It may take a village to raise a kid, but it damn sure takes a town to raise a rocket!
--unknown, but undoubtedly Midwestern
Anthony Marks mopped sweat from his face, adjusted his brassiere straps, and squatted beside the gravel road. Thornhope had never been the cultural center of Pulaski county, much less Indiana, but that would soon change.
Lips compressed above a sparse goatee, he outlined block letters onto the two- by three-foot welcome sign, a chest-high plank mounted on a weathered 4x4 post:
HOME OF THE MARS ROCKET
That last line was his. He'd whitewashed out the elevation, which didn't much matter, and donated a pint of his best black exterior latex semi-gloss. Other folks had made greater financial contributions, but Anthony had sacrificed a part of himself every day for thirty-two years to fit into a world that could never be his. That was his price for admission, he figured.
He'd arrived in Thornhope with high hopes, excited at the prospect of opening his hardware store in a small town after years of rat-race life in Indy and a failed marriage. Thornhope would be home, a place where folks were happy to have him for his expertise and the energy he brought to the community.
The sun's heat weighted his shoulders. He gazed across fields of wild grasses and clumped daisies. It had only been a matter of time before someone noticed lingerie in his laundry. Some had stopped patronizing the store, opting to travel to Frank's Tools in Star City. Others became wary of touching merchandise he handed them or wouldn't meet his eyes.
Heat crawled beneath his clothes. He cringed at the thought of sweating buttocks turning his new purple panties into puckered half-moons. Usually, he saved that contrast in textures -- silky nylon against coarse corduroy -- for weekends. Today was different. He needed that extra boost because what he undertook here was important.
Mars offered fresh perspectives and new opportunities to prove he belonged. A struggling colony was not going to worry about whether the underwear beneath one's space suit bore lace.
Gravel crunched. A gear clunked. A door squealed open.
"What'n the name of creation?" The sour odor of pig manure wafted.
Anthony turned. Tom Piper, the town's down-and-out pig farmer, stood, arms akimbo, in front of his green Dodge pickup. He wore faded bib coveralls and a Daryl Gordon NASCAR baseball cap with a brim so curved from being folded it looked like an upside-down U.
"Artist at work," Anthony said, feeling relieved. Tom wasn't a fanatic. He was usually more worried about his pigs than whether Anthony's eyeliner showed.
Tom's brow furrowed above wide-set eyes. He walked closer, coveralls stiff with dirt. Both he and the vehicle bore orangish spatter marks. He was tall, with a thin-to-medium build, and well tanned, but his leathery face and bushy eyebrows got in the way of what might otherwise have been a friendly gaze. Anthony imagined him in blue chiffon with matching bag and shoes.
"They ain't really going through with this," Tom said. "Are they?" The pig smell intensified, driving off more pleasant fumes of paint and honest sweat. "First the casino. Then the amusement park. Now a rocket?" He chuckled. "Won't you crazy townies never learn?"
"This is different. This will really put Thornhope on the map." Anthony turned back to his work. "The whole town is pitching in." He finished outlining the final T and selected a sash brush from his tool belt. The brush's upper portion was crusted but the tips were flexible enough. He dipped it into black paint.
"What about materials?"
"Folks are donating--"
"And what about the rocket? Where you gonna get that?"
Anthony licked his lips, trying not to lose concentration. "There's talk about that old silo on your property--"
"My silo!" Tom laughed hard and slapped his thigh. "What in hellfire makes you think a bunch of morons and a queerball crossdresser can launch a silo to Mars?"
Anthony rolled his eyes. This was exactly the attitude he hoped to escape. "Who's to say we can't?"
"Gravity for one," Tom muttered. "Look, it's a waste of time. We should be gnawin' on more important things."
"Like pork subsidies?"
"Yeah!" Tom perched his elbow atop the sign. "Subsidies ain't increased in ten years and this damned heat sucks up ever drop of moisture. Can't feed my pigs, let alone water 'em."
Anthony looked up. "Did you ever stop to consider, Tom, that the first pig farmer on Mars won't need subsidies?"
Silence reigned for a heartbeat -- whether Tom was seriously considering, or simply flabbergasted, Anthony had no idea.
