Afterburner

Superstition GS Proofs

“Superstition” by Doug McNamara

Cal blinked, a slow staccato S-O-S. The computer followed, doggedly adding an unimaginably slow trail of Cal’s thoughts on the screen.

“Oh, honey, sure! Sure! I’ll get you another blanket. Do you want another pillow?” His wife Jenna watched the screen, shot him a quick look to read his answer—saving both of them from the slow maneuverings of his eye-typing.

He hated her pity with a surprising violence.

Blink. No. Jenn smiled and touched his hand. “I’ll be right back. Right back!”

Cal lay propped like a mannequin in the bed, his useless limbs trapping him in this dissolving body with his NASA engineer mind sharp, restless, humiliated, trapped.

“Here ya go, hon!” He felt the blanket tacked around his white noodle legs, the muscles wasted to nothing. White flesh, blue veins, bone. Old dying-man legs in a forty-year-old man dead at his prime.

Because Cal considered himself dead already. It was just a formality, a stroke of pen from the funeral home that could collect his body—no need to call 911, no need for the medical examiner. The doctors had arranged this for them. He had a date with the funeral home he mind-typed to Jenn.

She’d blink and turn away. “Not funny, Cal. You’re still here. Not funny.” And he found it infuriating, a slow vicious torture how she could turn from him and he couldn’t follow, couldn’t move.

His friends from NASA and the Air Force, flotsam from the dead shuttle program, had dispersed among various states and industries. A few of them wrote him, and he followed the diaspora across the country. They sent funny jokes that engineers favored; they updated him on their jobs. They didn’t share their golf scores or triathlon times with him, but he followed them on Facebook. He cheered them on in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenges they did in his honor, rewinding the videos they sent him, and watching their familiar faces over and over.

Some of their marriages had not survived the inevitable fallout as careers and finances spiraled down from the skies. There were no flames—at least none he was aware of—just a quiet smoke-pluming and the gradual break up, piece by piece. The impact was mainly over before it hit the ground.

New marriages, younger wives who ran the triathlons with them rather than cheering on the sides. Grandkids—seldom discussed, estranged older children—new babies held up like trophies in the winner’s circle.

Early on, the ones who visited would talk to make up for his halting speech as he struggled to find each word. Bright chatter from quiet, thoughtful, analytical men who had few uses for extraneous words.

Sometimes, though, they would be pulled back into the world of their youth again too, through this launching of words and memories. These were the times when once more he shared something with them, and it was then that he felt alive again.

Cal, old Cal. Remember when we stayed up all night on the test flight? The wonder? The fear? Do you remember this? The shift of light, slow movement from the Vehicle Assembly Building. Finally, the roar of engines. Count down.

Back in the day.

Just last month he had been able to peck out a slow keyboard response, and he’d spent his days at the computer, reading through the emails and texts and Facebook postings, and messages and tweets that tethered him to ground, kept him running in the human race.

For two years he’d held the disease at bay, and he’d thought maybe he’d be one of the lucky few, someone who maintained, maybe like Stephen Hawking. Not whole in body, but alive, able to work. Stopped, stuck, stasis. Now he faced entropy, the slow slide to death. Not a dignified manly heroic death, but a wasting, shriveling, disappearing.

Lately, it began to attack in earnest, slowly gaining hold every week in spite of fighting, trying, hoping, walking, then not walking, then not hoping.

Jenn—how do you do it? Everyone asked her that. The engineer wives who were still her friends sometimes came by, but often they did not. Ugly illness is catching. Death is for the ill-favored.

Now it was the nurses who came by to help Jenn. Sometimes she’d go out. “I’ll be back in a little bit, hon.” She’d stare into his eyes, pushing in her intent with the force of her stare, but he knew. He’d felt her pulling back slowly, little by little, just as the disease advanced.

Today she had on a new skirt, shorter than she used to wear, and heels. He liked it, but he couldn’t follow her, and he wished she’d stop bustling around the room, moving, and stay in his line of sight. He just wanted to watch her. See her. Have her see him as a person.

“This Sunday is Father’s Day, and the kids are coming.” She turned from plumping up the cushion on the chair by the window. He wondered who she was doing this for, this frenetic movement. As he become slower, she grew more frantic, manic. He was trapped, but it was she who needed to escape.

“N-i-c-e,” he blinked, but he wasn’t thinking it. His son, Will, pretty much hated leaving the University of Florida for anyone, especially him. His daughter, Kelsie, wanted to quit UCF and move back home, but he forbid it. Absolutely not. Mom is fine and I am fine. You need to grow up and up and up.

