Sometimes at work he would sit in his office and pretend to type, maybe in an effort to impress those walking by, maybe in an effort to pretend that he actually was doing something, and maybe in an effort to believe the lie that the meaningless garbage he filled the dusty Dell computer monitor on his particle board desk with actually meant something. He never spent too much time doing it, the pretending to type business. It was too easy to interrupt doing nothing with a click or two over to websites that he could get lost in for hours. Sports news. Celebrity gossip. Dirty jokes that he could never commit to memory, which really was a shame because he spent too many Friday nights with friends who always complained that he didn’t have much to say.
He wasn’t a simple man, but he wasn’t very smart, either. It was the being somewhere in the middle that really bothered him. Made him feel average. Run-of-the-mill. Like he could disappear completely and the whole world wouldn’t bat an eye. Unremarkable in every way and destined to leave this world without a trace. That worried him sometimes, the thinking about being dead in a grave. His flesh being devoured by the sands of time. And other small creatures, too. Hungry bacteria and microbes whose scientific names he did not know, but sometimes, in rare fits of curiosity, he thought he might like to know. No. When he really thought about it, it wasn’t the being dead that bothered him. To him, when he died, he would either join the God in Heaven his parents told him about or sleep in eternal darkness. The infinite nothing that his college roommate talked about so many years ago. While both unknowable destinies seemed fairly benign to him, he preferred the idea of the Heaven of his parents, but he sometimes wondered if there could be anything else. A third destiny, something not he or anyone else had thought up yet. But in truth, it wasn’t the Heaven or nothing dilemma that really bothered him. It was the vanishing. Of being forgotten. And while he felt that it was important to leave something behind, he knew it was not for want of fame. He just wanted someone from the future to know that he, Blake R. Scott, 37, of Ashland, Oregon, was here.
July 19, 1859
To my descendants, born and unborn,
It would be remiss of me to not take advantage of this opportunity to say something to you about our condition here in this new land.
My claim to this plot I now inhabit was filed at the beginning of last September. Shortly after, my brother Johnathan and I began to erect a modest house, 49 feet by 23 feet, with a path from the front door leading down through the trees to the road. Johnathan’s home, which he intends to build with stone, is on the other side of the lake. I promised to help in the effort, but a stone house cannot be built by two men alone.
For now, Johnathan is living in the log cabin we have also built on the property. Both home and cabin are standing, but not yet finished. Despite it all, we live comfortably. This is especially true after Louise and the children moved in last month, after a long stay at her father’s home in Wichita.
We are happy and feel blessed, for the property that is now ours and ours alone is a rich one. There are fish in the lake, and the water therein is clear and sweet. We see no reason to pay the $90 or more required for a well at this time. A great deal of the land around us is fit and ready for productive endeavors. Never was a child of God more pleased with his land and good fortune than I am now.
While the timber and prairie stretches for as far as the eye can see, we do not feel a great sense of seclusion in this open country. The territorial government of Lecompton is a mere 12 miles from here, and Tecumseh and Topeka are even closer.
For the past month, Johnathan and I have lent two days of our weeks toward the construction effort of the town’s schoolhouse, just over a mile away. Meanwhile, Reverend Percy, a Lutheran, already has his church up and running. Our family is Episcopalian, but Reverend Percy is a good man and I see no wrong in having our family attend his Sunday service.
Just about every claim in this township is taken up and settled on. When you stand on the hill beside the house you can see our nearest neighbor, who is a good man from Virginia. The front of his property provides a view of the six or seven other properties that are in these parts. Our closest neighbors are decent people who don’t have much materially aside from good tools and better hearts.
We have food and the children are fed, Louise makes sure of that. In time and when the children are grown, I believe the spirit of enterprise that now grasps me will take hold of them, and they will feel as I do now, that this land and country is beyond compare, and that faith, diligence and hard work are the only qualities needed for a life that will reward you with the riches of this world.
In the meantime, we hear of wars and rumors of war when we go into town, but for the time being, we know nothing of wars here inside the Territory, and we pray that God keeps it that way.
Bertram F. Scott
Shawnee County, Kansas
For the last half hour of every workday, Blake R. Scott refused to file or process any more of Barringer International’s Employee Evaluation Reports. In truth, his job was an artless one, and he often felt that if the higher ups ever discovered how redundant his job actually was, he would be let go in a heartbeat. So he always acted busy. Walking from one end of the office to the other with a stack of papers under his arm at 20-minute intervals throughout the day was enough to keep any suspicions about the efficacy of his job at bay. Most people on the fourth floor of Barringer International recognized Blake R. Scott, and some even admired his work ethic. What he did, though – they had no idea.
