Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. Fiction is published in Scarlet Leaf Review, West Trade Review, Easy Street, The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, Bop Dead City, The Airgonaut, Sensitive Skin, Reservoir, The Avenue and others. Photographs currently exhibiting at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California. Website is www.mleephotoart.com
WATERCOLOR IN THE RAIN
The last day of winter had arrived, marking its calling with sleeting rain from a storm rolling in from the ocean. Stan Goltz opened the terrace curtains and sleepily watched the showers through the glass. He brought the plants the night before; it had been unseasonably warm the last week, and his lilacs had flowered so soon.
He stared down at the concrete flooring of the terrace, browned by age and the precipitation, raindrops splattering against the surface. The storm was not as strong as predicted, and after its passing it will be spring, with sun and gentle sea breezes before summer strikes like a hammer. Summer always hits early at the edge of the subtropics. Stan was long used to the weather; even so he still missed home on occasion, in particular the snow. In the 22 years he lived in this country, it only snowed twice in the city, and both were light dustings.
Beyond the change of seasons, there wasn’t much excitement in the high-rise apartments of New City, a section of Antanzia City that hugged the interior beach facing the desert plains on the opposing shore.
The New City actually was not so recent. The apartment blocks were developed two decades before as a response to handle the influx of refugees coming in from Europe, North America and sub-Saharan Africa in the aftermath of sudden cataclysmic political and economic changes. Wars. No rumors—only endless wars.
Like a cyclone breaking the shore, waves of people flew in on crowded jets daily into the two international airports in Antanzia, as well as on the buses and trains from Brazil. The then-government was one of two South American countries that had fully agreed to take these people in. The country, formed as a compromise between the British Empire and the newly-independent nations of the southern cone, had a history of taking in the human consequences of lost causes swept up by history. Where before the people of Antanzia were--for the most part--descended from boats, for several years a generation ago, the newcomers dropped from the skies. A human rainstorm that at times is still resented by the Antanzians, but more or less grudgingly accepted, with some notable exceptions.
Stan was one of the more successful arrivals. He arrived at the airport young but too old already with UN passport in hand, and scars born internally, externally.
He glanced at the twisted fingers of his right hand, which had poorly healed fractures from a stomping boot. They are now arthritic, and his fingers throbbed as he pulled the curtains closed.
The aches flared in this weather. Stan doubled his dosage of prescribed pain relievers. He lay soaking in the bathtub, occasionally turning the hot water spigot with his feet as he relaxed for more than an hour. When the weather was poor, Stan woke up earlier to deal with the arthritis. The sudden weather change caused this to flare throughout, not just in his hand. His lower back was sore, but that was more due to age, his knees felt aflame, with nerve pain telegraphing up his legs. He was due for knee replacement surgery on both later in the summer, but the specialist offered no assurance that it would alleviate all the pain.
Stan could walk without a cane, but not for very long distances, but as before enough to make the tram station and go to work in the city. Not having a cane was a motive for delaying the surgery. He knew he should have had it done before, but he did not want to give in to the pain, and what caused it. Stan also did not want to grow old. However, he admitted finally that holding back the hands of life’s clock was in vain. He made the appointment, scheduled the surgery and requested extended sick leave at work.
That would be three months, which extends into the summer. Stan intended to spend a lot of time on the rooftop of his flat and as part of physical therapy go to his old haunts in the Bricklin district, the part of the city of Antanzia where the migrants and refugees first settled upon their arrival. Only a few remain, the rest having long since moved on, but Stan intended on seeking memories from his first year in the county.
He looked forward to returning to Bricklin. He rarely visited the area in years. The Antanzian Buenos Aries-style coffeehouses were more Vienna than in old Austria. There, Stan could sit back and enjoy his mate and Strega, and watch the latest round of newcomers. They are rather few these days. Now, it is mostly tourists from the neighboring countries, usually from Brazil.
He also considered hanging out on the beach. The sun and sky was rejuvenating. But the in the cafes of Bricklin is where he misplaced his heart. Stan wanted to find the place again where he could recollect.
The monitor buzzed from the living room. Stan let it go, knowing he did not have the time to reach it from the tub. He lingered in the water for a few minutes before rising to return the video call from his daughter.
