Three Options for a Successful Lunar Landing

by Robert Glick


Winner of the Summer Literary Seminars/Center for Fiction prize

 

Photo credit: NASA  

 

Four reasons for Edith's body to fidget: the scentless pillow case, the scratchy sheets, the removal of the left breast, the downshift of the morphine. One thing Mort does, downstairs in the den, lodged securely in his olive La-Z-Boy: slide his hand between the cushion and the side. What he finds there: his missing MedicAlert bracelet. Well I'll be a monkey. Two hiding places he had checked: his motorcycle saddlebag, wrapped around the insinkerator blades. Two origin stories about the bracelet: the shrapnel poking at his lung, his mate Johnson pushed it on him right after the mortar split Johnson's leg like a log. First Battle of Pork Chop Hill: 24 years now, and 67 days. Wide World of Sports is telecasting dragsters: the timing lights of the Christmas tree, the spray of tire smoke. Four decorations nailed on or tacked to the wallpaper: a serving plate painted in Delft tulips. A horseshoe. Photo of Edith with daughter Sandy, in dragonfly barrettes, sky blue tutu. Needlepoint S in a brass frame. Innumerable animals in the house: a trail of ants under the sink, two furry bears on Sandy's pillow, and Franklin, the baby parrot, who keeps squawking. Goddammit don't bother her. One phrase Mort has taught Franklin: That's a wrap, Biddie. The parrot, when perched on a shoulder, seems unreasonably heavy: a brick, a plug of lead. Mort bites down on a Life Saver. Edith mistakes the television for the approach of her sister's Nova. She dreams a pet turtle into the palm of her nephew, Charles. Time drops through her bed like a cylinder cut through a cloud.

 

***

 

Two mile markers Mom and Dad and Charles passed on the way down from Boulder to Phoenix: 167, that gas station with the dinosaur. One consideration as to route: a diner in Albuquerque selling peanut butter pie. Three attractions, time permitting, for the return: the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, the shale and mudstone of the Triassic Chinle. One quote Mom recited to describe the Indians of the region: fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock turtles on their rock. Dad watched the wind play at the edges of Mom's scarf, wisp her frost-tipped hair around the headrest. Four items to occupy Charles in the back seat: an empty box of California raisins turned harmonica, 100,000 games of Hi-Q, his model lunar lander. Three disappointments: He slept through the dinosaur gas station, the hamburger with onions chopped as big as elder bugs, Mom insisting that she could master Hi-Q and couldn't. One family pleasure: all the screaming, windows down, at each state line: Helllllooooo New Mexicoooooo! Another disappointment: the U.S. Rocks and Minerals coming unglued from the paper. Dad: Sorry how I packed it, why don't you tell me everything about rhyolite. 

 

***

 

Three thoughts from Charles, unsuccessfully hopping from sprinkler head to sprinkler head in Mort's front yard: big heat, golden birdhouse spiked atop the picket fence, gottapee. Last time he squirmed this bad, he dropped a room key down the elevator shaft of an Orlando hotel. Mom hugs Mort, holds Sandy's little hands. Sandy's two years older than Charles; he's taller. Dad and Mort shake hands hard and somber. Mom: If you have to go so bad, then go. Three raw materials to make a moon for the lunar lander: a roll of toilet paper, an obese rubber duck, strawberry-colored soap balls. He comes back. Dad pinches the top of his ear. Mort to Sandy: Three glasses of cold water. Two reactions from Sandy: She tightens her ponytail, makes extra noise plunging her arm into the ice tray. Mort to Dad: I call her Edith van Winkle. One bad habit Dad and Mort share: tappity foot, tappity foot. One of Charles's minor sadnesses: when someone doesn't know that the moon has seas. Mom: I'd like it if you two went upstairs. Remember your most silent feet. Upstairs they pad, past Edith's closed door, to Sandy's room. Three reasons why Charles can't say hi to Aunt Edith: She's listening to her favorite radio station, plus the unicorns, through the tips of their horns, are dripping magic onto Edith's tongue. Sandy: The unicorns won't come if we're there. Sandy with her two buck teeth. Two gentle commands she gives to Charles: Close your eyes. Hold out your hand. Three gifts: a single Rice Krispie, her mother's open lipstick, a blue-bellied lizard. Sandy: They're everywhere. Later, I'll show you how to catch them. The lizard's tail comes off when she takes it back. How the lizard looks: lonely, silver-blue. Sandy saves the tail on a cheese plate.

