Don't You Wanna Go to Mars?
"DON'T YOU WANNA GO TO MARS?"
(NOTE: Story contains Mature Content)
Durell has a migraine because someone made vanilla-flavored coffee. Just the smell is enough to trigger things. Still, he wants caffeine so badly he’s tempted, against all logic, to chug it anyway. Instead, he leaves the teachers’ lounge and hurries back to his office, head throbbing, where he’ll ingest his caffeine in pill form. Massaging temples, poking pressure points, Durell contemplates the framed picture of his wife and son, waits for his four o’clock to show.
The picture was taken at Six Flags Over Texas up in Arlington two years ago. Aliyah was about to ship out to Samarra with the 4th Infantry and her hair was cut close. She joked about being nappy-headed. The hairdo accentuated Aliyah’s onyx eyes. Taury, their son, then had the beginnings of what is now a full-blown afro. He calls it his “space helmet.” Durell pops two pain pills, his head creaking. He notes the half-eaten dark chocolate bar his desk drawer. Chocolate is also a migraine trigger. He can’t stop hurting himself, it seems.
This afternoon Durell has already had three meetings. The first with a divorced Latina whose 7th-grade dyslexic daughter is being held back because her reading skills aren’t even at the first grade level. The second, a white father expressing outrage that his son’s 1.2 GPA got him booted off the football team. The last, and probable precursor of the migraine, were the parents of a cyber-bullying blonde, icy-eyed cheerleader.
Next up: Lurlene, mother of tattooed and skin-headed Maddox Spivey, a miserable loner. His father, Lanny Spivey is doing 15-20 in Huntsville for armed robbery, a fact that has attracted a lot of unwanted peer attention. Durell met with Maddox twice and now feels that bringing mom into the mix might help. Lurlene. No two ways about it, that is a classic redneck name.
As expected, there is a noticeable difference in Maddox’s demeanor when he enters Durell’s office with his mother. Something humbling about having the person who used to wipe your butt standing next to you. Lurlene has amethyst-lavender eyes and peroxided hair. She’s wearing a Hooters T-shirt like it was custom-made for her. From the face, Durell guesses her age to be early 30s but the body is much younger. There’s a frozen, Nordic beauty to her face that explodes when she smiles. Her teeth shine as if bleach from the hair job seeped into her head.
“Well,” she says after they all settle into their seats. “Here we are.”
“Yes. How are you doing, Maddox?”
Maddox shrugs. “’Kay.”
The talk is of test scores and hallway scuffles. Lurlene listens intently, occasionally stroking the back of Maddox’s neck. He’s got both elbows on his knees, head supported by hands underneath the jaw in an attitude of awkward fatigue. Lurlene’s eyes are locked tight onto Durell’s. She nods slowly to everything as if afraid to break her gaze.
“What do you think about all this, Maddox?” she says, eyes still on Durell.
“Why don’t you give your mother and me few minutes?” says Durell. Maddox seizes the opportunity to exit. Lurlene shifts her gaze to a novelty paperweight on Durell’s desk: an oversized Excedrin Tablet.
“Vitamin E?” she says, referring to the large E carved into the top.
“Excedrin,” he smiles.
“Oh.” She puts it back. “You must get big headaches.”
“Got one now,” he massages his temples.
“I hope it’s not—”
“Nothing to do with Maddox. It’s just been one of those days. I ate chocolate.”
“It’s a migraine trigger.”
“Then why eat it?”
“I like it,” he winces as his heart rate aggravates the pounding.
“I’m the same way with cigarettes.”
“I used to smoke,” he says. “A cigarette would be great right now. It actually helps.”
She pulls out a pack of Kools. “Take one.”
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“Come on, do something nice for yourself.”
Reluctantly, he takes the coffin-nail and puts it in his shirt pocket.
“No problem.” She examines the Six Flags picture. “This your wife?”
“She’s in Iraq.”
“That’s Taurean—Taury for short.”
“He’s got your good looks.”
Durrell tries to see what she sees in the picture. The nose, maybe? High cheekbones? “Thanks, Mrs. Spivey.”
“Lurlene. Sorry.” Durell knows they should talk about Maddox, but he’s curious about the home situation. “What’s going on with Mr. Spivey?”
“Well, you know Lanny’s in Huntsville.”
“And he can rot there for all I care.”
“That’s not fair, I know.”
“So you’ve got some hostility about it. That’s understandable.”
“I think Maddox has some hostility too.”
“I know,” she sighs.
