Time It Takes to Fallby Margaret Lazarus Dean
It is the early 1980s, and America is in love with space. Growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, young Dolores Gray has it particularly bad: she dreams of becoming an astronaut. But at home, things are falling apart. As her father's job as a NASA technician is threatened, discord begins to grow between her parents. At school, there are still other problems: Dolores finds herself caught between her desire for popularity and her secret friendship with the smartest and most unpopular boy in her class, whose father is NASA's Director of Launch Safety. Looking for escape, Dolores loses herself in her scrapbook, where she files away newspaper articles about the astronauts and the shuttles, weather reports on launch scrubs, and stories about her idol, Judith Resnik. Then, on the morning of January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all seven astronauts on board - including Judith Resnik. It is a moment that shakes America to its core, and nowhere is it more deeply felt than in central Florida. Dolores becomes determined to reconstruct what went wrong, both in her parent's marriage and at NASA, in the hope that she can save her father's job and keep her family together. The Time It Takes To Fall is a coming-of-age novel that deftly weaves the story of one family's drama into the larger picture of a touchstone event in American history. It is at once an intimate look at a young girl's loss of innocence and a portrait of America's loss of innocence - the end of an era that romanticized manned space flight, and would never be the same again.
David A. Berona
Charles Baxter, author of Saul and Patsy and The Feast of Love
"Taking as her backdrop the Challenger shuttle disaster, Dean subtly probes the hidden design flaws at the heart of the American family. Emulating the engineers and astronauts her characters orbit, her work is equal parts cool precision and wondrous dream. If a novel can be likened to a spacecraft both are an intricate assembly of hundreds of thousands of parts Dean's is flawlessly constructed, ready to launch the reader on a soaring emotional trajectory."
Peter Ho Davies, author of Equal Love and The Ugliest House in the World
"Affecting, original debut about a girl's coming-of-age, set against the backdrop of the NASA space-shuttle program...an accomplished first novel about the American family."
Kirkus (starred review)
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Time It Takes to FallA Novel
By Margaret Lazarus Dean
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2007 Margaret Lazarus Dean
All right reserved.
My sister Delia and I were splayed on the floor in front of the afternoon shows when we heard the familiar slam of our own car door. We ran to the window. It was only three o'clock. My father had never come home from work early; often, in the push to prepare one launch after another in a continually quickening schedule, he worked late and didn't come home during daylight hours at all.
We watched him walk up the path toward the front door. He was a large man with a round soft belly and a calm face. When he opened the door, he looked surprised to see Delia and me standing there. He nodded and smiled at us.
"Hi, Dolores," he said to me, then, "Hi, Delia."
My mother emerged from the kitchen, where she had been repotting a plant. She looked as alarmed as we were to see him home in the afternoon. Her brown eyes searched his face.
"What's going on?" she asked. "What are you doing home?" Her hands were covered with potting soil halfway up her forearms. She clasped them together. My mother was beautiful, with wild black hair and big brown eyes, but worry distorted her face into something like anger.
"It's what we expected," my father said. His voice was flat, as if reporting that we needed milk. He turned his hands up to her, showing her the pink palms.
"Why are you home, Daddy?" Delia asked.Everyone ignored her; she was four.
"There's been a slowdown with the Main Engines. It has nothing to do with the boosters. But until this gets straightened out, there isn't much for me to do." My mother watched his face closely as he talked, moving her lips slightly as though she were trying to speak along with him.
"Why are you home, Daddy?" Delia asked again.
"Shut up, Delia," I said.
"Don't talk to your sister that way," my parents said together.
"They can't just put me on the next launch," my father explained to my mother. "The payload people need some time to catch up. It's just for six weeks or so. Maybe two months. Long enough I'll have to find something else. But temporary."
My father looked down at Delia and smoothed her hair. He and my mother still made the mistake of thinking we didn't understand their talk, that we knew only what they explained to us. This was still true of Delia, for the most part, but I was eleven.
My mother sat down and began to cry. She covered her face, forgetting the dirt on her hands. Delia crawled into her lap and patted, patted, patted her shoulder.
