The Monkey Handler
One day, Dale suited up in full gear and to much fanfare ventured in the airlock and out the explore hatch. Hovering in real-deal space as Holly called it, he tethered a satellite to the Spec 5’s exterior. They watched Dale from a porthole and Holly whispered to the monkey handler, “This is like Star Trek!” He smiled and she said, “I mean, more than usual.” With a grin, Rory started the craft back in motion with Dale still outside. His startled scream sent Holly hysterical and he admonished them from his headset. Justine couldn’t help laughing as she regained control of the spacecraft. When Dale climbed in the airlock, he tried to laugh. Slowly, he unsuited. To Rory’s apology he gave a forced smile then disappeared into his lab.
Exiting the Meditation Sphere, Holly tried to smooth her hair, but it had been messy the whole trip. Inside, the monkey handler was still struggling to get dressed. With their clothes flying around, it sometimes reminded him of a washing machine. Holly tried to lean against the wall while fixing her bra. When she looked up, Dale was glaring at her from mid-deck. Her hands went to fix her hair. Her hair was unfixable and she stared back. A bit of fuzz flew through the air, and she instinctually leapt for it, as if it were evidence.
Dale screamed at Holly, but it was hard to hear what. He drifted into the wall and then punched the wall. He propelled himself away from her. He spotted Costello on the ceiling and threw a water bag at him, but it drifted downwards instead. He floated angrily into the kitchen area and squeezed a banana from its peel. Costello tried to catch it. The banana wobbled though the air, peel-less, naked. Dale gave a snort, then squeezed all the bananas from their peels. He threw open the food drawers and tossed out the vitamin pellets, trail mix, the M & Ms, freeze-dried steak, powdered soup, all into the air where they formed a swarm of junk. Rory heard the commotion and walked into the mess. She put her hands in and tried to clear a space. She tried to find a bag, a bin, anything, but Dale was in her way. If she could just herd the mess. Holly pushed her way through and Dale pushed her back. Justine couldn’t see past the mess. Dale advanced towards Holly, flailing and wild, he shoved her back into Costello’s room. Rory tried to hang onto her, but he shoved her too. Justine tried to calm Costello, who was rushing towards the group, and it happened so quickly, in the thick of hundreds of hovering M & Ms, the trail mix and water bags, vitamins floating in a mass like a convenience store destroyed, the sliding dislodge door shut and locked, and Justine, Holly, Rory and Costello were launched in the faulty capsule while Dale fumed in the Spec 5, the monkey handler in the Sphere, still fumbling after his socks.
The four space stragglers drifted through relatively empty regions of the universe. There was dark matter and dark energy. There was cosmic microwave background radiation, but Holly had since stopped asking for definitions. She knew there was no friction in space and she felt this now, in a faulty dislodge capsule with two astronauts and an adolescent male chimp. In their possession, the dislodge capsule (a 15’ x 10’ x 10’ interior space complete with the same ropes and handles they’d grown so used to), a space toilet, two sleeping bags (with ties to hold them down), a CD player, a CD, Costello’s collection of rubber balls, a plant that died in one of Dale’s experiments, pictures of Thelonious Monk, Jane Goodall, and Manny Ramirez that the monkey handler and Costello had taped to the walls days earlier, Costello’s hairbrush, an early draft of Costello’s I Don’t Know Outer Space, a deck of space cards (made with Velcro and played on a special board), a stash of nicotine patches and an extensive medical kit. There were water bags and snacks, but only enough for a few days. Justine calculated their daily allotment.
Their initial hours in the capsule were wrought with dread. Holly would cry and the others didn’t reassure her, they shared the same cold fate. Costello signed that the monkey handler was his best friend. He signed that he hoped he would see him soon and Holly quickly signed soon! Rory and Justine spoke of Dale with pent-up hatred, recalling every prickish thing he’d ever done, said, thought, insinuated. Then they couldn’t stand his name and no one would utter it.
The confusion, anger, and panic melted to something jokes could cut through and they tried to enjoy their last hours. “We’ve already died. To float in space is already death,” said Rory. Holly agreed. It was unnatural to be alive so far from their habitat. Holly took Rory’s hair out of its bun. She braided it and then undid the braid. “When I was 13 and was just starting to use deodorant, I used to put it behind my knees and on the insides of my elbows. I thought any angle like that you were supposed to put deodorant on.” Holly combed the hair with her fingers, she divided it in half.
“I used to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night. I was like five years old. I would eat butter like it was a bar of chocolate.” Holly had Rory hold one section of hair. She had invented three new kinds of French braid since they’d begun their final mission, as Rory called it.
Exile on Main Street was played frequently, and though back on ground Holly would have claimed to know all the words, having listened to that album so much in college, she now saw her prior knowledge was only the meager beginnings of the in-depth relationship that she and Exile were fated to share. They were all experts on it and close listenings led them to wonder if The sunshine bores the daylights out of me/ Chasing shadows moonlight mystery was a reference to space travel. Were they chasing shadows moonlight mystery? Justine said they were barely moving. They were reaching.