“I’d like to try and redirect those emotions.”
“Any interest in sports, music, things like that?”
“I thought the problem was grades.”
“Certain activities prime the pump, you know? Then the grades improve.”
“His father used to take him hunting.”
Durell smiles, “Something without guns, preferably.”
“What does he do after school?”
“Tell you what,” he gets up. “You think about it and let’s meet again in a week.”
“Great. I have to get to work anyway.”
“Where do you work?”
She indicates her T-shirt. As a manicured fingernail scrapes the E in Hooters, the nipple hardens visibly underneath.
Durell says, “Thanks.”
He smokes the Kool in his car, windows down so as not to stink up the Saturn. It’s the first time the cigarette lighter has ever been used. Durell’s not stupid, he knows when he’s being hit on. Lurlene is angry with her redneck husband for landing himself in the hoosegow. The inherent dangers in this situation are numerous and sobering but also intriguing. He tosses the butt out the window because the ashtray is full of coins.
Durell’s migraine pain is manageable by the time he pulls up to Taury’s school. The boy stands waiting behind the fence, backpack on. He saunters to the car, climbs in, buckles up. Taury started riding up front this year. When Aliyah comes home, Taury will have to sit in back. But for now, Durell loves having the boy at his side where he can give him a hug.
“I smell smoke.” Taury wrinkles his nose.
“You finish your homework?”
“You’re supposed to do it before I get here, you know that.”
“Don’t you want to go to Mars?”
Up until two months ago, Taury was a math prodigy. Since Taury was a toddler, Durell encouraged a love of numbers and science. The time is coming, and it’s going to be soon, when we’re going to send a man to Mars, he’d tell the child. No one could have predicted in 1959 that ten years later we were going to conquer the Moon. But we did. So I want you to be ready, son. Astronauts start out as pilots, and to be a pilot you have to excel at math. Those who are good at math will be first in line to explore the universe. Taury’s first toy in the crib was an oversized calculator. He knew his multiplication tables up to a thousand by the time he was five; he was doing long division by age six. By third grade, Taury had surpassed Durell’s limited math knowledge and Dad could no longer directly help with homework. When Taury’s vision tested a pilot-perfect 20/20, Durell was ecstatic. Now, at the age of ten, he’s mastered algebra. He’d just started calculus and trigonometry when the current apathy appeared out of nowhere.
Durell himself knows only a little about math. He’s just a facilitator. A year ago, just before Aliyah shipped out, she got Taury into a special after-school program for gifted kids. Taury’s mentor is a retired aerospace engineer named Fred Yakamoto. He said Taury’s left-brain capability was so strong he’d be surprised if “underneath that afro his head wasn’t lopsided.”
Officially, Taury and Durell are Aliyah’s dependents. They could afford to live off-base, but settled in Enlisted Housing to economize. Aliyah made Staff Sergeant a month ago, which is a higher rank than Durell held when he resigned three years ago to pursue a civilian career, so there’s been a little bump in household income. But it’s never enough. Durell got his counseling credentials by attending night school while they were stationed at Fort Benning. When Aliyah transferred to Texas, there was the faint hope in Durell’s mind that moving west would somehow keep her out of Iraq. But as soon as they got settled, her unit was activated and off she went. That was almost a year ago.
Taury settles in to do homework at his favorite workstation, the kitchen table. Durell fixes the boy a healthy snack: apple slices, jack cheese—and of course, Tang. Durell is annoyed the homework hasn’t been done yet. Now it’s going to be tedious. Without the tutor, walls will be hit. While Taury works, Durell checks the snail mail. Nothing from Aliyah. He goes to the living room, puts on the national news at low volume. Somebody blew up a market in Haditha. What used to be a leading story is now sandwiched in between the stock market and weather. Taury usually needs help at least once every five minutes, so when the newscast ends without him making even a single plea for assistance, Durell goes in to check on him.
Taury sits there, drumming a pencil. The snack is the only thing he’s finished.
“What’s going on?”
Taury shrugs. The motion of the shoulders reminds Durell of Maddox Spivey.
“Taurean, what is the problem?”
Taury looks up. “I miss Mom.”
Durell sits down. “They can’t keep her there forever.”
“When is she coming back?”