"Heck," he added, "that man would probably be stinking rich in no time." Well, stinking anyway, he thought, repressing a grin.
"It's just crazy." Tom leaned away from the sign, sauntered back to his truck and swung up into the cab. "You can't drop a bunch of pigs on Mars and expect 'em to survive. What're they gonna eat? Rocks? I s'pose you'll dress them up in little spacesuits -- that's your department, right? Little pink piggie spacesuits with frilly tail covers."
Anthony let his smile break through. He had to admit it was an amusing image.
A man should not be an island, Dan Brann thought. He set a bushel basket of corn by the kitchen door. An island erodes. He had no intention of eroding. Get off the pot was his motto. None of this sitting around waiting for global warming to torch the world.
Dust lifted between his house and Highway 35, a quickly dispersing funnel. It reminded him that he needed to clean the resonance sensors in the tornado alarm. After five years of tinkering, the thing still wasn't working like he'd hoped.
A green pickup coasted to a stop beside the dew collector array, a series of upside-down aluminum teepees connected through a plastic manifold. Tom Piper opened the truck door and stepped down with a quick nod.
"Hi, Tom," Dan said. "How's things?"
"Not good." Tom's weathered face showed a fleeting smile but settled on a frown. "Can't even sell my hogs for the money I got in 'em."
Dan knew what was coming next. Tom would try to sell him a hog, as if a family of four could eat two hundred pounds of pork each month. "It's getting tough, no doubt about it," he said.
"Yep." Tom removed his cap and wiped his forehead.
"Want to see what I'm doing about it? I'll show you my corn."
Tom frowned. "Got all the corn I need. It's customers I'm wantin.' When the wife left, I lost the best damn telemarketer in the state."
Dan pretended not to hear. A man could wallow in self-pity or pick himself up and get on with life. He walked to the barn and slid open the main door. The interior exuded an orange glow that made him pause to let his eyes adjust. The rusted remnants of a low-water spray washer hulked to the left. Diane hadn't been pleased with that invention. Beyond that, two dusty tractors threw translucent shadows across a carnage of farm equipment stripped for parts.
The barn's right half contained his new project: six-by-six wood-framed planting beds, six inches high.
"Installed these red lights about three months ago." He walked between machinery and planting beds, casually inspecting progress charts. Tom followed, jaw hanging. The sweet smell of potting soil surrounded them.
"I have carrots here." It was hard to see the sprouts. They didn't grow quickly, but they grew, and that was what mattered. A little tinkering with the strains and he'd be ready.
Tom's eyes flitted as if taking in an alien landscape.
Dan smiled. It was a testament to his success that the place looked foreign. "Experimental crops," he said. "For the Mars mission."
Tom shook his head. "Dammit, Dan. Bad enough they're painting signs, now they got you conned too?"
"Our farms are failing." Dan nodded toward the oldest tractor, which hadn't run in couple years. Why till dust? "Oh, I've managed by cutting acreage and irrigating, but the trend is clear. Food prices can't go higher without something giving."
He approached a walk-in freezer installed beneath the loft, a grocery store unit he'd gotten cheap when the Winamac Krogers shut down. The laminated schedule on the door reminded him that the solar array was due for routine maintenance.
"A man has got to adapt," he said. "I don't mean to leave my kids this dustbowl when there's a whole world in need of cultivation. Do you have any idea how many astronauts hail from our neck of the woods? This is an area rife with space exploration potential."
"You can't just take a notion to go to Mars--"
"And back," Dan said. "We have to gather soil samples."
"Can't be done. And who told you Mars is like this anyhow?" Tom raised his arms to indicate the barn.
"Carol Huff is twelve."
"Maybe, but she has a stack of her grandparents' magazines from back when the U. S. of A. first went to the red planet. I'm talking Time, Tom."
"Yeah?" Tom looked uncertain. "That's just pictures. Even I know Mars is too cold for carrots."
"You've anticipated my next point." Dan swung open the freezer door, revealing a brighter orange compartment packed with waist-high corn stalks.
"Now, I know it's not much," he said. "The ears are small and not as tasty as Indy sweet, but it grows. At forty-five degrees in red light."
Tom stepped closer. He peeled back a tassel, exposing irregular kernels. "You ain't never gonna sell this stuff."
