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Fiction: Terra Firma
By Alex Wenderoff
Like an aged, punch-drunk boxer who finds himself utterly aimless and without utility after his body fails him, is how Dan King found himself on July 21, 1969, the day man, a man other than Dan, walked on the moon.
He’d spent seemingly all of his 37 years on the earth trying to escape it. The dream he realized was snatched away from him after a mere two minutes and ten seconds in outer space. The brevity of his mission was overshadowed by the mental episode that ultimately banished Dan from NASA, taking from him the fame and adulation he had enjoyed as the icon of the nascent space program, and miring him I obscurity forever on the terra firma.
Unlike the boxer who seeks blame for his misfortune in the mirror, and castigates the deteriorating body staring back at him, Dan’s damning gaze was directed to the powers-that-be of this world the world above it. He’d blamed the people that once gave him the lysergic acid that would prove to the catalyst leading his diseased mind to betray him while hurtling away from Earth, while a few years later advertising him as the ‘King of Space’ and promised the world he’d be the first man to walk on the moon.
His body did, however, show signs of his reversal of fortunes. Beneath his unicorn-horn-like tuft of hair, an island of closely-cropped hair in a gulf of baldness, and beneath still his prominent Cro-Magnon brow, what with his downcast eyes and horizontal mouth, he wore the face of a man unaccustomed to having things go his way. The slouched shoulders that had tried in vain to shrug away depression and a sunken chest that looked as though it had heaved a lifetime worth of sighs also bespoke of an ailing heart inside his languid frame.
That morning had begun with Dan awaking seemingly weighed down by an invisible anvil on his sternum, lying on his back with his arms splayed out helplessly. The feeling of being thrust downward due to the extreme g-forces associated with high speed flight never left him, mocking him at the beginning of each day, the forces of flight replaced with the ennui of an aimless life.
His shades fought to keep out the blinding southern California sun but to no avail. Whereas once the cloudless azure skies represented escape and adventure, the domain in which Dan had pushed the limits of the newest aviation technology, exceeded expectations about the capabilities of flight as he soared heavenward, the sky now mirrored what he imagined an animal in a cage would see when it gazed upward: his captivity.
In his time with the Navy, he would lie on the runway of his carrier at daybreak, gazing out, unable to discern where the sky ended and the sea began. When he was stationed in Edwards Air Force Base, continuing his ascent through the ranks of the hotshot test pilots, he would rise with the sun, running through the awakening desert air, soaking in the last moments of coolness as the heat began to overtake all in it’s path. Ever since he was seven and his family switched Palo Altos, from Pennsylvania to California, Dan had an affinity for rising with the sun, marveled that the sun would rise every morning brightly despite the calendar, even if it had to contend with fog (and it always won in the end).
The beginning of a new day now meant for Dan that he was forced to live on without his dreams, continuing on a path of infinite length towards a nadir that continued to exist just out of reach.
He examined the squalor of his accommodations, some fleabag motel in a town with a forgettable name between Los Angeles whatever lay east of it. Dan had told Nancy, patient, loyal Nancy, his wife, whom Dan already considered a widow, that he was going to watch the landing with some old NASA buddies and that it would be a “guys talking about the good ole days thing.” Knowing that to be untrue, Nancy never the less encouraged it, telling Dan to send along her regards, and joking that she longed for the anxiety ridden days spent with the other astronauts’ wives and maybe she’d call them up. Every time that Dan touched down, whether on a ship at sea, a landing strip in barren wasteland, or plopping down helplessly in the ocean, unconscious, Nancy claimed to have sensed it, overcome with a near weightlessness if only fleetingly, knowing that she would soon spend another moment in the embrace of her companion.
