April 04, 2014
Sam’s co-worker Carla is talking about her three-year-old son Rico’s obsession with death. “He says to me, ‘Mama, I don’t want to die. I really, really don’t want to die.’”
They are in the nail aisle of a Home Depot on the south side of Houston, counting nails. They have been in this aisle for hours. Some inventory specialists get antsy counting the same merchandise for long. When it’s a big box store, those folks head straight for the big stuff—paints, planters, light fixtures, toilet seats.
Sam has no objection to staking out a spot on concrete flooring and emptying out bins of nails only to place the nails back into the bins in clumps of five. When it’s nails he’s counting he can easily count twenty or thirty thousand in a day. He likes to guess how many nails are in a bin before he counts it. He’s remarkably good at this, within five percent almost every time.
Carla says, “I tell him I don’t want to die either. Sometimes I tell him I’m sorry he has to die someday. And you know what? I really am. In a way that hurts. Maybe it sounds dumb, but I feel like I’ve failed him somehow. Happy life, kid. While it lasts.”
“That doesn’t sound dumb,” Sam says. He punches numbers into his counting machine. Only two percent over. His guesses are usually over rather than under. He places the finished bin back onto the shelf and pulls out another.
“Once I told him, ‘Don’t stress about it, Rico. Odds are you’ll live to be a rickety old man.’ He said then, ‘But sometimes kids die, right?’ Where does he get this stuff?” she says. The way she looks at him then, it is as if she expects him to provide the answer. He likes how she looks at him, like she’s known him a long time, even though it’s been just a few weeks. She’s always nice to him, Carla.
She is only a few years older than Sam, but in terms of life events, she’s like light years ahead of him. She’s been married and divorced. She has a kid. None of this was planned. She’d been a teenager, seventeen, the age he is now, when she got pregnant. Now here she is counting inventory year-round, not just for the summer like him, to save up money for college in another year. She’s been counting nails since before Sam got his driver’s license. The way she talks, this is it.
“When I was a girl, I wanted to be a flight attendant,” she once told him and a couple of other inventory specialists. They’d been counting bedpans and urinals at a medical supply store. “Not on an airplane, but on a rocket ship to the moon. I imagined myself floating through the aisle with a tray of astronaut ice cream and drinks in little pouches.”
Counting inventory isn’t all that bad. It involves mathematics, after all, and requires no handling of other people’s food, which in Sam’s mind puts it above being a flight attendant, even on a rocket ship to the moon. But still, the idea of Carla counting nails and bedpans until she dies disturbs him greatly. She never had a chance.
After they’ve been quiet for a while, Sam tells Carla about his mother’s coworker dying at the office, about how his mother has been renewing her CPR certification all her adult life and never had an opportunity to put her skills to use and so here it is, finally, her chance to save a life, but it turns out this woman had the old-school fake boobs that stick straight out and don’t budge and that they were ginormous, so his mother couldn’t get close enough to the woman’s heart to do chest compressions. “Can you imagine? Killed by your breast implants?”
Carla laughs. Then, “So, what’s with that finger of yours?”
He sees that his left pinkie finger is arced away from his ring finger like a wishbone begging to be snapped. It’s poised, watching. It used to be a conscious thing, alien eye, something he did only when he was alone. He extended his pinkie finger and reported facts he read, like people over the age of 12 view over four hours of television a day; or scenes he observed, like an elderly woman in a checkout lane at Sigmund’s begging her middle-aged son for a chocolate bar, insisting, “But I’ve been a good girl!” But since he returned from a summer science and engineering camp in New Mexico, his finger has begun extending on its own without his realizing it. It’s as if his finger is operated by a very remote control. He knows that’s not really true. Aliens aren’t really sitting in front of some monitor far, far away, watching and listening to Sam’s transmissions. He isn’t really from another planet, as much as he may feel like it sometimes. It’s just pretend, something he started up as a kid. Sam Cleave, ethnographer of humans. Alien spy.
“I broke my finger, a long time ago. It’s been a little off ever since.” He makes up the lie on the spot. Then he presses his pinkie back into alignment with the rest of his fingers.
