The Astronaut’s Apprentice
By Nicole Matos
Die ich rief, die Geister (“From these spirits I have called”)
–Goethe, The Sorceror’s Apprentice
Don’t start what you can’t finish
–Disney, The Sorceror’s Apprentice
If you left a tripwire, a thread or hair, to guard your diary pages, I never found it. The letters I wrote—I won’t say, “sent”—I believe now you never read. I left them in the natural place for spies that don’t meet. Crumpled, but not too crumpled, at the top of the trash. Only if you were also a thief would they reach you. My message would arrive only if forgiveness, something mutual, might be possible. But either way: it is good for me to tell how you made me.
* * *
I turn out to be good at babies. That’s a stroke of luck. Each baby, I assume, is a little protohuman: she wants to be human, but she doesn’t know how to do it; she’s just like me. Joelie, a name with extra dangling parts, like a sloppy sandwich. Her first word is “Cookie,” and “Yes” or “No,” her name or your name aren’t quick to follow. It’s pretty clear you, her mom, are not fully relevant to her, and that’s perfect—we will hold you in common as an unnamed mission, a flag to be planted.
The damp slug-trails Joelie leaves behind as she crawls are easy to clean with just a swipe of my foot in my sock. Nothing makes sense in this house of wonders: there are extra rooms on half-levels, the window at my knee on one side, a different room slanting above my head. I can stumble from the living room into a kind of sunken pit with sitting-shelves. I try draping paper towels, and then Saran Wrap, across all the lintels and thresholds to hold Joelie in, but she sidestroke clambers her way into everything, only a few stairs to fall each time, but still. She has broad light bruises across her forehead and back, but nobody minds—that is, you, her mom, you were the only other one to count as somebody—you should be the I of this, maybe: the eye and the aye and the ewe and the yew. The rhymes of those books I read to her—I did read to her, you were not my only reading—I held her, loved her, I did do all there was to do, you know, though I want to say, “I did what you paid me for.” But it doesn’t make sense even if Joelie’s dad was “a contractor.” Neither does that table he left behind with the men on cigarette-machine pullers: nothing falls out if you pull them, they spin around but don’t clash like regular football, some sort of game, obviously, but not any fun.
* * *
The bottles of wine behind the laundry machine in that extra kitchen space, “the mudroom,” and in the steel canister for holding the plunger in the bathroom (don’t ask me how I know): those make more sense once I’ve read you that far. They are not, after all, a special grownup way of keeping wine cool. I have a lot of discovering to do first; I am nothing if not methodical. Joelie will sit for a while, not long, in the laundry basket, if I swoop it across the floor like a magic carpet, if I offer her treats, peanuts with the shells stepped on half-cracked, that will take her a while to pull apart and eat with her protofingers.
* * *
It was around this time that I first sat in bread. It was not an idea from your story, but from a teenybopper magazine. When the girl’s mom died, she crawled into a room of bread—it was not a bakery, nobody explained what it was for or how it got there—and she breathed, and there was description of all the important impressions that she took in. So I saved $40, that was 20 hours, and bought myself 40 loaves. My bread-capsule didn’t work out to a room: sitting in the one garbage bag of bread, it was hard to keep the slices spread out while plumping the other bag on top. A bread-mask, bread muffs. I honestly didn’t smell anything that made me understand anything about mothers. It was so disappointing, it really was—and when I wrote, I tried to tell you so.
* * *
Do you remember why you gave me the job? Because, when you tested, I stretched out my hands. It was summer and you stopped me, in your white car with the window rolled down, and you asked—I didn’t know you, I guess I sort of knew you—I knew the house you belonged to, the “crazy mansion” (bigger than all the other houses and trailers, the odd jutting parts of it, windows in slashes and triangles and other angled shapes), maybe we had waved at each other once or twice. “Do you babysit?” you asked, and you were in your bathing suit with a kerchief in your hair. You were older than I expected up close, the skin around your temples thick or hard somehow, like you were double-wrapped in that area—it is not very romantic, I know, it was not love at first sight. I said, “I don’t know.” It was a guileless answer; I had not ever done it before.
“Do you want to go to the beach?” I guessed I did—you did not ask if my parents would let me, perhaps you already had that all figured out. You told me to get in the back with the baby, and there she was, all shiny and sweaty, that beautiful quad-toothed smile! That was love at first sight, Joelie! We pulled away—you talked a lot, I guess we were discussing our terms—and when Joelie got quiet, and then ominous, about to boil over, you looked in the rearview and said, “Shit! She gets carsick! There’s a bag back there, she’s going to throw up!” But already, her mouth opened—no expression, just the jaw dropping down like a mini-golf clown hole, and I said, “That’s OK! You’re OK!” and made my hands into a cup, and she threw up into my hands. I shifted my legs so the extra would fall on them, not your car, and only when it was done did she look frightened (not hurt, only frightened: two big tears) and I said, “You’re OK, you did great! That was perfect, good job!” You pulled onto the shoulder in a hurry, and you had to get out to let me out, my hands were full. I wiped them on the grass—I got down on the ground and sort of scraped my legs on it—before I saw you standing there, helplessly, with a towel. And you asked, “What should we do now?” The sun was glaring down, neither of us had sunglasses: it was a real oversight. And I said, “Can’t we go to the beach?” Joelie was happy again; I didn’t see why we should change the plan. But I like to think you saw me then—that it wasn’t just because you were broke, because you were alone, because, by chance, I happened to be there, on the street, at the moment you recognized a need. It was a test of instinct, of action without foresight—it could have gone either way, right? But I was a person who would make a vessel of my hands.
