“The world’s first astrochimp,” he says beside her. His voice is pitched low, but she can still hear the laughter in it.
They’re standing before a rock garden. Ham’s grave is a square of pale concrete inside a curving area of volcanic red scoria. Lying next to the grave: flecks of pink and yellow and purple, with stems tucked into a small burnished metal vase. Somebody has left flowers for the world’s first astrochimp.
She asks, “Was there a world’s second astrochimp?”
“No one knows, actually,” Jimmy says. He looks sideways at her and grins. “Who cares about second place, right?”
The sun is high behind them. It’s a perfect kind of sun, the kind that casts clean, oil-painting shadows. Sharp darkness that sticks to the flagpoles and decorative rocks.
(And she remembers that black doesn’t exist in nature, just blue, just blues and greens and browns, and all the shadows are blues and greens and browns, too.)
In more rock gardens around them are retired spacecraft. The rockets and capsules sit in red scoria or black gravel, connected with cement pathways. Some look as if they were just built yesterday. Others are rusted and warped. The wrecks of ships on the ocean floor.
“Hey, he made it to twenty-seven,” Jimmy says, reading the plaque. “Like Hendrix.” He turns to her. His eyes curve down at the edges. His hair reddens under the sharp sun.
She says, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
The space center grounds are nestled against the edge of the mountains east of Alamogordo. The land here is empty and dry. Rocky ledges along the slopes look like the well-worn tracks of animals or arid farming terraces.
Sitting beneath the hills, the space center itself is a perfect glass cube held aloft by two pillars of concrete. Some kind of Kubrickian monument to the future. She can feel in its design the kind of 1960’s Kennedy optimism that birthed everything here. The windows reflect the sky. Sparse pale clouds.
The wind picks up. The loose sleeves of his too-big turquoise t-shirt flap against his upper arms. “Imagine,” he says, “going to space, only to die in some zoo in North Carolina.”
She looks back to the grave. The engraved letters are dusty and white. “And it says he was born in Cameroon.”
Behind them, she knows, over the flat roofs and dotted green trees, there’s a thin line of white. White Sands National Monument. From afar, it seems like a gap in the world: the flat desert stretching before it and the pale mountains rising behind.
Once, she knows, there was a great lake there instead. Now, the thin white line recollects it. A mirage, glimmering.
(And the countryside here always feels like it’s missing something, and maybe it’s just corn, maybe it’s just the unshakeable idea that people should be doing something with these patches of grey-green dirt, should be toiling against them.)
“He probably lived in a nice big jungle in Cameroon, you know,” Jimmy says. “Lots of vines. Swinging around all day.” The wind curves his hair over the top of his head, fluffy threads that lift boyishly, even drier and fluffier today after this morning’s cheap hotel shampoo job.
She says, “Were you an animal kid?”
There’s a line of sunburn over his forehead, an irregular patch missed by sunblock yesterday. “What do you mean?”
“An animal kid, you know. With a little trove of animal facts.”
He rakes a hand through his hair, trying to settle it back into place. “Pop had stacks of national geographics, actually. He’d sign up every year, couldn’t help himself.” He shrugs with one shoulder, a slope rising and falling. “Sharks are the wolves of the sea.”
“Made me never want to swim again, all these grinning photographers with missing legs,” he says. “But I don’t know from Cameroon chimps.” He shakes his head, dog-like. His hair is still a mess.
“Here,” she says. He tilts his head down as she separates the threads of hair so they fall the right way either side of his parting.
“Thanks,” he says, and he grins.
Above them, at the top of three towering flagpoles, flags crack in the wind. The wind is blowing parallel to the mountains, cutting unimpeded over the empty land here, until it drops again. Then everything is just big sky and clean lines and a sunlight that feels almost pink in the way that New Mexico sunlight sometimes does.
(And here, beside the blue shadows, she remembers her grandmother saying that white doesn’t exist in nature, just pink, just pinks and yellows and golds, and all the light you see is pinks and yellows and golds, too.)
He’s not looking at the grave marker anymore. He’s staring off at something in the distance. Something toward the city, or the thin line of sand. A thread of reddish hair flips over his head again, but this time he doesn’t seem to notice. His turquoise sleeves flap in the resuming wind.
She touches a hand to his elbow, warm skin. He looks to her with the same turned-down eyes as before.
(And she suddenly thinks that he shouldn’t exist in nature, either, because nature is not easy, or patient, nature is thunderheads and supercells and grey-green dirt you have to fight and fight to make yours.)
She leans forward and closes her eyes and kisses him. He makes a soft noise at the back of his throat. His lips move a moment later. He tastes familiar already.
(And she thinks that he shouldn’t exist in nature because nature is not generous, nature doesn’t give you things like him, nature takes, and nature takes, and so she thinks that she should just hand him back first—)
She pulls away. The sharp sunlight is warm on her back.
“Too soon to go back to the hotel?” he murmurs, voice rough. His eyelids are low.
She smiles, shaking her head. She says, “It’s not even noon.”
“Jesus, Kim, you’re killing me here,” he says. But he sighs. The slope of his shoulder tilts downward. He says, “All right.”
“All right,” she echoes.
He swallows, then nods sideways to the grave. “Is the dead chimp everything you hoped he’d be, at least?”
She slides her hand down his arm and holds his hand, holds the side of his palm where it meeds his wrist, her thumb tucked beneath the gold band of his watch. She squeezes gently and looks at him. “He’s okay.”
Jimmy gives a huffing laugh. “Y’know, I think you’re supposed to do that trick with a sunset, not some space monkey bones.”
She raises her eyebrows. “The world’s first space monkey bones.”
“Fine,” he says. She can hear the warmth of laughter beneath the word.
She rubs her thumb lightly over his skin, then releases his wrist. She turns back to face the grave: the clean concrete slab, the pink and yellow and purple flowers beside it. The flowers that someone left here in a vase.
“D’you think it was worth it?” he asks, after a time. His voice is soft. “All that fame and glory, just to end up in a zoo?”
The flags snap above them, red and white and blue. Yellow, too, for New Mexico. “Yeah,” she says.
“Yeah?” A tilt of his head.
She says, “Either a memorial here or the jungle floor in Cameroon.”
He wets his lower lip, expression drawing together with thought. His face changes to a wistful thing she’s seen a couple of times before. She saw it on the dunes yesterday. He says, “I think I’d rather stay in Cameroon.”
She looks past him now. The brown mountain edges, the untilled land. The banks of an ancient river valley. “Depends what it was really like in Cameroon,” she says.
He rubs his nose. “Yeah, well.” He shrugs with one shoulder again. “‘Spose I don’t know if chimps even come from Cameroon. Maybe he was just in a zoo there, too.”
“Maybe,” she says. “And then he got to go to space.”
“Yeah,” he says. He smiles over at her, a sharp kind of smile that reaches his eyes. They’re paler than usual in the midday light.
She looks back.
Somewhere in her head, her last thought is still tapping, but she doesn’t think it. She reaches for him again, weaving her arm through his. His forearm presses against hers. His skin is warm from the sun.
And they stand like that, together, in the mountainous field of dead spacecraft, beside the grave of Ham, the astrochimp.
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