Excerpt of Gerald Brennan’s ISLAND OF CLOUDS

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Cocoa Beach Interlude


It’s late 1977, a couple weeks before launch, and we’re at the Cape, at the Holiday Inn: me, Shepard, and Owen Garriott.

It’s all orange and aqua outside, all bright and presentable, but the inside’s dark. It’s another one of those places where everyone looks good, and everything sounds like a good idea, like there’s a dimmer switch for your conscience. Shepard’s been going here for a decade and a half, back since the Mercury days.

We order drinks at the bar. I don’t know if we’re here to celebrate the mission, or because we want to cram in as many nights at the bar as possible before we have to go into quarantine. And our wives are back in Houston, for a few more days. And I’m not sure how much that matters to some of us, because nothing outside the bar feels real.

There’s a table of young women close by, two brunettes and a blonde. They’re making eyes at us and talking in whispers. Women: the giant conspiracy.

“Come on, let’s go,” Shepard says to me.


“Yeah, I need a wingman. You Air Force pukes don’t believe in wingmen?”

I snort. “You Navy pukes don’t believe in matrimony?”

He laughs. “How many of us are saints here? None of us. Not a one.”

I have to admit, he has a point.

“Speak for yourself,” Owen laughs.

Shepard gives him a look. “I’m talking to Buzz here.” And to me: “And I’m not talking matrimony, I’m talking air support. It’s not always about racking up kills, sometimes it’s about flying cover.”

“I didn’t know you needed that.”

“Everybody needs protection from something.”

“Be it hostile bar girls or angry wives.” I polish off my whiskey.

“I don’t know that they’re hostile,” Owen says. “Why else would they be here? And you never know, they might be obliterated soon anyway.”

“Right. Easy mission,” Shepard says. “Should be a milk run. Let’s go.”

“Well. . .” I think for a minute. “There is always a certain allure, for a certain kind of female. . .”

Shepard snaps. “I’m talking to Owen here!”

I lower my tone. “You’re about to say goodbye to Louise for over a year, and you’re gonna go try and get laid?”

“Who said anything about getting laid?” Shepard grins. “Maybe I just want to hang out and enjoy their company. Maybe I want to tell them some stories. I don’t know.”

“Some leader. You want me to be your wingman and you won’t even tell me what the mission is,” I smirk. “I’ll stay here. This sounds like a disaster.”

“Well, nothing’s wrong with a little conversation,” Owen says.

They summon the bar girl, order up a preparatory bombardment of beer to soften up the defenses a little more, and take off soon afterwards.

I linger a while. I do not want to think about Joan, but I think about Joan. I polish off my drink and try to sit still for a minute. After a while, curiosity gets the better of me and I wander over.

Shepard’s mid-story, showing off, as usual: “. . .were trying to decide what to feed us before the mission. I mean, all these unknowns, going into space. They tried to launch a few chimps up there, but it wasn’t like they could explain how they felt during the thing.”

“Ohh! Ohh! Eeeeh! Eeeeh!” Owen says, in a passable imitation of our primate cousins, and some of the girls laugh.

“Kinda hard to decipher,” Shepard says. “And of course, you don’t want anyone vomiting in the craft, which wasn’t so much an issue with us, being highly experienced aviators and all. But of course. . .and, well, you can try and discuss it delicately, but there’s no getting around it, everything’s gotta come out the other end eventually.”

The blonde (who’s, truthfully, pretty fantastic looking) turns to one of her companions and mumbles something. As I lean close to listen, Shepard looks over his shoulder at me, annoyed.

“Look at this guy, buzzing around. . .” Everyone laughs.

“Real original, Al,” I observe. “Never heard that before.”

“Nothing wrong with catching a little buzz.” The blonde smiles and hands me a Schlitz; I realize it’s untouched, from the round Al had ordered.

“Nothing wrong at all,” I reply, and take a long pull.

“ANYWAY,” Shepard continues. “This was a problem, because it was a small spacecraft, and they hadn’t made provisions for that, especially on the short flights. So they were trying to decide what to feed us, and it was hard, because they didn’t want to overfeed us, but also they didn’t want to leave us with nothing in our stomachs, all hungry and anxious, and so at last, one of these Germans was all ‘Vee have decided to feed you ze steak und eggs. It ees a very high protein diet, so zere vill be very little residue.’ And. . .” (Here Shepard chuckles. . .he’s always had a hard time keeping a straight face at punchline time.) “. . .and I said ‘No shit.’ And he said ‘Exactly.’”

Shepard laughs. One of the brunettes says, “Eww.”

“Great story, Al,” I observe.

“Stop buzzing around. You’re killing my buzz, Buzz!”

Again the ladies laugh.

