narrated by Bob Eccles
As if JJ Jackman and the other kids didn’t mess with me enough—when Mr. Wheeler started teaching us about early space flight, saying how the first astronauts were really monkeys named Albert, every head in our sixth grade class turned around and looked at me, sinister grins spilling across their faces. Me, I’ve always loved the notion of space, and so I was fascinated: Albert I, a rhesus monkey who flew toward the edge of oxygen and gravity on behalf of science in a primitive rocket called a V2, suffocated during his first flight. Albert II made the upward flight but he died when the capsule came back and impacted the earth. Albert III bought it when his rocket ship exploded on ascent while trying to bust through the atmosphere. Albert IV pretty much repeated the impact death of Albert II. Then the space guys switched to Aerobee rockets. Albert V died when the parachute on his ship didn’t deploy on re-entry. Albert VI made it back in one piece—but died two hours later. It wasn’t until 1959—when they switched the astronaut’s name to Able—that a monkey made it back successfully. I sat through that lesson wishing my name was Able, but it isn’t. It’s Albert. Soon to be Space Monkey.
“The United States, Russia, and France used a total of thirty-two monkeys in their respective space programs,” Mr. Wheeler said, narrating his power point presentation that had pictures of squirrel monkeys, rhesus monkeys, macaques and chimpanzees. “The idea was to learn what biological effects space travel might have on a body. They were hesitant to send a person into the weightlessness and vacuum of space without having some knowledge of what kind of impact such pressures involved. These brave little creatures—along with dogs, mice, even fruit flies—actually paved the way for manned space travel.”
JJ’s hand went up. “Mr. Wheeler? I have a question.” There was earnestness in his voice—there always was when JJ talked to adults. But in the hallways or the bathroom or on the playground his voice sounded like he’d been eating snakes.
Mr. Wheeler pushed his glasses up on his nose and paused before calling on JJ. “Yes, Mr. Jackman?” You could tell by Mr. Wheeler’s face that he suspected something from JJ, but he called on him anyway, respecting his own policy of giving voice to everyone’s views and ideas.
“Do you think we could volunteer our own Albert for the space program? He’s kind of out there, and with those big ears of his he kind of looks like a space monkey already, don’t you think?”
What did JJ care that his comment cost him a half-hour detention? Every single kid in class roared at his joke, some of them even turning pale and gasping ‘cause they laughed
so hard. What’s more, I was tagged from that moment on. JJ had to clean white boards for a half-hour; me, I had to carry the name Space Monkey into my future. The adults don’t really think about the pain and torment kids can put on each other while they’re looking on, so full of their good intentions. I remember how, in his course expectations handout, Mr. Wheeler’s policy of everyone gets his or her say was supposed to boost self-confidence. Where did these teachers ever come up with such a stupid idea?
It really started in at lunch two days later. I was always grateful that we could sit anywhere we wanted during our twenty-two minute lunch break, because it allowed me to go to a table back by the exit doors where nobody else really wanted to sit. Maybe it was dull by some kids’ standards, but I was happy enough to go there every day. The windows and doors weren’t sealed right or something, and so it was always drafty and cold at that table. But I liked it because I could wear my black hoody with the hood up and, though I was all by myself, I’d pull in, blocking out the chaos around me, sitting and eating my PB&J in peace while reading over my science textbook or a library book. Even before Mr. Wheeler began his unit on space, I’d read about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo program. I regularly had dreams about the American flag on the lunar surface, dreams of riding across craters in a space buggy, of looking back at the gorgeous blue ball of earth from the Sea of Tranquility.
JJ’s table was across the cafeteria, where he held court with all the other popular boys in our class. Right next to them was the popular girls’ table, which once in a while got even noisier and meaner than JJ and crew. They all could eat their lunch in about two minutes, talking with their full mouths open the whole time, spewing nonsense and Cheetos before spending the next twenty in a screechy, finger-pointing, hitting and throwing blast of noisy jibber-jabber. I checked them out regularly just to make sure where everyone was, since on more than one occasion somebody had gotten up and made his or her way over to me, pulling back my hoody and shoving lime Jello or mashed potatoes down my shirt while the teachers on duty missed the whole thing because they were busy yakking about grading papers or setting standards or something equally distant to my experience. Kids like me had to guard ourselves, since at any moment we might become the entertainment for the day, the target and laugh for the week.
Everybody—both tables—was eating bananas. Weird. Something was up, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Then Emma Fenson got up and made her way through the 5th grader tables toward me, and I knew it couldn’t be good.
