Some people want their celebrity idols to be just that. Idols. Gods. They want to believe that these stars they admire inhabit a celestial sphere apart from the lame world the rest of us live in. But a celebrity, the public avatar of some talented person, is just a carefully edited and curated selection of that person’s best work, best views and angles. Step away from that and it’s downhill in all directions.
That’s what went through my head when I returned and found Kristina, in her ripped jeans and Mötley Crüe t-shirt, sitting on the floor of the toy department of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Burbank, bouncy balls of all sizes strewn across the floor around her. I had just come back from the office supply section with a basket full of index cards, markers, tape, glue, and other crap.
“Like this?” she asked me, and held up one of those big, cheap, inflatable plastic balls, so light it could blow away in a breeze.
She had no makeup on and her hair was up on top of her head in a kind of haystack, but passersby were starting to recognize her anyway. A teenage girl, 5SOS written on her backpack in sharpie, approached with her phone out, hoping for a selfie, but Kristina gave her a look so cold that the poor girl made a full U-turn and departed without slowing down.
“Nope, way too big,” I said of the ball Kristina was holding. “It should be about nine inches across.”
“I thought you said twenty inches?”
“I might’ve said twenty centimeters,” I replied. “About like this.” I held my hand out like I was palming a small basketball. “I think a volleyball or soccer ball is about right. Look for one of those.”
“Fuck. Now you tell me.” She looked at the mess around her.
I handed her a ruler from my basket and went to go look for peppercorns.
Three days earlier, I’d been shooting pool alone when Stepan swept into the game room of his house on the hillside below Griffith Observatory, towing an actress behind him by the hand. His guests were starting to arrive and he was eager that we mingle. He had on his casual party clothes, a navy-and-pastel-blue bowling shirt, Bermuda shorts, and flip-flops, but he moved as he always did, as if he were wearing a cape.
“Casey!” he boomed. “Have you met Molly?”
The actress was famous enough that of course I knew her name, though I had never met her. Her mint-green sun dress offset skin and hair that had the pale, Irish, freckle thing going on. Close up, I could see why the camera loved her.
“Molly! Casey is …” he began. He never finished. The caterer had entered behind him and now she tugged on his elbow with determined urgency. After a short back-and-forth in low voices, they both turned and left the room.
The actress looked after him. An expression crossed her face like a child watching mom leave on the first day of preschool. Then, before my eyes, she reached down inside herself and found that thing that makes everyone love her and turned it on. She smiled with an easy grace and thrust out her hand.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Molly.”
“Casey,” I said, shaking her hand. “So nice to meet you. Your twitter feed is the bomb. I feel like I already know you. …and I mean that in the least stalker-like way possible.”
“That’s what I love about twitter,” she said, “so many new friends.” She kept smiling, but the corners of her mouth dropped a fraction of a degree. I think she didn’t expect to meet fans at this kind of party.
“So how do you know Stepan?” she asked, at the moment before the silence would have become awkward.
“I walk his dog.”
“Really!” she said, and then trailed off.
I was about to tell her the truth when she spotted someone behind me and started waving. Still waving, she jumped up and down and then leaned past me and yelled “Kristina!” practically in my ear.
“Kristina! Come meet Stepan’s dog walker!”
I turned to see another actress, just as famous, not quite so well-liked. Slim-hipped and angular in a short, tight, silvery party dress, she shimmered as she walked up. Her hair was in a hundred-dollar updo, her eyes made-up like smoke blown sideways after rising into a stiff breeze. She looked us over with the stony expression of a woman realizing that she was badly overdressed.
“Dude!” said Molly. “Casey here walks Stepan’s dog.”
“Really?” said Kristina, brightening a bit. “I didn’t know he had a dog. What kind?” I thought she might like dogs more than people.
“A mutt,” I said. “Half black lab, half basset hound. Basically a hundred-pound lab with twelve-inch legs,” I said.
“Aww. Where is he?” she looked around.
“Locked in the guest house. Francesco thinks the dog is a nuisance at parties.” Francesco was Stepan’s husband.