 

***

 

One rudeness Charles does for attention at dinner: He glops the butterscotch pudding on top of the eggs. Dad: Pudding on the side, please. Charles flings his spoon at the wall. Dad, sternly: Behave yourself. Mort to Sandy: You think that's funny? Mort goes upstairs, puts his hand softly to Edith's forehead: no fever. Then downstairs again, where he packs his pipe. It smells like vanilla, doesn't it? Charles shakes his head: Dirt. Mort goes out back to smoke. Four things he barely notices, bouncing on the diving board: no moon, Sandy's beach shovel not put away, the efficient coil he made of the garden hose, the residue of city light that makes an amphitheater of them all. In Korea, the hanging lamps on the army base sizzled; fluttering piles of dead bugs. Mom unfolds Mort's bed sheets on the leather couch. Two ways Charles brushes his teeth: side to side, lower then upper. Retarded, says Sandy, frothy. Six more items Sandy places on Charles's pillow: the detached foot of a plastic doll, five golden stars. Sandy sticks a star to his cheek. Charles: It's so dark in here. The star falls off. 

 

***

 

Three reasons Charles wakes at 2:30AM: new surroundings, the Strawberry Shortcake sheets embarrass him, his dislike of hearing flushing water. One exercise: improving his balance by walking forward and looking backward. Two other exercises assigned by the pediatrician: standing on one leg with arms out, walking on curb. Four more raw materials to make a moon, culled from a tour of the house: newspaper, dodge ball, motorcycle helmet, leaves stuffed into a balloon. A pool ball or a scoop of strawberry ice cream is too small to be this kind of moon; the helmet's too big. In dream, Mort hits one out of the park, a home run worth 36 runs. Thirty six percent: the unspoken survival rate for late-stage breast cancer. Dad sleeps like a dog. Mom likes the cool of her hand against her satin nightie on her mostly flat stomach. Sandy sleeps with her pillow over her forehead, her sheets pulled up over her nose — like an Arab, Edith once said — and a metal flashlight against her hip. Imagine all the fireflies in there. 

 

***

 

Two shapes made by the sun slanting onto Sandy's wall: flukeless whale, typewriter. Calls from friends, inquiring to Edith's health: four. Total time spent by Mort on the phone: 52 seconds. One phrase he uses each time: She'll pull through. To Sandy: Beds made? To Franklin: Hey Buddy, I'm sorry we've got to cover you with this blanket all day, it's not certain you'll ever see the sky. Charles munches on a breakfast bar; he likes to crinkle up the off-pink packaging. What he says when he finally sees his Aunt: Last night I heard you dreaming. Three of Edith's colors: her skin, the white of powdered sugar; her eyes, yellow; her thumb and forefinger, slowly coming together like pincers. Reminding Charles of his mother's crab-shaped oven mitts, which he had once filled with lumps of pizza dough. Charles, in all sweetness, to Aunt Edith: How sick are you? Sandy runs to her room. One lie she will tell Charles later: My mother always looks like that. Three newspaper photographs, glued to cardboard, that Charles deals onto Edith's bed: Aldrin, Armstrong, unfortunate Collins. Mom, thinking: She didn't look higher on one side than the other. I'd be so full of self-loathing. Two radio bulletins: a multi-car pileup on the Black Canyon Freeway, the booming unemployment rate. Last time I saw you, Edith says to Charles, you could barely stand. Charles: I'm going to make a moon for you. Mom escorts him out; rest time again. Three things she promises him after the zoo: more time with Auntie Edith, at least one game of Hi-Q, swimming with the flippers and the snorkel. Mort scooches a wooden chair closer. How he pulls a stray hair off Edith's bed: gently. How a resident, lardered up with bennies, helped Mort to visualize Edith's surgery: a mastectomy is like pulling an octopus from your lung. Four things Mort did that night: tapped out his pipe harder and harder and harder and harder until it snapped at the hilt and tobacco sprayed around the trash. 

 

***

 

In the back seat of Mort's Pontiac, Sandy taps Charles's wrist, as if raising a vein. Charles: Stop playing the drums on me! Of the 35 rocks, four favorites he points out to Sandy: zinc, gypsum, fluorite, mica schist. What Dad grabs, without looking: Charles's ankle, to tickle. I like the serpentine, says Sandy. Mort at the zoo: hands sunk in pockets. What Dad forces onto Charles's head: a Denver Broncos cap. One for you too, young lady. A present from the Centennial State. Three events at the zoo: Sandy teaching Charles how to do a Fred Astaire kick, Mort buying Edith a key chain of a penguin, Dad thinking she might not ever use it. Two ways to describe the polar bears: frosty, sequestered. What Charles overhears Mort say to Dad, walking through the aviary: It's all out, they cut it out, just scooped it out, with a knife, like any other knife, in six months we'll know what's what, she's already talking about going back to school for something. One of Charles's saddest sadnesses: seeing an ice cream cone dropped onto the sidewalk, overrun by ants. Dad can't believe how fast Mort can fire the baseball at the pyramid of milk jugs. In Korea, I was our infantry's star pitcher. We used our rifles for bats. The attendant, wearing a red bow tie, in evident pain bending to pick up the pins. One stuffed animal Sandy points to: giraffe. Mort: The guest gets to choose. Charles's top three: striped tiger, koala bear, toucan. Dad: Pick one, please. Charles: I'll take the toucan. Dumdum choice, says Sandy. They sit at a picnic table on the banks of the Zambezi river. Dad makes a figure-eight of mustard on his hot dog. My brother would have gotten me a giraffe, Sandy says. My brother comes from Korea. Charles: I asked and you don't have a brother. What Charles and Sandy fight about: whom exactly the elephant was looking at when it laconically sent down its droppings. That poop was for you! says Charles. For breakfast tomorrow: poop pancakes with poopberries! Sandy, glumly: I do so have a brother.

