An Awful Waste of Space
Growing up on a farm in rural Iowa, water was something that came out of the faucet to quench his thirst after a bicycle ride down the seemingly endless, flat gravel roads, sweat soaking through his shirt. It was something slopping out of the dog’s bowl as she lapped it up with her long wet tongue. Water in the form of scenic ocean had been for the women lounging with suntans and bikinis on the posters of the travel agency on Main Street (which his mother would shield his eyes from as they walked past). It was the mysterious black mass that enveloped the ocean liner on that Twilight Zone episode. While milking cows as a child, he could not have predicted that his adulthood would fade into old age on a tiny island in the South Pacific, where he would compare the white froth of breaking waves to the bubbles created in his tin bucket after pulling a squirt from an udder.
But as for thousands more like him, his fate of becoming his father, the farmer, was disrupted by world politics. He didn’t sign up eagerly. He wasn’t seething with adventure or blood lust, nor did escapism or protest run through his veins. He simply went where he was told.
After the war was over, convinced by friends and feeling unusually bold, he’d put off returning home and traveled through Thailand with buddies from his platoon. He wasn’t the wide-eyed farm boy of a few years ago. The war had numbed him to exotic tastes, but he loved the warmth and the crash of the waves. Truth be told, it had been tales of prostitutes during bar banter that encouraged him to take the trip, leading to a single, guilty experience. And once in the dirty sheet-divided room, he was too burdened by shame to finish. Before the war, his life in Iowa had been small. An only child, home-schooled to make more time to help with the farming, he had been an accident – or a miracle, as his mother said. His parents were middle-aged by the time he came to this planet. While he was overseas, they both left it. His mother passed first, followed by his father a few months later – both in their sleep.
Without making a conscious decision of it, he stayed on the island. His buddies eventually moved on. Earl married a Thai girl then eventually settled in Chicago. Jack decided he’d had enough fast living for one life and returned to a Midwest town similar to his own, where the only guns were hunting rifles, and liquor and hookers existed primarily in the sin-fearing gossip of the church wives. Clint too stayed on the island, and created himself the perfect expat life – until he suddenly blew his brains out. That left just him.
His house sat on a hill on the north side of the island. More of a cliff really, as the geography was not that of soft grass and gentle slopes, but abrupt drops and jagged rock. Looking inland from a boat at sea, the house was the only light on that side of the mountain, its importance amplified by the absence of other dwellings. During his first seven years or so on the island, the man felt pride in being the only light on the north side of the mountain. He imagined the resorts and upscale condo buildings that would eventually come, and how he’d be the local the expats still in their honeymoon phase would invite over for dinner and tales of the good ole’ days, and how the teenage tourists would try to steal buds from his impressively tall marijuana plants. Perhaps, one day, some authority would try to take away his bushes while policing the neighbourhood’s new and noisy occupants, and he’d have to become an activist of some sort. But the reports and fancy condos never came. His side of the mountain remained ignored and his ganja bushes became overgrown and neglected.
Any gaze at the house on the cliff was not with the calm awe of a tourist enjoying a romantic boat rental under the stars, or a local stopping to sip a beer during a night-time fishing trip. Those who could see his home were stowaways, always illegal, sometimes sinister. Directly across from the north of his island was an even smaller island. It was uninhabited. Local rumour held the small island to be a halfway point for sheltering immigrants, drugs, or imported guns on their way to gangs in more politically active countries.
Such tales of local crime had ceased to interest him. His decline in wonder at living on the sparsely populated Pacific isle trod in slow descent alongside his ageing process. So slow he didn’t notice, just like the sorry slope in his bedroom ceiling. In his mind, it had always been straight as a board. He built it himself. One night, during the long hours it took him to drift to sleep, he noticed the boards had bent over time, creating a gentle curve like the hunch in his spine. He hadn’t grown old and grumpy, or even crazed. He had grown old and sadly indifferent. Utterly bored. Meaningless.
After a simple supper, it was his habit to sit on his porch until he grew tired, trapped in memories while staring across the sea from his rickety rocking chair. Every now and then he’d hear the splash of a large fish jumping, or spot dull flickering lights in sync with the hum of a motorboat. This night looked like any other. He was tuned into the sounds of local birds when something caught the corner of his eye. The rumours of the drug smuggling, human trafficking and pirates (perhaps he found them more interesting than he cared to admit) aroused intrigue once more in his fatigued heart. He saw a round white light dance across his vision along the beach of the small island. It paused near a patch of rocks, then sped, then zipped like a laser. It looked like it was going to smash into the beach.
