The bar didn’t have a name. No name of any kind. Not even an indication that it had ever had one. All it said on the outside was:
which doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it was a bar. It had a big TV set going ya-ta-ta ya-ta-ta in three glorious colors, and a jukebox that tried to drown out the TV with that lousy music they play. Anyway, it wasn’t a kid hangout. I kind of like it. But I wasn’t supposed to be there at all; it’s in the contract. I was supposed to stay in New York and the New England states.
Cafe-EAT-Cocktails was right across the river. I think the name of the place was Hoboken, but I’m not sure. It all had a kind of dreamy feeling to it. I was--
Well, I couldn’t even remember going there. I remembered one minute I was downtown New York, looking across the river. I did that a lot. And then I was there. I don’t remember crossing the river at all.
I was drunk, you know.
You know how it is? Double bourbons and keep them coming. And after a while the bartender stops bringing me the ginger ale because gradually I forget to mix them. I got pretty loaded long before I left New York. I realize that. I guess I had to get pretty loaded to risk the pension and all.
Used to be I didn’t drink much, but now, I don’t know, when I have one drink, I get to thinking about Sam and Wally and Chowderhead and Gilvey and the captain. If I don’t drink, I think about them, too, and then I take a drink. And that leads to another drink, and it all comes out to the same thing. Well, I guess I said it already, I drink a pretty good amount, but you can’t blame me.
There was a girl.
I always get a girl someplace. Usually they aren’t much and this one wasn’t either. I mean she was probably somebody’s mother. She was around thirty-five and not so bad, though she had a long scar under her ear down along her throat to the little round spot where her larynx was. It wasn’t ugly. She smelled nice--while I could still smell, you know--and she didn’t talk much. I liked that. Only--
Well, did you ever meet somebody with a nervous cough? Like when you say something funny--a little funny, not a big yock--they don’t laugh and they don’t stop with just smiling, but they sort of cough? She did that. I began to itch. I couldn’t help it. I asked her to stop it.
She spilled her drink and looked at me almost as though she was scared--and I had tried to say it quietly, too.
“Sorry,” she said, a little angry, a little scared. “Sorry. But you don’t have to--”
“Sure. But you asked me to sit down here with you, remember? If you’re going to--”
“Forget it!“ I nodded at the bartender and held up two fingers. “You need another drink,” I said. “The thing is,” I said, “Gilvey used to do that.”
She looked puzzled. “You mean like this?”
“Goddam it, stop it!“ Even the bartender looked over at me that time. Now she was really mad, but I didn’t want her to go away. I said, “Gilvey was a fellow who went to Mars with me. Pat Gilvey.”
“Oh.“ She sat down again and leaned across the table, low. “Mars.“
The bartender brought our drinks and looked at me suspiciously. I said, “Say, Mac, would you turn down the air-conditioning?”
“My name isn’t Mac. No.”
“Have a heart. It’s too cold in here.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry.
I was cold. I mean that kind of weather, it’s always cold in those places. You know around New York in August? It hits eighty, eighty-five, ninety. All the places have air-conditioning and what they really want is for you to wear a shirt and tie.
But I like to walk a lot. You would, too, you know. And you can’t walk around much in long pants and a suit coat and all that stuff. Not around there. Not in August. And so then, when I went into a bar, it’d have one of those built-in freezers for the used-car salesmen with their dates, or maybe their wives, all dressed up. For what? But I froze.
“Mars,” the girl breathed. “Mars.“
I began to itch again. “Want to dance?”
“They don’t have a license,” she said. “Byron, I didn’t know you’d been to Mars! Please tell me about it.”
“It was all right,” I said.
That was a lie.
She was interested. She forgot to smile. It made her look nicer. She said, “I knew a man--my brother-in-law--he was my husband’s brother--I mean my ex-husband--”
“I get the idea.”
“He worked for General Atomic. In Rockford, Illinois. You know where that is?”
“Sure.” I couldn’t go there, but I knew where Illinois was.
“He worked on the first Mars ship. Oh, fifteen years ago, wasn’t it? He always wanted to go himself, but he couldn’t pass the tests.” She stopped and looked at me.
I knew what she was thinking. But I didn’t always look this way, you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with me now, I mean, but I couldn’t pass the tests any more. Nobody can. That’s why we’re all one-trippers.
I said, “The only reason I’m shaking like this is because I’m cold.”
It wasn’t true, of course. It was that cough of Gilvey’s. I didn’t like to think about Gilvey, or Sam or Chowderhead or Wally or the captain. I didn’t like to think about any of them. It made me shake.
You see, we couldn’t kill each other. They wouldn’t let us do that. Before we took off, they did something to our minds to make sure. What they did, it doesn’t last forever. It lasts for two years and then it wears off. That’s long enough, you see, because that gets you to Mars and back; and it’s plenty long enough, in another way, because it’s like a strait-jacket.
You know how to make a baby cry? Hold his hands. It’s the most basic thing there is. What they did to us so we couldn’t kill each other, it was like being tied up, like having our hands held so we couldn’t get free. Well. But two years was long enough. Too long.
The bartender came over and said, “Pal, I’m sorry. See, I turned the air-conditioning down. You all right? You look so--”
I said, “Sure, I’m all right.”
He sounded worried. I hadn’t even heard him come back. The girl was looking worried, too, I guess because I was shaking so hard I was spilling my drink. I put some money on the table without even counting it.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We were just going.”
