Crocodile Tears for Astronauts
On that Saturday morning, after his mother located him, buried under the contorted comforter, she gently shook the boy awake with a cold hand on his naked back to watch the space shuttle land. He had as little interest watching it land as he’d had when they watched it take off from their backyard—not twenty miles from the house. His enthusiasm for aeronautics went only as far as the freeze-dried ice cream inexplicably sold at every school book-fair. Though it was his one chance to sleep in, due to school the day before and church the next, he obligingly kicked off the covers, not wanting to feel guilty for ‘being lazy like his father.'
All of the widows and doors were open, gifting the house with a freshness that fragrance companies adequately name but inadequately replicate. He followed his mom outside on the back patio where she sat in a plastic chair watching the boxy, hand-me-down television tell her about “one-a-day vitamins for prostate and brain health.”
It was a humid, slow moving February afternoon, a day not unlike any other winter day, sunny and cool; the lofty palm trees swaying in the breeze like upside-down pendulums. Shirtless and in a pair of swim trucks for pajamas, he stood in front of the television ready to go back inside once he fulfilled this inherent responsibility—the same one that made him wake up at 7:30 on Sundays for church, or cut the grass without ever receiving an allowance. He watched his mother watch the Houston skyline in the television—the weather appearing the same, except far dryer. Like most Floridian parents, she had not been raised in Florida and after ten years of living there still found the launches and landings to be modern miracles, each and every time. In her eyes, the astronauts were like prophets who brought back the science behind God’s mysteries. But who knew what they were exactly bringing back, their return was testament enough to something larger and more complex: the sacred relationship between the celestial and the temporal.
Yet the boy knew that the astronauts had simply been performing a series of gravitational tests on worms in the International Space Station and were hauling the creatures back with them. Disheartened by this boring factoid of space exploration, he had stopped listening to Mrs. Talleyard, his six-grade teacher, as she discussed the specifics at length.
The camera panned the skyline, waiting for a puncture in the atmosphere. “Any minute now,” the female commentator announced from the little television, wrangling the audiences’ attention with a trite promise. Something about her voice sounded like she was blonde. The boy stood absentmindedly, his arms crossed and hands stuffed under his armpits for warmth, shifting his weight from side to side on the cool concrete floor.
“When you do that thing with your arms,” his mom pointed a finger up at him and turned her head away with a repulsed, cringing face, “it makes you look like a girl.” She nodded solemnly.
He took an instinctive breath before exhaling a comeback, but knew from experience that arguing was pointless. There was no trump card better in the deck of prepubescent insults. He let his arms fall to the sides and swallowed his breath, just like all the times she had told him to stop fidgeting with his hands or picking at his freshly grown arm hair. She knew how to be normal person—there was a reason why his mom was the most popular parent on fieldtrips. So he just stood there, avoiding eye contact, to not look awkward and beaten in front of his mom who, now able to concentrate, sat in a forward lean towards the TV in her black tank top and cheap cotton running shorts.
If he left now she’d only grow angrier with him for being too sensitive. Unsure of how to be, the boy tried to hide his embarrassment by immersing his attention into the TV’s dull action. He waited in the slow, agonizing moment outside on the porch afraid to do anything but stare at an azure-blue, cloud-streaked sky that looked much like his own, equally as deep and vast and inescapable from his mom’s keen, schoolyard judgment. The boy waited for something to finally appear, and in between those two skies, he thought absently “What if it just blew up?”
Oh God! He felt sinful for being possessed by the thought; although, it was certainly within the realm of possibility.
Oh God! What a filthy idea to have. He looked down at the floor and scrunched his toes and tightened his body while attempting to retract the thought, asking for forgiveness—but he had seen stuff like that happen before, played over and over again! And wasn’t that the point to show how possible it was? He felt sorry—but why should he be? Was it not normal to have thoughts about crashes and explosions—to anticipate the unexpected?
“There it is,” his mom nudged him, and then leaned back over on her bony knees.
The announcer noted “The arrival of the Colombia space shuttle has come into view,” in a monotone voice as the tiny speck streaked across the sky, leaving a thin white cloud in its wake. The camera zoomed in. The boy readied himself for an escape.
Once the shuttle came into clear view it gleamed intensely in the sun as if a spotlight had been cast onto it, quickly growing brighter and brighter before combusting into multiple screaming objects set aflame against the morning blue firmament, beyond the speed of sound, like a meteor barreling swiftly in a horizontal line across the sky, its rate and the curve of the earth disguising the fact that it was actually crashing to the ground. The spacecraft shed its metal debris across the landscape, becoming smaller and smaller—less of a technological wonder now than some kind of beautiful natural disaster. They watched all of this happen inside the TV as witnesses to the speed of televising, which was still too slow because the second it took to broadcast the shuttle break the atmosphere, explode, and fizzle out into the pixilated blue void—no longer shining and distinguishable—it had already happened. The camera panned the sky desperately.
“Flight control has lost contact with Colombia. If you’ve just joined us, space shuttle Colombia has gone missing after breaking up.”
