Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Dissident Gardens, is available now. "Walking the Moons" appeared on Joyland during its first year.
“Look,” says the mother of The Man Who Is Walking Around the Moons of Jupiter, “he’s going so fast.”
She snickers to herself and scuttles around the journalist to a table littered with wiring tools and fragmented mechanisms. She loops a long, tangled cord over her son’s intravenous tube and plugs one end into his headset, jostling him momentarily as she works it into the socket. His stride on the treadmill never falters. She runs the cord back to a modified four-track recorder sitting in the dust of the garage floor, then picks up the recorder’s microphone and switches it on.
“Good morning, Mission Commander,” she says.
“Yes,” grunts The Man Who, his slack jaw moving beneath the massive headset. It startles the journalist to hear the voice of The Man Who boom out into the tiny garage.
“Interview time, Eddie.”
“Mr. Kaffey. Systems Magazine, remember?”
“O.K.,” says Eddie, The Man Who. His weakened, pallid body trudges forward. He is clothed only in jockey undershorts and orthopedic sandals, and the journalist can see his heart beat beneath the skin of his chest.
The Mother Of smiles artificially and hands the journalist the microphone. “I’ll leave you boys alone,” she says. “If you need anything, just yodel.”
She steps past the journalist, over the cord, and out into the sunlight, pulling the door shut behind her.
The journalist turns to the man on the treadmill.
“Uh, I’m Ron Kaffey. Is this O.K.? Can you talk?”
“Mr. Kaffey, I’ve got nothing but time.” The Man Who smacks his lips and tightens his grip on the railing before him. The tread rolls away steadily beneath his feet, taking him nowhere.
The journalist covers the mike with the palm of his hand and clears his throat, then begins again. “So you’re out there now. On Io. Walking.”
“Mr. Kaffey, I’m currently broadcasting my replies to your questions from a valley on the northwestern quadrant of Io, yes. You’re coming in loud and clear. No need to raise your voice. We’re fortunate in having a pretty good connection, a good Earth-to-hookup, so to speak.” The journalist watches as The Man Who moistens his lips, then dangles his tongue in the open air. “Please feel free to shoot with the questions, Mr. Kaffey. This is pretty uneventful landscape even by Io standards and I’m just hanging on your every word.”
“Explain to me,” says the journalist, “what you’re doing.”
“Ah. Well, I designed the rig myself. Took pixel satellite photographs and fed them into my simulator, which gives me a steadily unfolding virtual space landscape.” He reaches up and taps at his headset. “I log the equivalent mileage at the appropriate gravity on my treadmill and pretty soon I’ve had the same experience an astronaut would have. If we could afford to send them up anymore. Heh.” He scratches violently at his ribs, until they flush pink. “Ask me questions,” he says. “I’m ready at this end. You want me to describe what I’m seeing?”
“Describe what you’re seeing.”
“The desert, Mr. Kaffey. God, I’m so goddamned bored of the desert. That’s all there is, you know. There isn’t any atmosphere. We’d hope for some atmosphere, we had some hopes, but it didn’t turn out that way. Nope. The dust all lays flat here, because of that. I try kicking it up, but this isn’t any wind.” The Man Who scuffs in his Dr. Scholl’s sandals at the surface of the treadmill, booting imaginary pebbles, stirring up nonexistent dust. “You probably know I can’t see Jupiter right now. I’m on the other side, so I’m pretty much out there alone under the stars. There isn’t any point in my describing that to you.”
The Man Who scratches again, this time at the patch where the intravenous tube intersects his arm, and the journalist is afraid he’ll tear it off. “Bored?” asks the journalist.
“Yeah. Next time I think I’ll walk across a grassy planet. What do you think of that? Or across the Pacific Ocean. On the bottom, I mean. ’Cause they’re mapping it with ultrasound. Feed it into the simulator. Take me a couple of weeks. Nothing like this shit.
“I’m thinking more in terms of smaller scale walks from here on in, actually. Get back down to Earth, find ways to make it count for more. You know what I mean? Maybe even the ocean isn’t such a good idea, actually. Maybe my fans can’t really identify with my off-world walks, maybe they’re feeling, who knows, a little, uh, alienated by this Io thing. I know I am. I feel out of touch, Mr. Kaffey. Maybe I ought to walk across the cornbelt or the sunbelt or something. A few people in cars whizzing past, waving at me, and farmers’ wives making me picnic lunches, because they’ve heard I’m passing through. I could program that. I could have every goddamn mayor from Pinole to Akron give me the key to their goddamn city.”
“Sounds O.K., Eddie.”
“Sounds O.K.,” echoes the Man Who. “But maybe even that’s a little too much. Maybe I ought to walk across the street to the drugstore for a pack of gum. You don’t happen to have a stick of gum in your pocket, Mr. Journalist? I’ll just open my mouth and you stick it in. I trust you. We don’t have to tell my mother. If you hear her coming you just let me know, and I’ll swallow it. You won’t get in any trouble.”
“I don’t have any,” says the journalist.
The Man Who walks on, undaunted. Only now something is wrong. There’s a hiss of escaping liquid, and the journalist is certain that the Man Who’s nutrient serum is leaking from his arm. Then he smells the urine and sees the undershorts of The Man Who staining dark and adhering to the cave-white flesh of his thigh.
“What’s the matter, Kaffey? No more questions?”
“You’ve wet yourself,” says the journalist.
“Oh, damn. Uh, you better call my mom.”
But The Mother Of has already sensed that something is amiss. She steps now back into the garage, smoking a cigarette and squinting into the darkness at her son. She frowns as she discerns the stain, and takes a long drag on her cigarette, closing her eyes.
“I guess you’re thinking that there might not be a story here,” says The Man Who. “Least not the story you had in mind.”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” says the journalist quickly. He’s not sure if he hasn’t detected a note of sarcasm in the voice of The Man Who by now. “I’m sure we can work something up.”
“Work something up,” parrots The Man Who. The Mother Of has his shorts down now, and she’s swabbing at his damp flank with a paper towel. The Man Who sets his mouth in a grim smile and trudges forward. He’s not here, really. He’s out on Io, making tracks. He’s going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The journalist sets the microphone back down in the dust and packs his bag. As he walks the scrubby driveway back to the street he hears the Man Who Is Walking Around the Moons of Jupiter, inside the garage, coughing on cigarette fumes.