I thought I was chasing a snowstorm that magical Christmas Night in 1941, but I found far more than the rarity that is a white Christmas on the Oregon coast. A Christmas Day out on the town in Astoria, flakes dancing in the multicolored lights as I flit from café to shop, from dawn past dusk my whole world ensconced in ever-deeper fresh powder, had become a snow globe of a drive over white streets, only the snow to give my car traction, as I parted ways with downtown, making my way slowly but surely toward the boarding house I was to stay in for the night, the place I chose to view what may well be the very beginning of mankind’s greatest adventure: the exploration of outer space.
Sheets of snow rippled past the beams of my headlights as I navigated the course I had marked on my map, the wind buffeting my car in the occasional white-out, which put a smile on my admittedly ever-so-slightly aged face, for this was the most intense snowband I’d seen during the entire storm. Alas, there was no thundersnow, but maybe that was best; the stillness of it all bar the whistling wind added to the softness of the whole moment.
The snowpack was no match for my fulsome tires, but it had to have been a foot deep by that point. The drive was almost meditative; almost a shame it was to notice I was getting close to my destination, and dial the boarding house’s number on my car phone. Picking up the handset, I left the boarding house a voice message, telling them in my best Chinook Jargon that I was just a few minutes away and to please have a garage door open for me when I arrived so I didn’t have to stay out in the storm any longer than I needed to.
When I arrived at my abode for the night, sure enough, a garage bay was wide-open and ready, and I just drove in and came to a stop in there, making sure to take a moment to appreciate the ambiance of the four-story house in the great snow, most of its expanse having been obscured into a dim outline in the fog-like dim-white depth that is a distant cascade of snow falling out of a cloudy night sky, an outline that was quite boxy bar the steep hipped roof at the top, and the rather big satellite dish mounted on it.
While in the garage bay I took a moment also to appreciate the good service of the place – that was what impressed me the most when I stayed there the previous summer, even if their management might as well be ghosts but for leaving them messages. I sighed in pleasure as I grasped my Christmas gift boxes – I know it was a bit silly to have gifts wrapped after Christmas Eve was long over, but I wanted to show Muffy my presents I’d gotten in town! I’d already opened one of them, in fact: a smart little pink kimono I picked up at a most charming Japanese clothing shop, its expanse of silky fabric studded with poinsettias drawn in the traditional style. So perfect for Christmas I just had to slip it on under my fur coat; I’ve been wearing it for most of my day, in fact!
Stacking up my presents in both my arms, I ventured out of my car and up the wooden spiral staircase – the railing forming a high Art Deco pattern that was so easy on the eyes – making sure to press the button to close the garage bay up before I opened the door to the second floor, the lowermost floor of the boarding house proper.
After I put my coat and winter clothing on the coat rack in the parlor (the sliding doors between the compartments of the house quite closed up in this area for whatever reason), revealing little old me in just my pink kimono and my presents, I smiled as I snuck a peek into the common areas of the second floor and beheld the ballroom, the site of many a happy dance with my fellow boarders last summer. Well, happy, yes, but also kinda creepy, since we danced to the organ music that someone – we assumed the proprietor, but we couldn’t be sure – had a habit of playing from above.
Indeed, as soon as I entered the house I could hear the organ in the midst of starting up, those notes ringing out subtly yet unmistakably in the background. Whoever it was is actually a pretty good player, so I don’t mind, especially since whoever it is never interrupts our sleep with it. In the ballroom I saw someone practicing the unmistakable moves of ballet, hands on the barre, eyes gazing at herself in the mirror…and why not, she was so pretty! A real Chinese beauty, that one was. I grinned as I realized that must be Jade; Muffy had told me all about her.
I ascended a second spiral staircase, identical to the first one, to my ultimate destination: the common room on the third floor, where I was sure everybody was on a night like this. When I snuck through the door with my presents in hand, I saw the big airy room, big square windows that covered the walls on three sides all fully open, the translucent accordion doors gathered in the corners, porch lights illuminating the balcony that extended out from the exterior walls, all white and snow covered with more flakes pouring down in the wind.
The hardwood floor was covered in tatami mats, all the better to give everyone a soft place to put their feet, especially since they no doubt opened up a lot of their presents under the big Christmas tree, still decked out with ornaments and tinsel and lit in full glory by multicolored strings, though by this point in the holiday sans presents.
The one wall that didn’t look outside had the fireplace, only three feet tall but twice as wide, all lit aflame by white birch wood; mounted above it was the big widescreen plasma television – the thing had to be one of those six-footers (as measured diagonally), which would be so oversized in an everyday drawing room, but in this context seemed just right: generous dimensions but without being too overpowering.
In the middle were sofas, chairs, ottomans, and fainting couches where everyone was sitting in, all arrayed in a concentric semicircle around the television. On a fainting couch I saw a special someone, her platinum blonde hair peeking out only a little bit, but the unmistakable visage of her wide-brimmed girly hat easily visible. I said in my best sing-song voice “Hello. Merry Christmas!”
At the sound of me the blonde in the big hat turned her head and had the most adorable expression on her face. “Myrtle!” she exclaimed, getting up off her chair and excitedly hugging me, not exactly the easiest of tasks with those big presents I had in hand, or her baby she had on her person! It was such a heartwarming moment to see Muffy again – we first met and became fast friends the last time I boarded here in the summer, and we’ve kept in touch, but it’s just not the same as seeing each other in person! I felt it had been too long.
After she got through with her big hug, she gave some attention to her baby daughter, snug in a silky green baby wrap around her, matching her mother’s red silky dress for Christmas. Taking her little hand, her mother said “Taffy, say hello to Myrtle!”; motioning her baby’s hand like in a wave, she said for her “Hello, Myrtle! Merry Christmas!”
Taffy’s blue eyes looked at me like she didn’t know what to make of me at first, her expression so reminiscent of her mother’s, but then after a few moments her mood perked up and she clapped. Giggling, Muffy said “I think she likes you!”. Noticing Taffy was motioning those little arms toward my gifts, I replied “Hmm…she looks like she’s more interested in those presents!” Muffy asked breathlessly “Are they for us?” Giggling at how much Muffy was kinda like a big kid herself, I said “No, Muffy, these are mine. You already got your present! And I can see you’re already enjoying it!”
I was referring, of course, to her oversized girly hat I got for her, brim so wide in its green silkiness, with a huge elaborate gold bow on top of it over her head, another gold ribbon tied in a big bow wrapped around her head and under her chin, making her look like a big Christmas present. Muffy said “I am!” Then she went “Oh!”, and raced over to an ottoman next to her fainting couch; opening it up to reveal the storage space inside, she fetched a little version of the same hat she had, and affixed it to her baby’s head. “There!” she said, giving me quite a vista of them both looking so matchy-matchy.
I gushed and said “Oh, Muffy, you’re so gorgeous. Taffy too! She looks just like you.” Muffy went “Aww…”, then I said “I mean it! Give me a twirl! Be a model for me!” Muffy giggled and teasingly said “But I wasn’t supposed to do any modeling work today! It’s Christmas! But for a friend…”. She made my heart practically melt as I beheld her form for the first time in what had been too long.
After she did one twirl, I said somewhat teasingly “Let me see…a luscious shapely body, drawing the eye up from those legs as they widen into fulsome hips, and a perfect hourglass curve in between pairs of globes as big as your head…and what a head. Face just like a doll, puffy lips, big blue doe eyes, cute button nose, platinum blonde waves tumbling long and loose all the way down your back, every part of you so padded by that supple tan skin. And ornamented with all the latest and greatest feminine fashions. That settles it: you’re the prettiest girl in the world!”
Muffy blushed at that as if I was flattering her, but I really meant every word of it! I said “It’s the truth!” as I gushed over her some more, adding “I so wish I could look like you and have a beautiful baby at my hip – or, well, could have looked like you and had a baby. Alas, I’m forty now, not sixteen. Anyway, let’s not let that get you down. Let’s open my presents together! I was saving them just so you and Taffy could be with me when I opened them!”
I walked over, took her hand, and guided them to the Christmas tree, where I arranged my presents as Muffy showed Taffy the scene, saying “Look, Taffy, it’s time to open some more presents! Christmas isn’t quite over yet!” Taffy clapped once and then reached her little hand toward the big ribbons again, causing me to smile and hold the present next to her so she could touch it. She really liked that big silver bow on it as she tugged it, looking a bit frustrated as she couldn’t make much headway opening it.
I sighed and said “Don’t worry, Taffy; when you get a bit older you’ll be big and strong enough to open some presents all by yourself!” I commented to her mother “She’s grown a lot already, hasn’t she? She’s so much bigger now!” Muffy said “Well, she was only like a month old when you first met her.” I showed Taffy the other present wrapped in gold, and as I watched her touch it and try to work on it I thought out loud “Which do you think she likes better, silver or gold?” Taffy then looked up in the vague direction of mother, before Muffy replied “I don’t know. I don’t know which one I like better, either!”
I made sure to take in the ambience of the snowstorm outside the window, before deciding on a whim to open the golden-wrapped present. When it was revealed, Muffy read the label on it: “A Pacific Ocean scented candle?” I said “That’s right!” Apprehending it, Muffy said “It’s like giant size!”, commenting on how it had nine wicks and was two feet tall. I grinned and said “I know you and Taffy get to smell the Pacific sea breeze all the time, but for the rest of us who are away more often…it’s a great little thing to have whenever we get nostalgic for those beach days.” Muffy smelled of it and said “Isn’t it?”
I then unwrapped the bigger of my two gifts, ensconced in silver, revealing my second gift. Both Muffy and Taffy had the most quizzical of expressions as the mother went “A ship in a bottle?” I said with a chipper tone “The Tonquin!” Muffy said “Oh my goodness, that sounds familiar.” I said “It’s a historic ship! It’s the vessel that first arrived here and founded Fort Astoria in 1811! For the fur traders!”