"It's okay," my mother cooed to Delia through her tears. Delia pried my mother's hands from her face; her forehead was smeared with dirt. Her eyes and nose were red, but she forced a smile.
"Everything's okay," my mother repeated. She sniffed and dried her face with a dish towel, Delia still staring up at her with wide green eyes.
"I've already got some leads," my father said, his hands in his pockets.
My mother shook her head and scoffed quietly.
"What kind of leads?" I asked. They both looked at me.
"Why don't you girls go and play in your room?" my father said.
Delia and I went into the room we shared while he and my mother kept talking, her voice high and quick, his low and quiet. We both tried to listen but couldn't make out any words. I pulled out the space notebook I'd been keeping since the first launch. The most recent entry read:
STS 41-D, Discovery.
Launch attempt June 25, 1984, scrubbed due to computer problems.
Launch attempt June 26 aborted at T minus 4 seconds because of a Main Engine failure, the latest abort ever. Launch put off for two months so Discovery could be rolled back to the Orbiter Processing Facility. The faulty Main Engine was replaced.
Launch attempt August 29 delayed because of more computer problems.
Launch attempt August 30 delayed 6 minutes because a private plane intruded into NASA airspace.
Launch, finally, at 8:41 A.M.
Judith Resnik became the second American woman to fly in space and the first person of Jewish heritage.
My father took me to this launch.
Judith Resnik had been my favorite astronaut since I'd first seen her on TV the day the seven women astronauts were chosen, leaning on a split-rail fence in a slightly forced pose, all of them smiling. The astronauts were about my mother's age, dressed in blouses and slacks, their hair fashionably styled into wings. Judith Resnik, in close-up, had a round baby face, a bright and innocent look. Her voice, her way of speaking, carried just the tiniest thread of friendly sarcasm. She seemed impatient with the silliest of the questions: What do you think it means for a woman to finally travel in space? Are you aware of the dangers involved? How will you feel if you are chosen to be the first American woman astronaut? She answered these questions with a tilt of her head, a sly smile. I'd hoped she would be the first, but Sally Ride had been chosen, the year before.
Delia pulled out her crayons and flipped through her pad of construction paper, looking for a clean page.
"Why is Daddy home?" Delia finally asked, selecting a crayon and scribbling.
"He's laid off. He can't go to work for a while, so he has to get a different job," I explained.
"Why can't he go to work?"
"The point is..." I said in my best adult voice, "the point is he'll go back there soon." Hearing myself say this, I immediately felt better. It sounded true. "It's not like he got fired. It'll be like nothing happened at all."
"Okay," Delia agreed. She seemed comforted and started drawing in earnest, but after a minute she pointed out softly, "Mom cried, though."
"Yeah," I said. "She didn't understand at first. She overreacted. It's just for six weeks."
Delia scribbled. I waited for her to ask what overreacted meant, but she didn't. I'd been explaining things to Delia since she'd been born, and I always told her the truth. Since her life coincided almost perfectly with the years the space shuttle had been flying, I'd been explaining the shuttle to her all along. Those are the rockets and that's the tank. The astronauts sit in the nose part, there. Those are the three Main Engines. One of them could fail, but not two.
After a while, Delia stuck her head out in the hallway and yelled, "Can we come out now?"
"Yes!" my mother yelled back.
When we came out to the living room, my father was watching the news. Delia curled up next to him on the couch. I found my mother doing the dishes. She had dried her eyes.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"It's not something you have to worry about, okay? It's just for a little while. Your father's very smart. He could do lots of things. Besides, it's just for six weeks." She fell quiet as she scrubbed at a pan. A few minutes later, she said quietly, "This happened before."
"Before you were born. Whenever NASA runs into hard times, they lay off people like your father first. It was hard, but in the end they needed him to come back, so everything worked out okay."
"How long did it take?" I asked.
She looked up toward the ceiling, as if calculating. She blew her fuzzy black bangs off her forehead, then looked down at the pan again. She seemed to have forgotten the question. "Don't you worry, okay? We'll figure everything out."
My father found another job, repairing machinery at an appliance factory. His first day of work, my mother saw him off as always, made his coffee in the same mug, so Delia and I were falsely comforted.
"Good luck," my mother said quietly as she kissed him goodbye.
