Jeff Phillips: The Starman’s Luminous Hanukkah

 

Blue bulb copy

Jasper Mangold had been in orbit for eight months. His work was mostly maintenance on damaged satellites, redirection of the strays, some meteorological observation. Despite daily exercises on a machine that looked like a rowboat, a bicycle, a hamster wheel, and apparatus hanging in a meat locker, his muscles were starting to feel like nothing. Loss of muscle density in zero gravity was no joke, limbs start to look smaller and coordination flounders; not good when navigation of a starship requires precision. He still had a month before the rotation called for his descent. But there was something else that seemed to dwindle. Maybe it was his curiosity. A sense of stir crazy had maybe eroded. He was just there.  There was so much out there.

He looked at his calendar and realized it was the first day of Hanukkah. There were no presents on the way for him. A good present, to himself, might be some glimpses of what’s beyond, deep space, and what new sense of awe might be triggered.

He had a flicker of curiosity. The warp drive panel. He didn’t have the authorization to use this. It wasn’t part of his current duties. But it was a functioning booster on the ship. And he was trained in how to operate it.

He pushed the switch to prepare the drive. It would take several minutes for all cells to warm and align with the fusion’s pulse. This would give him time think this through. This would be considered ditching his post, but who was really monitoring him? He was just one of many starships keeping watch on the blue glow of Earth. Unless command needed to check in for his help in an emergency like some satellite destabilized into a wobble. He’d take his chances. He needed a tour. He needed to recharge his belief in the glory of sending man into space.

He put in the coordinates to visit a star on the other edge of the Milky Way. Some called it Longer XLT Pink. To most astronomers, just another star logged in the books. But for Jasper, the star should have a more special name. Considered a red giant, the glow was a bit more of a white pink. At least at his distance. He knew better than to get too close; radiation at a certain point could extinguish synaptic activity. The star should more appropriately be named Allie. His first girlfriend in middle school. She’d wear pink sweaters, and the color would reflect with the pastel pink painted walls of the ice cream parlour where he took her on their dates, giving her milky smooth cheeks a glow that he’d always remember, and her rosy face would be the template for attraction, the cementing of his type, for years to come. This star was a reflection of Allie, or considering the age of this bright body in the dark of space, Allie was a reflection of the star. He overwrote the star’s official name on his map of the cosmos. Despite their relationship only lasting a year, he wished her well.

He decided he would check out more stars. He had a taste for their variances. Since he was using the warp drive, his sense of time was messy. There’d be too many calculations. So he logged each star visit as one night. To him, each visit was one candle on a menorah, this year in the shape of his own erratic constellation.

The second star was a brown dwarf. An astronomer had named this one Hooper, but for Jasper, this star was Cooper, as it resembled his childhood friend. Every Friday night for some four or five years he would sleep over at Cooper’s. It was a little vacation he looked forward to. Friday morning he’d awake with anticipation for the late night play time in Cooper’s basement. The cities they’d build with their toys, the video games that pitted them against mutant villains, and the Dungeons & Dragons that taught to him to pull his imagination away from these objects, the action figures and the electronics, and cast them into the ether where there was more potential. There was a lamp in the corner of that basement; the shade darkened from probable nicotine stains. This substellar star had an almost identical glow making it impossible for him not feel the stir of memories of his old friend Cooper. He hadn’t seen him in a decade. Jasper wished him well.

The third star was a supernova. This, of course, was viewed at a substantial distance. The velocity of the exploding star matter made him think of rage. It made him think of his soccer coach when he was twelve years old. Coach Mickey. Mickey would yell whenever his players lost possession of the ball to the more precise kicks of the opposing team. Spit would fly from Mickey’s mouth when he shouted “what are you doing?!!! Get it back!!! Ge-ge-ge-ge-ge!!” The stutter at the end of his commands would flush out the chunkier bursts of saliva that could still be seen way on the other end of the field. Mickey would kick the ground, mud and grass would join this ejection of material away from his bones burning with his hot temper. Jasper knew Mickey had had at least two heart attacks. Jasper hoped Mickey found some bit of Zen in the years that followed, for his health, so that another heart attack wouldn’t be the end of him. Jasper wished him well.

The fourth star was a red supergiant. This was the pure red that Allie wasn’t. This star quickly conjured up his 10th grade history teacher, Miss Kerr. This woman was tall, her facial features were sharp, and so was her mind. Her classroom was Jasper’s introduction to what intimidation was. She’d call on you when you didn’t expect it, even after you learned to always expect it. She phrased her questions in such a way to trip you up, to dig deep into your memory of the assigned reading, and to come up with your own interpretations, only to poke holes in anything you’d say in response. Miss Kerr would keep your heart rate elevated hours after class let out, and the only release, for Jasper, was channeling his teenage lust into fantasies of fucking her so hard the bed frame would break, dropping their tangled bodies a foot or two. The slap of the bed to the wood floor would mark the climax. He wished Miss Kerr well.