After a pause, Muffy looked at her baby and said “I don’t think Taffy likes it.” I commented “She has very selective taste, just like her mother. That’s a good way to be; life’s too short to settle for less than the best.” Muffy said “And I think you’re about it, Myrtle. The best I mean. I’ve never had a friend in my life who was as good a gift-giver as you are. I was just thinking about that all day. I like everything you’ve bought for me! Especially those corsets.”
I said “Yes, you’re really rocking them!” Muffy said “It was such a good thing you did for me. I remember last time you were here I looked at myself in the mirror and I sighed in disappointment all the time at what having Taffy did to my figure. But you were so helpful; you took my hand and got me sized up for some modest corsets. Nothing severe that makes me look like I’m wearing a tightlaced corset like some matron stuck in the Victorian era, just enough to give me a fashionable natural-looking figure, a perfectly curving hourglass. Honestly now that my body’s pretty much healed I think I look better than ever with them on!”
She added “Oh, and I just love, love, love those hats. It was so thoughtful of you to give a matching one to Taffy too! You should have seen my expression when I opened it this morning! I saw that box in the snow, that shiny wrapping and that big bow just sticking out from a drift! And that tag said ‘For my beloved Muffy and Taffy – Myrtle’, with that little heart on it!”, adding a giggle to it, gushing over that thought. I almost hated to mention it to her, but I said “Hmm…I’m not sure if I should tell you this, but that package was supposed to be here by Christmas Eve. Me thinks the delivery man was delayed by the snow.”
I added “Anyway, I know how much you love big pretty girly hats.” Muffy gushed and said “Oh, they’re the best thing ever! I know I’ve told you this a thousand times already, but I’d really like to have a hat shop right here in town someday, a hat shop filled with the prettiest head pieces for little girls, from Taffy’s age on up. Every little girl should have big pretty girly hats! I so wanted to have those frilly hats when I was a child, but my parents always told me I was too young. What nonsense! I always swore that when I had my baby I wouldn’t stand for such a thing! And, well, here Taffy is, with her frilly girly hat! Matchy-matchy with mommy’s, too! That’s how a mother and daughter ought to be.”
After a pause, Muffy shook her head and looked around at everybody, before rising up off the floor and taking my hand, leading me to the door to the balcony, where we stepped outside in the deep powdery snow, the flakes swirling onto us. Closing the door behind us, we gazed out at the snow-ensconced landscape, lights obscured yet still visible in what looked like a grainy white fog.
“Is this—no, wrong side” Muffy thought out loud, before going on “Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about this in there with everyone listening, but you know how I invested my baby bonus?” I asked “Yeah?” as I stuck my tongue out, trying to catch a snowflake, though with how powdery it was it tended to swirl around my tongue more so than actually stick onto it. Drat! It wasn’t quite as fluffy as it was in town during the daytime.
Muffy said “My portfolio…I got some of that software that lets you backtest your asset allocation, and I found the amount of leverage that would maximize my long-term growth, through both bull and bear markets, booms and panics. Well, like I told you I invested my baby bonus in a leveraged stock portfolio, but all year since I got that check it hadn’t done much of anything for me, it just bobbed up and down around the same amount of money I had from that check the state sent me for having Taffy. Those stock prices were so range-bound. But you know what? This month? It’s been a bull run this holiday season! My little portfolio’s doubled in value!”
I went “Wow!” Muffy said “That’s how the markets are, you know. 90% of the gains happen in 10% of the time. I just wish I could have gotten a check big enough to live off of while I start up my hat shop. Oh well. At least I can leverage that; I don’t have to invest it too conservatively, what with my salon apprenticeship covering my living expenses and then some – well, if you can call this living; aside from rent, baby, and beauty I hardly spend anything! Anyway, I’m kinda leveraging that money too. I’m investing every cent I earn into a conservative portfolio and then borrowing against it. Which most people would probably say is way too risky, but my brokerage house gives such a good interest rate; just a point or two higher than the triple-A corporate bond rate! I mean, if you can do that why not stay fully invested? Worse comes to worse you just sell off some of your portfolio to cover a margin call, same as you would have anyway.”
I commented “Yeah, that’s really something; isn’t that that line of credit you told me about where you don’t even have to make any payments?” Muffy nodded and went “That’s the one! I mean, you still pay the interest, but it’s just added onto your balance every month if you have enough available credit, not like sending them money. No big deal. Stocks long-term return like 10 points more than the interest they charge anyway.”
It was exchanges like that that always got me wondering – did Muffy have a background of some sort in finance? She seemed awfully knowledgeable about investment banking. For that matter, who was the baby’s father? She’d never mentioned to me anything about a father, or a husband, or any man in her life whatsoever, not even a family – it’s always just her and the baby, all alone. My pet theory is that she came from an upper-crust family who worked in investment banking and they disowned her for having Taffy out of wedlock, but I’ve never had the heart to ask her a word about it, least of all on Christmas.
Muffy said as the snow accumulated a bit on that hat, making her look even more Christmasy than before, “You know, I think 1942 is going to be a great year for me. I’m on track to become a full-fledged makeup artist, and that’ll really help with raising the money to open my hat shop. And it might be a good year for stock prices. And Taffy will be walking and talking by then. Won’t that all be great?” “It will!” I gushed, before Taffy started to get a bit cranky and unsettled. “Hmm…” her mother said, “I think it might be a bit cold for her out here. She’s awfully little, you know. Let’s go back in.”
We went back in, where I warmed up and shook the little snow that had accumulated onto me out of my hair, my naturally blonde mane that I’d dyed full platinum last summer, really in an attempt to match Muffy’s mane more than any other reason. Well, and also because it’s such a fun and fashionable color, platinum blonde.
I giggled as I looked at the torn-off Christmas wrappings under the tree revealing my presents, and Muffy’s hand in mine I guided her to one of the sofas where we plopped ourselves down, recovering from being out in the big snow. I sighed as I looked down at my pink Christmas kimono, and then giggled, prompting my friend to ask “What’s so funny, Myrtle?” I admitted “I was just thinking…I got myself three presents in town today, not just two. But I couldn’t resist opening up one of them.” Muffy went “Oh?” I clarified “This kimono I’m wearing. It’s a present!” Muffy then went “Oh!”
She eyed me up and down, her mouth slightly open, tongue a bit over those lips in that cute thoughtful expression she has sometimes, before getting an inspiration. “You know, I know the perfect thing to do with you!” I asked nervously “You do?” She answered enthusiastically “Give you a makeover! I could make you look like a geisha girl. That’d be the perfect look for you right after getting a kimono!”
I went “I don’t know.” She said cheerily “Think of it as completing your Christmas present! And besides, it’ll be so much fun!” She added after a pause “For both of us.” I giggled at that, saying “Alright, apprentice makeup artist; I’ll be your test subject!” She looked at the television, and realized “Yes, we have enough time before the big launch. Come!”
She took my hand and we went into my room, fetching a wheeled office chair that we rolled back out to the common room, along with a cart from her room with all the supplies she needed, then she got to work on me. She spent quite a while on me, loosening my kimono so she could apply the foundation from the neck up, making my tanned skin look a lot paler; she even covered my hands and lower arms!
My makeup application wasn’t severe or anything, just enough to change my skin tone to almost but not quite a pallor. Subtle red eyeshadow and vivid red lipstick completed my face. It was not nearly as simple a process as the finished product made it look! The final touch was my hair being restyled into a traditional Japanese style, my blonde locks arrayed into big loopy buns.
When it was all finished, Muffy tightened my pink poinsettia kimono back onto me and said “All done!” as she fetched me a hand mirror; I smiled as I saw myself in it. A bit giggly, I said “Hmm, Muffy, your technique has improved! I really do look like a geisha girl! Now all I need is one of those delicate ladies’ fans and a katana sword!” That caused a man on one of the nearby sofas to laugh, prompting me to put down the hand mirror and ask “What’s so funny?”
I beheld a face that betrayed an East Asian ancestry, his natural pallor equaling my own artificial one, as he turned his head toward me and said “Such mixing and matching different parts of Japanese culture. Katana were just carried by samurai, and by the way that’s not the most formal sort of kimono actual geisha wear either.”
Both me and Muffy shrugged, me saying “Well, it’s not like I’ve got a tag on my lapel saying ‘I’m an authentic geisha girl’ anyway, so who cares?” The man shrugged, saying “Not me. Believe me: back in the old country they get even; they do the same thing to Western culture. It’s really quite terrifying.” He turned his gaze back to the big television for a moment before Muffy said “Oh, I don’t think you two have been introduced yet. Myrtle, this is Jasper. Jasper, this is my best friend Myrtle.”
Muffy then had the idea to bring me over to one of the sofas, where Muffy apprehended the scene and said “I think everyone’s here. Everyone, this is my best friend Myrtle. Myrtle, this is Hugo, Ansel, Jade, and Eulalia”, making sure to point out who everyone was for me. I nervously apprehended all of them – even Eulalia, who was all laid out on a fainting couch looking rather sick, pillows piled up under her head and chest so she could watch the television – and said with a bit of a giggle “This isn’t my normal look. It’s just something I’m doing for Christmas.”
Jade opined “I think it looks great on you!”, quite a compliment coming from a beautifully luscious girl like her; in some ways Jade comes off like Muffy’s Eastern counterpart, right down to the sense of style. As I pointed out “Your look is great on you too!”, referring to her red-and-black silk robe with a dragon motif all over it, not to mention the long mane of straight silky jet-black hair that brushed it. She just grinned and said “Thank you.”
