The Space Race
The light of the universe shone upon us but it was a truth we were too blind to see. Like a billion billion channels on a TV set we never turned on.
But mankind began to crawl from his crib. And then she ran. And, like a parent chasing after a toddler that rushes headlong, we were pulled back from the brink.
I remember the day the president announced the construction of the first moon base, wearing her lucky cashmere cardigan. It was like being an extra in a movie. ‘Man watching TV screen.’ I could hear the first foreboding chords of an orchestra, the tinkling of a piano down a corridor, the slinky voice of a saxophone. It was an erotic ‘I lived to see this,’ moment but it was also unsettling. The holographic internet had been awash with rumours that we had been ‘warned off’ the moon. That we had signed a deal with the aliens. That none of this was true.
I went to my room dabbing the sweat on my neck with tissues held in clammy palms. I called my mom and ordered a pizza. Finally, I breathed out and felt my own heartbeat. This was it. This was us moving out into the wider world that was ever so much bigger than out little town. What really was out there? The aliens in our movies were just us in disguise. I went outside and looked up. Those tiny specs of lights had defied the territorial ambitions of our imaginations for so long, their secrets were not as we imagined, I was sure. I was sure the universe contained an exposé that ordinary people could never guess. How did I know?
Just as we were on the cusp of breaking into outer space we were making important strides in inner space. That was my line of work. Thrust upon me by my government, all done in strictest secrecy. I worked in a mind research facility in China. I was given drugs that were a key to a multi-verse of remarkable truths and whopping fabrications. In short, a black hole of inconclusive data not applicable to everyday life until, one day, I pushed the barriers. They were going to destroy an intoxicant that they, even by their harsh standards, deemed unsafe for me to drink. But drink it I did and collapsed.
The next moment I was standing outside a room. Inside there were twelve genderless beings sat round a table. I could read their thoughts.
“Let us celebrate the expanded mandate of the Mass Experiment Corporation, which has been working in a junior capacity for eons but after a hostile takeover bid, assumes a controlling stake,” said one. The others bowed their heads.
Another one continued. “From now on, it's year zero for Planet Earth. Some souls will be transferred in their containers, most will leave their containers during the catastrophe. A very few will live in a post-apocalyptic scenario. I hope we can thrive again and return a profit for our shareholders.”
I awoke on the floor.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes, fine. I just saw some people.”
I had to give the details of hallucinations for the record, no matter how silly. No matter how like the stuff of comic-book clichés. I sighed.
“The Solar System is just one big laboratory, we're all doomed. I just met the ones organising the doom.”
“I'd better make a call,” my colleague said, evidently worried.
I didn't see why. It was routine for me to see things that didn’t make sense. The mind was the consummate storyteller, with more plot holes than all the galaxies combined. Why was now any different? Why was this one dream any more persuasive than countless others?
Within the hour I was sat in a windowless room.
“You should be dead all ready,” a voice said.
“Why aren't I?”
“I don't know, a glitch in the system. The chances are less than one in many trillions.”
“Do you know who those people were?
He shrugged and went to look out of where a window would be if there was one. “Not exactly.”
He turned round. “They are far beyond language, that was for your benefit. They can move between dimensions quite easily.” He looked down, as if ashamed. “They control things down here.”
“Do you think they were joking?”
“You have to go back and find out.”
I went home. I was just a boy of 32. Why me? My girlfriend sent me a fake suicide letter. A speciality of hers. My droid fixed me some noodles. An advert played when it opened the soya sauce. I put my VR headset on and went to the moon. It wasn’t that unusual for my superiors to have a paranoid turn. Hopefully this would all blow over.
The next day I was taken to a different place and given a set of instructions I had to memorize and recite. Finally, when they were satisfied I could remember I was given a second dose. A much larger one this time. The room simply faded away as if all along it had been a mirage. I was stood looking at Saturn. It was massive. I gasped. Fell on my knees. Just felt incredibly emotional looking at Saturn. Then what we have become accustomed to calling a woman approached me.
