She met the spaceman just before last call at Dolly O’Dorsey’s. She’d reached the tarpit nadir of a daylong bender that began with a half box of gutter Chardonnay followed by ten Diet and Malibus, which found her now sucking with petulance at a bottle of Miller Lite, the lid of which was so rusted from having been submerged in icy water that each sip rang a sharp note of blood. The spaceman was drunk too. Too drunk to hang on to his stool—he half-leaned against the sticky bar with one long leg propping him up against the footrail and the other jutting out so that people were tripping over him all night—and too drunk to hang on to either her thread of conversation or his own.
“I got a spaceship out back,” he kept saying. The more she stared, the deeper the dimple at the center of his chin seemed to grow, like a black hole.
“And this cat is such an ungrateful shit,” she was saying, had been saying. Somewhere in the night, she’d lost the ability to walk alongside her words, and she suspected she was caught in some conversational loop, her point a brass ring she could almost reach, but not quite.
“I found him literally in a dumpster. I had to pick egg salad out of his fur. And I took him home and fed him and gave him”—she had to swallow a loud belch—“gave him a good life and all that crap. And then he disappears for a week, and I come to find out he’s been sleeping in my neighbor’s garage, the little shit.”
“Yeah, I sleep in the spaceship,” the spaceman said. “You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve seen, honey. Jupiter. Fucking Neptune. It’s beautiful out there. If you can get past the razor cats.”
“I never had a dude step out on me, but that hurt, you know? To find out I’d been feeding and harboring this little turncoat and that he could just up and leave me for no reason. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a stupid cat. I’m well aware of that. But still, you come to rely on someone. You wake up and hear their dumb little voice in the kitchen asking for food. You just get used to the fact that this is the way things are.”
“The way things are. Amen. Once you’ve been up there, you see Earth for the flat fucking pointless place it really is. Once you’ve watched Europa rise over Callisto, that’s it, baby. It’s all downhill.”
She’d ripped the label off her beer and rolled it into a squishy little ball, and at that moment, she wanted something bad to happen to her. She wanted hurt. She wanted someone to come from behind and slam her head against the lacquered wood of the bar. There was freedom in it—she knew that. Freedom in giving up to violence, in riding the railcar down into the black open maw. There were no questions all the way down there.
“Two shots of Jameson,” she said and tapped the bar. The boy at the cash register wavered a second. She could see all of his twenty-one years coming to bear on the fact that he held power over these two grey hairs fumbling and mumbling in the corner under the Guinness sign that counted down the seconds until the next Saint Patrick’s Day. Finally, the boy rolled his eyes and grabbed two glasses.
The whiskey hurt bad going down. Shooting shit whiskey made her esophagus burn and brought a fast creep of bile up onto her tongue. It wasn’t a broken nose, but it was close enough.
“You ever get railed in a spaceship?” the spaceman asked.
At the same instant, she swallowed a little vomit back down her throat and said, “I buried my dad today.”
The spaceship looked a lot like a gold Camry. The inside smelled like greasy rags, and the right half of the passenger seat was damp and spongy where the spaceman had forgotten to roll up the window before the night’s rain. She didn’t want a wet ass, so she tried to perch on her left side with her right half slightly suspended above the cushion, but the spaceman roared them out of the parking lot and jerked them around corners, and she was thrown down into the wet. She hoped the spaceman wouldn’t think she had pissed herself.
He drove them to the make out spot at the top of Snake Peak and turned off the spaceship. Below, the city twinkled red and gold and orange. She started to cry.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” he asked. “Hey, no, don’t—listen, I’m sorry about your dad.” He produced a can of beer from somewhere near his feet and opened it and handed it to her, along with a stiffened handkerchief from his front pocket. “My dad’s in the dirt down there too,” he said. “But my dad was a drunk piece of shit, and I’ve had to be my own dad for as long as I can remember.”
She drank a sip of warm beer before she spoke. “It’s a racket, you know? Parents. I say we’re born alone and die alone. That’s the—what do you call it? Human condition.”
“You said it, baby.”
She blew her nose and felt the spaceman slide his hand onto her thigh. It was warm and large and the confused kind of reassurance she felt she needed right then. She wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand, and she thought in the darkened spaceship that he could at one time maybe have resembled Kirk Douglas.
“It’s been a week,” she said. “First my cat leaves me, and then my dad dies. And the stupid thing is, I’m honestly more upset about the cat.”
“Fathers are overrated,” the spaceman said.
“I mean, I still need all that crap,” she said. “All that I’m-proud-of-you-princess shit. I’m almost sixty, and I still want someone to take care of me. I’ve been to therapy. I have daddy issues. I’ll say it. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
“Well if that’s what you want, I’ll take care of you, darlin’.”
“You mean it?” she asked, knowing the farce of it: the two of them players, the stage the front seat of the spaceship, the drama acted only for the tiny and fleeting pleasure of feeling moored. When they kissed, the rough weave of his face scratched her, and she thought she should have called a cab from the bar and gone home. She thought it wasn’t such a hot idea to go to space with someone too drunk to get his hand all the way under her sweater to unhook her bra. But she stayed in her seat, the right half of her body now wet through, and she told herself it was all decided, that now she just had to hope for the best.
The spaceman finally pulled away and started flicking switches and depressing levers.
“Are you ready to fly?” he asked.