Ansel wondered “Did you know about the launch?” I nodded and said “Valkyrie 1. Yes. In fact that was one of my reasons for coming here tonight; I wanted to see it with Muffy. And truthfully, also because I wanted to be out in the snow. I’ve been enjoying it all day.” Ansel said “Really? Me too! I’m a photographer, and that’s the whole reason I’m here: to get pictures of the town and the coast in a rare white Christmas.” I gushed and said “I know! It’s not every day you get to see something like this!”
Ansel said “Biggest one-day snowfall on record in Astoria, Oregon, not just for Christmas but for any date here. It’s been an extraordinary event. Even more so in light of how it coincides with the first-ever manned spaceflight. That is so weird!” Muffy commented “Well, you know that old saying: there are decades where nothing happens, and days where decades happen. That’s just how it is.”
Just then Muffy interrupted us by noticing someone else sneaking a peek, saying “Oh, Savannah! Won’t you join us? It’s almost time for the big launch!” I turned to Muffy and asked “I thought you said this was everybody? Who’s this Savannah?” Muffy said “Our maid. She takes care of the boarding house.” As she joined us on the sofa I got a good look at her, a dark-skinned young woman who was Southeast Asian and looked it, clad in a rather spiffy maid’s uniform.
Turning my gaze to the big television, I saw that it was just five minutes to launch, thinking out loud “Wow, it’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun! It’s almost here! The big launch!” We watched almost in silence at the last-minute preparations for the launch, the rocket at Tanga Cosmodrome’s pad occupying most of the screen, cameras trained on cosmonaut Orion Morgenstern occupying smaller parts of the split-screen view arrayed to the right of the screen, along with little graphics displaying various technical information.
“Orion Morgenstern…” I wondered, “That’s somebody’s real name?” Hugo shrugged and said “It is. I looked it up.” Muffy held her baby and pointed her little hand toward the television, saying “Look, Taffy, it’s a space launch!” I thought for a few moments, before snuggling closer to Muffy on the sofa and telling her “You know, it’s crazy to think this is even happening at all. When I was Taffy’s age we didn’t even have airplanes yet, and now men are going to go into space.” I added after a pause “Hopefully.”
Ansel added as I looked at him, snow blowing in the distant night outside as the television reflected from the window (quite a sight), “I don’t want to jinx it, but first of all something could go wrong with the rocket launch itself.” Hugo interjected “von Braun and company have tested and retested the thing for years just to make sure everything goes right. They’re about as ready as they’re ever going to be.”
Ansel went on “It’s still nowhere near a hundred percent reliable. But second of all, nobody’s been to orbit before; we don’t really know what effect a spaceflight like that will have on the human body…or the human mind. Morgenstern could become sick, he could be driven mad, he could drop dead in there.” Hugo retorted “Men have flown at very high altitudes and dived to great depths, not terribly different from spaceflight in many respects, so probably nothing’s going to happen to him. Nevertheless, you just don’t know, do you?”
Ansel then said “And third of all, there’s a chance his re-entry system will fail. His heat shield might not hold up under the stress, or his rockets could fail to fire. Now, I saw on the broadcast where they explained that his orbit has been specifically selected to bring him back down via atmospheric drag before his life support runs out even if the rockets don’t fire, but there’s a pretty big margin for error still in shooting rockets up into these orbits. He could assume a slightly different orbit than planned and not make it back. It’s not like there’s anybody to rescue you up there. He’s a brave man to attempt such a flight.”
Muffy gushed “He’s the bravest man ever, doing such a thing as that!” If you ask me she was right, and although I should have realized that earlier, thinking about it like that gave me a whole new respect, admiration, and even awe for the man I saw in the picture, strapped in that chair at the launch pad in his little capsule, clad in his silver spacesuit and space helmet, like something from one of those science fiction movies, only this was real – delightfully, almost terrifyingly real.
We counted down the minutes to launch, the announcer finally going “T minus one minute and counting” as I got so nervous, I just had to squeeze Muffy’s dainty hand, all our eyes transfixed on the television as we saw the rocket at the pad and the rig holding it in place next to the launch tower make its final preparations, the cryogenic rocket fuel starting to emit the tell-tale sign that launch time was close, those little columns of white vapor that lifted up into the surrounding atmosphere, looking so gorgeous almost in silhouette against in the dim pre-dawn twilight at Tanga. “T minus 30 seconds” we heard from the television.
“T minus 20 seconds”, even the announcer’s voice sounding a bit nervous, Orion Morgenstern’s eyes closing at that point, mouthing in silence what must have been a prayer, or perhaps a mantra of equipoise as the moment came, the time he had to let go and accept what fate had in store for him this Christmas Night.
We all waited with bated breath as we gazed at the rocket, a camera attached to the outside of the capsule appearing in split screen to show us the view below, as the announcer counted down to when the engine would ignite. “T minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0.” I swore I couldn’t breathe for that split second as I saw the sparks fly out between the rocket and the launch pad, the pillar of flame erupting out from under the rocket, lighting the whole field bright as midday as they spread over the pad, the cosmonaut being visibly shoved down into his seat as the rocket moved upward off the ground, Mission Control announcing “Liftoff! Liftoff on Valkyrie 1!”
The rocket accelerated upward, the flame spouting down from its bottom like the mouth of a fiery dragon, the rocket booster stages and the capsule fairing mounted above them going higher, and higher, and higher. Mission Control said “You’ve cleared the tower. Everything looks good. Enjoy the ride.” Orion clenched his silver-gauntleted fist and raised it against the g-force as he shouted out “Let’s go!”, the rocket arcing toward the dawn further and further downrange of the Tanga Cosmodrome so perfectly it made reaching orbit look easy.
Three minutes after launch, the fairing for the capsule was jettisoned, revealing the capsule itself, a noticeable uptick in brightness appearing on Morgenstern’s part of the split screen as the windows in his capsule could let in the soft reddish natural light of the sun, rapidly approaching as he sped northeastward into the sunrise, his track paralleling the Somali coast as Valkyrie 1 rose in altitude, the first stage of the rocket still at full thrust.
Five minutes after launch, the first stage had used up all its fuel and the engines cut off, the ship drifting ahead in its course unpowered for a split moment before the first stage detached, revealing the engine for the second stage of the Meteor rocket, which ignited after a few seconds, once again shoving Orion Morgenstern back in his seat.
Gazing out of his windows as the second stage thrusted, Orion Morgenstern reported in “The flight goes well. I can see the Earth. It’s like I can see everything! The Arabian Sea, the deserts, the clouds lit by the sunrise below me…it’s all so beautiful!” He was right, as we watched with him on the split screen the view of the rapidly receding planet, the twilight giving such a soft quality to the world below, viewed from so high up it could pass as being a vista from heaven, the sense of it accentuated as the second stage flamed out, a brief silent moment regaling us before it too separated, leaving Valkyrie 1 and its intrepid cosmonaut in orbit. We’d made it! A human being had reached orbit!
Despite all the excitement at the beginning, it all quickly settled into something of a routine as Mission Control and Orion Morgenstern radioed each other about this or that number or system, and the only sight we could see on television that was remotely interesting was the world rotating under the capsule; even at full orbital speed, five miles a second, that was a slow process.
Spectacular, don’t get me wrong, but the atmosphere became calm enough for my mind to wander…and then it hit me: I said to Muffy “We need ice cream! That would be the perfect thing for a Christmas Night spaceflight watch party! Do we have any in stock?” Muffy said “Uh-huh. We do. In the kitchen.” I said “I’ll be back soon” as I rose off the sofa and toward the kitchen – I’d been to this boarding house before, so I knew where it was.
Practically skipping over there, not wanting to miss too much of Valkyrie 1, I entered the kitchen area, and gasped as I beheld yet another someone I hadn’t seen before! A thin fellow, pallor by far the most ghostly white I’d encountered yet, with northern European features that were rather nondescript but for a hint of wizening by old age, hair snow-white and of a rather long length (for a man), long enough to reach his chin but for how wild it was, sprawling out radially, a style not unlike that famous picture of Beethoven. His outfit: a well-fitted all-black outfit, dress pants and a button-down collared long-sleeved shirt.
Somehow I knew who it was. He was so skittish when he saw me, looking like a deer in the headlights midway through gathering some ice cream from the freezer right next to the door; as he motioned away from me and looked like he was about to bolt for the exit, I grabbed his lower arm, saying to him “No, don’t go. Don’t be like that.” Looking down at his ice cream carton, I smiled and said “I was going to get some ice cream too. Vanilla! That’s my favorite flavor.” He said, somewhat sheepishly, “Mine too.”
Looking down at the freezer, I saw another carton of vanilla ice cream, which I brought up to the countertop as I let go of his hand. He hovered near me, not bolting, as I said “I gather you’re our mysterious landlord?” He said “That’s right.” I commented “Oh, you probably thought we’d all be distracted by the launch, and you were almost right! I know you don’t like to be disturbed, so I won’t bother you anymore, and, uh, I really need to get back to watch the launch. That’s what the ice cream is for; our little spaceflight watch party.”
After a pause, I said “But I have to ask: have you been all alone this Christmas?” Softly, tentatively, but nevertheless distinctly, he said “Yeah.” I said “I think everyone should have a friend, at least on Christmas. I’ll tell you what: I’ll go back to the common room, you go back to the inner sanctum or whatever you call it, and after the spaceflight is over I’ll come up and we can talk, get to know each other better, or maybe do something you like. Just spend a bit of time together. Would you like that?”
He said after a pause, “Sure”, sounding like he was as far away as Orion Morgenstern. I then realized something with a start, and clarified “Oh, just so you know, I won’t tell a soul you were here. As far as I’m concerned, I was all alone in this kitchen this just now.” I whispered “It’ll be our little secret.” Then I walked toward the door ice cream carton, cones, and scoopers in hand, turning to him and telling him “Remember: after the launch”, before heading back toward the drawing room.