The fifth star was a white dwarf and it made him think of his little brother Daniel. When Jasper was seventeen – up to this point he was an only child – his parents were pregnant with another child. At first, the thought of this sudden brother on the way was a distraction. Jasper associated his coming with a bright sun glare on the horizon one has to drive right into in the late afternoon, unable to see the road ahead. Jasper couldn’t think straight. This was the year he totaled his Jetta and got busted for smoking a cigarette in his school’s parking lot. Consequence seemed an afterthought, because here was this consequence of his parent’s unplanned intercourse rocking the dynamic of the home he was used to. Then the baby was born and Jasper’s sense of the world slowed. Then he was overwhelmed by warmth and it was the first time the word happy felt a fitting description for his current state, and now he could foresee consequence. He could foresee everything bad that could possibly happen to his little brother, and despite the abundance of possibilities, Jasper still felt the confidence to fend off all of them. His little brother was now starting college and from what he gathered in recent correspondences, was having a tough time adjusting. Jasper wished him well.

The sixth visit was not to a star, but a gaseous blue planet, lit up nice and bright by its proximity to two stars, that from a distance, almost seemed to bump up against each other, like one was flame bubbling up from the other. In reality, the two stars were millions of miles apart, but still acted as a powerful team to shine on this blue body, where the texture of different gasses could clearly be seen swirling across the planet. This trio of the stars and planet made him think of his parents. His dad was a technician that repaired chemical photo printers for drugstores and department stores. His uniform was a bright blue short-sleeve button-down. The pants he wore were a dark navy. His mom was an accountant at the same company, but often seemed to wear bright blue dresses. Both of his parents drove blue cars, and would replace those blue cars with other blue cars. When Jasper was eight, his parents had a pool constructed in their backyard. There were the many fond memories of summer evenings spent with Jasper swimming, doing tricks off of little floats, while his parents sat on lounge chairs. His mom sipping on some fruity blue-colored martini, and his dad popping open a can of Labatt’s Blue. At night, when illuminated by the underwater lights, they all were bathed in the glow of blue. His parents were now both finally retired, becoming almost permanent fixtures on those lounge chairs. Jasper wished them well.

Jasper wanted to see a black hole, and it served as his seventh star. Bright matter seemed to shatter and fall fast into the dark center, a fast waterfall of sparks. This made Jasper think of his old boss Ulf back when he worked at Pishko’s Arcade as an assistant manager, just out of college. It was closing time, the games were all powered down, so the place seemed a dark expanse out of reach from the small track lights hanging over the register. Jasper was finishing up his end of day sales report, when the general manager came in from the back with a security guard. Jasper was informed that a child’s mom complained that Jasper looked creepy. Ulf couldn’t afford to lose customers because the manager on duty was giving off a vibe. Jasper pleaded that he didn’t actually do anything creepy. Ulf looked at Jasper like he was a disappointment and told Jasper this wasn’t the first complaint. Ulf turned to the security guard and asked him to escort Jasper out. The pit in his stomach then was a close cousin to the tragic awe he felt seeing the black hole. Seeing something destroyed and sucked away into the unknown. In both instances there was a feeling that the universe may not always take care of you. The power of this doom sunk any courage Jasper had at holding a grudge. So Jasper wished Ulf well.

To close out his holiday, Jasper tracked down a hypervelocity star. Ejected from the galactic center, this star was going rogue at twice the escape velocity. It was high tailing it out into darkness. No different than his mentor at church while he was preparing for his confirmation. This was when he had been momentarily charmed by his friend’s christian family, enticed by the dazzle of Christmas, and the guilt of non-belief in Christ potentially resulting in exclusion from heaven. So he had a phase where he went to church; his own parents felt somewhat slighted, and themselves judged, with his back turned on their tradition. He’d see his mentor, Reggie, every Wednesday night when he attended catechism classes. Reggie was a newly married man in his forties. Reggie worked as a reporter for the local paper. Reggie was often on a quest to uncover some scandal in local politics. Reggie died from a heroin overdose, only a month away from his confirmation. The marks on Reggie’s arms suddenly made sense. Jasper hadn’t given them much consideration beforehand. But the memory of these marks was like a fast moving trail leading away to where flesh wouldn’t be visible. The charm of that new faith had worn off when a sermon subtly accused Reggie of committing suicide, and the Good Friday rituals that followed a few weeks later bordered on the relishing of violence; Jasper couldn’t bring himself to eat at the Applebee’s after-service outing that should’ve been wrangled by Reggie. Jasper watched the hypervelocity star become a smaller speck of light, further dwindling, until it was visible as an after burn only. Something about the after burn remaining in his eyesight gave him hope that Reggie’s spirit was still on a quest, somewhere. He wished him well.

He thought on his favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey; the imagery had, in part, inspired him to pursue a career in space travel. And he thought further on the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, and something he had once said. “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” Well then, thought Jasper, stars are the unsung nobility, and we could all do better to remember to emulate.

Jasper decided to get some rest in a solar system in the Cigar Galaxy. He went into orbit around a small, dark celestial body he could only locate by its gravitational energy.

Before sliding into his plexiglass cocoon for a slumber, he flipped on a series of eight switches. These lit up the switches themselves with a green glow. It also supplied a flow to eight halogen bulbs on the outside of his craft, which he aimed at a nearby icy moon. Memories drifted into dreams and gave specificity to his loneliness and the presence of whom he hadn’t realized he was craving.

 

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