The Loneliest Man

by C.A. Schaefer


David’s father would be released on the far side of the moon, away from the warm metal of his car, the rain-ruined lilacs his second wife planted, and his last Milky Way bar, half-eaten and melted the way he liked it, but the ICU nurses had refused him the rest, claiming that the caramel might slip into his lungs. Instead, he would watch from the same side that Michael Collins faced in 1969 as he rotated out of radio contact, removed even from the glow of earth, hoping that Neil and Buzz bounded on the surface below. The loneliest man in the world, the newspapers called him.

They could just throw him away; Beth had ticked off the number of places they could shake the white-flecked urn free of ash. The park, the beach, the backyard, Beth’s trash can. But even if they chose the most fog-laden day to scatter him, the soft sieved bones would still somehow smell of beer and the sweat that pooled in the corners of hiss elbows and armpits, would still somehow resemble his red knuckles and flat, heavy palm, the way that his chapped lips curved reluctantly. And it would stay with David and Beth, too. They would hear his voice complaining, calling David Henrietta, Beth Pork Chop. He would coat the membranes of their tongues and nostrils and linger past soap and steaming water. They needed the way that space would open and close around their father’s vacuum.

***

There was no down in space, they said. But no matter how many times David ran through the VR scenarios, worked in the pool, or watched videos of other space travelers, it made no sense. Even in the depths of water, the place where a man could get the bends, there was still up—towards life, towards oxygen, towards the relenting of the pressure that would cause his own blood to turn on him—and down, and with it disappearance.

Their father came up too quickly the summer David was fifteen and Beth thirteen, on a rare family vacation. On their way to the hospital, their father rocked back and forth in the front seat, his breath a whistle, fingernails tinted a dull, stony blue. His lips flickered, mouth gaping as if it might unhinge and emit bubbles of water and gas.

Water was their father’s dream, his crux and cradle. He did fifty laps a day in the pool, his rubber red cap floating and disappearing under the waves he made. The real big bang, he said, took place in water. All life came from liquid matter rich with division and reproduction, crowding and becoming.

David’s fingers and feet were too narrow for the water, his concave belly pale and soft as mushrooms under pines. He sank no matter how his arms shoved. He wanted to open his mouth and suck the chlorinated cool deep into his lungs, dark like his mother’s wine in the moonlight, dark as when he pressed his fingers to his eyes and sparked stars. His father yelled at him to cut the surface, to lift his head and breathe.

No, being in space was nothing like being in water. It was becoming water: his hair floating wild, each strand singled out by the waiting air. David fit the space of the ship, folded himself into wheels and turned, using only his fingertips to guide the rotation. He poured himself into his sleeping sack, into the strange sucking toilet, into different modules, flowing and gliding.

The first day space was an ashy ruin, nothing compared to the earth’s blue alight with ozone. The contours of land were imprecise, the mountains and craters and hills slashes of liquid ink. Mostly David saw ocean, a flat, dark skin beneath the atmosphere.

***

Joe had been his father’s best friend, practically an uncle over for beers on Thursday nights. He let David and Beth crowd onto the nubby brown recliner and cranked the handle to tip them backwards. Other nights he peeled five-dollar bills off his money clip with a wink—kids could always use a treat. Joe clucked his tongue if David’s father smacked him upside the head.

Joe helped David pick out his tiger stripe shirt, showed him how to run his fingers through his hair and then to pull them away, quick. He called David by his first name: not Davey, not Dave, not Henrietta. He rubbed David’s shoulder and David smelled his eucalyptus aftershave on his shirt afterward. He pressed the fabric to his nose and breathed it in while he slept, woke to his mouth open and wet.

Joe brought David’s mother chocolates, watched the game with David’s father and punched the air at good and bad calls both. David lolled on the recliner, his eyes closed against the warm, kindled sound of his father’s laugh. Joe called Beth princess.

How many nights had it been, David asleep, his father smoking outside, his mother with a glass of wine in the kitchen, when Joe took Beth’s fingers and guided them past the open buckle of his belt to the unzipped fly? He placed her palm right against that strange, papery skin, Beth’s bitten fingernails with the little pink and yellow and blue daisy stickers fixed on top.

***

Beth’s blood was heterozygous, split half with their mother’s and half their fathers, and so flowed smoothly. David’s blood, like their father’s, clotted. Safer to gather the cells close and bound up the walled veins, thickening as they traveled. David had his father’s veins, too, twisting mazes under his skin that rolled past the probing fine-gauged needles. More than one nurse blew out those veins, splattering ruby brightness over the tissue-coated bed or his father’s arm.

