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Challenger


by Lorna Garano


“An ordinary person going into space. Imagine what it must feel like to be a pioneer of this kind,” Mrs. Trenchway said over the loudspeaker as we settled into homeroom. Mrs. Candiss pointed to the picture of the Challenger drawn on the blackboard. The tongues of fire propelling it upward were red, and the curlicues of smoke below it had been made by rubbing the side of the chalk against the board. I sat down at my desk and took the rolled-up diagram of low earth orbit I'd done out of my backpack. That's when I felt the rubber band hit the back of my head.

           “Houston, we've hit a massive object,” Jimmy Casio said.

           The laughter poured over me like a tsunami of razor blades.

           “She wouldn't fit into the shuttle,” Doug Platterman said.

           The momentum of the laughter was now unbreakable.

           “Maybe she's not such a fatso on Mars.” That was from the new kid, Tom Hettner. A sign of assimilation.

           The laughter peaked and then sputtered into giggles until it broke leaving behind a poisoned silence.

           “Mrs. Trenchway is still speaking,” Mrs. Candiss snapped.

           She always punctuated, never intervened.

           “Today is your last day to finish your Challenger project, so keep your feet firmly on the ground. We'll judge your work tomorrow. Good luck to all of you. Work hard and make the most of the day.”

           A little click followed the end of Mrs. Trenchway's morning announcement.

           “Okay. Get into your teams. If you're on painting get your smock on,” Mrs. Candiss said.          

           My team was assigned the task of explaining low earth orbit, where the Challenger satellite was headed. I grabbed the diagram I had done in colored pencils and brought it to the corner of the room where the others in my group gathered.

           Tom and Doug were both on the team painting the papier mache replica of the Challenger we had spent the last three weeks building, and as they put on their smocks I heard Doug say, “Get her a bed sheet.”

           The laughter hit just as I began to unfurl the diagram. I released it and let it spring back into the tube shape I had rolled it in last night.

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When I opened the apartment door my grandmother's soft snores mixed with Phil Donahue saying She says prostitution should be ab-so-lutely legal, and if you have a problem with that—Too. Bad. The smell of canned tomato soup hung as if the air had been salted.

           I took a carrot cake out of the freezer and began chiseling chunks off of it and then put them in the microwave until they were only about halfway heated up. My grandmother's snoring picked up into hard blasts, and I noticed she had Saltine crumbs on the front of her blouse. I stuffed a hunk of cake in my mouth, flipped to the news channel and turned down the volume. A woman in a suit the color of fruit punch holding a mic followed around a NASA engineer around the Challenger on its launching pad. “This mission is an opportunity for us to bring the average person into the Space Age. It's exciting for us at NASA to have a teacher aboard and to know that her students now and in the future will get a firsthand account of someone who has gone into space.”

           “Thrilling times,” the reporter said and the camera cut back to the two news anchors.

           “Tania?” my grandmother said suddenly.

           “No, Grandma. Mom's working. She won't be home until tomorrow morning.”

           She drifted off back to sleep and her snoring softened and gave way to a steady whooshing.

           I finished the cake, took a jar of peanut butter out of the fridge, and went to my room. I was about halfway finished with it when I decided I wouldn't go to school tomorrow. Someone else could explain my diagram on low earth orbit. Maybe Ginny Thompson, who all the boys had crushes on or Allison McShanny, who was so homely that she went unnoticed. I had just enough prettiness to make them hate me for being fat, and me talking about low earth orbit would be like handing an executioner a rope. She'd shift the center of gravity. Do they make satellites in size triple x? Six astronauts and one flabbernaut. I unplugged my alarm clock and took off my clothes. I got under the covers and splayed out my arms and legs, letting my body spread out like a puddle of flesh, unruly and guided by an unrestrained physics.

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“The weather is cold here at Cape Canaveral, but that hasn't dampened anyone's excitement.” I was blasted awake by the special news report that had pre-empted the morning programs. The smell of burnt coffee drifted into my room, and I knew Grandma had fallen asleep with the pot still on. I pressed my feet against the cold floor to help me wake up. My stomach felt like it had a woodpecker in it. “Some in the crowd have been here for hours. This is an historic day for America and they wanted a front-row seat.”

           Grandma had the recliner fully opened and her feet stuck out of from the blanket that covered her. Her toenails were thick and yellow and looking at them made my stomach feel worse. I poured a glass of milk and stuck the rest of the carrot cake in the microwave.

           The camera panned the crowd of people who had shown up to watch the launch. Some held video cameras up to the blank sky. “What made you come out her today,” the reporter asked a woman with perm-burnt hair. She looked as though an algebra problem had just been thrust in front of her. “Well, it's just a very special day, I guess.” Then a clip of the astronauts getting into a van in their sky-blue space suits and white helmets under their arms. “Kennedy Space Station” was written at the bottom of the screen. I sat on the couch and ate the cake with my fingers.

           The countdown began, and the camera pulled back to give us a full view of the Challenger.  A man's voice said: “Seven, 6, we have main engine start, 4, 3, 2, 1, and liftoff, liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.” The shuttle, propelled by two rocket boosters that looked like high-tech parasites, shot into the sky leaving dense clouds of white smoke behind it. “Challenger now heading downrange,” the disembodied NASA engineer announced as the shuttle arced. “So the 25th space shuttle mission is now underway. Looked like they weren't going get off at times…” Then it happened.

The Challenger exploded in a blossom of death, opaque tails of smoke forked off it. The cloud trail it left behind looked like a spine with scoliosis. A knotted silence followed, the assimilation of failure, of tragedy breaking through the excitement and sentimental pride. Then the collective gasp, the revolt of a thousand stomachs.

I shouldn't have found this funny. I knew that, but still I was gripped with a laughter that made me shake and gasp for breath. This would have to be kept secret, stashed away in some part of me that would always remain untouchable. Set aside with my dreams of taking a corkscrew to the foreheads of Jimmy Casio and Doug Platterman, and now Tom Hettner; of ripping out Mrs. Candiss's hair; of hammering in the teeth of everyone who laughed; of slashing Mrs. Trenchway's throat for no reason other than her association with the school.

           “Did they go yet?” my grandmother mumbled, her eyes half-closed.

           “Go back to sleep,” I choked out between rivulets of laughter.

           I held one of the pillows that Grandma had needlepointed decades ago over my mouth. It smelled musty and I inhaled to try to staunch my giggling with its foul odor. Then I slapped my knees hard. Finally, I stopped. My grandmother was awake now and staring at me. I lay down and my body felt as light as dandelion fuzz.

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