 

***

 

What Mom, at the house, doesn't read: Mort's magazines on radio waves and Morse codes. Three ways she occupies herself: flicking idly at the flimsy, dull-grey legs of the lunar lander that Charles had set atop the television. Skimming a chapter of My Ántonia. Blowing menthol smoke through a pulp strainer, her spread fingers, a screen door. One thing Mom had never seen: this specific color of Edith's urine. Mom, thinking: Poor Mort. Poor Sandy. To maybe lose your mother when you're nine. Me and my Edith: our parents are dead, and never spoke. Our mom was deaf. She never hid her hands from us. She told us she loved her by drawing a line on our faces from our temple down to our cheekbone. Long after she died, I looked up the sign language for 'I love you' and that wasn't nearly it.

 

***


Charles, on their return from the zoo, boasting to Sandy: Tomorrow we're going to the Painted Desert. Sandy: The Grand Canyon is bigger than the Painted Desert. We went there last year. What Edith said to Sandy before the surgery: When I'm recovering, you have to take care of yourself. Three things Sandy taught herself: to fold her own clothes, to make a frosted cake in her Betty Crocker oven, to safely feed Franklin. One reason Sandy lets Charles feed Franklin: the extreme possibility of being pecked. All day, Charles kept barging into me. Two times he sneezed on my arm. Two sentences Charles tries to teach Franklin: Charles is the greatest, Sandy is great. Two tasks Mom does to prepare dinner: she snaps green beans, pre-heats the oven. The lasagna waited for her in the freezer. The sound of the tin foil coming off the pyrex dish makes her ovaries hurt. Charles, unpecked: Mom, can I make the moon now? There's something more important, says Sandy. Six signs commissioned by the blue-haired woman next door; she who owns the Great Dane, who runs the fireplace in July: Bewear of Dog. Big Dog! Dolores is prowling — keep out! Keep off the grass, where the dog does pass. Dolores will smush you. Mean canine ahead! Two crayons Charles grabs from Sandy and inadvertently snaps: Cadet Blue, silver for the spots. One reaction from Sandy: jabbing another crayon into Charles's arm. Polio shot! Polio shot! 

 

***

 

Five times, before and after dinner, that Charles creaks open the door to Edith's room: 4:54, 5:17, 5:52, 7:05, 7:06. Mom to Dad: She's the same. When she's awake, all she wants to do is chew on ice chips. First moon: Dad helps Charles staple together construction paper into a dodecahedron, but it's a disaster, the paper's too flimsy, it can't support the lander's weight. Second moon: Charles rolls newspaper, onioning one page around the next, secures it with thick smelly rubber bands. Dad drinks an Old Milwaukee. Mort drinks an Old Milwaukee, no glass. Charles stares at his Adam's apple: gulp, gulp. Mort tells Dad about the Enigma Machine — a system that reinitializes its codes with each new input. Mort: Every morning, I'm not certain the sun's going to come up again. Mom has something called a vermouth, which smells like gasoline and pine needles. Two unfamiliar terms that make Charles uneasy, like riding a tricycle across a slope: rotors, plugboards. Charles hovers the lander over the moons. Three options for a successful lunar landing: thrusters, parachute, dune buggy. Sandy, who has made a makeshift papoose for the stuffed toucan: Too bad astronauts aren't surgeons. Mort pops open another beer. What everyone hears: Edith getting more and more agitated. Everyone goes upstairs. Edith shivers under the sheet. Sandy: What's happening to her? Dad: Nothing we can't handle. One piece of trash Charles picks off the carpet: a wet Dixie cup, a half-melted ice chip clinging to the rim. 

