“Uncle, you have no children because you are alone.”
My niece is sitting on my chest, crushing a good hangover.
“You smell like Daddy’s soda,” she adds.
“Where’s Henry?” I ask.
Emily points in several directions, like a spastic drummer with no sticks. My nephew is in the corner of my room—a repurposed basement with indoor/outdoor carpeting and an old futon that smells like urine and dryer sheets—concerning himself with Lego. He hasn’t said much since my sister left.
“Henry, you want breakfast?”
“Sure,” he says quietly. He’s building what appears to be a condominium complex atop an aircraft carrier.
“What are you constructing, little man?”
“An independent state.”
“I don’t want to pay taxes.” His father’s a libertarian.
“It’s Career Day,” he whispers in a whisper.
“Good for today.”
I check my phone. Seventeen text messages from my sister, detailing everything from T-ball times to weekend birthday commitments to EpiPen locations, information I already have in a three hundred and twenty-eight line spreadsheet that met my hasty arrival to their suburban townhouse. None of the line items explained why children wake up at 5:48 am every day.
“Why are you still asleep?” Emily asks.
“Because normal people don’t get up before 9.”
“You can’t tell time.”
“I can too tell time.”
“What time is it now?”
“Why don’t you even have pajamas.”
“Someone stole them.”
“What happened to Aunty Cassie?”
“That woman was not your Aunt.”
“But what happened to her?”
Cassie had answered the phone when their mother called at 4 am three weeks ago. She wasn’t supposed to be there. We had broken up five months previous, but she had come by to return my stapler and Jethro Tull t-shirts and we had some boxed wine and then did what adults do after a gallon of cardboard merlot and Thick as a Brick. Midway through we both realized it was a mistake, but we’re Virgos so we finished.
“It’s your sister,” she had said suspiciously, slapping me awake with my phone.
“Why are you answering my phone?”
“I thought it might be her again.”
“Hayden?” My sister’s voice was broken and tired. “Hayden, he’s dead. He died Hayden. Dad’s gone. We have a flight booked in the morning. I need someone here for when the kids come home from school. And just for a few days. It’s too much to take them. They have their activities. I don’t want Emily missing ballet. And they hardly knew him.”
“I could go,” I barely offered.
“No, you can’t.”
“What about Mom?”
“Oh, fuck off, Hay.”
Dad had been sick. Since just after I left. Since he said things and I said things and we agreed to silence. We had expected him to live forever because our people believe in a vengeful god.
My stepmother was a handful. Chain smoked Virginia Slims and was desperately wistful for the days when you could lynch minorities for folding your sheets poorly. Drank blended scotch like it was the cure. She died three days after they arrived like she was going to find him in the afterlife to continue an argument they had been having since 1978. Two funerals, two wakes, two wills. Adult problems. So I moved to the suburbs for a while. But a few days was now three weeks and there was no sign of when they might return.
My niece doesn’t seem to care. “I want waffles, I want waffles, I want waffles, I want waffles, I want waffles, I want waffles,” she sings to the tune of all Taylor Swift songs.
“Waffles it is! Hand me some pants!”
“Because Uncle Hayden doesn’t wear underwear.”
Emily passes me my grey chinos and I slide them on beneath the covers. I stand up, a bit dizzy, but proud of my commitment to motion. “Henry?”
“Scrambled eggs? Jell-O? Bourbon lemonade?”
I clear a space in the mess of their kitchen for the toaster and pop in eight buttermilk blueberry waffles. We seem to be out of maple syrup, so I cover them in whipped cream. I’ve learned quickly that I can circumvent tantrums with unexpected doses of sucrose. Their mother only left me two hundred bucks, and most of that was already spent on discount wine and microwaveable dinosaur-themed dinners. I’ve been shy to ask her for a cash infusion because she’s in rural New England burying our father but pretty soon we’re going to need fruit and toilet paper and beer.
Despite his protestations, Henry devours the waffles—or the whipped cream anyway. Emily spends the duration of breakfast making hers into a castle complete with a moat and guardsmen. She weighs nothing, and now I understand why.
“When’s Momma and Dadda coming?” Henry says nearly out loud.
“Soon, little man. Soon.”
“Like, after breakfast?”
