5.08 / August 2010

An Elegy For Dust and Flight

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The Astronaut wakes up on the floor again. Today he is in the basement, a cinder-block storage space with a water heater in one corner. He has slept heavily on his side, as though he were still in bed. The combination of the hard cement and the creeping arthritis makes his walk up the stairs slow and ponderous.

Passing is not the right word for the Astronaut’s particular dislocations, though it is the closest. At first he barely noticed when a pen slipped through his grip or the TV remote found its way clattering to the ground. He assumed these things were merely creeping reminders of his body’s growing unreliability, its systems drifting out of tempo.

And then one day he sat down to a microwaved Stouffers dinner to instead find himself on the house’s wood-veneer floor, staring into the space between the dining table’s legs. There was no pain, not as though the chair had been pulled from under him, but more as if he had simply moved through the chair and come to an abrupt stop. As though he had frozen in a sitting position and the chair, the floor, the house, all of it had rotated a few degrees upwards around some arbitrary celestial axis, stopping seconds short of where it should have been.

Since then the condition has grown slowly but surely worse. The Astronaut is now accustomed to seeing the underside of his box spring in the morning, passing through his mattress in the small dark hours of sleep. He considers leaving a pillow underneath his bed, but to do so seems too clear an admission of defeat.

***

The Astronaut finds his thoughts are sharpest when he walks. He purchases a pair of sneakers with a velcro strap, much more accommodating to his fingers than the laces of his shoes. In the evening, while the light is still good, he slips them on, feeling the soft give of the arch support. He leaves through the side door and walks along the drive to the main gate. It is called Skylark Drive, but the Astronaut knows this to be a made-up name. Something to remind the community’s residents of their former lives, with cars and houses and street-signs on a real map.

He nods to the guard on his way out. Sometimes it is a man named Miguel who looks up from Univision long enough to wave back. Sometimes it is a short black man with close-cropped hair. Today it is a man from El Salvador who plays the radio loudly. He smiles as the Astronaut slips past the folding gate and thinks: there but for the grace of God go I.

***

There is a well-paved sidewalk that runs the length of the arterial road. It winds through swamp and palm trees, gradually resolving itself into a streak of chain restaurants, an outlet mall, and an on-ramp to the Interstate.

Beyond the sore of development is where the Astronaut walks; a park that smells of cut grass and looks out over a gentle rise. Here the patina of Orlando sprawl fades into the background, replaced by the titanic silhouette of Cape Canaveral.

As the day’s humidity thins and the breeze picks up off the water, the Astronaut stands and watches the tall lights blink out their code. He stares at the perfect curve of the Shuttle’s boosters, back-lit by the setting sun. The apparatus looks entirely different than the one he spent his hours in. It looks less like a missile and more like a plane. He wonders what it will look like once he is long gone. Will it still burn thousands of tons of liquid fuel to break away from the atmosphere? Or will it play upon some trick of quantum entanglement, exchanging its atoms with their doubles far out in space? Will it simply blink off the pad and into some unimaginable reach of emptiness?

Normally he rests for a spell on the little bench facing down the rise. But now he finds that even his idle thoughts pass through its wooden slats, staining the back of his pants with damp grass.

***

The Astronaut has a daughter. Technically she is his ex-wife’s daughter, but the Astronaut does not hold this against her. Since his wife’s death, the Astronaut’s daughter has come to visit more often. She has a pinched mouth and a deep well of patience that the Astronaut is grateful for. In this way, she is unlike her mother.

They sit at his kitchen table and talk about nothing. The weather, the Orlando Magic, her job processing insurance claims. She brings food from the Boston Market down the road, sometimes not saying anything at all. They listen to the TV chatter.

***

Sometimes the Astronaut’s friend calls on the telephone. He is a diver, a once-successful salvage diver who suffered a badly broken leg. Now he works as a technician in the Epcot Center aquarium.

They are an unlikely match, the Astronaut and the Diver, but they speak every now and again. The Astronaut finds their conversations comforting. As thought there is something shared between them, something unsaid but understood.

The Diver tells him about how rich families can dive in the tanks at the Aquarium. They can swim with the Sea Turtles and the Dog Sharks. In other words, he says, they can imagine that the distance between the surface and the ocean floor is no more than a few building stories.

This reminds the Astronaut of his training. Swaddled in a suit and dropped to the bottom of an enormous pool, the Astronaut practiced complex mechanical tasks until he dreamt them.