"Ready?" he asked me.
"Ready," I answered. We said goodbye to Delia, who was waiting for her ride to preschool.
All the way to school, my father talked about the math I would be learning this year. It was one of his favorite topics.
"Soon you'll be getting into real algebra. Multiple variables, the quadratic equation. The concepts you'll learn this year are the foundation for calculus. Everything you learn in the future will build on this." I couldn't help but feel a little proud. All of the women astronauts were either doctors or physicists.
We pulled up in front of the Palmetto Park Middle School, a large, rambling, low-slung building framed by mature and symmetrical palm trees. Three weeks earlier, I had started seventh grade.
"Do you need lunch money?" my father asked. He heaved himself up in his seat to reach the wallet in his back pocket, making the seat squeak and crunch. More than kisses or other signs of affection, that motion embodied his everyday, responsible love for us. He handed me a dollar, then kissed me on the cheek.
I walked up the steps and through the big set of doors, where kids were milling around talking and yelling, some of them wandering into the building as if by accident. Inside, I breathed the smell of industrial cleaners mixed with dust, paper, cooked food, and the bodies of hundreds of adolescents.
I knew only about half of the kids in my class. The kids who had gone to the district's other elementary school seemed alarmingly more mature. They wore more stylish clothes and spoke to each other more harshly. They also had a leader, Elizabeth Talbot, who wore designer jeans and T-shirts with the names of bands I had never heard of. From the first day I'd laid eyes on Elizabeth, I simultaneously hoped she wouldn't notice me and hoped she would choose me as her best friend. So far, she hadn't noticed me. Today she sat between Toby and Nathan, writing something on their notebooks that made them all laugh in low, scornful tones.
I took a seat near my friends from Palmetto Park Elementary, Jocelyn and Abby. Jocelyn had always been pretty, and this year her fluffy blond hair was growing out from an attempt to fashion it into wings. Abby was not as beautiful as Jocelyn, but looked more put-together than the rest of us. She wore her black hair in a glossy cap, and her blue pants matched perfectly the blue stripe in the rainbow on her shirt. Both of them watched Elizabeth Talbot's every move.
At recess on the first day of school, when Elizabeth Talbot went from person to person, pointing at each of us and demanding, "What's your dad do?" Abby had said, "Accountant," Jocelyn had introduced herself and added, "Firing room," and I had answered, "Dolores Gray. My father works on the Solid Rocket Boosters." It went without saying that everyone's father worked for NASA.
Now I found it difficult to imagine my father going to work in a factory, so I pictured him at NASA instead. Once, before the fourth test launch of Columbia, he'd taken Delia and me into the Vehicle Assembly Building and showed us the tools he worked with, the elevator that took him up to different levels so he could work on different parts of the rockets. He introduced us to his boss, who peered at us through his thick glasses as if we might suddenly pounce and bite him. Mostly, my memory of NASA was of the candy machine down the hallway, the feel of the quarters clinking into it, and the candies that Delia and I chose, brightly colored sour disks. The crunch of sugar between my teeth, the smarting saliva feeling, and Delia's tongue afterward -- blue, and green, and pink.
Four launches took off successfully in 1983, then three more already the year I was eleven, 1984. My father had said his layoff would last for six weeks to two months; maybe he would be back in time to work on the flight scheduled for November 7, and no one would ever have to know.
After lunch, we straggled out to the courtyard, where everyone stood around listlessly, looking each other in the eye and then looking away, as adults do. Jocelyn, Abby, and I sat on a low wall. As we talked, I looked around and counted under my breath: twenty-five kids. Of the thirteen I knew, ten had parents who worked for NASA. As far as I knew, none of them had been laid off. Then again, how would I know?
Across the courtyard, Elizabeth Talbot stood talking with some boys, her arms crossed over her chest. Her father had designed some part of the oxygen system in the space shuttle's crew cabin. One of the boys threw a ball to her, and she caught it nonchalantly, without looking, and tossed it back.