When I strutted in there I said “Hello, hello!” to everyone, causing Muffy to turn that gorgeous head and go “Ice cream!” with a clap of her hands, causing baby Taffy to clap too a few moments later. I scooped out some ice cream cones for everyone who wanted some, which was mostly me and Muffy, and we watched Valkyrie 1 cruise over the Himalayas as it went past India and over Tibet.
Muffy sighed and said “Oh, Myrtle, it’s so wonderful to see all this with you.” Practically gushing, she said “I so hope I’ll be able to see more of you next year. It seems like forever since the first time you boarded with us.” I pointed out “Well, I’m not even in this area all that often.” Muffy said enthusiastically “It doesn’t have to be in this boarding house! Maybe we could go on a vacation together or something!”
She fantasized, no doubt prompted by the geography viewable on the television screen, “What a trip that would be…the Himalayas, India…” before saying, dejected, “But we don’t have a lot of money.” I pointed out “Well, we could go to Mount…I was going to say Mount Rainier, but they changed it, didn’t they?” Muffy said, enthusiastically, “Yes, to the native name, Mount Tacoma. It’s so much prettier.”
Eulalia then chimed in “And the state too!”, sounding kinda cranky in a laid-out-sick way on her fainting couch, “The state of Washington! They now call it the state of Tacoma!” Muffy said “I named my daughter after it! Tiffany Tacoma is her full name, and I named her that because I was sure our side would win the big vote in November. And even if we didn’t, no daughter of mine is going to be named Tiffany Washington. Blech! Horrible name for a girl. And a horrible name for a state, especially one George Washington never came within a thousand miles of in his whole life, and especially especially since we already have a city of Washington! No more saying ‘oh, I’m from Washington state’. It’s so much better.”
Eulalia waved her hand dismissively, saying “Yeah, yeah, I don’t disagree with any of that, but what get me is what kind of a state has to change their name? Who ever heard of such a thing? It’s just embarrassing! A whole state naming themselves something and then flubbing it up so much they have to change it later.”
Ansel pointed out “It’s not just that. There’s been a revival of Cascadian spirit. That’s why they changed Rainier to Tacoma in the first place. There’s even a petition afoot to rename the Columbia River to one of the native names like Wimal. Now, the Congress and President Lindbergh ratified the change from Washington and Rainier to Tacoma, but I don’t think they’d be willing to go that far.”
Hugo retorted “Yeah? I never got this idea that Charles Lindbergh has anything to do with what a state does with itself. Just because he crossed the Atlantic on an airplane and got himself elected President he thinks he’s God or something.” Ansel volunteered – and he just had to go there, ugh – “Al Smith was a much better President!”
Hugo replied “Only reason Lindbergh won was because he had the good fortune of running against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. American Hero versus out-of-touch East Coast Elite? That just wasn’t a contest the Democracy could win. Too bad Smith wasn’t in good enough health to run again.” Jasper added “If you ask me the only reason Smith won in the first place was because his opponent was considerably less formidable than Charles Lindbergh.”
Ansel said “Ah, yes, Ray Lyman Wilbur. Took over after Charles Curtis died, being his Vice President and all. Kinda feel sorry for the Republicans for once; they go from the first American Indian President to…that. I would have been surprised they ran Wilbur for his own term, but the hardcore seemed to really like him for whatever reason. Don’t ask me why.”
Jade asked “What was so wrong about Wilbur?” Hugo answered “He was a hardcore social Darwinist and kinda a weirdo about it. Like, I kinda respect he was trying to make a point, but did he have to say ‘we hear a lot about economic security these days, but the only animals I know of that have economic security are those subject to the butcher’s knife’ or whatever his exact words were? Did he really have to go there?” Jade’s eyes widened and said “That is kinda creepy.” Hugo added “He’s also the man who coined ‘rugged individualism’ and made us hear about that all the time. Whenever you’re anywhere near politics these days you see someone blabbing about ‘rugged individualism’; even the Democrats drone on about it these days!”
Ansel said “That’s one part of the Wilbur presidency I didn’t mind one bit. Rugged individualist is literally a good succinct description of the sort of people who built this country. Rugged individualism embodies some virtues we really ought to be cultivating.” Hugo said “Maybe not so rugged. We wouldn’t want a world where Muffy didn’t get her baby bonus, now, do we?” Ansel said “Well, for your sake I hope the individualism doesn’t get too rugged”, eliciting a nervous giggle from Muffy as she ate some more ice cream.
Savannah blurted out “I can see Japan!”, as the rest of us went ooh and aah over seeing some coast again. Muffy said “Wow, it looks even more unique from space!”. Jasper commented “I knew all about how Japan was an island chain with a mountainous spine, and you can see it on every map, but…actually seeing all that, that shape, and from the point of view of a manned vessel…it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Ansel said “Take a good look everybody; it’s the last land you’ll be seeing until…my god, probably Hawaii.” He drew out in the air with his hands and fingers the distances involved between Japan and the rest of Asia we were viewing on one hand, and Hawaii on the other hand, Ansel pointing out “That’s all ocean.”
Savannah said “I had no idea there even was that much ocean in the world. Though I should have known; it certainly seems that huge when you’re in it!” Ansel also pointed out that this was the most northerly point on the whole trip; in terms of Orion Morgenstern’s “ground track” it was only southward from here! That was something to take in, all that he said, along with the sight on the television, not to mention the snowstorm outside, diminished somewhat but still pouring down more than enough snow to make a good show and to have noticeably grown the snow drifts up against the windows.
After he passed Japan and checked in with Mission Control, the brave cosmonaut fetched something from inside his silver spacesuit, something shiny and silvery, reflecting every bit of sunlight that came across it, as it floated inside the capsule right in front of Morgenstern’s in zero gravity, prompting Muffy to go “Wow, you really are weightless up there! Look how that thing just floats!”
I was more impressed with what sort of object it was. “Is it–?” I asked, as I went up closer to the big plasma television for a better look at that part of the screen, just to be sure. “My goodness” I said, “That’s one of those Kabbalah amulets.” Smiling as I strutted back and plunked myself down on the sofa next to Muffy, I said “Imagine something like that being the first object anyone makes float in zero-g in a manned spacecraft.”
Jade said, a note of pride in her voice, “He’s not hiding his heritage! I think that’s great.” “Heritage?” I thought out loud, before realizing “He’s Jewish?” Hugo nodded yes to that, which satisfied me: he seemed to know everything there was to know about Valkyrie 1 and its brave explorer. After Japan receded into view and we saw the blue ocean that was the Pacific along with swirly white clouds above, it got a bit monotonous, so I went over to Eulalia’s fainting couch and kneeled on the floor next to her where I could see her and keep an eye on the big television.
I began by asking her a question I’ve been meaning to ask everybody: “So, what brought you to Astoria, if I may ask?” Eulalia sighed and said “A vacation. I wanted to check myself in here, see the town and take in the ambience as I lost some weight, but it’s just made me sick. I think when I get better I’ll just go home.”
She was a plump little thing, and quite sweated up too; she had been sweating profusely all the time since I’d first seen her, even though it was fairly cool in the drawing room. At first I just assumed it was a viral fever or something, but the mention of weight loss got my mind thinking, and I was pretty sure what was going on with her. But I asked around anyway. “What exactly made you sick?” I asked. She answered “Those fat-burning pills I was going to take.” I went “Oh? What did they have in them?” She waved her hand and said “I put them in the ottoman. You can see for yourself.”
I opened up the ottoman beside her, and sure enough saw a bottle of pills. Holding it up and coming closer toward her, I said “2,4-Dinitrophenol. A chemical used as a high explosive and as a mitochondrial uncoupler, the most effective weight-loss and fat-burning drug known to man. Side effects include cataracts, skin lesions, peripheral neuropathy, hyperthermia, lethargy, dizziness, headaches, vomiting…and sweating.”
Sighing, I said “You took too much, darling.” Incredulously she went “One pill?” I waved my hand dismissively and said “That was too much”, before putting the bottle back in the ottoman. Eulalia said “I see you know your drugs, Myrtle; I had to read the whole blurb they had on that warning box, but you hardly even glanced at that bottle!”
I said “I’m pretty well-versed in pharmacology, having tried so much of it myself.” “Really?” Eulalia asked. I nodded and elaborated “I had severe neurasthenia. Came down with it in my teens; when I was about Muffy’s age in fact. About the worst disease you could possibly get, neurasthenia, because the slightest everyday activity makes you feel so, soooo tired. You feel tired and fatigued, all the time, no matter how much you rest, and it’s like a fog that comes over your brain, clouding your every thought, as if every neuron fires through molasses. Everything, and I mean everything, was a struggle. The best treatment I could get was a cocktail of stimulants, together with painkillers for how sore I got after a day others would consider normal. I took it once or twice a week so I could do some work but I was zonked the rest of the week, even worse than you are now, my poor Eulalia.”
She asked “Those cocktails made you feel normal again?” I said “That’s right.” She asked “Then why didn’t you just…take it all the time?” I laughed nervously and answered “That is in fact a treatment for severe neurasthenia, but it’s very controversial. Often you build up a tolerance to being stimulated, so if you try to be wired constantly you have to use higher and higher doses. Eventually you get to the range where to be stimulated to normal you have to accept worse and worse side effects. Eventually on that path you start taking a dose so strong it kills you, hence its nickname: ‘the death course’. Really a euphemism for euthanasia. It has its appeal – trading decades of cursed life for a few years of normal life. I thought I’d go for it myself when I got older, but I wasn’t that desperate yet. And my patience paid off – last year, I went to a doctor who suggested a brand new treatment that had just come out that might help me: cortisone injections. I gave it a try…and it cured me. Within hours all my symptoms were gone! I was back to normal! I felt like I did 30 years ago! We’ve had to tinker with the dosage regimen somewhat, but as long as I get those shots every so often I’m cured.” Eulalia just said “Wow.”