The Diver asks about space. What it was like. The Astronaut explains about the cramped quarters, the liquid in foil, the way things would float through the air, not just objects but the spray of a sneeze or a loose hair. Everything cast in miniature, the food, the doors, the berths. It was how he imagined an expedition to the bottom of the ocean.

Well, sure, the Diver says. They both required the engineering for inhospitable conditions. But, humor me, he says. What did it feel like, up there?

Small, the Astronaut says. He wishes he had a better answer, but that is the only way he knows to describe it. Small like a baby when it is first born, before it can comprehend the distinction between itself and the world around it. Small like dust, he says.

***

The Astronaut’s daughter has a daughter. A little girl not four years old. The Astronaut’s daughter is never without her when she visits. The Astronaut loves her but does not understand her. She is shy around him. She keeps her nose buried in a coloring book, forming a tiny fist around markers that smell like cherry and licorice.

Sometimes the Astronaut’s granddaughter cries and cries. The Astronaut is not offended. He understands that his house is inhospitable, full of unfamiliar things, dim colors and plain surfaces that cannot possibly offer his granddaughter a sense of home. He worries that his gnarled hands and his thin voice frighten her. He is ashamed that she makes him self-conscious of his age. Her mother looks so tired when she cries like this.

Sometimes the Astronaut offers her a sweet candy when she cries. Sometimes her mother declines on her behalf. Sometimes she will permit it if she is very tired.

***

The Astronaut can no longer stay in his chair at mealtimes, so he takes his meals on the floor. There is no point to ignoring the passings, pretending that they are not happening. He sits heavily, laboring to bend over a little table he has adapted for this purpose. Finding his way to the floor is certainly not a problem, but standing up again can be a challenge.

He begins to see the passings as a sign of his age, but not quite the same as the ache in his knees or the sag in his skin. He comes to think of them as a signal that a larger part of him is gradually losing cohesion. The passings are neither good nor bad, but symptomatic of something inevitable. He imagines that when his day comes he will simply disappear, the blankets of the hospital bed slackening as the molecules that compose his body agree to go their separate ways.

***

That evening, The Astronaut and his daughter and his granddaughter go together to the park past the on-ramp. He suggests that they walk, but his daughter insists that they take the car. Easier all around, she explains. They drive with the windows down. His granddaughter laughs at his hair flapping around his face.

They sit together on the little bench and watch the lights blink out their code. The Astronaut tells his granddaughter about the Earth, the way it looks blue, a blue like you’ve never seen before. He tells his granddaughter about how the Earth is so big that all the blue clings to it. And even though it spins very fast, the blue will not let go. The Earth is a rock hugged by blue.

His granddaughter is quiet. Then she asks him: what is it like up in the sky?

The Astronaut thinks on this for a minute. He tells her that it is like swimming in Jell-O. This makes her laugh.

The Astronaut’s daughter is not paying attention. She is doing something with her phone instead. It is not that she does not like to hear these stories. It is just that she has heard them all before, when she was much younger.

***

They decide to leave when the Astronaut passes through the bench. The Astronaut’s daughter sets her jaw and helps him to his feet, brushing the grass off his back. His granddaughter, who has wanted to say something for some time and has long resisted, finally asks: why does it happen?

Her mother shoots her a look, but the Astronaut smiles. It is okay. The bench is looking for someone with a little more time on his clock, he says.

This means nothing to the granddaughter. She thinks of a clock like a wristwatch, and can’t make sense of a watch and a bench together.

***

The answer the Astronaut gives to the Diver, the one he gives to his granddaughter, these answers are true but they are not true in their entirety. Because space, as the Astronaut knows it, is like all of these things and more. It encompasses so many answers that it is in fact like nothing. But that is not quite the truth either.

The truth is that as much as space was like nothing, nothing was like space. It gave to the Astronaut but took from everything else. The taste of food, the color of sunlight, the voices of friends; afterwards, these things ceased to reside in the Astronaut the way that they once had. They drained into the vacuum he had touched in tiny but insistent increments, like water in pursuit of its own weightless level.

***

The Astronaut finds the bottom of his daughter’s well of patience. It takes shape all at once one morning. He awakens in the basement, head propped up by a pile of Time-Life magazines. His neck feels as if it is run through with rope.

There is a noise from upstairs that he cannot discern, but it is raucous and repetitive. He climbs the stairs slowly to discover that someone is ringing his doorbell and shouting at the same time. He pulls the deadbolt aside and swings the door open to find his daughter and granddaughter standing there. His daughter is red in the face, shouting his name over and over. His granddaughter is silent, wide-eyed.

