Saturday, March 18, 2006

New Computer, New Story

Hubbell was spinning. The great telescope was silhouetted against the stars, visible only as a void in the field of lights with the occasional flash from the sun hitting the mirror or solar panels at the right angle. It tumbled end over end. The paparazzi’s biggest camera ever. The zoom lens capable of catching the most intimate moments of the universe had been knocked from the hands of its photographers and was spinning out of control.
None of this could be seen by the naked eye of course. There were no cameras on Earth capable of getting footage of the telescope’s fall through space. Instead the t.v. sets in the astronauts’ pub showed a collection of live feeds from NASA’a control room. The control room was empty now and no one in the pub was paying any attention to the t.v. so there was no one to bear witness.
The pub itself was quiet, only a few small groups scattered among the table, talking quietly.
Hunched on a barstool, soundlessly spewing dire imprecations into his bourbon, Milton was the only person seated at the bar. His lips moved and the breath hissed in and out between his teeth as he ignored the t.v. and instead filled the air with a nearly visible cloud of bitterness and bile.
Milton was a round man. Not fat but more the kind of man that could have been described as broad, stocky or solid before he had been beaten into a slouching roundness by disappointment and dejection. His clothes were of good quality for all they seemed too big for him. Or perhaps he had shrunk inside them as they seemed to have been tailored for a bigger man, a firmer man. His hair was thin and receding.
The door to the pub opened and in walked Milton’s sharpest contrast. To call Graham Wellington tall would have been sufficient. At some point, be it six feet tall or eight, actual numbers no longer had any importance. The set of his shoulders and square jaw combined with the thrust of his cleft chin, broad chest and subconscious awareness of his hips served to make him seem not only bigger than he actually was but also bigger than anyone else around him. He was a man who eclipsed other men, who blocked out the sun with his presence.
His voice boomed to the far corners of the pub, “Practically panhandling! Honestly, what’s happening to this neighborhood? We’ve never had that kind of street trash hanging around.”
Out of Wellington’s shadow stepped a porcelain doll of a woman. Her skin so pale as to be translucent, her soft, thick sable hair and her green eyes inherited from the goddess of sunlit meadows in the deep woods.
Though her real name was Jennifer Porter everyone called her Jenny. But Milton called her Faye. A name that sounded like a breeze in the treetops, like snow falling, like an owl in flight. It fit her. Faye. She only ever looked small next to Graham Wellington.
Milton had asked her to marry him once. She had laughed it off as a joke. But he never had.
“You.” Wellington’s voice boomed out, “what’s your name? Pana, Panag. Whatever, Taco, you don’t belong in here.”
Milton’s silent monologue transitioned into a series of hisses and clicks as he clenched his hands around his drink. There was a lifetime in that name. However long he had tried to forget it Graham Wellington always brought it back. He studied the ice cubes in his drink.
“Are you listening to me Taco?” Wellington gripped Milton’s shoulder with a meaty hand and spun him around on the barstool. “You don’t belong in here, this is an astronaut bar.”
Milton’s drink had gone flying, missing everyone as it tumbled to the floor. He looked up at Wellington and said, “Then you should leave.”
“What?” Wellington laughed, “You’re delusional.”
“Am I?’ They’re taking away our eyes.” Milton gestured at the screens of empty Mission Control. “How will we be astronauts when they have blinded us?”
“You’re drunk.” Wellington said, his voice taking on an edge of meanness. None of his associates looked at the screens.
“Am I? First one, then another soon enough. Through budget cuts they will ground us and deny us our dream.”
“We all know what your dream is Taco.” Wellington snorted.
Milton’s eyes narrowed and he said sadly, “I dreamed of Mars.” And re-birth, he thought to himself, “A place we’ll never go.” He turned to Jenny, Faye, and said, “You don’t need him.”
“You think I need you?” her voice was smooth and soft as silk.
“You don’t need any if us. You’re better than anyone in this room. Especially him.” Especially me, his mind finished for him.
“All right.” Wellington snapped, “You’re done.” The bigger man grabbed him by the arm and shoved him out the door. “Don’t come back.”
Milton stumbled and fell to one knee on the rough pavement.
“Get thrown out of another respectable establishment?” a voice asked him.