“No, bud. Not after breakfast.”
“No, not after school.”
No one has told them that their grandfather is dead. I’m not ready for that kind of dialogue with a child. I can barely break the news of bedtime. Not that they really knew him. They knew of him, though not in any way that mattered, that would keep them up at night, that would ask them to drink, to give in to repression. They don’t know enough to want to forget.
What I haven’t told anyone is that I moved in, my possessions stashed in the back of the garage, hidden behind expired projects and discarded memory. The morning I left, I ended a weeks-long argument with my landlord about the premise of rent. I packed my clothes and left behind whatever Cassie hadn’t taken with her; a Pearl Jam concert poster from 1993, a bean bag chair, a dining room set that had been my great aunt’s. My father’s passing really couldn’t have come at a better time.
“But, it’s Career Day.”
“You mentioned that already, bud.”
“It’s Career Day at school. Mom was supposed to come and talk about the hospital and fixing people’s bloods.”
“Well, she’ll be at the next one, little man. Sorry.”
Suddenly he’s screaming. High-pitched, horror-movie screaming accompanied by a fierce sprint to the basement where he hides behind the hot water tank. I was warned about this on the spreadsheet.
“What’s going on?” I ask Emily, who has taken the bits left on Henry’s plate to add a farm and brothel to her waffle kingdom.
“Last time, Sean Patterson’s father didn’t show up for Career Day and everyone made fun of Sean and said that his mom and dad was getting a divorce and Sean dooted in his pants in front of the whole class and some of it got into his shoes and now they call him Shoes Pooperson.”
“I don’t want to doot my pants!” Henry screams from the basement, an echo careening off the steel cylinder of the heater.
“Okay, okay. I’ll come to Career Day.”
“Uncle Hayden, you’re funny.”
“You don’t have a job.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Watching baseball isn’t my job.”
“What is your job?”
Solid question. I bartended, though that proved problematic. I ran a landscaping business for a few summers, but broke the water rationing by-laws and had to sell the truck to pay off the fines. None of these seem Career Day appropriate, at least not enough to avoid unexpected juvenile defecation.
“I’m a spaceman.”
“You’re a spaceman?” Emily asks, looking at me as if I had never existed before this moment.
“You are a spaceman?” Henry has reappeared, eyes wide as waffles.
“I was a spaceman. I’m retired.” A hush falls over them like I’m sunshine, like I’m Santa’s proxy. Like I’m everything.
My sister is a doctor, but not the smartest person in the world. As she left, she tried to squeeze a decade of parenting knowledge into just a few minutes. Never admit defeat. You’re the adult. Urine comes out with Tide. I absorbed nothing, except her last words as she stepped into their car: “Children are easy to lie to. You’re smarter than most of them.”
“I was a spaceman. For about eleven years. Flew forty-eight missions.”
“You went to outer space?”
“You need to get dressed and brush your teeth. What time’s Career Day?”
“Two. Is there time in space?”
“Can you hear in space?”
“Now!” They run upstairs, the first time they’ve ever obeyed. But then, suddenly, I feel the weight of my lie. I call my sister. Right to voicemail. I call my brother-in-law. Right to voicemail. I consider calling Cassie, then delete her number.
“We’re ready!” the kids sing in unison, clothed and cleaned as quickly as I’ve ever seen. I find some shoes, grab the keys to the minivan, and usher the kids out the door.
The drive to school is filled with questions: What does chicken taste like in space? How do you tuck yourself into bed without gravity? When was the moon born? How far away is infinity? How big is your spaceship? Do you know Chewbacca? Is it cold in space? Why salmonella becomes three to seven times more virulent in microgravity conditions?
“Save it for Career Day!” I say, and throw them from the minivan in front of the school, barely slowing for pylons of small children.
My lie and last night’s wine are making me sweat and hyperventilate like a dog afraid of lightning. It occurs to me that the only outfit I brought with me is these tattered chinos and a hoodie with “Kiss Me I’m Unbearably Lost in a Sea of Despair” written on it. Probably not what a retired spaceman wears.
