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Authors: Alyson Foster

God is an Astronaut

BOOK: God is an Astronaut
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Contents

God is an Astronaut

 

Acknowledgments

A Note on the Author

From: Jessica Frobisher

Sent: Thursday, March 13, 2014 8:57 pm

To: Arthur Danielson

Cc:

Bcc:

Subject: Not sure there is one

 

 

Arthur,

 

Discovered your card in my mailbox early this morning. I’m guessing it arrived sometime last week, but as you know, I make a habit of checking my box as infrequently as I can get away with it. Earlier this semester the department hired a new admin coordinator. She looks practically pubescent, certainly not old enough to be administrating or coordinating anything. Her name is Mackenzie. She calls my office approximately once a month to leave a snippy message on my voice mail informing me that my box is full and
any additional mail received will be disposed of.
I couldn’t care less if they throw my mail away, but I listen with great admiration to her use of italics. I’d like her to teach me to inflect like that—it would probably be quite effective in getting Jack and Corinne to chop-chop—but I’m on her shit list. It will never happen.

 

My first thought was that you had heard what happened. I don’t know how quickly news reaches you up in the wilds north of Winnipeg. Depends on how often you decide to emerge from the conifers and go hunt down a signal, I guess. (Here I imagine you licking your finger and putting it up to the wind, listening for an elusive high-decibel hum, a telltale resonance in the pinecones overhead that would tell you where to set up camp with your laptop.) Then I opened up the card, saw the question about the greenhouse, and realized that you couldn’t have. You probably still haven’t heard unless you’ve somehow seen the
Times
or the
Post,
both of which have been running articles about the accident nonstop since it happened four days ago.

 

We got the call from Arizona on Sunday night. It was Liam’s friend, his best Spaceco buddy, Tristan. I was down with a case of bronchitis; my voice was an octave low. When I picked up the cell from the nightstand and said “Hello” into it, I heard Tristan say, “Liam, we’re fucked. We’re fucked, Liam,”
back to back, just like that. I didn’t even respond. I just rolled over and handed the phone to Liam. Then I got up, went down the hall to check on Corinne and Jack, and made my way downstairs to put on some tea. I’d never felt anything quite like it, that thrumming nerved-up calm. Like having bees in your ears. Do you know the kind I mean? I watched my hands as they wiped down the counters and shook out the tea bags with a brisk efficiency I’d never realized they possessed. When that was done, I started on the refrigerator. I opened all the drawers and began, very methodically, purging their contents. All the vegetable artifacts—the frizzled-out leeks, the calcifying carrots, the strawberries encrusted in what looks like barnacles. All the questionable relics tarnishing in glass jars. Action, drastic action, seemed required; nothing was spared. Not until the next morning did I realize that I’d thrown away Jack’s science fair project. (A potato/Play-Doh hybrid? Should I be concerned that my son seems to lack a basic understanding of the scientific method? Aren’t his ten-year-old Chinese counterparts already practicing the genetic modification experiments that will help them take over the world and bring us to our knees? When Jack discovered my blunder at breakfast, a scene ensued. Corinne joined in with her own wailing dirge, and nothing, nothing, not my futile trash-picking, not all my ardent repenting, could salvage that catastrophic morning.)

 

At last I heard Liam’s footsteps on the stairs, I stepped back and put both hands on the counter behind me. I was literally braced—a little cold—besides that, nothing but expectant. I held stiffly onto the granite slab and watched Liam run his hands down his face, one then the other, while he delivered the news.

 

It was this: that just a half an hour earlier, Spaceco’s 6:30 p.m. shuttle launch had exploded twelve seconds after liftoff. The two crew members and four passengers inside the
Titan
had been killed instantly. A piece of debris from the blast, carried unexpectedly far by the high winds that evening, landed within fifty yards of eastbound I-8, and traffic in both directions was shut down for more than four hours.

 

That. That is what happened.

 

What happens next is what we’re still trying to figure out.

 

More later? I haven’t decided yet.

 

Jess

From: Jessica Frobisher

Sent: Saturday, March 15, 2014 10:42 pm

To: Arthur Danielson

Cc:

Bcc:

Subject: The long answer

 

 

Arthur,

 

How’s the greenhouse coming, you asked. After I e-mailed you yesterday, I folded up your card and stuck it in the pocket of my blue jeans, where I carried it around all day. More than once I found myself pulling it out and rereading the single line of your question like a riddle, studying your familiar script, the listing masts on your h’s and t’s—the tell of a left-hander. Liam is left-handed too. Not by genetic predisposition—it’s an adaptation. The end of his right thumb was blown off in an accident with a bottle rocket when he was eight. I don’t know if you noticed when you shook his hand. Most people don’t. He is Liam, after all.

