Right after she slammed the door, he received through the mail slot—yes, it was definitely addressed to him—an offer to buy a cemetery plot.

Bon voyage! she’d shouted.

But not in a warm or friendly way.

As at going-away parties.

Or funerals when people console you by saying things like, When you are down you can only go up.

Bon voyage, amigo!, actually.

Even though that also meant, When you are up you can only go down.

As in, he wasn’t going anywhere, she was. Walking out, as the saying goes.

The way amigo can mean friend or jerk. Dude or guy, the way guy can mean amigo, dude, or asshole (excuse my French),

depending.

Just as he was trying to explain to her (back).

At least he thought she’d said Amigo, though through the slam that part was hard to understand.

As when they say, At True North you can only go south.

Would be just like her, though: to say “good journey”—in a tone associated with “EXPLETIVE YOU!” (Excuse my French)—when she was the one leaving, walking out, as the expression goes, crossing signals.

Obviously the converse is true: When you’re at True South you can only go north, though no one ever says that.

The way no one ever tells you, When you are up you can only go down.

Except maybe cemetery-plot salesmen. (Life is short.)

Even though everyone thinks it, at least sometime: pilots, undertakers (shouldn’t they be called underputters?), flight attendants (or overtakers?), passengers, travelers all thinking, When you are in an airplane all roads lead down.

Unless the plane is so high it can only go up—like a rocket—but who rides in those?—astronauts, maybe, en route (excuse my French) to the moon, in which case the moon becomes down and Earth up.

Ass-half backward was another of her favorite expressions.

Ipso facto, When you’re at True North, north doesn’t exist. (Why doesn’t anyone say excuse my Latin?)

Makes no sense.

Someone should have told that to Shackleton.

Christ! she’d sighed, the time he’d pointed that one out.

But really (his point being), the adventurer Ernest Shackleton spent his life chasing something that didn’t really, really exist . . .

So shoot me!—I didn’t make the world.

. . . Shackleton failing to be the first to reach True North (as if), then failing to be the first to reach True South (as if), set out for the glory of being the first to sail between the two.

Kind of Ironic how he named his ship Endurance instead of Delusion; or Obstinance; or Sufferance; or Forbearance; or Resignation; or Stoicism . . .

Pigheadedness.

. . . or Stubbornness. Sixty miles from the South Pole, he made the decision to push on into thick floes where his ship became trapped in ice.

Houston, we have a problem here, as the saying goes.

Though of course Shackleton probably didn’t say that at the time.

The saying coming from Apollo 13 (now there’s a number!), en route (excuse my French) to the moon, when someone screwed up, and two poles (battery) actually did touch (electric), sparking an explosion that left them unable to get either up or down or down or up (depending).

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (excuse my Italian), as Dante had it: In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the (astro-) way was (naught) . . .

Why does every word have to be a magician sawing himself in ha!

Speaking of why every word gets the last laugh, otherwise known as Zeno’s Paradox whereby two travelers, at opposite poles, walking toward each other will never meet so long as they keep reducing their steps by ha-ha-ha—

–ve!—V - E comprising the half of the word Hollywood sawed off when they made Apollo 13: The Movie, the actual phrase the astronaut radioed back being, Houston, We’-ve had a problem here.

A good-news/bad-news scenario: The good news being that we have plenty of oxygen for two days; the bad being it’ll take four to get home. Like Shackleton when the ice closed in and crushed his Endurance, forcing him and his crew to abandon ship, walk on water (frozen of course: the good and bad news).

Given that the real drama was up ahead, an air supply being halved like words each day, carbon monoxide doubling like trouble each day, the opposite extremes racing toward each other, making astronauts hallucinate, hear things that didn’t exist, Hollywood was afraid to use the astronaut’s actual words, the real astronaut’s use of the plural present perfect—We have had—would make audience members think the problem was past, get up and walk out, abandon ship—Bon voyage!—thinking that the problem or movie was over, or something like that. Lack of endurance.

A problem of communication.

Lack of stamina. Or tolerance, or patience, acceptance, persistence, tenacity, resolution, charity, indulgence, understanding, or willingness to make opposites meet—Bon voyage!—like Shackleton, who after leaving his crew frozen in place, managed to make his way back up north, then return down south to rescue all but three who had died for his dream (sorry old chap), for which he was hailed as a hero both up below and down above, back then and now in the book Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, “a model for corporate executives,” or indeed, friends or amigos or anyone trying to follow, lead, communicate, or just get along and live, as when all three of the Apollo 13 astronauts decided to quit bickering, stop splitting hairs, nitpicking, or finger pointing—stow the blame game—and instead work together, see it through (can’t walk out), get along, get it done, hold your breath and your tongue and pretend you heard what I hallucinated I said while I pretend I said what you hallucinated you heard (excuse my English) until little by little, half-by-ha-half they gutted it out, closed the gap between one impossible place and another—live together!—and managed to return to Earth alive and healthy (disappointing underputters, no doubt), whereupon NASA termed the mission a “successful failure."

 

Steve Tomasula is the author of the novels VAS: An Opera in Flatland; IN & OZ; The Book of Portraiture; and most recently, TOC: A New-Media Novel, which received this year’s Mary Shelly Award for Excellence in Fiction. His short fiction and essays on literature and art have appeared widely, and include stories in McSweeney’s, American Arts & Letters, and The Iowa Review. He lives in Chicago and at stevetomasula.com.

 

This issue of First Proof is funded in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.

Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.

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Short stories
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BOMB 113
Fall 2010
The cover of BOMB 113
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