News of Sputnik

     The world’s first satellite has just been launched, and my brother, tuned in last night to the shortwave radio he and my father built, shakes me awake at dawn.
     “Weather conditions for a perfect launch are now.”
     I dress quickly and hurry downstairs where we grab our new diamond Hi-Flier from the hall closet.
     The neighborhood’s quiet, a few stars still out. Our kite rises and aims toward the treetops at the end of the block. Jerking the bobbin in one hand, he reaches in his jeans pocket with the other.
     “Here’s a quarter. Go to Pressman’s and buy more string.”
     My brother Jerry’s fourteen and I’m seven. Pressman’s is the corner grocery/variety store. The kite flutters and dives toward the treetops; my brother yanks the string and it reels upwards again.
     “Go!” he yells.
     I race down the street. I catch Mr. Pressman, whose family lives above the store, unlocking the front door. Dodging him, I grab a bobbin of string by the kite-bin and rush to the counter.
     “We’re not open yet,” he frowns beneath his walrus mustache. But he rings the cash register and the drawer flies open.
     As I leave, Alice leans from the upstairs window and waves. She’s Mr. Pressman’s daughter and in my third grade class. I blush, wave back, and bolt down the street.
     The sun peers low in an orange-yellow sky. Leaves flit along the pavement. It’s Saturday morning, and the Russian satellite, taking 96.2 minutes to complete an orbit, has circled the Earth nine times. More children gather in the street while parents watch from the houses and front lawns. I hand Jerry more string, he ties the ends together, and the Hi-Flyer takes off like a dog unleashed. It sails higher, toward the next neighborhood.
     “More string!” my brother yells and tosses me another quarter.
     I race toward Pressman’s again. I elbow past people in the now-crowded store toward the kite-bin. There're almost no bobbins left and I wish I brought more quarters.
     I wait in line clutching my string. “Hi Joey,” Alice says, standing at the counter beside her father. She takes my money and rings the register.
     I hurry back. News of Sputnik crackles from someone’s transistor radio. Jet contrails ladder the sky. The kite’s still visible, its string bowline-taut. Then it slackens and the kite tumbles. But my brother, like a musical conductor, plays with the line and it soars upward again.
     Adults join the children. Binoculars are shared. As the kite passes the sun I lower my eyes as if viewing an eclipse. Then I imagine I’m on a tightrope wielding a balance beam and climbing toward the sky. 
     “More string!” Jerry shouts.
     The crowd in Pressman’s is gone as are all the kites and twine. Alice, alone at the cash register, smiles at me despite my crestfallen look. “I’ve saved something for you.” She reaches below the counter and grabs a bobbin of string. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
     I race from the store. On front lawns people assemble their new Hi-Fliers and many already are testing the air. And there’s an even bigger crowd in the street; they part to give my brother more room, and he leaps and twirls like a marionette, only he’s the master of strings.
     I walk toward him, breathless and hand outstretched. The kite’s invisible, but the line holds firm, sun glinting. Nearer the Earth, above houses and treetops, other kites bob like acolytes genuflecting to their unseen god. 


First published (as “Sputnik, October 1957”) in Mojave River Review, Volume 3, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2017.