Farewell, Space Drifter
Words By K. B. Carle, Art By Julian Mateus
Chess sits on the front pew with her mother’s ghost. They watch as visitors mutter memories beside her mother’s body. Chess wears a black pantsuit two sizes too big, something she knows her mother would’ve hated—a thirty-two-year-old woman shouldn’t be afraid of her curves. Instead, the ghost of her mother says the flowers look nice, which is a lie because they are fake and fraying. Besides, Chess knows her mother wanted blue and green flowers to decorate her casket, her body framed by her favorite colors. To keep from talking to the ghost of her mother, Chess reaches into her purse, pulls out her astronaut toy. She traces the outline of the astronaut’s helmet, lists all the planets and their moons in her mind.
The word “astronaut” comes from the Greek words ástron and nautes which means “star sailor.” But Chess didn’t want to be a sailor growing up because she couldn’t stand the mini-cape on the back of the uniform. If anything, she deserved a full cape.
“A mini you.” Her aunt smiles while sitting on top of the ghost of Chess’s mother.
Chess swallows a laugh, offers the astronaut to her aunt, who is unaware of her mother’s middle fingers piercing through her breasts.
“Your mother wanted to be a pilot,” her aunt tells the toy astronaut.
As the word “pilot” drifts into the room, memories stir within Chess. Moments that remind her of a different mother.
Her mother’s ghost wraps her hands around her aunt’s throat. Her aunt scratches her neck, clears her throat, apologizes, and blames the chill in the air.
Chess wonders if the word “pilot” truly holds so much power. If she whispered it now, would her mother’s dream come true? Or would she remain a ghost? Chess wonders how long they’d be able to coexist as daughter and ghost with this word lingering between them.
When she feels the weight of her astronaut toy return to her hands, she swallows her thoughts. She turns just in time to witness her aunt dabbing her tears and wonders when she started crying.
When Chess was seven years old, she discovered her mother’s collection of postcards hidden in a shoebox at the back of her mother’s closet. They were tucked away with other things including an old lockbox with a broken lock and maps that Chess couldn’t read.
The shoebox intrigued her. Inside, she noticed that each postcard was signed by a different man. Some were folded, others pressed, one with a dried daisy attached, but each smelled of cocoa butter and Folgers. She imagined these men to be handsome, with white teeth that glowed in the dark. That one might pick her up and spin her around, do her hair, make it so she could be a Daddy’s girl.
Chess always dreamed that her father was the man on the moon, just waiting for her to come find him.
She didn’t hear her mother’s footsteps or the sound of the bedroom door closing. Only felt her mother’s jagged breaths and the slap that etched its way across Chess’s cheek.
“These are mine!” Her mother screamed as Chess touched her reddened face.
Chess ran out of her mother’s closet to her room and slammed the door. Only when she went to wipe her eyes did she notice that she was still clutching one of the postcards.
That night, while tracing the letters printed on the back, she promised the man on the moon that she’d return it to her mother’s shoebox. And Chess kept her promise, sort of, exchanging one postcard for another. Studying how they all contained different messages and yet how each individual letter curved and bent the same way.
So, she made a new promise: to make her mother smile the way these men had done. Though not one of them mentioned her.
Burn them, her mother says while performing a handstand on the back of a red velvet pew.
“Can you at least tell me about the men first?” Chess whispers. “Do I know who any of them are?”
You do, her mother winks, you’d be surprised what a ghost regr—
But Chess isn’t ready to hear it from her mother. She wonders if that’s all she is, one checkbox on a grand list of items left undone on earth. She doesn’t want to be grouped in with her mother’s unfinished business.
So, like when she was a child and didn’t want to hear unpleasant things, Chess covers her ears. Counts the number of moons each planet has and imagines each of the postcard men inhabiting them. Counts how many lightyears each planet, each moon, are from her.
The sweet spot of flying is between 35,000 and 42,000 feet in altitude. If the plane were to split apart, Chess’s mother wouldn’t regain consciousness until her body reached somewhere around 10,000 feet, leaving her about one minute before hitting the ground.
“Are you alright?” Her mother’s neighbor asks while crossing his legs.
“I’m fine,” she lies, because who would be fine with the ghost of their mother whistling through the pipes of an organ?
“I’m sorry.” Her mother’s neighbor rests his hand on hers.
She wonders if these hands once held her mother.
“She was quite the woman.”
Perhaps this is the way he once stared at her mother, his green eyes scratched with crow’s feet. Her reflection dancing—or swallowed—within those dark pupils.
“Did she write you?” She asks.
But the question disappears with the warmth of his hand.
Chess thinks, the men from the postcards wouldn’t even know that I exist.
When there are no more visitors, her mother’s ghost insists on having a thumb war. They play without a winner or loser, one hand always missing the other. Just like in life, her mother laughs, the only sound in the room.
“Must be nice, being on solid ground.” Chess’s best friend is beside her now, wearing a dress that she borrowed two years ago. She plays with the astronaut in her palm, makes it roll to the right then left.
She’d rather be with the stars, her mother says.
