The heartbreaker

Hadleigh Jennings in her 37th year fell for a country-western singer. She loved his thin dry lips, which made her think, paradoxically, of unlikely springs in arid mountain ranges, something so important nestled near-hidden. Her inside went all funny when she saw him, and he seemed to her valuable then, life-giving, just being like he was, lounging in the doorway of Stompin’ Johnson’s Roadhouse, his cowboy hat tipped to the front, his long skinny legs in indigo jeans, one leg bent, his stacky, tapered boot-heels adding grace and height just like they do on a woman. Cigarette danglng from his idle hand, so loose and uninterested. Like he had all the time in the world. She was sure he had a heart in him, giving and pure – underneath his pearl-buttoned shirt, inside his bony chest.

She loved the way that hat shaded his face, made him mysterious; balanced out his long straight nose. The way his eyes were kept away from her, so that she wanted to seek them, and enjoy the seeking.

When he sat on his singing stool, up on the dusty old stage, one leg crossed over the other, guitar resting on a thigh – he looked like a loose and amiable pipe-cleaner man, bendable as spaghetti.

One of the songs he covered was Third-Rate Romance, Low-Rent Rendezvous – pronounced, of course, Ron-day-voo. Hadleigh kept that song tucked into her mind like a charm – a lozenge of tart tastiness in her heart – because that was the song that drew her to him that first night, and that was the song that played in her head, through her body, as later that same night he kissed her neck and then her cleavage where the plaid shirt parted, and then her cheekbone, and her thick short honey hair.

He stayed a week in Tulsa, and during one of those nights she conceived. And then he was gone; and nine months later Hadleigh, her sister Charla, their mother, and Hadleigh’s older daughter Marla-Boone welcomed little Rendezvous – Ronnie for short.

She was a bonny baby – blond, with eyes that went from blue to brown over the weeks – and Hadleigh took three months off from waitressing to take care of her, see her into this world as best she could; and hide out with her, too. She’d go back to work; had to – savings didn’t last long – but her mother would step in then. And meanwhile she beamed and cooed at the purtiest baby in the world.

Marla-Boone was old enough to help out – going on twelve – and too old to be jealous, too. So that was good.

Chetly Shaker had not forgotten Hadleigh. Nor had he forgotten Purcella, or Adella, or Shellabelinda Macintosh, come to that – all of them a-wishing he’d roll on back through, he was sure of that. But he had other things, other places, on his mind.

Some old Aunty had told him, long ago when he was just a child, that he was gonna grow up to be a heartbreaker. He’d been reading about Aztec human sacrifice just prior to that, where human hearts were ripped out of human chests and placed still beating on stone altars. He’d wondered if breaking a heart had anything to do with that. Perhaps they’d broken the hearts too, somehow, by picking them up and throwing them, like a melon? He’d broken a watermelon or two by that age – dropping it on the hot sidewalk, on the way to the kitchen from the truck – and he could just see a red heart, shaped like the ones in valentines; broken open with little black seeds coming out, like Oriental rodent eyes.

He liked the image. It made him feel strong.

Near about the time Ronnie was slipping out into the doctor’s hands in Tulsa, an experienced mother was squatting over a sterile sheet laid on a mat on the stone floor of the bedroom in a semi-detached dwelling in a suburb of New Delhi, India. Mrs Rajagopal was moaning, yelling, and her nightie stuck to her back with sweat. A fan turned overhead, and the midwife reached out with a cloth and wiped her brow, her face, her neck. “Rest, rest a little,” the midwife cautioned. “Soon he will be coming. Just a little longer. But do not be pushing yet. Asti, asti!

Mrs Rajagopal lay down on her side, then, with difficulty; her distended belly rippled with the active child inside it. She felt so very much like a cow, she thought, and wondered if indeed she could claim that sort of sacredness. But her thoughts were interrupted as another pain ripped through her like a lorry – she gasped, shrieked, nearly passed out – came to, heaved herself up onto her haunches again, squatting like she was over the toilet. There was a pause, and then, “Now bear down!” exhorted the midwife. “Push! Now!”

And there slid into the world, on a river of grue, a slippery, determined, slender little baby, cord pulsing and twisting like a veiny eel.

And Mrs Rajagopal, in her joy and relief, held on her belly her new daughter, and felt the Earth and Life and Skies all join as flesh and fate and blood and cord all met at once. (She had three sons already; one daughter was not going to be a problem at this stage; far from it.)

They called her Rani; and Mr Rajagopal was besotted with her, and came home from work every evening and stood by her cot and beamed, putting his big finger down to stroke her apricot-satin cheek; and she would grasp it in her little fist, and smile back at him, and kick her little feet quite athletically.

As she grew, Mrs Rajagopal dressed her in frilly, well-pressed little cotton dresses, and took her along when she went visiting, to kitty parties, or to teas. But Rani was soon outside with the sons of the house, playing with Batmobiles and jet planes and red waggons; her dolls came in handy as passengers, to be pulled about at a ferocious clip, whence they often tumbled, and become muddy if it was monsoon, as muddy as Rani’s frilled dresses. Mrs Rajagopal clucked her tongue, but the dobhi did not care who had dirtied a garment – he scrubbed it just the same, and lay it out on a rooftop, or hung it under shelter to dry.