Pausing, it shone a bright spotlight on the beach. Perhaps it wasn’t the light of pirates after all, but authorities after smugglers. Maybe the law had gotten off their butts and were on a mission to confiscate more valuable chemicals than his plants. The brightness pulled up to the beach and stopped, twinkling. A boat? One of those cigarette speed boats? Certainly not a simple fishing boat, the speed it had moved at. As he was contemplating boat mechanics, the light leaped off the water and shot in a diagonal line through the sky. The white ball stopped, changing from appearing as a jet to a helicopter, in that it could just stop and hover. It was directly above him, details emerging. It wasn’t a ball of light, but a metal craft with lights on its underside that spun around in a circle. The craft floated for a couple of minutes and then zoom – zipped off and joined the stars. The combination of being able to fly like a jet, propel like a rocket then hover like a helicopter intrigued him the most. From the war, he had learned about planes and he knew about helicopters. Yet he knew of no military craft that could hover like a helicopter and zoom like a jet.
The moment the craft left his field of vision, he was struck with a sadness that shook him to his core. When he was younger, he had a tendency to time travel (without the aid of UFOs) by pressing fast forward or rewind on the film playing inside his head. Oh, what a mundane film he had let it become: never interacting with fellow actors, ignoring all direction.
This hadn’t been a hallucination. He was stone-cold sober. There was a time when he used to spend his evenings enjoying a toke. He had never been a man of indulgence, but used to take pride in the preparation and enjoyment of his morning coffee, served black, always black. The afternoons had been for ginseng tea, with a pristinely rolled joint to follow at night. He hadn’t given up such harmless gratifications with conviction. He had simply forgotten about them.
The man had neglected his herbal worldly pleasures in the same manner he’d stop taking stock of those which ignited his senses: falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks, the sound of heavily-salted air rustling through the palm trees, discovering grains of sand in his hair days after he’d been to the beach like microscopic keepsakes. He always used to have sand in his hair. No matter how big the waves were he’d jump in. He had never been someone who was careful with his life. Never reckless, he never felt the intense intentions Clint must have to put a bullet in his own brain. No, he didn’t want to die. He simply didn’t care if he lived.
“I want to believe,” he found himself whispering, and then grew embarrassed as he realized that wasn’t a line he thought up himself, but one taken from that X-Files show – a pale comparison to The Twilight Zone that he had enjoyed nonetheless. He could have created himself an entire family in the hours he had spent in his living room watching television shows as sunbeams checkered his floor through the deck of his island porch. He began to fancy himself as Fox Mulder, the protagonist, who was abducted through the course of the series. “They’re going to come back for me,” he told himself, with more anticipation than fear. Snapped out of his waking sleep, it all made sense. How he had survived the war with no bodily harm, why he settled in a paradise with such promise of an exceptional life only to live a horrifically mundane one. Of course, he wasn’t injured in the war; they’d need him able-bodied, he told himself. Thank goodness he was never inspired to find love or have a family; they’d need someone with no earthly ties. It all made sense – he was someone special, and that put a spring in his step. It was why the rich expats and the reckless tourists had never come to the north side of the island. His was meant to be the only light visible from above, a beacon pointing solely to him. It was all for him.
After the night, That Night, it became his routine to sit out on his porch not out of habit, but to wait for the ship to return. In excitement, he began to water his ganja trees again, watching green return to the leaves. He even scrubbed the mould from the cracks in his shower in case the space travellers were humanoid and needed to use the bathroom.
It had been about a month since that night with no sign of the ship. As he swept his long neglected floors while the ginseng tea stewed, the radio reported there would be a meteor shower tonight and said to look for shooting stars. Yes, tonight was The Night. He reckoned something was going on up there in the skies. As darkness fell, he grew so excited that he considered having a glass of whiskey he had hidden away in a crate in a closet – but no, he wanted to be clear-headed. An odd satisfaction overcame him: while other locals would be watching for shooting stars, there was to be much more in store for him.
The man sat down in his rocking chair with the pointed enthusiasm of a person in a theatre about to see a film they’d been anticipating for months. The stars shone brighter tonight; the radio reporter had been right. At every fleck of a shooting star or trail of light, he jumped out of his chair and ran towards the edge of the deck, grasping the railing with enough endorphins to near break the damn thing. Yet the only moving lights were those made by the meteors cascading in natural motion across the sky, and none shone with the intensity or the unexplainable technology of his craft.
And then it happened. He almost missed it at first, distracted by the star light, but there it was. The white ball of light dancing near the same group of rocks in front of the small island. “It’s time,” he whispered to himself. Eagerly, he stood from his chair, and moved to the railing, this time to never return to his seated position. As he predicted, the light shot in its laser-precise diagonal across the sky. He leaned over the railing to meet it. He fell tumbling, tossing, and thrashing – being pulled upwards by the unknown to space, or downwards by gravity to the rocks – it was too dark to tell.
Photograph by Creative Commons