The tram passed quietly through the morning mists in the concrete labyrinth of the New City complex. The rain subsided but the forecast called for more showers throughout the day.
Stan felt blessed to live here. The New City was a public and private concern; its architects steeped in urbanist theories and designed the 12-square mile campus utilizing contextual, humanistic designs, primarily neo art deco. The tan sandstone-like finish of the buildings gave off brilliant light during dawns and sunsets.
For 16 years, Stan lived on the 34th floor of building 2210 on Rua Korsh, the last three alone, after his wife Mara died in a car accident in the city. That was tough, it left Stan and his daughter Beatriz at a time when Bea was preparing to leave early for Colégio de Todos os Santos, which is in the northern city of Bataille, on the Argentine border. Bea took a bridge year at the local city college before moving on to CdTS. They talk daily, and when in session, Stan comes up to Bataille to visit Bea every third weekend.
The tram, which ran on embedded rails in the center of the streets, passed by the deserted playground where Bea essentially grew up. Stan gazed through the rain-speckled glass and smiled as the tram turned left down the main street toward the bridge into the city.
“There were good times, there,” Stan murmured, plugging in the audio port to his white notepad to listen to music while he read the latest headlines from NdM, the main newspaper and television network in Antanzia.
He thought about the irony of two convinced agnostics sending their only child to a Catholic university, but Bea loved the mountains in the north, and though the education at the national university was superlative, they agreed Beatriz would get lost in the crowd. Also, Stan and Mara had plans for travel before she died. Stupid accident took her away--as she was thrown from a Mercedes taxi going too fast on Avienda O’Doul after it struck a bus from behind.
She lay in the street, seeped in her blood and in shock, speaking endlessly in French before closing her eyes, drawing her last breath. A witness, who understood French, told Stan that Mara was addressing him. She rambled about the sun, the moon, and stars, and how she loved him more than all the fishes in the sea.
They were in their 30s when they met, two exiles from respective lands: he from the United States, Mara from France. They spoke in silly romance speak out of style for their day, but in the bars and cafes of Bricklin it was part of the new normal all the refugees had invented, with swing dances on Thursdays and tango every night.
Stan listened to Trane’s Love Supreme as the tram crossed the bridge into the city. More than all the stars in the sky, he remembered, and the moon and sun. This is how Mara loved me so.
The only complaint Stan had in his office regarded every time the weather changed suddenly, that is, the doors were difficult to close. They never shut properly without a stiff push, and this despite the improvements to the locking mechanisms over the time he worked for the PR firm, the largest in the country.
It took him less than nine years to work up to the top of senior associate director, responsible for a staff of twenty in the science and technology department. Their clients included multinationals and the local bureaus of a dozen embassies of important countries, all with a stake in the International Space Station and the proposed Mars colony.
The initial launches were last year; rockets going up from eight separate locations, sending prefabricated buildings, equipment and the work crews, and after completion early next year, a single launch with the first six cosmonauts to establish what was hoped to be a permanent human scientific settlement on Mars.
His work included overseeing the articles by space industry executives and technicians lending positive spin on their work for a Latin American audience, particularly with Brazilians, who were financially heavily involved in the project and the site of two of the launches. He was in partnership with the firm’s Sao Paulo office, but his command of Portuguese and writing style made him the point person for public relations.
He liked his work. It was never boring and the advances in verbal communications allowed him to use audio transcription to write and he had the best assistant, Victor. He expected his promotion to cross his desk for his approval soon.
His right hand, though not completely useless, made it painful to use a keyboard. It was Mara who had talked him out of hiding his clawed fingers.
“Let them know,” she would tell him. “They need to know who you are, and for you to be proud of what you had endured.”
No one in the office ever asked, but when Stan placed his hand at the table during meetings they all knew. Sitting at the desk, Stan again grimaced as he began his hand exercises, trying as he did several times a day to stretch his fingers. Sometimes he got them to spread almost flat, but it was always painful. On a morning like today, with the rain again pounding against his office window, he felt like screaming. It hurt that bad.
Finally, he quit and tapped the drawer that held the bottle of ibuprofen. He swallowed dry the two fast dissolving capsules, and sighed deeply. He could hear Mara’s voice in his head. “See? I knew you could do it.”