Emma Fenson was twelve going on twenty—at least that’s what I overheard Mr. Wheeler confide to a new teacher one day while they were on after-school bus duty. Odd thing to say, but I felt it summed Emma up pretty well. I always hung near the teachers while waiting for my bus—life was safer that way. Emma Fenson already had boobs, she had a shock of red hair that she regularly tossed back over her shoulder with attitude,
and she stood 5’8”—towering over a 4’8” weenie like me. The guys changing in the locker room for P.E. referred to her as “Em the Fem-Bot” but I never once heard anyone call her that to her face. I got the impression that even JJ was kinda scared of her. And the 6th grade girls—you were either with her or you were out, meaning you were a nobody, a ghost no one could hear or see. So everybody was with her.
“Hey Albert,” Em said, sitting down next to me. The peanut butter in my sandwich went extra dry in my mouth. Emma placed her hand on my back in a friendly gesture, which scared me. She must have noticed because she pulled it away. “Whatcha reading?”
I started to answer, but Emma stood up suddenly and said “I gotta go.” And quick as that, she was striding back across the caf. The girls at the table were in hysterics.
Other girls came up to me when the bell rang, while still others stopped me and spoke to me in the hall and in math class when we got back. Some of the guys did, too—but nobody was really saying anything. They would come up, say “Hey Al-Per-vert” or “Hey Space Monkey” and slap me on the back and flit away laughing. When Mrs. Martin asked me if I was starting a sticker collection, I finally, dumbly, figured it out. I took my hoody off and saw all of the blue stickers. I hadn’t felt them putting the banana stickers on me, hadn’t felt a thing. I put my hoody back on, didn’t even bother to take them off. What would be the point?
When the bell rang, Emma was the first one to come up to me. “Seeya, Chiquita!” Joined by a chorus of other girls, their laughter brayed out like a herd of donkeys.
“How you like them bananas, Space Monkey?” JJ said as he sauntered by, finishing off what the girls had started.
I hate being the kind of kid who challenges a teacher. Emma is that kind of kid—she raises her hand during a discussion and you can see the teacher’s face register Here it comes again. Last week in Life Skills class we were learning how to bake a cake and Mrs. Wright was telling us how many eggs to use, then up flies Emma’s hand and suddenly she’s yammering away about making a cake with vinegar and how “A cake made with vinegar is so much healthier than baking one using something oblong that comes out of a chicken’s butt.”
Mr. Wheeler got a strange look on his face when I asked him my question. All I was doing was looking for some clarification. I wasn’t challenging him, really, I wasn’t. We were about to wrap up our unit on Adventures in Space and I wasn’t quite ready to let it go without knowing a couple more answers. JJ hissed at me when he saw my hand go up, pointing at me and mouthing the words Shut Up, Space Monkey but I decided to risk it. I needed to go back to what Mr. Wheeler had taught us earlier. Not to take anything away from Able, but I asked Mr. Wheeler if in fact a monkey named Yorick should or
shouldn’t be considered the first successful monkey in space. I’d gone through all the space books from the library and I was confused. All I wanted was for Mr. Wheeler to help me sort it out.
Mr. Wheeler sighed and shuffled up at the head of the class. Then he smiled and winked. “The only Yorick I’ve ever heard of was a skull in the play Hamlet. Dead guy. A dwarf, a jester, supposed to have been real funny. Real big scene, Hamlet talking to that dead guy’s skull.” Throw the words dwarf, jester, funny, dead guy and skull into the mix and Mr. Wheeler had the whole class’s attention. Sixth graders are masters at de-railing a discussion by throwing in a random comment, but I expected better from Mr. Wheeler.
I persisted, to the groans of my classmates. “I read where the Air Force, in 1951 if I’m remembering it correctly, launched this monkey named Yorick up in a rocket and he came back alive. But the deal is, Yorick only flew to a height of 45 miles. From what I’ve read, space begins at 50 miles. I think that’s right. When you check out the record books, Yorick is given credit as the first successful flight near space.”
“So what’s your question on all of this, Albert? I’d sort of like to wrap up the lesson.” Mr. Wheeler looked almost as annoyed as JJ.
The kids were all snickering. “I actually agree with you and what you taught us—Able should be getting the credit. Who cares about near space? Able was traveling in a rocket that went over 10,000 miles per hour and reached an altitude of 300 miles up.
That’s so cool. I just don’t know why anyone gives so much credit to a monkey who didn’t make it all the way up. I’d hate to think that he might be more famous than Able.”
