Perspectives on Space Exploration [essay] by Cory Johnston

It was a stack of old newspapers, but I didn’t read newspapers. They seemed archaic, unnecessary, as useful to me as the box of obsolete electronics with which they shared the back corner of my closet. Of course, it wasn’t my closet anymore.

“I knew that you would forget something.” Her voice came from the doorway.

Mom swirled cold coffee grinds around the bottom of her cup as she watched me pack. Red hair fell past her shoulders, betrayed by tiny strands of white that sprouted from the roots. The weight of her footsteps echoed off unfurnished walls as she crossed the vast empty expanse of my former bedroom, and left footprints in the layer of dust covering the scratched hardwood floor where my mattress used to be. She examined the dust a moment longer than she needed to, as though the missing bed frame had concealed from her some terrible secret.

“And how would I ever get by without two decade’s worth of printed news?”

She pretended to laugh, then picked up a paper from the top of the pile.

It was a sports section. The interlocking N and Y of the Yankees logo took up most of the page. The ink was dulled, but still clear. Further down the pile, the effects of time became more apparent. World Series wins, inaugurations, 9/11. Each event was captured now only in a gray haze, the individual words losing their form as the ink sat and waited in my closet.

“I’ll grab another garbage bag for these once I’m finished,” I said.

Mom just stood there and fussed with the stitching of her ocean blue sweater, the one I had bought for her years earlier, during an especially cold season. From the long hallway of the condo came the sounds of the living room television, which she had forgotten to turn off, or else kept on for the illusion of company it provided.

Towards the bottom of the stack was a small press clipping that I didn’t recognize. I scanned the parts of the article that were still legible, wondering where it had come from and who decided to keep it. The modestly sized headline read: “Perspectives on Space Exploration.” The subtitle was an italicized quotation from a Russian rocket scientist named Tsiolkovsky: Our planet is the cradle of intelligence, it said, but one cannot eternally live in a cradle.

Beneath this was the date: July 20, 1993. My fifth birthday.

“The anniversary of the moon landing. One of your favorites. I remember when you clipped that article out and gave it to your dad and me for safe keeping. You made us pinky swear that we’d save it.”

“But five year old kids don’t read newspapers. I still don’t read newspapers. Besides, I’m a handshake kind of guy. Pinky swearing was always Erin’s thing.”

I gave a friendly nudge with my elbow but missed, and had to lean on the stack of papers to regain my balance.

“Dad read them to you. Stories like this were your favorite. Everything about the moon and outer space was your favorite.”

Mom’s hand reached instinctively for the metal band on her left ring finger, though that too had become obsolete.

“I don’t remember that,” I said quietly, as if it were blasphemy. Each passing year obscured a little bit more of his face in my memory, and this article had spent quite a number of years in the closet’s back-corner. I brushed my fingers across an asterisk drawn next to one of the last paragraphs, feeling the almost imperceptible indentation it left on the paper. I thought about the pen that had drawn it, twenty years before, as I read the passage aloud:

“If an intelligent alien were to land on Earth and ask us, ‘What is the goal, the purpose of your species?’ one answer might be: ‘We are working toward leaving our planet, toward exploring the solar system and one day, perhaps, the stars.’”

Neither of us said anything. The situation was too openly exposed. I was the youngest. These were the final moments of an era in her life. I thought of a trip we took to California years before, the first big family event after the funeral. The four of us parked on the side of Route 1 and watched the sun set into the Pacific. It had been a shock, how quickly those final moments of sunset occurred, how easily the horizon won its battle.

There hadn’t been a moon that night. Or else maybe it was blocked by the hills on the other side of the highway. But I remember the stars clearly; an arm of the Milky Way arched across the sky as though offering embrace.

“How do you remember all this?” I asked. “It seems so obscure.”

“Your goal was to reach the moon,” she said. “Mine was getting the three of you safely out of this house.”

“You know, I didn’t actually want to be an astronaut,” I said. “Not really, anyway. Too much math. I just liked the moon. I still do. I always wonder what moon rocks would feel like between my fingers. What moon dust would look like on my shoes.”

“Would it stick to the soles?” she asked. “Or just float off somewhere and land back on the surface?”

Neither of us offered an answer. From the hallway came the drone of the television. Mom wiped a sleeve across her eyes and I pretended not to notice.



Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: “Perspectives on Space Exploration” refers to Tuere T.S. Ganges’ flash-fiction piece, “The Death of an Astronaut.“]

Image by Anita Ritenour via Flickr Creative Commons

Cory Johnston is currently the assistant editor of The Literary Review, and a couple months away from finishing his MFA at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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