Beautiful!

A MAN SHOT himself last night,” Melinda said. “On Paradise Lane.” The quaver in her voice told Hunter that she was serious. Although why, Hunter reflected, would she-or anyone-joke about something like that?

Melinda looked up from the newspaper. “Actually put a bullet through his…” Her cheeks paled despite the tan she’d developed playing golf upwards of four days a week. She peered at the framed crewelwork hanging above the kitchen table at which they sat. Against a deep blue background, brightly colored letters formed the word BEAUTIFUL! She’d done the crewel herself and chose to include the exclamation point. It bore witness to Hunter’s emphatic response to what he saw up there.

Hunter gazed into his oatmeal as once he’d gazed down on Earth and across the Milky Way from two hundred miles up.

“Hunter, did you hear what I just said?”

Hunter nodded.

“You’re not… how should I put it… dwelling on your birthday, are you? I mean, really, it’s just another birthday today. Besides, they say eighty is the new sixty.”

Hunter rested his hand-on a good day capable of meeting any man’s grip-over his coffee mug. Deep-space blue, the mug displayed the insignia of his lone and unforgettable mission. It came from his congressman. He’d never gotten the hang of using the term representative. A member of the congressman’s staff delivered it the day before along with a personal note. The mug honored both Hunter’s eightieth birthday and his eight-day flight piloting the space shuttle all those years-those decades-earlier. Just refilled and covered by his palm, the mug provided his hand warmth and comfort. Excepting Air Force tours in Alaska and North Dakota, his birthday fell on warm spring days for which anyone would be-should be-grateful. Still, his arthritic knuckles pained him. “They say growing old isn’t for sissies,” he mumbled.

Melinda rested her hand on his. “You’re hardly old. Didn’t I just say that?”

He smiled. He had a wife for whom any man would be-should be-grateful.

“I’m really beginning to wonder though,” she said. “About ordinary people being allowed to have guns.”

“I have one.”

“You’re not ordinary. And you were a military man. Besides, you wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Why? Because I’m old?”

Melinda gave his hand a gentle pat. “Of course not. I mean, the way you came back. From up there.”

THE FIRST FLOWERS arrived just after ten o’clock. Hunter was in the back yard hosing off the patio. He’d insisted that this day be as ordinary as possible. Melinda was out running errands preparatory to an informal dinner with several friends. All local. Some of Hunter’s peers had died. Others were scattered across the Sun Belt. None were particularly inclined to travel. He supposed that he and Melinda also had slowed down. Still, they’d driven north to Yosemite the month before. Then they’d gone on to San Francisco with a stop at Ames Research Center on the way south to see their son Morgan, who held on to his job despite all the cutbacks at NASA. Hunter considered that maybe eighty was the new sixty. He certainly felt inclined to fire up the grill. Turn on the gas, really. This despite Dr. Covington’s advice-urging might be too strong a word-to watch his cholesterol. On the other hand, red meat was loaded with iron. And he still had his teeth. Chewing steak was not for sissies.

As Hunter finished brushing off the patio furniture, the doorbell rang again. More flowers, he suspected. They’d keep Melinda busy watering and fussing for the next few days. At least. A good thing. And while he neither requested nor expected them, he liked flowers. You had to marvel at them-the colors, the graceful lines and textures. And the delicacy. Beautiful things so fragile and short-lived. In their way, flowers were no less fascinating than the stars in their infinite clusters and galaxies. Stars. Flowers. Everything connected. One universe. One physics. One destiny.

Hunter went to the door.

A young Latino man in a crisp white shirt smiled. “Happy birthday, Colonel.” He held out a large square box.

Hunter reached into his pocket.

“No thank you, sir,” said the man. His smile widened. “Not today, sir.”

Hunter took the box to the kitchen. Melinda said he should expect surprises, but this was very much anticipated. He loved chocolate cake, and the bakery in the village made the best. He’d received the same cake on each birthday over the past twenty years since they’d moved to the San Diego area and settled into the house. They intended the house to be their final stop. A final resting place, as it were.

He lifted the lid and grinned. Instead of Happy Birthday, Hunter scrawled in icing, the chocolate frosting bore the single word with which he had become associated: BEAUTIFUL! Not that Hunter had been unique in marveling at Earth from such a distance. He always made clear to the media that he wasn’t the first to say what he’d said, even if he repeated it incessantly as the crew settled into orbit then while it carried out its mission and after they returned. It would have been unusual, he always emphasized, for any astronaut not to use that word. After all, the shuttle passed over Earth at such great speed and with such frequency that he witnessed sixteen sunsets in every twenty-four-hour period. During night traverses, he saw the lights of cities. People-during daylight, of course-were another matter. But if he had seen people, he said, he would not have been able to identify their race or nationality. That struck him as uplifting. Yet it often led him to feel that humans were insignificant. Distance and perspective prompted so many different thoughts. Conflicting thoughts. So yes, maybe he’d gotten a bit carried away, but he’d spoken from the heart.