"Oh, but we will," Dan said. "To Martians."
Tom guffawed. He broke off a finger-sized ear and dropped it to the floor.
Dan grasped his shoulder. "We will be the Martians."
Tom shook him off. "Yeah, well you're halfway there, you ask me. I never saw such a bunch of loony tunes." He stomped away, crunching carrot tops along the edge of one planting unit.
Dan forced a smile. Some people take time to come around, he thought. No man can remain an island for long.
Amanda Rauenzaner had devoted her life to children, even though she hadn't been able to have her own. Forty-three years in the public schools, another two heading up the Thornhope PTA, and she was not about to stop now. Adults had screwed up the environment, and the world their children would inherit was becoming a scary place. Well, she would not stand for it.
She angled the beach umbrella affixed to her table to block the sun and taped poster board to the table's edge: Support the Thornhope Rocket against a background of rocket ships and red spheres. Children in the after-school art project had made it.
Mayor Repp's inspired words echoed in her head: We hereby dedicate this project, the consolidated efforts of our terrific town, to our children and our children's children, and we dedicate ourselves to the betterment of humankind.
Amanda arranged baked goods: sugar cookies, nut-filled brownies, aromatic apple and rhubarb pies, a scrumptious chocolate cake that she half-hoped wouldn't sell. She checked the cash box: thirty dollars in bills and coins.
Spicy hot-sausage smell invaded from the neighboring vending truck. She'd set up near the entrance of the Food 4 Less's blacktopped lot because, like the sausage vendor, she knew it was best to catch folks going in or coming out.
Jake and Marcy De Herer jaywalked Main Street, three kids in tow like baby ducks. Jake had been her favorite student in '06, not because he'd excelled but for his impish ways.
"A good morning to you," Amanda said, donning her best smile.
"You're looking chipper, Ms. R." Jake herded the little ones up the curb. "What's on the block this morning?"
"Look, Daddy. Rocket!" Jake Junior, a blond boy with darling blue eyes, pointed to the sign.
"So smart," Amanda said. She gave him a sugar cookie. The other kids -- a girl with short-cropped brown hair named Celeste, and Marty, barely out of diapers -- took up the crusade, pointing and fussing. Marty was probably pointing at the cookie, actually, but that was close enough to clever for Amanda. She handed down two more cookies.
"I think we can spare something," Jake said.
"I don't know," Marcy said. "We have to save up for braces."
"Braces will be the least of your worries if things keep going as they are." Amanda watched Marty suck his cookie's soggy edge. "This project benefits our kids. You want Jake and Celeste and Marty to have a future, don't you, a place to live and work, good schools?"
Jake stared at his youngest as if working through an algebra problem. He had never been quick with math.
"Every dollar goes to the project," Amanda said. "I baked these myself."
"How much for that chocolate cake?" Jake winked at his wife, who looked uncomfortable but said nothing.
"Whatever you think appropriate." Amanda bent for the cash box, wincing at the sting that shot through her arthritic hip. Twenty dollars exchanged hands and the chocolate cake was gone. Too bad, but if that's what it took, that's what it took.
She spied Tom Piper standing near the sausage truck.
"You'll need dessert with that," she said loudly.
Tom's head spun around. He approached, wearing a smile that seemed awfully threadbare. She'd heard about his wife and children heading back east.
"Now what makes you think a pig farmer'd be looking to buy sausage?" He leaned across and gave her a peck on the cheek. "I'm just workin' my way over to you."
Amanda remembered the nose-pinching smell of manure when she'd mucked her father's barn as a child. That was the trick to dealing with Tom: you had to imagine a smell stronger than his.
"Pick your poison, Thomas."
Tom surveyed the table, eyes settling on rhubarb pie.
"It's for a good cause," Amanda added.
His gaze moved to the sign and froze. "You too? I lost my appetite."
"Have some vision, Thomas. This is for our future."
"Oh, pig poop. If the government wanted us on Mars, we'd be there. What about real problems? What're they doing about the drought? When're they gonna increase pork subsidies?"
"This is not about what they can do for us, but what we do for ourselves." She boxed the rhubarb pie.
Tom backed away. "I ain't giving my money to no fool's errand. And I ain't giving up my silo, neither."
