Short Story Up and Out and Gone
They used to launch shuttles from the town, but that was all over now. Space had become derivative and unimportant and old.
As a way to combat her grief, a widow named Janine sold microgreens at a local farmers market. She sold Swiss chard, dill, arugula, beets, leeks, and other kinds. She harvested the plants seven to twenty-one days after germination. She had to examine them very closely to determine when they were ready. Her eyesight was impressive for her age, and so was her patience.
She lived in a beach town. They used to launch shuttles into space from the town, but that was all over now. Space had become derivative and unimportant and old. After everyone else moved on, the town remained saturated in the escapism that spaceflight advertised; many people did drugs and wandered aimlessly, searching for something to care about again. At the northern end of the town was a near-abandoned museum where they kept capsules and debris and audio tapes of astronauts describing in detail how they went to the bathroom in their suits. The space-themed diner became themeless. The only thing left from the space age was the area code, 321, which made everyone’s phone number look fake.
Janine remembered a time when people would block the A1A, sitting in clusters of lawn chairs and lifting their binoculars to the sky to witness the hot trail of exhaust left by the spacecraft. Her husband would shade his eyes from the sun, as they were very sensitive—he was always poking them or squinting or trying to get tiny specks of dirt out—and he’d squeeze her hand. Although she was never particularly moved by the experience—because she couldn’t see how this would directly affect her and her husband at all, since the richest and sourest people would be the first to leave the earth and they prided themselves on not fitting into either category—she would always squeeze his hand back and feel calm looking at a dot in the sky, the ground rumbling with potential energy, surrounded by a bunch of strangers who all shared a common goal: to want to believe that we could start over and do good—up and out and gone.
At the farmers market, the tent to the left of hers belonged to a silent woman who sold wind chimes of varying sizes. She wasn’t unable to speak, she just refused to talk to customers. She would violently gesture to the wind chimes and the sticky notes with prices written on them. To the right was Collin, a twenty-five-year-old motivational speaker, personal coach, and brand ambassador who had lived in a big city during his college years and then traveled to different sparsely populated places, preaching what he called the “Alpha Mindset.” No one was sure what he sold or who even allowed him in the farmers market.
“Now ask YOURSELF this question,” he grunted, before pausing for emphasis. “If today was YOUR last, would you be happy with how you lived your life? You have the potential to live your truth with the guidance you so desperately seek!” He seemed to be possessed by a higher power, sweating and thrashing, maddened by the thought patterns tattooed on his brain by business school dogma. His audience were typically children in the nine to eleven age range, lounging and waiting in white plastic patio chairs while their parents bought things. When he spoke, Janine and the silent woman looked at each other and poured out their grievances through eye contact.
One of Janine’s customers was a man who constantly wore a shirt that said “MAN FROM NANTUCKET” on the front and owned a monkey who sat on his shoulder. He had spent many years with this monkey, with whom he had some sort of telepathic bond. The only trick the monkey knew how to do was throw ice at people. This didn’t seem like much of a trick to Janine, but was promoted as one.
To believe that we could start over and do good—up and out and gone.
She had seen the scene play out many times. People would approach the man and the monkey with the initially agreeable kind of emptiness that comes with interacting with someone new. “He’ll throw ice at ya if you insult him,” the man would prompt, a few seconds into every conversation. The energy always shifted after that. Some people insulted the monkey with surprising ease and creativity, and others struggled to find bad things to say about the monkey. He was a very average monkey, his flaws and strengths perfectly balanced. When the monkey was insulted, he screeched excitedly and reached for the ice. He always found ice to throw—it was just conveniently around. This was probably the most miraculous thing about the whole ordeal, that the monkey could so readily find ice in a place where the sun seemed to derive pleasure from melting everything in its domain. The people would laugh, cry, run away, come back, run away again.
“Does the monkey do anything if you compliment him?” Janine once asked the man, before she knew better. The man said nothing to Janine, and had sunglasses on, so she couldn’t tell if he was looking at her. “You are a very handsome monkey,” Janine said to the monkey, and the monkey threw ice at her, too. The point was that the monkey threw ice at everyone. So why did the man want everyone to insult his monkey?
