The Astronaut (Story by Risa Peris)

The parade was surprisingly long under the hot Illinois sun. Bethville was a small town and most people moved away when the largest employer, the US military, packed up and left. What was left were chicken butchering and some mining. Not enough to make a town great or livable. Everything looked eroded and neglected. There was a stench of body odor that settled over the town. Funny how I didn’t notice that as a kid. I spent my time riding my bike by the air force station and watching planes and jets take off. Now, thirty years later I’m sitting in a Cadillac with the mayor of Bethville waving to a lethargic crowd.

I became an astronaut. I never walked on the moon but spent time in the international space station. That’s when I was at my pilot’s weight. That’s when I was married. That’s when I had two sons. Now I was thirty pounds overweight, divorced from a woman with contempt for me, I had a son dead of cancer, and another son living in Chicago selling advertising for a newspaper and begging his mother and me for money to pay his student loans.

I had to give a speech. My voice faltered. What the hell was I doing back in Bethville? I hated the place when I lived here. I mumbled something. A pre-made NASA speech from years ago. There was a smattering of applause.

I got a ride back to the motel and then went across the highway to a bar. Three whiskeys in and a girl approached. She was skinny, had acne, and was wearing a halter top that emphasized her scrawniness.

“You’re that astronaut,” she said.

“In the flesh.”

“I could give you around the world – in the flesh.” She smiled and I noticed a crack in her front tooth.

I laughed but the seediness of it enticed me. We went to the motel room. She fell on her knees and took me into her mouth and all I could think about was the majesty of space and Earth from high in the sky. I didn’t think of my shit marriage or my sons. Only the aching beauty of the universe and life. I sat down on the bed and cried.

“What’s the matter?” asked the girl.

I had no words. None to describe the filth of this moment or the majesty of the moment.

“You should go,” I said. I packed and left Bethville. I went home and wondered how I would live with that incongruity. The expanse of the universe and the smallness of my wrecked life. I didn’t know how but on Monday I went to my job at the defense contractor and continued living.

I wondered, out there in space, of God. I wondered if God had touched me. If he had, he had long since left my body and life. I was left with a stench and lethargy. Maybe that was Satan. But I didn’t believe in that crap so I kept living my sorry life as a long-retired astronaut.


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