The Gagarin Lands on Mars by Mike Lee
The Gagarin Lands on Mars by Mike Lee
The news ticker attached to the upper balcony of the newspaper offices of Notícias do Mundo flows by in three rows in three languages: Portuguese, Spanish and English, but the crowd watching from the square below understood the news as the first word flashing across the screen. GAGARIN.
Luis Echiverra, recently exiled, spoke first.
“It’s in landing orbit!” Luis shouted, tugging at the sleeve of the man beside him.
The man responded in English. “Yes, indeed it is so,” Terry said, his voice betraying a sigh, not of foreboding, but of the inexorable.
“The spacecraft will be landing today!” shouted an older man in front of them. His shoulders and hands shook with nervous anticipation, as if he had someone close to the crew, or some other personal investment in this event millions miles away from where he stood at O’Doul Square, the center of Antanzia City. The man beside Luis sighed again, and wondered if the gentleman in front of him was Russian. He felt sad, with a growing bitterness.
He turned to Luis, and responded in English. Switching languages in a trilingual nation is confusing and he already had a headache. “Yes, now the news is that the expected landing time for the module is at oh four hundred—late tonight.”
“How do you know?” Luis said.
“I listened to the analysis on Sky News before coming over. They’re quicker than NdM,” using the acronym of the leading Antanzian daily whose news crawl continued to flash the latest bulletins from Mars.
The giant television news screen above the news crawl flashed the portraits of the cosmonauts: flight engineers Gudkova and Shimkin, Suzuki, the Japanese pilot of the Gagarin spacecraft, then Lem, Patel, and finally the commander of the Mars mission, Colonel Zinoviev. He was already legendary from having successfully orbited Mars in the previous manned mission two years ago. He did not land the craft then, instead the crew successfully tested the landing module and proved that the long three-month mission to the red planet had no short-term effects on the crew.
However, the Russian Federation wanted to make the Gagarin mission as much of an international endeavor as possible. Suzuki is a highly qualified space pilot and commanded the International Space Station for a year. Patel’s air force experience in India, and later as a space shuttle commander, gained him the honors of navigator of the landing module.
The remaining crew of the Gagarin were all Russian, representing that new generation of post-Soviets building toward power and domination of the skies. A significant fact about them discussed often by newsreaders and analysts was that the Russian crew was born after 1991, the year of the collapse of the USSR. Commander Zinoviev’s presence as leader was also historically important, since he was born the moment the hammer and sickle banner was pulled down over the Kremlin, replaced with the tricolor that emblazoned the spacecraft and their uniforms.
“You feeling all right, buddy?” Luis placed his hand on Terry’s shoulder.
Terry was quivering. “I—I’ll be okay.” Actually, he wasn’t, but vowed he’d get over it. A stop at the bar, and a few drinks with Luis would do the trick. All will be well just as long as the television remained on the Antanzia City United against Boca Juniors friendly.
He knew that would not be the case and that the bar will change the channel at the launch of the Martian lander; but Terry wanted to get drunk. He really wanted to tie one on. Not to forget, but to remember.
Terry and Luis frequented the Yet Another Raw Deal, a Texas-style grille and bar in the Bricklen section, where many expatriates settled in the last decade. Rents were cheap, the buildings mostly early 20th century warehouses broken up into tenement apartments but not disreputable or in decay. Antanzians may have their slums on the other side of the sound that separated the city from the coastal desert, but Bricklen was next to the business district, and the local police kept a tight grip on the neighborhood.
Many of the expatriates were legally stateless citizens on United Nations-issued refugee passports, which Antanzia grudgingly accepted. Those with money or skills received permanent visas and eventual citizenship. Those who did not moved on to Sao Paulo, Montevideo or Buenos Aries. But everyone got out of Bricklen.
They wanted out of Bricklen, but rather both returned home, but for Terry and Luis that was just not possible. Home was as attainable as Mars, so this sufficed since neither of them are cosmonauts.
