—originally published in Believe Me Not: An unreliable anthology October 2014
There’s not much to tell. The first people aboard the space station Second Sunrise, after the rich like the Umbersteens, were the Vietnamese. There were always house personnel: chefs and butlers to run the daily household. But manicurists, no. To avoid spending a fortune to send their wives back to Earth, a few husbands brought up salon workers—the cheapest they could find. There had been parties and balls, but none of the ladies had thought to bring along a maid, and the butlers did not know how to style hair or fix broken nails. Though it was meant for the rich to escape the poor, Second Sunrise was less than it was dreamed to be. There would always have to be workers.
After a few years, Second required maintenance. All space stations do. The small staff they had aboard in the beginning—Rodrigo, Shelly and François—weren’t sensitive enough to their needs. I came during the clandestine call, badly in need of work after mastering engineering at Beta Numatics, to help with Life Support Systems as a Waste Removal Specialist. I cleaned up shit, and ended up fixing more plumbing ducts than I ever thought I would have to. But it paid. Second always paid on time and just slightly more than anywhere else. I’ve seen their salons and parlors and fancy, real-wood furniture, wall paper and enormous, hand-woven rugs from Tibet; I’m not sure they miss the money.
Second was built differently than the rest of the stations. Sphere-like in concept, the station housed large complexes that each have a view of the stars. Much of the machinery necessary to life was within the center, with no access to spectacular, vertiginous views. Whoever designed Second should win an award for foresight. While there were no “apartments” per se, like Alpha Numatics—those rather small, tight spaces with only a bed, washbasin/waste remover, and tiny refrigeration unit—Second had the space and hookups for basic life support within the heart (we didn’t have the luxury of separate space like in most stations). Someone knew rich people.
It was in one of these Cubbies, as we call them, that I used to share my life with Dolores. We happened to have been assigned the same Cubby—think tiny cramped spaced with barely a room for a bedroll and pipes overhead. I rarely saw her, except on Sundays, and then only for a few moments before and after she returned from the small chapel a few of the religious Catholics set up—they are still looking for a priest or whatever they call them, from what I understand.
Unlike Alpha Numatics, Second is not as hard and metallic. Each Cubby has cardcloth—mostly recycled cardboard and castoff cloth blended together—painted a pale yellow the ladies call Daffodil Spring dividing the Cubbies. I have a Single Standard: six feet lengthwise and three across, and two inches high. I brought my aquamarine colored sheets with me when I moved. They don’t clash at least. There were two lights above the bed and a short box that usually has my reader on it. I generally have an extra pair of clothes inside—which I never work in.
Mrs. Umbersteen gave a small screen of painted swans to Dolores that serves as our bathroom and sleep divider. We are one of the few lucky for such privacy. I think it’s because Dolores doesn’t like to see me naked.
I’ve been to the Umbersteen’s twice. They have a slightly larger complex of rooms that face the moon. Mr. Umbersteen, drunk the second night I’d been there, told me that was because he and his wife are night owls. I had been summoned, as both Chesapeake and Jamal, the two other guys on duty for the shift, had been called to other residencies. I didn’t mind the Umbersteens. Not many ask for me by name, but Mr. Umbersteen said he would again next time they had an incident. I suppose it might mean something to another person, but me? I’m waiting on something better.
I dislike Mr. Wrigley most of all. He owns two residences on Second, side-by-side, and demanded a door from one to the other be put in. Apparently this had been going on for a while, and I was, unfortunately, assigned to be on the installation team—something I had never done before. I was assigned cut-out duty, a rather nasty process. The initial stages of installation, which require some knowledge of opening mechanisms—standard protocol for residence to public area doors be a certain material and dimension. One of the reasons that Mr. Wrigley was annoyed was because he wanted wood doors, but Second firmly stood by that the door was private-to-public-to-private and thus required a standard door or no door at all.
Mr. Wrigley asked me if I knew about wooden doors.
“No,” I told him.
“Nobody knows how to hang a god-damn door on this station. Worthless.”
I remember the bookcases—three of them, floor to ceiling—filled with books of all colors and topics that we had to move so as not to catch a fire and kill us all. There weren’t enough workers to have a first crew move everything. So I heaved and shoved and lifted, until the room was clear.
Turning on the Operations Laser is like suddenly becoming god. I could have destroyed all the life in that room if I had wanted.
“Jeremy, you know how to use one of these, right?” Jamal had asked.
“Of course,” I said. “I have a degree.”
Jamal rolled his eyes. What did he know of such things? What difference did it make if I had used one or not before? How different could it be than fixing plumbing?