“You know, rather than telling old war stories, you could actually. . .engage these ladies in conversation. See who they are and what they’re all about,” I point out. “That might liven things up a bit.”

“Yeah, there’s a thought,” the blonde smiles.

“Ehhh, I think we just need to get our buzz back. Our other buzz,” Shepard says, and summons the waitress. “Let’s do some shots. Shots? Shots?” He makes a show of asking the girls, but doesn’t actually wait for a response. “Cutty, all around.”

The waitress disappears.

“So you’re launching soon, then?” the friendliest of the brunettes asks.

“Yes. Venus, Mars, Venus,” Owen says.

“Shouldn’t you be. . .working late, or training, or something?” the blonde asks. “Centrifuges and simulators and such?”

“Oh, we’ve done all that,” Shepard replies. “It is dangerous and demanding work, don’t get me wrong. Requiring nerves of steel. But rocketry and gravity, that’s all taken care of.” The waitress comes back with shots. “My biggest concern is, we’ve got some long and lonely nights ahead of us. . .” He passes out the shotglasses. “So I would like to offer a toast: To no more lonely nights.”

We slam our drinks, but a couple of girls leave theirs on the table.

“That actually is a big concern,” Owen says. “Have we given any thought to. . .I don’t know, policies for getting our needs met up there?”

“Well I’m not gonna take care of you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Shepard replies. “Maybe Buzz here. . .”

“Jesus! Oh my God!” the less friendly brunette exclaims.

“Christ,” I say.

“I’m not asking for my own benefit!” Owen clarifies. “And if I was, no offense to Buzz, but I would want to keep it all self-service. Still, we might want to think about privacy considerations, time schedules, things of that sort.”

I can’t believe we’re talking about this. “Whatever your needs, however you want to deal with them, I just don’t want to know about it.”

“Easy there, Buzz,” Shepard laughs. “Man’s got needs, he’s just trying to make sure his needs are met. Reminds me of the story about the barrel.”

“Good Lord.” We’ve all heard the one about the barrel too many times to count, and I’m getting a little tired of his shit.

“It is something to discuss,” Owen says.

I shake my head. “I had to deal with a roommate doing that crap when I was a cadet. No shame at all. Christ, we’re not. . .zoo animals.”

The women snicker. “Are you sure?” the blonde asks. “Manners-wise, you seem to be aping the apes.”

“You didn’t take your shot,” Shepard suddenly notices.

“I don’t remember asking to be on the receiving end of your shots,” she says saucily. “Here, you take it. If you’re man enough.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He hoists it. “Raise a glass, whatever it is you’re drinking.”

She lifts what looks like a gin and tonic.

“I’m sorry if I was rude, my lady,” he says. “To what shall we drink?”

“To primates.”

“To our primacy among the primates,” Shepard says, and she gives him a look. “OK, to primates.” They clink glasses; he knocks his drink back while she sips hers. “You’ll never make a monkey out of me,” he adds.

She mumbles something under her breath. Then one of the brunettes whispers in the blonde’s ear, and she grins. She leans back and smiles like she’s heard a big and beautiful and terrible secret.

“There you go,” Shepard says. “See? We can all be friends.”

“You’re right, Captain Shepard, we can be friends,” she smiles. “And we should at least send you some friendly shots as well.”

“Please, call me Al!” he grins.

Again the waitress is summoned. The more attractive brunette speaks: “We’d like some. . .Sambuca, maybe?”

“Sambuca?” Shepard makes a face.

“Aren’t you man enough?” she smirks. Then, to the waitress: “White Sambuca. Six shots.”

She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. And Shepard and Garriott don’t notice, but she circles around and says something to the waitress, and slips the other woman some money. As the waitress returns to our group, I am watching her with the tray, and it looks like there’s something off with some of the shots, some variation in the viscosity of the liquor, in the way they slosh when she sets the tray down.

She hands out the shotglasses somewhat more deliberately and carefully than seems normal, and meanwhile the blonde leaves, and the brunette returns, and we all do our shots, and the brunette even grabs the extra one and pounds it, and I keep my eye on the server’s tray as she brings it back to the bar.

And here I get up to go to the bathroom, and when I pass the bar, I notice on the server’s tray that she’s spilled a little from the shots, and where the spillage had mixed, it looks milky and white.

On the way to the bathroom, I see the blonde coming back.

I stop her: “Your friends weren’t doing shots of Sambuca there. The brunette was drinking. . .”

“We have names, you know,” she says, somewhat saucily. “I’m Heather. She’s Anne.”

“Well. . .Heather. Your friend Anne was drinking water.”

She gives me a little look, then a laugh. “Guilty as charged. I try not to be dishonest these days, but I don’t drink anymore, and my friends aren’t really looking to get plastered. So. . .a white lie.”