“Yes, my love,” Stan said. Thank you.”
He checked his messages from clients, and began reading. Victor will arrive in fifteen minutes.
Victor, as usual, was ahead of Stan—way ahead in the game. The young man’s ambition matched his sincerity and Stan was going to miss him. He worked for him for five years, straight from graduation from the National University, and Stan remained grateful for helping him out during the aftermath of Mara’s death. Those were days when Stan couldn’t function. Victor would step in and correct his writing, doing spot pieces on the fly in the times Stan couldn’t focus on a single sentence.
Yes, he will be missed. But, there will be a good replacement at the ready.
Victor had the day’s schedule. The daily morning meeting at ten sharp in the main conference room, and Stan dictated minor corrections to his talking points. Afterward was the big job—an interview with the chief engineer of the Mars colony. Both had gone over his biography and the questions several times but they did one more run-through for chance’s sake.
Victor left to get another coffee refill for both. They liked them light, two packets of artificial sweeteners. Stan checked for new messages.
The board meeting went as expected. People like the sound of their own voices, particularly executives in media promotions. Most were Antanzians—the two UNtanzians, as Stan and fellow refugees were still contemptuously called, despite years of citizenship and their own hypocrisy—were Stan and Karla, originally from Mexico. She had a rougher ride in her past than him and spoke little during the meeting, preferring to take her own notes of instead relying on her assistant.
They worked together for five years. Most days consisted of knowing glances and conversations that ended at the precipice when it veered toward anything regarding their respective pasts. She stopped staring at his hand long ago, but that did not matter. His hand was still there, clawed and discolored. Amazing the damage a punk wearing a boot applied with full force several times can do to a hand on a concrete floor. He did a lot more to Stan, and on several occasions, but the hand is what everyone can see. Since he arrived in Antanzia half a lifetime ago, only Mara and several physicians saw the electrical cable burns on his back and legs, which is why Stan preferred to swim only in the rooftop pool late at night, and even then often wore a t-shirt. While he loved the beach, the shirt stayed on.
One of these days, Stan thought at the meeting, he ought to throw his worn-out UN refugee passport on the table and resign, but he liked his job and had been a citizen for twelve years. It shouldn’t matter anymore.
He also stared across the table at Karla. She was ten years younger, and far greyer than him, her hair tied up in a bun, eyes staring ahead at each speaker, scratching away with her stylus on the electronic notepad each of them had set in front of them at their spots.
Her body was more covered than him. For instance, Karla never showed her shoulders. Stan didn’t like to speculate what she went through. It’s the kind of thinking that’s why being called UNtanzian, though hurtful, was easy to endure over time. You can ignore an insult, but never a boot.
He was called on. Stan switched to business and spoke.
After the meeting, Stan returned to the office and prepped one final time for the interview. He clicked on the profile of the chief engineer for the Mars mission and looked for something new to add to his already copious notes. He prided himself on his thoroughness, and wanted this profile to be a stellar addition to his portfolio.
Victor buzzed his receiver.
“Sir, Dr. Stewart has arrived.”
"And good morning to you, sir,” Stan said as he walked behind his desk and stretched out his hand. While shaking hands, he held his tongue firmly to the roof of his mouth as Mara had taught him. It was throbbing as he took his seat on the office couch with Stewart.
Victor excused himself and closed the office door, pulling the door tight. Stan pressed the button on the couch arm to activate the recorder. For the priority interviews he did not want Victor involved. He wanted no distractions for the subject—being alone in the room with a single person always made them more comfortable, particularly for a high-profile person such as Desmond Stewart, chief engineer for the international Mars colony mission.
As a good media promotions specialist should, Stan knew his subject well enough to open up for the particulars, allowing them to feel free to expound extensively with their answers.
A good PR person has to have empathy. Stan rose high in the ranks more for that than ever for his writing abilities. Desmond Stewart was the perfect person for him to write about.
What a story this man has, Stan thought. Desmond Stewart was born in Trinidad, educated at the University of the West Indies and Oxford. Read for his masters and later earned his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh and MIPT in Moscow.
Even while a graduate student, Stewart worked in the Gagarin Mars program and was selected as flight engineer for the third manned mission to Mars, commanded by Gudkova, the first human to set foot on the Martian surface.