Dan knew that had he remained at home, where his face was recognized, having been emblazoned across covers of countless magazines and newspapers, and even having appeared on television several times, unsmiling in an earnest way, radiating quiet ambition and unshakable resolve, he would have to endure more conversations with strangers should he dare to show his face. He had never truly achieved anonymity despite the physical changes depression and ennui had wrought. The tone of the sightings had changed, however. People used to ask him “Are you Dan King, the astronaut?” in the present tense, their faces unable to mask the eager excitement as they awaiting his confirming what they already knew to be true, their brows furrowing slightly as they thought of what to say next or their cheeks reddening as they braced themselves to ask for an autograph, their hands rummaging through bags or pockets searching for a writing utensil. Lately people would ask him if he had been Dan King, the astronaut, unintentionally or not using the past tense, as if they were seeing a ghost, asking the living person in front of them if he had once upon a time existed. Some feigned concern, others eyed him up and down, taking in his physical decline with embarrassment, while others still recoiled, unable to think of anything other than the “psychotic episode” the papers so cryptically alluded to as the reason for his mission being aborted, during the brief period before NASA had chosen a group of young men, all with stable mental states, to be the faces of the program.
Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, amorphous circles of indigo and violet danced across the flaking plaster, moving with the haphazardness and aggression of children driving bumper cars in an open space. Some clanged into each other, producing a bright green spark at the area of impact. Dan moved his head somewhat and in so doing the blobs of color remained in his field of vision, leaving a trail behind them as would a snail as they moved from the ceiling to the upper bits of the wall, fixing themselves directly in front of Dan’s gaze, wherever it may fall. He knew now to close his eyes and simply wait for the spots to fade at their leisure. Had only he known that when he first espied them in front of the control panels years prior. He had diagnosed them first as an unanticipated side effect of the onset of weightlessness, or of the force of the g’s upon his body, or an optical illusion due to the refraction of light at that particular angle at that particular stratum of the atmosphere. As they intensified during his ascent, he became transfixed, and his mandatory readings of the instruments to Mission Control ceased all together. Within moments the spots merged into a wall of undulating color, for fleeting moments assuming the position of something Dan recognized, lingering just long enough cause the glint of recognition without dallying long enough for that glint to become realized.
The voices over his headset made themselves heard with such savage suddenness and with such harsh tones that, trembling, Dan had tried to wrest the controls of his module towards the hardly discernible black spot left of center on his horizon from where he believed the strident screeches originated, clamoring all the while that he wanted to visit his mother. At this point his oxygen was tampered with long enough to cause him to lose consciousness.
Opening his eyes and noticing his field of vision was bereft of unnatural colorings, Dan moved his mind towards imagining what Neil would say on the moon. The whole world watching, had he chosen his message? Dan himself never had settled on anything in particular, but was keen to incorporate some musings from his father. Masking his inability to hold a job or to use his position as a widower to engage in wanton philandering, Dan’s father would, upon hastily loading their car with their belongings, tell his son that it was the American way to explore, nay, it was the right of every American to explore. Dan as a child had never much understood how or why they exercised those rights so frequently and often at odd hours of the night, but as an adult remembered the words and hoped to morph them into a well structured sentence expressing his patriotism and to frame his moon landing as a natural extension of the American will. He, of course, had never needed to draft such a message.
He decided to rouse the final semblance of energy and determination left in his listless and indolent soul towards the end of taking his own life. The very idea of ending what had become a miserable existence in the past few years since his celestial incident brought a smile across his sullen face. Dan’s lips struggled to turn themselves upwards, a position his face had not known in some time.
Dan wanted the last sound to penetrate his ears to be not just anything that would drown out Neil Armstrong’s eternal line, a line which Dan felt paled in comparison to what he had intended to say to the world upon setting foot on the moon, but in particular the ringing of the hammer of the revolver he would aim towards through his mouth sending the bullet forth. He wished the last taste to grace his taste buds to be that of a hot lead.
As he sat with the barrel of his Colt Python between his teeth, loaded with a single .357 cartridge, that unfamiliar expression crept back across his face. Dan King was smiling.
#Unreal #WalkTheMoon #FinalSemblanceOfEnergy #1960s #TerraFirma
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