Sunday Stories: “Visiting Pluto”

Visiting Pluto
by Sean Ulman 

After six years of false starts and cancelled plans, Joel, a bank broker, brought his wife and son from Chicago to visit his siblings, Rhonda and Peter, and Seward.

His sister cared for their pained brother ever since his nervous breakdown eight years ago. Her mental health, daily subjected to her patient’s futile fixations, alien alliances and riptide rationales, had, staggeringly, only faintly deteriorated.

While his older brother half hugged his sister nurse, who stayed seated rocking in a creaky rocking chair, Peter approached his sister-in-law and nephew. The child’s blue eyes pooled with curiosity and apprehension as he turned over his mother’s bony hand, inspecting it as though it were a spider’s web ensnaring insects, pollen and tatters of other spiders’ withered webs.

The father watched his brother cross the room and offer his hand, which his son loyally accepted despite his anxious wife’s shielding half turn. “Well well…” the father remarked, mustering a mask’s smile, setting his hands on his hips, taking stock of the banal décor.

Sanatorium white paint peeling, revealing a wallpaper maze of dizzying dots. A soiled leather love seat’s cracked cushions oozing eruptions of moldy foam. The glass top of an antique teak coffee table, cracked, cutting a ridged mountain range. A dry aquarium overgrown with dead plants and mud dust. In a sun-flooded corner, a gerbil’s labyrinthine palace of pastel plastic tubes, unhitched, dead-ended in rollercoaster coils, detoured to a stack of unarmed mousetraps, a multi-chambered ant farm, sawdust deposits, a sharpie-shaded wall mouse hole. In the center of the room, near Joel’s feet, was a dissected hard drive, guts of wires and switchboards levitating out of the cavity disconnected. In another corner beside a needleless Christmas hemlock and slivered shards of ornaments glowing dully on the dusty floor, was a present in a TV-cardboard box, blue foil paper, pink tinsel bow. A clover of old blue balloons slumped to the floor like wilted blossoms.

Joel’s family’s most recent postponed visitation was five months ago, within a week of the boy’s 4th birthday.

The child lurched toward the decrepit package. Releasing the boy’s hand, his uncle simultaneously dropped the lawnmower motor part he held in his other hand. As if checking her stocking for runs, the mother counted taped-up fingernail scrapes on the gift’s skin and clutched her son’s hand.

Creeping toward the box, Peter scratched his head, streaking his hair with grease.

The nurse’s lullaby lull, the voice of a wizened finch, was heard.

“Pluto, let’s let Robbie open his birthday gift today. This time, let’s.”

Her patient crawled to a nearby trunk and hatched it open, his gleaming eyes expecting sunken treasure. He dragged out a ragged inflatable boat and began blowing it up. His mouth suctioned as his eyes bulged and shrank. The nurse imagined the raft was an inhaler.

“Happy half birthday, Robbie,” Rhonda said, looking from her nephew to the gift and finally up at her sister-in-law with a mother’s ire that commanded the prim freshly-permed mom to release him.

Let down in the past by lackluster prizes (sweaters, board games, blankets), Robbie shyly removed the paper in thin strips, suspecting that this bonus would be the last paper he would tear off some promising box for an amount of time so enormous it fizzled on his comprehension’s horizon.

Meanwhile the patient left the raft half-inflated and walked with austere posture to the unsheathed window. Turning his oval mirror set in chestnut woven wood, he fixed particles of fogged sunlight and meekly flung them about the room, imagining he was drying jellyfish. Disappointed with the pallid lighting, Peter dug bits of flint and steel out of his hot pink fanny pack (carelessly spilling various articles: handkerchief, gum pack, super bouncy ball, crystalline unicorn figurine, thermometer, thimble) and lifting his arms above his brother’s head, thereby subjecting him to an odorous ambush, began scratching the metals until a wick took.

A crude cracked beeswax lantern offered a ring of tender incandescence. Watching his son lift an aircraft immaculately articulated from lightweight woods and plastics, the father did not notice the droplets of wax kissing his shoulders. The boy’s flattered grin as he gently twirled the propeller caused the father to tear up. Passionately drawn to the show of emotion his brother bear-hugged him. Molten beeswax dribbled on both their crowns as Joel allowed Peter to smear his freshly lathered forelock with a greased palm. Twirling tightly, as if on a crowded dance floor, Peter spun out to lustily accost his suspecting sister-in-law. Tongue out touching himself, he swerved toward her, rhapsodizing.

