Mars or Elsewhere

Rob Howell

2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

So that settles it. We’ll volunteer for Mars, the Moon, or any other rock science thinks to populate.

Cheryl’s husband isn’t worth the gallon of gas it’d take to wave good-bye, and she fears her son—thirteen, hot with Ritalin and aimless rage—will end up even worse than his father. I don’t have any bad feelings for my own family; we just connect in different ways and different places. I’ll be kinder to disappear without a word, leave them to think I’d been stolen away by fairies, like a man in a Yeats poem.

As for money, I’ll pawn my tools and golf clubs, and Cheryl will sell high on the collection of Hummels—those porcelain German figurines—willed to her by her dearest aunt. “They’ll never be worth any more than what they’re worth now,” she explains. “And besides, the rosy cheeks and master-race implications creep me out.”

First stop, Dallas and the downtown Neiman Marcus, where we’ll buy traveling clothes. Long gloves and buttery cashmere for Cheryl, Clinique moisturizer to turn back the clock around her eyes. For me, gabardine pants and a hat to be rakishly tilted. Cheryl will have downloaded Dylan and podcasts on the philosophies of Tolstoy, the hedonists, etc. We’ll take 45 into Arkansas—the closest place neither of us has ever been—and bathe in the hot springs, let the mineral water tighten our pores. The Camry, too, will come to life in the Ozarks, the mountain air inspiring European moans from the engine.

At coffee shops on college campuses, the young geniuses will fortify our cappuccinos with whiskies from monogrammed flasks. They’ll ask for advice and we’ll relay the high points of Epicurus, the Sermon on the Mount. “The most important thing,” we’ll explain in our subtle Texas accents, “love wantonly.”

We’ll slow dance close with strangers for the open mic protest songs, and flirt around without jealousy. At closing time, we’ll leave the crowd weeping for our a capella duet of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” All the young geniuses will stand in line at the Camry and beg us to come back to their apartments.

“Let us be a witness to real romance,” they’ll say.

We’ll eat vegetarian in hillbilly diners and wave fluorescent signs in political demonstrations. We’ll sneak off from the tourists at Niagara Falls, leave our sport coat and cashmere folded up on a boulder, and swim out into the roaring mist. Behind the water wall we’ll love each other, our bodies pale smudges for the cheering crowd. In Australia, we’ll take our Japanese scotches over glacial ice. In Polynesia, we’ll make tandem bungee jumps into active volcanoes. In Uruguay, we’ll take lessons in forbidden dance, and I’ll throw a punch or swing a rattan chair when the instructors get too handsy with my lady. In plush African grasses, we’ll lay out quilts and sleep in the nude. We’ll awaken to the pink light of morning and wet sandpaper at our toes—a gazelle and her newborn young, licking the salty pads of our feet.

We’ll be professors of archeology, former top prospects with bum shoulders, inventors, poets with trust funds. In a Maastricht laundromat, sport coat and cashmere tumbling through the delicate cycle, we’ll whisper the truth to a little couple—a Mormon statistics major on mission and a Finnish death-metal drummer with a raw, swollen tattoo of the Mormon girl’s initials (A.K.A.) in a sans serif font on the back of his hand—clinging to each other on a bench.

“We’re headed to Mars,” we’ll say. “If you can wave good-bye to your Tabernacle choir and double-bass blast beats, your twenty-four hour days and three-camera sitcoms, your gravities, families, and friends, then you’re welcome to come along.”

The young couple will make it as far as Monaco, where the Mormon girl will quintuple our funds at the baccarat table. The next morning, shaving white truffles over their breakfast eggs, they’ll confess they won’t be getting on the train to Istanbul: “We’ve grown comfortable, and we’re afraid of giving up anything at all.”

“Charlatans!” Cheryl will yell. “Some tattoo!”

I’ll just be grateful to have her all to myself again.

In an Indian rain forest, riding elephants and snapping photos of wanton screwing apes, we’ll realize we’d lost sight of our better aims. We’ll donate our baccarat winnings to revolutionary causes. We’ll talk of adopting a shoeshine boy with a heart murmur and weepy sores around the mouth—Cheryl will be for it, and I’ll worry about complications with space travel. Cheryl will tie her cashmere sweater around the shoeshine boy’s neck and I’ll lay my sport coat over his crooked little back, and we’ll make up a prayer for him, on the spot, before heading off to the Great Wall. We’ll march for weeks along the cobblestone, stopping for the night where we collapse. We’ll skip breakfast and slurp cold ginger broth for lunch. We’ll stop having sex, having grown beyond crass expression of our love. Truthseekers even in a weary slump, we’ll stroke each other’s faces and read haiku by starlight.

The thermostat goes click. My back is sore, and my mouth tastes like dirt. Cheryl’s been picking at her cuticles since Maastricht. She crawls from under my hairy thigh and stands at the foot of the bed. She clutches bedsheets at the miraculous hollow of her throat.

Even in motel, something seven syllables, I long for motel.

“Tom,” she says. “I have to go.”

“Dammit!” I say. “Can’t we follow through on one damn thing?”

At the end of the Great Wall, I’d have pointed to the sky. “Cheryl, we can see outer space from here!” I’d have said. “Look at Mars. Look at all those Martians. They’re waving for us like a bunch of lunatics.”

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter