Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Spaceman: A Short Story



Classified Recording of Candidate 749’s Psychological Evaluation

Dr. Namor: “What’s keeping you here?”

Candidate 749: “Gravity.”
Dr. Namor: “Seriously, Candidate. You can leave the program at any time. You can always go home.”
Candidate 749: “Now why would anyone want to go and do a thing like that?”
****
0300: Approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes until launch
Joseph Redgrave slid into a booth at the 495 Truck Stop, grabbed a menu and vacantly stared at it for a few minutes.
A truck stop wasn’t his typical hangout. The smell of burnt bacon grease and stale cigarettes wasn’t something that appealed to him. But it was the only place open and better yet, no one even deigned a glance in his direction when he walked in.
A potbellied man in a corner booth lit a cigarette then punched in a number on his cell-phone. Joseph’s attention shifted from the man to a no-smoking sign posted on the wall a few feet away from the man’s booth before shifting back to the man. As he pulled in a drag, the end of the man’s cigarette lit up orange, calling to mind the glow of rocket exhaust from the archival footage of the Apollo missions Joseph watched again and again when he was a kid. Joseph’s stomach knotted up.
Did those Apollo guys get this nervous before they launched?
“Coffee?”
Joseph snapped his attention away from the man’s cigarette.
A young woman with olive skin, dark eyes, and long hair pulled back into ponytail stood at the edge of his table, holding a steaming pot of coffee. If Joseph were to venture a guess, the waitress was of Puerto Rican decent and probably 18 or 19 years old. Twenty at the most.
“It’s fresh,” she said with an awkward smile.
“No thanks,” he replied.
“Can I get you something else? A soda? A beer? An orange juice?”
Besides the alcohol, none of those things were on the prohibited list. The rest of the crew were massive coffee drinkers, but he’d never acquired the taste despite his lifelong propensity to rise early and work late into the night.
“Water,” he said, simply.
The young woman nodded. “Coming right up.”
The waitress vanished behind a set of double saloon style doors and Joseph returned to the menu. Nothing seemed particularly appetizing. But that wasn’t too surprising, considering that very little about Earth was appetizing to him anymore. This cold detachment, which didn’t fully blossom until his father passed away the night before Joseph graduated from high school, was also the decisive factor in him being selected to the mission. The admin at NASA claimed publicly that it was his superb credentials, military experience and work ethic, but Joseph had read the classified file and he knew that it was the psychologist's recognition of his borderline anti-social disorder that put him over the thousands of other applicants. Joseph wasn’t a sociopath, but just close enough to be the perfect candidate. In the psych’s words, “Mr. Redgrave is empathetic and pragmatic enough to successfully work as part of a team but lacks the ability to form personal relationships that could harm the mission.”
When Joseph had read those words initially, he’d felt a sense of relief as they confirmed something he’s always suspected about himself, but just hours before the launch they were threatening to become something else, a chain holding him to the earth. He’d mastered everything he’d ever tried to do and soon would master space travel, yet a sense of failure lurked at the edges of his mind. He had tried to attach himself to others, but he could never maintain the grip. People were just too slippery.
The young waitress returned with a cup of water and crushed ice. She placed the glass on the table.
“Do you know what you want to order?” she asked.
Joseph tapped the menu against the surface of the table. He had to order something, he couldn’t just hang out with a cup of water. He blew out a long breath. “What’s good?”
“Honestly,” she replied. “At this time of night. Nothing. But we do have a special that started at midnight.”
“Let me guess, steak and eggs?”
The woman flashed genuine surprise. “How’d you know? We haven’t even written it on the board yet?”
She gestured to a smudgy whiteboard located near the entrance that still listed yesterday’s special; fish and chips.
“Lucky guess,” he replied.
Luck had nothing to do with it. Every diner, truck stop or small-town café within a fifty-mile radius of Cape Canaveral would run the same special today. Steak and Eggs was a NASA tradition going back to when they first strapped Alan Shepherd to a 5-ton missile and launched him into space.
“Or maybe you’re one of those clairvoyants I’ve seen on YouTube. You do look familiar.”
Joseph shrugged. “I’ll take the special. Steak medium. Eggs over easy.”
The waitress scribbled his order onto a little notepad. “Biscuit or toast.”
It didn’t matter. He probably wasn’t going to touch his meal.
“Surprise me.” He folded the menu and extended it to the young woman.
The waitress scribbled his surprise onto the paper then took the menu. “Name’s Maria, just let me know if you want something else.”
Maria’s accent was unique as if it had a slight north-eastern flavor. It reminded him of his college roommate’s accent. Reggie was from New York.
Maria disappeared into the kitchen and Joseph peered out at the window. Trucks buzzed by on I-95, the roar of the diesel engines still audible over a country crooner cooing from an old jukebox. The endless parade of headlights sparked the memory of the first time he’d climbed into the kiddie version of NASA’s G-Force training centrifuge. Attached to the end of a metal arm, the machine spun him so fast that the ceiling lights stretched into a single line. He’d went the fastest and lasted the longest, his heart swelling with pride as he recounted the accomplishment to his father during the ride home from Space Camp. Of course, he left out how he fainted and woke up covered in vomit, but that would’ve made little difference anyway. His father was proud. Joseph could still feel the touch of his father’s calloused hand as he tussled his hair.
What would his father think now? Would he still be proud? Or would he be sad that his son was leaving Earth forever?
It doesn’t matter, Joseph thought, because he’s dead.
Joseph closed his eyes and pushed down the ache bubbling up inside. Time didn’t heal all wounds. 
“Excuse me, are you all right?”
Joseph opened his eyes. Maria stood at side of the booth, tiny notepad in hand.
A bit of flush rushed to Joseph’s cheeks. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just a little anxious about something.”
“Me too.” Maria lowered her left hand to her stomach.  “I’m not exactly looking forward to when I get off my shift.”
Joseph brought the glass of water to his lips. “Like working here that much, huh?”
Maria chuckled. “No. I don’t even like living in this state.”
That’s how Joseph felt about the planet.
“I can relate to that.”
“Yet here we are,” she said.
“For now…”
Her eyes narrowed and Joseph felt a sting of panic at the thought that he’d blown his anonymity.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
She still didn’t recognize him. “You’re young enough. You can move.”
“I wish it were that easy, but...”
“Why don’t you just go back home?”
Maria leaned back a bit, taking on a playfully combative posture. “How do you know that this isn’t my home?”
“You’re from the Northeast. New York probably.”
Her eyes widened. “The Bronx actually. How’d you know? Are you really psychic or something?”
“Your accent,” he replied. “It pops up here and there.”
Maria frowned. “I guess you can take a girl out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of a girl.”
“You make it seem like that’s a bad thing.”
Maria shrugged. The potbellied trucker lit up another cigarette. Maria glanced over, a mixture of frustration and something else, helplessness maybe, swept across her countenance as the smell of his cigarette smoke quickly filtered throughout the dining area.
“You don’t like him smoking in here, do you?” Joseph asked.
“We still have ash trays which means the owners don’t care so it doesn’t matter what I think. Even if…” She drew her lips into a line and brought her left hand to her stomach.
A realization clicked into place and Joseph slid out of the booth. “Excuse me for a moment.”
Maria stepped aside and Joseph approached the trucker. “Hey mister, can I have a word with you.”
The trucker blew out a long puff of smoke. “What do you want?”
Joseph braced himself on the surface of the table and whispered, “Normally I wouldn’t care about you smoking in here but that young waitress over there is pregnant, so do the decent thing and cut it out or take it outside.”
“Oh,” the man said, his expression shifting to one of remorse as he snuffed out his cigarette in the ash tray. “My bad.”
“Thanks.”
Joseph returned to his booth. Maria waited there with curious look on her face. “What’d you tell him?”
“I just went over there and did my best Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse impression.”
Maria crinkled her brow. Obviously she didn’t get the reference.
Joseph shook his head, “Never mind,” then quickly changed the subject. “How far along are you?”
Maria seemed a little caught off guard by the question. She titled her head slightly. “How’d you know?”
“I have a sixth sense about these things.”
This time it was a lucky guess, or a lucky hypothesis. Maria could’ve just been afraid of the dangers of second hand smoke.
“So you really are a psychic?”
“No,” he replied. “Just a jerk unafraid to make an ass out of himself by assuming a woman is pregnant.”
Maria laughed. “Now you sound like my dad.”
“Glad to hear that I’m not alone.”
“You two would probably get along real well, as long as you aren’t a Red Sox fan.”
Joseph pulled up one of his pant legs. “Whites only for me. I had a bad experience with red socks once. They turn the rest of my whites pink.”
“And that’s a joke only he would laugh at.”
“That’s two things we have in common.”
“Actually it’s three,” she said. “Because he like you was always wide awake cracking bad jokes at three in the morning.”
Joseph tipped his glass of water in acknowledgment then took a drink.
Maria turned to leave but abruptly whipped herself back around. “You’re not a baker, are you?”
“A baker?”
“You know, donuts and pastries?”
“No, why do you ask?”
“Because my dad is. He’s the second generation in a pastry shop.” She frowns again. “I was supposed to be the third.”
Joseph nodded. “Is that why you left home?”
“You ask a lot of nosy questions, mister.”
Joseph shrugged again. “People interest me.”
At least she did, for the moment.
“It was mostly because of a boyfriend…an ex-boyfriend.”
“You followed a boyfriend here?”
She sighed. “All over actually, but he dumped me here after a gig, but not before leaving me….” She placed a palm over her stomach. “At least he’s paying for the---
