Voyager 2 sailed past Neptune and its large moon Triton in late August of 1989. Though its journey would continue forever, Jeremy Sprauling’s employment with the United States space program came to an end barely three weeks after the encounter.
The Voyagers would keep sending information back to Earth, possibly for decades, until their plutonium power supplies ran out. Scientific instruments on board would continue to collect data. But they would encounter no more worlds. And after a last, romantic, Carl Sagan-inspired mosaic of the Sun’s planets as seen from the outer Solar System, Voyager 2’s cameras would be shut down, to save power for other instruments.
Back on Earth, on the piece of land called California, Gretchen Sprauling sat on her brother’s porch and listened to his account of it all.
“They dove it right over Neptune’s north pole,” he said. “Three thousand miles above the cloud tops. That’s less distance than you traveled to see me. It’s closer than Phobos is to Mars. We got a real good look.”
“What will you do?” she asked him.
“I’ve been offered a couple classes at San Diego State, starting in January,” he said. “The introductory astronomy course I can do in my sleep. The other is a survey course called Solar System Astronomy, which I imagine will involve showing a lot of Voyager slides.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard,” she said.
He shrugged. “It’s work, at least.”
“I’ll drink to that.” She raised a brown beer bottle to his identical one. They clinked. “To work. It got me to California.”
She was the first family member to visit him on the West Coast. Her boss at the radio station had asked her if she wanted to attend a convention of independent radio programmers in San Diego, and when she told him she had a brother there who could put her up, he had agreed to spring for the air fare. It was her first time west of the Mississippi.
“You been watching the World Series?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “Don’t even know who’s playing.”
“San Francisco and Oakland,” he said. “A Bay Area series.”
“If the Red Sox aren’t involved, I guess I don’t pay attention,” she said. “Besides, the games are on so late. I’ve got work and kids and stuff.”
“We’re spoiled out here. It’s warm in October, and the games start before sunset. Plus it’s the second all-California Series in a row. Last year it was Oakland and the Dodgers. The guy pitching for the A’s tonight, Bobby Welch, used to pitch for the Dodgers. The A’s won the first two games in Oakland, but tonight’s game is in San Francisco.”
“Who are you rooting for?”
“I guess Oakland, because of Welch and Eckersley. But I don’t really care.”
Silence fell between the siblings. She thought of Ted and his television sports. Baseball was too slow for her, though she understood the game a little. The children of Elliott Sprauling had been exposed to sports. In 1967, the year the family moved to Maine, the Red Sox had made an improbable run to the American League pennant, winning on the season’s final day. Gretchen remembered few of the details, but she could still see ten-year-old Jeremy, on the screened-in porch at East Blue Hill, leap into his father’s arms as the radio announced the final out.
“Anyway, the game starts in about an hour,” Jeremy said, finally. “You want another beer?” He stood up. Gretchen handed him her empty bottle.
“Is a frog’s ass watertight?”
He laughed and went inside. She closed her eyes and aimed her face toward the sun, above the palm trees across the street. How lovely to feel the warmth of the sun in late October, she thought. No wonder Jeremy seldom came home.
She drifted, thinking about games on Blue Hill’s old baseball field, just up the road from the skating rink. Only little kids played there now; the high school had better but more sterile fields up by the fairgrounds, too far out of town for people to walk.
The slam of the screen door brought her back to the present.
“That’s where they are, you know. Bonnie and Andromeda.”
She opened her eyes and accepted a fresh beer. “San Francisco?” she said. So far, they had mostly avoided the subject of Jeremy’s divorce.
“Just this side of it. A place called Half Moon Bay, on the coast. Bonnie was making noises about moving back up to Tacoma, but my lawyer raised a stink about taking the kid out of state.”
Her own kids were spending this week with Ted’s parents in Old Orchard Beach, because Ted could not possibly take care of all three of them by himself. She had never been so far away from them before. But in four days she would fly into Boston, Ted would meet her, and they would drive up to Maine, picking up the kids on the way, and their family would be intact again as if nothing had happened. Divorce was permanent; Jeremy’s separation from his daughter was his new reality. Maybe it was different for men, but she did not know how he could endure it.
“You get to see her much?” Gretchen asked. “Andromeda, I mean.”
Jeremy looked down into his beer and shook his head. “This summer was so busy I only got up there for a couple of weekends,” he said. “It’s an eight-hour drive, which means a day to drive up, a day to spend with Andi somewhere, and a day to drive back. So, no, not as much as I’d like.”
He shrugged into his beer. “It is what it is. But I want to hear about this new radio station you’re working for. I guess Blue Hill’s come up in the world, if it’s got its own radio station.”
