Best of the Boards
The thick door of the Moon Shot slammed on the blazing afternoon sun. Clear white spots drifted into her vision. Rochelle closed her eyes then opened them again, delaying the moment before she must locate her husband.
The cranky bar was just two blocks south of the Space Center. Three astronauts gathered at a back table. A live NASA transmission of a space walk beamed on a large screen over their heads. They critiqued it the way jocks picked apart a football game.
It was peculiar for her husband, Leonard to be here. Researchers rarely mingled with the fly boys—different temperaments. There he waited in an amber booth. The serious scientist in the midst of thick bar laughter. She made her way to him, crunching broken peanut shells under her boots.
“This is fun,” she said. After almost twelve years of marriage there seemed little need for salutations. She slid her bottom across the varnished bench. A pointed nail head caught the bias of her blue jean skirt. “Damn.”
Leonard ignored her remark and tightened his lips around the tip of a red striped straw. He blew a slight breath into his iced tea and scrutinized the foamy swirl.
“Interesting,” he said. That was her Leonard, always analyzing something.
“You called me to this rendezvous,” Rochelle said and tapped the side of his glass with her fingertip.
Just then a short, craggy faced waiter with greased black hair and a smudged apron tied around his waist appeared at their table. “Can I get y’all something?”
“What kind of Mexican beer do you have?” Leonard asked still staring at the glass. “Wait,” he raised his head. “Dos Equus, right? ” he said to Rochelle. “Get her one of those with a glass.” His gaze returned to the table.
Rochelle was twenty-two years younger than her rocket scientist husband and she liked it that way. No bothersome talks about starting a family. No insecure finances. He funded her artistic pursuits, and often complimented her abstract water color landscapes or patiently listened to long soulful poetry readings with his hands folded across his knee, gaze just to the left of her face. In return she played the charming wife at the various formal functions they attended around the capital area. At least that was her role back in Washington D.C. before his sudden transfer to Houston several months ago. She decided to make another stab at conversation.
“The sailboats from the Moonlight Regatta should be entering the bay tomorrow.” She tore off a small piece of the paper coaster and rolled it into a ball between her thumb and index finger. “I thought I’d leave in the morning to catch the moment.”
“Sounds like a good opportunity for some work,” he said with his head still down.
She found it charming the way he called her painting work, like it had an important value. A shock of gray hair fell out of place and landed on his temple. She acted upon a quick impulse to touch him just as the waiter returned and placed the cold beer between them on the table.
Leonard swirled the ice in his glass with a thick finger. Rochelle watched as several drips meandered down the side of her mug. They joined and formed an delicate web. Then a picture of Frank standing on the teakwood deck of his restored schooner, white smile, blue eyes, rugged tanned face, invaded her thoughts.
“There is something,” Leonard said. He raised his eyes and nailed her with a surgical stare as if he were trying to see through her head and out the other side. “Things haven’t been the same since we left Washington,” he added and pointed to the beer. “Drink up.”
“OK,” she said and raised the clumsy mug to her lips. She long ago accepted his dry logical ways. After a few years her fascination with his order and logic waned and Rochelle found herself with an unanswered emptiness. The move to Houston, this cowboy backwater excuse for a cosmopolitan city, only exasperated her loneliness.
“I said hey,” a pair of long legs wrapped in Wranglers paused at their table and a hand slapped Leonard on the back. “Dad gum, it’s Len from the lab.”
Rochelle mouthed the word “Len?” No one ever called him that. Her husband shrugged.
“Pardon me, Ma’am,” Trey took off his white straw cowboy hat and placed it over his heart. “Is this the little lady?” he stooped his well over six-foot frame a bit and smiled at Leonard who nodded. “Trey Scoats,” he stuck his sinuate hand in front of Rochelle. “Your husband here is going to help me get to Mars. In two-thousand ten. That’s the mission date. Until then I’ll amuse myself building the space station.”
Rochelle shook his hand and teased, “Didn’t your mama ever tell you it’s impolite to wear a hat indoors?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered. Then replaced the hat on his head with a wink. He hooked his thumb around a belt loop next to the most enormous brass buckle Rochelle had ever seen and lingered next to their table watching the space walk.