I try to calm myself by googling “astronauts” on my phone. They’re all so clean-cut, so All-American, so Republican. They don’t have beards. Mine will have to go. They don’t have shaggy hair. Mine will have to be coiffed. Their posture is perfection and their manner accomplished. Apoapsis, isotropic, centripetal acceleration, right ascension, modulation. My Corvette is in the shop. I have an advanced degree in biological science. Russians are evil. A visit to Mars is possible in our lifetime. You can cry in space but your tears don’t fall, instead, they dance gently in gravity’s absence, small salted water-based planets of reflection and error.
Craigslist is surprisingly fraught with space exploration paraphernalia. Listings include a rear entry Soviet spacesuit, but it’s on the other side of town and the asking price is $129,995, a Transformers Bumblebee costume, some dude who will “get you to space” via prostate massage, an Apollo space suit replica, and several Halloween costumes that are more pornography than astronomy.
And then there’s hope: an official NASA astronaut suit, right around the corner. Dumb fucking luck. The man’s name is Sully, sounds nice on the phone. He says to come right over. His tone is fatherly and warm and for a moment I think about a fishing trip in 1983.
The house is a two-story, semi-detached that was very likely once beautiful. I push my way up to the door, through overgrown bushes and discarded gardening implements. There’s no doorbell, just an anchor knocker dangling from a burred and rusted screw. I knock carefully. The sounds of the neighborhood fill the veranda—the distant murmur of a nearby recess, the hissing squeal of a garbage truck, a pair of grandmothers arguing mythology—familiar and comforting, like a vacation in youth. How different this is from home—or what I called home—the muddled chaos of urbanity, a populace of indifference shuttling from insignificance to insignificance, the stifling volume of city odors.
Finally, the door half-opens. For some reason, I’m expecting a 100-year-old man, goitered and carrying a colostomy bag. Instead, I’m met by an immaculately dressed gent who appears ten years younger than he is, however old that might be. He looks like he just stepped out of a barber’s chair, clean-shaven and hair cut short, so perfectly manicured and parted as to suggest the template for whatever style it is.
He stares, then smiles, offers me his hand. “Edison Randall.”
“Nice to meet you, Edison.”
“Come in, come in. I’ve made tea.”
I don’t really have time to stay, but I don’t want to be rude or disrupt the pending negotiation, so I follow him inside. The place is immaculate—like the outside is a façade for secrets within. He takes me into a sitting room, where tea, scones, and a spacesuit await.
“It’s just scones and Lipton’s.”
“I meant the suit.”
“Oh, yes, that. You can have that.”
“You can have it.”
“Wonderful, did you have a price in mind?”
“I have no use for it. If you get it out of the house, you can have it.”
“Really? That’s too kind of you—you have no idea the bind I’m in.” I take a sip of the tea, steeped to perfection, a moment this side of bitter. “So, were you an astronaut?”
“No, no. I sold auto parts.”
We sit in the ellipsis of that silence for what feels like forever. I look around the room, and see no evidence of the cosmos. There’s a bunch of watercolors—flowers, bowls of fruit, seascapes—and several pictures of Edison and who I assume is his wife at various stages in their life together.
“What do you need it for?”
“I lied to my sister’s kids.”
“Wondering why I have a space suit?”
“It’s none of my business. Never mind.”
“No, you’ve been more than generous.”
“Yes. She passed a year ago August. We were together going on sixty years. Met in grade school. She went with my brother, but you could tell… you could tell she had an eye for me. Smarter than me. Physicist. But not haughty about it. Could explain the universe to a cat so that the cat could explain it to a dog. She worked for a company that worked for NASA. She got the suit in ‘97, a gift from her co-workers because she always wished she could go to space, and she could’ve—would’ve—but ... the cancer. Never put it on, though. I did, for Halloween and such. And as it got closer to the end, when she got confused, I’d wear it. Made her think I was something else. Made her believe in something else.”
“Why get rid of it?”
“Time to say goodbye. Time to move on. That suit does nothing but bring me back. And I’ve already been there, you know?”
“You got a car?”
“What was your lie?”
“Spaceman in a previous life. Career Day mishap.”
“Career Days are horseshit.”
He helps me load the suit. It’s heavier than I expected and he bears the brunt of its weight. I want to hug him goodbye. I want him to tell me I’m a good man, that I’m a good uncle. That someone needs me. I want him to tell me I’m going to get better, that I’m going to be better.
