Viking 2

By Christian Hayden

Some friends and I got together and we started telling Brien stories. We were at Brien’s sister Mary’s place in Frelinghuysen, and the reason we were all back home was because it was our fifteen year reunion. I hadn’t been to the fifth or the tenth, but someone told me that Mary was going to have a little Brien ceremony, like a memorial, so I decided to go home for that too.

My parents were dead at this point so I had no one to stay with and ended up staying with Mary. She offered when I reached out to her about the memorial. She was living with a guy at the time, a really sharp-looking Latino guy, and they had a two-year-old daughter. The guy would watch me with the kid in the living room, like when I tried to play with her, and smoke cigarettes. He was a lot better looking than Mary, and younger, and I never could figure that out. The kid was really cute, really big eyes. I guess she was too young to play. She asked me to draw her a picture, though, and I drew a sheep. She liked that, and said I was good at art. The guy looked at the picture and snorted.

He wasn’t there when the rest of the gang came over. There was Miranda, who was tall and chalk white and the only one besides me who wasn’t local; Todd and Mels, who had a kid of their own and who hadn’t invited me to their wedding; Jack, the only one I still talked to; and also Lucas, Brien and Mary’s cousin, who was younger than us.

In Mary’s backyard, with its swing set and patio, we started telling Brien stories. We started with the funny ones – Brien getting high on a date and falling asleep in the poor girl’s bathroom, Brien talking his way out of driving through a toll booth without paying – but soon we ran out of those. Brien was a funny guy a lot of the time, but he was also a moody prick. And he ranted a lot. I can’t tell you how many times he’d corner me in my shitbox car, or in the little parking lot across from school where we’d smoke, and just bitch. Bitch and bitch for hours and hours on end.

Sometimes you feel guilty thinking about stuff like that. I think that was everyone’s problem. It was like each of us wanted someone to pause and then say, You know, he could be a real asshole, too. And then everyone could exhale and talk about all the times Brien was a grade-A douchebag. Mary was really the only one who could have done it, but she had her feet up on her chair and was looking at the dregs in her plastic cup.

So I decided to tell my story. I was nervous, because I don’t tell stories to big groups very often. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had. But I had a couple of beers in me, plus Todd had made us all do shots of Very Old Barton, so I felt okay.

 

* * *

 

When I was a kid I used to save all of my candy wrappers. I was probably seven or eight. My parents went through a Catholic phase and had me in Sunday School at this weird hippie church over in Parsipanny. I don’t remember too much of it, but the part about souls really got to me. I started asking my parents, who were a little older than most of the other parents, about souls. Just basic questions, like where was it and could you lose it and stuff like that. They answered as best they could. But what I couldn’t figure out was why everyone was so sure it was only people who had souls. We didn’t have a dog, but I knew some dogs, and they seemed pretty soulful to me.

Anyway it just sort of spread from there. I got really afraid of hurting anything. I wouldn’t kill any bugs. I wouldn’t throw any of my old stuff away, like my toys or coloring books or whatever. And then I started saving candy bar wrappers too. Halloween came around, and I went out as a big shaggy dog. My mom cut all these newspapers into strips and glued them to a brown paper bag. Then she spray-painted the whole thing grey. Then she added a snout and some floppy ears. I took a pillowcase for the candy and off we went.

It was a good year. I had dozens of Snickers and Kit Kats and Butterfingers. I had about thirty packets of Smarties, those little fruity candies. Those weren’t the best, but just about every other house gave them out, so you always had a dozen and you couldn’t trade them. I took all this candy and I left it in the pillowcase and I put it in the bottom of my desk drawer. Then I ate it over the course of a month or so like any other kid.

But I noticed that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the wrappers. I’d eat a 100 Grand or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and I’d just put the wrapper back in the case. When I was opening the candy, I remember, I’d try very carefully to keep the wrapper in one piece too, like I didn’t want to hurt it. Eventually I just had a pillowcase full of candy bar wrappers, and at the top were about two dozen little cellophane Smarties wrappers.

I kept them in the bottom of my desk drawer for seven years, if you can believe that. Even after I grew out of being Catholic I still felt like I had to keep the candy wrappers from that Halloween. They felt – and I know that this is going to sound strange – like they had become a part of me. I was terrified, also, that they’d be discovered. Some kids hide Hustlers or baggies of weed in their desk; I had a pillowcase full of plastic and little flakes of chocolate. It made me very uncomfortable to think of someone else finding it.

