In July, its leash twisted by an hour of pacing, the boy’s beagle leaps off the porch and hangs itself. In August, a sixth-grade neighborhood-school classmate, swimming alone, slips under the murky surface of a strip mine pool. In September, the boy begins junior high school, his home room crowded with strangers.
Before long, Sputnik says he might soon be a Communist. Before long, the Asian Flu half-empties his classes. By November, the Soviets are listening to Laika, their space dog, until she smothers into silence, circling the earth before she plummets into re-entry’s furnace.
That week, the boy crawls into his mother’s closet and sits among dresses stacked for charity. With the thinnest negligee, he seals the space where light creeps in and waits for what the air will teach him. For an orbit’s ninety minutes, he rides weightless in that capsule.
When he re-opens the door, his mother is still ironing downstairs. The radio plays Johnny Mathis followed by Frank Sinatra, both melodies so familiar the boy mouths the words as he descends to earth.
In early December, Chuck Kress, who lives in the double next door, pledges to count slowly to one hundred before he opens the door to the freezer left behind in a nearby empty house. “Two minutes,” he says. “Plenty of air. Nothing to worry about.” As soon as the boy shuts himself inside, back curled and knees puled tight in a space more suitable for a dog, he starts his own count, concentrating on that metronome for breath.
His heart thrums in his ears, graphing itself against darkness like the strikes of an EKG. He presses one hand between his legs, holding fear, refusing to touch anything but himself while he calculates the mathematics of air. He has reached one hundred and forty-seven when Chuck Kress opens the door and laughs as he describes how terror has altered the boy’s face.
When the boy says he’d counted way past one hundred, Chuck Kress says he didn’t count like a sissy. He counted like a launch commander, a scientist with the important job of watching a clock, no longer considering the astronaut who, after all, was only a passenger. The boy slides the shelves back into place as if they are the covers over unmarked wells, ending his experimental age, which he understands wasn’t science at all, just the anecdotal evidence of fantasy’s tiny risk and the panicked chatter of his senses.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). Work has recently been reprinted in Best American Essays 2020 and Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.