“Would you care to join us?” Leonard asked. Rochelle heard the well-known reluctance in his voice.
“Look at that. Look at that there,” he nudged Leonard with one hand while pointing towards the screen with the other.
Rochelle twisted her upper body around and checked out the broadcast. An astronaut floated in the dark space like a bulky ballerina. The two men watched with the fascination of a practiced eye as the space man tooled around with a Lego like machine three times his size. After a long minute, the entire bar erupted with applause.
“Mission accomplished,” Trey whooped with a toothsome grin.
Even Leonard allowed a smidge of a smile to bloom on his tight lips. His research team had developed a chemical mixture crucial to the success of this mission. An important step. “It’s good to see the fruits of your labor,” he said and drained his iced tea.
Despite having no idea what occurred, Rochelle joined in the infectious enthusiasm and caught Trey’s eye. “Have you gone up?” she asked.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered. Rochelle studied his handsome face with the square jaw and chiseled features. Despite all the good ole boy jargon his countenance reflected that of a strong man with a distinct sense of purpose. A hero.
“What’s it like?” she asked. A slight tingle played at the end of her fingers.
“Like going into heaven,” he said. The intensity of his dark blue eyes lingered in her after his gaze returned to the space walk. “Like going into heaven,” he repeated and with a tip of his hat walked over to join the other astronauts gathered at the table in front of the screen.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Leonard stood up and patted his gut. “Too much iced tea.”
The last and only other time Leonard had summoned her for an afternoon meeting he announced his odd transfer to Houston. Rochelle wondered if Leonard was forming the habit of bad news accompanied by afternoon drinks. Maybe he knew about Frank. Nothing to know really. Just two friends enjoying their mutual interest in sailing and all things nautical. The hairs on her arms stood straight atop an array of white goose bumps. She sipped beer and imagined Frank taking a shower, the water pounding his muscular legs, the soap trailing down his back.
“It almost seems criminal to interrupt that thought,” Leonard said with no trace of mirth.
“Just picturing the horizon filled with billowing sails as the regatta arrives from Corpus,” she said. “It’s part of my work. I sometimes visualize a palette days before I paint.” Since when had lying become so natural?
“And such good work it is,” he answered with genuine pride. Several of her pieces had sold to private collectors. Another whoop rose from the astronaut table.
“You started to say something,” Rochelle prompted, ready to get on with it. She watched her husband make eye contact with Trey and lift his empty glass in mutual celebration.
“Oh yes,” he said. Just then, his text messenger trilled. An annoying interruption. “Excuse me.” He pulled his reading glasses from his sweater pocket and read the message.
Rochelle quelled the urge to lean over the table and peek. She diverted her eyes to the wall between the booth. It was decorated with an unimaginative grid of autographed mission crew pictures dating back to the Gemini program. Alan Shepherd, Neil Armstrong, the earnest faces of the Apollo 8 crew. Leonard punched buttons then dropped the text messenger.
Her insides tightened. She needed a break, a distraction from the oppressive humidity. She pulled a green compact from her purse and arranged her hair.
Leonard returned the device to his pocket and removed his glasses. “You look lovely,” he said and with that reached out and placed his hand on top of hers. “But something is missing.” She struggled to keep her fingers like stone. “You’ve changed since our move to Texas and I don’t like it.” He stretched out his leg and pulled four crisp one hundred dollar bills from his trouser pocket. “Buy a pretty dress, something formal. Not unlike the red dress you wore to the National Science Institute Ball in D.C.” He forced her fingers to close over the cash. “The Space Center is having their annual Starlight Fund Raiser in two weeks. I thought we’d attend.” He picked up his glass and swirled the melting ice. “Does this please you?”
“Yes.” She stuffed the money in her purse.
He paid the tab with a ten dollar bill and stood up. “I’ll be working late in the lab tonight.” He kissed the curve of her cheek. “Be careful.”
A sharp sliver of sunshine invaded the dim bar as he opened the door on his way out. Trey winked at her from the astronaut table. She checked her watch. Four thirty. Enough time for a sunset sail.