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Summer Stories: ‘Tranquility Base’ by Megan Louise Rowe

Megan Louise Rowe

Leading up to the launch, Janet Shearon told Life magazine, “I’m not married to ‘an astronaut.’ I’m married to Neil Armstrong. I knew he wanted to go to the moon, somehow, some way, when I married him.”

With children living and dead, Jan observed Apollo 11’s flight from a yacht moored on the Banana River. Her boys used binoculars, but she knew there was nothing to see by looking closer.

She wondered if he hid a letter for the children; it would be in the false bottom of his desk drawer.

She knew more than he thought.

As a child, Sarah counted between lightning and thunder to calculate a storm’s proximity. As an adult, she reads the Chicago Tribune, cradling a mug in the breakfast nook decorated with hand-stenciled strawberries.

Her mother raps on the door, balancing a box under her arm.

“Can’t stay,” her mother says, placing it on the table. “No room in the new place.”

Sarah’s parents split two months ago after decades of marriage. President Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and invaded the complicity of thousands of living rooms. In her parent’s case, Bill left Hillary for Monica. Her mother’s mantra: Good riddance.

Apollo came down gently – more like the craft was reaching for the moon than landing. Eagle is at Tranquility, over.

With 600 million people tuning in, Walter Cronkite said, “There’s a foot coming down the steps.”

Armstrong’s heart rate accelerated to 140 beats per minute; he was making eye contact with an object of love. He tested stability on each rung like he was emerging from an attic.

Cocooned by cotton candy insulation and sun-glittering dust, Sarah sets the box next to the wooden rocking horse; no space downstairs, too precious to toss. What else are attics for?

Sarah has a good life, but that doesn’t stop her from looking for clues of who she is or might have been or still could be. Sentimentality is a trap – once ignited, nostalgia’s sepia romanticism dulls the present.

The box begs to be opened. She settles in spread-eagled, searching for her undoing. She finds report cards, white-bordered photographs, old diaries. An unstamped letter.

Armstrong descended to the attic: a specific mission, with the hope for something illuminating, recovered, found.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Had he practiced this line, looking into his bathroom mirror, shaving cream on his neck, prepping for an important job interview?

If he hadn’t returned, that’s how Jan would have remembered him: a young man at Purdue, confidence offset by earnest sincerity. The smell of shaving cream and a sharpened pencil behind his ear.

Armstrong said, “It’s very pretty out here,” and Cronkite said, “Very pretty, that’s the first compliment the moon’s had.”

The question wasn’t would the world be different, but how.

After the ceremony of unfolding the letter, Sarah looks at her loose cursive without reading. She isn’t old, but old enough that the paper is brittle. Even with a deep inhale, she cannot detect perfume.

In the letter, she told him she looks at the moon and wonders where he is. Her innocence is embarrassing. She was a young woman in love, as good a thing to be as any. She remembers watching the landing and thinking wherever he was, he must be watching, as well, so they couldn’t be far apart.

The envelope contained a picture; her friends told her that was the thing to do. In the picture, his arm is around her shoulder. They went to Evanston Beach that day. She wore a modest one-piece under her clothes, sneaking her bikini into her purse. Had she been that young? At the time, she marveled at her sophistication: on a day trip with her older boyfriend. Written on the back, “Yours.”

He was the sole owner of firsts. First time she looked in the mirror with the word “beauty” in mind, pursing her lips and widening her eyes. Giggling at something unsaid. First time he placed his hand on the small of her back and she lost control of her feet. First song, first kiss, first in-over-her-head, first fight – he enlisted, his older brother was there, she couldn’t understand – first tears, first make up, first relief – learning they could fight without the world ending.

In his car, first and last goodbye. They drove around past midnight with the top down. He crooned “Build Me Up Buttercup” to make her laugh. When he got back, she would be done with high school, and they would get a small apartment in the city.

Her parents warned her, as if they could prevent their daughter’s heartbreak any more than they could its instrument.

She never journeyed to trace his name, her face reflected in black granite. By the time the memorial was erected, she had a husband, a baby on the way. Like those before, after and in simultaneity, she told the moon.

Armstrong and every move he made were moon firsts. First step here, first step there, an itch the moon didn’t recognize until it was scratched.

Houston radioed Armstrong to retrieve contingency samples, but he was confident nothing would go wrong. He told them moon dust – collecting on his boots like silt – was fine-grained, almost powder. His boots sunk in, but a skin’s layer beneath, the moon’s surface was packed clay. He disappeared off camera – still responding to radio calls – taking in the moon alone, leaving the world with a view between Apollo’s legs.

Armstrong did not tell the moon about the turtle babies hatching in her light, how she kept people safe and got them into trouble, how people weaved their fortunes gazing at her face, how wolves howl and people howl, and what it means to howl, a sound reserved for her. How she’s a god and a cookie and a cheese. How George Bailey promised her to his wife back when she was only his Buffalo Gal.

How children stare at her late at night while they are taking first stabs at personhood and want to get it right. How humans, at their best, want to get it right, and that’s the main occasion for this visit.

Sarah hears Rebecca stomping through the kitchen, the screen door clattering shut. Sarah calls: in the attic, coming down. Waiting at the bottom, Rebecca remarks she forgot the attic exists.

“Grandma came by with stuff,” Sarah says.

A worried look flashes on Rebecca’s face.

“If you didn’t plan dinner, can I sleep at Ashley’s?”

Sarah wonders how long it will be until Rebecca lies about where she is going. If Sarah could be honest, what would she say?

“Wait till your father’s home,” she says.

When Armstrong visited, there was an exchange. He took her rocks, scraped her surface, left a flag. An emissary for the world, he left: a disc containing messages from 74 world leaders, a gold olive branch. An Apollo 1 patch; Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – we made it. A message of peace and vulnerability to the moon and future visitors.

He thought what we all thought: that we could hold onto her and capture something elusive; that we could claim her, keep her – ridiculous and sweet.

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