I had seen beautiful before but it was magnified in every one of my senses. I felt like a village idiot with straw in his mouth staring at a princess. She was wearing a dressing gown, not done up very tightly, and had her hair done up in a towel. My trips certainly had their perks.
“You know you shouldn't be here. It's lovely to see you. Really it is. But you have to go back," she said, sat beside me, with one hand on another, and looking into my eyes like I was the only person that existed. I love that trick. I'd tried it on girls but never quite pulled it off without seeming creepy.
“I’ve been asked to find out how long we have. And I...I also have a question of my own.”
“Well. Why can’t we continue as we were. Reaching for the stars?”
“You are not allowed into space. Not yet.”
“But you let us get so far.”
“You’re not ready.”
“You mean we aren’t...good?”
Then she leant forward and blew air on my forehead so that my fringe momentarily danced in the air and pulled a face, like she was an eight year old girl, not an enlightened one.
"Okay, my little one. Seeing as you asked. I don't suppose there's any harm in telling you."
She drew a circle in the sand of a beach. As I peered inside it I saw the history of the Earth. The dinosaurs, the rise and fall of civilizations. The secrets of the pyramid and who built the moon. I saw that from the dawn of the space race we had known about the aliens but had ignored them like lions in a savannah do those strange people in four wheel drive jeeps. I saw that they had tampered with all our probes that sent back pictures of lifeless planets.
I looked at her with eyes of supplication.
"Tell me, is this true? Or is this just another story?"
"To you humans things are dead or alive. True or false. But words themselves only contain the understanding of the person that hears them; not their ultimate reality."
Then she whispered in my ear and I was back on Earth.
“Are you back?”
“Yes. Look, tell your people. We've only got 24 hours to save the world.”
He shook his head. “There's nobody on our payroll that knows how to do that. It wasn't long ago we were all defenceless, crying babies.”
“So then what?”
“The best advice I can give you is to be good to people. Do yourself a favour and give your soul the best future prospects. You may as well start now.”
“Is that it? Be nice to people. You mean all those other distractions are just...”
He nodded. Duh. The space race was over. For now.
‘…I mean, that’s pretty ironic, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you say that’s ironic?’
‘Do you find it ironic?’
‘Yeh, of course. I mean a company that works in space, it literally specialises in selling space, doesn’t have enough room in its own parking lot for everyone who works there. It doesn’t have enough spaces. The Space Race storage firm, out of spaces. So you gotta drive a mile down the road to the overflow, walk back twenty minutes to the office, you’re late, you’re sweaty, you’re all het up…’
‘You got angry?’
‘No, no, listen. No, I didn’t get angry. I just felt… defeated. When I get to the car park, the main car park, not the overflow, when I get there it's eerily quiet. Usually when I arrive it’s chaos, screeching tyres and squealing brakes, horns blaring. The whole lot. But this morning, there's a deathly silence over the whole place, like driving into a cloud. As if everything is deadened. I guess I was a little later than usual. I curse myself, assume there won’t be a space. But then I see one, over in the far corner. Not a desirable spot, under a sycamore that seems to be home to some monster birds judging by what they leave on your car - I mean what are those things eating! - but anyway it’s a spot, so I head over to it. And I know I gotta make a quick getaway so I can get over here to see you so I think, I’ll reverse into the space. I drive just past it, select reverse and then voom! a little red sports car just drives right in there, right in behind me, into the last spot in the lot. So I get out my car and go over, bend down to this little sports car, tap on the glass, there’s a lady in there but the window’s tinted, she cracks it open and says ‘Yes?’ and I say ‘Lady, I’m sorry but I believe you’ve just taken my parking space,’ and she says ‘Did I? Seeing as you drove right past it I’d assumed you weren’t taking it,’ and she shuts the window and pretty much whacks me in the leg with her door as she gets out.