When Rani was eleven she knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She loved science at school, and maths came naturally to her; and she earned a scholarship to a good preparatory academy. There she did so well that when she announced her intentions nobody felt to stand in her way, though indeed parents and teachers both were startled; and a course of study was worked out that would nourish her mind, support her ambition, and still include time for yoga and meditation. For a person should be well-rounded; and while she majored in the sciences, and studied aeronautical engineering, she read Urdu and English literature, as well.

The Rajagopals expected her to marry, and had been saving towards that end; but by and by they began to realize that that day might take longer than they thought to arrive.

And monsoon followed monsoon, and crisp cold winter was supplanted by breathless, muggy, sharp-heated summer; and still Rani studied, and throve.

Ronnie was ten when she told her mother Hadleigh and her sister Marla-Boone that she was going to be an astronaut when she grew up. Hadleigh said, “unh huh,” and then asked, “Would you lak some more chicken pah? There’s a li’l bit left,” and Marla-Boone said, “I’m just gettin’ me another Coke,” and then slid away to paint her nails the colour of spring leaves and dream about Bryant, her young man. Ronnie’s ambition meant nothing to her – just a bit of kid confabulation – next she’d want to be a policewoman, or a zoo-keeper.

But Hadleigh looked at her daughter consideringly. Ronnie was good at arithmetic – a fluke in the family – and certainly waitressing was nothing to aspire to. Why not? Why not let the kid reach the stars if she could? She probably wouldn’t make it – Hadleigh had no illusions about that – but it would give her something to strive for that wasn’t just ‘movie star’ or ‘famous singer’ or ‘cowgirl’ – like other girls her age. She decided, did Hadleigh, to listen closely to her daughter and see if the dream persisted. If it did, she’d help in any way she could.

Hadleigh had waited till another no-good Country-Western singer came to Stompin’ Johnson’s Roadhouse, and whispered in his ear that if he came across anybody who might see Chet Shaker, to pass on the word that little Rendezvous had been born, and was definitely his; and what was he gonna do about it? For she had no other way to contact him; but she expected the grapevine to work pretty well. And so it did…and Chet heard the news while he was in New York, of all places, and feeling not quite in prime condition, what with a hangover, and a broken foot where some bastard had kicked him sideways for he’d-forgotten-just-what. So his foot was in plaster, and he’d been drowning his sorrows, and the news of another little monkey-brat did nothing to cheer the jaggedy little mass that was his heart. And so he did his best to forget the news; and that worked pretty well.

Rani and Ronnie lay giggling on a huge bed in a nice hotel in Texas. The climate was controlled to a perfect coolness. They were going on their first mission tomorrow – the first all-female mission in history, out to the space station and then beyond, to check out the new asteroid that had edged into Earth’s orbit one night when hardly anybody was watching, and now rode confidently between Earth and Moon, glowing smugly at night as it bounced the sun’s rays off itself like a bathing beauty. It was all quite exciting. Nations, of course, had wanted to claim it for their own; but luckily, enough people realized the folly of this that it was now being declared an all-Earth treasure, like the moon is. Though even that was a bit silly, said Ronnie, and Rani agreed with her.

Rani had short black hair, a stocky yet curvy build, and a slim, patrician face, with a delicate, eagle-ish nose. She was quick to laugh, and had beautiful pearly teeth. She smelt of spices whenever her mother and father were in town to stay with her; otherwise she smelt of lemon and cedar-wood and something just a bit like warm roses.

Ronnie, on the other hand, was 5’8”, slim and flat-planed, with thick yellow hair to her shoulders. She was serious in repose, had very fair skin; you could see the blue veins in her elbow-insides and wrists. But she was quick and bright, and could laugh when it was called for. As it was now.

They were going flying! Really flying – not just up and down from the Earth’s crust like fleas, testing sonic-boom jets and so on, earning their stripes. They were really going up there! Rani giggled and reached out a finger to touch Ronnie’s cheekbone. Ronnie swatted her away – “No chance, kind sir! I’m straight! I’m straight!” she cried. And kissed Rani’s cheek – “That’s all you’ll get. Ted Hunter’s waiting for me when I get back. No hot tacos for me. I like hot dogs. Big ones. Too bad he’s such a stuck-up, prudish old maid. Really,” she added. And snorted. And they giggled some more, and when room service came, they sat up and, suddenly hungry, gazed at their specially-ordered dinners in appreciation – “Like being a condemned man,” observed Ronnie.

After dinner they sat, Rani on the bed, Ronnie in the big armchair, and grew ruminative. Rani had already taught Ronnie something about meditation – in fact, she’d pulled out statistical proof and convinced NASA that a bit of meditation was just the ticket for astronauts, who were going to go into such stressful situations, and have to be alert and bright, calm and mature and centered. It was a natural.

As they flew through space, the bobbing weightlessness seemed quite normal. It was like something in a dream, a classic human dream. It was funny to close your eyes up here and feel your inside get weightless too. Ronnie breathed, of course; but as she watched her breath, observed her own muddy, inchoate interior, things began to settle inside. And by and by a sort of radiance could be felt, pressing up from somewhere within.

She did not expect this so soon. It was as if, with Earth’s atmosphere lifted, they were right close to something thin and ineffable and inviting. Something grand.