“A white Sambuca lie,” I smile.

She chuckles: a blessed, beautiful chuckle.

“If it mixes with water, there’s this effect where the mixture turns a little milky. I noticed it on the tray, and I knew something was up. If you want to keep it up, maybe switch to vodka.”

Here she laughs. “Wait, you’re trying to help me out here? You and your boss. . .”

“We have a complicated relationship.”

Another brunette walks up, one that hadn’t been in our group; she looks familiar, but I don’t recognize her at first. Heather grins and says, “Hello! I didn’t know you were here already, too!”

“Yes, we. . .”

As soon as I hear the accent, I know. “Wait, you’re. . .”

“Orianna Falacci,” the new brunette says. “Good to see you again, Buzz.”

And to Heather: “So you’re all. . .”

“Journalists,” she smiles. “Modern liberated women.”

I’m truly flabbergasted. “I thought you were. . .”

“Horny astronaut groupies?” she grins.

Here I have nothing to say.

Back at the table, Shepard’s still holding court, though somewhat more inebriatedly; he’s explaining how close he’d been to beating Gagarin, how very close, only they’d launched the monkey one last time, just to be safe.

“How goes the war, Captain?” I ask.

“These are some tough customers we’re up against here, Buzz,” he opines.

“I bet they can drink you under the table.”

“Never. We need to get some more shots in them.”

“We’re standing right here,” Anne reminds him.

“If you get any more shots in you, you’ll get shot down,” the other one chuckles.

“Never!” Shepard says defiantly. “Another round!”

“How about vodka?” I suggest.

“Yes!” the one brunette echoes. “We’d like some shots of vodka.”

“Yes! In honor of our vanquished Russian adversaries!” Shepard exclaims.

The other brunette gets up as if to talk to the waitress again; I stop her, whisper in her ear: “It’s OK. I know what’s up. I’m on your side.”

The waitress heads off for the drinks. For the benefit of the group, I say, “Oh, wait. I was gonna get a chaser.” Then I dart after her and speak in her ear: “Five shots of water, one shot of vodka, which goes to Captain Shepard. I’ll pay you for six shots. And a Schlitz.”

The waitress grins and nods at the women: “You’ve defected?”

“Just for tonight.”

She goes on her way, and returns with a tray and a beer and six shots.

I whisper in Owen’s ear: “It’s water. Just play along.”

“To the Russkies,” Shepard says. “If they hadn’t beaten us to space, we might not have beaten them to the moon.” And everyone tosses back their shots, Owen and the girls exaggerating their effect, except Heather spills hers and runs off to the restroom instead.

I follow her, as discreetly as I can manage. “You OK?” I ask.

“Yeah, sorry. I really shouldn’t be doing this. I can’t afford to go back to that life. And that all seemed a little too much like Russian roulette.”

“Except with a tray instead of a revolver chamber.” I chuckle. “You’re funny.”

“You’re married,” she observes.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, it’s just. . .the sense I get from you. . .”

“It’s been tough,” I sigh. “My marriage. I don’t know where it’s going. I’m. . .Joan wants to see a shrink, but my dad says. . .with my career, I mean. . .but I have been. . .things have been stressful at home. I was drinking too much, after the moon. I’ve been cutting back.”

“Cutting back?” She raises an eyebrow.

“Well, special occasions excepted. I really should quit. I got back on flight status to go on this Venus-Mars thing. I figured I just needed something new to do. A reason to get out of bed in the morning. I was depressed.”

“It doesn’t help with that,” she says, with a nod down at my beer. “At least in my experience. It seems like it does, but it doesn’t. But there’s no point talking about it now.”

She pulls out a notepad.

“Oh, Jesus, are you gonna write about this?”

She laughs. “No, no, no! This is all off the record. And this is more important than work.” She writes down a telephone number. “Here. If you still want to quit tomorrow, when you’re sober, call.”

“This is your number?”

She gives a little smile/smirk. “I can’t help you, Buzz. One or both of us might have mixed motives. This is a guy I know. A really good man. He’d be glad to talk to you.”

She turns and heads for the door.

I wander back to the table. Shepard’s pretty lit.

“You were saying about a barrel?” Anne asks.

I’ve heard the one about the barrel too many times to count, but I don’t stop him. (I don’t know if I want to hear it, or if I just want to see him fuck it up. Half the fun of watching Shepard tell a joke is seeing him bust a gut laughing before he even gets the punchline out.)