“Tea time, lemon pie, sugar-me-cubes, two honey dollops, come honey, let’s see have that nectar neck.”

Rhonda and Joel intercepted their brother benevolently – tender squeezes, pats typically applied to family pets. The nurse whispered positive possible topics.

“Let’s tell about the float plane. The play dough playground. Or, how bout your favorite planet?”

Pummeling his brother with abstract facts about the former smallest planet, Peter hardly noticed the family’s transfer out of doors, a verdict he often waffled over for hours.

The boy was eager to test-fly his uncle’s shrewd design. The breeze, fanning a steady 6 knots, was sufficient. In the empty RV lot beside the bay the boy sent the plane into flight. Gliding for seven seconds it finished with a soft dog leg left. On his second launch the mini airliner flew only four seconds but dipped, rose and boomeranged half way back.

After deftly passing his brother’s rambling cosmic babble off on his wife, the father had a turn. Hesitating in his windup like a Japanese pitcher, he followed through on a fastball. The nose-diving plane crashed short of home plate. Laughing a tickle fight tirade, Pluto recovered the plane. From his pink fanny pack he removed the pack of gum and a tangle of rubber bands. Rapidly chewing two peppermint sticks, he plucked from the gravel a skipping stone lighter than a quarter.

Robbie scrambled over to monitor his uncle’s repairs. His mother met them. Gazing into the hazy firmament with peppy oxygen-petted pupils that were accustomed to parallel walls and indoor electric lights, the dazed nurse followed the woman lazily.

A gust rippled the harbor’s flying field. Peter offered the fixed model fixed-wing to his nephew who shook his head and gleefully mumbled, “You, you…”

Trotting to the dry rocks above the layers of slick black boulders, seaweed, and receding tide, taking a ginger step, rising onto his tippy toes – a quarterback in a tight pocket floating a touch pass into the flat – Peter tossed the wood bird.

Instead of the plane, Peter watched his nephew watching it cruise out over the bay. After the silken duck-like landing, the boy’s gaze lifted to plaster-white peaks peeking through mist. Peter surmised that the sparking sun congealing the grease in his hair was responsible for the fleeting mountain view, analogous to melting plastic. Surveying the boy’s aqua irises was like looking in a mirror.

Momentarily able to access reason, Pluto determined that he and the boy, having his brother’s blood in common, were cut from a comparable cloth. Mathematically balancing the pros and cons of gifting the boy the big gift, Peter approached his nephew paternally, rehearsing his relinquishing of the solution to a riddle that might stump the sphinx.

‘This view right now and others like it – remember them, child. Record them pure. Later, no impression, sensation or religion will draw you closer to God.’

Pluto balked at balling his greasy hand around the boy’s shoulder and fragilely set his clean elbow there instead. His greasy fluttering fingers, tingling in the suddenly wet wind, assisted his extension of the lucid lapse.

“This view right now,” he delicately began, “and others like it…”

“Peter!” The boy’s mother squawked. A cocky mockingbird. “Could you please educate me on this extravagant contraption? It makes saltwater drinking water! But how? I mean, no way, no how!”

The nurse had already explained her patient’s pipe-works of gerbil passages twisting about nearby rocks, pouring into toy sand pales.

“It masks the saline flavor,” she had snarled at her sister-in-law. “It isn’t finished.”

The mother, genuinely amazed and hopeful for the fate of the world, could feel her sympathetic and skeptical view of her sick brother somersault into appreciation; hurtle toward recognition of genius.

As the mist frosted sun-sparked peaks and blue sky specks, depositing those jewels in its infinite pockets and folds, Pluto wandered over to his impossible invention and began ineptly manically teaching its systems to his enthralled sister-in-law.

Ignorant of how close his son had been saved from being saved, Joel removed several hundred dollar bills then restlessly re-clipped them, preferring to proffer his sister the full gold-plated billfold.

“Please,” he pleaded. “Long overdue…” He blathered on sheepishly. The words were muffled, buried by his sister’s heckling laughter.

Sean Ulman, worder birder baller server, in that order, is writing a novel about Seward Alaska and Art. Other excerpts can be read at Thieves Jargon, Emprise Review, Stymie, Corium and Cirque.

Illustration by Margarita Korol. (Image of Pluto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)