A few days later, Mr. Jaffe frisbeed fat newsprint booklets onto our desks. A loud moan broke out: standardized tests. We took them at least once a year. This one would take all afternoon. We opened our test booklets to a reading section and began when Mr. Jaffe said, "Now." Secretly, I liked these tests. I liked filling in the newsprint bubbles completely with a sharpened pencil. I liked the tense hush and the rustling sound of pages turning, the occasional scrubbing of erasers. Half an hour into the hour-long section, I finished the last question and closed my test booklet. I looked around the room at the other kids, still working. Abby scratched her way through a long division problem. Nathan hunched over his desk, clutching a shock of sand-colored hair at his forehead. Next to him, Toby sat with his eyes squinted shut, slowly filling his cheeks with air until they ballooned, then slowly leaking it out.
On a scrap of paper, I drew a picture of an astronaut in a space suit. A few seconds later, Eric Biersdorfer closed his text booklet and laid his head on his arms. I stared at him in disbelief: no one had ever finished as quickly as I did.
Eric had gone to a private elementary school, so no one knew him. So far, he had sat by himself without trying to talk to anyone. He was tiny, the smallest boy in our class. I watched him to see what he would do next, and it seemed that he really was done; he pulled a Choose Your Own Adventure book from his pocket and held it open under his desk so that Mr. Jaffe wouldn't see. Then he raised his head suddenly and met my eyes. He looked at the closed test booklet on my desk and then smiled at me. The surprise of it traveled all the way to my feet. We sat, not looking at each other, but staring into mutual space with our ears on our elbows, until the other kids finished and Mr. Jaffe called time.
My father couldn't take me to the next launch because he had to be at work at the appliance factory before dawn. He'd been working there for only three weeks, but already this felt dangerously long; I worried that NASA would forget him and hire somebody else when his work needed to be done again.
I went outside while the sun was still coming up, casting a strange blue light onto the houses and trees in my neighborhood. I wasn't sure which direction to look for Challenger, and I started to think I'd missed it, when I caught sight of it over our garage, a tiny bright light scoring a white vertical streak onto the sky. I counted two minutes and then I thought I could see the Solid Rocket Boosters fall, but I couldn't be sure. My father had assembled one of those boosters before he was laid off.
Later, I wrote up the launch in my space notebook.
STS 41-G, Challenger.
Launch October 5, 1984, at 7:03 A.M., no delays.
This is the largest crew of astronauts ever to fly (seven). Two of them are women (Sally Ride and Kathryn Sullivan), and this is the first time two women have flown in space together. Also the first time a Canadian citizen (Marc Garneau) has flown in space.
Sally Ride lifted a satellite out of the payload bay using the Remote Manipulator Arm. Kathryn Sullivan became the first woman to do a spacewalk during a 3-hour EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity). She and David Leestma simulated the refueling of a satellite in the payload bay. "I love it," Sullivan said as she floated through the airlock.
My father didn't take me to this launch.
I didn't write in my space notebook about my daydream of this mission, my fantasy of what it must have been like to live on a spacecraft. What it must have been like for Kathryn Sullivan to spend three hours pulling on the layers of the EVA suit, the thin under layer laced with tubes of water to cool her, the tough pressurized outer layer, the gloves and helmet. What did she think about, getting suited up, knowing that she would be the first woman to venture out of a spaceship on a tether, to float alone in the blackness of space?
On the afternoon bus, the only open seat was next to Eric Biersdorfer. As I sat down, keeping as much space as possible between my body and his, Eric didn't look up or say anything. His head rested against the window, and he held a book open against the back of the seat in front of him.
After a few minutes, Eric suddenly set his book on his knee and looked out the window.
"I don't read books written for children," he said. "They're too boring."
He told me about the books he'd been reading, and I noticed that he had a slight stutter when he got excited. It occurred to me to try to find out whether his father worked for NASA, but I didn't. I just listened to the talk as it spilled out of him, fascinated that such a person could exist where I did.
Delia and I woke early on school days, when the sounds of talking, running water, and our mother's radio station burbled through the door. We shuffled out to find our mother sitting at the kitchen table in her robe, with the newspaper spread out, chewing on Delia's green crayon. Delia ran over and sat on her lap, crinkling some of the papers.
"Hi, girls," my mother said without looking up.
"What are you doing?" Delia asked, excited. She liked projects.
