Maxwell Orb’s father was a tinkerer, an inventor. When gift-giving holidays rolled around, Sidney Orb would shut himself in the rickety wooden shed in the backyard (his laboratory) and get to work creating the latest exciting innovation in presents. Fiona, Maxwell’s mother, worried occasionally that Maxwell would be disappointed in not receiving video games or sporting goods once in a while, but Maxwell loved the unique gifts that cluttered his bedroom. There was his pair of black Trampoline Shoes, which allowed the wearer to bounce up to five feet in the air (though the descent could be treacherous); there was the Pineapple Radio, which looked like an ordinary pineapple but received transmissions from places like Tasmania, Siberia and British Columbia; and there was Smellephant, a stuffed elephant whose trunk could identify over 18,000 individual smells. This year, being Maxwell’s tenth birthday, Sidney had been working extra-hard and had disappeared into his laboratory for weeks. When he finally came out, he could hardly contain his smile of anticipation. Neither could Maxwell. Fiona was excited as well, but nervous, given the safety track record of the previous toys.
Finally, the big day arrived and after a delicious meal of hamburgers and roasted broccoli (Maxwell’s favorite) he tore into his gift with the abandon, flinging wrapping paper around the room like a wild animal. What he opened was, at first, a bit disappointing. “It’s a high-powered telescope,” his father said. This seemed to Maxwell to be a rather ordinary gift, practically something he could pick up for himself at a toy store. Besides, it didn’t appear to be working. Whenever Maxwell looked through the eyepiece all he could see was blackness. “There’s not enough room in here,” Sidney explained, “let’s go outside.”
Outside, Maxwell pointed the telescope to the sky and was able to see what his father meant. It was a high-powered telescope. So high-powered, in fact, Maxwell could make out each and every individual star, in greater detail than he had ever seen them before. Not surprisingly, the stars did not consist of five triangular points, as depicted in the stickers on his homework assignments. They looked more like the white, round lights atop street lamps that you’d see in pictures from the 1920’s. Except instead of glass, they seemed to be made of a softer material, like a pillow or a sponge. Strangely, there were also perfect rings of smoke billowing out from behind each star. Maxwell handed the telescope to his father and said, “Look at those smoke rings! What do you suppose causes that?”
Sidney looked through the telescope, then at his wife and smiled. “Let’s find out,” he said.
Fiona had been a bit of a hard sell on the homemade rocket, especially when Sidney had explained it was fueled by tomato juice, fish bones, banana peels, coffee grounds and old gym socks, but after several assurances that it was safe as safe can be, she agreed to let them go, as long as she could chaperone. Maxwell and Sidney replied that they wouldn’t have it any other way. Sidney wheeled the rocket out from the shed and removed the tarp. It was your basic rocket shape, with a base big enough to fit all three members of the Orb family and little else, an engine in back and a pointed tip like a sharpened pencil. The rocket had been built from remnants of Maxwell’s exploded tree house (long story) bicycle parts, antique scuba gear and sections of an icebox that had been at the house when the family moved in. The engine was an old vacuum cleaner set on reverse in the rear. Once Sidney had sufficiently fueled the rocket, he had Maxwell count down from ten, and he and Fiona began pedaling furiously. When Maxwell reached one and shouted, “Blast off!” Sidney pulled a cord near his left arm and the rocket lifted up off the ground. “Pull up!” he shouted at Fiona, who was seated in front, behind Maxwell (Sidney insisted on sitting in the back where all the equipment was, and Fiona insisted Maxwell sit in the middle to avoid any danger.) Fiona did as she was told and the rocket shot up into space. Each member of the Orb family had on old-fashioned diving helmets, which were all attached to an oxygen tank located at the base of the rocket, just below their feet. As they exited the Earth’s atmosphere, Sidney had Maxwell reach down and open the tank by turning the dial on the tank until it could no longer be turned. This way, the family could breathe in space.
As they shot closer and closer to the stars, they began to see the smoke rings again, and Sidney pulled on the cord slightly, to slow down the rocket’s trajectory. When they got close enough to the stars to see behind them, they were shocked. Behind each and every star was a small platform with a brown leather easy chair. Upon the easy chair sat a man, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar. While each star had the same platform and the same chair, the men were all different. Some were black, some were white, some were bald, some had long hair, some were bearded, some were mustachioed, some had no facial hair, some had blonde hair, some had gray hair, and some had curly hair. Each wore a rumpled brown suit with a forest green tie (Windsor knot) and light-brown loafers. One of them, a short, dark-haired man with a handlebar mustache, looked up and acknowledged the family with a short head nod, then went back to reading his paper, which was called The Celestial Times, and had headlines like, “Mars Talks Tense As Leaders Debate War Merits.”
Sidney couldn’t understand how, if there was no oxygen in space, the men could smoke. Fiona couldn’t understand how, if there were talks of war on Mars, Earth had yet to hear about it. Maxwell couldn’t understand how the men were able to blow smoke rings at all, and why they would choose to smoke, which always seemed like a disgusting habit. Before their questions could be answered, the rocket began to emit a high-pitched buzzing, and Sidney began turning his handlebars and pulling the cord more tightly. Fiona and Maxwell turned their handlebars as well, and the rocket made its descent back to Earth.
When they returned home, they each had a slice of chocolate mint cake (Maxwell’s favorite) and agreed that next year, if not sooner, they would figure out a way to keep the rocket up for a longer period of time, so they can determine why it is that behind every star is a man with a cigar.
And maybe someday we’ll find out if they did.