Summer camp was a devastating disappointment. First off, as a result of his father having been out of work going on eight months, his parents couldn’t afford to send him to the six-week program he’d originally planned to attend. He’d had to settle for two weeks. Secondly, and most importantly, he’d thought that at camp he’d finally belong for the first time in his life, that he’d meet his kind of people, his tribe. All his life he’d been the smart kid, the red supergiant in a sky full of dwarfs. When SAT scores were reported, his physics teacher patted him on the back. “Highest score in the junior and senior classes combined! Better thank your parents for those genes!” Mr. Kinney said. Sam went off to camp thinking he could do anything he set his mind to, and that for the first time in his life he would be surrounded by fellow supergiants and that in their presence he would thrive like he never had.
But at camp he realized he wasn’t a supergiant after all. The other kids at camp had experiences conducting the kinds of research Sam had thought only people who had completed graduate school did. Many of them were children of scientists. Their parents taught at universities. These kids, they’d lived in other countries because of their parents’ work. One kid had repeatedly visited the Large Hadron Collider as it was being constructed. More than one of them had sat at dinner tables with Nobel prize winners, and they referred to these scientists by first names as if they were old friends. Whether these kids were smarter than him or just more fortunate, he didn’t know, but what did it matter which it was? The fact of the matter was that he felt lonelier there than he had ever felt in his life. It was like he’d woken up to find that the sky was not blue but yellow and it had always been yellow and he had been the only person on the planet unable to see.
Sam is watching Alex Atwater and his girlfriend, Janelle, drop eggs from an overpass crossing the Gulf Freeway. They’ve gone through two cartons and haven’t come close. They time it all wrong, waiting until a vehicle is directly below them before launching.
“Here, you try,” Alex says, thrusting a white-shelled chicken egg, the cheapest Sigmund’s offered, into Sam’s hand. The shell is strangely thick and rough like some doctored ingredient in the caged chickens’ diets has led to a Hulk-like mutation.
Sam wants to tell Alex to fuck off. He’s wanted to tell him that ever since he returned from summer camp to find that everything Alex does anymore is aimed at impressing Janelle. Before Sam left, Janelle didn’t even exist, not in Sam’s world anyhow. She was just a girl at school. But at the beginning of summer she became a girl with whom Alex spent five days a week in the mail room at the medical school in Galveston where they both work, and after Sam left town, a girl with whom he spent his evenings and weekends too.
This is Alex’s second summer working in the mail room. Come fall after their graduation the next year, he will most likely still be working there. Alex has no plans for college.
Sam also wants to shame the two of them by pegging a vehicle on his first try. All night Janelle has treated him like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, something queer, something to be marveled at.
Without knowing exact distances (i.e. from the egg to the ground, from the vehicle’s current position to the spot directly below the egg) or the precise speed of the car, he cannot possibly do the math required to ensure that the egg and the vehicle collide, so it’s a combination of estimation and instinct that guides him to drop the egg when he does. As the egg falls, it looks miniscule, harmless, but when it lands on the windshield of a white Lexus SUV, the vehicle swerves, jerks back into its lane, and then skids to a halt along the edge of the median.
The three of them are in Alex’s pick-up truck within seconds, the remaining eggs stashed quickly beneath the seat.
“Shit,” Sam says again and again, while all the while Alex and Janelle hoot and holler.
“I didn’t know you had it in you, Sammy,” Janelle says. She slaps him on the knee.
“Shouldn’t we drive faster?” Sam asks.
“You may be a good shot, but you know nothing about fleeing a crime scene,” Alex says.
Alex is his oldest (and only) friend. If he knows anything about fleeing a crime scene, he learned it from Janelle this summer.
Alex parks in front of a late-night diner that serves just about everything—pizza, burgers, omelets, and most importantly, a roasted vegetable dish Sam has ordered a half-dozen times.
“Seriously?” Janelle says when he orders. She doesn’t even wait for the waiter to disappear.
“You think eating animals that have lived miserable lives on factory farms gives you character?” Sam says.
