The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 3

The Cosmonaut

by Ian David Froeb

Untitled Document

APRIL 12, 2001






Stapled to Ping’s letter was a photocopy of a page from a Russian newspaper. Edward hadn’t read Russian since his retirement from NASA, but it was like Ping to presume he hadn’t forgotten a word. He took the Russian dictionary from his bookshelf, brushed the dust from it, then carried it and the letter to his desk.
           Ping had marked the relevant item on the newspaper page. It was a short notice. The photocopy was poor: the ink too light, the print fuzzy. Each word floated above the page and wavered on the periphery of his vision, as in a test an ophthalmologist might give. He removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. Surely such a simple task wasn’t beyond him. He perched his spectacles where his nose broadened and, following the text with his index finger, his left hand poised above the dictionary, began to translate.
           Mikhail Ilyich Korff. Died on January 10, 2001. Seventy-six years old. Lived in St. Petersburg. In his apartment gave piano lessons to children. Decorated for valor in the Great Patriotic War. No known living kin.
           He read the obituary again, but with the same result: in the end, Mikhail had returned to Russia. It was surprising, surprising and sad—although for reasons far more complicated than Ping believed. Ping considered Mikhail a figure from the Cold War, a historical curiosity. But Edward’s surprise and sadness had nothing to do with politics.
           Jeanne called him to dinner. He put Ping’s letter aside and went to the kitchen.
           “What does Ping write?” Jeanne asked.
           “He says hello.” He kissed her cheek. “And someone we worked with died. Mikhail.”
           “My God. I haven’t thought of him in years.” She ladled beef stew into two bowls. “He was ancient when we knew him.”
           “He’s my age.”
           She pursed her lips, a patient smile. “I meant ancient in spirit. Do you think they buried him in that funny hat he always wore?”
           Edward carried the bowls of stew to the table. “I don’t know what hat you’re talking about.”
           Of course, the Mikhail Ilyich Korff in the newspaper might not be the Mikhail he had known. Mikhail was a common first name in Russia, and Ilyich a common patronymic. The obituary didn’t mention Mikhail’s role in the Soviet space program—that if not for an irregular heartbeat he, not Yuri Gagarin, would have been the first man to orbit Earth. It didn’t mention his wife, Sofya.
           “A deerstalker,” Jeanne said as they cleared the table.
           “That funny hat he wore. It’s called a deerstalker.”
           “He never wore a funny hat.”
           “No need to snap.” She waved a dishtowel at him. “Go. You’re in one of your moods. I’ll clean up faster by myself.”
           He returned to his desk and read the obituary again. Mikhail was dead. It was ridiculous to think otherwise. The age was right, and the detail that he’d taught piano in his apartment was persuasive. From his bookshelf Edward took a photo album and opened it to the final page: a shot of Mikhail, Ping, and himself in the backyard of his house in Greenbelt, Maryland, celebrating the launch that day of the rocket carrying the Brahe module. Mikhail, in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, the outline of a pack of cigarettes visible in his chest pocket, looked no less comfortable an American than Ping or he himself did. Mikhail had seemed happy then, satisfied that he’d had an impact on the Brahe Project, looking forward to his next assignment with NASA. He’d had no reason to return to Russia. None whatsoever. But he had.
           The shot was tilted five degrees on its z axis. Linda had taken it. She couldn’t hold a camera steady at that point but had insisted on joining the celebration. Even now her strength during those final months impressed—no, staggered—him.