His blood had attracted Nicole, who studied hematology in microgravity. She examined some rudimentary cell type—the megakaryocytes, the cells that produced the platelets. They quivered and deformed themselves in space, producing a low flow and a propensity to clot. She took him aside every five hours to Doppler him from head to toe.

Nicole ran the ultrasound wand down his neck, checking arterial flow and any sign of where his blood puckered into a net of tangled cells. While she did worked, Sally Ride’s slightly overbitten smile and teased halo of brown hair superimposed itself over Nicole’s. He hoped Nicole was the kind of woman who came home from shuttling tourists to the moon and fixed pancakes for her wife.

***

Beth laughed at his hair in space, gazing at him across miles. When she moved her hair blurred into her skin, joining with the tattooed sunflower on her shoulder. She told him to show off and twirl. His body met no resistance, not even the drag of gravity or sore muscles or the lower belly, soft in spite of fifty sit-ups a day.

She was the one who had opened her window for him on the nights his father kicked him out, had arranged her sweatshirts and stuffed animals so he could sleep nested in her closet. They told each other stories in Morse code, flashed messages with pen lights underneath the door.

Beth under the florescent lamps of the emergency room, the light pooling blue on her hands. Beth’s knees on the linoleum, arms folded over her chest, a plum-colored blanket drawn over her shoulders. Her cat in the bathroom at the far end of the apartment, rags stuffed underneath the door to keep the gas out.

I’ll be home soon, he wanted to say, but the feed cut and the system needed restarting, so he left the camera and floated to the viewing port, gazing out at strange stars.

***

His father hated space and the idea of astronauts. Babies, he called them, pissing in their diapers, sending the stray globes of liquid out into space. Beth screwed up her mouth but David secretly loved the idea of urine frozen into pale fractals. Space was the pillars of creation, dense clouds of dust speckled with stars. The lush glow of the moon during Boy Scout camping trips: David let it bathe the raw burns from where two boys had twisted his wrists and rubbed the flesh together, faster than they would to start a fire. But now the planet shrank into an iridescent marble on wet summer asphalt.

Two crew members emerged as stiff white skeletons, faceless behind smoked glass, fixed to the ship by their white cables. For years David wanted to follow Bruce McCandless, the first untethered man in space. That handsome, B-movie smiling face and his silver-gold crew cut. He was photographed alone, with only his propulsion jets to steer him home. How much courage it must have taken to take a breath and release his hands and float, air hissing past his feet.

***

His mother’s fingers tight around a rosary, head bowed over Beth’s sedated girl-body. His father hadn’t even raised a hand to Joe when they found him. It had been his mother who hit Joe’s face with the back of her hand, slapping him and slapping him while he stood there, boiled limp in the summer heat, the fly of his pants slyly gaping to reveal smooth white fabric and prickled pink skin beneath.

***

Here was the truth: David was not Bruce McCandless, not Sally Ride laughing at the NASA engineers, not Michael Collins nor Neil Armstrong. For years, he couldn’t even think of the time he watched the astronauts die in Miss Doris’s class, his desk pushed close to the TV to watch the first teacher enter space.

But then the rocket bloomed into white puffs of twisted smoke. Miss Doris, her brown-pink lipstick shining, crossed the room. Nothing to see but smoke and the pieces that might have been the shuttle. The newscaster said fireball. Said recovery forces. The boys next to him reverently whispered sick.

The next morning at breakfast, his father put two fingers to his nose and blew out a congealed finger-shaped mass that glowed red against the yellow-green tablecloth and quivered. Here was a body: blood and snot and dry faded skin and yellow grooves around the nailbeds. All those bodies, all that blood and sweat and powdery sweetness, their toenails trimmed for the journey, bodies still clutching the seat belts and restraints and the fall, the fall that shattered them into nothing but pieces like this, a crack hard enough to break them all open when the capsule hit the water’s edge.

Sick, David said, testing the word. His father laughed, and Beth’s eyes flooded, cheeks going scarlet.

***

He kept things from Beth, like the autumn he was nine and crept barefoot down to the kitchen for a glass of water. The rain blurred the outside light and smeared the vines into traps. He never told Beth he saw his father’s hands—squat fingers flushed at the knuckles, ragged with sun—wrapped around his mother’s throat.

Her body was twisted, palm braced against the table, knees bent. He listened for two sets of breathing: his father’s humid and heavy, and hers rough and whispery. His father’s hand compressed the thin bones. Beth would whisper: do something! Kill him. I would, if I knew how.