 

***

 

Three things taped to the inside of Sandy's door: Leif Garrett, report card, Shamu the whale. Through the thin wall: 25 minutes of ragged moans that render the kids mute. One added frustration: the flashlight flickers out. Sandy bangs it on the bedframe. She turns on her Betty Crocker oven. Two facts from Charles about the Grand Canyon: the mules, the muddy river. Sandy: Who cares about the Grand Canyon. Let me see your hand. Don't be scared. No. Come closer. Close your eyes. Close your eyes. I said give me your hand. Charles's hand feels sweaty and grey-green. Four questions she doesn't ask: How her oven could get so hot. How her oven could hurt him. How something inside her mother could hurt. How she could still hurt once it was taken out. What she guides into the Betty Crocker oven: Charles's right hand. Be careful. Don't touch the edges. Did he feel the hot? Uh huh. Stay very very very still. She raises his wrist so that it presses against the top of the oven. One thing which makes her feel relief: pressing his hand against the top of the oven. He screams. Don't scream! Three things Dad, wearing his slippers, can see when he peeks in: Sandy, eyes closed, in her bed; Charles, eyes closed, in his bed; the faint red-orange afterglow of the heating coils. Edith is completely inert, spent. In twenty minutes, Dad is not dreaming. He is making love to his wife, though they shouldn't, not here. Three ways Mort tries to calm himself: running his fingers through his hair, repetitively muttering the phrase "royal flags wave kings above," rubbing Edith's hand between his two hands. Slow, slow kindling. 

 

***

 

Two images that terrify Charles: the hammerhead shark in his dream, how Aunt Edith's eyelids kept twitching. He's too scared to sleep. He rubs the flat line burnt across the top of his hand. Why he finds himself sneaking past Uncle Mort, into the garage: no real reason. Three items he shouldn't touch: lawnmower blade, hacksaw, flashbulb. Next year he would blow the stolen bulb in his eye, blind for hours. When he hears the door crack open? He freezes. Little Chuck? Mort turns on the light. You've been a trooper, you know? What am I doing? I was thinking I might take the motorcycle for a ride. Edith's breath, upstairs, at its softest: the black REM of morphine. Franklin clucks, picks at his blanket. Sandy, woken up by Charles, is flailing her flashlight in her mother's closed eyes. Three images unremembered from her dream: her dad's broken pipe in a white trash bag. Her brother telling her to learn Korean, it's like hearing birds in the trees at sundown. She takes Franklin to school and her classmates love her, the dried red cranberries she lets them feed to Franklin. With some difficulty she clasps her heart locket around her mother's neck. You have to give it back, you know. Two articles of clothing worn by Mort: V-neck t-shirt, tan shorts. Mort: I shouldn't, I'm not even allowed to take Sandy on the old Indian. Heck, let's go. Charles watches his uncle raise the garage door. Three emotions: fear, fear, plum. Mort roughly cinches the strap to Charles's helmet. Two sounds the engine makes: blender, T-Rex. They pull onto the road. Uncle Mort shifts gears, his foot clicking and releasing the clutch. Mort: Little Chuck, do you want to go back? Go faster! I shouldn't. They do. Charles has a moment to catch his breath before another flurry of speed, each streetlight flaring bright and flaring dark behind them, the pavement sparkling with stones, the intake of hot air cooled and tunneling into Charles's face under the visor, the bounce of the oversized helmet on his shoulders, his hands in the warmth of the bomber jacket Mort had put on, digging his fingers into the pockets. Mort, who wears goggles that remind Charles of Mark Spitz, pushes them faster and faster into the desolate, no stores, no gas stations, the no-moon and the stop light that Charles could hear tick on, speeding again down straight after straight, Charles's thighs hurting from holding tight, until Mort slams on the brakes, a prairie dog or coyote scurrying across the road, and then they are skidding, fishtailing, Charles barely hanging on until Mort stops the motorcycle on the shoulder, breathing hard, and angrily he kicks down the kickstand and turns and picks Charles up and hugs him. Mort: It's all right, it's all right, it's all right. What Mort does, a few minutes later, the carburetor radiating onto Charles's hand, heat on heat: he retches onto the dark side of a saguaro. He picks up a black, glassy stone, maybe obsidian, and gives it to Charles. Mort: Let's go back. Charles nods. On the slow ride home, three fascinations: a shimmering of first light over the mountains, an actual molted snakeskin, a slash of hubcaps nailed to a brick wall. Mort rolls the motorcycle into the garage, tugs off Charles's helmet. Two hints for Charles to leave: Mort hangs his goggles on a hook, turns away to wipe his palms on a saddlebag. Charles stands there. Mort kisses his forehead. Charles tiptoes upstairs. Mort lets his forehead rest heavy on his fist. Sandy's asleep under her bed. Four things Charles might do with his two moons: decompile one with a staple remover, or let Sandy crush it like a bag of potato chips, leave the other by Edith's pillow, not tell.

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Photo credit: Anne Royston 

 

Robert Glick is Assistant Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Senior Prose Editor of Versal. His work can be found in The Gettysburg Review, Denver Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, and The Normal School.

 

 

 

 

The 2014 Summer Literary Seminars/Center for Fiction prize comes with full tuition to any 2014 SLS program, which are being held in Montreal, Lithuania and Kenya. For more information about the SLS, please visit their website.