Grandma Kat in Outer Space
Grandma Kat had recently taken to sliding down the handrails of our family’s staircases. She’d clutch a photo of our late beloved Grandpa Carl, hike up her favorite black dress to avoid getting caught on the railing, and shout “Weeeeee!” as she picked up speed and shot down to earth. This was dangerous enough behavior in the family’s small children, who bounced back from injuries with scraped knees and lessons learned; in an eighty-seven-year-old woman, it was a one-sided courtship with death.
She had seven daughters, all working single mothers taking care of her twelve granddaughters; the men in our family tended to die young or slink away in the night. We didn’t have time to watch her ourselves and we didn’t have money to pay others of our human disposition. So, when they opened the first nursing home on the moon and asked for volunteer residents, we signed our matriarch up.
She’d be a golden year’s guinea pig in exchange for free rent, helping prove to the world that since Florida had fallen into the ocean, the moon was a perfectly acceptable place for a retirement community.
“We’re not signing her up, we’re signing her away,” Aunt Dory said. But Aunt Dory is prone to dramatics and had no better ideas to offer. The flight from Minnesota to the moon took ten hours; Grandma Kat had never left the state before. She cried the whole way and threw peanuts at the retreating butts of her stewards. The nuts floated up to the ceiling as they left earth’s gravity behind.
What’s the sound of guilt when life becomes easier with a loved one gone? Our homes used to be loud. Grandma Kat had caused more sleepless nights than the family could count. She drank, she sang, she twirled across the attic to Fred Astaire records at midnight, cursing her feet for slowing down with age as she tap-danced in moonlight and fuzzy slippers. Her one-woman parties had been a major factor in us shipping her off to live amongst the robot caretakers, or “companionbots,” in the lunar home’s parlance; but now that she was gone the family’s houses were too quiet, and guilt wormed its way into our ears during the night, a soft buzzing somehow louder than she’d ever been. We texted each other that it couldn’t be helped, it was all for the best. But at night, alone and sleepless, we’d whisper, “What have we done?”
“What have we done?”
“How are you doing?” Aunt Christine asked, but instead of answering, Grandma would walk over to the nearest male resident and flirt outrageously. The men would just mumble for Help and Home and Family, too depressed or far gone to enjoy her comely presence, but Grandma laughed like their moans were playful come-ons. She’d sit in the lap of their wheelchairs and point out the thousands of stars visible above their giant dome. They’d almost seem like teenagers. But her paramours kept drifting off into snores, and the homesick weeping of other residents ruined the mood.
“How’s the food?” Cousin Mary asked, only to get ignored; Grandma Kat would grab a stick, nod to her robot, and say, “Let’s go alligator poking.” Her robot would advise against this but dutifully follow along. She’d suit up and moonwalk over to the golf dome: three holes ringed by murky swamp, installed to give residents an authentic pre-flood Florida feel. She’d enter and find the biggest, meanest-looking gator the shallows had to offer. Then she’d poke it between the eyes with her stick. Her companionbot would waddle up to protect her from the alligator’s wrath. For a four-foot-tall penguin it was unbelievably strong, and many were the space gator we watched fly through the air, wrestled down by the robot and thrown back into the swampy depths. Grandma always applauded after the nastiest fights.
“How can you just abandon us?” I asked her, after a month of one-sided video chats. I was seven at the time and angry with everyone, certain that all of this could have somehow been avoided—if only my mother and aunts had been more patient or we had all lived together in one big house instead of scattered across shit towns forty miles distant. These things just happen, my mother always said whenever she found me watching Grandma Kat on the phone and crying onto the screen. But these things seemed to happen just because we let them happen, over and over. We let the distances grow. We were like astronauts watching a crewmate fall untethered off her ship, and even before she’d floated out of sight, we’d all started talking about how much we missed her, what a great woman she’d been. It wasn’t over yet, I thought. We just needed to reach out our hands, pull her back.
I saw Grandma Kat’s mouth twitch in high resolution. She turned to her companionbot and said, “They abandon me up here, and now they want to know why I abandon them.” She gave her robot a kick. “Only thing that’s stuck by me is this guy. Too stupid to ditch.”
Our family told her that this wasn’t true, just because she was very far away didn’t mean we’d abandoned her, we loved her and wanted to remain part of her life.
“How’d you expect this to end?” Grandma asked.
She didn’t seem to know where the camera was; instead of talking to the robot’s head she was yelling at its belly, and all we could see from our angle was the top of her head, the long, graying ringlets we’d all nestled into at some time or another when grandmotherly hugs were needed.
“You want me to say everything’s great? That the food’s inventive, the companionship superb? You want everything to be great so you don’t have to feel guilty for shipping me off?”
We took this in. Finally, Aunt Mae offered, “We just want you to be happy?”
Grandma snorted. She grabbed her gator-poking stick and told her companionbot to get ready. We watched as she suited up and stepped out. Nothing moved out there, just a sea of gray, lifeless rock. Hers was the only colony for thousands of miles, as far away from us as I could possibly imagine her to be.
Jeff Henebury is a fiction writer currently pursuing an MFA at the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. A Massachusetts native and Minnesotan transplant, he hopes to visit every M-state at least once.
Illustrated by Alex Fukui.