The weather, staying constantly in the eighties with ninetieth percentile humidity, had a way of making the calendar year feel somewhat paused. Cold air, not wintry by any means but a nice tease, was like a “play” button, and October was around the time when things began to resume, although she still paid little attention to the occasions the month presented—Halloween, birthdays of old friends, expiration dates on the food in her fridge. The sun was out, but you could feel it less. Janine wanted her husband to know about the weather so badly, because she knew he would have been in a good mood on a day like this, so she closed her eyes and pretended that she could telepathically communicate with him. The day is crisp, and touches all of my nerve endings, she told him. This is the kind of weather that makes me really afraid of dying.
Toward the end of the month, Janine encountered a former commercial model, Tara, who wanted to buy green juice. Janine told Tara she didn’t have any green juice. There was a depth that was unusual to a pageant-like face like hers—maybe it was her wide-set eyes or her pointy, somewhat lopsided cupid’s bow that made it easier for people to project their fantasies onto her without feeling too intimidated. Sometimes symmetry proved to be too idle and terrifying to fit the needs of advertising. Tara looked at the ground in that famous way, with the kind of distant expression that acknowledges they’re being watched—that they are pleasant to watch. Janine sort of recognized her, but couldn’t pinpoint from which advertisements exactly. Tara took up an amorphous space in Janine’s memory, her likeness in the background during many moments of her life: on a billboard, on the TV, in the mall. Stuck forever in her subconscious as a wordless, two-dimensional, airbrushed fixture.
“I’m surprised you can’t just blend the microgreens together,” Tara said politely, but with no real surprise in her voice.
“I think I know you,” said Janine, touching her chin, a social cue that she was deep in thought. But she wasn’t thinking much at all. She knew that she would never be able to recall where exactly she knew her from.
Tara smiled, vacant and empyrean. “Yes, yes you do.”
The former model invited Janine to her house for wine and cheese. She lived in a neighborhood called Honeymoon Hills. There were no hills. Even so, Janine was excited to receive an invitation for something, to be expected somewhere.
“I’m so sorry about your husband,” Tara whispered a few minutes after Janine entered the house.
She was in velvet loungewear, cradling a Yorkie like a newborn. Janine had met a few Yorkies in her lifetime, and thought that they had horrible breath and boundary issues. But of course she would never disclose this opinion. The only people who knew about it were Janine and, she assumed, her husband, since he was dead and this somehow gave him access to her full, unedited thoughts.
“I’m not going to pretend that I know what your loss feels like. But I know hardship,” Tara went on, taking rectangular cuts of cheese out of the fridge. “My husband is in the military.”
“Yes, well,” was all Janine could say.
“I’m waiting on a few friends to get here, actually. They’re like my family. I thought it would be nice to introduce you to them.” Tara was now walking in circles around Janine, who was seated on the couch. The Yorkie sat on Janine’s feet, staring into the fireplace. Janine also stared into the fireplace. Fire was a nice thing to stare into.
“Oh, I’d be delighted to meet them,” Janine answered, like she was reading from a cold-call sheet. “How did you meet your friends?”
“We’re in business together.”
“We sell beauty products.”
That was when Janine noticed a small table in the corner that looked like a shrine for minimalist hair care: shampoo, conditioner, masks (but spelled masques ), styling cream, oils, mousse, detangling spray, all arranged in a sort of ziggurat shape. Above the products were cursive signs that read, “Together we are Unstoppable!” and “Invest in your life!”
The women who showed up were Olivia, Kayla, Morgan, Ally, Reilly, Olivia (2), and Emily. Janine noticed such tension in how they interacted: carnivorously obsessed with each other’s progress or lack thereof. There was something very dark about people trying to mistake business for culture, coworkers for sisterhood. First they played party games—everyone participated, but with the same effort they would devote to taking a standardized test. The games had rules that were supposed to be easy to follow, but they really weren’t. There was a lot to remember, and the pressure to have fun overruled the actual fun, like celebrating one’s birthday.