Amanda shook her head. "This is for the children, Thomas. A better world for them. Surely--"
"My children showed what they think of me!" Tom's cheeks tightened. His eyes bulged. "Runnin' off with their mom without even a goodbye. Why should I care 'bout them?"
"Oh, Thomas. Don't let your pain stand in the way of what you know is right."
But he'd already blended into the market crowd. A tear bulged in Amanda's eye. She refused to let it go farther. There was a job to be done, with or without Thomas Piper.
Carol Huff tapped buttons on the joystick's base and watched a 3D rocket ship alter rotation on the video screen. The headset roar changed pitch. White haze puffed from nozzles around the ship's propulsion ring. Systems nominal, the semi-transparent onscreen control bar proclaimed.
She licked her lips and pulled the joystick gently toward her. The yellow-orange flame beneath the rocket shrank. The ship began its descent.
Fifty meters above the rock-strewn surface, klaxons sounded. Descent velocity exceeds parameters. She pushed the joystick forward. The ship's descent slowed to nearly nothing. The original alarm was replaced by a shriller warning. Fuel critical.
"Yipe!" She pressed an orange button on the video console. Switching to secondary fuel tanks. But she'd selected the advanced expert level, and the secondary fuel tanks were empty. The only advantage gained was a heartbeat's hesitation before the rocket flame extinguished. The ship descended to a fiery demise.
Heart pounding, she whipped off the headset.
"Hey, Ralph! Bring me a strawberry smoothie."
The pimple-faced boy behind the counter looked up from his e-book. "You go down in flames again?"
"'Fraid so." Carol swiveled her chair. "This isn't gonna be an easy descent."
"No pain, no gain." Ralph reached for a glass from the cabinet behind the counter.
"Carol," a gruff voice said from behind her. "We got to talk."
She swiveled further and found herself staring into Mr. Piper's hard brown eyes.
Ralph brought her drink. She smiled for him.
"Let me pay for that." Mr. Piper retrieved a duct-taped wallet. "Is it more than a buck?"
"Uh," Ralph said. "You don't need to." His voice cracked. "Mr. Henry says she gets all the smoothies she wants until launch day."
Mr. Piper winced and put his wallet away. Ralph returned to the counter.
"That's what I got to talk to you about." Mr. Piper showed yellowish teeth. "Sometimes adults get carried away. They want something so bad they believe anything."
"Tell me about it." Carol remembered Mom's outrageous stories about Dad's affairs.
"You're a smart girl. I know you don't want no one to suffer 'cause of something you said, right?"
Carol nodded, but her thoughts were on those arguments with Mom after Dad left. She'd wanted her words to hurt then, all right. Like razor blades or fishhooks.
Mr. Piper leaned forward. "You need to set them straight--"
"Do you know how frustrating it is," she said, "to have people call you a geek, just 'cause you're a girl who likes science? Do you?
Mr. Piper shook his head, looking more confused by the moment.
"Well it's really frustrating." Carol tried not to breathe fast. "I mean, I run track and take ballet and go to movies just like the other kids, but all they talk about is how I know stuff. They're jealous."
"All you got to do," Mr. Piper said, "is tell these townies that it ain't possible to get a rocket--"
"Now, everyone looks up to me." Carol stared defiantly into Mr. Piper's eyes. "Because of what I know."
"But it's crazy!"
"It's not crazy," Carol said.
"You can't build no rocket to Mars just because you want to believe you can. Life don't work that way."
"Oh yeah?" Carol stood, bumping the swivel chair so that it rocked back and forth. "Well, my dad works for NASA and he knows a heck of a lot more about it than you do."
Mr. Piper frowned. "This was his idea?"
Carol's face flushed. "Not exactly." She forced herself to look at Mr. Piper. "But he would agree if he wasn't in Houston doing important work."
Mr. Piper nodded that annoying adult-knows-best nod that drove her bats.
"Let me make a deal with you." He reached out.
She ducked and ran to the back room. I'll be darned, she thought, if I give in to some stinky pig farmer.
Bobbie Kinnaird replaced the sewing-machine needle, aligned canvas fabric along the seam between Mr. Henry's metal tables and thought of deeper things: connections between past and present, the sometimes fragile stitchwork that holds family together, life and death and remembrance. Always that.
