Issue #4: Fiction
My dad is an astronaut. The whole town knows, though they never speak about it when my mother and I are near. He was an amateur rocket scientist only last year, my dad, when he took the county prize and shook the mayor’s hand. The photo is in his office, where this morning he sat with his space helmet visor down and scribbled rocket designs on a yellow legal pad. A helmeted stick figure waves in the foreground. It’s a wave my dad has well-rehearsed.
I have a photo of him and me on the Fourth of July that I keep beside my bed. He built all of our fireworks by hand.
“Your dad,” my mom says one evening as she looks at the photo, as if I had forgotten or she had.
I know she’s not happy that my dad is leaving. He often forgets us. She never answers me when I ask her if everything is OK. Instead, she goes to the kitchen window or out back to smoke.
My dad has a shed out back with all of his rocket stuff inside. It’s locked; I’m not allowed in. Sometimes, late at night, I look out my window and see his silhouette pacing back and forth, the oxygen tank his hunchback. My mom waits from the kitchen below my bedroom for him to call her with the countdown. She stands by the phone, the window open as she smokes and watches him too. What I’ve figured out is that he has a mission. He’s always had it. He just forgot it for some years.
Then, one day, my dad says, “Goddammit, Jane, what more do you want from me? I can’t live like this anymore. I’ve got to go before it’s too late.”
“Where?” my mother says. “To space? What about this space?”
He slams the door and stomps outside, leaving large astronaut boot-prints in the grass, in mom’s garden, and enters the shed. He spends all night training for his mission, and when he comes out in the morning, he has evolved into a grayed man and looks down at me eating my cereal with large, searching eyes.
“I need to get a few things,” he says.
And he leaves the house through the front door. Just like that.
The rest of the morning my mother just stares out the window, at the shed. My father’s silhouetted hunchback is gone.
At school, I remind Robbie Pearson that my dad’s an astronaut, just to hear myself say it. He says, “Yeah, I know, it’s cool.”
After first period, the school counselor calls me into her office. She asks me how everything is going at home. I shrug my shoulders. She says she knows how I feel, but she eats caramel drops and I would never touch those things. Yellow wrappers are discarded about her office like trapped, dead butterflies. She says she wants me to know that if I need to say anything that’s it okay to express myself.
“Goddammit,” I say. “I can’t take it anymore.”
She gives me a piece of chocolate that she keeps stored in the thin desk drawer, and I am allowed to leave her office for lunch.
By the time I go to science class the whole school knows my dad is finishing his preparations for the mission into space. In class we’re supposed to learn about the evolution of man from ape. But Ronnie spits his gum in the trash can and says, “No one cares where we came from. Everyone wants to know where we’re going.” Mr. Tompkins readjusts his glasses on the ridge of his nose, and right when we think he’s not going to do it, that’s he’s going to cave in to his lesson plan, he looks at me and then the class looks at me, and he says, “Fascinating subject.” Mr. Tompkins doesn’t stop teaching until we’ve learned about Chariots of the Gods? and that some believe man’s next biological evolution is into the being that my father has become. From there, the theory thinks man will become an orb of light, a being of all consciousness. I once caught my father staring into a reflection ball in our neighbor’s yard. I believe it all.
At home, mom welcomes me back with a freshly baked chocolate cake. She’s bought me a new game and cleaned my room. She fluffs my hair, something she hasn’t done in years.
“Sam,” she says, “we need to get you a haircut. We’ll do it this weekend.”
Dinner is a taco bonanza in front of the TV. My mother lightly moistens the taco shells before baking them, so they come out softened. People call all night: my aunt; grandma, then grandpa; my dad’s mom; his brother; the lady from church who smells like the biscuits she makes for all the Sunday school kids. No one wants to speak to me. And then my counselor calls. My ears perk up when I hear my mom say, “Hello, Mrs. Jackson. He said what? Okay, okay. Yes, thank you. I understand. I’m sorry.” But when my mom gets off the phone, all she does is ask if I want ice cream with my cake.
When I go to bed, I hear her go to the kitchen to smoke, except she goes outside. Thinking dad has returned, I go to the window, expecting to see him defying gravity in his space suit. Instead, I see men loading the shed onto the back of a truck. When they leave, my mom walks to the center of the crater where the shed used to be. She smokes, looking at the sky, as she talks to herself. Then, she flicks the cigarette, and it flies through the night like a shooting star.
