The “glass canoe” sought clemency, or maybe it wanted to be a dolphin. The LifeRaft® surged downward a bit, and folded exactingly into a somersault, quickening the other way; all of it done with awe, and a single motion, flawless, seamless, the nickname was a “jelly roll.”
He understood now the LifeRaft®’s vexing rattle of Muzak, finally, inasmuch as he could gather anything while grasping for anything that looked like a seat belt. (He counted four of them in his possession when the pod righted.) To digress, the first aeronauts from Sombrero galaxy invented the moniker, “jelly roll,” to describe the maneuver, “a rolling turn, or roll turn,” taken by SUM, the Selective Unit Monitoring system, the formal name of the pod’s mainframe. It required a change of direction within a dijection, and created ominous perils, principally of a “slide” in the dimensions of time, and/or space, or possibly a regression; an older man could become young again, happily or unhappily; in fact, such a demise had been thoughtfully-considered by many of senior aeronauts, largely in private, in howler moments of this astral jig, but a jelly roll profoundly wanted for a margin of error. Aji said the name actually derived from the first set of supplies Hydra provided the “pioneers,” the first exploration crews. “The guys opened these humongous crates sent by Hydra, which was bidding to become top dog in the aeronautic race,” she said. “Mind you, the aeronauts were more than a little apprehensive, suspicious, yes, of Hydra’s future role. Hydra had the money, Bud liked to say, so it was ‘the loudest voice in the room.’ It surprised me Bud was always ready to agree with them. So the aeronauts opened the crates, and right on top is an endless pile of these colorful pastries, for God’s sake, – jelly rolls; they were duped by jelly rolls. They said it showed Hydra had at least a little technical knowledge. Yes, — of sweets! Of course the old roll-turn was renamed in about a second.”
“Amusing,” he said, emulating a roll-turn, a “jelly roll,” on a beach blanket at Coney Island, near Steeplechase Pier. They were sunbathing late on a Sunday afternoon close to dusk upon their return from the Deep Vast, and from Bootes Void. He was “hooked.” Aji was next to him, and he wondered silently, in the lulls of their conversation, if the real capstones of their traversing space wasn’t unusual events, but the marvel of their empty ventures, — the slow, beatific gaze into the great black, and white Vast.
Aji shuffled on the blanket, and advised, “One more turn on our ticket. the end of my mission. The end of your duty. You can go home, and – play the lottery. Buy a new microwave. It’s interesting: SUM tells me you would love one last journey to the Void.”
“Not,” he reported, as sunset neared, a yellow orb dunking in a redder sky.
Aji said, “Not in the cards. Anyway. Best we’ll get is İo. You know, the problem is SUM is wrong, always wrong. It thinks it’s funny, like it’s – charming, somehow.”
He closed his eyes, his arms crossed behind his head. “What about Will? The Grand Lumineres.”
Aji replied, “Maybe Titan. SUM has a weird thing about Titan. The Lumineres, yes. It will be at the end of our trip! This was promised to me, programmed from the beginning. The LifeRaft® will bring you back to Coney in one piece.”
“For a little while,” Aji said. “No worries.”
Aji said, “Hydra says it will have to wait. Problem is SUM found a match for a guy who plays tennis with middle-aged ladies in Brighton Beach.”
“Really,” she said. “Wonders never cease. Control won’t spend any more mission time on it, for now. I’ll keep the vigil, though. Probably from Sombrero.”
“Mmm,” he said.
Aji was abrupt, and began to lather suntan lotion around her one-piece bathing suit. “I just want to go anywhere,” she said. “The Lumineres is perfect, perfect timing. You don’t have a problem with it, riding back stag? You wouldn’t leave a girl on Earth?”
He trundled to his back on the blanket, grumbling, “Maybe.”