Fridays were the best days for Blake R. Scott. The mood throughout the office was lighter, and in every department at Barringer International, work slowed down. If he wanted, Blake R. Scott could cut back on his busy walks, and sometimes he did. Fridays were also the one day of the week when the pretend-to-type business was more or less forgotten about. Sometimes, however, and especially on Fridays, a few Barringer International employees would get together just outside Blake R. Scott’s office and shoot the breeze. Last night’s sitcoms. Morning traffic. Office politics. That type of thing. They were never too loud or obtrusive, and sometimes Blake R. Scott thought it would be a good idea for him to join in on their conversations, because it really wasn’t like he was doing anything better or more important. After all, he had opinions about last night’s sitcoms. The morning traffic. Office politics. That type of thing. But as soon as a crowd started to form outside Blake R. Scott’s office, he’d start with the pretend-to-type business. He didn’t know why. The sideways glances from the crowd in the hall came as soon as the pretend-to-type business began, and it never took too long for the clickety-clack-clack of Blake R. Scott’s keyboard to send whichever group had congregated outside his door elsewhere.
Today was different. For once, Blake R. Scott actually felt bad about his pretend-to-type business. He could have sworn he heard one of the girls, and one of the prettier ones at that, say, “He’s so morose!” as she sauntered away with the group. Why did the word “morose” remind him of the word “morbid”? Now Blake R. Scott thought about death. About Heaven. About the infinite nothing. About vanishing and not leaving a trace. He brought his hands up to his keyboard to begin typing again but noticed the edge of his desk had been chipped where it had not been chipped before. The janitor’s vacuum in the night, he thought. He ran his hand along the smooth laminate until he reached the jagged edge and began to pick at it. He picked and pulled until the outer, wooden veneer came loose. Now it dangled there, begging to be ripped off and taken out of its hanging misery. He pushed down on it until it broke off with a sharp snap and he examined the clean break where it had separated. He touched the exposed particleboard and found that it was loose and much too soft. He pinched a bit of it with his thumb and forefinger, pulled some out, and set it on his desk. It wasn’t particleboard at all, or at least it wasn’t what he thought particleboard should be, which in his mind should have been wood chips pressed and glued together or recycled wood shavings or something else along those lines. Instead, it looked more like thin slices of paper. Blake R. Scott brought his face down closer to his desk to examine it and saw that the paper had been printed with what looked to him like Chinese characters. Definitely a Chinese newspaper, he thought. He sat staring at the bit of newspaper for a moment before letting his eyes wander around the desk before him. He wondered about the stories the desk held within, and if they were anything like the stories he knew or could imagine, and if they had been forgotten, or if they would be remembered, and by whom.
“Huh,” he said.
December 29, 1859
To my descendants, born and unborn,
Christmas this year was a good one. Louise baked bread and our oldest children, Richard and Mary, were given new coats. We patched up some of the clothes that don’t fit them right anymore and gave those to the younger ones. All were happy, though Louise was disappointed that we could not make the short journey to town for Reverend Percy’s Christmas Eve service. A snow began to fall that night and it was just too cold.
The ground outside is practically frozen solid, but we stay warm by the fire and keep busy. Johnathan is staying here in the house for the time being. He takes the boys hunting for deer some days while I tend to things around the house and make repairs. The girls are happy fixing meals and helping their mother out with things that need helping. Mary is getting real good at making clothes with the fabrics her mother buys, and last week Larson offered to sell whatever she makes on consignment over there at his store in town.
Johnathan and I have a clear idea of how we’re going to build that house of his. As soon as the weather gets better, I reckon we’ll start to get to work. It won’t be easy, but I imagine we’ll get it done sooner or later.
In the meantime, I’ve been trying to save what little we make here for a couple more horses. We have plenty of space, so I got the idea in my head that with one or more good stallions, we can set the foundation for a good breeding business. I spend my free time writing down plans for this undertaking and talking it over with Johnathan, who thinks it is a fine idea and one that is worth pursuing.
The more I think about the horses, the more I think we ought to do it. Early in the mornings, before the sun comes up, I’ve been taken to carving up this big rock on the property. It’s about as long as a man is tall and comes up just about to my waist. I aim to fashion that rock into a stone water trough for the horses we have yet to acquire. I’m nowhere near finished, and I already broke one good chisel doing it, but like Johnathan’s home, it’ll get done eventually. When it is done, I see it standing there for a long, long time. Long after I’m dead and gone. However long that rock has been there, that’s how long that trough will stay. I just might carve my name in it so you all will know I was here.
Bertram F. Scott
Shawnee County, Kansas
Blake R. Scott pulled up to the University of Southern Oregon in his creaky 1999 Buick LeSabre and parked in the lot behind the Center for Shakespearean Studies building. Every year, Ashland hosted the International Shakespeare Festival, which for nine days added about 97,000 people to the city’s approximate population of 21,000. For those nine days, Ashland suddenly became Oregon’s fifth most populous city, which was a fact that many locals, including Blake R. Scott, were sure to remind their out-of-town visitors of. For now, Ashland was still quiet, though preparations for the big event were being made all over town. In a week, everything would be transformed as hordes of tourists and thespians descended on this quiet community.
On the sidewalk, a man in Elizabethan-era clothing walked past. An actor, coming or going to some rehearsal or another. Blake R. Scott thought about Shakespeare. And Ashland. And why this small town on Oregon’s southern border became infatuated with Shakespeare and how it began. But then a young woman in very pink, very short shorts walked by and he did not think about those questions anymore. Blake R. Scott turned off the car, undid his seat belt, and was about to step out when he noticed the passport-sized photos of himself that were taken for his Barringer International ID card scattered on the passenger seat and floor. They had been in the glove box, which never seemed to stick. He reached over, scooped them up, tossed them back into the glove box and shut it. He listened for the click but there was none, but somehow it stayed shut, hanging on a plastic thread. He thought about fixing the latch this weekend but knew that he would not.
Blake R. Scott strolled down the University of Southern Oregon’s main walkway until he reached the Student Center, where the USO Science Club met. His best and oldest friend, Gary, who invited him down there earlier that day, was waiting inside. Gary ran the Science Club for USO, which did not have a science or engineering department. Blake R. Scott didn’t have anything else to do that morning, and he liked Gary, who had a certain energy and enthusiasm for life that Blake R. Scott wished he had as well. For some reason, Gary liked him, too. Even if Blake R. Scott couldn’t remember any of the dirty jokes he read on the internet. Gary was hard at work on something on his laptop, or at least that’s what it looked like to Blake R. Scott. You never really could tell these days, he thought. Maybe he was catching up on sports news. Or celebrity gossip. Or something.
“Blake, how you doin’ bud?” Gary asked as he closed his laptop.
“Good to hear it, man!”
“You talk to any lovely coeds on your way in?”
“Well, you should. It might do you some good,” Gary said, laughing.
“Old guy like me? I’d just scare ‘em off.”
“Nahhh. Well, maybe you would. I don’t know,” Gary said. “We’re not that old, you know.”
“Well, I’m not. These kids keep me young. I can’t keep up with them, but then again I’m not really trying. At least I don’t think I am,” Gary said, sizing up his old childhood friend. Here was a man who needed something more, Gary thought. What that was, exactly, he did not know. “Anyway, how’s work?”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Uh huh.” Blake R. Scott looked around at the things inside the room. Graduated beakers, Bunsen burners, small, portable solar panels, triple beam scientific scales, other science-related pieces of equipment whose names he did not know and whose purposes he was unaware of. “Nice place you got here.”
“You’ve seen it before.”
“That I have.”
“Well, look, man. I’m really glad you came down here today. I’ve been wanting to show you something for a while now.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“Blake, I’m a dog man. Raccoons do not make good company,” Gary said, trying to get his old friend to smile and lighten up. He wondered if he could pin down the moment in time that this childhood friend of his became so rundown, so defeated.
“What are you talking about?” Blake R. Scott asked.
“Rockoons!” Gary said, with exaggerated, but sincere, enthusiasm. “Basically, you attach a small rocket to a weather balloon and release it into the upper atmosphere. A rocket and a balloon. A rockoon.”
“That sounds interesting, but what’s the point?” Blake R. Scott asked, earnestly. “Why not just shoot off a rocket? What kind of rocket needs a piggy-back ride on a balloon? I don’t get it.”