She’d been floating for quite a while. Rani was monitoring the screens; she herself could rest. The stress of take-off was past, they were well on their way to the Space Station. She could indulge her curiosity, with NASA’s blessings, even. Sensors in her clothing monitored her state. But these could not know what she thought or dreamed or wished…As she floated, and watched her inner body, her thoughts…one idea kept arising. It welled up like a minor bit of joy, but soon blossomed into a creative, flow-like feeling, again and again: Contact Dad. Contact Dad.

Why not? Maybe, from up here, he’d hear. Maybe her reach was great enough. She’d heard all about him; Hadleigh had told her everything. She knew he’d never deigned to get in touch – just left them like discarded toys; and had never contributed a penny to their keep. Hadleigh had done all the bringing-up, working two jobs – the Roadhouse and a diner too. She was steady, the customers liked her, she got good tips; a gentleman friend, married but occasionally attentive, had made a discreet little investment for her once, and it was making good – not big, but steady. They’d done all right.

Like every child, Ronnie had longed for her parents to be together. Longed for it. She knew her daddy was handsome – wanted to meet him – had missed him a lot in her young life. Missed his praise, too, when she graduated from college; qualified for astronaut training.

And so she decided to contact him. Or better yet, ask the gods and goddesses – Jupiter, Minerva, Venus, Mars – whoever might be out there – to intercede, if they so wished.

And so she floated within the Space capsule, eyes closed, all her being in a flow of harmony, save just this one sticking-out idea – this hankering for Yin and Yang to meet and come back into line: Let my mama and daddy be together again, if it so pleases you! she prayed, she was not sure at all to whom…Chet Shaker, wherever you are – beam this thought down into your heart – get you to Tulsa, and find your old flame Hadleigh Jennings, and treat her really, really nice! You sonofabitch! she added, unable to help herself.

And as she watched her inner world, it felt just fine to ask this. It was what she’d always wanted, needed. And then, just to be ion the safe side, she added again, If it pleases you. And she felt the prayer go out from her body and make itself into an inverted cone that flashed down towards the blue, turning Earth, the most beautiful pebble in the Universe, and come to shine on…somewhere. Texas, perhaps? Arizona? They were so close together from up here.

In fact, Chetly Shaker was in bed in a borrowed house in the countryside near Tittle-Tattle, Arkansas. Some sort-of friends of his who’d gone on vacation said he could stay there and feed the pets, get himself rested up for his next tour.

He was getting pretty tired of moving by this stage of the game – didn’t seem to suit him so well any more – and he was enjoying the big- spread-out ranch house with its sliding glass doors onto a mowed lawn all surrounded by things like peonies – he guessed they were peonies, with their big, shaggy blooms – and shaded by tall, venerable trees. He did his best not to abuse the hospitality – wiped up coffee if he spilled it on the kitchen counter, and the like. Fed the two dogs, the cat, and the poor, big flapping birds in a sort of aviary outside. (One of the birds seemed to dislike him, made a big diving squawk when he came out there, as if it wanted to take off his hand with its talons. But the chicken wire kept him safe.)

But now he was asleep, in a narrow bed in the guest room, between cool sheets, under a quilted bedspread. And he had a dream…

Now, Chet did not normally dream – or if he did, he forgot it instantly, so that it did not wake with him to puzzle or annoy. But this was a different kind of dream…

There was a grizzly bear in the room. And what that bear was most of all, was TALL. Its head just brushed the ceiling, giving Chet a strange feeling on the top of his own head, where the thin comb-over was oiled and going grey. Like his very own head couldn’t breathe.

The bear was huge – just huge. And it was angry. It wove itself back and forth like a cobra, and its sloping shoulders and massive arms seemed therefore to take up even more space. It had great black curving claws. Its stumpy back legs were planted firmly on the guest room carpet, and its long long body just dwarfed the standing lamp, doorways, wardrobe – made the room like like it was in a doll’s house.

A great, yet somehow soundless roar was coming out of the grizzly – a roar for the ages, thought Chet in confusion – the only thought he had,really, before the full horror of the beast took him over…for it was as if the grizzly became the whole room, its roar subsuming everything in it and the man himself, taking them into it, converting, metabolising them to become itself…a behemoth of rage.

Chet could feel the red inside of its mouth as his own – the ferocity of its ready rage as his own, long-suppressed. Its readiness to do anything to survive – kill, stomp, tear, gash, munch, growl – and the spewing volcano of himself was a good thing, an orgasmic thing – he was tall as a mountain, desperate as a cornered wolverine. Yet he knew no fear, but only power. He wove back and forth, slobbering through gaping teeth, pawing the air, all menace and no kindness at all – just a roar as big as all the skies.

G R A A A A A A H H H H H H H H H

roared the bear.

This went on and on, as if a lifetime of rage and rancor, frustrations and missed opportunities, people ignoring him and not giving a shit, his looks fading, people starting to slight him more and more – the drinks alone finally, the people in the audience who just talked to each other when he was singing – G G G R R A A A A H H H !

And that stupid shit lying on the bed – was that him? Washed-up, lonely, ugly as an old shovel with the dirt still on it – No! This would not be him! G R A A A H H !

And it was as if the skies, the roof, the house around him, shook and roared, and his inside was all woke up and alive, and it felt good to howl and shriek – he was ready to take on the neighborhood, tear the roofs off, hurl the sleeping people in the air with his mighty claws. He grinned, as much as a grizzly can grin; he exulted now as he roared. G R A A A H H ! And it was as if life itself was flooding back into him, as the bile poured out. G R R A A A H H ! Shouting the house down, waving his paws into the endless night sky.

