The Astronaut, by Christina Wood Martinez
Peter had difficulty sleeping when the astronauts began falling to Earth. We watched the television all night. The camera shifted between frames: the black speck, spotted miles above an Albany suburb, slowly descending as if caught in a bubble; magnified by ten, the astronaut in his white suit, suspended in the sky, his arms out, his palms turned back as if he were hugging the air behind him.
The television announcer’s voice incanted: ‘He has done what no man before him has done. What will he tell us of the frontier of the unknown?’
Peter sat at the edge of his recliner, barely resting his weight, and I thought he looked very much like our dog waiting at the front door, overeager to go on a walk.
A group of people gathered on the dairy farm where it was predicted the astronaut would land. They stood in groups of four, holding sheets taut between them. He drifted down slowly, like a feather. The breeze shifted him slightly west. The crowd cheered as he approached, but then grew quiet as the outline of his body, the red stripes on the legs of his suit, became clear. It was four nuns who caught him in a sheet and then set him carefully on the ground. They watched, and Peter and I watched, on the television, the astronaut lying on his back. The camera zoomed in. Everyone waited. Eventually, he stirred. He stood up, surveyed his surroundings, and walked through the parting crowd toward the road, his feet bouncing slightly off the ground.
Nearly every day a new astronaut touched down on Earth. The television showed them in their new places of work. They became bank tellers, factory machine operators, sign painters, postmen bouncing down country roads with their satchels of mail. They were celebrated, invited to dinners, pie bake-offs, parades. Auto dealerships and high school football teams changed their mascots to the man in a helmet and a white spacesuit. Astronaut-themed parties were all the rage and ladies’ magazines printed recipes for lime-green space punch, asteroid crunch and moon melts. At socials, every girl lined up to dance with an astronaut. Peter and I were happy to see them integrating with society.
I sorted the laundry while we watched the press conference. Five representative astronauts, identical in their suits except for the middle astronaut who had a medal pinned to his chest, sat before a painting of the solar system with our flag mounted on the top pole of every planet.
The reporters flung questions: ‘Is there life on other planets?’ ‘What does infinity look like?’ ‘Does space have a smell?’ ‘If we should happen to exhaust all of Earth’s natural resources or destroy the planet, is there another planet, equally bountiful, to which we might relocate?’
But the astronauts gave no response.
‘From a distance, was it possible, could you see, with grander perspective, Earth’s place in the universe and the reason why we are all here?’
‘Are the microphones on?’ a reporter shouted. ‘Can they even hear through their helmets?’
‘Was it lonely up there?’ another asked.
The astronaut with the medal nodded yes.
Peter dragged the television and its stand into the dining room and stationed it at one end of the table. We watched the coverage while we ate dinner.
‘How was your day?’ I asked.
‘Shhhhhh,’ Peter said.
‘More chicken? Beans?’ I wanted to needle him. ‘Did Sandra call you? What about George, is he back on his feet again?’
Peter’s eyes narrowed. I could see the light of the television in his pupils. He looked like a skinny old horse chewing hay. I served myself more green beans and began a mental list of the groceries I would need to pick up in town the next day.
When the news broke for commercials, he took a bite of chicken, leaned back and slipped his hand under the band of his pants, where I suspected there was the start of a hernia.
He saw me looking at his hand, and started up talking. ‘That George Ziegler is the stupidest blunderbuss I know. Got his ankle twisted last week and today he buzzed the tip of his thumb off with a drill saw. Calls us blubbering some nonsense. Danger to himself. He should be put in a straitjacket.’
‘Did he need stitches?’ I considered clearing my plate, but let it be.
Peter had been a firefighter before his knees began to bother him. For the last ten years, he’d been working at the station answering the telephone, keeping the books, tidying up. Our town was small and sparsely spread through wooded hills. The firemen often served as medics for minor injuries and the fire truck as an ambulance when the doctor was tied up.
‘Not so many then,’ I said. I licked my finger and rubbed at a spot on the tablecloth. The conversation about whether George Ziegler, who had a metal plate in his head and perhaps shards of shrapnel beneath it, should really be living alone was not one worth picking up. The disagreement as old as stone, Peter’s resolve to let the man be was no less obdurate.