The stupid old man watched the entire time. I’m not sure why, but he just stood there, arms crossed over his chest, scowling. It was a good job as far as I could tell. Surely it was good enough for regulation!
But Jamal told me, “Go take a break. And eat or something.” Then gave me this severe look. My mother used to give me those same looks when I’d done something wrong. When I came back, it smelled like fresh electrical destruction, a burning ozone and metal that only cutting walls made. Jamal hadn’t trusted me enough to do it by myself.
“He’s a good kid,” I overheard Jamal say. “But he’s got some wrong notions about his education.”
“I don’t care about damn degrees! I came to this damn station to get away from idiots!”
Jamal shrugged but said nothing more when he saw me. What was that all about?
I almost walked away, but I just shook my head instead. I was used to such treatment from people. The old man gave us an extra frown for good measure before we left. When I asked Jamal later, he only shrugged. We rarely spoke after that.
Dolores once told me that Mr. Wrigley had no wife, but managed to see little Dolores anyway for all his nail needs. She was one of the few manicurists not Vietnamese. Beauty school graduate.
“We have education in common,” I said when she told me.
She only have me this really weird look, glancing at the paper affixed to my wall.
“Did you print that out?”
“Of course, Beta Numatics Schools always let you print them out.”
Whenever I mentioned it afterward, she held my hand and said, “Oh, sweet mijo.” There was something about the sadness in her eyes.
Anyway, she told me she would trim Mr. Wrigley’s nails, and clear away the gross stuff to avoid infection and ingrown nails. She once said that his feet were like lumpy potatoes, dry and rough and wrinkly. In this rare conversation, she gesticulated wildly to show the nails flying everywhere. Then she shook her head, “He can’t even do it himself. Most of the other guys do, but he can’t even reach his toes. They all think we are,” and this is where she giggled and grabbed her rosary, “making love. But it’s really just about cuticles in the space station.” I laughed with her.
I used to hang out with Chesapeake, before the whole Mr. Wrigley thing, as we came on the same shuttle, but he stopped talking to me after we had sex that one time. He loved drinking, and I liked hanging out with him. He was fun and easy-going, even Dolores liked him, and she didn’t like a lot of people. I remember that night more clearly than I do most others.
We were in my Cubby and Ches had brought along a bottle of vodka. It was the first time we really hung out alone, outside of our work shifts.
“Stole it from that fucker, Mr. Chiddester, last shift. He won’t even know it’s gone.”
He gave it to me to sample, generously, before asking for it back and sampling it just as much. We talked about all the people we knew on the station, we talked about its short history, we talked about the workers and employers, we talked of politics on Earth.
The bottle was half empty by then. He smiled, and that’s when I felt the urge to kiss him. It wasn’t a shock, I don’t think, to him. We were on my bed, the lights adjusted to mimic late evening.
“So, where did you go to engineering school?” he asked me, his hand on my leg, after we’d made love.
“Beta substation on Alpha Numatics,” I said.
Ches leaned back, for a moment, and then tilted his head. “Didn’t think they had schools there. Isn’t it just more slums?”
I shrugged. Hey, I am proud to have gone there, to have graduated and left for some place better. “Where did you go?”
He laughed, “I went to Hap Hazard.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I raised the bottle to our achievements. “To us. We did good.”
He removed his hand and gave me this weird smile. We finished the bottle and disposed of it. He said goodbye shortly thereafter, and we haven’t spoken since.
I still see him in the Uniform Distribution Room. He looks at me occasionally, but I don’t think he sees me. I don’t know what went wrong. Jamal wouldn’t say much, but he said he talked to Ches a few times, but Ches told him to stop asking for me. Jamal said, once, he thinks I make stuff up in my head. Jamal says a lot of things, mostly that I should mind my own business.
“Chesapeake? Jeremy, you should leave him alone. If he’s not talking to you, respect the man’s decision.”
“But he used to talk to me. We used to hang out.”
Then, after the whole Mr. Wrigley thing, Jamal will only acknowledge me. He won’t say much else anymore. I probably pressed him too far about being friends with Chesapeake, and he told me, “You used to go to school too. Did you used to know the President too?” Dolores, before she left, was the only one who talked to me on a regular basis. She’d always roll her beads in her hands when talking to me as if she were praying for me. I don’t know where she went. Maybe it was that I used to drink? I haven’t seen her, but the other girls say she’s around, still working. Maybe it was the whole co-ed thing. I don’t know if I’ll get a new Cubbymate or not, but I’m hoping I do. It’s lonely, much like it was back at Beta substation.