Jeanne was already asleep when he came to the bedroom. He padded across the carpet and turned back the covers on his side of the bed.
           “I’m awake,” she murmured.
           He lay down and pulled the covers to his chin. “You’re angry I snapped at you.”
           “No. You lost someone.” She nuzzled her head against his shoulder. “Do you want to talk?”
           “You’re too understanding. I don’t deserve it.”
           She kissed him on the mouth: her lips were soft, the tip of her tongue ticklish against the tip of his. His hands moved through the dark toward the gentle slopes of her hips. He fumbled with the hem of her nightgown. He couldn’t lift it from her without pinning her head in between her upraised arms. She told him to lie down. With one hand, she grabbed the bottom half of her nightgown in a bunch and held it above her waist; with the other, she yanked his pajama pants to his ankles. She straddled him, her hands against his sternum for leverage, and he swayed slightly with the rocking of her hips. The tilted picture: Linda’s trembling fingers struggling to focus the lens. His muscles quaked with exhaustion; he clutched Jeanne’s hips to halt her movement.
           “I’m sorry,” he said.
           “Don’t.” She laid her head against his chest. “The thought was lovely.”
           The warm pulse of her breath on his neck slowed. She’d fallen asleep. The pressure of her body against his made his joints ache, but he didn’t want to move her to her side of the bed. He stroked her face, marveling at the soft, smooth skin, at the dusting of freckles on her cheeks. He was more attracted to her now than when they’d met, twenty-six years earlier.
           Jeanne had stopped by his office to introduce herself: Ping’s new secretary. A short, plump woman in her early thirties, curves that might have been pleasing flattened by a poorly tailored pantsuit. Face pale and unpainted, hair pulled back into a bun. Certainly not as beautiful as Linda had been at her age.
           He was tall and quite thin then—not handsome, exactly, but with what he thought a good face: his nose a bit too thick, his forehead a bit too high, but his eyes bright green, his jaw strong. Now his hair had gone silver and he’d lost a few inches from his height—several operations for a slipped disc and the natural curving of age—and after he quit smoking and stopped walking to his office every day he’d developed a soft, sagging paunch. He now had to study his reflection for minutes to find the green within his rheumy eyes.
           Only when his son visited from college could he recall how he’d once looked—and even then this recollection was faint. William was tall and lanky and had his green eyes, but William’s features were softer—they had the rounded quality of Jeanne’s—and his hair, like Jeanne’s, was curly and a rich, chocolate brown. William, a drama student also taking pre-med courses, had the world ahead of him. Edward wouldn’t live to see all that William might make of his possibilities. This he’d known since William’s birth. Yet these bittersweet feelings always turned to frank amazement. He was seventy-six years old, past the age when the world expected anything from him, yet he could claim to be the father of this young man. This young man, soon to become a doctor, an actor, or both, still phoned him for advice on car repair, to ask his opinion on politics or baseball. He thought this one of the miracles of life.
           He’d wanted a child with Linda. It would be easy now to say he hadn’t, that they hadn’t been meant to be parents. But, oh, he’d wanted a child—he’d wanted everything—with her. Linda was a tall, slender girl with sharp features—almond-shaped eyes and a thin, sleek nose. Her face seemed to split the air as she moved forward. He thought her a movie star, the tough-talking dame in detective pictures, the one with a wounded heart. She would have looked good wearing a hat with a black veil, smoking a Turkish cigarette in an ivory holder.
           They made love for the first time in the backseat of his father’s Packard the night before he enlisted in the Navy. Her expression then—her head turned aside, her eyes half-shut, biting a corner of her bottom lip—suggested however close he might be to her at that moment, he’d never learn her secrets. Still, he promised her his heart. Three years he was away. On the deck of the Enterprise in the Pacific, when the evening sky was cloudless and bright with what seemed millions of stars, he would get dizzy at the thought of those secrets and the mystery of their future together looming above him, infinite, unknowable.
           They married a month after he came back from the war and a week before he enrolled at Johns Hopkins. Linda didn’t become pregnant right away, but he didn’t worry. His time in the Navy had taught him patience. It was easy to forget that they were young—twenty-one, and he was already a veteran!—that they still had their entire lives ahead of them. Besides, he believed it wise not to have children so soon. There was the workload of his studies, at Hopkins and then at MIT. There was the move from Baltimore to Boston, then from Boston to Las Cruces for his first assignment with the government, then from Las Cruces back to Greenbelt for his permanent assignment at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This was 1959. They were settled now, but no longer so young. He was thirty-four, Linda thirty-two. Still, no child came. They sought medical advice. The doctor was compassionate but clear: Linda could not bear children.
           Linda accepted the news much better than he would have imagined. She was firm in her conviction they would raise a child—they would adopt. But as they undertook the process, as they filled out forms and sat through interviews, she grew angry with him. Why had they waited so long to consult a doctor? Why had they wasted so much time?
           They’d been too busy, he told her. Besides, no adoption agency would have considered them when they’d moved so many times. He understood her anger but didn’t share it. He didn’t think it rational. They’d already wasted too much time being frustrated. Their lovemaking had become as rote as the tests he performed at work. Worse, even. It held no mystery, no chance of discovery at its conclusion. Now, they had an explanation for, and a solution to, their problems. For this, he was grateful.
           The adoption agent called them an ideal couple. Edward painted the spare bedroom light blue. Linda knitted booties, caps, and a sweater. Then came her first bout with illness: a lump in her right breast. The doctors eliminated this cancer, but Linda said she wasn’t yet strong enough to endure the adoption process. He worked on the Apollo program twelve or more hours each day. Then he was named codirector of the Brahe Project. The slow, steady progress of the work absorbed him: visiting Las Cruces or Houston for weeks at a time; debating with Ping where to place the radio transmitter on the Brahe module to provide the most accurate telemetry; knowing five years would pass before the module began sending back results. It gave him the sense he was part of something far greater than himself, something that would outlive generations.
           Linda took a job at the public library and in her spare time got involved in Greenbelt’s civic pride association. She put her knitting in a box in a closet in the basement. The light blue bedroom remained unfurnished. It was 1975. He was fifty years old, his hair had turned silver, and he considered his and Linda’s efforts to be parents an idea that a better scientist would have scribbled down, then discarded without lifting his pencil from the page. He spent too much time at work. Linda never fully recovered her strength after her illness. The great bawling energy of a child would have overwhelmed them both.
           His work could so absorb him that someone wanting to speak with him had to knock on his office door or call his name several times. Jeanne, the day they met, knocked once. Later, he would ask her how long she had stood in his doorway, watching him, before he happened to look up, and she would tell him, “Long enough.”