Stan was struck at how the man fit the cosmonaut profile, which is seemingly why they were picked. Height around six feet, fit, but not very muscular, with a poised bearing but relaxed—he came across as civilian rather than military. The cosmonaut was a mix of South Asian and African with some Irish on the maternal side.
Stan asked, “Are you more comfortable speaking English?”
“Yes,” said Desmond Stewart. “Sounds like you would be, too.”
“It’s our first language.”
The cosmonaut folded his hands over his knee. The suit was neatly creased, old-style gray wool fabric. The Russians spared no expense in presentations.
“Then, let’s get on with it,” said Stewart.
The interview went on for an hour. An easygoing affair; Stan asked the obvious questions, and Chief Engineer Stewart responded with predictable answers. Stewart spoke of life on Trinidad. His father raised horses, and spoke about riding his favorite on the beach. He had an early interest in astronomy, which led to astrophysics, but he also had an interest in architecture, and in making things work. He liked to take things apart and put them back together again, and his myriad of talents got him to West Indies and on to Oxford.
They spoke about Mars, the importance of the mission, and the establishment of a permanent human presence on the red planet. Stewart spoke of his confidence in the work already done, and praised the vision of the Gagarin team in providing the resources and training for the upcoming mission. He set aside special praise for Commander Gudkova, and gushed about her leadership,
Stan nodded along, interjecting with follow up questions. Within minutes after the beginning, he knew full well Stewart was not at all confident in the mission. There is speaking confidently, and then there is the body language. Stan noted Stewart’s tenseness, especially when he discussed the work already being done on the Mars base in preparation for their arrival. In fact, Stan noted a touch of—if not fear—dread in Stewart’s mannerisms as he spoke measuredly of the construction work on the planet.
After nearly an hour, the interview concluded. Stan had what he needed for the story. After Victor transcribed it, Stan would write around his selected quotes, sending the manuscript to Victor for proofreading.
After Victor finished his corrections, Stan would make any additional changes, if needed, and then send the story on to the firm’s review board. They check, sign off, and the copy is put on the news service sites. NdM, Reuters. AFP America Latina and other news sources pick it up. The cable and online networks use rewritten copy along with the digital B-roll the Russians provided and after a week of repetitive cookie cutter broadcasts and newspaper puff pieces, Stan gets a pat on the back from the firm’s executive board, although by then Stan will have already moved on to the next job.
But there was a little problem called empathy. Stan felt really bothered by the interview.
After the interview, Stan took Desmond Stewart on the ritual VIP tour of the office, finishing when they met the company chair and CFO, the affable Antanzian who gave Stan his start. Though Stewart was not the first cosmonaut to visit the PR firm, because he was the first from the Western Hemisphere to go to Mars, he was personally important to the executives. He played the role well in the office: signing autographs, posing for selfies and making good on the small talk.
At the end, he begged off on lunch invites, particularly from the chief. After they returned to Stan’s office to collect his hat and coat, the engineer asked Stan where there was a good place to go in Bricklin.
“I know a place,” he said.
“Take me there,” Stewart replied. “I’ve always been curious about the place and I only have a few hours before leaving for the communications station at Bataille.”
The Café Shakespeare was not where Mara and Stan met. That was the Cedar Bar, which closed years ago. However, the Shakespeare was where they spent a lot of time before moving on to the New City, when the apartment became available after Beatriz was born.
The café was more in the style of an English pub, with high walled booths, decorated with football pennants and old photographs and lithographs of literary figures, mainly from the United Kingdom, though interspersed throughout were writers and artists the owner liked. The owner had a fondness for Clarice Lispector. Framed portraits and book jackets of the Brazilian novelist were interspersed among the British.
They two men sat over hamburgers and pints of the local milk stout. The rain had begun again.
“I have to say, I was really struck by your style,” said Stewart. “I can see why I was only scheduled for the print interview instead of going on the morning television shows.”
“I was wondering about that, too,” said Stan. “We generally get our clients on the shows. Instead, it was just me and then a videographer at the inspection of the station at Bataille.”
“You’re not going?”
“No. I’m just a PR flack. Not a real journalist.”
“Too bad, you do a great job.”