One day when we were fourteen Brien came over after school. My parents worked, so I had the house to myself for a couple of hours every day. Brien and I weren’t doing anything bad or anything, though. Our plan was to spend the whole afternoon playing Super Mario World. I had the Nintendo in my room and I had a couple of beanbag chairs.

At one point I went to the bathroom. Brien was playing. I have no idea, even now, why he decided to stop and look through my desk. I was just peeing, I remember, so I wouldn’t have been gone more than a couple minutes. But when I came back Brien was sitting on the bed holding the pillowcase and looking at me.

It was like he’d stood up and hit me square in the belly. I felt like the air was being forced out of my lungs. Now I think it must have been a panic attack. I was breathing really fast and hard. All those nights I’d sat up in bed and worried about that fucking pillowcase. All the time I’d be thinking about girls or something and the pillowcase would intrude. It would sort of hover over me, is how I thought about it at the time.

Then I started to cry. I felt like beating the shit out of Brien, and with his sunken chest and his chicken legs I’m sure I could have, easily. I didn’t, though. I just sat down, on the floor. I folded my legs Indian style and I cried, for no reason at all.

What is this? Brien asked. I shook my head. I didn’t even really know what it was.

I don’t know. I just, uh, kept them, I don’t know.

Dude, that’s retarded, Brien said calmly. Ugh, Smarties. Those are the worst. Then Brien got up, went over to the wastebasket in the corner of the room, and emptied the pillowcase into it.

What are you doing? I asked.

are you doing? What’s up with the crying?

I stood up. You can’t throw those out, I said. I’ve had those for years.

You’ve had these for years? That’s nuts, man. He plopped back onto the beanbag chair and picked up the controller. I stood there. As I remember it I was equidistant from the wastebasket and the TV, like right in the middle of them, which doesn’t actually make sense given how my room was set up. That’s how I remember it, though, like it was this monumental choice.

Brien picked up the other control and extended his arm. He didn’t look at me; he just held it out. I felt like it was my destiny, though I know that sounds lame. And I don’t mean that it was my destiny to play Mario forever. I mean more like I had to go one way or the other. I know that I’m making it sound more dramatic than it really was, but after all I was telling a story to a bunch of people. It needed to have some weight behind it.

So it seemed like five minutes, but it was probably five seconds. I went over to the beanbag chair and sat down. You really fell into those beanbag chairs, which is why only teenagers can use them. I took the controller and Brien unpaused the game. I kept crying. It was silent, but there were still tears running down my cheeks, and I kept licking them up. Brien didn’t say anything for a while.

All I’m saying is, Brien said at last, is there’s two ways to live your life. Like a normal dude, or like a weird dude. I don’t care either way, I’m just saying. Onscreen he got a cape feather.

After a while Brien paused the game again. So, he said, do you have any actual candy?

 

* * *

 

I’m even worse at telling jokes than I am at telling stories, but I thought of this as the punch line of the thing. I guess I expected people to laugh. I don’t entertain much. I don’t really know what people laugh at.

People did, though. Jack and Lucas laughed a lot actually. Mels did a little, and then Todd did because Mels did. Miranda smiled. Her lips were a bright painful red like she’d been chewing on them.

Mary didn’t laugh, though. She looked at me like she was even a little pissed off.

The memorial wound down after that. There was another round of Very Old Barton and another round of To Brien! and some small talk. Jack asked me if I wanted to get a drink the next day before I hit the road. It seemed a little early but I told him sure. Then people started trickling away. Mels and Todd pleaded the kid. Lucas had a class in the morning; nobody asked him what it was. Miranda had a flight. Jack just melted away.

I wanted to leave, too, but I was staying there. Mary hadn’t said too much since I told my story, just goodbyes. I felt a little weird sitting there at the table with her when she seemed angry with me. We sat quietly for a while. It seemed like the time of night to smoke a cigarette, but I hadn’t in years and I couldn’t remember if she ever did.

Finally her boyfriend came home and joined us on the patio. He brought us Tecates and Mary poured hers into a cup.

She doesn’t use the can, said the boyfriend. The mice piss on it. He grinned. I looked down at my open can.

What?

Mice have hantavirus, said Mary. They poop on the tabs, you drink the beer, you die.

I never heard that, I said. I started looking around for another cup. The boyfriend was drinking out of the can, though.

Because it is crazy, he said. Mary shrugged. I got the sense that on another night she would have been more defensive about it.

