7 December 2012
Distance is Relative by Rafael SW
Distance is Relative by Rafael SW
When the spaceship hit the house three streets away, Jericho’s mother turned to God. He arrived at the dinner table like an absentee father, rubbing his hands together slowly. She even started talking to him again, a habit she hadn’t surfaced since the early stages of the divorce. All of a sudden it was as if they were on first name terms; she could call him up whenever she wanted, ask him for advice. Her behaviour annoyed Jericho, who felt like he’d had enough religion to last him a lifetime. Nevertheless he had to go back to shining his shoes, and masturbating at 2am when he hoped God wasn’t looking. Jericho didn’t necessarily believe in God, but his divine presence in the house put him off. As did the presence of the astronauts, whose obliterated bodies he tried equally hard not to think about.
While he tried to ignore these manifestations, it seemed his mother thought about them all the time. God gave her an unhappy lilt in her eyes, like what happened to war photographers but less focused. She seemed to be able to tell who around her would be going to hell, and she was sad for them. A few people in the line in the supermarket, almost everyone at the hair salon, the astronauts, even her own son. All were going to hell. At least that’s what he thought she saw. He hoped that if she kept herself busy and the news stayed off, maybe she could forget about it for a while. But most of the time she walked around like she was constantly giving God a tour of the house. A prospective buyer, Jericho would walk into the house and the smell of cookies would make him feel nauseous. He’d open all the windows on the way to his room. He knew his mother would think he was just going through ‘teenage moods’, but he didn’t know what else to do. She’d stand in the doorway some nights and he’d get down on his knees and say this is stupid this is stupid in his head, over and over, his hands pressed together so firmly that his shoulders popped out like small wings.
Four weeks into his mother’s change, and the Parsons’ house was still being rebuilt. NASA was doing it for free, but people were sceptical as to the extent of their goodwill. When his mother drove him to school she unconsciously slowed down, just to see how the repairs were going. It was a ground-up project, but often it looked like the people standing around were there to guard against invasions rather than to fix it. They’d gotten rid of the spaceship (or universe debris) pretty quickly though. But it hadn’t stopped the astronauts from hanging around forlornly. One morning Jericho’s mother said something out loud, in a way so nonchalant he imagined she’d been planning it for weeks.
‘We should go visit them, take them something home baked.’ His mother believed in the cure-all properties of home baked food, properties which stopped just short at raising the dead, and only because that was God’s work.
‘I don’t think,’ Jericho started to say, and his mother twisted right round in the driver’s seat to look at him. They were at a red light but the motion still worried him. He didn’t really have a strong point anyway. ‘We don’t really know them.’
‘All the more reason to introduce ourselves!’ It was useless. She’d probably already bought the ingredients.
At school they talked about the crash for a few weeks, and traded rumours like collectable cards. But interest was waning, eroded by long division and the Peloponnesian War. Lunchtime, and the boys went back to playing football and pushing each other into lockers and the girls went back to whatever it was they did in their small private groups. Jericho was in year nine and wondered how he could bear three more years. In the days following the crash, he expected the school to respond the way it had when the girl had died. She’d been sick a long time – he only remembered her as someone who came to school infrequently and sat out during gym – but when she died the school had been quick to respond. Teachers wore sad faces all the time, there was a special assembly, and the counsellor’s office was a revolving door of students either weeping or trying to get out of class. After the spaceship though, no one seemed to care. Jericho waited for someone to say something in class, or to at least ask about it at lunchtime, but besides the Welcome! sign on the counsellor’s door hanging at a jaunty and inviting angle, there was no real response. He thought this was perhaps because no one was haunted by the dead astronauts like he was.
As they found out more about the crash, the astronauts became more solidly a feature in their home, especially at dinner. Jericho kept his eyes open during grace, not out of disrespect but so he could see them if they turned up. He knew that he would be in trouble if he was caught but if she knew he was peeking then she would have to be doing the same. His mother prayed for them, the satisfaction of their names on her lips like a foreign sweet.
‘And may the Lord bless and keep Thomas Baklava, a good man who was taken too soon,’ she would say. And Jericho would nod and look over at the hat rack that for a moment had taken the form of an emaciated space-suited man. He doubted she realised she was conjuring ghosts.