“Okay, say we’re trying to figure out a way to get up into outer space on a poor man’s budget. Right now, it’s just for fun. But its application could be utilized for bigger purposes on a larger scale. Think about it, getting payloads up into space for less than a thousand bucks will revolutionize our approach to how –”
“Hold on, hold on. I’m not following. I thought we were gonna go get drinks or something today, so start from the beginning, will ya? I don’t see what rockets have to do with weather balloons and why you can’t just shoot these things off into space on their own.”
“Alright, maybe I got ahead of myself there,” Gary said. “Amateur rockets launched from Earth will never reach orbit. Let me put it this way. Have you ever seen those videos on YouTube of these overzealous dads who tie up one of their kids’ toys to a weather balloon and just let the thing go? The higher it gets, the more it looks like you’re looking down at Earth from space, all the while the camera is fixed on the kid’s GI Joe or little pony or whatever.”
“Yeah, yeah, the ProGo videos, right?”
“Hah! You are old. But, yes. They use those GoPro cameras, that’s right,” Gary said. “Now what do all of those videos have in common?”
“Well, at the end they always end up in a tree or some field somewhere.”
“Exactly, but what happens before that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Right before little Johnny’s plastic army man comes crashing back to Earth, what happens up there? Invariably, that balloon always pops. GI Joe will never make it into orbit without some firepower, so to speak.”
“See, it’d be great if that weren’t the case. If balloons could make it up into space, real outer space, floating around in that infinite nothingness, then, well, we wouldn’t need to waste our time hitchin’ rides up there on the tops of massive firecrackers.”
“Infinite nothingness,” Blake R. Scott said.
“Space, buddy! The final frontier! Are you following me?” Gary asked excitedly. “Now imagine we strap GI Joe to a small rocket, attach it to a very high altitude balloon, and just before that balloon pops, BAM! Liftoff at 120,000 feet. One way ticket to orbit. All for less than a weekend in Vegas. Not bad, huh?”
“Let me get this straight. You’re saying you can get Joe into orbit? And he’d be floating around up there? Forever?”
“Depending on the escape velocity and trajectory of the rocket, it’s feasible that we could get Joe to actually leave orbit. Pretty cool, right?”
“Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“Of course, we’re not trying to leave Earth’s orbit. Not yet at least, not today. We’re just gonna attach a GPS tracker to the rocket, and if we don’t get a location signal after about an hour after launch, we can safely assume they’re both floating around the Earth up there and haven’t fallen back down.”
“Smart,” Blake R. Scott said, finally smiling.
“Well? Do you want to see the fireworks?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re launching Marcy today. Now.”
“Are you serious? You named the rocket Marcy?”
“I don’t care what they say about you, Blake. You’re funny.”
“Uh huh. Just show me your rockoon, will ya?”
“Blake, I thought you’d never ask.”
In the open field that adjoined the university to the west, four USO Science Club members - three young men and a coed - were making final preparations on Marcy and the weather balloon, which had not yet been inflated.
“I think she’s just about ready, Gary,” said one of the young men. He wore khaki cargo pants with a chain that went from one of his belt loops to his back left pocket, ostensibly attached to a wallet that Blake R. Scott correctly assumed was held shut with Velcro. The young man wore rimless glasses and a faded, purple T-shirt with a large image of a wolf howling against a moonlit mountain backdrop. He looked familiar to Blake R. Scott. Possibly a neighbor, maybe the nephew of someone he knew. Blake R. Scott wondered if they had met before. The way the young man looked at him seemed to indicate they had. Instead of saying anything, the two just nodded at each other politely.
Marcy was much larger than Blake R. Scott expected. As a kid, Gary would come around with his kit rockets, and he and Blake R. Scott would walk through the woods to a clearing and set them off. But those were never more than a foot tall. Marcy’s tip came up to Blake R. Scott’s nose, and he wasn’t a short man.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen. It looks like we’re just about ready. Ryan, why don’t you start filling the balloon up with helium,” Gary said. “We’re gonna wait about 15 more minutes and then send her up.”
Blake R. Scott thought about overzealous fathers and GI Joes floating up into the upper atmosphere, only to come crashing back down to Earth. He thought about rockets shooting through the infinite nothingness of space, which really was not nothing, but instead, he realized, it was everything, forever. He thought about Shakespeare being performed on the moon and wondered why he would think of such a thing at all. He wondered if Shakespeare ever wrote anything about our place in the cosmos, but all he could remember from the Shakespeare portion of his high school English class was something about “To be, or not to be…” and a stink in Denmark. He wondered if there was anything he could do in this life to be remembered, like Shakespeare, after hundreds of years have come and gone. He wondered about his bones in the ground and he thought about vanishing from the pages of time. He thought about his passport photo, sitting in the glove box of his 1999 Buick LeSabre.
