He woke up every morning in the windowless dark, with the pale earth perpetually on the rise over his bed. It was not the famous Apollo photograph, in glossy color, the inverted globe hanging like a blue marble in the velvety black amniotic fluid of the universe. It was twenty-six years older; the grainy black and white photo showing the slight curvature of the earth around California, and one triangle of space’s total darkness, taken on a 35-millimeter camera strapped to a rocket designed by the Nazis. Other than the cover of Coltrane’s Blue Train, beside the kitchen sink, it was the only thing hanging on his walls.
His alarm broke the white noise of pipes and radiators. He ran eight miles before the streetlights had gone off, his breath milky in the cold. In the suburbs, dew still clung to the flowerbeds, mist congregated in the cul-de-sacs, cars sat in front of the two-door garages like Jurassic hulks in the dark with frost clouding the edges of their windows. Through the steam from the shower, in his yellow bathroom, he looked at the changes to his body—the leanness of his legs, his arms, the skin of his face beginning to show the shapes of bones underneath. He pulled on his blue coveralls and knotted the sleeves around his waist before cooking a yokeless omelet under the mournful gaze of John Coltrane.
In the parking lot of the apartment building, sixteen floors down, behind the dumpsters, he left out food for the stray cat who rubbed against his legs and stalked him through the industrial park and the gardens of dark houses, halfway to the bus stop. She paused at the invisible edge of her territory, one paw lifted in a lavender bed, and appeared to grow bored. He caught the number 32 and sat in the white fluorescent light while the sun pushed a watery dawn through the cloud cover.
At the factory, men stood smoking their cigarettes in the cold. Their coveralls were grease-stained and knotted around their waists. They wore bomber jackets or faded Levis that belonged to their grandfathers. They carried thermoses and brown paper bags. They looked tired.
“It’s the Spaceman,” one said.
“Hey, Spaceman. What’d you do with the truck?”
“Sold it,” he said.
“Hey—the ’65 Chevy?”
“Chrome fenders, original wheels and hubcaps, plush interior,” one recited, with the reverence they reserved for car parts, boxing matches, and the Bible. “Good condition.”
“For how much?”
“A thousand? Fucking Christ, Spaceman, did you think maybe one of us would have wanted it if you were giving it away?”
The man called Shepard turned back to them, heaving smoke like an engine. “Why’d you sell it?”
“Don’t need it anymore,” he said.
From 8:00 a.m. to 10:30, he fit electronic consoles into the plastic arms of airplane seats. At 10:30, they stood in the cold with their cigarettes and coffee. The Spaceman didn’t smoke, he drank decaf from the vending machine in the lobby; he didn’t say much.
12:30 was lunch. The men filed away from their stations and ate sandwiches their wives Had packed. They talked too loud in the dry, industrial heat of the canteen. The Spaceman didn’t eat lunch; he went out behind the factory, where the boys had built a bar to see if anyone could do more chin-ups than the Spaceman. The metal was icy beneath his bare hands, the kind of chill that crawled along his bones and through his joints and down to the base of his spine. His bear trap ribs closed tight on his stomach. They watched him through the windows of the canteen, down in the cold, at the back of the yard, among spare parts and the discarded airplane seats.
“It’s cold as fuck out there.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Nah, he’s really doing it.”
“Can they do that?”
“Some special program. They’ve got a place out in Arizona, he says.”
“I heard something about that.”
“I thought it was called off.”
“Bullshit. He’s going to Mars?”
“He seems to think so.”
“Hey—why do you think we call him the Spaceman?”
Outside, he counted to ten, paused, then began again.
In the afternoons, he practiced thinking about nothing. He had gotten very, very good at the blankness, repeating words over and over until they didn’t seem to mean anything anymore. Phillips-head. Bolt housing. Audio/visual display.
At 5:00 the last bell rang and movement stopped. It got quiet on the floor, the heavy breathing of the machines falling silent as, one by one, the engines drew rattling death gasps and their belts and cogs juddered to a halt. It was already dark as an oil stain outside, the winter sun slipping away in the middle of the afternoon. You could find me by the orange lights of their cigarettes in the dark.
“’Night Spaceman,” someone called.
He raised one hand without looking back.
It was cold in the flat on the sixteenth floor. The radiator in the kitchen rattled and hissed, but never seemed to warm the room. Wind pushed through the gaps between the window and the sill above the sink. He cooked eggs, beans and spinach, huddling close to the warm burner. He nibbled on a tiny piece of a dark chocolate bar. The sugar made him feel sick. He did pull-ups on the bar in the doorway of the living room, under the blue eye of the television.
On Thursday, twenty-five minutes before the afternoon break, the Spaceman collapsed on the factory floor. It took almost fifteen minutes for someone to notice that audio/visual panels were not being fitted into their plastic polyurethane housings, and by that time, he was beginning to come around.
“Hey, should we call someone?”
“Yeah, you okay, Spaceman?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just got lightheaded.”
“You need a hand?”
“Someone get the Spaceman some food.”
“No, no. I’m okay. Really, I don’t need anything.”
The manager sent the rest of the men early to their break and took the Spaceman into the glass office on the factory floor. The light was yellow; the room was covered in papers and the warm smell of grease. He sat in a folding chair while the anvil-mouthed manager leaned against the desk.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t want to believe everything the boys say out there. They’re full of shit most of the time. But I keep hearing them say that you think you’re going to Mars. Is this true?”
