AN OBJECT IN ORBIT.
We made of it a children's rhyme, clapping hands as we chanted. How could we not? We were, after all, children.
Elizabeth is running, sneakers pounding the gravel. One mile, two miles, three. At the six-mile mark, her legs burn, but she keeps going. "All runners are running from something," her husband used to say. Said just yesterday, in fact, before he boarded the bus.
No, that's not right, she thinks. Running toward something. If she just goes fast enough, she thinks, she will get there.
"A new body has been found," the adults used to say. Because no one wanted to say, "They have found a mother, and she has left her children behind, and she has left her husband behind, and she is not coming back."
It was obvious to them--police, reporters, teachers--that each of these mothers was not coming back. To the younger children, not so obvious. It seems they simply forgot to tell us the new fact of our lives, our unenviable condition, what we had become: motherless.
That was the year things began falling from the sky. First it was a car. It had been sent up there, supposedly, as some sort of symbol of human triumph, but everyone knew it was just space junk, a cheap publicity stunt, an advertisement for an electric car company and a symbol of the billionaire entrepreneur's hubris.
Not to be outdone, another billionaire sent up an Airstream trailer filled with outdated technology: a fax machine, a flip phone, a printing press. It was a not-so-gentle insult, a reminder that the electric car was obsolete as soon as it shot into space. "Everyone knows new cars lose twenty percent of their value the moment they drive off the lot," the second billionaire said. "By the time the car went into orbit, it was already backward technology. An Airstream, at least, is a thing of beauty."
After the Airstream it was a free-for-all. Every major company shot up a rocket and sent some product into orbit. There were laptops and cell phones, trampolines and talking dolls, CorningWare and combat boots. If it was worth mass producing, it was worth sending into space. Gazing up at the night sky, one saw the heavens rotating, that vast conveyor belt of product placement, so many twinkling objects, one could not dream of counting them.
"Imagine! A little boy in Shanghai and a little girl in Zimbabwe are staring up at the sky, seeing the same stainless-steel refrigerator you are seeing. We are not so different."
This is what the mothers said. The mothers who remained.
Of course: an object in orbit doesn't stay in orbit.
On the problem of space junk, the first billionaire had said, "It will burn up upon reentry." He conveniently discounted the problem of the depleted layers, all the holes poked in the atmosphere, so when the outdated electric car, still cherry red after sixteen years, five months, and twenty-seven days, fell out of orbit, it found a hole and fell through, unburnt. It landed, appropriately, on a freeway. Not so appropriately, on top of a bus carrying thirty-two undocumented immigrants from Texas into Mexico. They were American immigrants, born in Seattle, Fresno, Salt Lake City, Taos, San Francisco, Portland, and the like, traveling south for work, to send money home to their families.
OK, most were traveling south for work in order to send money home to their families in North America. One of the migrants, however, might have been traveling south in despair after his wife had kicked him out. He might have wanted to blend in, for the first time in his life, to be a part of the mass of human misery making its way toward more promising territory, to see what that was like. Aside from the marital discord, this one migrant might not have qualified as miserable, what with his cryptocurrency stored across the world on millions of computers, vast quantities of cryptocurrency, so that he would never have to work again, not that he ever had, nor would his estranged wife have to work, nor would his sons and daughters after him or their sons and daughters after them, on and on into generations.
Is luck genetic? Or is it something more than luck? Is it a familial disposition toward being at the right place at the right time? Or perhaps an intellectual and physical proclivity for avoiding the wrong places?
Only one migrant survived to tell the story of how the electric car landed on the transport bus and crushed it to bits. The migrant who survived had come down with food poisoning and had taken longer than the others to return to the bus after the pit stop at the 7-Eleven. The bus left him behind. Stragglers could not be tolerated, not with the route so carefully planned to avoid the border patrol agents, one of whom had been persuaded to leave his post for precisely ten minutes at precisely 3:17 a.m. on the twelfth of November in order to assure safe passage for the migrants into Mexico. He had a soft spot for the migrants. Only by the grace of God had he himself been born on the right side of the border. He could so easily imagine himself in their shoes.
The migrant with food poisoning exited the 7-Eleven only seconds after the bus had departed. Hearing a whirring through space, a high whistle, he looked up and saw the cherry-red object hurtling through the night sky on its trajectory toward earth, toward Interstate 5, just south of the 7-Eleven. He saw it crash into the bus, heard the terrible grinding of metal on metal. But no shrieks because it was too fast. It was, mercifully and unmercifully, that fast. Too fast to feel anything, and also, of course, too fast to run.