Tara was talking about her life being photographed and representing a mass-produced image.
“My soul was polluted. I was lost and undetermined. Then I realized that I am more than a digitized rendering, more than an algorithm,”
“You are more than an algorithm,” the other women chanted in response.
“Algorithm,” Janine chanted, a bit delayed.
“I realized that I could make a fudge ton of money from home, recommending products that I believe in, with women I believe in—I would die for these women . . .”
They all used their facial muscles to convey warmth to each other.
“I’m sorry, but also not sorry—people who try to tear us down—we’re just women who want to encourage other women to be independent—like, Janine, why do you love having your own business?”
“I like to spend my days paying attention,” Janine said. “You need a lot of attention for a job like mine. I don’t have time to dwell on bad things, like grief or sadness.”
Grief, to her, felt less like an ocean as often metaphorized by support groups and poets alike, and more like a quiet leak from a liminal space inside herself, some sort of ancient, horrible cavern—a leak that even maladaptive daydreaming or spiritualism couldn’t plug. It just leaked and leaked. She knew what things reminded her of grief, but the exactitude of the images themselves didn’t feel very useful at all, at least not in the fresh wound of it all: grief was an expired website domain; grief was the way the light hit everything early in the morning after a night of no sleep; grief was seven numbers in a particular order assigned to person to person to person; grief was feeling punctured and completely wrung out in even beautiful moments. Grief was a leak, but it was also a new type of lens that was put over her life; obviously darker than her old lens, but with a new layer of detail, one that required attention and persistence to admire.
“Absolutely! Yes, absolutely! I was also trying to get to the point of freedom. We all want freedom, don’t we?”
The yorkie was sitting on a Seussian fluffy rug, tilting its head slowly like a clock, the fur around its mouth dripping wet.
“You’re iconic, Janine. You’ve gone through so much. And now you’re an entrepreneur yourself, with your business. It would be so nice to have you join our team,” one of the Olivias said to her. She wrapped her aggressively square acrylic nails around a wine glass and handed it to Janine. Grief was a new type of lens, darker than her old lens but with a new layer of detail, one that required attention and persistence to admire.
Ally and Morgan began to explain the two-hundred-dollar “starter kit” that was required to enter the business, often interrupting each other to go off on their own tangents about how easy it would be to make the money back or receive bonuses.
“That’s so kind. You are all so kind, extraordinarily so,” Janine replied, feeling what could only be likened to the thrill one gets after successfully shoplifting.
“It’s nice to set goals for yourself, and to know that you’re achieving them,” the former model said to Janine. A squeeze of the hand. “And it’s even better knowing we can achieve them together.”
Janine wasn’t silly. She knew what all of this was. But during certain lulls in conversation, it felt convincingly potent. She understood why certain people resorted to certain things—capitalism had created a cesspool of companies that thrived on the exploitation of people in vulnerable positions, which made said exploited people willing to exploit other people for the sliver of a chance that they could join the top one-percent of the company to make six figures a year. She didn’t know what to make of it besides that point.
Janine said goodbye to all of the women, hugging them, exchanging contact information, taking pictures, promising to connect. Something in her had abated. The moment felt outstretched, forgiving.
She took the bus home because she still couldn’t get inside her husband’s pickup truck without her body contracting in quiet pain whenever she looked at the stains on the seats or the twisted royal pine air freshener or the fingerprint marks on the radio. The bus had a picture of a space shuttle on the side of it, alongside the words “Blast Off!”, the “B” in the process of peeling off. She sat down near a girl of about thirteen who was listening to loud music. The lyrics were muffled, but Janine could occasionally make them out. She heard the words “trouble, eye, patterns, smiling, backwards, echo” not necessarily in that order.
The girl was taking pictures of herself with different filters. In the span of a minute, her face turned into a puppy, an elf, an orange, a baby, an old person. What a timeline! What a way for life to happen—such a disturbing number of prospects! And just like that, the bus engine made a guttural noise and they were launched into the dark.