Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Mars of My Youth

My childhood feels like the old films about the dust bowl and the precarious journeys.

I don’t know why I was invited on this family vacation. Sure, I’m a part of the family I started seventy-two years ago. Barely.

Supposed to be like an old fashioned road trip, but in the stars. I guess it’ll be trendy once everyone hears we did it. My grandkids remember stories their parents told them about my adventures on Mars so they want to stop off and see it. I’ve gotten tired of correcting them. Reminding them that I’d never been to Mars.

We had skipped it on our way through. When I was a kid, leaving Earth had cost too much to afford the frivolity.

The images I remember of Mars were from commercials. They always started with a huge unwieldy rocket landing in some unlikely way. Then the kids eating Mars Mega Cones—ice cream cones that would have been somewhat less probable in Earth gravity.

The Martian Express used to blaze at very blurry speeds from one tourist spot to another. Sexy young women served you at the only casino in the galaxy where you could actually win. The lowest drinking age in the star system.

Rides for the kids. Rides that promised to test our mettle and thrill us with super big turns and twists that exceeded (if only by a bit, and in a totally safe manner) the gravities allowed on Earth rides.

We flew over the Kuiper Belt and I strained to make out any Trans-Neptunian objects. Our angle was too high and we weren’t casting enough light. With patience, I might’ve seen some stars wink for a moment as one passed between us and the light.

There’s not much to see. The system isn’t big and the windows aren’t wide enough to guarantee a look at even Jupiter or Saturn unless you’re headed in at the right angle, speed, and time.

I took a nap.

When I woke up, the grandkids told me we’d landed. The ships’d improved so much since I’d left Earth I couldn’t tell when a ship set down. Smooth ride, but nothing feels real anymore.

We checked in at the hotel. I was damned glad they hadn’t tried to put me in a room with one of my grandkids’ families. An old coot needs his space too.

The door knocked at what the hotel called 9:00PM.

“Grandpa?” a muffled voice called.

“Yeah? What?”

“We’re waiting on you for dinner,” the voice said. Boy, I think. Probably one of the great grandkids. Chester?

I harrumphed. “I’ll be out in ten minutes, and not a bit before then.”


I didn’t need ten minutes. I didn’t need ten seconds. I was ready. I just sat my ass on the edge of the bed and looked where the TV would have been in a hotel back in the day.

Now, it was just a fancy new-2.vo digital painting. Limited edition print by some local no one ever heard of. I tried to care. At 9:04PM, I walked out and put my hat on as I closed the door behind me.

All of my living family under the age of 50 was in front of me, waiting. Maybe they wanted me to give them a speech. “Well, let’s eat,” I said.

There was a faint bit of clapping before people started shuffling off toward the restaurant. I stuck to the back, but if I’d had any thought of escape, it was quickly put to rest. Some of the older teenagers were given the task of ensuring my safe arrival at the restaurant. The restaurant advertised real, killed-cow beef. You could get vat meat if you wanted. Before I could look at the price, one of my grandkids ordered real beef steak for me and told them I wanted mashed potatoes. What if I had wanted broccoli? Not saying I did, but shit. Don’t help a man piss in his shoes.

It was good. I felt the teeniest bit sorry for the cow, but it wasn’t all that bad. The authentic Martian beer tasted like a mild IPA. The mashed potatoes were pointless.

After awhile, my family forgot about me. That was just fine. I couldn’t make out what they were saying over the noise of what they were saying. I quietly walked over to one of the hotel’s huge windows that looked out over the plains. It was tinted an orangish red so everything looked like my ancestors had imagined it would.

A young woman—30 maybe—was there too. Unrelated to me, I was almost sure. I nodded to her and she nodded back. After a bit of conversation about what it was like to be alone, I took her back to my room.

She worked for the hotel and was hoping to earn passage out of Terra Sol. She was lonely and so was I.

Things got a bit awkward when a present from a practical joker of a great grandkid came by. Guess they thought the old man couldn’t get any tail without paying for it. I sent the hired lady away and snuggled up with my young friend until I fell asleep.

When I woke up, there was a note from her saying she’d had fun and I should look her up again some time. Didn’t leave her contact information, and she’d only ever given me her first name.

In the morning, bright and early, I put on a suit and walked outside. The great grandkids who weren’t quite teenagers were already out and about. I could see ‘em all over the place. If I left my comm open, I could hear what they were saying.

“Mars sucks,” a little girl said.

I looked at the slow-moving Martian Express and the worn out Mars Mega Cone stand. I could see the outlines of a structure that might once have been a huge ride but was just a few sticks of metal and flecks of paint. I could even see the nearly abandoned casino from that spot.

I remembered imagining the thrill of the coaster. You would fall nearly forever and the ride would last thirty glorious minutes. They made it seem so fun, and here it was. If I tried really hard, I could imagine the size and shape of it. Even if they’d put rockets on the coaster, it couldn’t have gone fast enough to be as amazing as they’d said.

“Yeah,” I said to no one since my own mic was off, “Yeah, it does suck.”

And I’m pretty sure it always has.

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