‘And so I step back in a hurry and look at her, see her properly for the first time, and for a split second I could swear it was Amy. It was like she was standing there again, in front of me, an apparition. Tall, slim, grey-blonde hair cut short. But then this lady takes off her shades and she’s got these harsh, cold grey eyes. Nothing like Amy’s. Amy was always so warm, so understanding. This cuts me out of my reverie. And I stumble back to the car, mumbling an apology – an apology, for Chrissakes, as if I’d jumped into her space – and that’s that. So I'm late getting into work... but listen, I got the plates of her little red sports car, so I go down at lunchtime and check with my buddy Phil on front desk: nobody booked in that car. Nobody knows who she is. And when I walk out to the sycamore to check I got the plates right, her car isn’t even there. There's a silver sedan in its place. Weird, huh?’
‘How are things at home?’
‘Sure, things are okay. Alice is fine. Tom is fine. See this on my shirt – that’s a little fleck of yolk, the collateral damage from a toast-rocket crash landing in a boiled egg this morning. Tom’s obsessed by space, you know – outer space, not my kind of space. I’m not sure he knows the difference quite yet. Dadda’s a space man! And I'm like, yeh, Tom, but not in that way… I’m gonna have to crush his dreams one day. No, dadda doesn’t work for NASA, dadda sells storage…’
‘And how is it between you and Alice?’
‘Yeh, you know, we’re okay. We make time for each other. Her parents took Tom for a weekend maybe a couple of months back. It was great. We ate pizza and watched a whole boxset uninterrupted… yeh, it was bliss.’
‘What about sexually?’
‘Ah, um, how do you mean? Like – yeh, you know. It happens, from time to time. There’s, um… I’ve actually had some difficulties, with my, er – Alice calls it my performance. Which is a euphemism. Obviously. We’re working through it.’
‘Well, I mean, things get to a certain stage and – god – I mean I’m just not hard enough, so sometimes she uses her vibrator, or she gets me to put my -’
‘I meant how are you working through it.’
‘Oh! Oh. Well, there are, um, workarounds. And it’s probably just a phase. I think she doesn’t want to put too much pressure on me, especially since, you know…’
‘Since Amy passed.’
‘Do you think it’s just a phase?’
‘Why do you think it’s happening?’
‘Have you considered seeing a therapist?’
‘You’re my therapist!’
‘I meant a sexual therapist.’
‘Can’t you multi-task?’
‘A specialist. Together.’
‘Christ doc, how many therapists do you think I can afford? I’m working for a storage company, not Goldman Sachs! Do you think I’m skimming money off the Synagogue dues? Do you think I run a sideline in diamond smuggling? Not all of us are rich, you know!’
‘Calm down Joe, calm down…’
‘Calm down? How am I meant to be calm? I’ve only got another fourteen and a half years to save up for Tom’s college fees! I don’t want him to have to go in-state! Not if he’s bright! And what if he wants to grad school? And my parents have been very explicit about what kind of headstones they want when they pass – Iranian travertine doesn’t come cheap, you know! And it’s not like I can split that cost with Amy, not now!’
‘And you want me to have a band of therapists, one for each night of the week, one for each book of the Torah, frowning and nodding and saying how does that make you feel and how are things at home and why can’t you fuck your wife anymore and why’s your life so fucking pathetic and… doc, they threatened to fire me today.’
‘How did that make you feel?’
‘There you go again!’
‘Tell me, Joe. Tell me what happened.’
