The day of the accident, Jess is in the backyard with a chainsaw, clearing space to build the greenhouse she's always wanted. And, as always, she is thinking of Arthur. Arthur, her colleague in the botany department, who never believed she'd actually start the project. Arthur, who, after getting too close, has cut off contact, escaping to study the subarctic pines.
But now there has been a disaster, connected to her husband's space tourism company: the explosion of a space shuttle filled with commercial passengers, igniting a media frenzy on her family's doorstep. Jess's engineer husband is implicated, and she knows there is information he's withholding, even as she becomes an unwitting player in the efforts to salvage the company's reputation.
Struggling, Jess writes to the only person she can be candid with. She writes to Arthur. And in her e-mails warm, frank, yet freighted with regret and the old habits of seduction Jess tries to untangle how her life has changed, in one instant but also slowly, and how it might change still.
With sure pacing and intimate wisdom, God is an Astronaut unfurls a story of secrets and of wonderment, the unforgettable and the vast unknowable.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Alyson Foster grew up in Michigan and earned her B.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan, winning a Hopwood Award for her fiction. She received her M.F.A. from George Mason University, where she was a Completion Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in publications including Glimmer Train, the Iowa Review, Ascent, and the Kenyon Review. Foster lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the National Geographic library and writes for the National Geographic News Watch blog.
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God is an Astronaut
By Alyson Foster
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2014 Alyson Foster
All rights reserved.
From: Jessica Frobisher
Sent: Thursday, March 13, 2014 8:57 pm
To: Arthur Danielson
Subject: Not sure there is one
Discovered your card in my mailbox early this morning. I'm guessing it arrived sometime last week, but as you know, I make a habit of checking my box as infrequently as I can get away with it. Earlier this semester the department hired a new admin coordinator. She looks practically pubescent, certainly not old enough to be administrating or coordinating anything. Her name is Mackenzie. She calls my office approximately once a month to leave a snippy message on my voice mail informing me that my box is full and any additional mail received will be disposed of. I couldn't care less if they throw my mail away, but I listen with great admiration to her use of italics. I'd like her to teach me to inflect like that–it would probably be quite effective in getting Jack and Corinne to chop-chop–but I'm on her shit list. It will never happen.
My first thought was that you had heard what happened. I don't know how quickly news reaches you up in the wilds north of Winnipeg. Depends on how often you decide to emerge from the conifers and go hunt down a signal, I guess. (Here I imagine you licking your finger and putting it up to the wind, listening for an elusive high-decibel hum, a telltale resonance in the pinecones overhead that would tell you where to set up camp with your laptop.) Then I opened up the card, saw the question about the greenhouse, and realized that you couldn't have. You probably still haven't heard unless you've somehow seen the Times or the Post, both of which have been running articles about the accident nonstop since it happened four days ago.
We got the call from Arizona on Sunday night. It was Liams friend, his best Spaceco buddy, Tristan. I was down with a case of bronchitis; my voice was an octave low. When I picked up the cell from the nightstand and said Hello into it, I heard Tristan say, Liam, were fucked. Were fucked, Liam, back to back, just like that. I didn't even respond. I just rolled over and handed the phone to Liam. Then I got up, went down the hall to check on Corinne and Jack, and made my way downstairs to put on some tea. I'd never felt anything quite like it, that thrumming nerved-up calm. Like having bees in your ears. Do you know the kind I mean? I watched my hands as they wiped down the counters and shook out the tea bags with a brisk efficiency I'd never realized they possessed. When that was done, I started on the refrigerator. I opened all the drawers and began, very methodically, purging their contents. All the vegetable artifacts–the frizzled-out leeks, the calcifying carrots, the strawberries encrusted in what looks like barnacles. All the questionable relics tarnishing in glass jars. Action, drastic action, seemed required; nothing was spared. Not until the next morning did I realize that I'd thrown away Jacks science fair project. (A potato/Play-Doh hybrid? Should I be concerned that my son seems to lack a basic understanding of the scientific method? Aren't his ten-year-old Chinese counterparts already practicing the genetic modification experiments that will help them take over the world and bring us to our knees? When Jack discovered my blunder at breakfast, a scene ensued. Corinne joined in with her own wailing dirge, and nothing, nothing, not my futile trash-picking, not all my ardent repenting, could salvage that catastrophic morning.)
At last I heard Liams footsteps on the stairs, I stepped back and put both hands on the counter behind me. I was literally braced–a little cold–besides that, nothing but expectant. I held stiffly onto the granite slab and watched Liam run his hands down his face, one then the other, while he delivered the news.
It was this: that just a half an hour earlier, Spaceco's 6:30 p.m. shuttle launch had exploded twelve seconds after liftoff The two crew members and four passengers inside the Titan had been killed instantly. A piece of debris from the blast, carried unexpectedly far by the high winds that evening, landed within fifty yards of eastbound I-8, and traffic in both directions was shut down for more than four hours.
That. That is what happened.
What happens next is what were still trying to figure out.
More later? I haven't decided yet.