I found myself talking. ‘I did some weeding today – the garden is getting to be more dandelions than vegetables, but the roses are starting to bloom. I stewed fifteen pounds of tomatoes – they’ll go into cans tonight if I have the energy for it. And when I was down in the basement I saw that one of the windows was cracked. A mouse came in, must have been through the hole, and got himself caught in the trap. I buried him in the rose bed, poor thing. I don’t imagine a mouse would be comforted to know he’s become nourishment for roses, but I suppose that’s the circle of things.’
‘Always something to fix,’ Peter said. The news had come back on. He was back to chewing. I took our dishes into the kitchen and began to wash them. Our house was a patchwork of Peter’s half-completed projects – the kitchen cupboards’ missing doors, the unfinished screened-in porch, the table my father made, sanded but not stained. I set the dishes to dry on the rack next to the sink, and the water trickled between the tiles where the grout was scraped away. I dropped the dish towel on the floor to catch the drips.
In the morning I took the dog out for a walk. The sun was just beginning to light the sky and Peter was still asleep in his room downstairs. He snored and I was a light sleeper – we hadn’t shared a bed in so many years I’d lost count.
The dog woke when I came downstairs. She was slow to get up – she was getting to be an old girl – but she wagged her tail and did the mincing dance she always did while I fetched her leash. I held her face in my hands and looked into her eyes – her wild excitement so close to a look of terror, or perhaps it was unconditional love.
We set out. The grass was wet and bowed with dew, the trees were fringed with bright new spring leaves, and we saw a mother duck with six ducklings waddling through the woods toward the stream. We stopped in the meadow and I released the dog from her leash and sat down on a stump – our usual routine. She ran off and I rested with my thoughts.
As it often did, my mother’s face came to me – not as I had last seen it when she was sick and dying in our guest bedroom, the treatment having run its course, but from a photograph of her as a young woman. My sister and I were on her lap, her arms around us, her teeth parted, smiling, as though she had just taken in a great breath of summer air. I don’t remember the photo being taken – I was so small, and Iris was only an infant. Iris – I received a letter from her a few days before. She was a grandmother again – she had her children young and was now rich with grandchildren. She included a Polaroid of the new baby, a girl.
I thought about Peter. Once, when we were newly married, he found beetles tinier than poppy seeds crawling through the bread of the sandwich he had eaten half of. His face grew red, and he kept eating the sandwich until it was finished.
I laughed a little. I wasn’t always sure why I thought the things I thought.
I whistled, but the dog didn’t hear me. I hollered her name. After a moment, she came running back, all muddied, smiling her dog’s smile. ‘Good girl,’ I said. When we returned home, I would make bacon for her, and Peter would come into the kitchen pouting, asking where his was.
At the house, I kicked the mud off my shoes. Peter came running up to me in his overalls, out of breath.
‘Come here! Come here!’ He was waving his arms. I sighed and followed.
He had been mowing the field of wild grass behind the house. It hadn’t been tended to in quite a long time – it was tall and had gone to seed – and hidden in it was the astronaut. He lay unmoving in his suit, flat on his back.
‘Should we call the fire department?’ I asked.
Peter touched him with the toe of his shoe. After a moment, the astronaut stirred. We watched him rise to his feet. He looked around, at our house, at the copse of elm trees that bordered our yard, and then at us. He was tall. His helmet peaked nearly a foot above our heads.
‘Sir, would you like to come inside?’ Peter asked.
The astronaut looked at the house and began walking toward it. His boots bounced over the freshly cut grass.
I made tea while the astronaut sat at our kitchen table and gazed out the window. I rinsed some grapes and set them out. The dog wove in and out of the kitchen, taking a glance, then turning about-face for the living room, tail between her legs.
‘Some trip!’ Peter said. ‘Must have been quite a view. How was the ride down? Any turbulence?’
I placed a teacup before the astronaut – our nice china – but he didn’t take it.
Peter went on talking. ‘You picked a good day to land. Decent weather out, low wind. Another astronaut got caught in a storm over Chesapeake – blown right out over the Atlantic. Lucky thing a longliner spotted him and scooped him up. Say, what’d you see up there? Any moon men?’