“What the fuck?” she says, turning toward Alex, whose arm is wrapped so tightly around her neck that he barely has to turn his head to stick his tongue in her ear.
“Alex!” Janelle says.
When their food arrives, Janelle doesn’t say anything, but she looks Sam in the eyes as she lunges at her burger. When she finishes chewing, her lips part, and she says, “Fucking delicious.”
Sam’s boat-length Oldsmobile groans whenever he applies the brakes, and in this way, he can be sure that his mother will know he is returning home at past two in the morning. His father is another story. A tree could crash through the roof, and as long as it doesn’t rock the bed or crush his bones, Leonard will sleep right through it.
Leonard hasn’t always been such a deep sleeper. After he lost his job the previous fall, he stayed up late seven nights a week watching movies. His eyes were rimmed red. He bumped into furniture. That lasted a little over two months until Sam’s mother, Bonnie, decided that Leonard had been allowed more than enough time to wallow in self-pity. “Until you find something, maybe you could make use of this free time. Make dinner? Clean the house? Since you’re here,” she said.
Even without the car’s signature groan, Bonnie would sense Sam’s return. She seems to have some sort of telepathic power when it comes to Sam and his sister.
She is cool though, his mother, or was, before she became the sole bread winner for a family of four. When he burned a hole into the carpet in his bedroom during the construction of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine back in junior high, she said, “Let’s clear out some space in the garage for you.” When he scorched a good cooking pot during a chemistry experiment, she said, “I trust you’ll replace it.” No scorn. No judgment.
These days she scans the house the second she comes home from work, looking for flaws. Sometimes she hasn’t even taken her shoes off or put her bag down before she’s launching complaints like missiles. The mail is on the kitchen counter, breakfast dishes on the dining table, piles of laundry on the couch. Exasperated, she pours herself a glass of wine. Look at her glass too long, and she’ll say something like I think I’ve earned it.
What troubles Sam more deeply than anything his mother will think or say about his late homecoming is what she would think if she knew what he did a few hours earlier. The car did not strike the median or another car, thank goodness. It did not flip or turn circles or catch fire. But any of those things could have happened. He had known that, and he had done it anyway. It did not matter in the least that he had dropped only one egg, whereas Alex and Janelle had dropped a dozen each. It did not matter that he had been horrified, whereas Alex and Janelle had been delighted.
After little more than four hours of sleep, Sam is climbing into the company van with Carla and several other inventory specialists. Their manager, Eddie Skeet, is driving.
“Counting the biggest home improvement store in all of Houston today,” Eddie says after he starts the van’s engine. “You’re going to count until your fingers bleed! Ha!” A woman in the middle row of the van is a question-asker. How many people will be working this store? When do we get our lunch break? What if we’re not done before dinner? All I brought is lunch. The older gentleman seated in the passenger seat claims to have counted this store five times now. He claims to remember that the last time around, they finished the job in precisely ten hours and ten minutes and that he had a bag of Doritos and a packet of powdered donuts from the store’s vending machine for his dinner. The question-asker lets everyone know that she will not touch anything from a vending machine even if it means she starves to death. “I don’t think we’ll be there long enough for anyone to starve to death!” Eddie says. “Ha!”
Carla says, “Man, Rico kicked me in the ribs all night long.”
“That sucks,” Sam says. He inhales the cinnamon molecules traveling from her mouth to his nose. He does not tell her about his own night.
“People say I should make him sleep in his own bed,” Carla says. “But then I just lay awake all night listening and worrying. I think every tiny creak or groan is his window pane sliding open. I think some psycho is going to break in and take him away from me. I know it’s crazy. I mean, god, listen to me. How did I turn into such a lunatic?”
“I’d probably be the same way if I had a kid,” Sam says, and he is surprised to hear himself say it and equally surprised that perhaps there is some truth to it.
“For your sake, I sure hope not. It’s sweet of you to say though.” Then, “I bet you’ll make a good dad someday,” Carla says. She smiles at him, and her eyes glitter.
“So, what’s the story with Rico’s dad?” Sam says. He looks at the seat back in front of him as he says it.