“Of course.” Shepard clears his throat. “So, this guy. Goes to work in Alaska, in a mining camp, back in the gold rush days. Camp’s so small, actually, there’s only. . .” (Shepard chuckles, then chokes it down.) “. . .there’s only three other guys. No women for miles around. And this guy. . .” (A longer chuckle escapes.) “. . .this guy, he’s a regular guy, he figures he just wants to earn some money, maybe spend it on whores or whatever, or whatever, but he’s. . .” (Shepard snickers, and recomposes himself.) “. . .he realizes this camp is way the hell out there, you know? Way out in the back country. So at the end of the first workday, he goes to the old timer there, and he’s like, ‘There’s no whores or nothin’ up here?’ And the old timer’s like. . .” (After more chuckles, Shepard takes a break, then gets back to it.) “. . .the old timer’s like, ‘Nope.’ So the young guy’s like, ‘Well, what do you do for. . .you know. . .’ And, I mean, he doesn’t want to whack off, he’s been swinging a pickaxe all day, his hands are all cramped up and blistered, last thing he wants to do is use his hands for THAT. And the old timer’s like, ‘Well, for the next few weeks, you can just fuck this wooden barrel.’” (Shepard chuckles; the brunettes give a look like “Who is this guy?”) “And he points to this barrel in the middle of the camp. Regular wooden barrel, with a hole, dick-high. And the young guy’s like, ‘A barrel? That sounds like, I mean…I don’t think that’d feel all that good, I mean, there’s. . .you could get splinters. . .’” (Shepard loses it, and starts laughing uncontrollably.)

“Jesus,” I interject. “Do I have to finish this?”

“No, I can, I just. . .” Again, Shepard melts down laughing.

I’m not nuts about this joke, but the notion of leaving things half-done appalls me, so I pick up where he left off. “OK. So the old man, he’s like, ‘No, no, no. This thing feels better than you can imagine.’ And the young guy tries it, and it’s just. . .amazing. Best thing he’s ever felt.” (The brunettes look at each other with some odd combination of curiosity and disgust. But I’m drunk, and it’s too late to stop, and I think the fact that they didn’t want me to keep going makes me want to keep going.) “Next thing you know, he’s going over to the barrel first thing in the morning, he’s sneaking back to camp on lunch, he’s getting in a quick one before dinner, he’s going over there when he wakes up in the middle of the night. . .”

“With a woodie. . .” Shepard interrupts, then bursts out laughing again.

“That’s not the point of the joke,” I respond, then continue. “He goes to the barrel when he wakes up in the middle of the night. . .with a woodie.” (I nod to Shepard.) “Until one Sunday, he’s headed over there just. . .ready to go. And the old timer stops him and says, ‘Not today.’ And the. . .’”

“IT’S YOUR WEEK IN THE BARREL,” Shepard blurts out, half a sentence too soon. He doubles over laughing, red in the face.

“This guy clearly needs to get a little more drunk,” I say, and to the waitress: “Another round!” The waitress gives a look; I say in her ear, drunk but too loud: “Three shots of water, two shots of vodka. And a beer chaser for me.”

I look over at the brunettes for approval; they talk amongst themselves, then announce they’re headed to the bathroom. They never come back.

The waitress deposits all the shots; I motion for her to take the waters back, but Al catches it. He grabs one of the waters, tastes it. “The hell is going on here, Buzz?”

“I can explain,” I say, which I do. And I decide to get him drunk enough that he won’t remember the explanation.

I start seeing snapshots.

I know there is racing in the night: Corvettes, long stretches of flat asphalt, ripping through forests of palmetto and pine, watching the headlights vacuum up the yellow dotted roadway line, finishing cans of beer and throwing the empties straight up so they get whisked away in the slipstream.

Of course, we have work to do the next day. Reviewing pad procedures, talking to techs: a day in the Florida sun. We park our personal vehicles in the lot, where the duty van will be picking us up to take us out to 39A. Owen and I actually get there a few minutes early, and stand there waiting for our fearless commander.

Al shows up on time, wearing sunglasses.

I smile. “Good morning, sunshine!”

He glowers.

“Partly sunny, partly cloudy?” Owen says hopefully.

He removes his sunglasses, glares at us with bloodshot eyes, walks past us without saying a word, gets in the van, and slams the front door so hard I’m worried he’ll get written up for damaging government property.

“Stormy,” I observe.

Gerald Brennan is a self-described corporate brat who hails from the eastern half of the continent but currently resides in Chicago. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and later earned a Master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He’s the author of Resistance, Zero Phase, Public Loneliness, and Island of Clouds. He’s been profiled in Newcity, and his writing has appeared in the Chicago TribuneThe Good Men Project, and Innerview Magazine; he’s the founder of Tortoise Books, and he’s also been a co-editor and frequent contributor at Back to Print and The Deadline. He’s into Camus, Dostoyevsky, Koestler, Hitchcock, Radiohead, and The National, but you can also catch him reading Jim Thompson and even sneaking in some Wahida Clark from time to time.

Buy the book here.

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