Undergraduate Contest Winner: Fiction
Billy is a spaceman. Not an astronaut, he says, a spaceman. His sister doesn’t know the difference and he won’t explain it. He is busy messing with controls. Got to fix these controls, he says. She nods.
1. Space-food comes only in cans and that is all he eats.
Gravity, Billy says, is what stretched him out like this. His sister doesn’t believe him. She is very realistic. He argues that he approached a black hole and that’s what gravity does. It stretches you like taffy. Okay, she says, whatever. And what about that thing on your back? The thing is a broad rectangle and Billy’s sister can see right through it. There is nothing in there at all. No rocket fuel, just air. The only parts she can’t see through are the cloth straps that hold it to Billy’s crooked back and the lengths of beige, rubber tubing that, here and there, interrupt its smooth sleekness. Well? She insists. Oh, the rocket-pack? It doubles as an oxygen tank. She asks if it is the reason his spine arches backwards that way, why he looks slumped and on the verge of breaking. No, he replies, rotating a blue and silver can to watch the light play across it, it’s the food. Why do you keep eating that stuff, she asks. It’s perfectly awful. Training, he replies. And once you get used to something, you know. She offers him a joint. When he doesn’t take it, she goes home.
Billy’s ship is a mess. There is grass growing up through thin, rusty cracks in the floor and tawny vines creep all around the landing gear. A tin can in a fire pit. Cans of space-food in the yard. Bits of broken controls.
Inside, he spends hours making models. Right now he is working on a re-creation of the battle of Gettysburg in miniature. There are pirates everywhere. They are winning, the black and white of them overtaking all the blues and redcoats and redskins. Billy doesn’t know a great deal about pre-space American history. The earlier models were replicas of the streets and buildings around Billy’s lot. He had to take apart his ship to get the materials. He didn’t go out much then. No space suit. In fact, he sold one of his best models to get the suit he has now and, as a result, he can go wherever he wants, and be perfectly safe.
Billy’s space suit protects him from:
• Lack of oxygen, for one. Billy is very tall.
• Paying for things, like electricity and bread.
• Doctors. Billy hates doctors.
• Salesmen and missionaries. Ever since He purchased the suit, from a salesman ironically, he just throws empty cans at them when they get too close.
Billy has a job. Every day people throw their sons off of the tall buildings around his ship, which is really very small. Billy always cleans up the mess. They don’t pay him for that, but they do pay him to remove the vines on their buildings. For this service, they pay him in space-food. That is good, because without it, he might remember too much. He might, for instance, remember Randy, his cousin. Randy died in almost exactly the same fashion as the young men that Billy scrapes daily from the cracking pavement. At least he didn’t have to clean Randy up. Randy didn’t die near his spaceship. He died beneath an overpass. Dove into moving traffic, jackknifed, thin straw-like hair fluttering in the wind. The family blamed Randy’s lover, Jim. Billy figured they were just jealous because they wanted to do the pushing.
Billy’s sister takes him to the lake. As they crunch their way to the pebbled shore from her car, they pass a young couple. The girl sits down awkwardly in the sand, complaining of the heat so her boyfriend carries her back to the parking lot. Billy’s sister, her blond hair waiving in her eyes, looks back at them. How come you haven’t done that yet? It’s really hot. Well, he says, I got a space-suit. They are getting closer to the shore now, the lake below them pale and too boated. Now their feet are in the water. Billy’s sister asks how far it is to the edge of the lake, and Billy hands her a kite, already flying. Hey, how did you get this up so fast? He hands one to the young couple too, and holds one himself. His sister squints at the brightness of the sky, trying to decipher the words on the kite. What does mine say?
Floozy, Billy replies. She almost yells at him, but instead, decides to go home, crying.
Every time a girl walks by Billy’s spaceship, she looks curiously at it and slows her pace.
Things She doesn’t look at, (curiously or otherwise):
• Billy’ rocket-pack
• The tuft of golden hair, like dry grass, that rises from the goggles on Billy’s brow
• The actual dry grass around Billy’s feet
• The kite, flying from the blunt nose of Billy’s rocket ship
• The words on that kite
Billy doesn’t notice this. He doesn’t like girls, really, or boys either. A girl lived with him for a while, though. This was before. She was involved in commerce, he says. Commerce and exchange. She drove a big brown van and wore a brown jumpsuit and took brown cardboard boxes to people all over town. She tried to get him a job, but he wasn’t listening. She left.
When his sister visits, she brings him other kinds of food to try, but he refuses them. I baked this bread for you, she offers. But, oh no, that is too wild. Too leavened and, I don’t know, burgeoned or prospered or something. No good in space. Billy, it’s good for you. Tastes just like that junk you eat. Better even.
No good in space.
(1) ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON GENERAL, WOMEN SHOULD NOT CONSUME SPACE-FOOD DURING PREGNANCY BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF BIRTH DEFECTS. (2) CONSUMPTION OF SPACE-FOOD IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO OPERATE MECHANICALLY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS.
If this is your ship, she asks, then why don’t you ever fly it. Well, pirates are a problem. Space pirates? Yep, that and they say I can’t fly it without a license. Besides, nobody likes a spaceman around here, or a barbarian, or a cartoonist. She asks why he doesn’t get a license and he tells her that they don’t offer them for spaceships they didn’t build. She cries.
Billy used to have a last name. Billy Hooter: just a thin pair of hands, two jean jacket cuffs and a disembodied voice. His sister remembers when he would come up to the window like that. You got anything good in there? He would ask. It’s just, you know, it gets awful boring out here. Say, you guys want a booger? She used to laugh at his jokes.
His sister drops by to find that he has cleaned the place up. The vines have been cleared away. So has the grass. The controls have been reassembled, though backwards, and installed in the stern of the ship. To the fore, there are a dozen or so neatly stacked boxes of space-food. Billy is asleep on the floor beneath a silver blanket. When she goes to wake him, he is not there. Where are you? She pleads. Space, of course. Will you be back soon? No, space-time is different. By the time I get home, I’m sure you’ll be gone. She returns to his ship every day to eat the space-food he left. She even develops a taste for it and in a week there is nothing left. At the store too, they have run out. They would order more, they complain, if it weren’t for these damned vines all over the place.