As he stood in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, still puking his guts out, feverish, sweating, he could not believe his good luck. Or could believe it. Except for the one time, it had always been thus. Except for the one time, his luck had always been exceptional.
As soon as news spread, there were the jokes on the internet about two worlds colliding. Or three, if you connect the dots.
The migrant who survived was Kenny Feldt, whose mother, some years before, had been one of the bodies. The one by the riverbank.
Or, as Kenny saw it, one of the mothers. The first time and the last time his luck did not hold.
Kenny Feldt pulled himself together and walked up the road a ways, to the flattened bus, atop of which lay the flattened electric car though it was impossible to tell in its current state that it had ever been a car. Kenny averted his eyes from the terrible scene, his shoes slipping over blood on the asphalt, and strode toward the object that lay on the roadside, miraculously intact: a steering wheel. He picked up the steering wheel, expecting it to scald him, but it did not. Then he remembered that day with Leon in the factory, when Leon took him into the vault and showed him the steering wheel that had been made for the electric car, the steering wheel conceived by a team of brilliant minds, the steering wheel that could withstand any extreme of heat or cold, the steering wheel that could not shatter, the steering wheel that would be stronger and sturdier and more lasting than the engine or the gear shaft or the MP3 player that would emit Chris Isaak's velvet voice through the empty cosmos.
"The steering wheel is the heart of the car," Leon had said. "Because it is by way of the steering wheel that one finds one's direction. There is nothing more important than direction: not speed, not horsepower, not momentum, not aerodynamics, though, come to think of it, aerodynamics is not to be taken lightly. But direction: That is the thing."
Then he gave Kenny, ten years old and bored of Leon but quite fascinated with cars, a titanium tool with which to etch his own initials, KF, into the finished steering wheel, which had cost 11.7 million dollars to get just right.
So Kenny took the titanium branding tool and did as he was told, only he did not use his initials because he hated his initials, which sounded like two thirds of a fried chicken chain restaurant, and also, he was not without humility. He understood that an object orbiting the earth, even if it is only a car, even if it is only an advertisement, is nonetheless bigger than all of us, certainly bigger than a ten-year-old boy. Instead of his initials, he etched into the steering wheel a word that he knew to be universally known, a word that summed up the half of it and the whole of it, a word that was about evolution, and about things gone terribly wrong, and about the primary purpose of humans on earth, a word that would outlast us all.
Adult Kenny Feldt now turned the steering wheel over and peeked in the groove where the inner arm joined the outer circle.
FUCK it said, in the careful block letters he had mastered when he was ten.
"Fuck," Kenny Feldt said aloud. To no one because everyone was dead.
But then he realized he was not speaking to no one. He was speaking to someone, the one who had been watching over him, who had whispered inside his head that very morning, at the diner in San Clemente, "Order the sausage biscuit," while everyone else had the pancakes. The one who had given him food poisoning in order that she might save him.
He was speaking to Martha Feldt, who, prior to the string of murders that terrorized San Mateo County, had been not only the mother of Kenny Feldt but also the wife of Leon Feldt, the first (but not the last) billionaire to launch an electric car into orbit.
After he had cursed at his mother in gratitude, he offered up this filial sentiment, buried for so long, "I miss you, Mom."
And that was the first recorded incident of mass death by way of space junk but not the last.
Is this a tragedy or a comedy? Is it a story about mothers and sons? A story about fathers and sons? A story about a vast ego? A story about capitalism run amok? A story about immigration and the state of a nation? Is it a sci-fi story? A ghost story? A murder story? A tech-gone-wrong story? A horror story? Is it a story about marriage? What kind of story is it?
When Kenny Feldt takes his phone out of his pocket and calls his wife and hears her panting on the other end, exhausted from her run but still running-whether she is running from something or to something, they will never agree-and says, "Elizabeth, I'm sorry," is she happy or is she sad? Does she say, "Come home, Kenny," or does she say, "I've changed the locks"? Does she admit she only married him because she felt sorry about the terrible loss he had suffered when they were children, the loss for which no boy is ever prepared?