 

How’s the greenhouse coming? After sifting through all the possible implications of this benign (?) query, I settled, true to form, on the most insulting one. Meaning: Have I finally, for once, undertaken what I said I would?

 

Well, fuck you, I have. I think I’ve mentioned the door in the back corner of our house—the one off the dining room where the ground slants down so that it opens out into empty space. All right, not
empty space
, not the desolate, star-spangled void that entrances Liam—it’s a plot of incorrigible wild grass, our own little brambly wilderness. Though at night, if you steel yourself and push open the door,
space
is exactly what you think of—the distant windows of the neighbors trembling through the trees like satellites, the jungle beneath your feet suddenly vanished into the dark. It has an unsettling effect, like if you stepped out, you would simply drift away into the darkness. In the five years we’ve been living here I’ve never seen Liam so much as glance at that door, but I’ve caught both Jack and Corinne lurking around it, and after I came downstairs one night and found the two of them perched in the open doorway, their toes lined up along the edge of that six-foot drop-off (I never was able to determine who was daring whom), I drilled two deadbolts into the frame at shoulder height. The previous owners had intended to build an addition, but they were waylaid by financial difficulties, and then some other mysterious tragedy that our realtor staunchly refused to reveal. “I don’t have the details,”
she said in a meaningful tone that made us understand that (A) she was lying, and (B) if we knew what was good for us, we wouldn’t ask. So we didn’t.

 

And so it’s here I decided to get to work, Arthur, to put something in the place of nothing. It was beautiful here on Sunday morning—the day of the accident—one of those balmy, deceptive days that seem to be, but are not, a prelude to spring; there’s still a long ways to go. I spent nearly all of it outside, carving away the winter-thinned thicket around the back of our foundation with a chain saw I rented from Home Depot to make a twenty-by-thirty-foot footprint for my greenhouse. The ironic nature of my undertaking was obvious to me long before I went inside for lunch and listened to Liam’s cracks about the marauding botanist laying waste to the local flora. The truth is, I could hardly hear them—the cracks, I mean. After the first hour or so spent in the din of that raging saw, I felt as though my own head had turned into a silo—my thoughts boomeranging around inside its walls, everything on the outside diminished to faint and muffled reverberations. And here I will confess to exactly what I once angrily denied: that I thought of you, and not just in passing, but over and over again. I thought of you until I couldn’t think of anything else, and eventually, I stopped thinking at all.

 

Nothing I’ve ever done in my life has been as hard as slinging that chain saw around. The sap was surging up in all the branches and shoots, and every one of them fought back. As the afternoon passed, I felt the sky slipping down notch by notch, settling like a gray slab onto my shoulders, but even with that reminder I still forgot. I forgot to look up. In our kitchen, there’s a bulletin board with a calendar hanging on it. All the Spaceco launch dates are emblazoned with Technicolor rocket stickers—Jack and Liam’s handiwork. Counting off the days between the launches and sticking them up there started out as an exercise to help Jack keep better track of time. (He still seems, without fail, to end up shortchanged by week’s end.) Jack has an unnerving, almost autistic devotion to this ritual. Those stickers
have
to go up on the first day of the month when we change the calendar page; otherwise he gets spectacularly anxious. Why this is, he can’t, or won’t, tell us. We forgot one time, a couple of months ago in February,
I
forgot. I flipped the page without thinking. The next night I came downstairs and found him sleepwalking through the kitchen in his softball T-shirt and his underwear. Every single drawer and cupboard had been opened, and his hands were full of rubber bands and thumbtacks. Corinne is the only one who seems to understand this superstition. Corinne, of all people—who would win World’s Most Pragmatic Five-Year-Old if such an award existed. She promised to explain it to me once, in strictest confidence, and then, when I squatted down next to her, she cupped both hands around my ear, deliberated for a moment, and then leaned forward and whispered: “It’s very complicated. I don’t think I can tell you.”

 

But I’m guilty too. Somewhere in there, I fell into my own superstitious ritual. On launch mornings, while Jack and Corinne are squabbling over the selection of cereal (all of it nutritious, all of it ho-hum), I linger in the kitchen, staring out the window up into Michigan’s infernal never-ending cloud cover. I press my thumb against one of those stickers, like a talisman, the symbol of the day’s coming gamble. It is as close as I will come to acknowledging that our state of grace might not last. Maybe you won’t admit it, but I think you’ll understand. I certainly know better. It’s like knocking on wood, like throwing salt over your shoulder, like holding your breath as you jam down the accelerator and sail through an intersection while the light turns red. As though a gesture could save anyone—in this universe where even the smallest pieces are hurtling away from one another at the speed of light.

 

That’s all, then. Or all I can say right now.

 

What say you?

 

Rhetorically,

Jess

From: Jessica Frobisher

Sent: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:57 pm

To: Arthur Danielson

Cc:

BOOK: God is an Astronaut
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