Corcoran was out of breath, wild-eyed. We’d seen him through the big window, running from the municipal building. No one ran, ever, in Port Whaley.
“Didn’t you hear?” he said, pressing a hand to his chest. “The space shuttle blew up.”
This launch had attracted more buzz than usual because that cool schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, was aboard. Still, regular TV wasn’t even showing it. Just CNN.
I had strolled behind the office to see the last one from Kennedy, the previous April. An elongated dot slicing bright sky to the east, trailing a spark, and an angry plume.
Busy with a roundup about the freakish cold weather, I hadn’t bothered this time. No one had called us, including our editors in Tampa. Still, Corcoran could have seen something on CNN. The town aired it in the lobby, to soothe the old people while they waited. Or, Corcoran, being Corcoran, was bullshitting.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I was sorting quotes from my notebook. Complaints about black ice, busted pipes, mothball-scented parkas.
I had no time for Corcoran, and not just because I was on deadline for my weather piece. I was also thinking about Amanda. A distance had opened between us, the last several months. Something had tainted our chemistry, cooled our heat. We weren’t talking about it. What we did instead was joke about our careers, stalled at another newspaper that might be failing, like our last ones had. What we did, like all the reporters out in the new bureaus, was complain about the ghastly gerontocracy we lived in. About the people who were supposed to be our readers. The Rust Belt retirees who kept coming, lured by the thousands to vast, shoddy subdivisions in reclaimed marsh.
Now Amanda’s clockwork period was two weeks late. We planned to talk Saturday in Luce River, fifty miles north. The Witness had assigned her to an outpost it opened there, in a new strip mall.
What I wanted to do Saturday was tell her about the decent, large-ish apartment I’d found, for us, maybe. It was in Fair Bay, a rundown hamlet with a tiny ugly beach, but still a beach, halfway between our bureaus. Another thing I wanted to do Saturday was launch the skiff I kept chained in a canal, and row it out to the Gulf, and just keep rowing, forever.
“You can see it,” Corcoran said. He was amped about something. So we followed him around back.
In the eastward sky the blast and the separated plumes from runaway boosters formed the goaty head of a demon. Malformed horns twisting from a tumor-knobbed skull.
It took Reagan’s commission eighteen months to confirm what leaked within weeks. NASA’s stressed-out managers had steamrolled everyone who knew about the O-ring problems, worsened by the cold, that let hot gas spew inward from the right-side booster.
As these stories dribbled out, we began to question our own bosses. Were they gambling, too? They kept opening these bureaus in the boonies, insisting that “hyperlocal news” would entice cranky pensioners.
But finally we believed Tevis, Corcoran’s buddy from ad sales. She started drinking with us not long after the O-ring rumors surfaced. She told us polls showed that even old people preferred CNN to print. And local data showed that our old people, in particular, were cheapskates, another reason advertisers wouldn’t buy.
“You want to know the truth, all these old fucks really want is sweet oblivion,” Tevis said, late one Thursday night. Two weeks later she quit.
But all that was later. As we tore our eyes from the sky and charged back into the office to cover the local reaction, I had no idea what was coming, for NASA or newspapers or myself. Who ever does?
Another thing I didn’t know was that Amanda would call Friday, three days post-catastrophe, with the hyperlocal news that she’d gotten her period. The exact moment she told me I was scanning a NASA timeline we’d published, and I read: 11:42 a.m.: Crew compartment impacts ocean. Were the seven heroes still alive and conscious then?
It seems quaint, these days, that such speculation was downplayed in the Witness, because the editors considered it unseemly. But at dinner Saturday, that’s all Amanda and I wanted to talk about. Like all the CNN-watching old people we’d interviewed, all week long. Like everyone else on Earth.
Michael Wade is a writer in North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Cabinet of Heed, Easy Street, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, formercactus, and elsewhere. He has worked as a journalist, critic, research scientist, and biotechnology exec, among other things. Twitter: @michael_mwade.