And it’s true because nothing here feels stable. Up there, Chess knows what to expect. And even when it’s unexpected, at least she’s prepared. She’s undergone rigorous training and is provided a protective suit for those unexpected moments.
In space, the ghost of her mother wouldn’t be able to haunt her.
“I think I can hear the ghost of my mother.” Chess rests her head on her best friend’s shoulder.
Perhaps it’s time for her mother to settle her unfinished business, maybe rejoin the man on the moon. A nice thought, Chess thinks.
Which means that this is not what her mother has planned.
Chess knew she wanted to be an astronaut at ten years old. Told her mother while eating dry Apple Jacks. Her mother—from behind her newspaper—said she’d also had a dream once.
“What was it?” Chess peered at her mother’s obstructed face through the center of an orange Apple Jack. Stared until the piece of cereal broke in her grasp. Until Chess finished her breakfast, watched the pages of the newspaper turn, shifted her chair so that it groaned against the kitchen floor.
And still her mother said nothing.
Rocket fuel can burn without external oxygen, allowing space shuttles the ability to travel in any vacuum void of air. Unlike jet engines, which need to breathe to fly.
Though a rocket’s fuel may be more efficient and powerful, Chess also knows that they are also heavier because of all that excess weight they have to carry.
Chess is fifteen years old when she accepts that the man on the moon isn’t her father, though he’s a good source of inspiration. It’s also the age that she confronts her mother, sneaking into her closet for the final time. She grabs the lockbox with the broken lock that contains old plane tickets, receipts for suitcases, sunglasses, clothes, and sunscreen. Travel guides and maps with flight paths traced in red pencil. Flyers recruiting flight attendants and airplane guides detailing paths to the nearest exits. Even a Commercial Pilot’s Certificate. And, at the bottom of the lockbox, a positive pregnancy test. Chess is spreading these items and the postcards across the kitchen table when she notices her mother, how her body fills the doorway.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve traced them.” Chess says, though this is not where she wanted to start. She holds up one of the postcards, the one she carried the night her mother slapped her, between them. “The handwriting . . . it’s all the same.”
Her mother’s gaze never leaves her.
“What is all of this?” Chess points to the objects on the table. Are they the scraps of her father? Her mother’s lovers? Of a woman she’s accidentally been calling mother all this time?
When her mother still doesn’t answer, Chess throws the postcard at her mother’s feet. It half floats, which angers Chess even more, and she flings all the other items off the table. Some crash into the sink amid dirty dishes. Others slam against cupboard doors and the trashcan. The postcards all float to the floor in silence.
“Why won’t you just tell me?” Chess only realizes she’s crying when she licks her lips and tastes salt.
When she turns to face her mother again, the doorway is empty.
The following morning, her mother is in the kitchen, eating a bowl of dried Apple Jacks amongst the mess of all her things. All except the Commercial Pilot’s Certificate.
The positive pregnancy test sits on top of the kitchen table in front of Chess’s empty chair.
It’s just the two of them, alone in a room that’s not a church. In a room with white walls and red velvet seated pews. Alone with her mother’s body and ghost.
Chess considers the postcards, the Pilot’s Certificate, and the pregnancy test. The hours she spent tracing messages written by strangers, how their handwriting always mimicked each other. Her mother haunting doorways, always watching, but never doing the simplest of things.
She never spoke, not once, of these men whom she had loved.
Chess realizes that she will never know her mother The Pilot, or her mother The Lover, or her mother The Woman Who Scribbled Messages on the Backs of Postcards. She realizes that those men, those figments, didn’t know—or didn’t care—that Chess was there.
That Chess was always there.
It is estimated that 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. It is also said that there is no one left in the funeral parlor to watch Chess the moment the tether breaks.
The funeral director asks Chess if she would like more time and she asks for a few more minutes.
“You died and you never told me that—”
But the rest is lost in the breaths she can no longer find. In the tears that soak the collar of her black pantsuit. In her reddened cheeks and her throbbing head and the hair that sticks to her face. In her runny nose and her clutched fists where her toy astronaut is leaving a dent in her left palm. In the way the ghost of her mother tries to run her fingers through her hair, hold her hand, wrap Chess in her arms but with every try she misses and she misses and misses.
In this moment, Chess realizes she could walk away.
The same way her mother did so many times before when faced with all the questions Chess still carries. Just leave, Chess whispers to herself, permitting her legs to guide her.
Instead, they lead Chess to her mother’s casket. Her body looks as though she’s in the middle of a fitful sleep, eyes fighting to open, lips a narrow line, flattened hands clasped. I could’ve left, Chess whispers to her mother’s body, coercing her astronaut toy to stand on the shoulder of her mother’s body.
The ghost of her mother emits what Chess believes is a cough until she hears the sound again. The repeated soft sighs that hiccup and struggle to remain hidden, testing the air between them. Chess, wanting to leave space for this sound—a sound she will forever remember as her mother’s laugh—keeps her gaze set on her mother’s body.
I could’ve been so many things. The ghost of her mother—now starting to fade—leans down and leaves a kiss on her own cheek.
“You were.” Chess thinks about reaching out to the ghost of her mother. “You still are.”
But the ghost of her mother is gone.