She introduced herself. She’d started the week before when he’d been in Houston. He noted as discreetly as he could her plain clothing, her simple hairstyle, her lack of makeup. She would be an excellent worker, he concluded, quiet and efficient.
           “Don’t let Ping work you too hard,” he said. He meant it as a joke, but he spoke sternly, biting off the end of each word.
           “Oh, he’s not. He has me doing calculations for some project,” she said. “The Tiki Bar Project? That can’t be right. Anyway, it was a piece of cake once I rounded the decimals up.”
           He stared at her.
           “I’m kidding,” she said and laughed softly. Her teeth were small and white, her laugh a low, husky bubbling. “He wanted me to give you this.” She approached his desk and handed him a manila folder.
           He didn’t meet her eyes.
           That night, as he did most nights, he heated dinner for Linda and himself in the oven. They sat on the living room sofa and watched television while they ate. During a commercial break, Linda put her plate—mashed potatoes and gravy still heaped upon it—on the coffee table and told him she was going to bed.
           “It’s only eight-thirty,” he said.
           “I’m exhausted.”
           “Because you don’t eat properly.”
           “I eat fine.” She stood from the sofa. “But right now I’m not hungry.”
           “You said that last night.”
           “Edward, please, I just want to go to bed.”
           Her skin was gray in the room’s dim light, the bags underneath her eyes blue tinged with black. The face he’d loved for its secrets was now too sallow and pinched to hide anything. She seemed less a person than a sketch of a person. She was sick again, he thought, and this thought immediately became a certainty. Suddenly, he wanted to embrace her as he had after that first time they’d made love: lying spooned across the back seat of his father’s Packard, her back to him, her breasts resting in the crook of his arm, his nose pressed to her neck, burning the scent of soap and sweat into his memory. The ferocity of this desire shocked him, but as he stood to embrace her, he found it wasn’t desire he felt but rage—rage that thirty years had brought them no further than this: she standing over a plate of cold mashed potatoes, exhausted, barren, miserable; he able only to put his arms around her and tell her what she already knew.
           “You should see a doctor,” he said. “It’s probably nothing. But if it’s not—if it’s not, you know we have to find out as soon as we can.”
           She rested her forehead against his shoulder but said nothing and didn’t return his embrace.
           “I’ll call tomorrow to make an appointment,” he said. “I’ll schedule it for when I’m back from Las Cruces. We’ll go together.”
           Even as he said this, he wondered what they would do if it wasn’t nothing. They’d lived so long in the shadow of her first illness that darkness and solitude seemed the normal course of their life together. He feared another illness would reveal their marriage to be a sham, a way to pass time between crises. No, he didn’t believe this. Not really. What was a marriage if not two people constructing something to withstand the relentless passage of time? But Linda’s first illness had ended the hope of their becoming parents, and he didn’t know what remained for a second illness to end, except for the marriage itself. As estranged as their marriage might be, he couldn’t imagine himself separated from it, from her.