She sighed and said “It’s all so sad. All I wanted to do was look better. I hate diets and exercises, and I was told this stuff was the most effective fat-burner there was. Guess I’ll just have to be a plump little blob forever. No fit and trim body like the pretty girls have. Not for me.” I said “Don’t be like that. There’s nothing more important than achieving your dreams when you’re young. Believe me: I’ve been there, where you really couldn’t make them come true. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. No, I think…I think there’s a cocktail that’s right for you. It’s just not this, that’s all. I’ll tell you what: I’ll find you a good doctor, we’ll all work together, and I promise by Christmas Night 1942 you’ll have the fit and trim figure the pretty girls have.”
She took my hand and squeezed it, asking “Do you really think so?” I squeezed hers back, saying “I know so. You’re a young woman; you deserve the best life. I couldn’t have it, but I can help my friends like Muffy and you get it. And I will. Trust me.” That seemed to really perk her up, so I got up off the floor and went back to one of the sofas, gazing at everybody. Glancing at the snow falling outside and the Pacific Ocean under the capsule on the television, and thinking of my upcoming meeting with our mysterious proprietor, I resolved to chat up everybody.
Looking around, I found Savannah the most curious, so I asked her “Savannah, I’ve been meaning to ask you too: what brought you to Astoria?” The girl replied “Oh, a few years ago I decided that no matter what I wasn’t going to stay in Bali, I was going to make a new life for myself in America. I heard and read so much about America, I fell in love with the mossy Southern gothic vibe, especially those cities. I chose Savannah as my Western name before I even visited my namesake city, but when I went there I loved it so, so much. I would have moved there, or maybe even Charleston or New Orleans, but instead I decided to settle here in Astoria. There are so many more of my own kind of people here, and the Wawa was so much easier for me to learn right off the boat than English or French. I don’t want to be a maid all my life; lots more opportunity to move up down the road in Oregon and Tacoma than I would have had in Georgia or South Carolina.” The Wawa, of course, means Chinook Jargon, which we were having this conversation in.
I then looked at Jade, prompting her to smirk and go “I know you’re going to ask me, Myrtle!” I teasingly asked anyway: “So, Jade, what brought you to Astoria?” She sighed and said “Well, I’m afraid my story isn’t too interesting. I just really like Astoria and I’d like to live here as long and as much as I can, but I’m afraid my dream of being a ballet dancer might mean I have to leave. The real opportunity in that for a Chinese-American would be for San Francisco. The Lower Columbia isn’t exactly a hotspot even for white ballerinas, let alone Chinese ones. It’s not exactly a hotspot for fashion modeling, either, but I manage to make my living from it. It’s really fun! Almost as fun as ballet.”
I said “You’re too modest. You’ve got real talent when it comes to performing – I can tell by watching you.” I didn’t let slip that I eavesdropped on her when I arrived when she was in the ballroom practicing her ballet. “And you’re so beautiful.” She blushed at that, saying “Thank you.” I said “You probably get this a lot, but I’ll say it anyway: you’re a real jade princess type.” She laughed at that, saying “I know! That’s why I picked out my Western name to be Jade. Well, that, and the fact that I really like jade jewelry too!” We all giggled at that.
After a pause, I asked her “Any reason in particular you really like Astoria?” Jade sighed and said “Well, I’d say the biggest reason is how it’s such a charming big town right her on the coast. I love being on the water. My father and grandfather both work on merchant ships across the East Asian seas; they have all their lives, and they’ve risen to some pretty high ranks in their old age. So our whole family always lived close to the Pacific Ocean. I remember childhoods with the surf, the sand, and the sailboats, and I guess it just made an impression. They both work so hard on those ships so they can send me some extra money – that really helps me out with affording everything else beyond just the basics. That’s the future they wanted for me – where I could make something of myself doing something I loved instead of having to settle for domestic drudgery. I’m not sure if they even wanted me to be anywhere near the sea when I grew up, but the fact is that mariner blood flows through my veins. I confess there are times when I stare out past the horizon at the beach and want nothing more than to board a sailboat and let the wind carry me to parts unknown.”
We all paused for a moment at hearing that, and I commented “And you said your story wasn’t too interesting. I think that’s all fascinating!” She let out a nervous giggle at that. She could really use some training to adjust her confidence upward or some such, I thought – then I realized that ballet tends to do that to someone. Was she even more sheepish when she got started? Perhaps to the point of my newest and most mysterious friend, the proprietor?
That was an interesting thought, but it passed rather quickly out of my head as I spent some moments gazing at the deep blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean and its white swirling clouds, weather front after weather front passing below the capsule in a seemingly interminable procession. Then, we saw it – a speck of land, then another, and another, and another, bigger in sequence, looking like mountains, the last and biggest one coming into view looking like…well, it could only be Hawaii. “Hello, Hawaii!” we heard Orion Morgenstern say, before it passed out of sight in a few minutes, cosmonaut and television viewer alike greeted once again with the maritime vastness below, which seemed to impress the intrepid cosmonaut himself, if his poetic utterance of “Eternity never looked so lovely” at the sight is any indication.
One of the most dramatic moments of the whole flight was when the sun got lower and lower in the sky, its reddish light rippling through the capsule far quicker than any sunset on Earth as Valkyrie 1 passed into Earth’s shadow, the night side, the whole seascape below, deep in the remotest parts of the South Pacific, and the interior of the capsule above plunged into darkness, lit only by the dim red lights of the control consoles, the silvery glow of the waxing-gibbous moon, and the stars.
The star-studded vista opened up twinkling light by twinkling light, the unfolding of the true sky, unsoiled by the obscuration of air, prompted Orion Morgenstern to comment, his face showing true awe, “My god, I’ve never seen so many stars, never seen the sky so clear. Whatever the pictures are you’re getting, I’m sure they don’t do it justice. You think you’ve seen the night sky on Earth, but even the darkest skies down there are but a shadow of what you see up here. It’s like…it’s like I can reach out and actually touch that which is beyond. That’s what it’s like to be out here.”
Muffy went “Wow” at the sight of all that and the cosmonaut’s words over the radio, as the Earth went black under the capsule and we saw the twilight in the distant arc that was the atmosphere recede into the distance. After Valkyrie 1 settled into the night, I made sure to ask the rest of the boarders what their stories were. “So Ansel, Muffy, I already know why you two are here. What about you, Jasper? What’s your story? If you care to tell us, that is.”
Jasper laughed softly, before saying “I’ll tell you. The coast itself. The beach, the wind, the surf, the waves. Kinda like you, in fact, Jade; I just love the water and the beach town ambience, even the Columbia River and the Coast Range. But I really like the whole Northwest coast, from Mendocino to Tofino. So what made me choose Astoria in particular? Because of all the towns on the coast this one was the closest to opportunity for me. I’m a manager at Kaiser Motors, for their car plants, and I maneuvered myself into their factory in Portland. Believe it or not that’s the closest such site to any town along the entire coast.”
My eyes widened as I realized “That’s the closest site? What is it, like a hundred miles?” Jasper said “About exactly a hundred miles in fact.” I asked, “Do you…commute that distance?” Jasper said “Every workday, yes. I take that personal luxury car of mine, which is a Kaiser by the way – they give such good employee discounts – and I take it down the highway from here clear to Portland.” I commented “That’s a long drive!” Jasper said “An hour and a half, usually. It’s worth it, though, to live on the coast. And I don’t really mind it anyway; I just listen to the radio the whole trip, same thing I’d be doing if I were in here. I love the radio.”
I said “Wow.” Hugo turned to Jasper and said “Nevertheless, I think you’d get a much better deal by working for Kissel; we’re local.” I asked “We?” I was ignored, though, as Jasper said “Sorry, but I know Kissel; you need to speak German to really advance beyond the floor manager level there, and besides, they don’t have a lot of open positions at my level.”
Hugo said “Well, like I told you before, Jasper, I won’t be here forever. I’m based at corporate headquarters in Wisconsin; they just needed some men to go to the new plant in Astoria to help them get on their feet and settle into the Kissel rhythm, and I happened to be one of their best men who spoke both German and the Wawa, so they dispatched me here.”
Hugo then turned to me and said “I guess that answers the question you were going to ask me: that’s why I’m here. I’ve been here before, on business – me and my parents, we travel a lot, especially to Germany, where my grandparents are; I spent a lot of time in the charming old country as a child – and it’s had its interesting aspects, but I must say I’ve never seen anything quite so peculiar as these factories around here. I’m not sure if any of you more local or service-job types realize it, but they’re rather unique in the world. I spent quite some time researching the practices in the local factories, not just for cars but also for aircraft and other machinery, so we could integrate ourselves better with the workforce around here. I was surprised at how…Eastern the workplace practices are, not to mention the heavy influence from Native Americans. We have nothing like that in Wisconsin, to say the least. Stretching exercises straight from qigong throughout the workday, codes of conduct straight out of bushido, the vast majority of the workforce having an East Asian background, totemic motifs straight from the first nations all over everything on the factory floor, the language of work being Chinook Jargon. Very impressive, but for me it’s very much a foreign country here.”
Jasper said “Yes, I was quite surprised to find out how apparently atypical the way we do things here is. I sort of knew other parts of the world lived differently, but my whole body of work experience is on each side of the Pacific. I know nothing of the Midwest, let alone Europe. Unlike Hugo here.” I mused “Amazing the things you can learn if you just ask.” Turning to the baby, I said “Remember that, Taffy!”, teasingly poking my finger a little bit on her cheek, eliciting a bit of laughter from her. She’s so cute!
After a while, taking in the ambience of the snowstorm outside and the broadcast of Orion Morgenstern’s passage of the night side of the world, eventually reaching his maximal southern latitude over South America, the little twinkling city lights of central Chile and Patagonia visible beneath ripples of cloud cover illuminated only by moonlight.