"Your mom's going to get a job and make some money," she said. She looked up at us, her brown eyes hopeful and energetic.
"What do you think about that?" she asked us, looking from me to Delia and back again. It was a real question.
"Good idea!" Delia said.
"Who's going to take care of us?" I asked.
"You girls are big enough to let yourselves in when you get home and fix your own snacks. We'll get a key made for each of you. You'll wear it on a ribbon around your neck so you don't lose it."
"What kind of job?" I asked. "Where would you work?"
"Maybe SeaWorld!" Delia cried.
"That's ridiculous," I told her. "She's not going to work at SeaWorld. That's not the kind of job she wants."
"Thank you for the suggestion, Delia," my mother said warmly. "But I've decided to be a secretary. I'd like to work in a nice office and answer phones for an important businessman. What do you think?"
I thought of the women I'd seen on television, dressed in dark suits and lipstick, clicking through offices in high heels, whispering important messages into the ears of silver-haired men. The offices were always dark wood, and it always seemed to be cold outside; I assumed that these offices only existed in the north. But my mother seemed so inspired by this idea, I wouldn't have dreamed of discouraging her.
"That sounds perfect," I said.
We didn't hear about the job idea again for a few days, until the morning I came out of my room to find my mother in the kitchen dressed up in a white blouse and a frilly pink skirt I had never seen before. Her hair, usually a fuzzy black cloud, had been smoothed into a tiny bun on the back of her head. The blush on her cheeks made her look eager or embarrassed. She wore high-heeled sandals with pantyhose; I could see the seams across her toes.
"You look nice, Mom," I said.
"Thank you, baby," she said. "Do you think I'll get hired?"
"Of course," I said. "What's the job?"
"It's working for a doctor's office, checking in patients and filing records. I talked to the doctor himself yesterday. He said mostly he just wants a friendly person at the front desk when people come in. I told him, 'That's me!'" Her voice quickly rose into a nervous laugh, as though she were talking to the doctor all over again.
"How do I look?" she asked. "Would you hire me?"
"Definitely," I said. "I'd pay you a million dollars."
When I left, she was crouching over to apply her mascara in the hallway mirror, stretching her mouth into a long distorted shape like a fish.
At recess, Eric and I sat on the steps and watched Elizabeth Talbot kick around a soccer ball. She controlled it with her feet the way the boys did, curling her cleat inward to steady it, then drawing back to kick it precisely with the side of her foot. The six weeks my father was supposed to be laid off were almost up. I expected him to get a call any day. Elizabeth jogged over to where a group of boys were talking; we watched her retie her ponytail as she discussed a Dolphins game with them. Somehow, she didn't have to try at being better than everyone else.
"I wish I could play soccer like her," I said to Eric. This wasn't exactly what I meant, but I wanted to broach the subject of Elizabeth. I wondered what Eric thought of her.
"You could if you wanted to," he pointed out.
"Not like her," I said.
Eric shrugged. "I don't see why not," he said finally.
My mother got the job. That night, she told my father all the details -- the questions the doctor had asked her, the responsibilities that would be hers. She still had her work clothes on and, wearing them, she held herself more upright, speaking in complete sentences.
"Look at you," he said, holding her at arm's length. "All dressed up."
"I'll have to dress like this all the time now," she pointed out. "I'll need some more good work outfits."
"This is full-time?" he asked.
"Oh yes," she said. "Full-time."
They stood holding each other's arms, forming a closed circle. It always made me a little anxious when they did this, that they would forget me entirely. It was one of my earliest memories, seeing my parents kiss on the lips when my father got home, briefly but with force; I saw their lips change shape in profile pressed against one another, and it had seemed a strange and slightly violent thing to do. When they hugged in the middle of the room, I stood next to them with a hand on each of their legs, waiting for them to remember me.
The first day of my mother's job, she woke early to shower and do her hair. When Delia and I wandered out to the kitchen, my mother was already dressed with her makeup on.
"Well, good morning," she said. "I have a surprise for you."
She slowly clicked open her change purse and pulled out two keys, then placed them carefully in our palms as though they were valuable. I turned mine over in my hand, examining it. It was silver, brighter and shinier than my parents' keys. Its teeth were sharp, brand-new.