“The story is he’s a loser,” Carla says. “He’s still living with his mom. He hasn’t worked a job for more than two months straight in his life. He’s too busy playing video games to bother with Rico.”
“Sorry,” Sam says.
Just then Eddie lays on the horn as a red pick-up truck nearly smashes into their van.
“Texting,” Eddie says. “That motherfucker was texting away.”
“The average teenager sends 2,272 texts a month,” Sam says, both to his coworkers and to his pinkie finger, which seems to have involuntarily poised itself like a hook to record.
Sam’s father was sacked on a Friday, and the next evening they’d driven out to George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. Clearly Leonard had kept the news from Sam’s mother too because she kept smiling at Sam and his sister through the rearview mirror as she drove. “I’ve wanted to do this for years,” she said. She reminded them of how she’d dreamed of being an astronaut when she was a kid, and how crushed she’d been when she realized how outlandish this dream was for someone like her—a girl, and a girl who grew up in a Podunk town in Texas no less, a girl whose parents never went to college.
“You two can be anything you want to be,” she told them for like the thousandth time. “Don’t you ever let anyone tell you you can’t.”
For Sam, there was little worse than hearing about his parent’s disappointments and regrets. He said nothing, and neither did Star.
Leonard said nothing either, not a word the entire drive except when Bonnie asked him to help her find a particular exit, and he said about ten seconds later, “Your exit.”
Their guide at the observatory was a young black man named Devon who made jokes that were only mildly funny, but at which Bonnie laughed with her whole body. When Devon took them outside, Earth had spun just enough that all that was visible of the sun was a faint peachy glow along the horizon like crumbs left after a meal. Soon the darkness swept over that too, erasing the sun’s traces clean away.
Leonard stood apart from the crowd, staring off to the east at the darkness Earth was spinning toward rather than the faint traces of light it was spinning away from.
Binoculars were passed around. Devon gave the group a short talk about what they could see through them. Then he returned to Bonnie’s side.
Watching his mother with this man, Sam saw how she could have had a very different life. He could see plainly what she had missed out on, what she had given up. That’s what he believed anyhow, that she’d traded her dreams in for Leonard, a man who didn’t seem to have any dreams as far as Sam could tell. He watched movies and sports, went to the gym, and that was that.
Sam shivered. He found a spot away from the crowd and lay on the still-somewhat-warm concrete. He looked up at the stars with his naked eyes. They blinked on and off like they were relaying something in code.
Something strange happened to him then. As he stared straight up at all that glitter, he felt suddenly like he would fall off the planet and into that endless abyss. The sensation sent chills through his body. His fingers grasped stupidly at the rough concrete for something to hold onto.
What brought the sensation of gravity back was the sound of someone crying, a man. Sam turned on the tiny red light on his key fob and searched around the dark, and there he found Leonard holding on tight to the railing. Never had Sam heard his father cry. That those awful gooey sounds were coming from Leonard made Sam sit straight up and listen.
He thought his father was crying for his mother, that he had seen what Sam saw—a woman who had given up something vastly precious. This made him like his father more.
When he later learned the real reason his father had been crying, Sam felt like he’d been sucker-punched. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel bad for Leonard losing his job, but the realization that his father hadn’t noticed his mother whatsoever that night, that her joy had completely escaped him, was a devastating blow. His parents had wasted their lives, he thought.
They are lying on freshly mowed grass along the edge of one of the many bayous that run in and around Houston. Courtesy of Janelle, Sam has just swallowed his first tablet of ecstasy. The sky is fading from indigo to black, and as it does so, new stars pop through. Their numbers are growing steadily now like pustules or hives in a case of dermatitis.
The grass feels plush as if it’s a huge stuffed animal.
Sam says, “Force equals mass times acceleration. Momentum equals mass times velocity. Change in momentum equals mass times change in velocity. Change in momentum equals impulse. Or mass times change in velocity equals force times change in time.” The way these equations all piece together makes him ridiculously happy.
“Good god,” Janelle says.
“Kinetic energy equals mass times velocity squared divided by two.”