From: Jessica Frobisher
Sent: Saturday, March 15, 2014 10:42 pm
To: Arthur Danielson
Subject: The long answer
How's the greenhouse coming, you asked. After I e-mailed you yesterday, I folded up your card and stuck it in the pocket of my blue jeans, where I carried it around all day. More than once I found myself pulling it out and rereading the single line of your question like a riddle, studying your familiar script, the listing masts on your h's and t's–the tell of a left-hander. Liam is left-handed too. Not by genetic predisposition–it's an adaptation. The end of his right thumb was blown off in an accident with a bottle rocket when he was eight. I don't know if you noticed when you shook his hand. Most people don't. He is Liam, after all.
How's the greenhouse coming? After sifting through all the possible implications of this benign (?) query, I settled, true to form, on the most insulting one. Meaning: Have I finally, for once, undertaken what I said I would?
Well, fuck you, I have. I think I've mentioned the door in the back corner of our house–the one off the dining room where the ground slants down so that it opens out into empty space. All right, not empty space, not the desolate, star-spangled void that entrances Liam–its a plot of incorrigible wild grass, our own little brambly wilderness. Though at night, if you steel yourself and push open the door, space is exactly what you think of–the distant windows of the neighbors trembling through the trees like satellites, the jungle beneath your feet suddenly vanished into the dark. It has an unsettling effect, like if you stepped out, you would simply drift away into the darkness. In the five years we've been living here I've never seen Liam so much as glance at that door, but I've caught both Jack and Corinne lurking around it, and after I came downstairs one night and found the two of them perched in the open doorway, their toes lined up along the edge of that six-foot drop-off (I never was able to determine who was daring whom), I drilled two deadbolts into the frame at shoulder height. The previous owners had intended to build an addition, but they were waylaid by financial difficulties, and then some other mysterious tragedy that our realtor staunchly refused to reveal. I don't have the details, she said in a meaningful tone that made us understand that (A) she was lying, and (B) if we knew what was good for us, we wouldn't ask. So we didn't.
And so its here I decided to get to work, Arthur, to put something in the place of nothing. It was beautiful here on Sunday morning–the day of the accident–one of those balmy, deceptive days that seem to be, but are not, a prelude to spring; there's still a long ways to go. I spent nearly all of it outside, carving away the winter-thinned thicket around the back of our foundation with a chain saw I rented from Home Depot to make a twenty-by-thirty-foot footprint for my greenhouse. The ironic nature of my undertaking was obvious to me long before I went inside for lunch and listened to Liams cracks about the marauding botanist laying waste to the local flora. The truth is, I could hardly hear them–the cracks, I mean. After the first hour or so spent in the din of that raging saw, I felt as though my own head had turned into a silo–my thoughts boomeranging around inside its walls, everything on the outside diminished to faint and muffled reverberations. And here I will confess to exactly what I once angrily denied: that I thought of you, and not just in passing, but over and over again. I thought of you until I couldn't think of anything else, and eventually, I stopped thinking at all.
Nothing I've ever done in my life has been as hard as slinging that chain saw around. The sap was surging up in all the branches and shoots, and every one of them fought back. As the afternoon passed, I felt the sky slipping down notch by notch, settling like a gray slab onto my shoulders, but even with that reminder I still forgot. I forgot to look up. In our kitchen, there's a bulletin board with a calendar hanging on it. All the Spaceco launch dates are emblazoned with Technicolor rocket stickers – Jack and Liams handiwork. Counting off the days between the launches and sticking them up there started out as an exercise to help Jack keep better track of time. (He still seems, without fail, to end up shortchanged by weeks end.) Jack has an unnerving, almost autistic devotion to this ritual. Those stickers have to go up on the first day of the month when we change the calendar page; otherwise he gets spectacularly anxious. Why this is, he cant, or wont, tell us. We forgot one time, a couple of months ago in February, I forgot. I flipped the page without thinking. The next night I came downstairs and found him sleepwalking through the kitchen in his softball T-shirt and his underwear. Every single drawer and cupboard had been opened, and his hands were full of rubber bands and thumbtacks. Corinne is the only one who seems to understand this superstition. Corinne, of all people–who would win Worlds Most Pragmatic Five-Year-Old if such an award existed. She promised to explain it to me once, in strictest confidence, and then, when I squatted down next to her, she cupped both hands around my ear, deliberated for a moment, and then leaned forward and whispered: Its very complicated. I don't think I can tell you.
But I'm guilty too. Somewhere in there, I fell into my own superstitious ritual. On launch mornings, while Jack and Corinne are squabbling over the selection of cereal (all of it nutritious, all of it ho-hum), I linger in the kitchen, staring out the window up into Michigans infernal never-ending cloud cover. I press my thumb against one of those stickers, like a talisman, the symbol of the days coming gamble. It is as close as I will come to acknowledging that our state of grace might not last. Maybe you wont admit it, but I think you'll understand. I certainly know better. Its like knocking on wood, like throwing salt over your shoulder, like holding your breath as you jam down the accelerator and sail through an intersection while the light turns red. As though a gesture could save anyone–in this universe where even the smallest pieces are hurtling away from one another at the speed of light.