This is a cheat, because Taury’s studied just enough physics to know that Time is relative. They go to the master bedroom and fire up the computer, but there is nothing from Aliyah. It’s been three weeks. Not even a text. Durell opens the pictures folder and does a slideshow. One of Taury’s favorite pictures shows Aliyah up close and gritty. Her eyes are dark, bloodshot; surrounding skin smudged like two windows in a burned-out house. It was a cell phone photo, self-portrait. In the background the landscape is rubicund, dessicated—Eden for The God of War. It makes you thirsty just looking at it. The naked fear in Aliyah’s face prompts Durell to think she intended the picture just for his eyes. But there was no caveat accompanying the picture, so he showed it to Taury who quickly became obsessed. It’s not an easy picture to look at.
His son has a need to see that picture every day. Durell came close to deleting the image, but now he too feels that daily need. Durell allows Taury to log onto the Space Camp website for a few minutes before steering him back to the kitchen table. Taury promises to double time it tomorrow and get caught up. Dad makes fish sticks for dinner (“brain food”), which they eat on TV trays while watching a Nova about a Doomsday Asteroid that may or may not hit the earth in 2036. Durell imagines Taury as part of a special team sent up to divert the asteroid.
Taury takes a bath, brushes his teeth and gets in bed. Sometimes Durell lets him stay up late and they watch The Right Stuff, but not tonight. He tucks the boy in and Taury says his prayers. Durell is agnostic, but Aliyah made him promise Taury would do a bedtime prayer. They’re also supposed to say grace when they eat, but Durell let that slide months ago. Taury’s face, framed by bushy hair sunk inside the white pillow, reminds Durell of the days when he used to swaddle his infant son. There was never a tighter and faster swaddler than Durell, he is sure of it.
“Do you think there’s a heaven?” says Taury.
“I don’t know.”
“Mom said there is.”
“A lot of people say so.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe Mars is heaven.”
“Maybe you’ll find out someday.”
Lurlene calls the next day, says she wants to meet with Durell “one on one.”
Lurlene sports a pierced belly button and some kind of tattoo creeping out the waistband of her jeans. Hair washed and teased, plenty of makeup but not too slutty. It’s late winter but she is tanned from top to bottom and it doesn’t look like it came out of a bottle. Her aroma redolent of Kools mixed with Victoria’s Secret Body Spray.
“How’s your head?”
“Better. Have a seat?”
“I was thinking we could go someplace where we could talk.”
“Fine. I’ll get my car.”
He brings his car around, seriously considers driving home, abandoning this foolishness. But he’s curious, drawn to the danger. He whips the Saturn up to the curb, she grinds out her cigarette underfoot, gets in and they drive off.
She doesn’t wear a seatbelt, turns sideways to face him in a coquettish pose. She lifts one leg up and rests her foot on the seat, clasping the tanned shin as if she were relaxing on a couch.
“You look nice,” he offers.
“Thanks. So do you.”
“What are we doing here?”
“Going to Starbucks.”
“You know what I mean.”
“We can just turn around if you want.”
“No,” he says, “we can talk.”
At Starbucks, he orders two coffees. Lurlene asks for some ice on the side. He tries to buy a chocolate chip brownie, but Lurlene won’t let him.
“You’re not allowed, remember?”
On the store sound system, Sinatra’s singing Fly Me to the Moon. They take a seat outside, as far back as possible, in the shade.
“So, let’s talk,” he says, hands folded on the table.
She covers his hands with hers. They are smooth, soft, and her left ring finger sports a barely visible indentation where her wedding band used to be. The nails are manicured, long. There’s a fancy design on the nails that Aliyah would’ve made fun of.
“I want to know more about you,” she says.
“Don’t you ever get lonesome?”
“Don’t you ever just want to talk to someone?”
“Absolutely,” he says. “I’m glad you’ve reached out.”
“We’re in the same boat.”
The conversation moves along at a caffeinated clip. Durell smokes several of her Kools. When she says: “I mean, don’t you ever get angry?” Durell nods his head automatically, not really thinking about where the question’s coming from or where Lurlene is taking the conversation. He is amiable, agreeable. It’s a pleasurable feeling.
“I mean,” she says, “don’t you ever just want to grab the first hot piece of ass you can find and say fuck-all!? I know I do.”
She takes a sip of coffee, mouth cocked into a half-grin. Durell nods again, dumbly.
He goes inside to use the bathroom. His pee smells of caffeine and nicotine, like it could fuel a rocket. When he comes back, she’s up and ready to go.
“I’ve got to go to work and I’m totally wired,” she says.
She remains chatty on the ride back. As he coasts up to her car—a battered Plymouth Satellite—she swoops: hand on his knee, full mouth kiss with tongue. Squibs of light fulgurate across his field of vision.