My mother found some ribbon and strung the keys on them, then tied the ribbons around our necks like medals.
"Remember to keep these under your shirts," she said. "You don't want to advertise to strangers that you'll be home alone."
"Why not?" Delia asked. My mother gave me a quick warning look.
"It's just a secret," my mother said. "So keep it under your shirt."
She spent a few minutes showing us how to unlock the door from the outside, then how to lock it again from the inside. We were not to answer the phone or open the door to anyone. We were not to leave the house or use the stove.
All day I checked and double-checked to make sure I had my key and that it was hidden from sight. The tip scratched my chest, just at the end of my breastbone. I felt the weight of the key around my neck with everything that I did.
As I got off the bus in the afternoon, I became convinced that the key wouldn't work in the door, or that someone would see us and break into the house. Delia was standing on the corner, swinging her key by its ribbon.
"Put that away," I hissed. "Everyone can see." Delia looked at me as if I were crazy. No one was on the street. She slipped her key into the lock and swung the door open.
A few hours later, my mother breezed through the door in her high heels. She set down her purse and kissed us hello.
"How was it?" I asked.
"Well, there's a lot to the job. You'd be surprised all the things I'm supposed to keep track of, all at the same time. But Dr. Chalmers said I had a great start for my first day."
By the time my father got home, the three of us were watching TV with our feet on the coffee table. My mother was slumped in a chair, still wearing her work clothes, her eye makeup smudged around her eyes. Delia sang along with a commercial, caught up in its exuberance.
My father looked from my mother to the kitchen to my mother again. My mother had usually started dinner by now, but she made no move. He went into the kitchen, which was still dirty with dishes from the night before, and began opening and closing cupboards. Curious, Delia and I followed him in there. He stood facing the refrigerator with his hands on his hips, thinking.
"Where does your mother keep the macaroni and cheese?" he asked. We both pointed silently at the cupboard. Everything he did -- choosing a pot to boil the water in, adding the milk, straining the noodles -- was slightly different from what our mother did.
"You're doing that wrong," Delia said triumphantly as he dropped a chunk of margarine onto the macaroni. "You're supposed to cut it into little bits."
"Oh," he said. "Well, this will work anyway." We watched as he stirred, trying to get the margarine to melt, for a long time. He added the orange powdered cheese, then spooned it into a bowl for each of us.
"That's it? Just macaroni and cheese?" Delia asked.
"This is dinner," my father said. "It's a perfectly nutritious dinner."
"But where's the meat?" I asked. "Where's the green vegetable?"
He gave me a look.
"I'm just kidding," I said. "We like macaroni and cheese. Right, Delia?"
"Yeah," admitted Delia. We carried our bowls out to the living room; my mother accepted hers with a coo of surprise. Then we ate together in front of the TV.
Within a month, my father took over doing the laundry, throwing everything in together on the wrong settings, so all of our clothes became discolored and misshapen. Clutter built up in the living room, piles of newspapers and mail and apple cores and dirty socks and homework papers. I decided to clean: I picked up everything off the living room floor, dragged out the vacuum cleaner, and untangled the cord. Then I noticed Delia in the doorway, watching me, her eyes wide.
"Why are you staring at me?" I yelled over the noise.
"What are you doing?" she yelled back.
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm cleaning this disgusting room." But she kept staring, and soon I felt it too: the exhaustion and hopelessness of this task. Even once I finished this job, the other rooms would still be a wreck, the dishes still dirty, the kitchen floor still sticky underfoot. I turned off the vacuum and left it standing in the middle of the floor, the cord snaking across the carpet. None of us had ever thought about the fact that my mother did these things; none of us knew what to do now that she wasn't doing them.
Through the rest of October, sometimes I played with Jocelyn and Abby in the courtyard, but more often I sat on the steps near Eric but not close enough to attract attention. We watched the boys in bright colors clump together, separate, regroup. There were groups now, kids who stuck together in the lunchroom and in the courtyard. There was a sort of order to things.
Eric made no special effort to keep quiet, or to keep out of people's way. He was tiny and pale. Paleness itself was unusual enough in Florida, but Eric was very pale, a translucent pale, blue pale, veins showing through his skin. He said things: in class, and in the courtyard, he talked, and not quietly. He used words that I knew but would never have used with other kids: inevitable, mitigating, askance.