Do you know Brien’s birthday, Mary asked.

April 11th, I said. It was two weeks before my mother’s had been.

Right, Mary said. 1980.

Uh-huh, I said.

You know, our dad was big into astronomy, Mary said. I mean, he never had a telescope or anything like that. I guess he was more into NASA, the space program, that kind of stuff. He would watch all the shuttle launches. I remember he obsessed over Challenger. Everyone else was upset but he just wanted to get to the bottom of it, like it was a murder mystery. Actually he was like that with the other one, too, from a couple years ago.

She rested her feet on the boyfriend’s knees. He was really good-looking, this guy, and he had great teeth for a smoker.

Anyway my dad would always tell Brien about his birthday, April 11th, 1980, and how special it was. Do you know what happened on that day?

I shook my head. The boyfriend did too.

I mean, nobody knows. This isn’t like a date people know or anything. But it was the day that they turned off Viking 2. She turned to the boyfriend. Viking 2 was an unmanned spaceship they sent to Mars. It landed on Mars, it hung out for a couple of years, taking pictures and collecting soil and stuff. Then eventually it ran out of batteries and they just – she snapped her fingers, poorly – turned it off. I guess she felt like she had to explain it to the boyfriend because he was younger and wouldn’t remember it.

Shit, Viking 2, I said. Sure. With the radar and the robot arm and stuff. Sure.

April 11th, 1980, she said. They just turned it off.

She said it like she was mad at them. The boyfriend and I looked at each other. She might have been a little drunk.

It’s funny about your story, Mary went on. I remember Dad used to tell Brien about Viking 2 all the time, and how it was shut off on his birthday. And I used to think – I swear to god, when I was little – I used to think that Brien was Viking 2. Like when it died he was born. You were talking about everything having a soul, even manmade stuff. And that’s what I thought, that Brien got Viking 2’s soul the day he was born.

Just like Brien said, it’s retarded. And this part is really, really retarded. But when Brien got worse, I thought, God, that fucking piece-of-shit Viking 2. It must have been one sad little spaceship. And I started to think that the batteries didn’t really run out. Maybe it was just up there, digging with its little claw thing, unable to move, and it just got unbelievably sad. And it realized it was never going back.

And it just gave up. I mean, wouldn’t you?

And then maybe NASA saw that and tried to talk to it and couldn’t. And so they shut it off, alone up there on Mars.

The boyfriend and I didn’t exchange any more glances. I was looking at the table. He was looking at Mary’s feet on her lap. They weren’t the nicest feet, either.

The thing, I guess, said Mary, would be to find something born or made the day Brien died. And to tell that thing to take care of itself.

Mary excused herself from the table. She went into the house. A minute later her daughter’s bedroom light went on. The boyfriend and I sat there. I had thought before he didn’t like me, but now I wasn’t so sure. Knowing whether people like me or not is not one of my strengths. After a while we finished our beers and called it a night.

 

* * *

 

Brien hanged himself in his apartment on July 21st, 2012. He was a graduate student at Columbia at the time, and he lived by himself in Harlem. When a guy goes to graduate school in his thirties, a guy like Brien, they say he’s getting his life back on track. Brien had struggled with depression. And alcoholism, depending on who you ask.

The next morning I got up early. I guess I didn’t want to see anyone. I decided to call Jack from the road and cancel. I could tell him I had a hangover, which was true.

When I went downstairs, though, the boyfriend and the kid were already up. The kid was playing in the living room on a mat decorated with some colorful numbers and letters. The boyfriend was watching her and smoking. He nodded to me when I came in. Then he insisted I at least have some coffee. I wanted some, badly, and I felt strange saying no. He went to the kitchen to make some instant.

The kid was stacking up foam blocks and knocking them over. I sat down on an ottoman to watch her. After a while she got bored and started smiling at me. She got up and went to the kitchen table, then came back with a big box of crayons and a piece of stationery.

Draw! she commanded, and I did. I gave her the paper and she scrunched up her little face. She said it was a bad sheep.

When the boyfriend came in I drank the coffee as quickly as I could. I told him to thank Mary for me and I got my things. The kid handed him the drawing.

It’s a sheep in a desert, she said. The boyfriend took the paper and looked at it. He saw the grey body and the radar dish and robot arm.

It’s not a sheep, he said gently. He pulled her onto his lap.

What is it? she asked.

Your uncle, he said.


Comments are closed.