The astronaut’s black visor stared out the window.
Peter told the astronaut about all the coverage on the news. One astronaut was made employee of the month at an auto plant. Another found a lost dog but refused the reward. One became a policeman and stopped a bank robbery. The bank was going to commission a statue of him.
‘We’ll find work that will suit you, too,’ Peter said. ‘Of course, ours is a small community. There aren’t so many jobs that a man can take his pick, but we can surely put a pair of able hands to work. What skills do you have?’
The astronaut turned his head toward the dog who whimpered, but also, full of hope, wagged her tail.
Peter grew quiet. The astronaut’s suit drifted woozily back and forth in his chair.
‘You must be tired,’ I said. The astronaut turned his helmet to face me. ‘Come, why don’t you rest for a bit.’
He rose, and I showed him to Peter’s room, also the guest room, where he lay down atop the coverlet. I closed the door quietly and we didn’t hear him stir for the rest of the day.
That night, Peter and I whispered in bed.
‘I’ll call Dr Shiner in the morning,’ I said. ‘He’s been a long time up there. He may need medical attention.’
‘He’s an astronaut,’ Peter said. ‘He’ll ask for help if he needs it.’
‘But regardless, we should let someone know he’s here.’
‘Certainly,’ Peter said. ‘The guys at the station won’t be able to stand it – an astronaut in my own backyard!’
Peter rolled over to face me and I thought for a moment that he might kiss me, but he finished adjusting his pajama pants and rolled away to lie on his back. He snored all night, and I drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming of an astronaut floating through the rings of Saturn.
In the morning, the astronaut could not be found. I saw that all the dishes I had washed the night before were put away. The bed in the guest room was made. The dog was asleep on the kitchen floor with her toy beside her – it seemed she had already been let out to relieve herself. Peter finally spotted him outside in the backyard, sun gleaming on his white suit. He had just finished mowing the lawn.
Peter said to me, putting his hands in his overall pockets, ‘Maybe he can give us a hand around here for a little while.’
For a time, the astronaut was always busy. He dusted and mopped. He mulched and aerated the soil in our garden, now more vegetable than dandelion. He cleaned the windows, fixed my wind chime, repainted the front door a lovely pale blue. Peter called in sick. ‘Come on, champ,’ he said. Together they finished the kitchen cupboard doors, stained the table, re-grouted the countertops, patched the leaky roof and hammered on new shingles.
The astronaut was a great cook, though he didn’t like to prepare or eat meat. He made bread from scratch and prepared the vegetable sides while I did the main. Each night we sat down to dinner, the three of us – Peter with the astronaut’s pork chop or chicken thigh on his plate – and watched the television, eating from trays in the living room.
Peter didn’t like to watch the news anymore. He changed the channel if something about the astronauts came on. Instead, we watched evening programming, Bonanza and I Dream of Jeannie.
Aside from when my mother was ill, Peter and I had never shared our home with anyone else and we didn’t have much family to speak of. My father was killed in the first war. I had memories, but Peter, whose father enlisted early, didn’t. Peter’s mother died of a stroke two months after we married. My sister married and moved away as soon as she turned eighteen. And we didn’t know if it was Peter or me, though I had always assumed it was me. Either way, we never had children.
It was nice having company in the house, and the astronaut’s countenance now seemed somehow cheerful. Each evening, he and Peter tossed a baseball back and forth in the yard. Peter liked to entertain him with stories of his time in the war and the astronaut’s helmet followed Peter around the living room as he pantomimed tossing a grenade, crawling on his hands and knees behind the recliner to demonstrate life in the trenches.
I saw the astronaut’s helmet bob sometimes, while we watched The Tonight Show, as if he were laughing. He liked to sit at the end of the couch, so the dog could jump up between us and rest her chin on his leg. He patted her head with his glove, and she looked up at him with that wild look in her eyes.
‘June Daltry called today to invite us over for a dinner party,’ I whispered to Peter while we lay in bed. ‘I know you wouldn’t want to go, but I thought maybe I could bring the astronaut instead. Wouldn’t that be a conversation starter?’
Peter pursed his lips and kept his eyes on his newspaper.