Eric's eyes were watery and icy gray. He had the oversized, serrated teeth of a kid just growing in his adult set. And that awful haircut: his hair seemed almost designed to accentuate his ears, and how can I describe those ears? They were both huge and elegantly shaped, more intricately whorled than most ears. They did not seem, as some large ears do, to be made of some type of molded rubber. Eric's ears seemed to be made of skin -- delicate white skin with thin scarlet blood vessels running through. I was only eleven, but I knew it was strange for me to find Eric's large ears so lovely. I knew large ears were supposed to be laughable, but Eric's ears, like everything else about him, seemed untouchable.
Eric Biersdorfer and I had a nice balance: we were both good at social studies and science; he did better in language arts, and I did better at math. I had always liked doing schoolwork; I took pleasure in the dogged satisfaction of scratching through a math problem step by step and getting to an answer at the end that was right, not negotiable or disputable. The first thing we did after we came in from lunch was check our homework from the night before, reading down the column of numbers while Mr. Jaffe gave out the correct answers in his slow, serious voice. Every checkmark I ticked down the margin -- correct, correct, correct -- seemed to affirm my idea of myself as good at math, smart in that way that not many others were smart.
One afternoon, I went inside before everyone else to find Mr. Jaffe stapling a brightly colored calendar to the corkboard. When he turned and saw me watching him, he gestured at it dramatically. "This is an o-fficial calendar from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration," he announced.
"Oh," I said. I approached it to look more closely. "Where'd we get it?"
Mr. Jaffe flipped the calendar over. On the back was a color portrait of a big jowly man with silver hair and pink cheeks. The man was dressed in a suit and standing in front of an American flag and a model of the space shuttle, smiling in a fatherly and false manner. Under a round seal was an extravagant and illegible signature. Under the signature, the man's name was printed in all capital letters. It said: randolph r. ("bob") biersdorfer, director of launch safety.
I flipped the calendar over to the front again and studied the photo for that month: Columbia lifting off from the 39-A launchpad. Black-bellied, attached to its red External Tank and its white rockets, the shuttle pointed its black nose up against the blue sky, showing us its American flag tattoo. White and pink steam billowed under it. In the background you could see the Vehicle Assembly Building, where my father had worked all my life until September.
When Eric came back in with the rest of the kids, he saw the calendar, met my eyes, and looked away. None of the other kids seemed to notice it. But Eric seemed irritated with me, as if this new and troublesome fact -- his father's being the boss of everyone else's father -- were somehow my fault.
"Why are you acting so weird?" I asked him finally, when no one else was around. Involuntarily, I looked at the calendar at the back of the room over his shoulder.
"It's just better when people don't know," he said. "I just wish my dad would stop giving out the stupid calendars, that's all."
I touched my key where it rested under my shirt. If I were in his place, I thought, I would let everyone know in some accidental way that I was better than they'd thought I was. Eric probably lived in a bigger, nicer house than anyone. Those clothes he wore, which looked so nondescript on him, were probably expensive brands, and knowing that made them look a little better to me. But Eric would never tell anyone about his father. Eric wanted to be left alone at school, and it seemed that it hadn't helped him, at his other school, to be so different and also to be the son of a rich, powerful man, the boss of the other fathers.
STS 51-A, Discovery.
Launch attempt November 7, 1984, canceled due to wind shear. (What is wind shear?)
Launch November 8, 7:15 am.
Anna Fisher was on board. She is the third of the women to fly and the first mother in space. She used the Remote Manipulator Arm to grab two broken satellites and put them into the payload bay.
My father took me to this launch.
The trick with launch attempts was to pace yourself, not to get too excited all at once, because just as likely as not the attempt would be scrubbed. My father and I packed food and crept outside in the middle of the night, then parked and waited for hours. The tourists and first-timers never understood the waiting. They wore themselves out with anticipation, clapping and hollering at the vehicle squatting on the launchpad; then they shouted with rage when the weather turned, or an instrument read outside the acceptable range, and the calm voice of the public affairs officer came on the speakers to announce that the launch attempt had been called off.