Time was an absorbing medley, an “olio” of segues. The separate courses of separate lives, loosed and joined by random events, place, time, place or coincidence; eternity, timelessness, bore upon Ernie with less stress for his own life. He was rising to the tasks of epillary. She was pleased, most of all, but her interest waned for his trains of thought, or the sundry incidents of the countless days, and nights. It was withal a “book” for her read, a novel one, or a new movie to see. She was younger than Ernie, in fact, fairly young in her twenties, to his senior citizenship; she still knew the endings, and was not one for spoilers. She told him the people in the stories, and their lives, were temporary; proverbially, they were, but they did not need to be, vagabond mimes in frames of a grand teleplay of nature, whose only purpose was to amuse. She deferred to Ernie, and asked him, gracefully, “What did happen to them?”
Ernie sat with her at an over-sized, oak farmers’ table within a colloquy of fluent rays from a sun alighting their morning tea service, and croissants, still paused, tilting his head. Her art, and her hobby was the hopeful lost, and found. She encouraged him, “Was he trapped? By the police. What happened — the one who was throwing fish?”
“The monger,” Ernie quaffed. “He was the real deal, ma’am. Yeah, he was. No, he was — ‘caught.'”
He smiled ruefully in the sand near Steeplechase Pier. “That’s the one with the peach fog. Titan?”
Aji was imbued with the Earth’s sun, responding, after a while, turning her head, “A mirage, probably. It looked peach to you?”
“Maybe,” he said. “It’s not a fog? It’s a mirage, then.”
She wasn’t inclined to science. “Could be an aurora,” Aji said.
A cloud captured the sun, and Aji, in the cooler air, abandoned the bid for her first sun tan, and sat upright. She conversed, “I am trying to make a scientist of you. Science is like poetry, you know. It’s enthralling, it’s a constant drama. You have to engage in it, pull the strings, try the puzzles. It’s breath-taking. There’s endless conjecture, but that underscores the scope of all the wonder; science gives us beautiful dreams, like Orison, for example. In some languages, Orison means ‘prayer.’ Maybe we will find Orison some day, or Planet X, Planet — 9. But we can try. That’s the thing. (Pause.) Planet X. The tenth planet; I still count Pluto. It’s mathematically impossible, for Planet X to exist, but wouldn’t it be just like finding the hot new restaurant in Brooklyn. Cool? Finding the dark, vagabond, foreboding sphere afloat in the Milky Way. It’s said to be right near Earth. Ooo-oo.”
“Planet X?” He stretched with the comport of the Sun.
Aji brushed sand from her thigh. “Another thing mathematically-eliminated, like the Mets. Ha. Maybe SUM will nix Titan, and we can visit Enceladus. Not much chance of that.”
They sampled wine in a walk of the Brooklyn pier. Aji studied the dark, blue air, with a chardonnay. “By the way, SUM is saying Saturn is stable.”
“Good,” he replied.
“No, they’ve just found a new way to worry about Saturn, that’s all. Saturn has always been an unstable gas giant. It’s semantic. You watch. Trillions of planets, moons, and spheres, Hydra wants to follow Saturn. I’ll blame Cassini. You can blame Huygens. The last trip looks like a milk run.”
“O-kay. No Bootes.”
“Nope, then,” said Aji. “I still get the Lumineres. I set the course for the LifeRaft® to right here to Steeplechase Pier. Have some wine.” He glanced blankly at her, a fateful moment, and nodding too much, he was certain he should have asked more questions. He was not really paying attention to Aji, but the days with her.
He penciled a question mark at the end of scribbles about midlight in the yellow margin at the top of the legal pad, pushed it toward the middle of the Coney Island kitchen table, and then reached for a canister of decaffeinated coffee. He believed Aji was keeping a record, and reporting it, and alone, in a command trailer of Sombrero, beneath the bright, amber sky, and it seemed normal. Aji told SUM, “Some final summaries to transmit.” The record became a suture for the unknown. One of SUM’s films showed her, astute, and forthright, recounting the oral history, and gesturing, in her official capacity as a member of the American Legion; time-stamps were in the corners of every frame. History was a friend.
Transmission: “Will was adept at dijection. I feel it was unlikely he could have made a mistake. He believed his father invented the whole science of it. It’s untrue, of course, it goes back to Einstein. He was a dashing young man, though, like his father, Bud. His skill came from a personal unskillfulness, like it was something he wanted to conceal. He was diminished by his struggle to surpass his father, — never going to happen. Bud didn’t like Bootes, never liked the Milky Way. They were Will’s favorites, I guess, consequently. And Earth. Will was always going to Earth. He never stopped talking about it.”