* * *
It sounds like blame, but it really was Joelie that led me to it—and also her dad, indirectly, the whole crazy system of your house. If there hadn’t been half-doors, lazy-susans, if the whole structure hadn’t been an obstacle course for fluent crawlers, Joelie would have never found her way to that space, and neither, then, would I. It was the hot, unfinished floor where the sheetrock was leaning—the only open box, and Joelie made straight for it through the sparse powdery dust. I had a hard time replacing that dust, covering our footprints, until, having visited again and again, I realized you weren’t paying that much attention. It was a journey of discovery—Joelie pulled herself to standing, dragged one diary dangling from its cover, flapping in the airless air. If your words had sifted down from the page, I would have rolled in them like a dog. There were so many—I checked the dates, did the math—it was a full blueprint, a human life lived from my own age to far beyond. It was your life, I know that, and that was a special bonus—it meant something to me, but all I really needed was a life, any life—the way you needed a babysitter, any babysitter—the way Joelie was a baby, any baby, before we all met in the flesh.
* * *
I adapted quickly to the nature of my work: Joelie propped in that space-station console, where she swiveled and frowned and flickered toggles like a strikebreaker at air traffic control. Astronaut thinking, it made sense: what was she but an extra-terrestrial, wrecked from her seed-pod, the buckles and belts and detachable clicking components of her nursery. I watched as she trained—watched and shouted, “You can do it!”—as she regained ambulation, hopping and hopping, twisting, laughing, in the springing harness that hung from the door. Her legs changed, the inner and outer curve grew from concave to convex—I powdered them, massaged them, blessed them, spread-eagled, comparing her with an anatomy book I borrowed, to be sure I was doing it right. Or to be glad—to congratulate ourselves, repeatedly hi-fiving—that soon she’d be walking, beyond earthly limitations. She sucked on my arm, at quiet times, like she couldn’t believe her luck.
* * *
You took me to the beach twice in total—once for my test and its passing, and once more in the company of your almost-sister-in-law. “She only hears about things from Joelie’s dad, but since things are getting better”—stray signs of him, scattered clothes, actual glasses for wine, two of them, in the sink—“we are trying to work it out.” It made you anxious that her daughter, Joelie’s almost-cousin, was more skilled for only a couple months older, whining with actual words, “Mommy, more san’wich!” To save face for you I prompted Joelie to say “Cookie!” in reply. When you first sent me off to change Joelie’s diaper, I didn’t mind what I was I was missing. But the second time when I made it back, your almost-sister-in-law took both babies—she put out arms to me, fiercely, imperiously—it was not my choice, there was no reason for you to shove the chairs and bags at me, after, the way that you did. “She has a dirty diaper”—she said it at the cars, handing Joelie over—in a mean, pointed way, as if I hadn’t changed her in the first and second place, when I could have told you that poop was definitely new. But I underestimated you: your response won my sympathies back to your side. You jerked the diaper down, you flipped the turd out of it, spinning on the asphalt at our feet, you jerked the diaper back up with a grand motion of “voila.” That was your test—hard, shrink-wrapped eyes, a problem solved, dismissed, with a flourish—and you also, that time: you also passed.
* * *
Even so. The present was a frontier I did not breach lightly. I opened and closed that nightstand drawer a dozen times before I took it out, before I ever turned a page. I sat on your bed–I smelled your pillow. I really thought about it. And by the time I took your now, there was nothing in any of your words that could have surprised me—the end was always leading out of the beginning. You were a good enough model, you were not as worthless as you thought yourself, your sentences ending breaking off in dashes all the times you were drunk. I tried to tell you that in the letters I left at the top of the trash. I gave excellent advice. I hardly ever wrote about me—what was there to say?—but I wrote, a lot, forgivingly, in composure, with a mother’s notice, about you.
* * *
You didn’t want to jinx it. That’s what it came down to. A word that threw me, since you always spelled it wrong. He was an irritable, cranky person, but you liked it, kind of—you didn’t mind if he stayed to argue, to help you put Joelie in bed, to have fast “angry sex” where you chipped a tooth. But he called me “Mary Poppins.” And that time I was bending—something Joelie had dropped—when he grabbed the waist of my pants, hoisted me, so I was snared off the ground by the seam at my crotch. Set me back on the floor, then, slowly, not at all furtive—not like the first times I met him, but like, as you wrote, “he owned the place.” Looking me up and down and saying, “You really should wear a more supportive bra.” The notes once he started letting his tool bag stay the night—“Don’t touch! This means YOU!” I touched them purposefully, rubbed their grease off by smidges—imagined, lubricated less one-third, one-fourth, lubricated with diaper cream, lip gloss, peanut butter—their edges screaming, sparking, the ambulance, the lawsuit, Workmen’s Comp.
* * *
But by then my making was also finished. Joelie was walking. It was proven. The astronaut’s apprenticeship. You never called it that, you never called it anything, but with him back, what it was, it was done.
I made do with your library card. It was not ideal, but you volunteered it, no theft—“Take this and go borrow Joelie some new picture books, get some for yourself”—so it kept our ending honest, almost, some return on what I borrowed, what I took. You did not read that I could see, you never made reference to reading, so it is possible you don’t know what to picture here. What it meant to put your story down, diaries back, try another text. See me at the catalogue, pacing, opening drawers. “Friends”—see Friendship: Human Behavior, Love. Flip the cards faster, all that’s tangential: Free Will and Determinism. Frustration: Futility, Attitude (Psychology). Future Life: Immortality, Eternity, Afterlife—not a single work of reference on how to blast off, relaunch, in the here and now. That drawer shuts, try another: “Making Friends”—nothing. Make-Believe Playmates: see Imaginary Playmates. Making-Choices Stories: see Plot-Your-Own-Stories. Maladjusted Children (Psychology). Ask if you got your money’s worth, if I did, for all that I took in your name and read.