The day came when Jericho’s mother had decided to visit the Parsons at their hotel. It wasn’t hard to find. They had been featured heavily in the media and even kicked the bowls tournament off the local paper’s front page. Jericho and his mother went round with some triple-chocolate muffins she had baked first thing that morning. The whole house had smelled like chocolate, and he’d felt a little sick and wondered if this was what his adolescence would be like. Sticky and uncomfortable. But then he’d realised that it was probably also nerves, considering he didn’t know exactly what his mother’s plan was. She’d waited till the weekend, despite having wanted to go all week. It was Saturday afternoon when she bundled Jericho into the car and they drove to the hotel. He sat in the back seat where his mother always made him sit (‘for safety reasons,’) and stared out the window. It was a sunny day and the sky looked like nothing could ever fall out of it.
Once they reached the fourth level of the hotel, Jericho walked slowly. He didn’t want to go, and dragged his feet like the gravity was strange here. His mother was ahead of him, striding. At one of the doorways he stopped to tie his shoelace. Bending down, he thought he heard a crack in his knees, but it was a creaking of a bed. It took him a while to realise the people in the room to his side were having sex. He’d often felt caught in the awkward adolescent stage where he’d discovered his genitals but didn’t know exactly what to do with them. The couple in the room seemed to. He couldn’t see much through the gap in the doorway, but what he did see caused him to get instantly erect. A woman, riding on top, moving like a legless cowboy slow-dancing. Their breathing just loud enough to hear. Jericho looked towards his mother, tried to gauge the distance, and decided he didn’t care anyway. He went back to staring through the doorway. The woman’s back arched –
‘Jericho,’ his mother called, and he flinched at the sound of his own name. He thought immediately that the couple would have heard, but they didn’t even seem to have stopped moving. He quickly looked down at his shoes and then up at his mother, who was further away than he’d realised. He stepped away from the door a little before he answered just in case.
‘What?’ he called back, his voice softer than he meant it to be, absorbed by the deep carpet.
‘You’re lagging,’ she said, and stood with the muffins held awkwardly at her side. He wanted to catch one last look at the sex, but didn’t want to risk his mother working out what he’d been doing, if she didn’t know already. ‘Why’re you taking so long?’
‘I don’t know.’ He shrugged and realised he was looking down and she might interpret it as being surly, so he looked at her. ‘I don’t want to be here, I guess…’
‘But it’s to show kindness,’ she said, ‘to these people who’ve lost everything.’ She seemed incredulous that he didn’t understand.
They looked at each other for a while and Jericho had to try not to think about all the things that were going on behind him. He felt his cock stir and tried to suppress it. His mother must have seen the expression on his face and interpreted it differently.
‘Well I’m not going to force you to do it,’ she sighed. ‘I thought you were interested in all this.’
‘I am. It’s just…’ And he shrugged again, hoping she would just fill in his silence with her own words.
‘Okay, well you wait down in the lobby.’
‘Sure. I’ll see you there.’
He waited till his mother was further down the corridor before rushing back to the room on soft feet. But he couldn’t find it, or the door had closed. They were all the same and although he walked slowly and tilted his head towards each keyhole, he noticed nothing and eventually caught the elevator back down, where he sat in the lobby and waited, thinking about the strange colours of skin.
Thomas, David and Steven were all sitting at the table when he was called into the kitchen to get dinner. The ease with which they sat suggested they’d been there for a long time. They looked sad, however, as if they were sorry Robert hadn’t been able to make it. He was at a funeral. His own. Jericho looked over at them, the three straight backs, the space helmets tucked respectfully under their arms. He tried to motion to the hat rack with his eyes. Walking over to the table he hesitated. But then he realised that the guests knew his routine and were being as unobtrusive as possible, not sitting in Jericho’s seat, or his mother’s. Jericho put the plates where they usually went, his mother’s at one end and his at the other, the table packed with dead astronauts on either side in between. The plates out of his hands, Jericho stood there for a while, not sure what to do with himself. He looked at the men who were staring straight ahead. His mother came in, loudly, as if made of cutlery.
‘So did you have a good day at school love?’ she said, but it sounded too much like she was trying to start a conversation.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It was okay.’ She was back in the kitchen, getting something. Returning with the pepper grinder, she sat down and folded her hands. Jericho was still looking at Thomas, whose beard had grown a little since the newspaper photos.
‘Is everything alright?’ Jericho’s mother asked.
‘Yes ’course. Sorry.’ And she started to say grace.
‘We thank you, my Lord, for this harvest. May we use it to nourish our bodies, and thee to nourish our souls. Make us ever more mindful of each other, and especially of the astronauts who so recently left the earth.’
Jericho, with his eyes wide open, looked into the faces of each of the astronauts. They hadn’t closed their eyes either, and continued to stare straight ahead. It was as if they were at an awards ceremony, or a funeral.