* * *

Truth was, he loved seeing Kelsie, her long hair blonde and baby-fine like her mother’s, her youth, her beauty, her love of animals, life, and him. But he hated her seeing him tied to machines and weak. Bodily functions out for all to see. Unable to be a husband or a father. Or a man.

The phone rang. Jenn took it in the other room. She whispered, low, urgent: “You have to come and see him. It’s his last Father’s Day. Will—you have to come.”

Will. The computer screen glowed in front of him, and he wanted to say something, but all that came was an image of Will when he was seven, a guest at a night test flight for a new jet. They were on the tarmac, and the salt breeze was light, cool for September—nice flying weather. The graying sky suddenly shot bright with the burst of orange flames, the jet booming across the night like a dying god, burning up the sky. Will’s eyes were big. He smiled. “What is it, Dad?”

“Afterburner; the jet burns the last bit of oxygen. Makes it go faster.” They’d watched the Blackbird trailing volcanic flames, a lovely glowing tail of fire-spun shock diamonds, dissipating and twisting like lava ghosts.

“Why don’t they do it all the time?” His son was smart. He’d been to many tests.

“It uses too much fuel. It’s not practical. It burns too quickly.”

Will had understood. Now he was studying engineering, but he chose hydro, water, mechanics—the opposite of his father’s fiery passions. He’d given up the room across the hall from Cal, with its framed poster of a Blackbird jet, the afterburner flames glowing above the headboard, more jets and shuttles launching on walls, in models on top of dressers. He’d lost his obsession with space. He’d learned the feet of clay of his parents. He learned to hate his dad.

* * *

The kids were taking classes in the summer. Busy, loaded up with things. Everyone busy, trying to forget. But him.

Nights were the worst. Alone in the hospital bed, the nurses popped in and out so his wife could sleep in Kelsie’s bedroom. But sometimes, she would steal in, wearing a bathrobe like a strange relative, staring at him, watching him. They would look at each other, because he couldn’t sleep—was afraid to sleep—and she had become an insomniac too. He’d hear her talk to the night nurses in cheerful chatter that turned to whispers, about him, his care. He was no longer privy to his own life.

He could watch the play of sun through the windows kept open at all times for him at his request. He would never feel sun on his face again and it pissed him off. Never see a movie at a theatre, never walk on the beach, hold Jenn’s hand, comfort her, make love to her, eat an ice cream cone. But the sun, that was the dream, not the moon, pale, unfertile, dead, reflecting off the sun, but the sun’s children, the planets. He’d wanted to go to Mars, send probes everywhere. Find life, find out who we are, where we are from. Place a plaque, a monument to mankind—and to engineering he had to admit—on every damn place. But the sun, the one who ruled them all, this was what he dreamt of, all his dreams were rockets, bursting into flames as they tried to land.

She didn’t ask what he wanted for Father’s Day this year. Last year she’d asked, and he had been well enough to toddle to the table, slowly eat dinner, and unwrap the practical gifts: no more golf clubs and balls, but warm socks, running pants, music, DVDs of his favorite shows. He’d thanked them, his hands trembling and dropping the gifts. Jenn and Kelsie had quickly gathered them up, placed them in piles, offered cake, coffee, chattered, talked, kept the conversation flowing, loud. He had eaten his cake in the lanai, sharing crumbs with the lizards and the dog that snuggled next to him.

His son had not come.

The dog, Lucky, had been more or less banned for fear of pulling out tubes and wiring, except under supervision of his wife. Lucky whined outside his door behind a baby gate until someone felt pity on her and placed her on his bed. She’d learned not to step on anything hard or wired, but eased up at his feet in solid unswerving support. Lucky, he thought, looking at her sleeping next to the gate, would be the one he’d miss the most. He felt bad, thinking of that, but it was true. Lucky didn’t give a shit. Lucky loved him with that unpitying, enduring faith of a dog.

He’d considered typing out last letters to his loved ones. And at first, he had had the strength to mind-type quite a bit, but at the end he had lost interest. It tired him. He didn’t have much time left. Down to months if not weeks. Days. Each dawn, when the sun peeked through the window, he mentally counted off another night, another day of life.