“Gary, give me a minute. I’ll be right back,” Blake R. Scott said.
“What’s goin’ on bud? We’re about to launch.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“Well, if anyone else needs to take a piss, I guess this is your chance,” Gary said to no one in particular. “Launch is in 15 minutes,” he yelled toward his friend, who was now running toward the parking lot behind the Center for Shakespearean Studies.
As he ran, Blake R. Scott tried to remember the last time he actually moved his legs that fast. He was not fat, but he was not fit, and he realized that it must have been years - years! - since he had last done something that required intense physical exertion. The last time he went for a run, he must have been in his 20s. It had to be. He had not owned a pair of running shoes since he was 30, and even then, they had not been used for at least a couple years. Now his heart was pumping hard, and he felt that he could go faster if he wanted, but he feared he would pull his hamstring or groin if he started to sprint. Besides, he knew he had time.
When he reached his car, Blake R. Scott bent over slightly with his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath. His heart beat like a drum in his chest and the salty sweat from his brow that rolled down to the corners of his eyes stung him, but he felt good. His armpits were slick and he knew it wouldn’t be long before the sweat marks showed through, but he didn’t care. He unlocked his car and got in on the driver’s side. The glove box that would not stick was already open and Blake R. Scott grabbed one of his passport-sized photos. He slammed the glove box shut but it fell open again and he left it that way.
When he returned to the field, the balloon was full of helium, held down by a nylon rope. As he approached, Gary called out to him. “You could have just gone behind a bush, ya know!”
“Gary, we’ve known each other a long time,” Blake R. Scott said. “Will you do something for me?” His words sounded pressing and urgent, but he looked happy. Gary thought about what was going on with his friend and wondered if he had finally lost it.
“You’re sweating like crazy, man. What’s going on?”
“Will you do something for me?”
“Well, sure. What is it?”
“Can we put something on Marcy? To send up there?”
“Uh… Well, I don’t know, man. We really have put a lot of –”
“It’s just a photograph. A passport-sized photo. Can we send it up there?”
The Science Club students looked at Gary and wondered who the heck this friend of his was and if their teacher would humor this oddball’s strange request.
“I don’t know, Blake. How are we going to do this? I’m afraid taping it on or something might –”
“We can do it,” Ryan interrupted. “Here, let me see it.”
Blake R. Scott took the passport-sized photograph of himself out of his pocket and handed it to the young man.
“We can slip it in through the top of the plastic coating here just underneath Marcy’s nose,” Ryan said, demonstrating. “You won’t be able to see it from the outside, but it’ll be up there. I’ll put it in now so we can get this show on the road.”
“Wait,” Blake R. Scott said. “I want to write something on it if that’s alright. Does anyone have a pen?”
Ryan reached into the cargo pocket of his khaki pants and handed Blake R. Scott a black Bic pen. “And here’s your photo,” he said, handing it back over.
Blake R. Scott used the palm of his right hand as the surface for which to write down a few words on the back of his passport-sized photograph. “Okay,” he said. “Here you go.”
“Lefty. Just like me,” Ryan said as he tucked the picture of Blake R. Scott’s face into Marcy.
“Okay, let’s do this, people!” Gary yelled. “Blake, why don’t you untie that rope?”
Blake R. Scott untied the nylon rope from the helium-filled balloon and before he could so much as try to hold the thing down, it quickly rose and took Marcy up with it.
“Don’t worry, Blake. That’s how it works,” Gary said, reassuring his friend. “I forgot to mention how anti-climactic this is. No countdown or anything, in case you were wondering. Now we just hang around for an hour or so. If we don’t get a signal by then, there’s a good chance Marcy and you are floating around up there.”
“You said there was going to be fireworks,” Blake R. Scott said, feigning disappointment.
“I lied,” Gary said.
Marcy and the balloon gained altitude and continued to rise until Blake R. Scott could barely track them with his eyes anymore. Before long, the rockoon was a distant white speck that slowly became swallowed up by the seemingly infinite expanse of clear, blue sky.
“By the way,” Gary said. “What’d you write on your photo?”
“Blake R. Scott was here,” he said.