Thursday 6 January 2022

Rover Down

 by J.B. Stone

cold beer



It was only a few years ago, back in 2012, when my brother Anthony and I struggled with any sense of hope. The world may not have ended for everyone else, but our world seemed to. We were both new to Brevard County, having moved here sometime after our Grandpa Riley’s passing. Since our parents abandoned us when we were toddlers, and left us in his care, Grandpa made sure we were one of his own. He never heard from his son and daughter-in-law, and we never heard from our parents, and one may be surprised at how familiar monsters can bring people closer together.




After a long-overdue wake, Anthony and I travelled across the stretch of Deering Parkway, which seemed to be dimmer the more road we treaded, no matter how many streetlamps lit the way. And that’s when we stumbled upon Explorers, a little bar only a quarter of a mile away from the Kennedy Space Center. At the time, I wasn’t looking for a five-star experience, just a pick me up from a year filled with let-downs.

According to our one neighbor over the apartment complex, I think his name was Earl, or Ernie, not too sure, he told me about this place before. Apparently, Explorers has been around since the late 1940s, established during a time when humankind was known for drunkenly stumbling out of pubs, rather than leaping triumphantly on the Moon. During the space age, and even to this day it’s been a watering hole for the folks who serve the facilities over at Cape Canaveral. Anthony wasn’t impressed. For him, this was all flash, and no substance.


Anthony turned to me, as if his eyes were already peering for an exit sign, before we even set one foot inside, “Umm, do you just want to hit up the Applebees down the street instead?”


“I don’t know man; this place seems pretty interesting. Do you at least wanna check it out first?”

Anthony rolled his eyes, breathed a deep, impassionate sigh, “Sure, whatever.”


Before we could answer the jubilant tones of the hostess, we noticed there were no NFL games, no College Football broadcasts. All three of the flatscreens were set on one channel: Nasa.TV. Anthony drum-rolled his hands against the oak panel, bit his lips as if he would have to bite his tongue, before using it to holler, and he just lost it.


“WOOOHOOO, YEAH, FUCK YEAH, LET’S GO BOYS, C’MON,” Anthony hurrahed, sarcastically raised his voice in faux parade of cheers.


He sprung out of his chair to a beer hall of confused faces and raised eyebrows, “Oh come-the-fuck on people! What’s your deal? The Knights are taking on the Buckeyes right now! UCF vs OSU, hellllooooo?! What type of bar in Florida, doesn’t play college football!”


“This one pal,” a tired voice from one of the regulars shouted out.


Anthony didn’t bother playing the role of searchlight, looking for the unnamed man who decided to tell him what he didn’t want to hear. Instead gave the look of a child denied ice cream for the first time, folding his arms, drooping a big frown, but he eventually calmed down before he got his ass kicked, and just nodded the entire time. I sat there, a little embarrassed, and a lot more upset.


Once again, Anthony’s dread took up space where any moment of relief could be. And it’s not that I’m one of those people who preaches that false gospel, “positive vibes” only. It’s certainly not the best mantra to live by. However, Anthony knows I’m an empath. He knows how much his own breakdowns affect me.


I leaned over to him, trying to hold back my own frustrations, clenching the folds of my neck, grinding my molars, tightening the grip of my enamel, knowing how much worse letting go of my frustration would have made the situation.


I said, belabored by this constant drain he puts on me, “Anthony, ya know I didn’t ask you to come tonight, you asked me. You wanted to tag along, and at first I was elated to see you come through, finally he’s getting himself out of the house, finally we can do something, because I know it could do you some good, but not when you’re acting like a giant dick. It’s super uncomfortable when you get like this ma—"


“—Dude! Grandpa’s wake was just this morning! How else do you expect me t—"


“—and I get it, keep in mind, he was my grandpa too. Keep in mind, this isn’t the first time you decided to tag along last minute and completely unload all your misery onto me and everyone else. I’m not telling you to get over it, hell, I’m not telling you anything, but as my brother, and as someone who knows this roller coaster right now, I need you to try, please, try to have some fun tonight. I know this is hard, and I don’t expect you to just go from sorrow to joy like there is some kill switch in that brain of yours, but am I not entitled to whatever joy I have left in me?"


“No, no you are, you are Jackie. I’m sorry.”


“It’s fine man, just please let me have this night, because I can’t be your therapist again, trying to play a guessing game with your emotions.”