“All it takes is one lunatic millionaire,” she said, as relieved as he seemed to be to change the subject, “with an ego the size of California.”
“But what’s his story?” Jeremy asked. “He makes a few million bucks, and goes to Blue Hill, Maine, to start a radio station. Why?”
“Bob Mitchell,” Gretchen said. “That’s his name. He tells everyone to call him ‘Bob.’ Even kids. He’s obsessed with his name. Somehow he bought the rights to the call letters WBOB, and that’s what the station’s name is: W-Bob. The guy’s out of his mind.”
“What do you mean, out of his mind?”
“Okay, so he got a license to start a community radio station, which means that a certain percentage of programming has to be devoted to public affairs, public service announcements, the news and the weather. There aren’t any commercials. The whole thing is a non-profit venture. The people on the air are all volunteers. The only paid staff are me, the station manager, the engineer, and the office manager, and we’re all part time.”
“Okay, so far so good. And what do you do?”
“I’m the program manager. I order the music we buy, among other things.”
“Sounds like fun,” her brother said. “So what makes it crazy?”
“The Bob factor,” she said.
“I’m not following you.”
“He was a record producer in his former life, and one of his bands had a big hit and became briefly but hugely popular,” she said. “Do you remember the group The Four Bobs?”
“Yeah,” Jeremy said. He hummed the snatch of a song.
“That’s them. Only two guys weren’t named Bob, until Bob Mitchell made them change their names. So Bob – Mitchell, that is – made a lot of money in the sixties and seventies in New York and Los Angeles, and came to Maine on vacation, and fell in love with it. He’s already built a big house in South Blue Hill. The station’s in an old barn he’s had refurbished.” She took a long swig of beer. “I told you he was an egomaniac, didn’t I?”
“Well, it wasn’t enough for him just to get the call letters WBOB and leave it at that. Nope. Everything’s got to be Bob-related. That means all the music we play has to either be by someone named Bob, or produced or written by someone named Bob, or about someone named Bob.”
“You’re kidding,” Jeremy said.
“I shit you not,” Gretchen said. “He comes in every week and vets the playlist for Bobness.”
“Seriously?” By now they were both laughing.
“Yup. I’m so sick of Bob Dylan I’m ready to scream.”
“Pretty hard to get sick of Bob Dylan,” Jeremy murmured.
“No it’s not,” she replied. “Especially since every Dylan fanatic seems to want to be a programmer. The Marley-ites are easier to take, because all they want to do is listen to reggae and get stoned, so they don’t constantly interrupt the music to talk about inane minutiae about his life and what the songs are supposed to mean.”
“But can you play covers of Dylan songs? There must be thousands of them.”
Gretchen nodded. “And I’ve heard them all,” she said.
“So what qualifies as sufficient Bobness? I mean, can you play, like, Robert Parker, or Robert Johnson? Or Bobbi Gentry?”
“Oh yeah. ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is on heavy rotation. Roberta Flack gets a lot of airplay, too, because most of the Bobs out there are male.”
“You can play the Grateful Dead, because Bob Weir’s in the band.”
She nodded. “It gets pretty ridiculous. People play stuff where there’s a bass player named Bob, or the producer’s name is Bob, or there’s a Bob mentioned in the liner notes. You can play almost anything if there’s a Bob in it somewhere. But two guys from Ellsworth did a seven-hour Bob Seger retrospective last week, and God help me, I almost drove the car into the bay.”
“Yeah, that must have been pretty grim.”
“And it isn’t just music,” she went on. “He’s got this feature going where we find interesting people named Bob in the community, and interview them. They talk about their jobs, their lives, what they like about living in Maine – and it’s the most boring thing you’ve ever heard, because most Bobs are really just ordinary Joes.”
“Bada-bing,” Jeremy said.
This time the laughter lasted a long minute, until Jeremy, coughing and excusing himself for being a poor host, gathered up the two empty beer bottles and went inside for two fresh ones.
“Me and Bobby McGee,” he said, when he returned.
“Anything with Bob or Bobby or Robert in the lyrics is acceptable. The only Beatles song you can play is ‘Dr. Robert.’”
“Come on, there must be more than that. All those story songs? What was Father McKenzie’s first name in ‘Eleanor Rigby’?”
“I don’t think he has one. But like I said, people interpret the Bob rule pretty loosely. As long as you have something to point to when the big Bob questions something, you’re okay. That’s what we call him, by the way – not ‘the big boss’ but ‘the big Bob.’ It’s a culture of lunacy behind a curtain of narcissism.”