“Alex, make him stop,” she says.
“I can’t make him stop, but I can make it so you don’t care anymore what the heck comes out of his mouth,” Alex says.
“Come on,” Sam says. “Don’t you hear the poetry? It’s all connected. All you need are a couple of variables, and you can calculate the rest. With just a few details, you can solve for so much.”
He is smiling with his whole body.
“God, has he always been like this? Put me out of my misery, babe,” Janelle says.
“Good ole, Sam,” Alex says and laughs.
Alex is lying closest to the slow-moving waters of the bayou, and Janelle curls toward him then and wraps her arm around his chest. Sam hears the rustling of the rearranging of limbs. He holds his arm up and arcs his finger so that it can record whatever it is that they’re doing. He doesn’t care at this moment if they see.
“Power equals work divided by time,” he says.
Soon he feels the warmth of a hand. It’s Janelle’s hand. She is reaching behind her, pulling him toward her.
“Let’s shut you up,” she whispers.
When his body is soldered onto hers, she places his left hand onto her helmet of a hipbone. Other than Crystal Frisco in the seventh grade, the girl he had gone with for a grand sum of two days before she broke up with him, Sam has never touched a girl before. As he moves his hand back and forth over Janelle’s hip, Sam thinks of Carla and of a tiny tadpole-like Rico swimming about a little pool between her hips. At about ten weeks’ gestation humans look incredibly similar to the way most people imagine extraterrestrials. They have huge, bulbous brains that take up seventy-five percent of their heads; milky, glassy eyes like egg yolks without the albumen; and smooth faces with almost no features, no lines. Sam’s extraterrestrials are no different.
This is what he’s thinking about when he slips his pinkie finger inside the warm folds of Janelle’s vagina. He wonders about the transmission the aliens are receiving. Does a tiny light blink on so that they can see? Does the light make the wetness glisten? He imagines a group of green heads huddled close together in front of a video monitor. The heads alternate back and forth from one shoulder to the other as they try to make out what it is that Sam is showing them.
Alex’s hand bumps into Sam’s arm as he cups Janelle’s left breast. Alex’s eyes are closed, but there can be no mistaking that he is cognizant of Sam’s trespass. It occurs to Sam then that it is all Alex’s idea, that he whispered something to Janelle, something like Poor Sam. Will you let him feel you up? For me? Alex would do something stupid like that for him. When Alex talks about the future, it’s always set here, in the town where they grew up. The two of them are still hanging out. Their lives are still intertwined. The difference is they hang out in bars, they get laid a lot, and they don’t have their parents to answer to.
Sam’s plans for the future have never been a secret. It’s just that Alex doesn’t seem to recognize the conflict between their plans, that in order for his own vision of the future to come to fruition, Sam’s vision would have to fizzle out.
Janelle stands up and announces she is going to go pee. She walks around to the other side of the truck. Sam can hear the stream of her urine searing the soil.
Alex says, “Have fun?” He is grinning from ear to ear.
“I feel kind of queasy actually. It must be the ecstasy,” Sam says.
“What?!” Alex says. “Seemed to me like you were enjoying it.”
When Janelle returns, she retrieves the half-gallon of orange juice from the cab of the truck and drinks straight from the mouth of the jug. She passes it to Alex.
Alex drinks, then passes the jug to Sam, and places his arm around Sam’s neck. “I love you, man,” he says, “even if you are fucking crazy.” He rubs his other hand across the top of Sam’s head.
Sam remembers how in the fifth grade the school carnival included a jar of jelly beans that you could win if your guess was closest to the actual number of jelly beans in the jar, and how Alex spent a ridiculous amount of time counting every jelly bean he could see. When he finally wrote down his guess, the teacher manning the table didn’t put his slip of paper into the box as she had Sam’s. She said, “Alex, that’s all you’re going to guess is in this huge jar?”
“I counted,” Alex said.
“Bless your heart,” the teacher said. “What about all the jelly beans in the middle that you can’t see?”
Alex had said simply, “How am I supposed to count what I can’t see?”
