Nick Thornburg

Drifting Away

 

Ever touched a star, the weathered old man asked, ever felt its breath against your cheek or the brush of its fiery tendrils against your eyelids? I have and if you come aboard you will too. You ain’t lived til you’ve felt what I’ve felt.

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Come along dear, he’s delusional, said the man in a low voice, and he took up his wife’s hand and led her across the bay where they could stand in the shade of a boarding freighter and observe the methodical coming and going of giant ships. Dozens of couples meandered round the bay, taking the afternoon to enjoy the precision display and revel in the efficiency of machinery they had toiled so long to create and maintain. In a consolidated motion, the man and his wife raised their eyes to watch the contrails left by a pair of security pods as they swept past the circular rim of the highrise port as part of a routine patrol.

#

It’s sort of beautiful, isn’t it, asked the wife as she watched the twisting lines of smoke unfurl and dissipate. In the way that natural phenomenon can sometimes be, she added. I much prefer the patterning of one of the old masters with their broad symmetrical strokes though, I find randomness simply too much to bear oftentimes. Yes I know, said the husband as he discreetly straightened a wrinkle on the face of his uniform, Randomness is like sludge isn’t it? It is, agreed the wife, I can’t stand it… but I can’t say I’ve ever seen sludge, actual sludge, that is.

#

But remember when your uncle– Yes, of course I remember, the man interrupted, Must we talk about it? I was only going to say, his wife continued, in a voice that took on a stern edge, That he was so proud of that ugly painting and having kept it hidden for so long. Shush you, said the husband. But we’ve nothing to fear, said the wife, Because you and I didn’t enjoy looking at it. It wasn’t our fault that he refused to have it incinerated as it should have been, and really, we should feel proud of ourselves for having been so appalled at the sight of it. Yes, we’re among the finest citizens, I should think, the husband said proudly. He leaned against his wife’s shoulder warmly and she shivered in pleasure at his breach in protocol.

#

Can you believe people actually thought paint on canvas was an acceptable art form at one point, she whispered, Think of the mess. No, I’d rather not, the husband said sharply as he cast a wary eye over the crowd milling about the bay, You’d best put the subject to rest before someone overhears us. Of course, of course, the wife said, surprised at the tone of his voice after he had just shown her such affection. The husband watched one of the great freighters lift from its pad and he nodded in approval at its timely departure, but the wife seemed distracted.

#

I wonder what happened to him, said the wife after a few moments. Who, asked the husband. Your uncle. Oh, I reported him the very night he brought out the painting, the husband said, The rest I left to the authorities. Oh, replied the wife, A pity, I had thought him an outstanding example for the community until he surprised us by revealing that painting. Yes, it was a terrible blow, the man agreed, And to think he threw it all away because of that horrible piece of A-R-T. But enough now, let’s forget this subject entirely. Yes, of course, said the wife. She lifted her eyes again towards the expanse of sky overhead.

#

The contrails of the security pods had disappeared by that point, their cirruslike wisps erased from the clear blue of the earth’s dome by the passing drafts of freighters arriving and departing. I suppose that’s the thing the ancients never realized, the wife said, The temporariness of their so-called achievements, that is. How did you come to think of that exactly, asked the husband. It all just drifted into obscurity, she replied, Just like the contrails left by those security pods. Everything simply washed away, she added, It’d be sad if it wasn’t so wasteful. All that effort wasted. Terrible. Not like today, thank goodness, she said and tried to smile.

#

But what about the painting? What about it? It didn’t simply crumble to dust or disappear, did it, pointed out the husband, surprising himself by broaching the subject he had earlier sought to suppress. No it didn’t, said the wife, Well that’s an interesting turn. I suppose it’s like that man who spoke to us earlier. What man, asked the husband. The delusional man at the other end of the bay, she replied. What does he have to do with anything? Well, said the wife, People like him shouldn’t by any rights exist in this modern age, his type should have been culled from the population long ago, but here he is speaking to strangers about touching stars and the like. He’s an anomaly just like that old painting. I should say you’re right, said the husband, I never would have thought of it that way, but really, someone ought to report him to the authorities. He’s clearly causing a disturbance.

#

They sat for several long minutes in silence watching the other couples wander round the bay as they observed the loading and unloading of the giant freighters and the occasional sweeping passes of the security pods. They could see the weathered old man at the opposite side of the bay and, finally, the wife said, What do you think it’s like to touch a star? Hm, the husband said, I really wouldn’t know. How odd would it be, do you think? Best not think about it, replied the husband. Yes, said the wife, you’re probably right. Best to forget about it. Best to let that thought go, let it crumble to dust and drift into nothingness. Hm, yes, that would be best.

#

But did you hear him say he was taking passengers?

 

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Nick is a graduate of the University of Iowa with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Theater Arts and Cinema & Comparative Literature. He currently resides in Southeast Iowa.

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