“Thank you. It pays the daughter’s college tuition.”
Stewart took a look around. “So this is the famous bohemian neighborhood I keep hearing about. You know there’s a number of Americans working on the project. Most of them came through Antanzia. They all had stories about Bricklin.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I love the music they’re playing here. Do you recognize the composer?”
“It’s Tezeta, by Mulatu Astake. An Ethiopian jazz composer who lived in the United States for years.”
“Are you still in contact with your family?”
Without hesitation, Stan replied, “I know they are alive. They know they have a grandchild. They know my wife is dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear about that,” said the engineer. “I saw her photo on your desk. I noted you repositioned it to face you before you sat on the couch.”
“You noticed. Well, you are an engineer.” Both nodded.
“You keep her close. Your daughter… how old is she?”
“Nineteen. She is in college at Bataille. All Saints—you probably heard of the place.”
“Yes, I have,” Stewart smiled. “Our resident Antanzian cosmonaut is a graduate, but she’s not going on the mission, as you already know.”
“It is a volunteer-only mission. She chose not to go.”
“You didn’t mention that in our interview.”
“You did not ask. But if you ask me a question, I will give you an answer.”
“Off the record, I assume.”
“Are you coming back?”
The engineer gulped his milk stout. “Not bloody likely.”
“We are talking about a planet that is basically a desert without air. Mars only has trace elements of oxygen, with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, and no ozone layer. Oh, and dust storms. Constant dust. The filters on the spacesuits have to be changed every 45 minutes, and that is at a location that has the calmest weather—if Mars can be considered to have weather. At the very least we are on the Martian equator, so the suits are of lighter material.”
“Yet still--,” Stan interjected.
“Yet still, our survivability declines the longer we stay there. So that’s my job as the mechanic and the theoretician. My sole priority is to keep us all alive. The next year of my life will be maintenance and dealing with situational crises—and perhaps on a daily basis. Equipment failure, unpredictable winds, meteor showers, sudden drops in temperature, which does happen even on the equator. All this I must contend with, and since there are only eight of us after the workers leave, I have to rely on the others.”
“Then, basically, you are alone in the control capsule.”
“You figured that out, didn’t you? I’m not one of the glory boys and girls out doing field samples. I’ve spent much of my training in isolation tanks. Other than radio contact, I may not see my fellow so-called Martian colonists for months. Maybe Gudkova on some occasions. But no—otherwise I will be alone.”
With that, the chief engineer stared away. Stan pressed no further.
After lunch they walked through Bricklin sharing an umbrella. The rain was steady now, and it was getting late. At a corner near one of the major downtown thoroughfares, they stopped to wait for a taxi to take Stewart to the heliport.
The chief engineer turned and pointed out the shredded remains of posters wheat pasted on a closed storefront.
“Now, that is gorgeous. Look at that riot of colors and textures,” he observed. “It looks like a watercolor in the rain.”
As a taxi slowed to pick him up, Stewart added, “Color is what I will miss the most. Mars is as monochromatic as it gets. It’s called the red planet for a reason.”
Stan opened the door for him.
“Thanks for listening,” said Stewart. “I had to get it off my chest.”
“I assure you it is between us,” said Stan.
The cosmonaut paused closing the taxi door.
“You didn’t ask what was my motive for volunteering for this mission.”
“You said it in the official interview. The boilerplate talk about discovery and pushing the boundaries of human experience as one step forward toward the stars, and discussing the intention of moving forward in the next decades to expanding the base as a means to send missions to the Kepler system.”
Stewart smiled. “You’re an exile from your home. I think you understand.”
After watching the taxi disappear into the traffic, Stan turned and returned to the office. When six o’clock struck, he sent Victor home and worked alone late into the night, stopping at times to stare at the portrait of Mara while thinking of the sun and moon, and the stars in the sky.
After sending the story to Victor to proof in the morning, Stan took the tram home to New City. Taking an additional dosage of ibuprofen, he videocalled his daughter and they chatted until both were ready to sleep.
The rain had stopped, the night sky clearing. He opened the terrace door and stepped out. Looking into the night, he murmured, “I love you more than all the stars in the sky, Mara.”
He lingered for a while on the terrace, before returning inside and on to bed.