“Yes you are, or yes you think you are?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Yes, sir. A private company’s arranging it.”
“And they’ve been in contact with you?”
“I have a letter from them.”
“Does this have something to do with why you haven’t been eating? Why you passed out on my floor?”
“I’m about to lose bone and muscle density. I’m trying to prepare.”
“Well, I can’t have you skipping meals and keeling over. What if you had been operating the drill press? You’ve got to eat.”
“Actually, sir,” he said, playing with a ragged hole in his coveralls, small as a cigarette burn, “I’d like to give my two weeks’ notice.”
The white, static earth, pockmarked with grainy storm fronts, rose over his bed.
He lay perfectly still in the wake of his alarm, staring up at the ceiling. He ran eight miles in the predawn flicker between darkness and the orange circles of streetlights. At home he peered at himself through the yellow steam in the bathroom.
Instead of breakfast, he looked at the letter again. It had been printed on heavy cardstock, as though the weight of the contents had leached into the paper. The logo, the red orb of Mars, was printed at the top. He had read it enough times to know what it said by heart. Once, the promise had gone through him like a drill press, rattling his ribs and lungs, but now, his chest felt too hollow for anything to resonate right. He folded the letter, put it in the pocket of his coveralls, and went to sit with the black cat behind the dumpster in the parking lot. The ground was freezing, frosted in a thin layer of ice.
“You’re looking a little fat,” he said softly. He pulled her into his lap and felt her stomach, distended around a handful of globes like walnuts, moving slowly with her heartbeat. His fingers froze in her soft heat. He stood up quickly. “Fucking cat,” he said, and when she tried to follow him to the bus stop, he clapped at her until she backed away.
At the factory, it looked as though the men had not moved. Their bodies, like the heavy machinery, seemed bolted to the floor.
“You feeling better?”
“Is it true you’re quitting?”
“I turned in my two weeks yesterday.”
“Wow,” one of them said, the vowel stretching out into several words. “Wow.”
“Is it because of Mars?”
He nodded. “I’m leaving soon.”
“When will you be back?”
The Spaceman looked away, toward a carbon monoxide dawn that was white and blank and strangled in the clouds. “I don’t think I will be,” he said.
Before the first bell, he took the letter to the manager, who worked his jaw as he read it, as though the words had to be struck down and beaten flat before he could swallow them. His eyes snagged on the smeared ink of certain letters, dark halos around words like, “permanent settlement,” and “food supply.”
“You’ve read the terms of this waiver they talk about?” he asked.
“It says, ‘Due to the low gravitational field, changes may be rendered to muscle and bone density that are effectively irreversible, making a return to earth impossible.’”
“I said I’ve read them.”
The manager set the letter on his desk and pinched the bridge of his nose, where the skin was heavy and tired. “Do you have any family?”
“Any close friends?”
“And you believe this is real?”
“I know it, sir.”
“And you’re sure about it?”
“Very sure.” The first bell echoed out of the belly of the building, and he stood up. “Unless there’s anything else—?”
“Be careful, and let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The Spaceman repeated the same words over and over. He fit audio/visual panels into the dark guts of airplane seats between the intestinal maze of wires and the steel bones of armrests. He did his chin-ups in the cold and drank decaf coffee on the afternoon break. He walked to the bus stop, shivering, feeling the letter burn a hole through the front of his blue coveralls.
He reduced his ration of eggs and went for a run. He paused in the suburban dark to catch his breath against a lamppost then collapsed. He woke up on the ground. The winter sun glared in his eyes. He was covered in morning dew, and was bleeding weakly from his forehead. Quick footsteps approached him and a woman in a purple tracksuit leaned over him. “Should I call someone?” she asked.
“No, no, I’m fine,” he said. “Just training too hard.”
The Spaceman began to erase himself from the apartment on the sixteenth floor—leaving his TV and the John Coltrane poster for a man downstairs. He folded up the photograph of earth and his spare coveralls and left them in the center of the bare bed. That morning, he looked around for the cat, but she was gone. He had nothing left to feed her anyway. His replacement at the factory was a new man, Armstrong, whom they began calling Prettyboy for his baby face and small, delicate hands. He smoked with them all the same. At the end of his first day on the job, his wife showed up in XK-E Jag, leather interior, six-cylinder engine, about five miles of leg below the hem of her flight attendant’s uniform, and they started calling him Armstrong again.
One day, as the men ate their lunches in the canteen, Spaceman came up in the conversation.
“Spaceman?” Armstrong said. “Weird nickname.”
“He leaves for Mars this week.”
“Yeah, program in New Mexico or something.”
“I heard he eats nothing but one egg a day.”
Armstrong looked out the window of the canteen at Spaceman, thin and shivering against the fence, too weak for chin-ups. “Well, shit,” he said, putting out his cigarette and turning away, walking with the rest of them to the line of machines. “Shit.”
The Spaceman knew that he had begun to fall into the space between memories, wide and dark as the distance between stars. He walked away from the factory that evening, breathing weakly, with an empty duffle over his shoulder. One voice called out, “Hey, ‘night Spaceman,” from the spangled dark, and then he was gone.