Hunter closed the lid and noticed a small note taped to one corner. It exhibited the deliberate cursive he learned in grade school. Do not refrigerate.

FOLLOWING LUNCH-tuna on whole wheat for him, salad with half a scoop of tuna for her-Hunter and Melinda drove to the supermarket that anchored one end of the strip mall near their house. The mall offered a variety of conveniences-Starbucks, an organic restaurant, a dry cleaner, a pizza place for Hunter’s monthly indulgence and a shop selling a modest selection of office supplies and greeting cards. Their pharmacy-they required a minimum of medications-was located inside the supermarket.

They parked near the entrance. Not that Hunter couldn’t walk. He loved to walk. He walked two to three miles each day. If it rained or grew too warm, he rode a stationary bike in the spare bedroom that served as his office. A desk stood in one corner, a TV in another. Hunter watched the news when he worked out-CNN during the day and the local news at its appointed times. The news generally was bad. War. Disease. Poverty. The local news gave traffic accidents lots of airtime. That man on Paradise Lane who shot himself-the early evening news would be all over it.

Hunter reached for a shopping cart but left his hand suspended in space. Not ten feet away stood one of those homeless people the news reported on now and then. Probably homeless, anyway. He looked the part. The man’s brown hair was long and uncombed. He wore a gray overcoat riddled with holes-even in this weather. The coat hung limp from his narrow shoulders. A stained sweatshirt-even in this weather-rumpled khakis and shower clogs revealing dirty feet completed the picture of a man down on his luck. If he’d ever had any luck.

Melinda pulled on Hunter’s arm.

Hunter grasped a cart and accompanied her inside.

Melinda produced a shopping list. It was mercifully short. She usually shopped alone, but she’d just had her nails done.

At Melinda’s direction, Hunter plucked several cans and boxes from the shelves. He didn’t mind the outing. There really wasn’t all that much more to do to prepare for his birthday dinner. They’d also be home in plenty of time for that reporter from the local newspaper to come over. The paper wanted the interview to take place on Hunter’s birthday, and Hunter had been agreeable. Not that he craved publicity. He doubted he could add anything to whatever had been written about him. Still, he had a responsibility.

Hunter wheeled the cart into the produce section. Melinda wanted to serve something healthy for dessert along with the cake. She bent over and sniffed. Then she pointed to a cantaloupe. Hunter placed it in the cart. She pointed to another. He secured it. They repeated the process with honeydew melons and grapes.

“Well,” said Melinda with a satisfied grin, “mission accomplished.” She turned and walked towards the checkout counter. They went to the ones with human clerks, not the ones where you had to scan your items yourself. He didn’t mind that particular technology. Technology fascinated him. That and the thrill of speed. And yes, the risk taking. Which is why he’d been who he’d been. But Melinda preferred what she called “the human touch.” He could understand that.

He watched her walk away then pushed the cart forward several feet. He selected an organic apple. Then he went to the end of the counter and took a single ripe banana from a large bunch. Organic.

Melinda, sensing Hunter’s absence, stopped and turned.

Hunter raised his index finger.

Melinda stepped towards him.

He wheeled the cart to the deli counter. A clerk-a young woman in a white apron and a clear plastic cap covering her piled-up blonde hair-offered a smile of recognition. He ordered a sandwich. Turkey and cheddar on whole wheat. Mustard, no mayo. Lettuce and tomato. “And sprouts, please.”

Melinda tugged gently at his elbow. “Hunter, what on earth are you doing?”

Again, he raised his finger.

A moment later, the clerk handed the wrapped sandwich over the counter.

Skirting several young mothers with small children, Hunter went to the dairy section. He selected a pint container of one-percent milk. Organic.

“You’ve already had lunch,” Melinda said. Her voice was matter-of-fact. It indicated puzzlement rather than annoyance. Hunter forgot things from time to time. In fairness, everyone had senior moments. But the stomach knew when it was full.

Hunter helped bag the groceries. They’d brought their own cloth bags to save trees. Still, he requested a paper bag. In it he placed the sandwich, the milk, the apple and the banana. Melinda’s nails were still exposed to all sorts of ravages, so he used his credit card. Melinda liked the miles, but actually the miles were interchangeable.

Exiting the supermarket, Hunter looked to his left. The homeless man stood about twenty feet away. His head bobbed up and down. His feet shuffled as if he were dancing. He turned halfway round and shrugged a single shoulder as if he was engaged in conversation. If so, it was only with himself.

Hunter wheeled the cart towards the man and held out the paper bag. The Bible, he recalled, said that man does not live by bread alone. But without bread, Hunter knew, people starve to death. You just had to watch the news.