Terry thought about this business about reaching for the stars and landing in a bar as they sat in the booth. Between ordering drinks and Texas-style BBQ he remembered Apollo 8. Just barely—he was six years old, then. He had drawn the capsule floating in the ocean after it had returned from its mission. He remembered how impressed his mother was with the drawing. She took the picture from him and went into her bedroom. He never saw it again. After cleaning out her mobile home after Mom’s death, he looked for the picture, but couldn’t find it.
Yet he remembered the drawing, and dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut and landing on the Moon.
This wasn’t an obsession, but he expressed enough interest that his grandparents bought him a telescope for his eighth birthday. Also a van from NASA came by his elementary school, and he and his classmates looked at moon rocks the Apollo 11 crew brought with them on their return. He remembered staring at these sandy pebbles behind glass, and reaffirming his desire to become an astronaut.
“There you go. Staring off into space again, cowboy,” said Luis, holding up with barrel glass. “Cheers.”
“Clink,” said Terry. Both still had money for good scotch. They had jobs. Construction. A big step down from the IT gigs they shared back home, but by the time they arrived, the immigration quota for those positions had been filled. It could be worse—they knew a former surgeon in his Antanzian accreditation process working as a restaurant greeter. Everyone takes a step down when coming here; only a few politically well-connected refugees, get into positions similar to what they had left behind back home.
“They still have the AC game on,” said Luis.
“They are playing Centro. Decent side. Should be a great game as long as they don’t change the channel.”
“Not really getting into this game.”
“Yeah, I’m not into it either,” said Terry.
His eyes lingered on the screen before Luis turned away, turning his glass slowly on the wood table.
It was fourth grade. Because of overcrowding, his homeroom class was moved to the original five-room wood frame building situated in the far corner of the elementary school grounds, on the other side of the blacktop basketball courts, and behind the recently completed cafeteria.
The building was nearly eighty years old, with an entryway that divided the two classrooms on either side. In the center were two bathrooms. Instead of nameplates they had delineated the sexes with crude wooden cut outs of a brown skinned girl and a boy. After his first day in class, Luis told his mother about the building, and the faces on the bathroom doors.
On the Thursday of the first week, the cutout faces were removed and replaced with lettered signs.
He figured out the significance of the two events, but never mentioned it to anyone. This was just a memory, one of many accumulated.
Both classrooms were heated by a wood-burning stove set in the middle of the room. There was no air conditioning, but there was an overhead fan that spun above. September and October, along with April and May were hell, particularly when the fans broke down on occasion.
Winters were mild, but there were days Luis and his classmates wore coats in class. Most days it was too hot and Luis hoped for snow, but instead came the rains, turning the football field muddy and unusable. Because of that, they had constant games of basketball and kickball on the courts. Luis went through two pairs of dungarees from skinning his knees.
During one particularly long streak of raining days, the teacher assigned them a story by Ray Bradbury called “All Summer in a Day.” The assignment was to read and discuss the story, which was about a little girl on Mars locked into a closet on the only day the sun came out on the planet. Luis was particularly struck by reading this story: the girl who missed her home, Earth, and the cruelty of the children in locking her away while they went out and played in their one hour of sunshine. The clouds returned, the rainstorms returned for another year. Guilt-ridden, the children allowed the girl out when they returned.
At the end of reading, he had to write a report. Despite the backward conditions of the school grounds, the administration was well advanced in their curriculum. In fourth grade, the class struggled through new ways of learning math—two different programs in one year—and in literature the class had to learn to memorize and declaim poetry.
This was difficult enough for Luis, who had trouble speaking in public before his schoolmates, but he excelled at writing book reports. He received the highest score on “All Summer in a Day.” First perfect mark he received, and shortly afterward he was moved to a higher academic track.