He woke up, shaking, and lay for a long time in the silent house, feeling what had just happened to him. The most powerful thing he could ever remember seeing was a locomotive, charging its massive weight down the tracks across the plains – but this had been five times that, it had been off the tracks, all over the place, into the sky…he could still feel the satisfaction of it, all those roars; his body now vibrated with aliveness. He was drenched in sweat. He stank.

After a while he got up and took a shower, feeling with a kind of awe the goodness of the hot water pounding down, rinsing, scraping away the smell of bear. Then he went back to bed and slept, as deeply as he ever had, for another hour or two. And then he woke to a new day, with the hedges glistening with dew, the hummingbirds already at work on the hummingbird feeder out on the terrace. He knew the long grass on the meadow would be dew-laden, the path through the woods shy and sheltered from the heat of the rising sun. He prepared to take the two old dogs out for a walk.

Chet had to realize that he was having a Feeling. He didn’t recall ever having had a Feeling before except to get out of Dodge; that he’d felt a lot. But now the Feeling was, to go back to Dodge. Why would he want to do that? Why should that ol’ girl, Hadleigh Jennings, be any more special to him than any of the other ones he’d left behind? Why would he be feeling he had to go see her? This was just weird – it was against his religion, was what it was. How many times had he chuckled to himself, “I’se just born bad,” and felt that some immortal brilliance attached to this?

But here it was – as if some great invisible hand was steering him – pushing him back in some direction he’d come from long before. His whole body was being swivelled, in the fresh morning; back towards Oklahoma.

Ronnie Jennings was high above the Earth, turned inwards, silent. Her prayer had fallen away now – her hunger for love and for redemption had paused. What, her body began to ask her, are you doing? We don’t feel quite right here, it said. Look again. The past is over. It wasn’t real satisfactory – that’s true – but whose is? Dull people, that’s who – people who never go sailing, or flying, or anything. Stay-at-home stick-in-the-muds (for this was her theory.) But most of all – it’s just not feeling right, any more, to ask for my mom and dad to meet and love each other. What am I, a child?

Yes, something whispered inside.

Well, okay…she thought, and looked again.

She’d sent her kernel of desire out into the Universe – that was enough. It came from her heart – that was okay. But what she didn’t have the right to do – what was not okay, and therefore not good for her either – was to hope to control anybody. Mess with their fate. Their fate was their own business. She could only feel her own lonesome child inside, and honor it; feel its longings – but she couldn’t ask for anybody else to change.

And it was as if inside her something settled – a new peace – and then she noticed that the space between things seemed to be opening – like space between the stars she could see out the window of the craft (it was like a 60’s picture window, so big and generous it was;) like the space between thoughts, or between her own bones; the space each cell is mostly filled with. And a deep happiness came into her as all those spaces vibrated gently under her attention. A kind of radiance flowed into her; and she understood that whatever anybody had ever taken from her, or never gave her in the first place; this could never be taken. And the glow increased – and she floated in it for a bit, in the ineffable, and yet the thing which is truest. It felt so amazing.

…She bowed inwardly, to whom, she did not know; and opened her eyes. There was Rani’s back as she monitored the controls – sweet Rani – and Ronnie’s heart was filled with love for her.

She looked then at the window…the virgin jewel of Earth, sparkling, so pretty you wanted to put it in your mouth and feel it tremble there, like a living chocolate with a praline center.

The massive heavens, not quite silent after all…strange whooshes and musics almost like whale-sounds, seemed to come from it all. So beautiful. Was there anything more beautiful? How could there be? For this was…everything.

She could barely breathe, she tingled so…and yet she breathed. And gazed. And participated.

Let them go, she thought, in joyful relief. Let them go – Mom, my dad, my sister – who knows what their story is? Not mine to guide. Let them go. Freedom is so…ecstatic! And she began to bob about the cabin, doing pretzelly twists in the air, feeling her levitant muscles trying to work, to push against each other, to give themselves some traction not allowed by weightlessness. Isometrics in the air – and it felt so good, this funny dancing; and Rani looked up and smiled, and said, “In a little while, take over here, okay? I would also like to dance.”

They’d ferried supplies to the Space Station; after the automated unloading, they’d had a tour of the surprisingly large place, with its international crew looking a little bleached, a little wan, but of good cheer. They’d drunk tea together, and even had a dance – research had shown the benefits of this. (There was a little argument about what music to play, but soon a compromise was reached – one track you like, one track I like, sort of thing. Maturity prevailed.) They’d slept ten hours, exhausted; and woken to gaze out more picture windows at the wondrous view. So much vastness – so many stars – and the turning, sun-and-shadow Earth there…

On their way back to Earth they passed Aphrodite, the asteroid; while the spacecraft itself took photographs, the women gazed.

“We’ll all look like that one day,” thought Ronnie,

“How beautiful it is! How silent and pure!” thought Rani.

“How like a dinosaur,” thought Ronnie, quite happily.

“How like a dead body, half-burnt, laid in the current of the river…” thought Rani.

The asteroid floated, jagged and pitted, a dark grey-green. It had no symmetry yet – not enough aeons had passed to weather and turn it on the lathe of heaven – so it looked like a half-eaten whale. It moved in the current of its orbit like a container that had fallen from a ship and been battered well by waves.