In Las Cruces, at White Sands, he observed a test firing of the Brahe module’s thrusters. The thrusters ignited, twin ribbons of white heat against the desert’s hazy gold. Then the entire apparatus—thrusters, engine, test platform—exploded. Debris fell hundreds of yards away. Black smoke towered above the test site. A catastrophe, said the head engineer, covering his face with his hands.
           Edward called Linda that night and said he would be coming home several days later than he’d planned. She should reschedule the appointment he’d made for her.
           “I already went,” she said.
           “What?” He switched the receiver from one ear to the other. “Why?”
           “I wanted to get it over with. I went yesterday. I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong. I’m taking a week off from the library. It’s what the doctor suggested. Rest.”
           “We were going to go together.”
           “Edward—” It sounded as if she were stifling a yawn. “When have we done anything together? If you’d come home when you were supposed to, you’d have found another reason not to go.”
           “I wanted—” he began, but she’d hung up. He slammed the receiver into its cradle. Of course he was relieved Linda wasn’t ill, but in one sense it was as bad as he’d feared: the threat of illness had revealed the fissure between them. A small fissure—but perhaps an even smaller fissure, a microscopic rupture in a fuel line, had caused the destruction of the thrusters.
           He accompanied a few colleagues to a bar in Las Cruces to commiserate over the accident. The bar was dim and smoky, not much bigger than the living room of his house. The hostess led them to a table in the back, and a waitress brought them pitchers of beer. He drank several glasses of the watery beer, then ordered a Scotch. One of the engineers laughed at his drink order, but then thumped his back with the palm of a hand, no hard feelings. He’d wanted to nurse the Scotch but downed it in two burning gulps. Johnny Cash was playing on the jukebox. It was too loud to follow conversation. A woman now sat beside him. She had red hair teased into a cascade and wore a black dress that showed a constellation of freckles above her large breasts. He ordered a second Scotch and asked the woman what she wanted to drink. She shook her head no. He asked what she did. She was a singer, she offered. She was working to earn money to go to New York City to audition for record companies. He finished his Scotch in one swallow. She rested her hand above his knee and asked what he liked to do. He spoke of the Brahe Project, its general idea: to establish a sensor platform beyond Earth’s gravitational pull; to learn how this distance would impact long-term data accumulation; to build the foundation for future devices—a space telescope, say—that wouldn’t be restricted to Earth’s orbit.
           “No,” she said. Her lips brushed his earlobe. “I mean, what do you like?”
           She led him to a small bedroom upstairs above the bar. There was a thin mattress on the hardwood floor, beside it a jar of Vaseline and a strip of condoms like the coiled skin of a snake. The room smelled of incense and bleach. She sat on the edge of the mattress and removed her dress in one motion. Stretch marks striped the mound of her stomach. Yellow bruises splotched the lengths of her pocked thighs.
           He leaned against the wall to keep his balance. “I left my wallet downstairs,” he said. “I think I’d better go.”
           He sat by himself in the bar, sipping from a glass of water, waiting for the other engineers to return from upstairs. It was four in the morning back east, too early to call Linda. He pinched the bridge of his nose. His stomach was bubbling with guilt and Scotch. He didn’t think he could wait several days to talk with her. But hadn’t he waited thirty years already?
           In fact, he returned to Greenbelt the next day. The director of Goddard called him back for an emergency meeting. The failure of the thrusters had panicked NASA. They feared the project was losing momentum and needed a stronger sense of direction. Edward took this to be a criticism of his leadership and offered to resign. The director laughed and said it wasn’t that serious. NASA was sending a senior consultant to work directly with him and Ping. Mikhail Korff, once the shining star of the Soviet space program. A test pilot and an engineer. He’d had a crisis of conscience in the early 1960s after his wife’s death in a plane crash and defected to the United States.
           Edward got home late that night. Linda was asleep. He wanted to wake her but thought of her doctor’s advice that she rest. He went into the bathroom. When he came back, she was sitting up in bed.
           “You scared me,” she said. “I was going to call the police.”
           “I’m sorry. They flew me out first thing this morning. I didn’t have a chance to call.” He changed into his pajamas, telling her about the meeting at Goddard. “If I don’t get my act together soon, I think they might replace me entirely.”
           She yawned. “Can we talk tomorrow?”
           “I think we should talk now.” He sat down beside her. “I want to know why you went to the doctor without me.”
           “I told you it’s no big deal. I’m fine.” She fluffed her pillow between her hands. “I need rest, Edward. That’s all.”
           He considered telling her he’d slept with the whore in Las Cruces, but it occurred to him she might not even care. This realization wounded him more deeply than the guilt he carried for following the whore upstairs. He removed his pajamas and put on the clothes he’d worn all day. Linda sat up and asked where he was going.
           “I feel restless,” he said. “I’m going to my office.”
           “It’s almost midnight.” Then, more softly, she added, “You need rest, too.”
           “I have too much work to catch up on.”