If his father had spoken a single bitch or whore or the other things he muttered when the living room stank of warm flesh and beer and peanuts, the light of the baseball game an alien blue—then David swore he would have leapt forward and drummed his fists into his father’s belly in the way that he’d seen the other boys do behind the juniper bushes.

But there were no words, and then, without any change that David could see, his father let her go.

***

Nicole’s body gently bobbed, her hand resting on the glass beside the moon. He wanted to take the silvery wafer on his tongue and let it dissolve, the lovely splatter of white ice and ruin against the smooth dust. He imagined the airlock opening for him, the hiss and rush of air carrying him downward to the surface in a cool grey rush, his body enveloped in oxygen. Past where Michael Collins had floated, entirely alone in the universe. A giant’s hand could have plucked him from the far side of the moon and withdrawn him from his orbit, stranding the stomping alien men on the surface with their American flag.

His father skipped family vacations to visit Egypt, the Caribbean, and the Black Sea. He took photographs of fish whose orange scales were dotted with crimson, whose blue flushed into violet—fish with fins like pleated organza or silk, rippling in the water. Nothing like that water, he said. Purest place on earth.

***

They found the abscess at the care home, and by the time David was called the doctors had already begun the amputation of the second leg, the firsts gone years earlier.

David tried to put a hand on his father’s forehead, but the bite of his sweat and the antiseptic stopped him. His father spat what might have been a curse, except his lower lip hung loose and low, pooling saliva that dribbled down his unshaven face and to his neck, sloping towards the port. The urine cup at the end of the bed held a thin layer of dark yellow liquid.

The words David had practiced jumbled themselves, the sounds twirling in his brain, ridiculous in this pop-up hospital room with the one window overlooking the parking lot, the seafoam privacy curtain, the IV pole, and the inflatable bed.

Still, there were things he might have said: how he had had his first training session in the pool, the water teaching his body to simulate microgravity before the flight. How Beth had had begun to take courses at the karate dojo, and learned to grab wrists and hold assailants by the throat so she could slam her weight against their tender groins and inner thighs.

His father’s body began to shake, first at his shoulders and the port, the IV lines rippling, and then to his abdomen, his hips, his absent legs, the tremor visible even in the air. David turned and walked out of the room while the nurses worked, away from their gels and excitable hormones, their pumps and clicks and the surging smell of flesh. His father’s ribs cracked open under their gloved hands, and the chest open, the heart squeezed free of its clotted jelly sheath. Things David imagined doing to Joe when he punched the air alone in his bedroom, imagining a stray finger, a loose tooth, a kidney found half-eaten in the ocean.

He and his father shared too much. A propensity to clots, love for a place hostile to their bodies, their inability to save Beth, their fondness for black licorice. Still David lied to her. Still he kissed her hair and held her hands and told her that he hadn’t suffered.

***

As soon as they crossed into the moon’s shadow, back to earth and facing the universe, one of the passengers began to play Pink Floyd. The sound trembled and caught, and then shifted into an ecstatic wail. There was the spread of stars before them. One or all of them could become wild, could scream or stab or slip away. But they did not. The other passengers swayed and hummed and danced, and David looked over at Nicole.

She left him by one of the smaller viewing ports, where he could link himself to the nylon straps hanging from the wall. On the other side of the moon, rooted by gravity, Beth held her hand up to her eyes, looking past the strain of the sun, believing, still, in David. Just as Katherine Johnson had taken the numbers and translated symbols into movement, mathematics into flight and space. As Bruce McCandless pulsed his air jets, as Christa McAuliffe welcomed the push and swell of gravity, ready to ascend.

Michael Collins said years later that he was not lonely on the far side of the moon. He thought instead about the tender lives of the white mice that waited for them back home. The mice were meant to be a safeguard. They would be the first living creatures to which the crew would be exposed in the case of strange lunar pathogens. He longed to keep the mice safe, for the astronauts’ foreign bodies to return calm and intact.

The airlock opened, and the unmoored urn rose, serene in its bright bubble of cellophane. David pressed his hand to the glass. Stay with me, he imagined saying to the urn. Circle the moon with us and come back safe. But the urn hovered in the airless void until it shrank to another glimmer in the deep dark of space, and David continued home.


C.A. Schaefer's stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, and elsewhere. A former editor of Quarterly West, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. She lives in Salt Lake City with her wife and a small menagerie of cats. Read more at caschaeferwrites.com

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