, and then, like any mob worth its salt, turned on their leader. Nixon’s name, henceforward, would be “mud.” Contracts were put out on him. He was burned in effigy. NASA had to conceal where Nixon was going to be launched into space from. The day of the launch, Leigh and I watched as a clean shaven and power dry Nixon made his way to the capsule, flashing his trademark “double victory” at everyone he passed. Inside the capsule, Dick tried to come up with witty things to say, but the best he could muster was: “This is going to be better than sex!”
“Why do men always say that?” Leigh asked me.
The final countdown began, Nixon pushing buttons and smiling insanely. But then, when they reached zero hour, nothing happened. Instead, NASA flashed his location on the screen. Nixon was sitting on top of a fake space craft. He tried the latch, but found it locked. He pulled frantically, without effect, sweating madly. The picture then flashed to the real spacecraft lifting off with real astronauts and real golf gear. It then flashed back to Nixon’s decoy craft, which was being rocked back and forth by an enraged mob. Luckily for Nixon, they couldn’t get the hatch open either, so the different factions took turns rolling him around in his dummy capsule to try to make him nauseous. Then, the PUT NIXON ON THE MOON! committee, having put aside their differences, came to his rescue, driving off the enraged mob with pepper spray.
That evening, me and Leigh watched the guys who had been on the real launch make their way to the moon in their tiny capsule. The following evening, we lay on the roof of my parents’ house and listened to their broadcast from space on the radio. One of the guys was making a speech that started like this:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
Then he went on about how good the earth looked from outer space, and how it didn’t really matter exactly who was going into space, because they represented everyone on earth. It was a real good speech, well put together. Dimitri, as the Space Baby born on Mir came to be named, was working as a commentator on some American network, and he said he’d never heard what it was like to be in space expressed so eloquently, but mostly everybody thought it was bullshit. Then the other announcer smacked Dimitri in the mouth because there was no way Dimitri could remember what it was like in space because he had only been a baby at the time.
The asphalt shingles on the roof still retained the warmth of the day’s sunshine. Looking up at the night sky, I knew we would make love before long, and maybe this time we would figure out why.
“What if you mother unconsciously held back labor until the moon landing?” I asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous. She was in labor for forty-eight hours. Nobody would choose that, consciously or unconsciously. Give it up. The moon landing has absolutely nothing to do with my birth.”
I decided not to bring up the question any more, even though I still wanted to know the answer. The technological cuckolding of Nixon had thrown my calculations into confusion. The space capsule kept going on through space, and the people in some city in Australia turned on all their lights to let the guys in the capsule know they didn’t want them to get burned up like those other astronauts. Me and Leigh made love, and although we still couldn’t come to any firm conclusions as to why it happened, we finally had to concede that the moon, which was that night in full phase, was partially responsible.
The astronauts returned safely to earth, with more rocks. Nixon was spirited away by his followers, and we didn’t hear about him again until a couple of years later when he was caught trying to sneak into the White House through a basement window. The Secret Service threw him out in front of the place where an enraged mob tore him to pieces with their bare hands and some broken bottles. Although Leigh continued to receive silver moon earrings every year on her birthday, there were no more moon landings, as the Americans had run out of money.
About the Author
If Rob McCleary had known Jonathan Lethem liked his work so much at the time he probably would’ve stuck it out a little longer writing fiction. Instead, he got a job writing Saturday morning cartoons. His new work of fiction “Diary Of A Skyway Woman” (or) “My Life in the Service of the Ohio Top Superstar Academy of Aerial Arts Correspondence Flight School & Mobile Beastiarium” is available on iTunes for the irresistibly low price of $1.99 for the month of July to celebrate the zombie-like resurrection of “Nixon In Space.” He is currently working on a new young adult novel about a girl who creates an army of revenge-exacting, homicidal freaks called “Ballerina Frankenstein.”
About the Guest Editor
Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger. He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year’s Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s and many other periodicals.