I could see Mr. Wheeler’s shoulders relax. “Then we’re in agreement, Albert. Let’s just leave it at that. Now . . .”
Emma’s hand jabbed skyward, and you could see Mr. Wheeler sort of seize up again. “Yes, Miss Fenson?”
Emma locked her hands together prayer-like on top of her desk. It’s a calculated move she makes on occasion to both test the teachers’ tolerance and to say something to the rest of us who are just trying to hold on through sixth grade while Emma Fenson stands supreme in the universe. She was looking at her hands in a very knowing way when she announced to the whole class: “Able was the first murder victim in history. He was killed by his brother, Cain. He’s part of the whole story of why we lost Paradise.”
One thing I’ve always loved about D. C. Ward Middle School is our open campus layout. The place was built back in the fifties, and the popular style at that time must have been to have a series of buildings connected by covered walkways, rather than having all of the classrooms contained inside one building. So there was a series of sidewalks that led through a maze of buildings that each housed six classrooms, three per side. When classes changed, you actually got to walk outside and breathe the fresh air, no matter the
season. You’d just throw on your jacket, grab your books and go. If it was winter, kids were able to scoop up snow and toss snowballs at one another on their way to class. Kinda fun, depending on who you were. If it was spring, you could smell gardenias and miniature roses blooming in their boxed arrangements along the way, or you could listen to the rain if that’s what was happening. If it was storming, you’d hustle along, but still, you were safe under the roofs from the lightning, though the show and the cordite in the air made you feel alive before re-entering the small worlds where all that mattered were the rules established by the big folk—who came in various sizes.
Class changes were kind of okay for me. Teachers hung in their classrooms for the most part—so they were no protection—and there just weren’t enough administrators roaming around to cover the territory. We had what the people in charge felt was a strict tardy policy—a half hour detention for three tardies—so kids didn’t really didn’t have extra time to mess with you —they’d pretty much just talk their trash at you in passing and keep on moving. I’d been all sorts of names ever since first grade, but Space Monkey had definitely caught on. Even fifth graders passing by would yell it at me—some of them would even make little ape noises and gestures. But, in all of that, I was just like a lot of other kids: Margaret Mead, a heavy set seventh grader, was taunted as Maggie Moose Meat. Graham Gooden, a tall lanky eighth grader with bad acne, was simply called Goof. There were plenty of kids like us. The names, at times, were almost comfortable—at least we were somebody. We were known, and we had our sort-of roles in the school. I don’t know what life would be like if we were anonymous, left all alone in our corners.
Before school was the most dangerous time. If your bus pulled in early—and mine did—then you were sort of left to mill around and wait until a teacher got there and was willing to open his or her door for you to come in. Some of them apparently felt no need to arrive any earlier than they had to, whereas others might get there early but felt no obligation to welcome kids into the warmth and safety of their rooms. You could walk by and see some of them at their desks scuffling to get a lesson together, unwilling to let in noisy or needy kids who might create distractions.
For me, the best thing to do was keep moving, keep circulating the campus. And I had to keep my eyes open and be smart. If I saw a certain circle of kids who traditionally targeted me, then reversing direction was my wisest option.
But it was when somebody on a mission came up on me from behind that I felt really strapped. Like when JJ came up a couple of weeks ago and circled his arm around the back of my shoulders, gripping my pathetic bicep and escorting me down a particular sidewalk. He and his crew—Lee, Lewis, and Gene, all members of the middle school track team—had apparently decided to glide up on me quiet. They had something in mind. But the odd thing was that JJ really wasn’t talking to me in his usual tone; he was actually being halfway cool to me.
“Listen, Space Monkey—Albert—we’re going to let you in on something. This is right up your alley. We’re not messing with you, we’re asking you to join us.” JJ’s strong-armed insistence was aiming me toward the back of one of the science buildings. We flew by Mr. Wheeler’s room, where he was busy with some kind of charts and data on his desk. He didn’t even look up when we went past his windows. JJ steered me to the back side of Science Building #2, and though we could see the back sides of three other Science Buildings, on this particular morning there was no one else behind them trying to escape the eyes of authority.
Upon arrival, JJ let me go. He threw the shot put and discus for the track team, and he played center during basketball season, but he was still a good two inches shorter than Emma Fenson. JJ had one of those faces that parents look at and see what they want to see—smooth skin, glittering eyes, and eyebrows perpetually raised in an arch that was weirdly innocent like an angel. It was only kids who actually saw the sharp bone structure and dark intent lying just beneath the surface. JJ and his boys all wore their blue and gold jackets that had monogramming on the backs announcing D. C. Ward on top and Track on the bottom with a winged foot in the middle.