Some more chatter crackled over the radio, causing us to realize that it was almost time for something interesting; Orion reported “Peenemünde, I am go for re-entry. I am go for retrofire.” Not too long afterward, the retrorockets fired for a full minute, illuminating the whole scene, drowning out all the moonlight and earthlight in a pillar of fire, an echo in miniature of the launch. We waited, transfixed, as we saw the burn go on, and on, and on, until it flamed out and we were back to the expanse of the darkest night any man’s eyes had yet seen, South America receding into the distance as Valkyrie 1 started to descend over the South Atlantic.
Muffy gushed “Wow, I can’t believe it’s almost over. All this time it seemed like such a big thing, going into orbit, and it was, yet in the moment it seems like it passed like no time at all.” Ansel said “Just wait until Valkyrie 2; that’s going to be a much longer trip. A full day in orbit. Assuming the rest of Valkyrie 1 goes as well as it has so far. Von Braun’s brought it off without a hitch; I must say I’m impressed.”
After a while, I realized my appointment with our landlord wasn’t too long in the future, so I asked a question that I knew I wanted to ask, but had not the heart to earlier. “I know this might seem like a strange thing to ask in a moment like this, but while we’re waiting for re-entry, I can’t resist, it’s just been on my mind. Just out of curiosity, have any of you seen our proprietor, the landlord of this place?”
Everyone else looked at each other and nodded no, eliciting looks of surprise from some of them. My eyebrows raised “None of you have ever seen him? Even someone like Muffy here who’s been here for months on end? That is peculiar, isn’t it?” Muffy said “Oh, I’m sure he lives on the top floor. That’s all locked up. I think he just values his privacy.”
I asked, quizzically, “Not even you, Savannah? And you work for him! You’ve never seen him?” She said “No. I just responded by letter to the advertisement for a maid he put out, he decided to hire me, then I come here, I get instructions passed in an envelope written in Wawa shorthand under the door to the fourth floor, and at the end of each day I find an envelope with my day’s wages in it at the same place, all in half eagle coins! I never see him.” “Hmm” I said, “That’s interesting.”, silently noting that it seemed I’ve been the recipient of a rare privilege.
After a time, Morgenstern reported “Everything looks good for re-entry. Catch you on the other side!”, and then began an even rarer privilege: witnessing on the television the first-ever man to make an atmospheric re-entry from orbit. The world started to loom a bit bigger, the horizon a bit flatter, as Valkyrie 1 approached the dawn again, visible as a faint reddish arc in front of the capsule.
Within minutes, the capsule started to heat up as it cut through thicker and thicker air, flames of plasma at last leaping up, covering Orion Morgenstern’s whole world in a sheath of fire. The transmission cut out or got scrambled for stretches of time, but we were able to see most of it, according to the announcer at Peenemünde because the transmission was being transmitted to a satellite – through a much thinner layer of the plasma sheath and its interference – and then relayed to the ground. Without the Molniya satellites we would have had a total blackout.
We waited to see if the heat shield would hold, our breath all bated as we wondered if something – anything – would go horribly wrong, but he came home as sure as a homing pigeon, the bright pre-dawn twilight of the coast visible as he emerged from re-entry, rapidly descending toward the southwest African coast.
You could hardly perceive the motion on the television screen, but nevertheless over time the earth came closer and closer, the horizon smaller and smaller, the view enveloped by desert, leaving the Atlantic behind, until we could see the small-scale features of the landscape, even the silhouettes of some airships in the distance if I saw correctly.
Then, a big moment came as the parachutes opened – all three chutes worked perfectly, the sudden braking shoving Orion Morgenstern around his seat one last time, a smile breaking out on his face as he realized he was going to make it! Drifting down in the dawn light, Valkyrie 1 plunked itself down in the desert sand, the parachutes falling down to the ground.
After some time, we saw a zeppelin descend to the capsule in the clear pre-dawn sky, the gondola mating with the capsule, a rampway opening and permitting some VfR workers in white desert-cum-laboratory-cum-clean-room outfits to knock on the capsule’s hatch and open it, as Orion Morgenstern said to both Peenemünde and to all of us watching “That was quite a ride! Valkyrie 1 signing off!”.
The men in the white suits unstrapped him from his seat and helped him up onto the zeppelin gondola, as the camera feed switched from the capsule to the zeppelin. After a while seeing them rise up with the capsule fully visible on the desert, the sunrise breaking in the Namib as they rose on their zeppelin and made their way home, was spectacular, and we were all so flush and excited from our experience watching it, but the event, and the excitement, was over, though I would be nursing a glow of awe and wonder at humanity’s destiny in the newly-opened final frontier that was outer space for days afterwards.
I wanted to get my appointment with our landlord over with, so after a while I told Muffy “There’s something I need to do, so I’ll have to let you go for a while.” Muffy just said “Oh, thank you, Myrtle, for being with me tonight! You have no idea how much it meant to me!”, before she gave me a big hug, feeling like we were squeezing Taffy a bit too in her baby wrap. As I grinned at the heartwarming gesture, Muffy took Taffy’s little hand and said “Say bye-bye to Myrtle!”, making a waving motion with it, then Taffy clapped a couple of times, which almost made my heart melt. I just got out, practically gushing “Bye-bye, Muffy! Bye-bye, Taffy! See you later!”
That all left me feeling really good when I went through the kitchen and up a semi-secret staircase to the fourth floor, where I found a door closed at the top of the stairs, with a sign on the doorknob reading in English and the Wawa “Do not disturb”. I knocked on it and said “Open up please, it’s Myrtle! The girl from the kitchen!?”
I had to do that a few more times before I saw the doorknob open a bit, and the door creak open, almost a bit like a haunted house, not helped at all by just that one icy blue eye staring at me with that slightly aged pale-as-a-ghost skin and that wild snow-white hair. I tried to smile and I said, nervously despite my best intentions, “It’s just me!”
He cautiously opened the door and motioned for me to come in, which I did, sauntering into his private floor. Looking around as he led me through, I said “So this is your inner sanctum, eh?” He replied “You could say that.” I commented “It’s so much like the rest of the house, only the ceiling is so much taller, kind of like a Gothic cathedral, only accentuated by the great organ piping assembly visible in the distance at the opposite wall. Those windows are so big and grand, how they point up like that. Not like the rest of the house; the rest of the house has such square windows. I can see why you like to live up here. Saving the best for yourself, huh? Well, if I owned a boarding house I’d do the same.”
He said, somewhat sheepishly, “I might as well show you my office. That’s where I spend most of my time.” Then we passed into the area of his office. I noticed “Interesting how the whole fourth floor is just one room, structurally, just with each area separated by those Japanese-style screens. We’ve got much thicker walls and those sliding doors on the other floors. I guess when you’ve got a ceiling like this dividing it up with real walls would be a crime against aesthetics, wouldn’t it?”
He said as he looked around and grabbed a seat for me “I’ve got an older office chair for you to sit in. Sorry I don’t have anything better up here. I don’t entertain guests too often.” He wheeled it over and had me sit right next to him vaguely in front of his desk which had his big personal computer on it. “Nice computer” I said. “Thanks” he said, adding “That’s really what I do with most of my time during the day: computers, Internet, stuff like that. Well, I love the movies too.”
I added “Not to mention running the boarding house. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I boarded with you last summer, and even then I was impressed at how good an Internet connection you have here, not to mention that big plasma television, and that satellite dish on the roof…” I sighed in pleasure at the memory as I said “It wouldn’t have been nearly the same, seeing the first manned spaceflight anywhere else. You know, I really wish all television could be satellite. I like it so much better than the regular broadcasts.”
He said “Oh, I think it will all be satellite someday. What you see here, what I’ve got in my house, uh…it’s all from Oleg Losev’s company. They work out of Russia. Him and Sergei Korolev, they, uh, they wanted to advance spaceflight. Losev as you might know is the man who invented the LED and the fiber-optic cable, but he’s been wanting to patronize a space program too now that he has his fortune. Uh, anyway, von Braun’s crowd beat them to it, launching a satellite into space back in 1937, launching a man into space today. They leapfrogged the Germans, though, with the Molniya satellites.”
“The Molniya satellites?” I asked. He explained “It was a radical concept, using satellites for communication, especially in any practical sense so early in the space program. In fact it was about their first project. But they thought it was worth the risk, and it paid off. Six satellites, three for each hemisphere, broadcasting television signals. Truly global television and radio, for the first time ever. Even some Internet traffic too, actually. Anyway, they didn’t want to just broadcast to corporations or whatever, they wanted to leave a mark in the minds of the masses. So they opened up a program where individuals could have these big satellite dishes set up at their house and get television broadcasts right there directly from space.”
I asked “Isn’t that pretty expensive?” He said “It is, but it’s worth every penny. Most awesome thing ever if you ask me. Might have even already paid for itself; after all, you boarded with me again because I had it.” He added “Uh, it’s not just expensive, it’s technically pretty involved. The Molniya satellites, you see, they make elliptical orbits around the Earth, spending a long amount of time in the polar regions over their target hemisphere when they’re higher up, but only a short amount of time over the other hemisphere when they’re lower down. That’s Kepler’s laws of motion. The quick movement over the other hemisphere is why they’re called Molniya, that’s the Russian word for lightning, as in lightning-quick. Uh, anyway, the satellite dishes need to track the positions in the sky of all these satellites, so they move around on their mount, having to switch satellites every few hours. Technically it’s all quite complicated. A lot of people thought it wouldn’t work at all when Losev first announced the project, but they underestimated him. The thing works perfectly! Well, most of the time. Anyway, it works. Makes me feel so glad. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt a kind of spiritual kinship with Oleg Losev; someone like him succeeding in life makes me feel like guys like me have a chance in this cruel world.”