In the morning, someone from my dad’s work calls to ask if he is coming in. I don’t know what my dad’s boss says, but my mom tells me to go to my room; and I hear her stack curse words upon curse words until she’s exhausted a vocabulary I didn’t know she had. The phone is in the trash when I come out again to leave for school. We buy a new one on the weekend. I pick out a green phone that looks like the Hulk, and my mom says, “Sure, why not.” It clashes with the kitchen’s farmyard wallpaper.
My dad returns on the weekend driving a camper packed with rocket materials. First, he sees his shed is gone, and he fights with mom about it for a half hour. Then, he becomes euphoric with his calling. “I have to leave, have to go, have to,” he says over and over until my mother can’t take it anymore and asks what he’s waiting on. That’s when he sees me peeking from around my bedroom door.
I run back to my bed, cover myself with the sheets, and pretend I saw nothing when he comes in. He flips the light switch on and charts a path to my bed before approaching me. With the tip of his finger, he touches the man in the moon on my shirt. He pushes the rocket deeper into the man in the moon’s eye, deeper into me. When he speaks, he speaks to the man in the moon.
“I’ll come back,” he says, “and I’ll tell you all about everything I see. You’ll be the old man then, and I’ll be just like this, just like I am now. You take care of your mother.”
He roughs up my hair, and then, he puts on his space helmet without a sound and covers his face with the visor. And I see myself, golden in the visor’s reflection, surrounded by the supernova.
In the years that follow, I look to the sky for sign of his return. Nothing comes for a long time. My dad becomes a blurry image of energy, transcending the body I remember him as. My mother gets work at the hair salon. She goes to all of my school stuff, including the band recital in which I drop the cymbals in the middle of the song. At my high school graduation she tells me that I am now a man.
“Don’t evolve too fast and keep your feet on the ground.”
But it’s never that easy. In the gravity are the memories of my father, spinning into the darkness, his world lit only by the cabin of his ship. Like the one in his truck. One evening, I peered out my bedroom window, and I saw my dad in his old farm truck. He flipped the switches on and off, on and off as he spoke into his CB radio. I could barely hear him as he narrated to no one and everyone about the beginning of the world, the universe, the spinning of the things that keep us together in dances. Some dances end and the dancers fall out of the sky, into the night that has only night.
And my father is shooting ever farther into it, his hand waving goodbye as he forgets the light, the warmth of the light.
With the light-years that he was gone, my father’s travels became a relativity equation that no one could solve. People in town stopped looking at me as Sam, the boy with the astronaut father. And the boot prints that stamped the backyard with a moon waltz were covered by the dust of the landscapers my mother hired to fill the crater from the shed.
Then, today, my mother calls me over to her house and tells me she’s received an intergalactic message from my dad. He’s crash-landed in a hospital in Denver, and I should go see him.
“Do you want to go?” I ask.
Instead of telling me no, she walks to the kitchen, opens the window, and lights a cigarette. In the trail of smoke, I imagine my father’s bottle rockets from that Fourth of July so long ago.
The hospital is incubated by white paint, towels, paper sheets, and patient files. I find my dad on the other side of plastic curtains, hooked up to machines. He explains everything to me from behind an oxygen mask. It’s been decades, only minutes for him, but he’s aged much faster than anything I’d expected. He’s been living in space; shouldn’t I be the one who looks like the father? Shouldn’t I be the dying one?
“Sam,” he says, “I saw—” His breaths are hard and deeper than the space between us. “the black.”
We talk about the sky all afternoon, and he never says anything else about the darkness he traveled through, the darkness that wouldn’t leave him and consumes him now as an unforgiving black hole. The suns of my childhood implode there, sucking me in with his every respiration until I, too, can no longer breathe. We stare into each other’s eyes, and I wonder about the cosmos that he saw, if I have the same visions waiting to spread out from a nucleus within me.
Matthew Fowler received an M.A. in Writing from Coastal Carolina University, where as a graduate assistant, he worked for Waccamaw, an online literary journal. His work has appeared in Temporary Infinity, and he is the author of the young-adult novel Ezra Sound: How I became a Giant. Originally from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he currently lives in Florence, South Carolina.