“Listen, this game was just made for you. It’s perfect! Believe it or not, it’s called Space Monkey.” I expected Lee, Lewis, and Gene to all start laughing, but they all just sort-of half smiled and nodded their heads. JJ continued. “My older brother calls it Flatlining, and my old man told us about it once—told us not to do it—but he called it the Fainting Game.”
JJ squatted and leaned his back against the brick wall. Lee, Lewis, and Gene followed suit. They looked up into my face. I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I remained standing and just listened, respectfully.
“I guess there’s a couple of ways to play it, but here’s how we do it.” JJ rose once again, striking a new posture. “You put your hands on your knees, like so,” and he did it, “and then you begin breathing in and out wicked fast.” JJ demonstrated for a few breaths, and then he straightened up and resumed his explanation. “You do that for anywhere between thirty seconds to a minute, and then somebody squeezes you from behind, right in the center of your chest, and that’s when you go.”
I knew he was dropping his story to make me ask, but I played along. “Where do you go?”
The boys all came alive then: It’s a rush, ma—-Outer Space—Best free high in the whole wide world. JJ placed his hands on my shoulders and looked me square in the eyes. “You go away, just for a few moments. Lewis says it’s a dream. Me, I go into space, with stars and quiet. I float out there, all alone. It’s peaceful. That’s where I go. And that’s what made me think of you.”
Lee stood up and slapped JJ on the arm. “Do me, man, let’s show him.”
Of course I was suspicious. Four of my usual tormentors had me on the blind side of one of the school buildings, talking about a game that sounded less like a game and more like something we really, really shouldn’t be messing with. But instead of doing anything typically awful and mean to me, they were demonstrating for me what they were suggesting; they were going to do it to each other and let me watch, maybe join them if I wanted to. I wasn’t accustomed to this treatment. I was as fascinated by being included as I was by their reverent talk of space.
Lee bent his back, placed his hands on his knees, and started huffing in and out as rapidly as he could. His face turned a little red.
JJ looked at Gene. “You got a watch on this?”
“I got it,” said Gene, who pushed his jacket sleeve back to reveal a sports model Timex. He held an arm in the air with a finger pointed heavenward, and he counted out by tens. When he hit sixty his arm snapped down and he yelled “Go!”
Lee stood up and JJ advanced and began bear-hugging him from behind. JJ locked his hands right over Lee’s diaphragm, lifting Lee off his feet and pushing in on him at the same time.
I watched as Lee’s head lolled over to the side. His eyelids were shut, but I could see his eyeballs racing back and forth just beneath the skin. JJ, in the most delicate, caring gesture I’d ever seen from him, gently laid Lee down on the ground while the four of us stood in a circle around him, mouths open and staring to see what we could see. Lee was gone—somewhere—for roughly ten seconds. Then his eyes rolled open and he saw us, and he smiled a big, toothy smile. He took a deep, hard breath, and then let out a laughing hoot. “Yeah, baby, that’s what I’m talking about!” Lee sat up and rubbed the back of his neck. “Miles away, man, I was miles and miles away. And coming back, I could feel myself lighting up. It feels good, man, it’s really good.”
JJ and the boys all began congratulating Lee. They pummeled him with questions, all of which he answered, though all of his answers were shrouded in mystery for me. I could tell he was happy with where he’d been, but it wasn’t like he could actually tell me much about it. Lee even accepted my handshake on a game well played, a job well done, or whatever it was we were supposed to say. I looked into his blue eyes, which were oddly bloodshot around the edges, and I nodded when he asked me “Ready?”
When it comes to any of the space monkeys, you rarely get the whole story. Like how they all had sensors implanted in their little bodies recording vital signs that the people back down on the ground were anxious to analyze. They were all dying to know what it was like in space, what the sensation must have been—like when Able was actually weightless for over nine minutes. Only one book I’d read dared to reveal the true details: how they later operated on the monkeys to remove those sensors. Nobody really has a proper sense of the tragedy that occurred when Able, who made it all the way back from orbit, died from the anesthetic the guys used on her, thinking they could reduce her pain.
I liked the way JJ would turn around in class from his seat four rows over, look at me, and give me the thumbs up. I liked the way the name Space Monkey was no longer derogatory, no longer just a ragging-on-Albert phrase to throw out into the wind and sky.