They namaste‘d it as they passed by. Going home.

Our Earth. The treasure of it caught in their hearts, their throats. There was no way to contain the majesty of their experience – of being out here, of seeing their own planet from a distance – in just their minds…the whole being registered it, and knew so well its inability to comprehend.

Chet Shaker, long-time music man, never wrote his own songs – he just sang other people’s. He figured it like this: If you go on vacation to the beach, why take pictures? Some postcard has already done it better. Hell, he didn’t feel like writing songs – never had. So now, when this new feeling had him, of going back to Tulsa; and it felt a bit like something a person might want to write a song about – the way it kind of ached at his chest, and wouldn’t let him alone – he did the only thing that really came naturally – he went out and courted a much-younger girl, with black lipstick and white liner round her eyes – the opposite of how girls made up in his youth. She was jail-bait, and her platinum-bleached hair had wispy, split ends, and her large bosom stretched her spandex and bulged out the arm-holes. She kept crossing her arms in front of her chest. She had a few piercings – ears, nose, navel – and a tattoo on the back of her neck, right where otherwise some boy might have wanted to kiss her. It was a scraper, goddamn it, it said John Deere on the side of it – piece a heavy equipment she had back there. Said her daddy drove one.

He brought her back to his house-sit and fed her Johnny Walker, and pancakes he made himself – he could be a caring man. They picked blackberries from the canes in the garden, and peaches from the trees; soaked the halved, pitted peaches in whiskey and charred ’em on the grill while the steaks roasted beside ’em. It was a fine feast; and they sat out there late, smoking and swatting away mosquitoes, while the girl told him her life story, which was short but she made it long; and he didn’t tell her his. Then he plucked a tune or two, classics, Waylon or Johnny or Merle or whoever. And she liked that, mostly, though then she asked him to play some stuff he’d never heard of.

They spent a week like that, and then he loaded her up with a bag of peaches and sent her back to her trailer, where her mama, who’d been appeased by frequent phone calls, had troubles of her own.

And then, exhausted, soothed, irritated, and all out of excuses to postpone, Chet Shaker turned his sights towards Tulsa. The owners of the house were due back back in a few days anyway, so Chet piled up the dog dishes with food, cleaned the house up nice, changed the sheets, left a note, and set out with his guitar and his rolling suitcase (which he always carried, never rolled,) for the Greyhound station.

He found the house without much difficulty – she’d moved, of course, but all the waitresses knew each other, and he just had to ask.

He rang the doorbell. He’d bought new white running shoes, and gotten himself a better jacket at the Goodwill. His hat was his same old one, a fedora, greasy inside, on the leather band. He hadn’t got another – lost his cowboy hat in a high wind a long time back, hadn’t bought a replacement.

She’d been warned, of course – Sherilyn had phoned her right away – “You’ll never believe who’s back in town!”

It was her day off, she was vacuuming the back bedroom right at that moment, but she heard the bell after it had ding-a-linged a few times. She turned off the vacuum, went out into the living room. She opened the door.

Marla-Boone was visiting. She was a para-legal, and in the midst of an addictive affair with a married lawyer, going nowhere. She was inclined to be grumpy, tearful, or explosive, according to the hour. She was in the back yard, sitting morosely in a chaise longue, staring at her fingernails and sometimes taking a savage little bite. When she heard voices from inside she got up and shook out her summer dress where it stuck to her body with the heat. Then she mounted the concrete steps and went inside the house. She caught their voices, the end of an exchange. Something roiled up in her; she marched into the living room and, ignoring the old guy lounging against the wall, bag and guitar-case nearby, she marched up to her mother and hissed, “Mom! Ah met him once, remember? When Ah was little, and he came by the diner while yew were at work? This bastard is as rotten as a barn full of termites and cow-shit! Yore not actually gonna invite him for dinner? Ugh!” And she whirled around and headed for the back yard again.

“It’s mah house,” called Hadleigh after her, not unkindly. “He’s welcome – and yo’re welcome too, mah girl. Ah’ve got some chicken in the fridge, Ah’ll just marinate the pieces in Kraft Dressing, and bake ’em with cut-up sweet potato. An’ Ah’ve got some frozen peas? Come on, honey!”

“Mom!” cried Marla-Boone, who had become a little more sophisticated than her mother – “That shit’s made with propylene glycol? Like, anti-freeze? That stuff is nasty! Ah didn’t used to know any better, but Ah don’t want it now! Ah only cook mah chicken in olive oil or grapeseed oil?”

“But you allus lakked it!” called out Hadleigh, and got Chet sat down on the couch to wait, his hat still in his hands, while she bustled off to the kitchen to get him some iced tea.

“You’ll never guess who’s turned up like a bad penny,” Hadleigh’s email said.

“Oh yes I will!” thought Ronnie, and exulted within herself. “Oh – my – god. It worked!”

“He’s just here for a while,” the email continued. “Doesn’t know where he wants to end up. But I said he could stay till Christmas, then we’ll see. He’s been helping me paint the laundry room – real model prisoner, heh heh.

“He don’t look too good – life’s been hard, I guess. Your sister don’t got much use for him. Thinks he’s a stinker, a has-been cad. I said, well, if he has been a cad, but he ain’t no more, then he’s a has-been cad. She didn’t think it was funny.