But I don’t.
Back at my sister’s, I use dog shears to shave my head and beard—then wonder why I haven’t seen a dog. I want to look militaristic, or at least formerly militaristic. The beard and long tresses fill the sink and the face grimacing back at me is someone who only barely knows how it feels to be me, to be running down a lie so juvenile on a clock racing ever so quickly towards two. I shower quickly, to rid my body of the hair clippings of life before space. I borrow a white shirt and tie and khakis from my brother-in-law’s cupboard and look just enough like an asshole.
I arrive as per the instructions Henry tearily left me: Park in auxiliary lot 2A, enter through the East Campus doors, check-in with Dolly Lampert, Career Day faculty coordinator. I pull the suit from the back of the minivan, and stand it against the panel door and open up the top section, folding it out and over pants that lead seamlessly into what I assume are moon boots. I take off my shoes and, using the roof of the van for leverage, I hoist myself up and into the bottom section, but I get stuck halfway into the legs and can’t get my feet down to the boots because the khakis are catching on something. It’s 1:52. So I take off my pants, throw them in the backseat, and hoist myself up, cock and balls swaying commando in the wind. The absence of pants allows for just enough room to wedge myself into the bottom section, my testicles straddling the crotch like sneakers on a telephone wire. I pull the top part up without removing any more clothing but it restricts my arm movement and ability to attach the helmet, and worry I’ll look odd without one.
With two minutes to spare, I waddle through the East Campus doors in search of Dolly Lampert.
Career Day parents are waiting quietly in a hallway of chairs meant for their children. Either they’re all pleated power suit salespeople or I’m the only one who wore their work uniform. A nebbish fellow in blue pinstripes notices me first and lets out a whistling sigh-laugh, which startles the rest of them to my presence, which elicits a cacophony of confused mutterings, which alerts a woman who must be Dolly Lampert because she noticeably chokes down vomit at the sight of me.
“Hayden Sheppard,” I announce to no one and everyone. “I’m Henry Weston’s uncle. Pinch-hitting for my sister. Dead grandfather, wouldn’t you know.”
In the silence that follows, I think about what I would present myself as on Career Day had I not lied. IPA consultant? Freelance television critic? Vagabond? Cassie used to tell me I was nothing, that I did nothing, that I wasn’t even a waste of water, protein, connective tissue, fats, and carbohydrates because a waste would be something.
“Then why do you love me?”
“Anything can be loved—even nothing.”
I’m not sure I understand love. I used to attach it to a feeling that was likely lust. But it’s bigger than that, I think. It’s beyond gratification. It’s selflessness, and the ignorance of shame. It’s need valued over want. It’s good decisions in the face of glorious mistakes. It’s the willingness to lose everything to protect someone from anything. It’s broken dreams. It’s broken bones. It’s blood on the floor.
“And what is it you do, Mr. Sheppard?”
“Mr. Sheppard, could I see some ID.”
“Lady, you see pockets?”
“Shall I telephone your sister?”
“Ya, ask her about how cancer and karma just killed our dad.”
She pauses for a moment. I haven’t urinated today.
“Then, how, sir, do we verify your identity and proceed with this charade?”
“You could ask Emily to confirm that I am who I am.” The need to relieve myself introduces itself with a forceful burn. Is Lipton’s a diuretic? Are scones? Is lying?
“Paul!” she yells, and suddenly a squirrelly man in a pit-stained golf shirt and slacks two sizes too big appears with a clipboard. “Paul, bring Ms. Weston of 3C from the auditorium. Row seven.”
Paul scurries off without a word of acknowledgment.
“Why is she in the auditorium?” I ask, adjusting as best I can, hoping to clear some room in my bladder my shifting weight.
“All the children are in the auditorium, Mr. Sheppard. It’s Career Day.”
“Not just Henry’s class?” A shot of urine escapes, but there’s no relief.
“We would not dare insult the valued time of our parents by denying them the opportunity to address our entire student body.”
“How big is that body?”
“Applewood Collegiate boasts an enrollment of six hundred and forty-two students.”
She cocks her head to its side, prevented from falling off only by a long neck muscle that tethers itself reluctantly to her clavicle. The doors behind her burst open, Paul dragging Emily, who for some reason is wearing a cape.