When his daughter sees him, her face pinches. She looks up at the sky, puts a hand on her forehead, and curses. She tells him that her hands are full with her own problems, much less his.

***

The Diver calls to tell the Astronaut that he is leaving. His leg has become a problem and so he is moving closer to his children in Colorado. He is listing his house for sale and hopes to leave by the winter. The Astronaut asks the Diver how he will feel, no longer living by the water.

The Diver says with a laugh: I haven’t been in open water in years. Nowadays it looks the same as a nice sunset or a good movie.

The Astronaut laughs as well. He knows this feeling.

Then, without much forethought the Astronaut tells the diver about his passings, how he now expects them with the regularity of sleep or a full bladder, how they wear on his daughter.

The Diver considers this for a moment. He suggests the Astronaut see a specialist. Then he tells the Astronaut about a dream he has sometimes. In his dream, his leg works good as new and he kicks like a dolphin through the waves. And when he wakes up, he can swear his leg is back the way it used to be. No pain, no stiffness, no reduced range of motion. He can kick with all his might. But the effect only lasts for a moment, too soon swallowed up by the insistence of time.

***

The Astronaut’s daughter visits less frequently. Her job has become busier and her daughter is starting the first grade. She apologizes. She asks that the Astronaut call her if there is anything he needs. The Astronaut does not call. He does not want to be a burden.

He takes his walk to the park as usual, but his chest sings a broad thrum of loneliness. Like the passings, he tries to think of this as another form of dissipation. His body is losing the mass necessary to hold people close. The blue is relaxing its grip.

The Astronaut finds comfort in his insignificance against the night sky. Not because it makes him feel small, but because it helps him to remember that things like size and distance are only rough concepts given life by his senses, impossibly flat compared to the true structure of things.

He stares at the sky and names the constellations to himself. He thinks about the stars. He wonders which ones have blinked out, fading into black dwarves or collapsing into supernovas, leaving only their light to travel the years of space. He wonders how many are newly born and have yet to reach his eyes. He imagines the moment of creation as a hammer strike, throwing off sparks. Each spark becomes a star and a galaxy and a nebula with its own time, spiraling out in fractals. Birthing and dying, burning and exhausting, growing and receding.

***

One morning the Astronaut does not wake up. It is not a surprise; he is long in years and has been under the care of a nurse hired by his daughter. The cause is determined as heart failure.

His daughter takes several days off from work to arrange the funeral. There are cameras and an obituary in the New York Times. A delegation of officials from NASA pays its regards. People who have not seen the Astronaut in years speak as though they have been close as kin.

The government offers the Astronaut’s daughter a burial plot in Arlington National Cemetery. She politely declines. It had been the Astronaut’s wish to be cremated and scattered. She may not be a very good mother, and she may in fact be an ungrateful daughter, but she will see this one thing to be true, goddamn it.

There is no time. The ashes sit in an urn at the bottom of her closet, near the raincoats and umbrellas. She scatters them months later. She feels terribly guilty about it.

In the end, she settles on the little hill overlooking Cape Canaveral. In truth, this is the first and easiest place that comes to mind. When she scatters the ashes, some alight on the air and some clump from the humidity. They fall to the ground amidst the grass. The daughter is ashamed of this. She cries. She tries to disperse them with her foot. Then she leaves.

***

Now it is Dust.

The Dust knows itself to be Dust and deems this to be good. It cannot be anything but Dust, and it strives with every part of itself to be Dust. It loves to be Dust. It is the truth of itself.

The Dust is gradually aware that there are other things around it that make it Dust. Things that press against it. Not shapes, but forces. Rules. A great web of rules according to which the Dust can only fit in Dust-sized spaces. Were the Dust to break these rules it would cease to be Dust. Therefore, the Dust loves that it must be Dust, because that is the only thing it may know itself as.

The Dust knows that it was once part of something else, that it moved as part of a larger shape, and that moved in a larger shape, and everything moved around everything. But the Dust understands now that it does not move. It is at its terminus. Its trail through time has ceased, its shape has concluded.

***

The Dust is aware in its way that it was once an Astronaut. It does not know this in the sense that things are known, but retains it as a vestige of the Astronaut’s cohesion. It is aware of the things that once constituted the Astronaut: the millions of tiny agreements that defined the Astronaut-sized space in the web of rules. It is aware too of vibrations and frequencies within that space. They had names. Names like sadness, longing, elation, fear. But they are now as foreign to the Dust as anything else.


5.08 / August 2010

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