“We were?” She looked confused. But she came along with me. They always do, once they find out you’ve been to Mars.
In the next place, she said, between trips to the powder room, “It must take a lot of courage to sign up for something like that. Were you scientifically inclined in school? Don’t you have to know an awful lot to be a space-flyer? Did you ever see any of those little monkey characters they say live on Mars? I read an article about how they lived in little cities of pup-tents or something like that--only they didn’t make them, they grew them. Funny! Ever see those? That trip must have been a real drag, I bet. What is it, nine months? You couldn’t have a baby! Excuse me-- Say, tell me. All that time, how’d you--well, manage things? I mean didn’t you ever have to go to the you-know or anything?”
“We managed,” I said.
She giggled, and that reminded her, so she went to the powder room again. I thought about getting up and leaving while she was gone, but what was the use of that? I’d only pick up somebody else.
It was nearly midnight. A couple of minutes wouldn’t hurt. I reached in my pocket for the little box of pills they give us--it isn’t refillable, but we get a new prescription in the mail every month, along with the pension check. The label on the box said:
_Use only as directed by physician. Not to be taken by persons
suffering heart condition, digestive upset or circulatory disease.
Not to be used in conjunction with alcoholic beverages._
I took three of them. I don’t like to start them before midnight, but anyway I stopped shaking.
I closed my eyes, and then I was on the ship again. The noise in the bar became the noise of the rockets and the air washers and the sludge sluicers. I began to sweat, although this place was air-conditioned, too.
I could hear Wally whistling to himself the way he did, the sound muffled by his oxygen mask and drowned in the rocket noise, but still perfectly audible. The tune was Sophisticated Lady. Sometimes it was Easy to Love and sometimes Chasing Shadows, but mostly Sophisticated Lady. He was from Juilliard.
Somebody sneezed, and it sounded just like Chowderhead sneezing. You know how everybody sneezes according to his own individual style? Chowderhead had a ladylike little sneeze; it went hutta, real quick, all through the mouth, no nose involved. The captain went Hrasssh; Wally was Ashoo, ashoo, ashoo. Gilvey was Hutch-uh. Sam didn’t sneeze much, but he sort of coughed and sprayed, and that was worse.
Sometimes I used to think about killing Sam by tying him down and having Wally and the captain sneeze him to death. But that was a kind of a joke, naturally, when I was feeling good. Or pretty good. Usually I thought about a knife for Sam. For Chowderhead it was a gun, right in the belly, one shot. For Wally it was a tommy gun--just stitching him up and down, you know, back and forth. The captain I would put in a cage with hungry lions, and Gilvey I’d strangle with my bare hands. That was probably because of the cough, I guess.
She was back. “Please tell me about it,” she begged. “I’m so curious.”
I opened my eyes. “You want me to tell you about it?”
“About what it’s like to fly to Mars on a rocket?”
“All right,” I said.
It’s wonderful what three little white pills will do. I wasn’t even shaking.
“There’s six men, see? In a space the size of a Buick, and that’s all the room there is. Two of us in the bunks all the time, four of us on watch. Maybe you want to stay in the sack an extra ten minutes--because it’s the only place on the ship where you can stretch out, you know, the only place where you can rest without somebody’s elbow in your side. But you can’t. Because by then it’s the next man’s turn.
“And maybe you don’t have elbows in your side while it’s your turn off watch, but in the starboard bunk there’s the air-regenerator master valve--I bet I could still show you the bruises right around my kidneys--and in the port bunk there’s the emergency-escape-hatch handle. That gets you right in the temple, if you turn your head too fast.
“And you can’t really sleep, I mean not soundly, because of the noise. That is, when the rockets are going. When they aren’t going, then you’re in free-fall, and that’s bad, too, because you dream about falling. But when they’re going, I don’t know, I think it’s worse. It’s pretty loud.
“And even if it weren’t for the noise, if you sleep too soundly you might roll over on your oxygen line. Then you dream about drowning. Ever do that? You’re strangling and choking and you can’t get any air? It isn’t dangerous, I guess. Anyway, it always woke me up in time. Though I heard about a fellow in a flight six years ago--
“Well. So you’ve always got this oxygen mask on, all the time, except if you take it off for a second to talk to somebody. You don’t do that very often, because what is there to say? Oh, maybe the first couple of weeks, sure--everybody’s friends then. You don’t even need the mask, for that matter. Or not very much. Everybody’s still pretty clean. The place smells--oh, let’s see--about like the locker room in a gym. You know? You can stand it. That’s if nobody’s got space sickness, of course. We were lucky that way.
“But that’s about how it’s going to get anyway, you know. Outside the masks, it’s soup. It isn’t that you smell it so much. You kind of taste it, in the back of your mouth, and your eyes sting. That’s after the first two or three months. Later on, it gets worse.
“And with the mask on, of course, the oxygen mixture is coming in under pressure. That’s funny if you’re not used to it. Your lungs have to work a little bit harder to get rid of it, especially when you’re asleep, so after a while the muscles get sore. And then they get sorer. And then--
“Before we take off, the psych people give us a long doo-da that keeps us from killing each other. But they can’t stop us from thinking about it. And afterward, after we’re back on Earth--this is what you won’t read about in the articles--they keep us apart. You know how they work it? We get a pension, naturally. I mean there’s got to be a pension, otherwise there isn’t enough money in the world to make anybody go. But in the contract, it says to get the pension we have to stay in our own area.