Transmission: “He was too much the prankster, too jocular, and cavalier, for this mission supervisor. He could have been just a perfect aeronaut. We always had to unravel these pranks, these snarls Will created for people on Earth, strangers, as if by causing problems, Will could friend somebody in a strange, and foreign place. I don’t think even he knew why he did it.”
Transmission: “The burn code is a good example. Harmless, alright, harmless. But I’ve had enough. He put a burn code into a computer mainframe at Marsh College in New York City. It was a trap code, it was not aimed at any one in particular, just whoever fell for it. It eventually red-flagged a Coney Island man, a professor, or lecturer. He was up to mischief, in the first place, anyway, using the computer to research a lottery scheme, but this would have been – rather unfair. It’s resolved. I just had to get him out of the way.”
Transmission: “I’m going to the Grand Lights after this, yes – the Grand Lumineres. This has not been done. The present speculation concerns the origin of Laniakea, the Big Bang. They say, of course, the Grand Lumineres do not exist, it’s just like Orison. What isn’t like Orison? Keep recording everything, SUM. If you please, land the Coney Island fellow in the LifeRaft® at Steeplechase Pier. Another wine walk, yes.”
Transmission: “Research if any antics by Will played a role in Coda, t he disappearance of the crew. I’m loathe to ask, SUM. Was it a mistake? An accident?”
Transmission: “And keep looking for him, the crew. Mass cannot be destroyed, SUM. You know that. Ergo, Will is somewhere. Keep looking. Please.”
His complaint about the Muzak fell on deaf ears, the same caused to hear the choice of the glass canoe of jingle rags from the early 20th century; the variations of a Scott Joplin’s piano compositions asserted in the pod’s background were importantly intended for him, probably because SUM believed the familiar tunes would soothe his demeanor; they commenced as soon as he stepped aboard, like “Hail to The Chief.”
He ignored it. He asked Aji, facetiously, “Do you ever play video games?”
“Well,” she replied, with equal irony,“It is a crucial part of our syllabus, yes.”
She surveyed the command board, and suppressed a laugh, and then inserted a cartridge. Aji said, “I guess we could play. We could play for about — ten minutes.”
He became more reticent in a clash of Dungeons, & Dragons, mindful of his heart failure. “Ten minutes” struck him somehow, unexpectedly. He kept it to himself, impassively. Ten minutes was an aeon, for death, or for persons who were dead, or lost like the crew at Coda, or Will Adorjan; somewhere, in time and place, in space, ten minutes, ten more minutes; for the drifting past, for boundless yearning, for “sad-eyed ladies of the lowlands”; ten minutes, with neither give nor take, instants, more instants, the chance to do “one more thing,” speak to someone; seconds, in his life, the day of his collapse in the Coney Island apartment. He was spared by less than ten minutes: if his neighbor, Red, hadn’t chosen the moment to sample the brandy of his wet bar, and to borrow the spare key; the minutes waiting at the New York rail crossing, in an ambulance, about ten minutes away from the hospital; ten minutes is eternity.
The sunset breezed into Steeplechase Pier, and a rush of the ocean tide nearly spread beneath them like a table cloth. He sat upright closer to Aji, who was still enamored with the blue tones of the sea, in contrast to the water at Sombrero. The moon near Earth minded these tides; it was a pleasure to know man could not change the tides; they watched the waves thin, and break in orderly semi-circles around them, on the blankets; plainly it was a warning. The salt in the ocean air was not good for his condition. The fishermen who frequently watched them from the pier presumed they were a couple. He reached his arm behind Aji, and anchored his hand in the sand for support. He allowed the path of the seabreeze to steer his chin to her neck. She frowned, lost in the Atlantic horizon, neither cordial, but not suddenly alarmed. Her skin was fresh, and smooth. Aji nudged away from him; with the palm of her hand, she caressed his heart, slowly, and smoothed his chest.
“Will” she said, absently.
¤ Juke Box ¤
Theme: “The Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” Bob Dylan | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 40)
…. from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories, by Soda Tom
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