“But he makes me pancakes, and trims the hedge, and suchlike things. When you gonna visit, oh my special, famous daughter? I’m so proud of you. It’ll do your dad good to see you too – see that at least he did one thing right in his sorry life. Though he did sing a few nice songs too…I’ll say that for ‘im.

“Miss you sweetheart!”

What she didn’t say, though, was that when Chet found out who his daughter was – when they were sitting in the living room after the chicken and the salad with iceberg lettuce and the rest of the Kraft dressing on it – and she showed him the pictures, Ronnie and Rani side by side, in their space clothes, each holding her helmet, grinning yet dignified – she watched Chet’s face…and after the first gulp of astonishment – the raised brows, the sphincter lips tightening into an O, the chin lifting – she saw a look of calculation pass through his little piss-hole eyes, that used to be so fine and dark and dangerous, and now just looked like crabby old webby hangy things. She knew that he was considering how he might benefit by this news. How it might profit him somehow.

Ronnie and Rani both came to visit, on their way to New Delhi to visit Rani’s family – and introduce Ronnie to India which she’d flown so high above, but never set foot in. The affair with Ted Hunter was simmering along, so Ronnie was a little distracted by that – she couldn’t see him for a month, and they sent each other lustful emails. But she wanted to meet her father properly, so she prepared herself by meditating in the hotel they were staying in – a surprisingly cushy place downtown, old building, well-kept and refurbished. Rani said she’d just sit in the coffee shop and do emails for a while and let Ronnie go on ahead to meet Chet; she’d come in an hour or two.

Ronnie knocked loudly, ringing the bell seemed silly. Like a stranger. She knew they were waiting for her.

The door opened, and there they all were – Hadleigh, Marla-Boone, and Chet – standing there, all agog, arms open – at least, the women\s were. Chet looked like ‘arms open’ was a position he hadn’t learnt yet.

He was taller than she’d thought. His lips were scored with vertical lines. He had stubble on his chin. His eyes were narrowed up like there was sun in ’em. She moved towards him, thinking, This is it! – or, not exactly thinking at all. Her tummy did a few belly-flops, not disagreeable.

They hugged – she throwing herself into it; he stiff and hanging back. “Well, hello there!” he said, in a fake-avuncular sort of way, with his deep voice. Like he really didn’t know what to say.

She sat beside him on the green fabric couch, aware of his smell – recent shower, recent cigarette. And something old and long-contained, like the inside of a closet. She wanted to hold his hand – to reach out to him, feel some warmth pass between them. Her very blood called out to him, singing with possible joys. Joys that could come – joys that had not emerged, but were supposed to have. All that lost daddy-and-daughter time. All the rhinestone tiaras he hadn’t bought her. All the Barbie dolls. All the swings he’d never pushed her in, the bicycles he didn’t help her learn to ride.

He tapped his foot restlessly on the floor. Drank his iced tea, looked sideways.

“He’s still got energy to burn,” thought Ronnie.

“So, heard you’re a famous wo-man,” said Chet finally. There was something funny in his tone – like he was competing with her, but didn’t want to say it. Like, a famous wo-man was a strange thing to be; and if he’d been famous, Chet Shaker, it woulda been more in the natural way of things.

She laughed. “I work hard. Not my fault what the press makes out of it. And you know, Chet, it’s good – ’cause it encourages other little girls to try for their dreams too. Shows ’em it’s possible.”

“Yeah, I guess,” allowed Chet, but Ronnie could tell he didn’t necessarily want to compete with more girls than just her.

Rani arrived then, and Hadleigh and Marla-Boone made tuna fish sandwiches for everybody, Marla-Boone grumbling about mercury; and they ate potato chips and drank iced tea. Rani inspected all the rooms of the modest, tidy house, and the photo albums came out, and the day went on until nearly evening; then suddenly Ronnie said to her father, “Um – Chet – will you play a song? We’d all like to hear….Play my song!” she cried, realizing that of course that would have to be the thing. And so he fetched his guitar, unbuckled the case, lifted out the curvy hollow thing, laid it on his knee, and tuned it up…then sang, sweetly and huskily, rusty to be sure:

…When they left the bar/they got in his car/ and they drove away/he drove to the Family Inn/she didn’t even have to pretend/she didn’t know what for… /And he said, “I’ll even tell you that I love you/if you want me to,/Third rate romance, low-rent ron-day-voo..“ all about an illicit couple who gets it on in some crappy motel. A good song – about real life. He was proud of it. He could see that foreign girl liked it, she smiled and shook her shortish hair and swayed in time to the tune.

Ronnie stared at him, as if seeing her own conception.

Hadleigh beamed quietly and looked at him with something like fondness. Marla-Boone just said a little “humph!” It was not her story.

And then Ronnie hugged her mom and took Rani out for a walk, just to look around at the suburb and stretch their legs and dodge cars, since there weren’t any sidewalks. And Ronnie wondered whether she’d done a good thing or not, up there in space.

On Halloween, as he was aiming himself down the hall from the TV room to answer the door to one more trick-or-treater, Chet Shaker felt a terrible great dread all of a sudden, clutched his side, and next thing he knew he was lying on a stretcher, staring up at the night sky all opaque with the streetlights, while the paramedics carried him to the ambulance.