‘And, really, shouldn’t we bring him to the elementary school? The children would just be delighted. I could call the principal tomorrow. And maybe there are other astronauts in the area – over in Dewsbury or Fulton. He should meet others like him. We’ve really kept him cooped up here.’
Peter turned away from me and pulled the covers up to his chin.
I heard him groan. ‘He doesn’t want to listen to Roger’s asinine jokes or eat June’s mushy food. She is a silly woman who laughs like a goat. And who would want a bunch of kids climbing all over him like a damned jungle gym? No sense of respect. He’s just not interested in any of those things.’
I sat next to the astronaut on the sofa, mending a sock. He held the yarn for me, turning the ball when I needed more slack. He and Peter had run out of projects, and the house was as tidy as could be.
‘Would you like to learn how to sew?’ I asked.
The astronaut nodded.
I fetched my sewing box. All the astronaut’s help around the house freed me up to start a rag quilt to send to my sister’s new granddaughter.
‘First you thread the needle, like this,’ I said. I wet it between my lips and held it up so he could see. ‘You try.’
His gloves were too thick and he couldn’t manage the needle.
I patted his glove. ‘You just keep me company.’
A song my mother used to sing came to mind – when I was a child, we were always singing. There were times we spent a whole evening just singing with the lights off to save electricity, seated on the rug in front of the fireplace on a snowy night. I sang a few of those old songs for the astronaut. After a while, he seemed to doze. His helmet slumped, hovering above my shoulder. He stayed like that, but I wouldn’t have minded at all, it would have been nice, really, if he had rested his head on me.
That night I had a dream about the astronaut. We were walking through the dense woods, and I could hear him breathing heavily through his helmet. The dog was beside us, sniffing along the trail, and then she was gone. The astronaut walked on – he seemed to know where we were going – and after some time we came upon a pool fed by a stream. There were silver fish darting along the surface, waiting for insects to fall in.
The astronaut pointed to a spot along the bank. I lay on the ground there and he stood beside me, looking down. I could see myself in his visor, my hair fanned all around. I could feel water seeping into the heels of my shoes. He kneeled then and put one hand on his wrist. He twisted his glove and pulled it off. There were black hairs on the back of his hand and his knuckles. He rested his hand on my thigh, then slid his fingers up and touched me between my legs.
I was awake then – the room was dark still, it was the middle of the night and Peter snored beside me. I didn’t stir. I closed my eyes and tried to return to the dream, urging it onward.
I woke early and made him a special breakfast: eggs over-medium and freshly squeezed orange juice and pancakes with bananas and cocoa in the batter.
When he came into the kitchen, I shouted, ‘Surprise! A special breakfast, just for you.’
I sang a verse of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and sat down – I found I was flushed, out of breath. I had styled my hair a new way. I felt silly. He took a seat at the table, looked down at his plate – at the smiling face I had drawn with chocolate syrup on his pancake. I ran my fingers through my hair to undo the curls.
There were reports of astronauts who had trouble integrating. One got up from his post quality-checking metal washers and entirely disappeared. One made a scene at a restaurant, refusing to pay his check and knocking over the restaurant’s sidewalk sign as he fled in his car. One had beaten his neighbor, for no known reason. The man lay unconscious in a hospital bed.
‘I thought he was a wonderful neighbor,’ the man’s wife said in an interview – she stood wide-eyed in slippers outside her front door. ‘He helped Richard clear the storm drains.’
A politician made speeches saying we ought to quarantine them, test them, make sure they were of sound mind and ideology and fit to live among us. That we ought to discover, once and for all and by any means necessary, what exactly they had come to know of the great mysteries that lay beyond our atmosphere.
‘Our children call them heroes,’ the politician said, ‘and yet they do not tell us if there are dangers that await us in what lies beyond. Our towns welcome them, and yet we do not know that they are not traitors, spies, living among us. It is all of mankind’s right to know what they know, what they have seen, and yet they refuse to tell us. Why could this be except that they are no friends of ours and they intend to do us harm?’
I didn’t like the astronaut seeing these sorts of things. I watched a bit of the news while he was out walking the dog, and then I kept the set off while we ate our breakfast.