She had collected more than 500 tombstone rubbings in her 35 years on Earth, preserving almost forgotten thoughts and wishes, restoring dead emotion. She'd framed and hung some of her favorites around her house as evidence of her passion, testimony to lives lived. But who would memorialize Earth's life and glory if humans never transcended this planet?
Carol ran through the room, face red and tear-stained.
"Hey!" Bobbie said. Carol pushed through the screen door into the alley beyond. The door closed with a slap.
"I wonder what's gotten into her?" Grania Miller said, staring over silver-framed reading spectacles.
Tom Piper entered the room, eyes casting every which way. "Where'd she go?"
"Yeah." He came to a stop near the women and stared at their handiwork: three triangular canvas sections sewn neatly into one piece. Another week and the whole parachute would be finished. "I was talkin' to her and she ran off."
"It must have been some talk. What did you say?"
"Just tryin' to talk sense to her, is all."
"You know." His eyes lifted. "'Bout this Mars thing. If she just admits it ain't possible, the others'll leave off trying."
The women shook their heads in unison.
"Impossible?" Bobbie said. "When Copernicus charted the stars, they said it was impossible that Earth was not the center of the universe. When Columbus sailed to America, some said he'd fall off the edge of the world."
"This is different."
"The impossible becomes possible through faith and perseverance. The glories of our civilization mount, leaving those who follow to memorialize the deeds of those who have gone before."
"You can't tell me it's possible to fly my silo a million miles to Mars."
"I cannot tell you that it's possible," Bobbie said. "But if it is, I mean to be a part of the effort, just as you should. You have to believe."
Tom put his hands on his hips. "I'll believe when God Almighty walks in here and serves me a double rhubarb smoothie."
Everyone looked at the door.
"And since it don't look like that'll happen anytime soon, it'd be nice if you ladies'd talk some sense into Carol. For Pete's sake, she's just a twelve-year-old kid, leading a whole town on a goose chase."
Giovanni left the pharmacy storeroom, a train engine, flatbed car, and several sections of track cradled beneath one arm. He had been a model train enthusiast since his father gave him a Lionel for his fifth birthday.
Train tracks traversed the store on a waist-high ledge that inclined to cross above the doorframes at the front and back. A tunnel transected the Beauty Aids showcase. Every fifteen minutes a train made its appearance, tooting and clacking, regular as clockwork. Customers called it the Giovanni Special. Many brought their kids when Giovanni decorated the track or filled the cargo cars with discount coupons for the holidays.
Tom Piper sagged against the glass counter near the cash register. His eyes were sunken pools, his mouth a hard line.
"She's gone a year tomorrow," he said.
Tom nodded. He sipped from a brown-stained mug. Giovanni kept a coffee pot running for his customers.
"I keep thinking I'm gonna wake up one morning and find her sleeping next to me. But she don't even call."
"She was never fond of pig farming." Giovanni set the train paraphernalia down and loaded one piece of track onto the flatbed.
"But it's all I know."
Giovanni shrugged. He'd added a robotic arm to the engine that could lift a track segment from the flatbed and swing it forward to the cowcatcher.
"I love her," Tom added. "And I miss my kids. Jessie's seven now and I'm wonderin' if she even remembers me."
Giovanni glanced up. "Waiting for her to change her mind just won't cut it. You have to take the initiative." He swiveled the robotic arm until it clicked into place above the flatcar. "It's fine to scoot around the same old track for the day-to-day grind, but when you want something important, you have to jump your track and build a new one." He nodded at the long black engine. The cowcatcher had been modified to receive one end of a track segment, stabilize it and align pegs to matching hollows in the track already laid beneath the engine.
Tom set his mug on the counter. "I got so many bills on my table, I can't even see my breakfast."
Giovanni smiled. "You're a capable man. I'm sure you can do anything you set your mind to." Theoretically, the train could lay its own track, one segment at a time. Perfected, this would enable retrieving of soil samples, something Dan insisted was crucial. "If you want Mary back badly enough, you will find a way."
Tom sighed and patted Giovanni's shoulder. "Least there's someone who ain't crazy in this town. You ever seen so much stupidity in one place? I know you ain't buying into that rocket stuff."