Luis and Terry shared the Longhorn meat platter: overcooked brisket and pork ribs, along with dry German sausage. The potato salad tasted like paper and the bland pork beans were tolerable when mixed with crumbled cornbread. The food was as Texan as the Frenchman who owned the restaurant could get, but he got points for bringing in country musicians on Monday and Friday nights. The restaurant had a polka night on Saturdays, which packed the place with dancers.
There was no music tonight at the Yet Another Raw Deal. Between Gagarin and Antanzia City’s big match, all the attention were on the televisions interspersed throughout the dining room and bar.
For now, most eyes were focused on the futbol match. Even among the exiles living in Bricklen, the community supported the home side. Luis observed this was about trying about to fit in as much as possible. It was a good idea to support the team, learn Portuguese and Spanish, and know the direction of one-way streets in downtown.
Between bites of sausage, Terry remembered during getting his master’s degree. He was going to the engineering library one February morning. As he lugged his backpack up the stairs heavy with overdue books, a stranger passing by stopped him.
“Did you hear the news? The space shuttle blew up.”
At the student union, the gathered crowd watched the news coverage of the Challenger on the large screen television in the dining hall. Terry was one of the first to arrive, sitting at the center of the long table in the front row. He watched the repetitive plays of the launch and the sudden, catastrophic explosion.
To get away from the stunning horror of the tragedy, he blew off working on his thesis. That night he took his girlfriend out to see a punk show at one of the clubs on the south side. The band on stage was already drunk when they arrived. While sober they were a wonder to watch, when plastered they were painful.
During an extended pause, the lead guitarist reached into his jeans pocket. Pulling out a box of matches, he lit one and flipped it in the air.
“What this is,” he slurred into the microphone. “It’s the Space Shuttle Challenger.”
In response, a couple of people laughed nervously, but otherwise the scattered audience in the room was silent. Terry glanced at his girlfriend, and they left the club.
“Oh great,” said Luis, rolling his eyes as he stared at the flashing images on the television near them. “News bulletin.”
Terry peered through two men who got up from their table to watch the closest screen.
“I believe they launched the lander,” he said.
Luis motioned for the waiter for another round of vodka tonics.
A few days after receiving the perfect grade for his report on “All Summer in a Day,” the class went outside for recess. It was a normal day, with a blue sky with occasional clouds. It was almost summer, late May, and the last day of school was the following Wednesday. Today was their last Thursday together.
Luis paused at the covered entrance, letting his friends pass him. He was curious.
In homeroom, the coat closet was a homemade detached cabinet made of shellacked plywood, large enough for him to fit while standing up. In earlier days, in what was only a short time before Luis started school, the teachers used to punish children by making them sit on a stool in the closet for the remainder of the class period.
Since the weather was so warm, all that was in the closet were empty hangers, except for the sweater belonging to Ms. Denny, his teacher, and a couple of aged maps rolled up leaning against a corner. The stool was long gone.
Luis entered the closet, pulling the double doors closed behind him and crouched down in the darkness. He wanted to know what it might have been like for the girl in the story.
He sat in the closet for most of recess. After leaving, he had enough time to get in an at bat in a softball game before they were all called back in for social studies.
It didn’t feel quite right, sitting in this closet. He felt nothing. When he thought about it again years later, Luis concluded he had no connection to this little girl and trying to find a way to understand the predicament of an imaginary character in a world that never existed, all made up in the mind of a writer was stupid. It was a waste of time. Luis hit a triple in that softball game.
Several years later, Luis came to a different conclusion as he listened to the thunderstorm outside while slumped in the corner of his isolation cell, his battered and bruised face numb, his left eye closed, seeping fluid. Ever since then he has had depth perception problems with that eye.
“Thirty minutes before touchdown,” said the news announcer. “It will land at Oxium Planum, near where the United States landed the first robot, Viking I, in 1977.”
Terry groaned. “They certainly know how to stick it somewhere, don’t they?”
“Stop that. We already knew about this,” said Luis, annoyed. He motioned for the waiter, signaling for another round of drinks.