Sam had known even back then that Alex was not the kind of guy he would have chosen for his friend had he had a larger pool to choose from, but the fact was the pool was small in his little Texas town where the farthest anyone ever went was another Texas town.
But now that he has seen what is on the outside, he knows he doesn’t belong anywhere on Earth. He is like some strange hybrid animal, a liger or a grolar bear or a wholphin. He isn’t this or that. He has no tribe.
When he held the egg in the air over the Gulf Freeway, he thought about how its rough shell held, or did once, the ingredients for life, and how its fate was redirected not once but twice; and how in other parts of town right at that moment, other eggs’ fates were being redirected at the doors and windows of houses.
That’s how Sam feels, like a sterile egg careening toward the windshield of a moving vehicle.
When Alex and Janelle decide they want to hop into the truck and hit a fast food joint, Sam announces he’s going to walk home.
Janelle gives him that Dr. Seuss look again, like he has feet sprouting from his head.
“I just feel like taking a walk,” he says.
“A two-hour walk?” Alex says. “Sam, what’s going on with you? Are you okay?”
“I just feel like being alone,” Sam says.
“Hey,” Alex says. “Don’t just walk away like that. It’s not cool, man.”
“Sorry,” Sam says. Then he turns away from them, just like that.
They’re counting baby grooming supplies, little safety nail clippers and pastel brushes with bristles like silk, at a baby store, and Sam says, “We should hang out sometime.”
“Like outside of work?” Carla asks. “Like go out for a beer?”
“I don’t have a fake ID,” he says. “But I could give you the money to buy us some beer. We could go somewhere, like a park maybe. Rico could come too.”
Carla grabs hold of a rack of finger toothbrushes so as not to lose her place. She studies him.
“That rocket ship dream you told me about, Carla, I can make it happen,” he says. Does he still believe this? Yes, he thinks. He has to. For Carla and Rico. Saving Carla and Rico is his one shot to make his life mean something.
“I’m going to be an engineer. I know I told you that, but the thing is, what I didn’t tell you is that I plan to build the kind of rocket ship you talked about. Well, not exactly the same. It won’t be a commercial ship. I’m not taking a bunch of assholes with mouths full of potato chips up into space with me. You won’t be serving anybody anything. It can be just you, me, and Rico. We’ll fly to the moon together. We’ll travel farther than the moon. We’ll go anywhere we want. We don’t ever have to come back here.”
“Oh, Sam,” she says.
She glances at his finger. He snaps it back into place.
“I can do it,” he says. “I know I can. I will.”
“That’s sweet, Sam, but that whole rocket ship thing, it was just pretend, when I was a kid. I didn’t mean that I wished I could still do it. I don’t want to fly to the moon.”
“What?” he says. “Why not?”
“I have a life,” she says. “Here.”
“This?” he says.
“What do you mean?”
She looks away.
“You deserve more than this,” he says.
There are tears in her eyes.
“I want to give you the whole universe,” he says.
She turns back toward him.
“I don’t want to be given anything,” she says. “I take care of myself. I take care of Rico by myself. I do a good job.”
He reaches out to touch her.
“No,” Carla says. She holds the palm of her hand out like a stop sign.
On his walk home last night, he peered through living room window after living room window, where the people of his town sat in front of their televisions, their bodies like shed exoskeletons left behind on the furniture.
When he felt like he couldn’t take anymore, he lay down on an area of the sidewalk where he could get a clear view of the sky, unbroken by trees. He looked up and waited to fall off the planet. He arced out his pinkie finger while tears tart as lemons welled up in his eyes. Please come and get me, please, he thought, but the stars chattered away as though he wasn’t there, as though they didn’t speak the same language.
MICHELLE ROSS’s fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast (as winner of the 2002 Fiction Prize), Faultline, Pebble Lake Review, and a Main Street Rag short fiction anthology entitled Slower Traffic Keep Right (as winner of the 2005 MSR Short Fiction contest). She holds an MFA in fiction from Indiana University. Originally from Texas, she lives with her husband and son in Tucson, Arizona, where she writes science assessment and instructional materials for K-12 and is at work on a novel.