One evening, Peter came home from work later than usual. The astronaut and I were eating dinner, a vegetarian quiche, off TV trays, watching a program about an astronaut-turned-detective who solved particularly mysterious crimes. Peter came in and switched the television off. He stood in front of the set with his hands on his hips.
‘Tomorrow, we’re going pheasant hunting!’ he declared.
He took one of our china plates – a collectible – painted with the image of a pheasant, and showed it to the astronaut. The astronaut dusted the plate and returned it carefully to its spot in the curio cabinet while Peter, who hadn’t been hunting in at least ten years, spent the evening cleaning his rifle and recounting memories of his greatest shots. The astronaut seemed withdrawn, but Peter took no notice. He made ham sandwiches and filled a flask with Scotch.
‘Good luck,’ I said from under the covers the next morning as Peter dressed without turning on the light.
‘Luck has nothing to do with it,’ Peter said.
They didn’t return until sunset. Peter came indoors singing, with four pheasants strung over his shoulder.
‘Quite the haul! Did you shoot any?’ I asked the astronaut. He was turned away, shoulders slumped, looking in the sink for dishes to wash.
‘No,’ Peter responded for him, avoiding my eye. ‘I told him pheasants are ground birds, but the goof kept looking up at the sky.’
He glanced at the astronaut and whispered to me, ‘I think it’s that helmet. Makes it hard for him to see.’
Feathers were dropping all over the kitchen floor. The astronaut found the broom and swept them up.
The next day, he slept through most of the morning. The guest-room door remained closed. We didn’t hear him stirring inside.
‘Maybe he’s sick,’ I whispered to Peter. ‘I’ll call Dr Shiner.’
‘He’s fine,’ Peter said. He picked up the keys to his truck. ‘Nothing refreshes a man like working with his hands.’
At lunchtime, I knocked quietly on the astronaut’s door. It was silent inside. I opened it and saw him lying in bed, flat on his back atop the covers, his arms at his sides. I carried in a bowl of tomato soup and some crackers. I set a vase with the last of the autumn roses, pale peach and sweet-smelling, on his nightstand.
There was slight movement beneath his spacesuit. It was his chest, moving up and down. I could see him breathing. Who’s in there? I wondered.
I patted his glove to see if he would wake. I touched his wrist, where his glove connected to the arm of his suit. I twisted it, thinking of his hand, such large hands, perfectly formed, soft, with black hair on the knuckles.
Peter let the back door slam shut. He came to the guest-room door, carrying a hammer. I stood up and put my finger to my lip. ‘Shhhhh!’ I said. ‘He’s sleeping.’ I left the room and closed the door.
‘But I’ve got a new project for us,’ he said.
‘Let him rest,’ I told him.
Peter’s shoulders slumped. ‘Looks like rain anyway.’
The astronaut kept to his room the following day. It drizzled outside. But the next morning, I woke late to sounds of shoveling and hammering, and he and Peter were already laying the foundations for a new shed. I watched them work from the kitchen window. It looked as though the old shed, already big enough, would be dwarfed by the new one. I would have to listen to their hammering for a month.
I’d had another dream about him the night before. We were walking someplace strange where the trees were smooth, tall columns with green orbs in the place of leaves. The air was still and the sun hung low and red in the sky. We walked for quite some time – he held my hand and led me on and I felt excited, giddy, though I didn’t know where we were going. After a while, he stopped and turned to me. The red sun reflected in his visor. He touched his helmet. He began to lift it off, and I saw his clefted chin, his lips.
Now, outside, Peter was gesturing wildly, telling a story while the astronaut used the saw. He had bought the astronaut a tool belt identical to his.
For Peter’s birthday, the astronaut made scalloped potatoes and creamed spinach and biscuits and baked a yellow layer cake with chocolate frosting. I fried the steaks in lard.
When Peter came home from work he kissed me on the cheek. I could hardly hide my surprise.
‘Happy birthday, dear,’ I said.
He opened his gifts – a new wool pullover from me and a birdhouse from the astronaut. He’d made and painted it himself. While we ate, I asked Peter if the firemen had celebrated his birthday at work.
‘I don’t like to go around tooting my own horn,’ Peter said. ‘The phone only rang once, and that’s a good enough gift for me.’
‘Not George, I hope?’