“Ms. Weston, who is this?”
“Hmmmm,” Emily looks me up and down, thinks a little too long. “A spaceman?”
“But who is it, Ms. Weston? Who?”
Emily looks confused, fiddles with her cape, looks back up at Dolly.
“Emily, it’s me—Uncle Hayden!”
“You’re not Uncle Hayden,” she laughs. “Uncle Hayden has a beard and smells like applesauce.”
“I shaved, Emily. I shaved like I used to when I was a spaceman.”
“This child has no idea who you are, sir. Paul, call the police,” Dolly is not amused. A gill of urine joins the shot.
“Please don’t call the police,” I beg, “I’m not wearing underpants.”
“Paul!” Paul is locked down by the chaos. It’s too much for him. He’s catatonic.
“Uncle Hayden doesn’t wear underpants. EVER. Uncle Hayden!” She gives me a hug, as big of an embrace that her little arms around my space suit can manage. I pick her up and twirl her around, and she screams in delight, like I matter, like I’m everything.
“See,” I say to Dolly, “we good?”
“It still doesn’t explain your costume.”
“That’s not a costume,” says Emily, now wrapped around my neck, little feet perched on the hips of the spacesuit, using one hand to flutter the cape like we’re flying. “Uncle Hayden’s a spaceman.”
“Retired,” I qualify to the room, who are not amused nor entertained nor interested.
Dolly is incredulous. “Are we really to continue this farce, Mr. Sheppard?”
“Hahahahahahahaha,” giggles Emily. “Farce. Farce, farce, farce, farce, farce, farce, farce, farce, farce, farce.”
“Emily,” Dolly and I say in unison, with very different inflections.
“Farce,” she says once more, quiet as her brother.
I lean down to her level, awkward as the unpliable suit allows, nearly break at her mischievous smile. I whisper, “Why didn’t you tell me it was in front of the whole school?”
She wraps her little arms around my head, “Uncle Hayden?”
She looks at me, tilts her head, rolls her eyes to beg me closer. I lean in, nearly falling over from the weight of the suit, the thick brutality of sweat, the worry of my deceit, forcing out another minim of urine.
“Emily, why don’t you go back to your seat,” Lampert suggests sternly. She scurries off, cape flapping, her whole life ahead of her.
“Dolly, may I call you Dolly? Dolly, if you want to disappoint two kids whose grandfather just died and whose mum and dad haven’t been home in three weeks, go ahead. I’ll pick up the pieces of your poor decisions. That’s my avuncular duty. But Dolly, Dorothy, darling, do we need another Sean Patterson on our hands?”
With the mention of Sean her entire body falls, sags, held up only by its construct in battle of its will.
“There was so much doot,” she whispers.
“I’m not an idiot, Dolly. I don’t want to hurt these kids. They’re my kids. I’d cut any motherfucker for looking at them sideways. If I take that stage, I promise you, they will feel no pain.”
“Okay, okay,” she wipes a single tear on my NASA badge and straightens herself before addressing the parents. “We’re on in five, people. Dr. Anderson, you’ll go first, then Mrs. Petry, Ms. Donaldson, Mme. Aumont, Miss Velez, Mr. Saunders, Mx. Aquiar, Mrs. Miller, and finally ... Mr. Sheppard.”
All too soon, we’re on stage, on adult-sized chairs in a semicircle around a solitary microphone. The auditorium is enormous. I can’t even see the back rows through the blinding stage lights. A dull murmur anticipates beginning. Finally, Dolly goes to address the children. Hers is a dry delivery, and the children move swiftly from assembly excitement to the stunning realization that they’ll be bored for the next hour and forty-five minutes. There is one hope, though, one shimmering distant luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity that gives them longing. A single, unemployed shell of a manchild, last chair on the right, in a spacesuit.
Dr. Anderson is a gynecologist, so his presentation is heavily censored and the kids slump deeper into their seats, indifferent to his whimsy and colposcope. Petry, Donaldson, and Aumont are some kind of business people. It’s not their fault. It’s a weird show, a competition, parents trotted out to battle one another. I want one of them to strut up to the crowd, say, “I gave up a lot of dreams to pay the tuition here, so go fuck yourselves,” and drop the mic. The whole thing is an awful performance, a weakness of tradition.