“Not the first time, won’t be the last.” Milton replied, regaining his feet, not bothering to brush himself off.
“Are you trying to get thrown out of every bar in the city?”
“I’m trying to get thrown out of the city.”
“By getting thrown out of every single bar first?”
“Everyone needs a plan.” Milton turned to regard his existent friend. Moss had been a tall man once. He was still thin but was now more bent than anything. Stooped did not accurately describe the man who seemed to be all sharp angles and projecting joints. Another victim of NASA politics.
“You were supposed to meet me at Traffic Circle.” Moss said, sloping along next to Milton.
“You used to be able to see the stars from here.” Milton said.
“Last time I saw stars was when I slipped in the john and hit my head on the toilet.”
“Great Society.” Milton clenched his fists, “Thousand points of light my ass.”
“Last time I saw a thousand points of light I was on mescaline.” Moss said conversationally.
They walked the rest of the way in silence. The night streets were populated by the night people: the drunk, the desperate, the determined and the downtrodden. Milton and Moss arrived at Traffic Circle, just two more bodies washed up on night’s shore.
Traffic Circle was like any other dive bar, poorly lit, coated with grime and populated by those not desirable enough to get into the popular clubs. The only thing that set it apart was the real estate. The bar was next to one of the more troublesome roundabouts in the city. The bar also had a raised patio that overlooked the roundabout and this was were Milton and Moss made themselves comfortable.
They had worked their way though a couple of beers before they found the will to join the patio’s traditional entertainment. The patrons would line the patio’s railing and place bets on which car would make some kind of error in negotiating the traffic circle. When a car did make an error, and one inevitably would, it would be assailed with a chorus of insults and a hail of soggy pretzels and beer soaked napkins. Throwing the pint glasses was strictly forbidden.
As one car was making its second trip around the the circle Milton felt an unexpected surge of energy and bellowed, “I sometimes know how to drive!” The handful of pretzels he flung at the car described a graceful arc through the glare of a streetlight before disappearing from view.
Suddenly exhausted, Milton sat down, ignoring the compliments from the other participants. “That was a good one.” Moss said, sitting next to him.
“It’s all circles.” Milton sighed.
“What?” Moss actually seemed to be listening.
“Everything is circles. A predictable pattern that will describe itself through formulae.” Milton moved his glass through the air in an arc, “All things move in circles until something else intersects.” His glass thumped on the table.
Moss got distracted by another car and screeched at it, “Remove head from rectum and then drive!”
Someone turned to him and said, “That’s stupid, you stole that from a movie!”
“I did not!” Moss puffed up what chest he had and swayed up out of his chair.
“You did so! And a teenage chick flick too!”
“That’s a damn lie and you know it!” Moss pulled his fist back and tried to punch the man. Instead he missed and fell flat on his face. After picking himself up and giving his head a quick shake he said, “They stole it from me.”
Milton looked up as Moss and said, “In a static universe all things become spheres, circles when viewed from any angle. But the universe is not static and so things intersect.”
Moss squinted at him and eventually said, “I’m hungry, lets go grab something at the Pita Palace.”
“I can’t.” MIlton said.
“Why not?”
“They banned me for life.”
“I was always touching all of the straws.” Moss nodded, like this was the natural thing to do while MIlton heaved himself to a standing position. “You go ahead, I think I’m done for the night.”
“Oh come on Taco.” Moss threw an arm around his shoulders, “I could pick something up for you.”
“Milton. My name is MIlton.”
“I know. It would be easier if anyone could pronounce your last name.”
“Pana, Panag. Milton. Fine.”
Milton looked at Moss and said, “When I was little my mother told me animals came from Mars.” he sighed. “Good night Mr. Keeter.”
“Good night MIlton.”
Milton stopped at a convenience store and a bought a six pack of micro-brews on the way home. Five minutes after promising the clerk that he wouldn’t drink any more that night he opened one as he walked down an alley. Taking a long drink he stared intently at the place where a red star would have been if the pollution hadn’t been too thick. “I dreamed of Mars.” he said before draining the bottle. “Of footsteps on Mars.”
He flung the bottle at the side of a building. It tumbled end over end until it intersected the wall and shattered. The pieces sparkled in the light, a million tiny stars, and then vanished as they fell.