I asked “And what exactly is a guy like you?” He answered “Someone who doesn’t fit in in this workaday world we have. When I was a boy I always sort of pictured myself having a job or a career like any other man, but somehow it just never came together for me. When I became a man I just couldn’t find a job or a career that I could stand or that even interested in me at all, so it just…never happened for me.”
I asked “No job, no career?” He said “I’ve never worked a job a day in my life. And that does things to a person, sets them apart from the rest of society to the extent that you just don’t want to see or have anything to do with anybody anymore.” I said “I see”, before asking “If it wouldn’t be prying, how did you support yourself without a job or a career? An inheritance? An investment portfolio? Did you already have this house and…”
He cut me off and said “My parents supported me directly the whole time. They knew what a pain it was for me to try to live a wage-earner’s life, and they let me be at home and gave me whatever they could spare for my upkeep. Only one thing wrong with parents: they tend to die. As we all got older and there was no sign of me ever becoming…well, normal, they started to worry what was going to happen to me. So they stretched their finances and moved to Astoria, and bought this house, with the idea being that with it being a growing town, the beach, and the new factories, and everything, that I could be a landlord and earn a living independently by running it as a boarding house. They started up the business for me, showed me the ropes, and we all ran it together for the first few years. Before they died. Fortunately the business was already operational, and they had credit life on the mortgage, so our debt payment was gone. The proceeds from the boarders are more than enough to live on. The income’s so good I was even able to get a credit line from a bank for all the upgrades to the house, like the satellite dish. Did it completely online too; put in all the paperwork with that scanner over there, they downloaded the files from me, me from them, I signed the documents they sent me in the mail, I use the checkbook they sent me, and I just make the payments. Easily. Like I’m some kind of Wall Street bigshot!”
My mouth widened a bit as I mused “You can do all that? Just with computer networks and the mail?” He said, almost dismissively, “Oh yes, of course you can. It’s all run by computers anyway, all this stuff. All they need is to talk to each other, and once you get the hang of establishing these Internet links you’d be amazed what you can do. Imagine me, a fifty-year-old man. Never worked a day in my life, just stayed in my room all day working on my hobbies, and it looks like I won’t need to: I’ve got good enough income to be on the good side of finance, and I’m not even rich, I just fell through the cracks of the wage-slave system it seems. I guess you could say I’ve made it. That probably sounds perverse to you, I know, as far as ways to live goes.”
I clarified “Oh no, no it doesn’t. I understand more than you know what it is to not be able to fit in to the demands of the workforce. I had severe neurasthenia for quite a few years. Any course of medication that wouldn’t kill me after a while left me able to work up to a normal standard only one or two days a week. The other five or six days I was bedridden, having to sleep off the soreness and the stimulation. I could have made like you and called it a day I suppose, but I really wanted to go out and make something of myself and meet some people and earn some extra money if only in a small way. I started out trying to be a secretary when I was a teenager, but I realized after a while that working one or two days a week wasn’t going to open any doors to advancement for me. I’d just have to be a secretary forever, and secretarial work isn’t exactly the most fulfilling or lucrative job out there, you know. Eventually I was able to segue into tutoring, becoming a private teacher for schoolhouse children. That let me work independently and choose my own rates and my own hours, and I did a lot better with that. For a long time I just made a pittance, but after some years at it my earnings grew enough to make a modest living.”
He said thoughtfully “I’ve wished for a long time I could do something like that, but I’m just no good around people. I’m sort of good with computers, but not in a way that I could turn into a real profession or a business.” I said “Truthfully, if it weren’t for my family establishing a trust fund for me where I got two dollars out of the fund for every one dollar I earned on my own, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered. They knew I was so sick and wouldn’t be able to make much of myself just on my earnings alone, so they all got together and scrimped and saved so I’d have something.”
He said “That’s really some way to keep you in the wage system; let you access your trust fund only if you worked. I’m glad my parents didn’t think that way. Not sure if I could have stood it.” I clarified “Oh no, no, no, that was actually my idea. You see, I really wanted to feel like I was getting somewhere and have an incentive to go on in the world, so we baked that into the trust.”
I sighed and said “Though my real dream was always to be a wife and mother, or at least a mother. This might seem perverse to you, but I always wanted to have a baby much more than I wanted a man, but I sort of wanted a man too, you know? A husband for me and a father for the baby. If I could have found a special someone that would have been so nice, but in my condition even having a chance of finding anyone to love me was…it was pretty much impossible. I knew it. I daydreamed sometimes about having a baby alone, but mating with just any old man who’d be up for a one-night stand…ugh, the whole idea kind of disgusted me. And even if I were willing to contemplate such a thing, I didn’t have enough energy to have a baby in any case. If I had more money maybe I could have hired a 24/7 nanny or something, but how was I supposed to pay for such a thing?”
He said “I know! Labor isn’t exactly cheap. No offense to Savannah, but she’s a major expense, and I’ve got like nine people contributing to her wages!” I sighed and said “It all could have turned out differently. I’m actually better now. There’s a new and somewhat experimental medicine: cortisone. I went to a doctor last year and he recommended I try it, and within hours the neurasthenia was gone. I was cured. But I was already thirty-nine at the time. I wasn’t young anymore. Yeah, sure, maybe I could still have a baby, but my whole experience marks me as kinda…off. You might even go so far as to call me damaged goods. I’d have to work on myself a lot, get used to being normal, and work up some more courage, before I felt comfortable dating again. I couldn’t live with myself if I settled for less of a man than I could get if I just waited a few years and got myself back into decent shape. Then the time it would take finding a man, getting him to marry me, and the fact it would take a long time probably for us to give me a baby at my age, even longer with every year later I’d get married…it’s honestly just no longer realistic for me. I was cured, but it was too late. Too late for me to fulfill my dream. So I’ve let it go.”
He said “Wow, that’s…that’s sad.” I said “I just try to be a good friend and a mentor for girls who still have their youth ahead of them. Besides, letting go of the idea of a husband and a baby…it’s liberating, in a sense. I feel so much freer to just work on my career. Now that I have a lot more energy I felt up to applying to full-time positions, and earlier this year I got in with Antikythera as a product manager.”
His eyes widened as he went “Antikythera!?” I smiled and said “Yes, that’s the one. I applied to them because they advertise all over the place that they let you work fully remotely over the Internet and they don’t demand you have any credentials or experience; rather they have what they call a ‘merit-based process’ where you go to a center and take an examination, a big test. You know, kind of like the civil service? Anyway, they say I got one of the higher scores they’d ever seen – how they figure that, I’m still not sure. Then they subjected me to some additional tests that were really weird, like the sort of stuff you read about psychologists doing in experiments? I don’t know how to explain it. But they passed me with flying colors and hired me immediately to be a product manager.”
His eyes widened and his mouth opened as he went “A product manager? Like managing this?” He took his keyboard and showed it to me. I caught sight of the logo and gasped, going “Oh my god, I thought it looked familiar.” The logo was unmistakably Antikythera’s, and the cladding on the keyboard was a copper color, all metal, with the keys circular and raised up over the chassis like an old-timey typewriter, the keys being metallic copper as well, the letters painted on in a high Art Deco gold-on-black style.
I examined it and eventually concluded “I was the product manager for this very keyboard! Focusing on the aesthetics of it! One of our newer models. I trust you like it?” as I put it back down on his desk, snow still falling outside the big windows the desk looked out of, though much lighter than it was during the space launch.
He said “I love everything Antikythera makes! My printer, my copier, my scanner, my keyboards, my mouse, they all come from Antikythera. Even the casing on my computer comes from Antikythera, though obviously not the brain of it – that’s a Reinhardt Industries chip, of course, that does the thinking – Antikythera doesn’t make the actual computers.”
I nodded as I said “Yes, just peripherals and casings. That’s what we make.” Noticing I was smiling, he asked “Do you like your job at Antikythera?” I answered “Well, yes and no. I don’t much like this workaday office stuff – I always imagined that if I were going to do a career I’d want it to be something really artsy and creative. In fact the only thing I’m really passionate about is my writing. I write a blog, have ever since I could get my hands on a computer with an Internet connection, and I’ve fantasized about maybe making some money off that and having writing become my life, but hardly anyone ever reads it no matter what I do, so I don’t think that’ll happen. This thing with Antikythera, though…it’s the closest thing I’ve yet found to being able to be truly creative.”
I added “I gather you’ve got an artistic side yourself. You play the organ?” He said sheepishly “Yes. It’s my only distraction that doesn’t involve a screen; plasma display, LED display, a movie palace projector, it’s all screens. Sometimes I just have to take my eyes away from it and rest them and do something…something real, with some physicality to it.”
I said “Well, general consensus among the boarders is that it’s creepy, but it’s good. They actually like you.” He said “But they think I’m creepy!” I waved my hand dismissively and said “Nah, any time anybody plays an organ their mind immediately leaps to the stereotypical organ-playing horror villain in the movies. They don’t really mean it seriously.”
I added after a pause “You know, I think I speak for all the other boarders here when I say that we think you’re doing a great job. I for one hardly ever have better service anywhere than I do here, even if it is in the form of emails, voice messages, and letters. For instance, when I came in here I called you up, left you a message about opening up the garage door, and when I arrived sure enough there it was, all open and ready for me. No doubt you have some secret controls for everything you can handle from up here.” He laughed nervously and nodded yes at that.
I went on “You know, you said how people underestimate Oleg Losev. Well, I think you might be underestimating yourself in much the same fashion. You might not have had enough initiative or drive to be a go-getting tech entrepreneur, but now that you have a business you’ve shown real talent at it. You’re doing a good job. The good service, the technical sophistication of all your equipment, even your aesthetics. Those Christmas decorations, for instance, look great.”