‘No, Mrs Dean spotted an opossum walking down her driveway in the middle of the day, so she called us over to take a look. Found it by the creek bed, running back and forth, foaming at the mouth, definitely rabid. Mike grabbed it by the tail and gave it a good whack on the head and then we saw a bunch of little ones in the weeds nearby – they must have been her babies, following her around. I caught those and put them in a sack. Wasn’t much to do but drown them. They looked okay, but they were probably too small to make it on their own.’
‘What a shame,’ I said.
I sang happy birthday and we cut the cake, but the astronaut didn’t touch his. Peter was in the middle of a long story when the astronaut slowly rose from his chair and left the room.
‘What’s the matter with him now?’ Peter asked.
After cleaning up, I looked for the astronaut and found him standing in the basement, looking out the window that was no bigger than a breadbox.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked. I put my hand on his shoulder.
Peter appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘Sulking again, eh?’ he asked.
The astronaut began to turn around.
‘Oh come on now! What’s your reason to sulk? You came to us as a stranger and we took you in. I give you free room and board and haven’t asked a thing in return. You don’t even know the talk that’s going on out there. Astronauts deserting, getting violent, won’t tell us a damn thing about all the time they spent up there floating around – people are shaken up!’
‘Peter,’ I said.
‘No!’ He was shouting now. ‘You can’t bite the hand that feeds you – it just isn’t civil!’
He slammed the basement door, but it banged out of the jamb and swung open again. The floorboards creaked above our heads.
That night, I thought about going to him, sitting at the edge of his bed, apologizing on Peter’s behalf. I imagined he would rest his head on my shoulder and I would sing to comfort him. I imagined he would put his arms around my waist and pull my body to his. I tiptoed downstairs – I thought I ought at least check to make sure he was asleep.
The guest room was empty and I could hear the television in the living room. I thought Peter must have left the set on when he came to bed, but there was the astronaut, sitting in Peter’s recliner, with all the lights off, watching the news. The anchor was reporting on the vote that Congress was soon to cast on the astronaut issue.
The astronaut was looking at me and I could see myself in his visor – there was the blue light of the television and then me, barefoot and brassiereless in my pink nightgown, curlers in my hair, a pink moon at orbit in space. I wondered what he could have thought of me.
The astronaut nodded. I took it as a ‘goodnight’ and went back upstairs and took my place next to Peter, who was mumbling in his sleep.
In the morning, he was gone. Peter looked all over the house, the yard, the woods.
‘What if he’s lost?’ he said, pacing in the kitchen. He was nearly shouting. ‘What if someone took him?’
Peter spent the day hammering, frantically working on the shed. Then, as night encroached, I watched him, from the kitchen window, kick the frame of it until it fell to the ground, splintered in pieces. I turned away from the window and began to put away the dishes that the astronaut had washed the day before.
Peter and I watched, on the television, the shuttle launch. A team of astronauts, former postmen and substitute teachers and telephone repairmen, returning to space, back to where they came from. We saw the footage of them walking up the gangway into the shuttle, one by one, dozens of them, their white suits and helmets bobbing up and down. They wanted to go back. They saluted as they entered the shuttle.
Peter crouched close to the television and looked carefully at each one, but we had no way of knowing if he was there, or which he was – which one of them was our astronaut.
‘I’m at a loss,’ Peter said.
There was a countdown and then the shuttle’s contrail bisected the sky.
Peter moved back into the guest room without a word. I lay in bed and imagined that the astronaut, the night before he left, had come into my room and woken me with his hand on my chest, taking mine in his glove. I rose, I went with him to the yard where the moon was low and yellow. We began to float up, he and I, leaving the Earth behind, toward that large and blinking sheet of darkness. It wasn’t a dream. I couldn’t sleep that night.
I thought of Peter, too: snoring in the astronaut’s room, or perhaps also awake, looking up at the ceiling, his eye turned not to where I was lying in our bedroom right above him, but beyond, thinking too of nebulas and stars, of the place where the astronaut had gone. It was his fault. I hoped he knew.
- El astronauta, de Christina Wood Martinez
Traducido al español por Lola Ortiz Vargas - sábado 30 de mayo de 2020