‘Always Left Behind’, Jack Hollis Marr

Illustrations © 2014 Carmen Moran

 [ Angels, © 2014 Carmen Moran ] Tobias came by for me this morning. He’s a strong young man and he lifts me easily, but I don’t hate it the way I used to, before they left. He never makes me feel like a child. And he’s good-looking too, which never hurts, though it did smart worse, before, thinking of how I must look, how he would never look at me. Tobias looks at me sometimes, I think, with that considering warmth. It makes me flustered, which an old man like me has no right being. I think about my dignity too much. The younger ones don’t bother about it, not in the same way. Not with shame. They have more true dignity than the rest of us were ever allowed.

While he drives, Tobias tells me about the episode he had last night. “Angels,” he says, “right out of old books, all wings and eyes.” It takes me by surprise: I’d been picturing pious china figures in Victorian nightgowns, heads bowed and wings neatly folded. “Was terrified. But they was wonderful things, for as long as I could look. I thought of them old words—be not afraid.” He always does surprise me, Tobias. There’s too much of the old world left in me, expecting too little from someone like him.

Someone like him.

He helps me out of the truck and my two crutches get me into work. I call them Lefty and Righty, the way my wife called her breasts before she went off to the new world. It’s not even a bitter joke. They’re part of me, in their way, like her breasts were part of her. Like mine were, once, before they ended up rotting in some medical landfill; good riddance to them. I never had names for them.

My hands ache as I type. Pain’s a constant, of course. No amount of looking after each other, of designing this left-behind world around us, can take that away, no more than it can take away the pain Tobias feels, the times he doesn’t come, when I don’t see him for days or weeks, and he comes back thin-faced and with new scars that I can see or not-see but feel. We were idealists in our own way too.

“Morning,” Laverne says, coming in with tea. I wrap my aching hands around the cup. She’s my age, or older, broad as a bus and half my height, and she could probably kill a man with the hands that passed me that warm mug. Two of her cats have followed her, curious; one comes to lie on my desk, in my paperwork. There are things that don’t change. She goes off again quick. She doesn’t do social, our Laverne. The cat in my in-tray stays, purring low. “Scat,” I tell it, “shoo,” but it just blinks its slow blink and looks away. They didn’t take animals to Mars, just cow-goo, pig-goo, horse-goo, all in vats. I wonder what it’s like, being all alone, the only living things up there besides what they grow.

They sent messages, for a while, and then stopped. Sometimes I think maybe they all died out. Good riddance to them. It’s an unworthy thought so I say a low little prayer under my breath, not for them but for myself, for all of us who can’t risk thinking like that, not now. I still think it, though. We’re still human, whatever they thought.

There were exceptions, of course, that they publicized broadly: the brilliant mind in the crippled body, the fat old woman who’d invented the very technology of their exodus. Those of us they took, they sterilized: no chance of reproduction, of passing on of our fatal flaws, in their dry red Eden. I’m surprised they didn’t do the same to those they left behind. Perhaps they thought we’d die out anyway, slow or quick, in the ruined world they’d left us, helpless without them. Perhaps they believed we’d find each other too repugnant to mate with, or be too horrified at the idea of perpetuating our faults, our sicknesses, our fat, our twisted bones and broken minds, in another generation. Most likely they never thought about it, I suppose. They never did think about us much.

Maybe I think about them too often, up there in the sky like Tobias’ angels should be, safe and far away and sending down messages of goodwill. They’ve got a star and all, that low red dot on the horizon some days. Shun tells me I’m counterrevolutionary, wondering about them, what they’d think of what we’ve made, whether they’d be surprised and think it good, or just see it as crooked and cobbled together just like us. Shun’s young, though: ey don’t remember what it was like before. “There’s no them,” ey say, frustrated with me, “not any more. Just us.” Ey walk easily, are tall and straight and slim. Maybe sometimes I see em as them, for all I know that’s wrong with em. Wrong with: counterrevolutionary words. There’s nothing wrong with us.

But if there’s no them, what does revolution mean? I think sometimes Shun sees me as them, for everything ey say: a familiar them ey’ve always known, a them safe to argue with. But I like em, though ey drive me crazy. And I get to call myself that now, whatever anyone (Shun) says. It’s my word now, and I hug it tight.

 [ The new grand-baby, © 2014 Carmen Moran ] It’s my world now, ours; made not so much of ramps and gadgets as Tobias’ real indifference as he lifts me out of bed, Laverne’s practical hands wiping my arse clean when I shit myself. It’s a better word than pretty was, and I shed that one a long time ago. People like Shun don’t need those words, perhaps, the ones I cuddle both for comfort and to protect them: crazy, broken, cripple, freak. My words, my self, bridging this old world and this new with my twisted-up self. I think of it like that, my crumbling spine like the gaps in the swinging rope bridge from old films when the heroes were strong men and the bad guys were us, broken or brown, too lisping, too womanly, too strange. We’ll be dead soon, my generation, and the young ones won’t remember things like that, and the world they build may be amazing because they never remember those that left us behind. But sometimes, when Laverne brings me a hot drink, our eyes meet, kind and cynical at once. Yes, they don’t know how good they have it, how bad it was, uphill both ways in the snow. We both look forward to dying, someday, like Tobias does all the time. I’ll help him, when he asks.

Not long for me, now. I flex my hands, all bone and thick hair and hurting. They’ve done good work, when they can. I think of how they’ll be rotting someday soon, like my long-good-riddance breasts, like Shun’s lover’s flesh turned on itself. Eyesore means what my eyes are like a lot of the time now, from squinting in the light. We that are left, made of imperfection, in a world too bright for me to see, like staring into the sun: like Tobias’ angels, all blazing wings and eyes. My ears can’t hear what tidings they bring, tell if we should be joyful or sore afraid. Sore like the ones on Shun’s lover’s face that Shun kisses so gently and never sees an eyesore.

Ah, it’s too much for me. I flex my hand again and go back to work. My world’s a small one, when I don’t think these thoughts, and I like it that way. For all they call me Father, I don’t have any great blessings to give, only small and broken ones. Like me, and I smile a bit, erase and re-write a piece of my sermon. Though they’re not my gods, maybe Tobias’ angels are watching over us; maybe they’ll bless us, like they should, from far away. I like to think we don’t need them, not any more. Bent, broken, crippled and crook’d: who needs blessings? (All of us, all of us who know and share this terrible pain.) So I’ll have to do it, as best I can, with my crooked hands. Bless myself, and Tobias and Lavern and Shun and Shun’s lover and all of us, the new grand-baby crying in its crib behind Laverne’s office door: bless us every one.

“In general, normal medical and physiological health standards will be used. These standards are derived from evidence-based medicine, verified from clinical studies.

From astronaut selection qualifications for Mars One mission.

© 2014 Jack Hollis Marr

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