“But he did pay your way out to California,” Jeremy said.
“There is that,” she averred.
The phone rang inside the house. Jeremy got up to answer it.
Gretchen sipped at her beer and sat back in the wicker chair, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and the different feel to the air out here – not dense, like the sometimes clear, sometimes cloudy soup that circulated over New England, but not overly hot or dry, either. She could get used to this. Jeremy had told her that while he didn’t like everything about Southern California – too many cars, too many people, too many fake-looking women – he had no complaints about the weather. “I have yet to wake up,” he’d said, “and say, ‘Oh, crap, another beautiful sunny day.’”
No wonder Californians are so laid-back, she thought. They’re lulled into it by the climate.
But then she heard Jeremy cry “Whaaaaaaat?” and realized that she was in the company of her competitive, impulsive older brother, who was only in California by accident. She heard him rumbling about in there – was that the television? – and in another couple of minutes he reappeared on the porch, the screen door slamming behind him.
“That was Ma,” he said. “There’s been a big earthquake up in San Francisco.”
Her first thought was that it took a phone call from their mother, 3,000 miles away, to tell them of an earthquake just up the coast. She would have laughed, but for the look on her brother’s face. “Oh, Jeremy,” she said. “Your daughter…”
“Bonnie’s not answering her phone. I don’t know where Andromeda is. Probably with her.”
“How… how bad is it?”
“Bad enough to cancel the baseball game,” he said. “They’re evacuating the stadium. A bridge collapsed over the freeway, a couple of buildings, too. People are dead.”
“My God,” she whispered.
“I know. I wish I could get in touch with Bonnie.”
“Jeremy, they’ve got to be okay,” she said, a weak stab at reassurance. “Out of the millions of people up there… well, the odds are pretty good they’re going to be fine.”
“That’s what everyone who’s got relatives there is telling themselves,” he said. He paced out small circles on the small porch. “I’m going back inside and try to call her again.”
They spent the next several hours glued to the television, watching updated reports, as the increasingly bad news rolled in: a series of cars and their occupants sandwiched by two levels of roadway, people hit by falling debris from buildings, power outages and electrical fires. They did not order pizza. Jeremy grew more and more agitated. At least fifty people were confirmed dead, and the total was expected to climb much higher. He called Bonnie’s number every few minutes, and got the same thing: nothing. He bounced between worry for his daughter and anger at his ex-wife. “Why hasn’t that woman gotten an answering machine yet, for God’s sake?” he thundered. “Doesn’t everyone have an answering machine these days?”
“Maybe in California,” Gretchen muttered. She didn’t have one, and neither did Annabelle.
“Gretchen, they’ve been on the market for years,” he said, as if that meant anything. Just because someone came up with a new gadget, that didn’t mean that everyone in the world had to go out and buy one, did it? She fought hard not to show her annoyance with him. He was worried about his daughter, after all, and rightly so. But she had spent her whole childhood listening to Jeremy rant about anything that upset him, and back then that had included a lot of things. After their father died, Annabelle had been too weak to stand up to him. Gretchen held her mother partly to blame for Jeremy’s high opinion of his own opinions. That this crisis was real did not prevent her from flashing back to the manufactured crises of years past.
So she stewed in silence as Jeremy called Bonnie’s number every half hour and ranted most of the time in between when she did not answer. It was after ten o’clock when he finally got ahold of her, after Annabelle had called again and urged both of her two oldest children to come back to the East Coast where such things did not happen, and after Gretchen had called Ted’s parents and talked to her own three children and told them that she loved them. Bonnie and Andromeda were all right. Gretchen heard Jeremy’s side of a short exchange with his ex-wife, and she heard his voice soften when he talked to his daughter.
When he hung up, however, his face was full of fury. “They’ve been at a friend’s house for hours,” he said. “They’re fine. Their whole neighborhood’s fine. Some cans knocked off shelves, a few broken windows. They’ve been watching the news, just like us.”
“I’m glad she’s okay, Jeremy.”
“Yeah, but you think she would have thought to call me. Just once, once in four hours, it might have crossed her mind that I might be worried.”
Jeremy paced and ranted some more, and Gretchen didn’t say much. What could she say? That he had perhaps married a woman as selfish as himself? That Ted, for all his good intentions, might have reacted the same way in similar circumstances? That she was glad she didn’t live in California? Any day the place could crumble into the sea.
Some people might like living with such constant uncertainty in their lives, she thought, but not her. In four days she would be home, safe on the bedrock of New England. Gretchen preferred ground that didn’t move beneath her feet.