----Maria!” A cook in a greasy white apron smacked his hand on a bar, next to plate of steaming food. “Order up.”
“Looks like your steak and eggs are ready.”
As Maria retrieved Joseph’s order, a group of bikers walked in. They occupied an entire wall of booths. One of them cast a long glance of recognition in Joseph’s direction, then nodded. Joseph nodded back. His anonymity here wouldn’t last for long.
Maria placed Joseph’s plate of food on the table before him, then topped off his water. “You need anything else?” she asked.
“Everything looks great.”
“Good.” She reached into the pocket of her apron and produced the notepad. She tore off the bill and sat it on the table. “You can pay here or at the register. It was nice talking to you, mister.”
Joseph smiled back. “You, too.”
Just as Maria ventured over to take the bikers’ orders, a Florida State Police officer and a Military Police-woman entered the truck stop restaurant. Joseph sighed and reached for his wallet. The pair approached him.
“I’m surprised it took you this long,” he said without looking up.
“Are you aware that you are in violation of launch procedure protocol,” the military policewoman said.
“Don’t fret, I’m not trying to run,” Joseph said, counting out the money he needed to pay the bill. “I just wanted to stretch my legs a bit before I go.”
“Well I think you’ve done that enough,” she replied.
Joseph finally looked up. “One of you wouldn’t happen to have a pen on you, would you?”
The state patrolman pulled a pen from a front breast pocket and handed it to Joseph.
“Thanks, kindly.” Joseph pulled the rest of the cash out of his wallet and placed it on the table. It was a large sum, but he wouldn’t need it anymore anyway.
 “Come on, sir,” the policewoman said. “Admin is anxious to have you back.”
                “And they’ll have me back, after one last thing.”
                Joseph flipped over the bill and quickly scribed a note on the back before placing it on top of the cash. The military policewoman tapped her foot impatiently.
                Joseph piled a salt shaker on top and slid out of the booth. “Take me to your leader.”
                As the two officers escorted him out, one of the bikers shouted, “Good luck, spaceman!”
                Maria, seemingly frozen in place, stared at him with curious disbelief.
                Joseph winked at her as he passed by. “I left you a tip.”
                Without another word, the spaceman exited the truck stop.
****
                The Uber waited for Maria at the back of the parking lot. She climbed into the backseat, her feet aching from a long night of work and her stomach in knots. The disbelief about her encounter with the spaceman had faded, replaced with the heaviness her upcoming appointment deserved.
                The driver paid her little attention. Gripping his steering wheel, he leaned forward to peer at something though the windshield.
                A commentator spoke with restrained excitement from the car’s stereo. “This is it folks. T-Minus 10 seconds and counting…”
                The driver reached over and turned up the radio.
                “5. 4. 3. 2…”
                Her knee bouncing with nervousness, Maria glanced up from her phone. A bright light flashed across the horizon, like a firecracker bursting in the distance, followed by a streak of exhaust.
                “We have lift off! We have lift off! There it is, folks. History in the making! The first colonists of Mars are on their way, led by Commander Joseph L.----
                The driver flicked off the radio. “That was nothing like the movies,” he said, before turning back to Maria, his arm stretching over the back of the passenger seat. “1020 Wipple Road, correct?”
                Maria watched the streak of exhaust for a moment longer, transfixed by it.
                “Ma’am,” the driver said.  “The Planned Parenthood on 1020 Wipple Road, right?”
                At the mention of her appointment, she snapped back to reality.
                “Ummm, yeah.”
                “Okay.”
                The man put the car into gear and pulled away. Maria, gazed at the streak of exhaust spiraling upward, pressing against the rim of a beautiful blue sky for as long as she could, the words of the Spaceman’s message lingering in her mind until they compelled and abrupt shift inside her.
“Sir,” she said, reaching forward grabbing the driver by the shoulder. “Can you take me to the airport instead?’
“Sure, but it will cost you extra.”
Maria peered into her purse. The wad of money wrapped in the spaceman’s receipt was more than enough.
“Do you take cash?”
The driver smiled into the rearview mirror. “Sure do.”
Maria smiled back then reached for her phone. Biting down on the corner of her lip, she called a number she hadn’t in over a year.
A gruff but familiar voice picked up after the second ring. “Lugo’s Bakery, this is Diego.”
“Umm...” She squeezed the bottom hem of her dress until her knuckles turned white. “Pappi?”
“Maria. Maria! Is that you? Please tell me that’s you.”
“Yes, Pappi, it’s me.” she said, her voice cracking as tears welled in her eyes. “And I’m coming home.”
****
                Declassified Recording of Commander Joseph L. Redgrave’s Psychological Evaluation
Dr. Namor: “Seriously, Candidate. You can leave the program at any time. You can always go home.”
Joseph L. Redgrave: “Now why would anyone want to go and do a thing like that?”

The End
Copyright © 2018 by Sean C. McMurray

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