Just as Anthony was starting to calm down, in a soft-spoken tone of defiance, he said, “So it’s a guessing game to you then? Okay! Cool man! Cool! Well I got a cheat sheet for ya, I’m upset, I’m sad, and I wish I never tagged along, but you’re my ride so I guess I’ll just have to wait here.“     


Loss and grief are weird in that sense; the shear difference they make themselves known, and the ways they hide in plain sight. I couldn’t rid myself of mourning over Grandpa Riley’s loss, but I sure as hell knew how to hide it. Anthony… not so much.




We ignored the friction for a little bit, drank Dos Equis and PBR out of shuttle-shaped pints, took shots of bourbon from moon rock-molded glasses, eyed the extensive list of punny local micro brews on tap, such as Meteor Lite, or Aley’s Comet.


Many of the people here were esteemed figureheads in their fields. Aeronautical engineers like Dr. Hugo Kapolsky, one of the many cogs who probably lost sleep helping design NASA’s space probes, or Col. Gerald Hammond, a stone-faced militant who seemed to have little time for happy hours. Yet here they were. Dr. Kapolsky; trading his protractors and blueprint schematics for neat scotch. Col. Hammond trading his brief memos for a 24 oz mug of lager and a game of quarters. I tend to think, like myself, maybe even like Anthony, they maybe started out here as a means of escape.


We weren’t scientists by any means though. Anthony worked as a stock clerk at the local Best Buy, and I was working double shifts at a bookstore down the street. Yes, we were strangers to this space, but slowly we would become part of the scenery.


It wasn’t easy at first of course. It wasn’t like the show Cheers; no one here knew our names. Yet, no matter how close any of us were was a irrelevant, and the one thing that brought everyone together was watching Opportunity the mars rover sent over to collect samples of data. No matter what brawl was on the verge of breaking out, no matter how volatile the tipping point from a week’s worth of confined anger grew: watching the rover traverse such a distant world soothed the savage beasts inside us all, even Anthony.


There was something magical about the Rover, and perhaps different folks across the bar, had different reasons to deem these televised moments magical. As we all, would watch in awe from the flatscreen suspended above the bar as the rover would roam across the Martian valley. A nomadic scavenger, collecting sample after sample. Sifting through the blood orange-painted terrain, trying to instill hope with every passing checkpoint.


I can’t speak for everyone’s take on this, but it reminded me of the PIXAR film Wall-e, except Opportunity wasn’t a glorified janitor made to pick up the trash we left behind. Rather the rover was built to help us salvage a new planet as a plan B if we screw this current one up. There was something magical about watching a journey unfold, and how this event could bring people of all stripes and stars together.


I still remember one time back in September, it was my birthday, and we headed over to Explorers to celebrate, tuned into Nasa.TV on the big screen as we’ve been doing every visit. It was footage of Opportunity. The rover crossed the fringes of the Martian desert and was heading through the low steeples of a surrounding canyon. The scenes of the little rover, going over each speedbump-sized rock, treading through knife-bladed gravel with conveyor belt legs and making it through the other side unscathed. There were no buffs, no scratches, no damage to the rover’s titanium-alloy body. Simultaneously, and surprisingly, amid the raucous parade of cheers, Anthony belted the loudest applause than anyone else in the room.

Like a child with wonder churched across the chapels of his eyes, he clutched his hands to my shoulder, shaking me loose, “Bro! Bro! Did you see that! Did you just freaking see that!? You and I were scared he wouldn’t make it past the last boulder? Remember?”


“Yeah I rememb


“—But he made it! Holy shit! He actually made it!”


I know this is an annoying thing to say to people who might be out of the loop, but to know why a grown man would act like a loud, ravenous child over the passage of a Mars rover unit: you really had to be there. I can say the excitement was a lot, and I could understand how this might overwhelm someone else, but for me, his excitement only kept me more at ease. The happier he was, the happier I was. This was our Monday Night Football. These were our Friday Night Lights. This was our weeknight ritual.


Sometimes when we’d get back to the apartment, retreat to our bedrooms, try to sleep off another night out, I’d sometimes lay awake imagining if he raised his hopes higher than he should have. The truth is: 95 percent of the footage is a blurred, splotched space of nowhere, with static rippling across any point of restful sound. Before the rover’s arrival, there was noise here, instead of music, nothingness instead of something, and I can only imagine if Opportunity had any sort of human conscience they might breakdown from the pressure of being that something people waited too long to see. Imagine being a creature in space, collecting samples, and maybe also knowing there was crowd of drunk, miserable strangers gawking at your journey, putting the weight of their collective escapism into the trek your body embarks; the wait everyone enshrines as worth it. Maybe this was one of the main reasons the government sent machines to another planet instead of humans. Unless we spent years getting a Ph.D. in clinical therapy, I always thought humans weren’t equipped to be someone else’s escape route.