While we packed our things to leave after the launch was scrubbed, I looked up at my father and thought of asking him about his NASA job, when he might go back. But he just gave me his quick nod and smile, and I decided not to.
When we arrived home, my mother was standing in her bathrobe, the phone to her ear, her voice high and formal. My father got to work unpacking the groceries we'd bought on the way home. But Delia and I watched her, trying to figure out who could elicit such a charming phone manner.
She hung up the phone and looked at me.
"That was Mrs. Biersdorfer," she said.
My father pulled himself out of the refrigerator.
"Did you know that your daughter is friends with Bob Biersdorfer's son?" she asked him.
"Bob Biersdorfer's son," Delia said conversationally, hugging a box of sugar cereal she'd pulled out of a grocery bag.
My mother turned to me. "Why didn't you tell us you were friends with Bob Biersdorfer's son?"
It had never occurred to me to tell them; school and home were two separate universes. My father stood with his hands on his hips, looking from her to me.
"She's invited to the ballet in Orlando next Saturday," my mother told him. "Their family has season tickets and Bob can't make it." She used his name heavily, not quite sarcastically. "The son said he wants to invite her. She'll have dinner over there afterward. At the Biersdorfers'." All three of them looked at me.
My mother gave me a big smile.
"You may have gotten your daddy his job back," she whispered, excited.
"Deborah," my father murmured quietly.
"What? She'll have dinner over there. You'll go to pick her up, he'll invite you in for a beer"
My father stooped into the refrigerator again, sniffed a moldy cantaloupe, and handed it to Delia to toss into the garbage.
"This is an opportunity," my mother added, and the way she pronounced the word, it sounded longer than when other people said it, broad and long-ranging, with hills and valleys, secret spaces. "Right, Dolores?"
"Right," I answered quickly, not sure what I was agreeing to.
"You have to learn to use your connections," she said, this time speaking to my father. He rummaged loudly through a grocery bag.
"Okay," my father said when my mother didn't look away. "All right okay all right."
Copyright 2007 by Margaret Lazarus Dean
Excerpted from The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Margaret Lazarus Dean was born in 1972. She grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and received a BA in anthropology from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor.
Visit the Author at www.margaretlazarusdean.com
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This was a very good read. Dolores is growing up on the Space Coast and her dad works for NASA.
As her parents marriage falls apart, Dolores "comes of age". First with a crush on nerdy Eric whose father heads safety at NASA. Then with Josh, a senior at her school.
After the Challenger disaster Dolores lets her grades slip and loses her virginity, but wakes up in time to get herself back on track.
Nicely written but could have used a little more depth of characterization.
Well worth reading for the facts of NASA alone.
By the 1980s everyone who lives in the towns that make up Florida¿s 'Space Coast' understands that NASA is the prime employee. All working adults either are employed by NASA or provide services to NASA¿s employees. Most of the young like preadolescent student Dolores Gray dream of becoming astronauts or space engineers. ---------- - Delores¿ father moved here in 1965, but insists the space exploration ended abruptly in 1972 as Nixon had no vision. By late 1985 in spite of her dad¿s negativity and that most of her peers admired teacher in space astronaut Christa McAuliffe, Delores wants to one day be just like her heroine mission specialist Judith Resnick. However, funding is cut for the agency as another no visionary sits in the White House NASA has to RIF employees like Delores¿ dad, which propels her parents¿ marriage into a tailspin until her mom leaves. Then on 28 January 1986, the Challenger explodes.--------------- An interesting coming of age tale what keeps THE TIME IT TAKES TO FALL entertaining is 1980s NASA Florida vividly described with a royal pyramidal hierarchy while rocket science is made simple and comprehensible without dumbing it down. The family crisis pales next to space science and space disaster. Still Margaret Lazarus Dean provides a fascinating look at Space Coast Florida circa 1985-86.-------------- Harriet Klausner
This is a fictional story of a family told from the voice of a very real-sounding young teenage girl. I kept wondering how the author could know so much about NASA if she didn't experience it herself, but I read her website, and she did a lot of research. I loved this book and wish I knew of another one to follow it up.