Lawrence Russell


§ No memory, no reality, right? You need memory to hold and construct what your senses tell you, make a picture of it all, put it up there so you know where you're going, who you're talking to. At least, that's what I thought.

Been away for a while, a 3 year mission, and I have this idea to go visit Anna, whom I've fallen out of touch with. Know her well, most of my life, actually. She lives in this cottage by the sea which has a very nice veranda... bricks with wrought iron pillars to support the roof overhang, which helps frame the view. I've spent many a pleasant hour there, just sitting in a cedar recliner, maybe sipping a glass of wine... watch the hummingbirds, the water, the big mountain with the snow cap on the horizon. I'm thinking this is what I need, to reconnect with Anna, get some tranquility, get out of the present tense. The mission was, to put it mildly, stressful.

No car in the port, but I knock on the front door anyway and it's opened by a lady I don't recognize. Older, fifty something.

I'm sorry, she says. The person you're looking for doesn't live here anymore.

Oh, I say. Where did she go?

You didn't hear? she says. The lady died.

This is a shock. Can feel my face tighten, so I turn away, look at the mountain. The horizon is hazy, so I have to intuit where it is.

We still get calls for her, says the woman. And mail.

What happened? I say.

Can't tell you, says the woman. We didn't know her.

I don't leave right away, but go down on the beach, sit on a log, try to take it all in. What do I feel? Cheated, disappointed... perhaps angry. But I'm also puzzled. Something isn't right.

I look back at the house. It's familiar, yet unfamiliar. I look over the water. Same thing. Should be able to see the mountain, but I can't. Should be right there, due east, where the planet rises.

I drive slowly up and down the road a couple of times, the suspicion growing that this isn't the right house, the right place. It looks the same, although maybe the roof is a different color... although if it is, so what? The new occupants must've changed it.

The wrong house. Yes, denial. I must be "in denial", as they say.

Next few days I just mope about, brood. My uniform comes back from the cleaners, and I don't even check it, just hang it in the closet. Still have a couple of months leave. As I say, it was a long mission.

I go to one of the local bars, the one with the glass atrium and the Aztec decor. I'm sitting at the bar, when this woman comes in, pulls onto the next stool.

Are you the man I'm looking for? she says.

Don't know, I say. Who are you looking for?

A fellow by the name of Palm, she says. He's looking for a house.

Are you a realtor? I say.

I am, she says. Guess you're not Palm.

No, I say. But I am looking for a house.

So this is how I meet Nan. When she's walking away, she looks quite a bit like Anna, but when she's coming back, she doesn't look like her at all. It's the confident manner, I guess. Nothing more.

After a couple of drinks, I level with her, tell her that while I'm looking for a house, I don't want to buy one.

So you're just trying to locate a certain house, she says. None of my business, but what for?

Trying to find someone, I say.

She's intrigued, and instead of saying, mister, why don't you just try a telephone book, she says, what do you do?

I'm an astronaut, I say.

So that's what that pin is, she says eagerly, touching my lapel. I knew it.

Dime a dozen these days, I say. No big deal.

You been in space? she says. Been to the moon?

No, I say. But I've been up there. I've just come back from a mission.

What was it? she says.

Can't say, I say. But it was a long one.

You've been on a secret journey, she says. Let me guess: Mars. You've been to Mars.

Nobody's been to Mars, I say.

She chuckles, says, everybody knows about the Mars mission. Government denies it but can't explain that big fiscal deficit.

She's a sharp lady, no question. But Mars isn't on my mind, Anna is.

I describe the house I'm looking for and Nan says she'll do a search. I tell her I'll pay for it but she doesn't seem concerned about money. Next day she e-mails me a few properties, most of them not right, just not right at all. One, maybe. The photo is soft, taken from the back.

This isn't it, I say.

Nan's standing beside me.

Occupant's a woman, she says. It has a brick porch, hummingbird feeders, view of the islands.

This isn't it, I say. The view is wrong.

Water view, says Nan. Just like you said.

No mountain, I say. No, this isn't it.

Check the woman, says Nan. You never know.

I know, I say. Believe me.

Nan... a chance meeting, a fast friend. It was hard not to become romantically involved, as she gave me so much of her time, and there was a lot about her that was familiar. Not just in the way she walked, but also because of her interest in space. We talked a lot about Mars, although I still held protocol, denied that I'd been there.

Did you land, or did you just do a drive-by? she says.

I was never there, I say.

Don't lie, she says. When I look in your eyes, I see Mars.

If I've been to Mars, I don't remember any of it, I say.

Ah but that's the way it would be, she says. As you approach, the clearer it becomes, right? And as you leave, it fades.

I have a trained mind, I say. Impossible. Anyway, I know all about Mars.

No, she says. The memory you have of Mars right now is a fantasy. The true experience was left behind there.

Women... women are like this, I find. Irrational. Math is for astrology, not science.

But then she really surprises me, says, you might have chronostasis.

Chronostasis, I say. Is that a condition?

Her fingers stop moving, and she removes her hand from my scalp.

Might be, she says. It's a description. You're stuck, can't arrange your memories within Time. Very interesting. I majored in psych, you know.

Yeah, and moving clocks run slow, I say. All astronauts know that.

Sooner or later you'll remember Mars, she says. If you talk about it.

I don't need a shrink, I say. I need an address.

Well, it wasn't long before she found the house I started out with, thought was Anna's, or at least the one I remembered as Anna's.

I've been there, I say. I'm sure this one isn't it.

Isn't it possible that, um, your friend is dead? says Nan. That this really is the house?

We're talking on the phone. I'm wearing my uniform, as I have to report back tomorrow.

You want to come with me? I say.

Not this time, says Nan. Better go by yourself.

I know you're busy, I say. Meet later?

I don't think so, she says. Let's cool it. I couldn't take a 3 year separation.

It's a beautiful day, mid-Spring, and I have a good feeling the minute I get out of the car, take a look. The hummingbirds are active, the cedar recliners are set out in the familiar order, and when I look over the water, I can see the mountain on the horizon, the snow cap gleaming in the sun.

The door is opened by a man, someone I should know but can't put a name to.

I'm looking for Anna, I say.

What's your business? he says.

I know her, I say. From way back.

He's looking at me, studying my face, trying to place me. And I'm looking at him and it's like looking at myself, a dead ringer. Older, for sure, but he could be me.

Now he's checking my uniform.

I've just come back from Mars, I say.

A woman's voice calls, who is it?

It's Anna's voice, I swear it is.

Nobody, says the man. Jehovah Witness or something.

And he closes the door in my face.

Shaken, I turn away, look over the water, find the horizon. Instead of the mountain, I see the planet, red and distorted, rising through the haze.

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Mars © LR 2008