‘We pray that you bring their families solace and comfort in these hard times. We ask for the strength you give all creatures dwelling on this earth-’
Jericho looked at Steven, who had tilted his head forward, but still held his hands firmly at his sides. The others hadn’t moved. He wondered if they even could in those space suits.
‘…And as it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be.’
Steven’s shoulders were moving up and down, as if breathing was becoming hard. Jericho noticed a tear start its slow way down David’s left cheek, but the rest of the man’s face was impassive, his bones tight in his skull. Jericho’s hands were sweaty against each other.
‘-In the world without end. Amen.’ Jericho closed his eyes.
They ate dinner in silence.
The astronauts were back again the next day, this time for Sunday lunch. Robert was still absent and it was noticeable, especially as without him Steven had to sit by his own on the left side of the table. Jericho’s mother still hadn’t noticed them, but maybe God took up all the space. She sat down at her end and said grace. He used to think that there was so much table room between them, but now it was filled by astronauts. They looked at each other, ignoring his mother’s ritual. Jericho wanted to ask why they didn’t haunt the Parsons. His mother hadn’t mentioned what had happened when she’d met them at the hotel but it must have gone all right, as they disappeared from her prayers. He looked at David, who was the youngest of the astronauts, and wondered if he’d want to hang out. It was a cold dark day, and Jericho was wearing his hood up at the table, despite his mother hating it. The cold didn’t seem to affect the astronauts though. His mother allowed the television to be turned on during lunch on Sundays, as it was a day of rest. There usually wasn’t much on though, and so he skipped through the channels until he saw the words Special Report and felt the astronauts draw in a collective breath. It was an image of Robert, grainy, from university. Then it cut to footage from a funeral in a graveyard that looked like all graveyards.
‘This was the scene yesterday evening,’ the voiceover said, ‘as Robert Holman’s body was interred at the Sister of Mercy site at around 7pm. It is hoped that the remaining three brave men in the crash will soon be buried also.’
Jericho looked at the guests but they weren’t showing any reaction. He guessed they were trained not to. It wasn’t clear why their funerals were talking so long. Jericho thought about how maybe their bodies were all charred into oblivion and that it was hard to separate out their debris from one another. He imagined they wouldn’t want to be buried with the ash of the steering wheel mixed in with the ash of their limbs. He stared at the motes in the air. Outside, it started to rain.
‘We are really grateful for all the support we have received,’ a relative of the astronauts said, ‘and we want to offer our support to the other families that have lost their child. There’s a saying-’ The man coughed a little but it could have been a sob. Jericho looked at the astronauts at the table. Their eyes were staring so intently that they’d started to water. ‘A father should never outlive his son. I can tell you-’ He did the small cough again. ‘That this is damn true.’
‘It’s like the tower of Babel,’ his mother said, and they all looked at her.
‘What?’ Jericho said.
‘There are some things that are out of our reach for a reason.’ Jericho and the astronauts just stared at her. On television, the presenter continued.
‘Reports from the mayor’s office are hinting at the unveiling of a memorial on Monday. Hopefully this will provide a place of solace for the living.’ He paused for a nice jump cut to a photo of all of them in their spacesuits, and Jericho looked at them at his table and how they seemed so weary. ‘As well as the dead.’ The show ended and the credits rushed past like signs seen from the window of a speeding car. Jericho looked up just in time to see the astronauts turning around solemnly. He wanted to call out, to say something to them, but couldn’t. He watched as they each shrugged on their helmets, stretched their arms or rolled their neck and then clanked out noiselessly.
A few days later he started coughing a little, like there was some dirt or sin in his lungs. His mother let him stay home from school. She’d go to the office, call him on her lunch break. He’d answer the phone with a slow voice, pretending to be sicker, tireder than he was. For the most part though, he just spent entire days on the internet, masturbating or looking at images of car crashes, imploded buildings. There were times when he hated himself for this, but there wasn’t much else to do. He knew everything there was to know about the spaceship incident and those involved. How old they’d been, their families’ holiday destinations, ex-lovers, if they liked strawberries. But it didn’t really help. He didn’t get a sense of them as dead people unless they were in the room. His bedroom grew stale with the smell of him, so he would lie there drowning in blankets with the window wide open. When his mother came home, she would get frustrated with him and say he was going to catch a chill. He ate soup and watched the passage of shadows while the tissues under his bed hardened and turned into mice that skittered through his sleep.