The nurse came and checked his catheter, his ass for bedsores, the ventilator that he now required almost constantly. “Here ya go, hon!” She used that same hearty cheery voice of his wife. He’d ceased being Cal and was now Hon. A pathetic name for a lump of meat on a bed that had to be changed and stuffed with nutrients.

F-U he typed. But the nurse wasn’t cued in to his subtle movements like Jenn and didn’t look at the screen.

Lucky, Lucky! Come, come! If only she could read.

He’d noticed his emotions were out of control but he had to rein them in or the darkness would cover his mind. Steady, steady. A racing mind in a trapped body led to a kind of panic—dark, jagged, a black abyss. His thoughts had rocketed around his mind like marbles through a dark cavern, gaining strength and smashing sanity as they went, smashing him. They’d shot him up with tranqs and it had calmed him until he realized he’d soon be just floating through these last days on a numbed dumbed down lack of existence.

So he had to control the mind if not able to control the body. He counted backwards. Thought of neutral, boring things like calculating the jerk equation on reentry, instantaneous velocity, astronomical units: the distance to the sun.

“Are you okay? Need anything?” He smelled a new perfume. He liked her new haircut. Short, messy, with honey-colored highlights. They’d been young parents. Now she looked like Kelsie’s super sexy older sister. But sweet still. She had a sexy sweetness that made him ache. Don’t think. You can’t remember. No good moving to the darkness.

She asked it all day long until he wanted to scream. How does one scream on a keyboard, he thought. She wouldn’t even see.

* * *

Sunday came blazing at the end through the long empty week. Father’s Day. A joke, he thought, struggling to breathe and yet appear as normal as he could, hating it. A cruel joke. Daddy dying in front of you but let’s have some fucking ice cream. Only one kid bothering to come, tearing his wife apart. And her, trying to hold it all together as mothers try to do. Anger again, that quick ignition of red pain in his brain.

“Daddy,” Kelsie said, holding his hand, then hugging him lightly as if she were afraid he’d bruise, fall apart, die under her hands. Her eyes filled with tears. “Daddy.” But her teary eyes were unfocused and they looked away from him.

He tried to get his wife’s attention. Get her out of here. But he couldn’t see her, couldn’t type it. Kelsie was in the way.

He napped when they stepped out. He often slept these last couple of days. He was afraid to close his eyes at night so that they did it for him during the day, the precious days burning out so quickly like the flash of a meteor across a night sky.

When he woke, everyone was back in his room: his wife, Kelsie, the nurse, and Lucky.

“Happy Father’s Day, Cal,” his wife said. She held out a card for him, leaning in so that he could see it. He could smell her acutely, her sharp clean deodorant, the coconut shampoo. She smiled, holding it steady for Kelsie, for him. He felt the tension in her lips, saw the edges threaten to wobble. He looked at the card. It was a sweet card with a picture of a rocket on it, something she thought he’d like. He pictured her looking through all the cards at the grocery store as she waited for his meds, growing more and more agitated as the cards trailed a legion of either buffoon cartoon dads bumbling around the house or handsome young dads playing golf. The cards with perfect families. The cards that showed a future. He swallowed, a choking sensation that had the nurse at his side. “You’re overexciting him,” the nurse he mentally called Nurse Ratched, but who was actually named Lydia, said. “He needs to rest.”

Rest, for what? He’d slept all morning. He tried to type it but they were already retreating, Kelsie squeezing his hand.

Only his wife stayed behind. “Will is on his way,” she said. “He promised.” Cal could see the effort this cost her, trying to smile at him, to reassure him. He felt pissed off at Will anew—not because Will didn’t want to see him, but because he hurt his mother. When Cal was himself, he could discuss this with her, reassure her. It was his job. It was his fucking job to support his wife. He would tell Will what an inconsiderate little shit he could be, that he might hate his father but it was his mother he was punishing. Cal’s job was to support his wife. To be her rock. To love her. To take care of her. A failure. A plummeting failure. A burden.

It’s OK, he mind-typed. I understand, he said. She nodded, her eyes circled with the dark rings that he knew he had caused. This day, this funeral celebration of him, of his parenthood, of the supposed bond between father and child. Twisted by a son who hated him. A child he had never understood. A child he had seen but not seen, like Cal was now seen but not seen, he thought, surprised at how it hurt to learn this, combine these separate equations into one painful trick solution. It would be better for her, he realized, when he slipped away. Better for all of them. Especially for himself.