“Bye,” she whispers.
His lips make a noiseless B.
Wanton thoughts of Lurlene flood his mind, spill over.
And anger. Yes. She’s right. There is that.
Two days later, she texts: I have to see you again.
At the Super 8 Motel, she answers the door in her underwear.
“Hi,” she smiles.
“I came here to tell you that I can’t do this.”
She pulls him into the room by his waistband, closes the door. She kisses him and says, “Awww.”
“I have the headache from hell.”
“Do you want to lie down?” she says, leading him to the bed.
He settles onto the bed. There was never a more comfortable lay-down. She stands before him, hand on her hip. The tattoo he’d seen sprouting up her midriff turns out to be a quarter-moon with a face in profile bedecked with flowers and vines. The fairytale face is smiling, but its skin is moldy green. He looks for stretch marks in the surrounding skin, sees none, absurdly wishing that she had them because it would remind him of Aliyah.
“No funny business, okay?” he says. “I’m just here to talk.”
“Durell, honey? I’m half-naked in a motel—the funny business has already begun.”
He takes in the image of her and allows: “You’re so pretty.”
“You should do something about it.”
She nuzzles his neck.
“Then why are you here?”
He has no answer.
“You mean to tell me,” she murmurs, “that you came all this way just to tell me we’re not gonna do it?”
She touches him. He removes her hand. She laughs.
Lurlene’s digging around in her purse. He thinks it’s for cigarettes, but when she pulls out a glass pipe the pounding in his head takes on a metallic tenor.
“No,” he says.
“This will make your head feel better.”
She shrugs, loads the glass pipe.
“Have you ever?”
“The sex is unbelievable.” Lighting the pipe, she adds: “I never slam it.”
Durell watches with disapproving fascination. Lurlene’s eyes glaze like a snake when shedding its skin. She grins, speaking words of smoke: “We have achieved liftoff.” Then she scrambles over, crablike. He snaps into a sitting position, afraid. But instead of straddling, she just leans into him and shivers. “Hold me.”
Maybe it’s the smoke in the air, maybe it’s the touch of her body, but the pain in his head briefly subsides. When she kisses him, he can taste euphoria.
Something about the pleading in her voice. It sounds so pitiful. He starts to undo his shirt. She’s got his belt, shoes and pants off before he’s even on the second shirt button. She presents herself. He moves in.
“Do it!” she yells.
If it were up to him, Lurlene would get dressed quickly and leave, but it is her motel room. He knows he’s the one who should leave but he’s paralyzed with sadness.
She says, “I’m sorry you feel bad. But I’m glad we did it.”
He listens to the story of her life. It’s a story that holds few surprises, but in a way feels like a carrying case in which he can more easily transport, if not conceal, the trouble he has found. Red beams of late afternoon sun leak through the crimson curtain, heating the room like a brick oven. Taury is waiting.
The words running through his mind ever since the sex, This can never happen again, finally pass his lips.
“I understand,” she says.
“I’m not cut out for this.”
“Promise you’ll never say anything to anyone about this.”
She gets up, starts to put her clothes on, annoyed.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m new to this.”
“Not sure what you think I am.”
He looks at the purse. It’s like she can read his mind.
Durrell replays the scene in his head, torn between suicidal guilt and gushing gratitude. She was loud. He was loud. He became an altogether different person. Do the math, bitch! It scares him, not that he might get caught—he will certainly get caught one way or another—but the thrilling doom of it all. When did this become inevitable? Does it matter anymore?
Taury squats on the ground behind the fence. Fred Yakamoto sits alongside, open book of Calculus problems on his lap.
“Sorry I’m late,” Durell calls out. “Parent conference.”
“Right. Okay,” says Fred. “We really made some progress today, didn’t we?”
Taury nods, gets in.
“Thanks, Fred. Sorry again for being late.”
Fred gives a dismissive, forgiving wave. The Saturn pulls away and merges into traffic. Durell takes Taury to Captain D’s for some brain food. On the way, they pass Hooters.
They sit in their favorite booth.
“So Fred got you caught up?”
“He explain what you were doing wrong?”
“He gave me the answer first, then I was able to figure it out.”
Then, before Durrell can respond, Taury says, without looking up from his paper, and loud enough for everyone to hear:
“You stink, Dad.”
A text arrives from a satellite in outer space and threatens the table with a low hum. Durrell pretends to know who it’s from and what it says.