He almost blushed at that, saying “Thanks” with a bit of a grimace. I commented “Well, I would have added on some Christmas soldiers; they were conspicuous by their absence. But it still looked great.” He said with almost a bit of a tic “I don’t like Christmas soldiers. It’s such an overdone motif. Everyone and their brother has one of those things these days, all over the place, all glorifying the military. I just don’t like it. I specifically instructed Savannah to not put any Christmas soldier stuff in my house.”
I sighed as I knew I just had to explain something to him. I said “The Christmas soldiers are not about glorifying the military. They’re all about peace on earth and goodwill toward men, the whole meaning of the holiday! The last time there was a war across Europe, the soldiers who had been forced to kill and be killed called a truce, the Christmas Truce of 1914. The guns fell silent. They went out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land, shaking hands with the so-called enemy, sharing cigarettes, playing football games together. No doubt at first they only wanted to have a Christmas without blood and guts, but that small taste of peace and freedom could not be denied. No doubt by the time night fell, twenty-seven years ago this very night, they already knew: they were not going to fight again. The truce turned into an armistice. The guns stayed silent. Word spread of this peace movement, and one by one unit after unit mutinied, defying orders from their superior officers, and even threats by their own government, and they refused to fight anymore, coming together and realizing the true enemy was not each other, it was their governments. Days turned into weeks, and soldiers of all nations cast off the banner of their countries, and marched under a new banner, the Army of Christmas, toward their capitals. Multinational forces poured out of the front line and toward Paris, toward Berlin, toward Vienna, toward Saint Petersburg, and as the politicians and generals finally realized there was going to be no stopping them from overthrowing every government in Europe, they surrendered to the Christmas soldiers and called an official armistice. Pope Benedict XV swiftly negotiated a peace treaty.”
He sighed and said “I know all that. But it just doesn’t sit well with me…soldiers, for Christmas. But when you put it like that…” I went on “The soldiering and the military per se isn’t even the important part of the Christmas Soldier. What’s important about the Christmas Soldier, as opposed to just any other soldier on any other Christmas, is this: 1914 was the only time in the history of humanity soldiers rose up and ended a war all by themselves. And not just a war, a war that was an industrialized orgy of destruction on a continental scale. They ended it. Individual men ended it, by daring to have the courage to resist, by daring, even in the closest thing there is to hell on earth, to embody the spirit of Christmas.”
He mused for a few moments and said “Wow. You know, I’d never thought of it quite that way before. But you’re right.” Sighing, he said “I think I will put some Christmas Soldiers up next year.” I said “The fear of god at the prospect of fighting another full-scale war with mass armies was put into the minds of the entire ruling class. It’s no coincidence that there have been no more wars like the War of the Christmas Army since, no coincidence that what they call modern strategic doctrine is to submit any dispute to outside arbitration and plebiscites, to only fight a war when you have to, and even then fight it in ways that keep the amount of regular soldier manpower to the absolute minimum, like mercenaries, computer hacking, air power. Geopolitical scholars call it “the Noëlic age”, Noël as in Christmas. They’re scared to death at what individual conscripts would do if they were pushed into the trenches again. War has been all but removed as a means of industrialized national competition. So how do they compete now? Why, by pushing the frontiers of science, technology, and human exploration. Like Valkyrie 1. Like the Molniya satellites. Without the Army of Christmas, none of that would exist; I’ve heard it said that without the Army of Christmas to break the stalemate, and to break the fever of the whole idea of waging war in this industrial modern age, our future would have been naught but the grim darkness of total warfare, maybe forever. It might not be an exaggeration to say the Christmas Soldier saved human civilization as we knew it.”
We stared at each other in silence for a while, before he laughed nervously and said “I definitely will put some Christmas Soldiers up next year.” We both then laughed, as I shook my head and said “I’m sorry if it comes off like I’m lecturing you like you’re Ebenezer Scrooge and I’m Jacob Marley’s ghost.” After a moment, I said “What do you like to do on a night like this? A snowy Christmas Night?”
He looked at me with some side-eye as he gazed out at the diminishing storm, and he said “Well, I usually like to go to the movie palace late in the night, when there aren’t any crowds and no one’s watching you. It’s right down the road from here.” I said “The storm’s diminishing, and I got in here just fine when it was much worse. We should be good to go.” He said “Oh, I’ve gone to the movies in worse storms than this one, though I’ve never seen this much snow before here.”
I commented “Nobody has. It’s an all-time record. Not just for Christmas, but for any time of the year.” After a pause, I said “So it’s settled then? We’ll go to the movie palace together later tonight?” He said, sheepishly, “Yes”, adding “Understand, I don’t usually go with anybody! This is a new thing for me!” I giggled a bit and said “I promise, I won’t be any bother.”
After a moment, he then pointed out “Oh, I wouldn’t want you to go out before you’ve gotten a full tour of my little place up here.” He then proceeded to give me a rundown of his office, showing me how he operates his computer, all those graphics he operates with his keyboard, his mouse, and most especially his chorded keyboard, all copper-clad Art Deco peripherals from the Antikythera company. He even showed me how he connects to the Internet; no graphics there, of course, just lines of text, but still rather impressive how he manipulates those reams of information on his display with that chorded keyboard, pressing the keys on that thing just like a trained pianist…or, I realized, more to the point, an organist.
He didn’t disappoint me in that department either; he took me over to that far-well area of the fourth floor, and it was just like the sort of organ you’d see in a church’s cathedral. Warming up the thing, he played some soft danceable Christmas music on the thing as the snow continued to waltz outside, as if in time with the music he was playing. Gave me a whole little concert.
He gave me a whole little concert for Christmas Night, which I thought was such a nice way to pass the time. Then after I had my fill of it for the nonce, I remembered something: “Would you like some more ice cream? I know I would!” He gave me one of the more enthusiastic expressions I saw on his ghostly wizened face, and said “Yes, I would like some! If you could get some from the kitchen for us?”
I said “I’ll be right back!” as I skipped to the stairs and then down the stairwell to the kitchen, finding nobody else in there as I fetched a fresh carton of ice cream from the big freezer (along with cones and scoopers), taking the chance to sneak on my tippy-toes toward the drawing room, peeking inside, seeing that Muffy and Taffy weren’t there anymore. They must have gone to bed already. Nighty-night, Muffy! Nighty-night, Taffy!
I snuck back to the kitchen and up the stairs to the fourth floor, and with a “Tada!” presented an ice cream cone to my new friend, and one to myself, and we both munched on the ice cream for a while, before he gave me another mini-concert. As he warmed up, I continued to lick some more vanilla ice cream, but I had the presence of mind to ask “I don’t think I caught your name?” He answered “Bram.”
I giggled, saying “Bram. Like Bram Stoker? The man who wrote Dracula?” He shrugged and said “Hey, my parents gave me the name before he became famous!” I said “It’s really Gothic, though. I think it’s an awesome name.” He said “What was your name? Myrtle?” I said “Yes, that’s me: Myrtle.” He said “I like your name too.” That put a smile on my face as I munched on some more ice cream and beheld him get into the mood and give me one last Christmas organ concert, watching the snow, by now only light but just as beautiful and powdery as before, tumble down outside the big windows.
Then the time came deeper into the night when we felt like going out to the movie palace! Escorting him to my car in the garage, I plunked him down on the right side of the front bench, and I climbed in to the left side, driving us out of the garage and into the snow, marveling as I looked up through the windshield after we backed up from the garage, the full outline of the house visible in the night, “You know, this house of yours is such a modern and fashionable design. Looks like it could have come straight out of the imagination of Ewen McEwen himself. He pioneered this style of dwelling, you know. In the South at first, before they spread to the rest of the country. That’s why they call them ‘kudzu houses’.” Sarcastically, Bram said “Thanks.” I smiled and said “Well, it’s a beautiful and fashionable place to live. No wonder Muffy likes it here so much.”
I then turned the car around in the driveway and drove out into the snow, now tumbling only lightly in the beam of my headlights, the roads having been quite plowed at that point. The drive was so easy, the wintry ambience so much warmer and friendlier than it was on my last drive earlier that Christmas Night.
When we reached the movie palace we found a parking spot right next to the door. Bram tried his best to be a gentleman, exiting the car first and opening my door, taking my hand and escorting me into the theater through the invigorating cold air, the caress of the snowflakes bringing a smile to my face, where we both got tickets at the counter, sauntering into the movie they were showing.
An epic space opera it was, something called “Children of the Lens”; Bram was quite animated, at least compared to usual, as he elaborated upon his rather extensive knowledge of science fiction, cinema, and even this particular series. The visual effects were some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, and the story and the acting were pretty good too. I couldn’t help but think he might be onto something with this late-night movie habit: the whole ambience was so different this hour, deep into the night, almost magical, the perfect way to cap off the night.
We came into the movie midway, so we stuck around through the short subjects, the cartoons, and the newsreel for this Christmas Day, which showed in full cinematic glory the flight of Orion Morgenstern on Valkyrie 1, and also an event that was news to me, that had happened mere hours before, when I was distracted by my escapade with Bram in the house: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was dead, at the age of 82.
Having reigned for longer than I’d been alive, it was hard to believe he was really gone, but he was very old, and it just hit me: he’d been at death’s door for months, but he was such a booster for space exploration. He must have had the will to go on just to see the flight that Christmas Night. And now, having seen it, he had surrendered to the inevitable embrace of the truly final frontier. That was truly the perfect bookend to that eventful Christmas Night of 1941.
We stuck around in the theater long enough to see “Children of the Lens” in its entirety from start to finish, then we were of a mind to head back to the boarding house and call it a night, me making sure to exchange numbers and web addresses with Bram so we could keep in touch. As I went to bed I was more sure of it than ever before: that Christmas Night was truly special. That most magical of holidays would not be one I’d soon forget.