She was watching his face, and he knew that she could read him better than anyone and was trying to understand, trying to see what he thought, what he needed, what she could do for him now. She pressed her lips to his forehead softly, warm, lingering. “We’ll be back in a little bit, Cal,” she said. And he knew that while she tried to understand, she couldn’t know. No one could. But she had loved him. He had been one lucky son-of-a-bitch.

He could hear the day nurse converse with the night nurse, could hear Lucky whining to come back in.

“Sometimes,” the Night Nurse said to his wife and daughter, “at this point in the process”—his life now a simple process he thought with a quick flash of the always smoldering anger—“the patient elects not to be fed.”

A silence. Then, the day nurse, Nurse Ratched: “He does not want a feeding tube, he made that quite clear. He signed the directive you know.”

Silence. “Mom! He would starve. I don’t want to see him starve to death!”

Silence. He imagined his wife then, the pain-ringed eyes, the shiny new hairstyle, this day of celebration, this thing to consider.

She shouldn’t have to think about it. It was his life. What was left of it. He could do it. Make it easy. One last launch for Old Cal. One last mission.

He felt then, the warmth of fur, the foul breath of a dog on his face, the cold nose nudging his hand. Lucky had snuck through the defensive line. He let her touch him, feeling it with every sense he had left. He was the same to her, he knew. She didn’t like the strangeness of his situation—the tubes, the strange smells, the routine changed, but she accepted it. He could see her face, the same unwavering dog devotion in her eyes. She breathed in and out, patiently sitting there for him.

Her body tensed. The front door opened. His son. He heard the murmur, his wife’s voice, the relief in it. Cal fought the flare-up of renewed anger at Will over the casual way he caused his mother to suffer in this way, but then, Will was young. It could take a lifetime to know things. It might take a lifetime to make things right. It might not be enough, even then.

Lucky perked her ears up. She was a beautiful animal, so gorgeous and perfect in her way. He wondered if it had been enough—had he played with her enough, noticed her enough, loved her enough. She wanted to go. Her whole body quivered. She looked at Cal. Go, he said, trying to smile in his mind as he said it. Go.

He looked at the Father’s Day card with its cardboard rocket about to ignite. What is a father to celebrate, he wondered. A man who brought life into this world? Was that enough to celebrate? Cal’s old man working three jobs in the name of love, burning out young of a heart attack when Cal was a boy. Did braces and Christmas gifts and toy rockets mean enough?

Cal remembered then, something important he’d forgotten to tell Will on that test flight they’d shared long ago. Something about afterburner. How it wasn’t always too precious or costly, but it was needed, the very best thing. How the extra thrust could save you in combat or launch you off a runway that had turned out way too short.

Lucky left. Cal fell into a sleep so deep and dark it had no dreams, it had no stars.

* * *

Father’s Day was over. He could hear the women in the kitchen, their low laughter, the clank of plates. They’d had cake in his room, and he’d watched them eat. He had hungered—not for the cake, but to be a part of it. Later the nurse would come and feed him a syringe of nutrients. But not now. Not in front of his family. And he could decide. He could still decide.

They left him to do the dishes, but he could feel the relief in their need to do their chores, live their lives. They had stayed up all night, everyone afraid to go to bed.

Will sat across from him. He was a handsome boy, lean of cheek, like Cal had been—a haunted Johnny Cash look with light brown hair. He’d fill out, Cal knew, when he was older. He was like Jenn too, in the restless mouth, the amber eyes. He was sensitive though, like Cal. Easy to hurt. Easy to break.

His son. What to say now? Will shifted, his hands on his knees. His phone buzzed; he looked at it briefly then hit a button and turned it off. He wasn’t looking at Cal’s screen, but at him, at Cal.

“I won something at school today,” Cal remembered. That was another day. A tired man up all night, his head in the stars, a sharp word at the wrong time—a little boy driven to tears, a blue ribbon crumbled in his hand, and a moment ruined.

The house was quiet, settling in itself. The night nurse dozed in the living room, Lucky next to her, he knew. The girls had finally gone to bed. The slow machine breathed for him, puff, puff, bellows fanning life back into him.

Across the room, his son waited, silent. He watched Cal with Jenn’s golden eyes, and finally, Cal knew that he was seen. He was seen.

Outside the bedroom window, Cal saw orange flames of sunrise lick up towards the sky, an afterburner burning up the last of night. His son shifted in his chair, patient, all the time in the world. A bird called. Cal couldn’t blink fast enough, to stop that molten dawn.

By Sharon Lee Snow

 

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