I liked the way Space Monkey made me feel. Once, I cracked a tooth when I got tackled in a game of Smear The Queer during recess back in third grade, and I remember going to the oral surgeon and he gave me a couple of kinds of anesthetic before he went to work inside my mouth. I remember the numbness, and the cool pleasant feeling his rubs and his shots gave me. Afterward I could feel him tugging at something inside of me, but it didn’t bother me for some reason.
I don’t have to wonder what weightlessness is like—because now I know. I guess I have as hard a time as Lee did fully talking about the experience, but when that grey fuzzing comes on before kicking into a galaxy of black, I know that my scrawny little body—somewhere down there on the ground—isn’t where I am for whatever time I’m gone. I float away, up, always up, with the stars calling out to me. It’s never long enough to my liking. As good as I feel when the tingling courses through me from head to toe as I touch down to earth once again, I have to admit, I have regret.
Which is why I’ve let JJ faint me every morning for the past two weeks. I like the way he says they’ll watch me, they’ll watch over me. Lee, Lewis, and Gene say they’re done with Space Monkey—they complain of headaches, call it a baby game—and besides, Lewis has begun stealing a couple of cigarettes a day from his father which he and JJ light up while helping me launch. Gene says he talked about the game with his brother, who called it Rocket Ride and who told him to knock it off and do something real like sneak sips from their parents’ liquor cabinet. Me, it gets me where I want to be. JJ and the boys don’t really hang around with me at school—I still eat by myself, people still give me all kinds of crap—but I guess they get a kick out of looking on when they lay me on the ground. They call it stargazing. Supposedly I do some wild twitching when I’m gone. Sometimes my hands and feet wave and flail around even after I’ve returned, without me meaning to do that with them. JJ and crew have even invited a couple of other kids to play spectators on occasion.
But I’ve got a new twist on it for them this morning. I checked it out on the Internet, and there’s actually a couple of ways to go Space Monkeying around. There’s our tried and true method of hyperventilation. But there’s also this way of pressing arteries in the neck. Supposedly either way gets you there.
I explain this new way to JJ as we sweep past Mr. Wheeler like we always do. Wheeler’s all involved in a unit these days about raptors, about how they’re the top of the food chain in the avian world. Predators and prey. I don’t really care. They fly too low for me.
“Look, Space Monkey, I don’t know about this choking thing you want me to do. You want to get the bear hug and have somebody press thumbs into either side of your neck at the same time?” JJ shakes his head. “This is getting old. I don’t really want to do this anymore. Why don’t you just get lost, ya little puke? We’re done with you, you aren’t even entertaining anymore.”
I pursue them around the corner. JJ turns his back to me, and that’s when some odd impulse strains up and out of me. That’s when I actually push him. He goes up against the brick, hard, then wheels on me. He gets right in my face, his eyes darting around and confused. His voice drops, grim and low. “You stupid little shit. You worthless little nothing.” JJ is angry, obviously, but he’s lost something. His face has that look about it like when Emma, on occasion, decides to publicly humiliate him and let him know who rides the top of the flagpole in the sixth grade. JJ turns to Lee. “You press him.” Then JJ turns back to me. “I’ll be more than happy to choke him.”
I’ve grown numbly accustomed to the pressure exerted on me as I hold my breath, focusing instead on the frisson of the ride up, but the twin stabs into my neck rotate the entire experience for me: everything, everything, becomes sharp. I break through the atmosphere and, for the first time, I am allowed to linger. There is no rush to touch down. The quiet is a steady, even blessing. Everything soars and sings with sweet thoughts, pinpoints of starlight fill up the grayness and the inky black. All vacuum lets go. Here is everything I could ever want.
And I’m anything but alone. There are new friends up here: Yuri, and Alan, and John, with their gold-plated visors up, gritting their teeth in smiles as they sink into the cushioning of their seats, managing to raise hands and wave. Hello boys, good to see you. And the ones who went before them: Squirrel monkey Gordo, the gentle-souled Enos, and Ham the chimpanzee, who all flex simian wrists, their palms dancing, their hairy faces pleased that I have come to join them. And sitting with them—Yorick. New friends. Real friends. Others rise into view as well, forming a line between light and the darkness: Patricia, Mike, Baker, Miss Sam—I love you, love you all, but please make way. The last hand in the line takes mine, gives it a small, tender shake. Yes. We are coming to take our places with you. Please, make way for the Alberts. Make way and make room, for Albert VII.
BIO: Scott T. Hutchison’s work (both fiction and poetry) has appeared in such publications as The Southern Review and The Georgia Review. He makes his home in the Belknap Mountains of New Hampshire. New work is forthcoming in Slant and Amoskeag.