That's all, then. Or all I can say right now.
What say you?
From: Jessica Frobisher
Sent: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:57 pm
To: Arthur Danielson
Subject: One more thing
I just thought you might want to know that there's something wrong with your out-of-office message. The auto-reply is bouncing back a stream of gobbledygook–lines of numbers and &s and antiparentheses ))((. It looks like the code Liam used to write for rockets on his old hulky mad-scientist computer, back when it was a labor of love for him, when we were living on beautiful hypotheticals. The language of spaceships, Li used to tell me, has a God-like logic, a rigorous, elegant syntax. It contains subsets inside subsets inside subsets that loop on into infinity. Every query is paired with an answer, every if with a then.
But not anymore. Arthur, yesterday morning, while I was brushing my teeth, I looked out the window and discovered three TV vans parked at the end of our driveway. Right at the bottom of the hill–they were clearly visible through that tree cluster there, which is still bare and leaves us exposed. One of the vans was from FOX News. Talk about adding insult to injury. I couldn't stop staring at them. I stared at them while I tapped my toothbrush against the sink for five minutes, and then I went downstairs to stare at them from the sidelight next to the front door. You know how mirages disappear when you get closer to them? These didn't. The CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages.
Out of everything in that surreal moment, it was the sausages, for some reason, that assured me I wasn't dreaming. It was still five-something out in Arizona where Liam is now doing triage, so after I texted him, I went around the house lowering all the blinds, starting at the front of the house and working my way around. Then, when the Fair and Balanced cameraman had gone out for a Dunkin Donuts run, I squirreled Jack and Corinne into the back of the Acura and went to Home Depot to return the chain saw. I had kept it five days longer than I was supposed to, and there was a zillion- dollar replacement charge on Liams AmEx.
By the time we came back, the vans were gone, but there's no telling for how long.
Look, I'm going to come out and just say it now: Arthur, will you please, please write me back?
Over and out,
From: Jessica Frobisher
Sent: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 2:09 am
To: Arthur Danielson
So two auto-replies got bounced back from my last e-mail, a days space between them–the garbled original version followed by a corrected version with every comma perfectly in place. I take this to mean that you are checking in, that you are alive and reading this, even if you wont write me back. Fair enough. I haven't forgotten that silence was our agreement, or our disagreeable understanding. Just remember that you broke it first.
Of course, maybe it means no such thing. Maybe all it means is that some technocrat puttering around behind the scenes found and deleted an error in a line of code, or that someone, somewhere rebooted a server. These kinds of processes are, and remain, stubbornly mysterious to me. It's my own fault. All those times I tuned out Liams explanations. All those wasted meetings with holier-than-thou IT Bob–remember those? Back in the planning stages of the BioSys database when he wanted to elaborate on his theories about the architecture of the information? I would try to care for about five minutes, and then I would just give up. Now its too late, and I just have to fake it.
But then I wonder about a lot of things these days, now of all times–when thinking is pretty much useless. That last line is a direct quote from Paula. A woman who makes her living from scanning peoples brains, who shuts them up in a tube and then commands them to add 1,552 and 397 and list synonyms for the word sad. When she saw me setting down my coffee mug and opening up my mouth to respond, she hurriedly added: I mean your kind of thinking, Jess. Sometimes people just need to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and forget everything else. Ever the dutiful sister, Paula has taken a few weeks off from work, abandoned her beloved MRI machine, and driven up from South Carolina to minister to us in our hour of need. This ministering takes the form of cleaning our out-of-control closets and tending to our incessant phone, a full-time job in and of itself these days. Reporters and anonymous busybodies don't scare Paula a whit. She taught Corinne and Jack the phrase No comment, and they love it. Its bulletproof, new in the repertoire, better than the threadbare I'm rubber, you're glue, the tired I know you are but what am I, and the reliable old standby, I forgot.
But pretty much useless or no, that doesn't stop me. I don't believe I've been to Zingermans since last year, when you and I used to get coffee there, but last Friday, between classes, I walked over to Kerrytown. By the time I climbed the stairs and stepped into the delis half gloom, I'd completely forgotten what it was I'd come there for. I fingered the golden bottles of imported olive oil, the dusty bread rounds. I dallied in front of the dessert case, eyeing all those jeweled fruit tarts while people streamed in and out of the door behind me, my arms tucked behind my back, shuffling my feet in a silly, adolescent, pining sort of way. A man behind the counter was flaying a salmon in knife flashes so deft, so graceful, that the gestures looked a work of art–the slithering red flesh between his fingers, the silvery scales raining down around his ankles and collecting in the cu(s of his blue jeans. I am not pining away for anything. I would like to make that clear. But I never did remember what I wanted. Finally I gave up and bought a $10 rosemary baguette and a weedy gladiolus from the display by the door. Plants are like puppies to me–as you know. Its impossible for me to pass them by, especially the scruffy, rough-around-the-edges ones.
Excerpted from God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster. Copyright © 2014 Alyson Foster. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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