“I sure don’t want to go home,” she said with her forehead against the hard glass, speaking to the smearing rain. The atmosphere felt so heavy, the sky and the clouds and the air converging on her like a giant sponge. “Maybe I can stay with you for a while,” she whispered, afraid if she said the words too loud, he’d reach across to open the door and toss her out. Her voice against the glass fogged and spread and whited out the world.
“Get ready, darlin’,” said the spaceman, and he backed them up as far as they could go against a tall stand of eucalyptus. It was very late, and they were the only ones out. The engine roared, and the spaceship shook. Then he pushed some lever that she understood, through a lifetime of watching movies, was the throttle. The sudden acceleration made her scream, velocity and gravity turning her body to electric jelly. They cleared the edge of Snake Peak, and she could feel them falling, plunging, could imagine the violence and the wreckage, could see their tender bodies twisted and torn on the sawblade rocks. And she was relieved. She hadn’t had to decide a thing.
But she realized she’d squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them, she saw they were flying out over the city, the reservoir and the football stadium and the boulevard lined with box stores all silently slipping into nothingness as they climbed and climbed.
“Is that the Grand Canyon?” she asked, looking down on the dawning blue land, but then she felt nauseous and had to sit back against the seat and close her eyes again. After a while, it felt like they’d stopped moving, so she opened her eyes and saw they were now well above Earth. Cities like gold glowed in patches and flowed in streams across the silent sphere. It was a view not meant for her, not meant for any human, and she felt momentarily cowed by the privilege of looking down on all creation, dazzling and plethoric.
She kept her eyes on the amber coastline of Japan as she slid off her panties and arrayed herself awkwardly across the front seat. The spaceman wasn’t a bad lay, drunk as he was, and she liked the weight and the warmth of him, the cowboy funk of his armpits, the way he placed his open palm against the front windshield before her so that she wouldn’t smash her forehead against the glass. They shared a cigarette afterward and watched dawn break over Hawaii and Bora Bora.
“Time to take you back home,” said the spaceman. “I gotta get back up to Callisto.”
“Oh come on. I don’t want to go home. I want to go to Callisto. Take me with you.”
“Shit no.” He began flicking switches again and adjusting levers, and with dread, she watched Earth growing larger.
“You said you’d take care of me.”
“Did I not just take care of you?” He gave her a dirty little grin, and she sat back against her seat with her arms folded and chewed the inside of her cheek.
“I’ll jump,” she said and put one hand on the passenger door. “I’ll do it right now, I swear. I told you I don’t want to go back.” And she thought she would do it, enjoying the perverse little chill she got from her hand on the cool metal of the door handle, that slender morsel of Japanese engineering the only thing separating the two of them from a frozen, inside-out death miles above the Earth’s surface. The thought of returning to her cheesy apartment and eating canned soup for dinner and deciding whether to return the phone calls of friends and cousins who’d heard about her father’s passing and either wanted to give slim condolence or lay surreptitious claim to his ’71 Super Glide made her tighten her grip a little more and entertain the question of whether she might just open the door anyway.
“Fucking crazy bitch,” the spaceman said. “Every time I get some tail up here, she’s gotta be some fucking crazy bitch. I got shit to do, you know. I’m not a tour guide.”
“Well you don’t have to be a pig about it,” she said and took her hand off the door handle. “Jesus.”
“Yeah, you want a daddy all right,” the spaceman said. “You want someone to pick you up and carry you around and tell you what to do and where to go. Shit, I’d like to never make another decision too. Fuck.”
He had another beer in his hand, and she recognized the slight tremor in his fingers, the jaundice in his eyes. She thought about saying that he seemed to have given his life decisions over to a higher power long ago, but she thought she better not. She really wanted to see Callisto. And she really wanted another one of those beers.
“You won’t like Callisto,” he said. “It’s not—” But he stopped speaking and shook his head. “Ah, fuck it,” and he finished the beer and threw the can in the backseat before he punched some buttons and then let go of the steering wheel.
She thrilled a second at having worn him down. Before long, Earth was a blue dot she could cover with her thumb in the side-view mirror.
“I’m taking a nap,” the spaceman said. “It’s on autopilot, so don’t touch anything. If we land and I’m still not up, holler.”
“Where’s your beer?”
He breathed in hard through his nose and glared at her before he reached down between his legs and handed her a box half full of warm cans. “This is all I have,” he said, “and the beer on Callisto tastes like Pine-Sol, so don’t drink ’em all.”
She finished the last beer in the box as they made their descent toward Callisto’s rocky surface. She’d spent the ride thinking about what he’d said, how she wanted to never make another decision in her life, and she planned to wake him up and tell him no, he was dead wrong, that she just wanted someone to care about her and cuddle her and make her breakfast on Saturday mornings and above all else, make her feel special. Don’t I deserve to feel special, she would ask him. Is that such a big thing to want? And she thought that the spaceman could be the man to make her feel special, at least for a little while. She’d have to work on him, of course, encourage him to be thoughtful and respectful and kind. But she thought that out of this raw material she could fashion him into someone who would care about her. I’ll take care of you, is how she’d put it to him. By caring for him, she’d get him to care for her.
• • •
TO READ MORE FROM THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 1
ELIZABETH GONZALEZ JAMES is the author of the novels Mona at Sea (SFWP, 2021) and The Bullet Swallower (forthcoming, Simon & Schuster, 2024), as well as the chapbook Five Conversations About Peter Sellers (Texas Review Press, 2023). She is also the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus. Originally from South Texas, she currently lives in Massachusetts with her family.