When he came back from the hospital he stopped making pancakes – left off the helpful home repairs. Didn’t even get out his guitar and pick at it on the front porch, like he’d been used to. He sat in his old bathrobe, gazing at nothing. He’d still wanted Hadleigh – she was a fine-lookin’ woman still, he’d thought – but his hints had gone unanswered, and it got to him. It was like he wasn’t good enough – like he’d failed somehow. Chet didn’t like that. He slept in his daughter’s old room, which was a tad bit small, while Hadleigh had the master bedroom. It didn’t seem right.

And so one night, while Hadleigh was at work at Stompin’ Johnson’s (Chet felt too poorly to sing down there these days, and the manager hadn’t seemed over-thrilled to see him, though he’d let him play a time or two, when things were slow – the applause had been all right;) Chet wrote a brief note, packed up his rolling bag and his instrument, and left 2363 Opal Crescent, headed off for parts unknown. He still had some life left in him, was what he thought; all those women in that house, they just didn’t seem to need him – they shoulda asked him to play the guitar, but after that one time they forgot to do that. Shoulda cooked a little more variety of things. Shoulda invited him to bed. Shoulda not looked at him like he’d missed something important. He’d just gotta fend for himself then – too proud to beg, that’s for sure.

There weren’t any songs about men whose daughters were astronauts, and Chet wasn’t about to write one. So when he was introducing his sets, in Harp Castle, Texas, or Friar’s Lick, Wyoming, or Titanic Rock, South Dakota, he somehow couldn’t figure out how to brag on her without making himself look a fool. So he kept it to himself; but that was a little hard on him too. What was a man to do? That radiance she’d had when she’d come in the door – like she was bringing all that…Outer Space with her, and something more besides. He could see her arms open, and her heart – oh yes, he had seen that. But it was too late for him to pay attention to a thing like that. All that radiance. What the hell had happened to the world? A man couldn’t keep up; and couldn’t be seen not to.

Many years passed. Ronnie and Rani stayed friends, and went to India together every year or two. Their work, separately and together, went on evolving, and by and by they became lecturers, educators, grand old women of Space, spreading benevolence and understanding. They were revolutionaries of sorts; with their message about the limitless horizons females could now explore; and they were the voice of peace and unity for this troubled planet, everywhere they went. They had the overview, and people knew it.

Rani had discreet relationships with women; Ronnie never married, but tended to have affairs which didn’t last – but that didn’t seem too dreadful a thing. She enjoyed living in her own place, after the tumult of NASA; her cat Akbar, after a misspent youth (he spent it pulling books out of shelves, climbing drapes like a rock-climber on a Yosemite cliff-face, turning on taps when she wasn’t home) became a wise, settled old smoke-grey gentleman, who chirruped a friendly greeting when she came in the door.

The message came late one night, pinging into her inbox.

“Chet’s bad – I think you’d better go,” wrote her mother.

Hadleigh Jennings looked like what she was – a hard-working woman who didn’t smoke any more; who sat down and put her feet up every chance she got. She was practical; if she cooked for you, she knew she was going to do something for herself later too. She took long baths, had joined an astronomy club so she could be more educated about her daughter’s calling, and had an arrangement with a little Chinese lady for cheap massages. She wasn’t too loquacious. She had strong shoulders, greeny eyes, and her short hair, now blonde-white, was still thick and fluffy. She wore athletic shoes, and jeans, and different pretty blouses that went okay with the jeans. She’d managed to keep it all together somehow.

She had never expected much from Chetly Shaker, though it’s true that for a little while she had hoped. She knew about those travelling musicians – but now, now that she’d looked after the man, served him, given him a room to live in – all, really, for the sake of her youngest daughter, though pity was in it too – she felt she had a stake in things. She wanted that sorry old coot, that used-ta-be-heartbreaker, to at least pony up on his deathbed. At least there, show the girl some humanity. Show her who he really might be, under all that shtick.

Marla-Boone wasn’t coming – too busy; not innerested. But Hadleigh Jennings got a cheap Southwest flight to Buffalo, New York. Ronnie had offered to pay for a nice hotel for both of them.

The hospice was in an old disused office building. Each large room, with its hard-worn beige industrial carpet and sliding aluminum windows and no-nonsense squareness, had been curtained into six cubicles. A smaller room got two. There was a kitchen at the back, where meals were prepared; and a small office. Lavatories were two to a floor, male and female; and on each floor one office had been made into a bathroom, with three showers and a tub each. It wasn’t great, but it was functional. Funded by donations (government felt no responsibility for the dying,) it limped along.

Some of the cubicles were open on the end, the curtain pulled back. Family members sat in chairs beside beds, murmuring or just holding a dying person’s hand. Some patients were alone, just lying with closed eyes. A few beds were empty.

Chetly Shaker was at the end of a row, with a flowered curtain dividing his bed from the next. The end of his cubicle was open. As Hadleigh and Ronnie edged through the room towards him, they looked discreetly, nervously, from side to side. The kindly older woman who guided them bustled quietly ahead. They took in the rasping, the sheer mass of wrinkles; the acceptingness, the resignation. They saw scalps through thin hair, gnarly toes sticking out at the feet of beds, people curled up in foetal position. Fat people, thin people – but mostly thin. The smells were complex and disturbing – registered by one’s body with apprehension and a desire to flee. There were shapes that shouldn’t be on human bodies – lumps, hills – scaly and shocking – and craters that shouldn’t be there either.