Goddard was quiet but by no means empty. In scattered windows of every building the fluorescent lights flickered. As he approached his building, he saw a light in a window of Ping’s office. He unlocked the door to his office, then went down the hall to say hello. Jeanne stood at her desk in the office’s anteroom, loudly declaiming a poem. When she seemed to have finished, he cleared his throat. She looked up, her mouth round with surprise, then smiled.
           “Don’t worry,” she said. “Ping’s not making me do this.”
           “I saw the light.”
           “The acoustics are better here than at home.” She pointed to a plate on her desk. “I made brownies.”
           He told her to be sure to lock Ping’s office when she left. In his office, he began sorting through the paperwork that had accumulated while he’d been in Las Cruces. He’d made almost no progress when Jeanne knocked on his door and said she was leaving.
           “Are you sure you don’t want a brownie?” she asked.
           He eyed the plate, held now beneath her chest. “Maybe one.”
           She crossed to his desk. He took one and nibbled its corner.
           “Ping told me what happened with the thrusters,” she said. “I’m sure it’s a temporary setback. Maybe you can just adjust the fuel-to-oxygen ratio rather than redesigning them from scratch.”
           A brownie crumb fell from his lip to his lap. He brushed it aside.
           “I majored in physics,” she said. “Acting’s just a hobby. Which reminds me.” From her purse she took a sheet of paper. “We’re performing Julius Caesar this weekend. The Greenbelt Dinner Theater Collective. I’m playing Calpurnia.”
           He took the sheet from her and placed it atop his pile of paperwork. “Thanks,” he said. “For the brownie.”

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