“Half an hour before we get shown up forevermore,” he commented.
Terry shook his head. “We live here, now.”
“But not then,” Luis said.
They had enough of the BBQ and sent the plates off with the busboy, and continued drinking. Payday was yesterday and they were not worrying being ruined in a day, having lived in ruins already.
The crowd was restless. There were a lot of Americans. The level of anxiety in the crowd was rising as most of the televisions were switched to the coverage of the Martian landing. Antanzia City was up two-nil late in the second half, so now the diehard AC supporters were more interested in the Gagarin.
“Turn that off!” Someone shouted in clear English. The response throughout the restaurant was laughter and sighs. Shortly afterward, he paid his bill and left in a hurry, obviously humiliated.
The newsreader continued his commentary as the cameras followed the descent of the Martian module from the orbiting Gagarin spacecraft. Both Terry and Luis discussed barely remembered stories dating to childhood about where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. They imagined millions were saying the same throughout the world. Like it or not, this was history and as passive witnesses they had become a part of it.
They ordered another round of drinks.
The crowd cheered when the module landed on the Martian plain. Luis and Terry remained silent, nursing their drinks, unwilling to rise from their seats. Several minutes passed before the landing module door opened and one of the cosmonauts began slowly descending from the gangway.
The audio was clear for everyone to know that the first human to set foot on Mars was Gudkova.
The room became silent as she quietly proceeded down the gangway. You could only hear Gudkova breathing on her microphone. Unlike Armstrong’s historic narration as he stepped on the Moon, the Russian remained silent as she reached the lower rungs, grasping the railing before she touched the sands below. When Gudkova reached the ground she released herself from the railing, and paused briefly before turning to face the wide expanse of the desert before her
The angles of the spacecraft’s cameras turning, lowering to show her from a full-body, facing the edge of the mountain range kilometers beyond.
Her hand pointed to her left, pointing out the sun.
She finally spoke. “Here there is no rain. No clouds. Only sun.”
At that, waves of cheers broke through the crowd at the bar, joining those already in the streets, blowing horns and screaming. They released an anarchic roar of pure joy, primal and all encompassing, overwhelming as the waves crashing upon the shores of uncounted oceans.
Luis slowly placed his glass on the table, and stared ahead.
The crowd had long gone, though a few stragglers remained at the bar to watch the panel discussion on Sky News about the historic events on the remaining television still on.
All Terry and Luis wanted to do was drink to sleep.
Cedric, the French owner of Yet Another Raw Deal came over to the table, holding a bottle of Stoli.
He placed the bottle on the table. “I’ve got this, boys. You deserve it. I sent the waiter home. You can stay for another hour until the kitchen is done and I’m finished with the receipts.”
“Thanks,” Luis said.
“Don’t mind it,” Cedric said. “You spend a lot of money here, and it’s a sad day for you guys.”
“Why is it so sad?” Terry inquired.
“You were the guys who were supposed to be on Mars.”
Luis stretched, and took the bottle of vodka, unscrewed the top and poured himself another glass. He poured Terry’s glass and looked up at Cedric, “Want to do shots?”
“No, I have to work. Sorry.”
“Gagarin was always first,” said Terry. “You can’t take that away from them.”
Cedric put his hands on their shoulders, “Stay for a while. I can drive you home.”
“Good idea. I don’t think we can walk home.”
When he left, Terry turned to Luis. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut.”
Luis smirked. “Yeah. I wanted to be a little girl on Mars.” He paused. “Don’t laugh.”
Terry raised the glass. “Love to hear the story.”
Luis shrugged. “It’s only the ending that matters. She grew up and got there.” He raised his glass, “Cheers, brother.”
Terry raised his. “Clink, bro.”
Luis downed his drink, and poured another.
Passing the bottle over to Terry, he said. “Okay, I will tell you the story. It’s about the time I hid myself in a classroom closet in fourth grade.”
Copyright Mike Lee 2020