As Mrs. Miller drones on about dental hygiene or unpasteurized milk or auto sales or some shit, I’m sweating, profusely, because the suit is designed to endure -455˚F and it’s about 78˚F in the auditorium. I have not prepared for this. I have nothing. I have the nothing that Cassie says I am. There is only me, a spacesuit, and six hundred and forty-two prepubescent expectations.
My sister is going to fucking murder me.
Mrs. Miller finishes to polite—if exhausted—applause. I can’t feel my legs. My lie fills the suit, longs for redemption and underwear. Dolly stands at the microphone.
I hear my name.
I have nothing.
I walk to the microphone.
Six hundred and forty-two.
Henry is sinking further into the darkness.
My bladder evacuates completely.
“Who here wants to go to outer space?” I hear myself ask.
Hands and murmur rise carefully.
“I was in outer space this morning.”
A quiet falls like a blanket over blooming flames.
“Ya, it was pretty cool. Jumped in my spaceship after breakfast. Hit up some planets. Walked on the moon. Discovered why salmonella becomes three to seven times more virulent in microgravity conditions.”
“You’re no spaceman,” some ginger kid in braces yells at me from the third row.
“Then why do I have a spacesuit on?” Ginger has no answer, and the other doubters nod in agreement with my absolute logic.
“Space is pretty great,” I continue. “There’s no gravity. Food comes in tubes. It’s recess almost all the time.” I go on for what seems like an eternity. I cover everything, from how much it costs to go to space school to Russian dogs on the moon. I talk about having lemonade with Han Solo, about peeing in a vacuum, about warp speeds and endless stars. About continuum—not just the concept, but the emotion. The kids are entranced. Unencumbered by the parameters of truth, they revel in the infinite possibility of my lie.
“Why you not a spaceman anymore?” one kid asks. And for an honest instant, I truly wonder why I am not.
Suddenly, Dolly is standing and screaming in a voice that silences the whole room and a three block radius of wine bars, cafes, and well-coiffed parkettes. I had forgotten about her, deaf and blind to the truth of her reality. Unfortunately, she had forgotten I had the microphone.
“Stop lying to these children. Stop it,” she cries, Sean Patterson nightmares in her eyes.
“I’m not lying.”
“You are, sir. You are lying, and worst of all, you are lying to children.”
“I’m lying? What about Ms. Donaldson? Mme. Aumont? Dr. Anderson? I mean, who would let him near a vagina?”
“But they … they are those things, Mr. Sheppard. You are not.”
There’s a restlessness brewing in the children, and the intoxication of my lie has become the sobriety of my truth. The suit is weighted in my sweat and piss, so that I fear it will fall right off, leave me naked, underwearless and unemployed, failed uncledom, failed father. Nothing.
The microphone rests at my side, and I fondle its honeycombed diaphragm, running my thumb around it like a gunfighter’s hammer, raise it up to an inch of mouth, unsure of what to say, but sure I need to say something, anything, because in my periphery I have spotted Henry, who has sunk into his confusion and fear, and Emily, who is standing on her chair and cheering silently, as if to mock the very act of cheer, and I have to defuse what could be catastrophe for two of the four people I care about, who I honest to God love, and for some reason love me back unequivocally, and I want to tell them—tell the room—about who their grandfather was, about years best forgotten, about the power and lie of drink, the dark corners of error and compromise, the reality of costume, but theirs’ is a life too soon, a life still to come, and so I take a deep breath, and on the other side of that gasp comes an exhalation that would rather exist in space’s vacuum but instead is given life here at Applewood Collegiate, and it is beautiful and it is honest and vibrant and fearless and authentic and children are joining Emily in cheering, but real cheering, the kind of cheering that brings grown men to tears, that has brought this room to tears of joy, tears that would fall from any face, defy any laws of space that would deny them the journey from heart to duct to cheek to immortality.
And there’s Henry. Standing his chair. Smiling. Cheering. Achieving volume. Hugging his sister. Forgetting—for a moment—everything that is not in this room.
*Feature photo by Tom Leishman (Pexels)