What we know is this: Elizabeth Feldt stops running. She holds the phone to her ear. She is prepared to say, "Kenny, there's nothing left to say. Kenny, it's over, this time it's really over. You can have all the cryptocurrency. I don't even care. I just want a normal life. I just want to go for runs in the suburbs and take day trips with the girls and who knows, maybe I'll get a job at the box factory or go back to school to become a paleontologist, which I would have become if you had not needed me so much, and if your need had not been so all-consuming, and if you had not had such obscene amounts of wealth that work seemed redundant for both of us."
She is prepared to say all of these things and then hang up. She is prepared to be done with all of their tangled history. But then she hears his voice, in awe, declaring, "It came back to earth."
And she says, "What came back to earth?" but as he's trying to explain what just happened, his story muddled and incoherent, she somehow understands that what lie means is that the car has come back to earth.
"I'm holding the steering wheel," he says.
And Elizabeth knows what she has always known, from the time she was nine years old, and Kenny was two years older, and he was the boy whose mother was found in the woods. Or was it the riverbank? She knows that he is special, and his children will be special, and there is no path for her that doesn't lead back to Kenny Feldt.
She bends over, cramping, legs burning, sweat dripping off her face into the dirt, or maybe what is dripping off her face into the dirt is tears though she is not prone to weeping. "Come home," she says, resigned to the fact of their improbable life.
This is the body on the beach. This is the body behind the townhouses. This is the body the body the body. These are the bodies on the highway beneath the bus that left too soon, beneath the car that traveled too high, beneath the sky so full of holes. These are the mothers who left, not of their own accord. These are the fathers who left. These are the brothers and the sisters. These are the mothers fathers brothers sisters watching over us. Are they orbiting? Are they floating? How do they watch over us? How do they manage to waylay us when we rush headlong toward destruction? Or is it only the mothers who are watching? Will they come back down? Will they find a hole in the atmosphere? Will they find a way to us?
We started with the bodies, which happened to be the bodies of mothers. At that moment of inception, in the bedroom with the clothes strewn across the floor and the coffee cooling on the bedside table, we had an idea of the kind of story it was. The story was within grasp, almost. Then the husband went out for pizza. And then we checked the email, and then we decided to go downstairs and do the elliptical because the elliptical is there, and it helps to get one's heart rate up. Running is better, but.... Each month for the past nineteen years, we have added running to our to-do list. Nineteen times twelve equals two hundred twenty-eight. Two hundred twenty-eight times, consecutively, we have believed that this was the month we were really and truly going to take up running. We have never taken up running. While rotating our legs on the elliptical, which does so much of the work for you that it can hardly be called exercise, we watched a streaming program about a billionaire who had sent his car into orbit. Thirty-one minutes on the elliptical (medium incline, level 4, interval setting), and then we checked the news, and then we checked the state of the planet (hot, holey), and then we checked to see how far our minor holding of cryptocurrency had fallen (31 percent in the past hour). How can one be expected to tell a story when the bottom is falling out? We checked the email again, made the mistake of opening the message from the genetics testing company. They had analyzed our spit, which we had mailed to them in a tiny vial along with a payment of ninety-nine dollars. They had bad news. Not terrible news, just bad news, about the kinds of weaknesses, mental and physical, to which we were genetically prone.
Then we came back to the story and wondered, what kind of story is it? The bodies? The mothers? What bodies? What mothers? But we did not know. The story had gotten away from us. We had lost the thread.
The husband comes home with the pizza and asks, "What have you been doing?"
There is a list on the fridge, a list you make every day, as if every day is a new day and not merely another rotation in time and space, a repetition of the undone. Today, like most days, nothing has been checked off the list. No bills have been paid, no laundry put away, no dishes stacked in the dishwasher, no training for the imaginary marathon we will complete as soon as we take up running. Even the child has not been fetched from the playdate where he is surely bouncing on the trampoline, that bit of future space junk. So it is perhaps not unreasonable for the husband to ask, "What have you been doing?"
Not because he wants to control you but because, in this era of wasted time, one needs to be encouraged to offer an accounting.
We began with a story that began with a body. We became distracted. The story became something else. How does one find one's direction? The story is not the problem, is it? Even the space junk, which, truth be told, consumes us, morally and environmentally speaking, during many waking hours, is not the problem. It is quite obvious that we are the problem, our endless distractibility, our desire, every second, to move on to something else. We are neither aerodynamically nor directionally sound. Every day, we ask of ourselves, of our lives, of the universe at large: What kind of story is it?
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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