Giovanni pressed a button. The robotic arm whirred to life. "Well, actually . . ."
Cat on a hot tin roof, Claudia Specha thought as she stretched out to catch the tape measure's silver lip on the corrugated roof edge. These ridges wouldn't make the job easy. She would have to fill them with adhesive.
"Nothing like a challenge," she muttered. When she'd opened Ceramics With Style three years before, she couldn't have predicted this.
"Hey you!" a man shouted. Claudia lifted herself to a sitting position and looked down. A wiry guy in a gray tee shirt stood below, carrying two buckets, one half-filled with food scraps, the other with water.
"You must be Tom." Claudia smiled, knowing that her smile melted the male heart as reliably as acetylene melted steel.
"You don't got permission," he said. "Your van's blockin' my drive."
Claudia brushed blond-brown hair away from her face. It was a stifling hot day, though a steady breeze blew from the west. If not for the metal soaking up sunlight, she might have been comfortable.
"The town council hired me. Didn't figure you'd mind me measuring the roof." She batted her eyes.
Tom didn't seem to notice she was a woman.
"Look, mister. It's a paying job. You know how rare those have been lately?"
He threw his arms into the air, sloshing water with reckless abandon. "What the hell! Take the thing. Tell 'em they can have the silo. I wash my hands of this community of idiots."
He stomped toward the pigsties.
What did I say? Claudia thought, shifting position on the hot roof.
Mayor Repp mounted the podium erected for the occasion on Tom Piper's farm, wearing stone-washed jeans, plaid cotton shirt, and leather boots. The rocket stood a hundred yards to the north, a gleaming silver cylinder topped with ceramic tile. Block letters spelled THORNHOPE. He had objected to that, thinking it might make the structure look like a water tower.
"Welcome to Thornhope," he said into the microphone. Local television vans had parked along the highway, but the nationals had stayed away. Oh, well. You play the hand you're dealt.
"Today, we continue a long tradition of communities working together to solve problems. I think it is safe to say, however, the scope of our project is unprecedented. Nor would it have been possible without the generosity and enthusiasm of the citizens of Thornhope."
People clapped and shouted. A shiver ran up Mayor Repp's spine. He had had concerns about this project, but seeing a community united like this in adverse times, witnessing the undiluted belief of so many, assuaged doubt. Whatever happens today, he thought, we have done well. His smile relaxed. He sought eyes in his audience, one set at a time.
"In particular," he said, "we thank Tom Piper for donating his silo." The crowd erupted into applause.
Tom shielded himself from their goodwill. Mayor Repp's bass voice rumbled through a countdown.
For a heartbeat, nothing happened.
Flame gouted from the silo's base. Brown-red dirt sprayed. The silo lumbered upward amid clouds of white exhaust. It was stupid. It could never work. Yet Tom felt his spirits climbing with it, from the mud of his depression into shimmering blue sky. His heart pounded. He swallowed hard. Maybe if he tried to change things, he really could. Maybe if he went to Mary like Giovanni said, she would take him back.
An explosion ruptured the silo's sides like the tin they were. Shrapnel plummeted toward dead cornfields and a dying town. Only an old water heater continued upward, the heart of a butchered pig too dumb to know it was dead.
I told you so, he thought. I told you this wouldn't work. When he turned to the others -- Anthony, Dan, Amanda, Bobbie, Carol -- he couldn't say it. At least they'd tried. At least they'd dared to hope for something better.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Dan's brow wrinkled. "What do you mean?"
The first shrapnel touched down, raising dirt. Tom winced.
"That?" Dan's frown became a smile. He laughed out loud. "That's only the first stage." He pointed upward.
Flame jetted from the water heater. It shot abruptly higher. "That's the real deal."
Tom found himself surrounded by familiar faces that blurred into a ring of gleaming teeth and eyes.
Dan Brann shook his hand.
Anthony hugged him close.
Amanda kissed him on the lips.
He didn't try to stop them.
Copyright © 2002 Stephen V. Ramey
For my father, with love.
Stephen V. Ramey manages a nonprofit society of animal behavior researchers and writes speculative fiction in his spare time. This is his first published story.