‘It blew up. It obviously blew up,’ he thought.
His mother with a hand to her mouth leaned away from the television. “Can you imagine?” she asked—perhaps rhetorically and not to him, he hoped.
“If you’re just now watching, Space Shuttle Colombia has gone missing. Search and rescue in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area have been deployed. Command had its last communication at 8:48 central time.”
“Can you imagine, James?”
‘It blew up,’ he thought.
“Can you imagine?” she said pointing at the TV. If he could just cry already she’d probably stop asking him that question!
The boy tired not to move. His whole body cringed and contracted, as if it were imploding in emergency evacuation to avoid answering her question.
The announcer continued to deem the shuttle as missing while the television played a montage of ship exploding replays, shifting back and forth to the now empty Houston skyline as if attempting to merge the inexplicable past with the banal present to extract a divine answer for the horror of both worlds.
The heavy, cool wind swayed the palm trees and swept through the pool deck but the boy no longer thought about being cold and his mother didn’t worry about what he was doing with his arms, and minutes later the woman announced: “Space Shuttle Colombia has in fact exploded,” citing a confirmation they had received from Houston command.
His mom was really sobbing now and he didn’t know what to do. Should he put a hand on her shoulder and comfort her while he cried along, or better, should he cry even more than her so she would feel badly and console him? He wanted to cry along with his mom to free himself from being seen as calloused and uncaring and to help morn the people who just died. He contorted his face and focused on the truth: that seven innocent explorers with husbands and wives and children and friends and pets had just died, giving their life in the name of human advancement to people like him, but nothing came.
“Can you imagine...” his mom choked before loudly blowing her nose into a faded and drying beach towel; a foghorn of mourning in the quiet clear air ringing out to the others in shared pain, which seemed to sound back. “…what it must be like for their families?”
He felt that he could imagine because he’d heard families interviewed, who were afflicted by similar events, explain their loss before. They felt “unbearable anger towards the people who were to blame” “torn to shreds,” “still in disbelief—they had gone to work and never came back.” He stepped closer to the television and tried to look stunned with an open mouth, staring into the images of the shuttle ripping into pieces put on replay, hoping the close exposure to the light would make his eyes water, so that the next time he turned to his mother he would be streaked in shiny tears falling down his face. Except nothing about the images played over and over and over again looked out of the ordinary. He’d seen these things played and then replayed over and over again before. He knew what had just happened was sad because they kept showing it—that wasn’t the issue. He wanted to cry.
And there his mom was, blubbering away with zero inhibition or distraction, demonstrating her profound ability to be hardheartedly stern one moment and then deeply mournful the next, giving her emotion wholeheartedly to human catastrophe. Didn’t he used to be able to do that?
It was definitely sad; in the same way that watching workers jump from burning buildings with nowhere else to go—or seeing people being chased from falling wreckage and clouds of shredded office paper was sad. And now, less than two-years later, there was probably a program on TV playing various perspectives of the catastrophe, he thought, while the news channel described the Colombia explosion. It was something that happened, planes and shuttles could simply fall to pieces or be smashed into smithereens against a building or into the ground. It was part of their nature. Didn’t she know that? He had seen it all before, over and over and over again. On the news, on their shitty dial-up Internet, then in documentaries, then redone in a movie. Once again he had just watched people die. This was about as sad as it got. What more did he need to cry? He kept his face hidden from his grieving mom. He wanted to cry.
But he couldn’t and she couldn’t find out—and his mom was gaining composure, but fortunately still engrossed in the news coverage for the time being. Acting quickly, the boy walked past her, hiding his face, through the screen door and out into the dewy lawn, grass shavings sticking to his feet, and he looked up into the vibrant sky. He stared into the sun cast way up high. He stared until black spots formed from the Vitamin D rays and then blinked hard with his head tilted in the direction of gravity, tightly holding his eyes shut for long pauses as if he were squeezing lemons with his eyelids, trying to offer his mom and the astronauts’ families some kind of sympathetic nourishment—Vitamin C tears for their loss. He wanted to cry.
His mom would be ashamed of him for appearing unmoved, so he stayed there alone in the warm sun and tried to use the thought of her disappointment in him and the guilt he’d feel to make him cry before calling it quits. Dark transparent squiggles in his vision had formed against the blue while looking out. Possessed by an unidentified intuition, all he could think about was that the worms onboard had survived and bet they’d be found and then reunited with the NASA scientists who could then study them more. He’d tell his mom about them. At this time he could probably search it on the computer, as more information flooded in, to find out for sure—but what was the point? He figured this small hope would be more reassuring to her than some online fact. Did it not mean something more than a truth repeated to an incomprehensible degree?
He felt less afraid now. He stood out there for a little longer, looking between the wet blades of grass for a worm wriggling blindly about. If he found one, he’d pick up the slimy creature and bring it inside where his mom sat crying. ‘Who knows,’ he’d tell her, ‘this worm could have fallen from space.’
About the Author: Jesse Brooks teaches at University of Maryland and lives in Baltimore. He wishes he owned a dog, but he does care for one plant.