Holly taught Rory and Justine all the sign language she knew, and through performance, Costello taught them more. He taught them cigarette. He taught them car, chair, dirt, tree. They had a jumping jack contest. They got tired. They got antsy. They cried and felt bad for themselves.
Rory did a breathing exercise while Holly closed her eyes and recited her memories. “There was a farm scene painted on my wallpaper, repeated again and again in a pattern. I climbed out of my crib and got two black eyes. I was not hurt, but every time I saw myself in the mirror, I would scream.” Rory buckled herself to the wall and did leg stretches. “He was the cutest boy in school and we were the first kids to ‘go out,’ so all our friends were really excited. Our parents would drop us at the movies and we’d be in this huge group of kids. He kissed my hand on the bus and it was a big deal.”
Costello told them about learning sign language, how he always knew how, because his mother was a ‘signer,’ and so signed to him when he was a baby. Costello had been to many jungles and met many monkeys. He had signed with children all over the world. He did not like working on his book. Holly urged him to finish it, but he refused to talk about space. Holly taught him how to give a massage. They played “Rock Paper Scissor,” which always made Costello laugh, and with vigor he bashed the scissor and cut the paper, emphatically he covered the rock. But Costello grew bored and homesick, and the others felt the same. They slept and dreamt. Holly had a dream where Dale rescued them and they laughed at him. She had one where she was making out with Justine. She didn’t share these dreams. Rory had a dream where Costello had a baby and this dream they all liked. Costello thought it was a good idea. When Rory brushed him, he wanted to keep the wad of hair, his baby.
Justine found cyanide pills in the medical kit on the wall and took one out. Rory objected, “Don’t abandon us on our final mission! Don’t you want to feel it?” Justine smiled and caught the ball Costello threw towards her. She said, “I’d like to feel it right now, here, with you two blabbering, not starved, crazed and anxious, my heart beating some ungodly number.” But they drew her out. They charmed her. Rory read aloud from I Don’t Know Outer Space. Where is your trumpet? Why? New food? Hungry now. Cigarettes why? Me and Holly danced. My ball is lost. My red one. Cigarette please. You are my friend. Space? I don’t know Outer space. I know the trees. I know Martha.
Justine told them about her husband for the first time. He was an engineer. He was quiet. He was brilliant. When she met him he had a moustache, then he had a beard, now he had nothing. He was good with animals. He made great pancakes. The women wanted a buffet, to wander in a museum, to run down the street. It would be nice to fry some fish, walk a mountain, to get caught in the rain, to run into an acquaintance. A drink, a phone call, to read a newspaper! They wanted to climb trees with Costello. To take a shower, ice skate, to lie on a carpetted floor. Who is Martha, Rory asked. Costello did not respond.
Holly had broken astronaut code, and at first that had stilled her. Guilt had spread in full-body regret, but Dale had broken a code too, and space travel was so brash, space travel had broken some code as well. And all codes get broken, that’s why people made codes, but outer space didn’t have codes, outer space was still and waiting. It was quiet and watching. It was endless and neutral.
Outer space is not completely empty. It contains a low density of cosmic rays, plasma and dust. Different regions are defined by the winds that dominate within them. The Spec 5 swayed a few miles from the dislodge capsule. Dale had barred the door to the Sphere with the monkey handler stuck inside. The snack swarm had dispersed equally throughout the cabin. It had a queer, festive look. Dale drifted about the craft, eating whatever his hand caught. He watched the monkey handler from a very small window. At first, the monkey handler was interesting to watch. He cried and yelled, he exercised, he sang, he whispered, but then he got weak and listless. He drifted in and out of consciousness.
Dale’s breathing was repetitive. His mind, it was stuck. Every now and then there was the thump of the monkey handler’s head hitting the glass Sphere. To Dale, it was familiar, like a distant clock, a neighbor’s pet. Dale loosely held a rope. His eyes were shut, listening for the thump. He put a hand on his face, he forgot what he was listening for. He opened his mouth absently, then, there it was, there it was again. The sound. The sound reminded him of something he knew, that knew him. The food knew him, but only sometimes it cared. Sometimes he’d eat a bad something, a stale bit among the rest. He’d flinch and wait and not remember for what, and then the thump, distant but audible, and Dale was still and then waiting again.
Occasionally, astronaut crews attempt a reunion. A husband is sent out with the kids. Picking through her stack of CDs, an ex-astronaut decides on Brian Eno, then at the last moment, turns on the radio. Her astronauts arrive abruptly, spreading out on the couch, drinking wine, feeling the rug with their feet. They have all put on weight, except for Gordon, who grins at them from a skeleton head, his shirt hanging on his chest like a flag.
Someone makes a joke and the laughter elevates them. They beam at each other, waiting for the next joke, praying for it, but then silence. They look around the silence and grow used to this as well. They hope no one will make a joke. They wait expectantly and no one does. If they danced, the room would temporarily hold their energy, but no one much feels like it. They lie in the woman’s backyard and look at the stars. But the black of the sky is grainy. It always is, on Earth. The air smells too much like grass. Gracefully, one gets up to make an exit and the others follow in unison. It is pleasant to be near each other, but also pleasant to get in separate cars and hear their doors shut, to start their engines, reverse, brake, and drive away in all different directions.