‘So I’m running late. I’ve had to park in the overflow lot. I guess I’ll be five minutes late for my nine o’clock, not too bad. Five minutes is fine. But I’m sweating, panting from that brisk walk back to the office. Phone’s out of juice, forgot to charge it last night, I scramble up the stairs to Saturn – all our meeting rooms are named after planets – but they aren’t in there, so I’m jogging over to Neptune which, realistically, that’s the only planet you’re going to mix up with Saturn, and I catch my shin on one of the trendy low chairs they have in the Asteroid Belt, that’s the break-out area, don’t ask me why you gotta go through an asteroid belt between Saturn and Neptune… It’s crazy painful, I think I’m probably bleeding, eventually I find them in Uranus and I limp in, dishevelled, egg on my shirt, I haven’t even had a coffee – and immediately Miranda gets me to explain my team’s crummy sales in front of all the other team leaders. I’ve barely even sat down. I think we’ve been unlucky, I say. How so? Because of the people we’re cold-calling, the people we’re speaking to. They don’t wanna buy storage space. They all seem to be upsizing – they’re buying bigger homes. They just don’t need the space. And Miranda smiles at me. Not sympathetically, not cruelly. Pityingly. I can feel the blood trickling down my shin and saturating my sock. I have a headache, I really need a coffee. You’ve got to sell it to them, says Miranda. Sell them the dream of The Space Race. At The Space Race, we make storage sexy. We make it aspirational, like an electric garage door or a robot vacuum cleaner. Who cares if they need it, she says: make them want it. If they’re upsizing, all the better. It means they’re rich. It means they probably have a lot of junk. Make them think how nice their big new house will look without all their junk in it. But don’t throw it away! Keep it. Put it in storage with The Space Race. That way, you can come and visit it whenever you like. It’s like putting a distant aunt into a friendly nursing home. You want her looked after, but you don’t want her around all the time. You can visit whenever you like. Although you know you never will.
‘After the session, Miranda takes me aside. We try to find a room but there isn’t one spare, so we end up squatting in the Asteroid Belt, like itinerant spacemen. In big blue letters on the wall it says “Let your ideas float free, like asteroids”. I’m thinking about what a bad metaphor that is. Like the asteroids that wiped out the dinosaurs? Yeh, that went well… And you know our company strapline? “The Space Race: our storage is infinite”. And I’m thinking, I know for a fact that our storage isn’t infinite. We have three-hundred and forty-seven storage centres across the US, with a combined total space of – look, anyway, it’s not infinite. We aren’t even the biggest storage firm in the country – that’s Big Green Box Storage Solutions. We could buy some more space. But if someone came and said, hey, I’d like to store every grain of sand from every beach in the Western hemisphere, we’d have to say, no, we actually don’t have room for all that sand. And they’d say, oh, but I thought your storage was infinite. Well, no, it’s a lie. Sorry buddy. Obviously it’s a lie. So I’m mulling over all this and then Miranda says ‘middle-management redundancies’ which brings me right back down to earth, and she says some things about performance and standards, that my sales need to perk up in the next few weeks, or I’ll be out the door. So…’
‘How do you feel about that prospect?’
‘Ah, I’m… pfft. I’m not sure. I hate my job, but I’m shit scared of losing it. That’s definitely ironic. But since Amy died, I… she was my big sister, you know? I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. She was only forty-seven. That’s not old. I always marked myself against her. She was the smart one, the clever big sister. I was her little brother. Since she passed, I've been almost… drifting, you know? Lost in space. Bumping into asteroids, floating past stars. Not in control. Maybe moving jobs wouldn’t be so bad. Alice could go back to teaching, I could stay at home with Tom and figure out what's right for me. Tom starts school in autumn… and I’ve always wanted to write. So there’s that.
‘I miss Amy so much. It’s just empty, where she used to be. For a while it was all I could do just to keep going. And I faltered. But now, I… I think I might be ready to accept it. Not to move on, but to absorb it, make it a part of myself. When I look in the mirror, to see her warm brown eyes looking back at me, urging me on. She wouldn’t have wanted me stuck at The Space Race forever. She -’
‘That’s your hour, Joe.’
‘That seemed short, doctor -’
‘You were a little late, remember?’
‘Doc, I really feel like we were about to –‘
‘It’s a process, Joe. You need to remember that. I’ll see you next week.’
Listening to the odd man
With the blue shadowed eyes
We dream of Starmen floating,
Opening doors to the other side.
Meanwhile, engines roar, the flames
Of manmade rockets fire and you
Smile at us up there, somewhere,
Beyond the edge, outside the circle.
We hold our breath, count down from ten,
You open the hatch, to absolute emptiness.
Outside encased in your shell, you work
An extra terrestrial repair man. While behind
You hangs, a great blue and green swirling orb
Floating like a marble suspended in space.
Close enough to touch if only our hands could reach.