They touched down near the 7-Eleven, just off MLK and Sumner. Four of them, decked out in full spacesuits, large boots heavy in this new gravity, labored breathing moving through their suits like Darth Vader with asthma. They emerged from their spaceship to the tree-lined streets of Portland in an early December downpour. Rain hissed and evaporated as it pelted the hot spaceship exterior. Had they come six months earlier, they would’ve experienced that moment in June, just after the cold snaps, but long before wildfire smoke tinged the sky. A magical time when gentle Spring sun gave way to street fairs, buskers, food trucks, and rosebuds brimming with promise.
The astronauts pushed past gathering crowds. Some neighbors tried to offer umbrellas, but the astronauts couldn’t be bothered that first day. They needed to build shelters before nightfall. They established basecamp in the O’Riley Auto Parts parking lot. They set up portable habitats and sensors on tripods and a recharging station for their rover.
On the second day, the astronauts left basecamp as more rainclouds darkened the sky. They moved slowly around a four-block perimeter. They peered at dormant plant life and captured a pigeon. They inspected mailboxes and fenceposts, staring from behind their mirrored face shields, rain-streaked and beginning to fog. They were faceless and formless under these helmets, so alien-like, even though CNN reported that they had launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida several months earlier.
The neighborhood yet again took interest in this development. This time, the astronauts were more willing to engage. They asked lots of questions. For example: What do you call this place? In response: This is America. The astronauts looked around, seemingly unsure, as if they had already visited America and knew this wasn’t it. For another example: How long have your people lived here?
Eventually, the astronauts’ daily explorations expanded into the 7-Eleven. They inspected the shelves, picking up packages of Fritos and holding them beside some Funions for comparison. Having little money to purchase Fritos, Funions, or lotto tickets, the astronauts began asking for trades. They wanted to barter their freeze-dried rations and anti-gravity self-inking pens and spare bundles of wire and bolts and duct tape. In return, they wanted Krispy Kreme and hotdogs. They wanted glossy fashion magazines. They wanted Red Bull and cans of Starbucks Cold Brew.
Soon, the astronauts tired of the 7-Eleven, and they traded for more expensive items. They wanted to-go orders from some hip Alberta Street eateries. They wanted local art. They wanted televisions and stereo equipment. They cited all sorts of scientific reasons for these requests. For example: We’d like to study the effects of sonic distortions of Lizzo’s new album on your neighborhood’s atmospheric properties. For another example: The chemical properties of a small batch craft IPA could lead to breakthroughs in understanding human metabolic functional variance.
The astronauts got what they wanted because they were astronauts, and the neighborhood people knew that astronauts were admired and respected. The neighbors said emphatic things about the importance of this mission. For example: I’m glad I can do my part! Astronauts are the last true heroes. For another example: Sure! Anything you need. Did you know that Buzz Aldrin spoke at my high school graduation back in the day?
Though if anyone asked the neighbors in private, they’d admit they were thinking about more than civic duty. They were happy to get a souvenir from a bona fide NASA mission. They suspected that all these trades would be profitable. They went on eBay and OfferUp to see how much each collectable object might fetch them. In time, they learned that nobody cared about NASA trinkets unless it was something from the Apollo missions.
Trade relations soured. The astronauts went back to freeze-dried rations until they all began to complain. For example: Fuck this shit. Three of the astronauts took their little rechargeable rover into the rainy wastelands beyond their usual four-block perimeter. They sought other neighborhood frontiers, scouting for new sources of food and drink and culture and luxury and wealth—all for the sake of scientific cataloging, of course.
They left just one crew member to guard the skeletal remains of basecamp, already low on supplies, tarps fraying in the cold breeze, power generator flickering more often than not. The lone astronaut deterred gawkers. For example: Keep moving, shithead. She chewed on her freeze-dried rations with contempt. She collected rainwater in buckets. She dug up a pile of weeds and burned them for heat. She dissected a raccoon and smeared its blood on her helmet. She threw bricks through the 7-Eleven’s windows. For science.
The astronaut waited nearly a week for her team to return, but they never did. She feared her fellow astronauts had been lost to the wilds just beyond Lombard Street. She informed ground control that the mission had been a failure. She told them that this planet was harsh and ruthless. For example: It’s a shithole. Needs terraforming. The next crew needs drills. Big ones.
The astronaut initiated the launch sequence. She began her long, solitary journey into the cosmos, arcing deep into the cold void for months on-end. Finally, she reached an apex, reversed thrusters, and plummeted down, down, down to a sunny Florida landing site where she was hailed a hero. She did a press circuit. She wrote a memoir. She visited our neighborhood again to give a guest lecture at PCC’s Cascade campus—this time, she came during the summertime. Her Delta Airlines flight touched down at the PDX airport with enough time for a quick in-and-out on her way to a more important stop in Los Angeles. She congratulated a scholarship recipient and said inspirational things. For example: The children are our future. She shook hands with the college president.
In her guest lecture, the astronaut told us all about her mission to Portland and everything that she learned about our neighborhood. For example:
James R. Gapinski is the author of The Last Dinosaurs of Portland (Bottlecap Press, 2021), Fruit Rot (Etchings Press, 2020), Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press, 2018), and Messiah Tortoise (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). James teaches for Southern New Hampshire University’s MFA program, and they edit for Conium Press.