However, all of this magic that we felt, all of the wonder and whimsy that came from this one telecasted feed… it would soon be cut short. On a special broadcast on Wednesday, February 13, 2019, our world would be flipped upside down. It was the same night a thunderstorm ravaged half of the town, but it didn’t stop any of us from hunkering our rain-soaked bodies inside, trying to catch what little broadcast feed we could. We were just finding out about another storm raging light years away. Opportunity was there.


After the news broke, the same news everyone had prayed they would never hear broadcasted, our worst fears were realized. NASA lost transmission. The bar morphed into a funeral home. Not a single eye in the room was dry, struck by how much this little rover meant to everyone, how much their journey became a gospel. Everyone seemed to be having some personal breakdown of their own.


I can say at least for myself, how much Opportunity reminded me of Grandpa Riley. Like Grandpa, I watched helplessly, as another small, boxed figure, who tried to guide the future on fragile shoulders, dying, before any more wisdom could be passed down. As word let out on their death, amid the audio feed of dirt clotting his circuitry, I pictured Grandpa’s death flashing through my own mind. It reminded of the blood that clotted his insides. The final moments, where his breath exhaled like a static hum, how his own body was dented, and crackled, watching his final heaves atop his bed in curtained walls of white, under a bleach sky of florescent lights. Something told me Anthony felt the same.


Maybe it was when the TV broadcast of Lester Holt on ABC News, taking off his glasses with a Walter Cronkite look of despair washed across his weary face, and formally announcing the bad news.


Anthony, in a panicked tone, raised his voice, nodding profusely, “This—this—this is just too much!”


Obviously, I chased after him, and found him, sitting in the first stall to the door, speaking through the graffitied drywall of dick sketches and Marxist quotes like a priest’s confessional, wiping his tears with thinly-veiled toilet paper.


“Grandpa why’d you have to go, why’d you have to go, why’d you have to go,” I heard him weep and fluster underneath his bottled cries.


As I approached him, and knocked on the stall, he unlocked the nearly-broken latch.


I swooped into the tiny space, gave him the biggest hug I could muster, held his head to my shoulder and said, “It’s okay man, it’s okay! I miss him too! I miss him too!”


I’m not sure if Grandpa could hear Anthony bellow his agony from this porcelain throne, or if there was any cloud atlas of harp-playing angels suspended above the satellite shaped ceiling fixture, the same fixture that tried to keep the theme of space exploration alive and well, even in a men’s public bathroom.


What I am sure about, even if by some fabled miracle, his cries were heard, I doubt they would have been answered. All I could do in that moment is be that response when no one else can.


I would say I regret not going to the Applebees down the street that night all those years ago. Maybe thinking of all the ways we could’ve avoided this moment entirely. However, cold reminders probably would’ve still made their presence known. Whether in the death of an underdog we all once rooted for, or at the bottom of a poorly-processed queso dip platter; eventually grief is a bedfellow that gets too comfy and clings to everything. The pain of mourning still lingers, and even without Opportunity’s passing; grief would’ve still found a way.




Tonight, it will be a year since Opportunity passed, but we’re not going out tonight. We’re staying here, climbing to the rooftop of our apartment, and watching space the same way our kind has for thousands of years: by gazing up at the stars themselves. Anthony tells me he can see Grandpa’s face traced out in the constellations, and can see Opportunity’s misshapen body not too far behind. Before I can steady myself, ready to break the emergency glass case inside my heart, only to be an open space for him—he smiles again. He lets the gentle wind of a humid Floridian evening tickle the whiskers of his beard. He lets the fireflies dance around his causal button-up, the naked breeze of nightfall tingle through his cargo shorts, closing his eyes, swaying his worries away.


With a smile of acceptance, seemingly washed across his unshaven dimples, he says, “I think I’m gonna be okay, I really do this time.”


I still don’t know how much truth there is behind that statement, how long this moment for him will last, but the wishful fanatic in me hopes it never ends.  

About the author

B. Stone hails from Brooklyn, NY, now residing in Buffalo, NY. He is the Editor-In-Chief/Reviews Editor at Variety Pack and a Reader at Uncharted Magazine. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bull, Flashback Fiction, Atlas And Alice, among other places. 



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