Ronnie realized just how sheltered she’d been. She’d travelled, and she’d been into Space – but all of it was somehow protected, the province of youthful, vital people. Astronauts had to be healthy and in their prime. Hotel rooms were sterile and orderly. Even India, with its poverty, had a vitality that was undeniable, unquenchable. It barely slept – industry started well before dawn and celebration and haranguing continued late. But this…this weird netherworld, this waiting room – a place of transition – seemed to consist only of decay. Like one element was isolated, and lonely in its fate. She shivered.

The carer had brought in another chair, and so the two women sat beside Chet, and gazed at him.

It was as if, thought Ronnie through her horror, a little asteroid had lodged in this throat, and was sticking out there, under the thin flesh. The point of it stretched the skin almost to breaking; there was a redness there at the end like a clown nose, but sharp. And the thing was big – big as the long toe of a woman’s high-heeled shoe.

Chet’s eyes were wide open. He looked like a man in a scary movie who has just seen his fate coming at him.

He had had time to ponder things – lots of time – but it still didn’t seem right. He’d had a lot of fun when he was young – his kind of fun – the kind he liked to have. That was natural, wasn’t it? For a man to be his own kind of person? So what happened? Why couldn’t that sort of thing just carry on till the end? Why did there have to be this indignity, this helplessness, this pain and confusion? Every man smoked; every man drank – and not all ended up like this. But who was there to tell, even? The chaplain, he had decided, was gay; he couldn’t open up to a man like that, with his spiffy suit coat with its narrow lapels, the little ways his chin had of moving about more than a man’s chin had to move. The little lilts in his voice.

Chet’s eyes moved over, now – to the women. His visitors. And his eyes filled with tears. What the hell was happening? He didn’t cry! What the hell?

As his eyes fell on them, theirs came to his own. A flow began, back and forth.

He didn’t want it; if he had to leave this life, he wanted to do it as his own self, damn it – but somehow he couldn’t look away.

Couldn’t.

He was stuck – caught in a current. Their eyes – first one, then the other – as he looked back and forth – Hadleigh for a while; then his daughter – seemed to both emit some sort of beam; and draw him in to a soundless world held deep within a chasm – a place at the bottom of the sea where all things are revealed. And by and by, as the shock and embarrassment began to wear thin and then seemed to cast themselves aside – a sense of comfort, of pleasure even, began to come up from his stomach – quite deep, at the base of his gut – and overflow in him, warm like a tropic sea.

And then again a cool slab of something would enter his chest, and the warmth would stop – and he’d gaze into the green eyes, then the brown ones; and they held sparkles, and questions, and answers without words; which then broke through into new depths, and new transparencies, and so on. Opaque/clear, opaque/clear.

And as this pulse continued, strange phenomena began to occur within his body – all unbidden. Great gasps came out of him – and a place in his chest seemed to crack (he could hear it,) and come open – and a huge warm flood overtook him – and he wept; wept at last and finally, wept for all he had not known, all he had ignored, all he had denied himself. Wept for the surface of things, that he had clung to; for the nights in strange towns where he’d had to armor himself with a bottle and a sense of pride. Wept for the women he’d stroked to get the right reaction, kissed so that he could get them down under him; notched up on his belt and ignored then. The depth hiding in any one of them put him now to shame.

Wept for his mother, who had worked too hard, and his father, who’d played baseball with him but also wielded a strap and buckle. For the schooling he’d spurned, the dog who’d died under a truck. The young love who’d left him for a male librarian. Librarian!

He didn’t know how he kept his eyes open, with all these tears – but he had to; stuck in place like a fish with a harpoon in it. Clear mucus poured out his nose and down his face but he ignored it. Hadleigh took a Kleenex from a box on the stand by the bed, leaned over and mopped him up; she never looked away.

His throat hurt like hell. His neck hurt. The thing hurt, hurt so bad. He cried then because he was a little boy, and he hurt, and had been hurting for a while. And it was so sad.

And his daughter’s brown eyes. What they’d seen; what they’d brought back with them, irrevocably. Was that where he was going? …Good an answer as any. He’d best not look away.

And he perceived then that women pour love out of their chests, their pretty breasts, and just above their breasts – they just do. That they only want to be able to give it to you and have you let it in. Whatever else they might have wanted from him, all his life – and there was plenty, oh yes – they also just wanted to have a place to pour the fountains of their breasts, like milk and honey. And now – oh lord, yes, now – he no longer had anything to lose. They couldn’t catch him and hold him down, ’cause he was leaving! Oh yes, like he’d always left, he was leaving again – but this time was different.

And he began to laugh. At the absurdity of it – that he was leaving anyway. So they couldn’t catch him.

But then he started to cry again. His chest cracked open again – tears poured out of it like it was an eye itself, flooding – and he saw his daughter’s heart – mirroring his own – brown-eyed, deep as the Marianas Trench; a place to go; a place to go.

….And everybody held hands with everybody, by and by; and the women’s faces were wet too; and each of the women placed a hand on Chet’s thin chest, and felt the warmth still there, and the rise and fall. And the whole room was relieved – the very air was lighter, all over, all through. Every part of Chet’s body felt better – so good, in fact.

And they kissed his face; beautiful where it was wet. Like a baby’s.

And then he turned on his side, and curled up a bit, and went to sleep.

April 2017, Hebden Bridge

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