“I get it,” she said. “He is a lab. The begging, the tail…”
At that moment Stepan returned. “Casey! Kristina! Good, you’ve met. Kristina’s going to play Chloë.”
This was news. I stepped back and gave her another look.
“I can see it,” I said, giving a thumbs up.
Kristina’s face cycled from nervous laughter through confusion to a scowl. She turned to Stepan. “You’re running your casting decisions past your dog walker?”
Stepan opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked at the floor and tapped a finger on his lips, like he was trying to remember something. Then he laughed.
“Is that what you told them?” he asked me.
I shrugged. Busted.
He laughed some more. “No. Casey’s in town helping me out with the script; staying here in my guest house for a couple weeks.” He pointed his index finger back and forth between Kristina and me. “You two should talk,” he said. Then another guest hailed him from across the room and he vanished.
“You big liar,” Molly said, and punched me in the shoulder.
“Hey! To be fair, I do walk his dog when I’m here,” I said. “I love dogs.”
“Wait,” said Kristina. “You’re working on TPP?”
“TPP?” asked Molly.
“The Pluto Project,” Kristina and I said in unison.
“It’s just the working title,” I added. “Thank god.”
It was a space adventure script set in the outer solar system. The role of Chloë was a graduate student in planetary science who was central to the entire story. Kind of a cross between Mark Watney from The Martian and Ripley from Alien.
“I’m consulting on the science,” I said. “Stepan says he wants realism, but I don’t know if he means it. Not sure any director wants to know what space is really like. I’m also working a little on the dialog among the science staff. You and I should definitely talk.”
“Yeah, sometime,” said Kristina. “But I don’t want to work tonight. I’m gonna go find a drink.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Molly, and they both left.
I went to check on the dog.
An hour later, I passed the bar downstairs. Its welded steel frames and salvaged pine planks stood in stark contrast to the polished brass and oak of the game room. Molly and Kristina were waiting there, glasses empty. Molly stood in a posture of erect defiance, while Kristina slouched, shimmery and petulant, like a bad date at the prom after midnight. The bartender was washing glasses, ignoring them.
Emboldened by booze and sure that I’d never see them again, I sidled up beside them.
“Hey ladies, what’re you drinking?”
“Sauvignon Blanc,” said Molly, twirling her empty glass by the stem.
“Apparently nothing,” said Kristina as she dropped a cigarette butt into an empty bottle of Negro Modelo.
The bartender, Billie, was the only party bartender in Los Angeles who wasn’t trying to make it in the film industry. That’s why Stepan always hired her. She didn’t hand out showreels on the sly. She just made drinks, and she was good at it. Her downside, or upside, depending on your perspective, was that she loathed celebrities. If anyone acted like she should recognize them, she would make them wait while she served every no-name camera operator and production assistant that came to the bar. I’d seen stars explode at her with indignation. Stepan just laughed and called them “supernovas.”
I slid a down the bar away from the ladies, then caught Billie’s eye and gave her a nod.
“Hey Casey,” she said. “Old-fashioned?”
She was wearing a gray pinstriped Texaco gas station attendant shirt with a red name patch that said “Frank”. The shirt had odd black smears on it as if it had once actually seen use in a gas station. She set out a rocks glass in front of me, her right arm sleeved in a single long tattoo that depicted a lesbian orgy of baroque complexity.
I rocked my head back with a half smile, held up three fingers and looked sidelong down the bar at the actresses.
She stopped. “Christ. Seriously?”
“C’mon. Don’t I always tip you? Use the Jefferson’s. And the Jack Rudy bitters.”
“Don’t tell me how to make a drink,” she said, but she lined up two more glasses.
“So how did you start working with Stepan?” Molly asked.
We had moved to the living room. Somewhere in the house, the musical entertainment had started. Some synth trio from Iceland. I could hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D played on what sounded like an ensemble of electric toothbrushes.
Molly was trying to get the cherry out of her old-fashioned, pushing the single huge ice cube around and around in the glass with her finger. Kristina was sitting in a club chair. She had tried to sling a leg over the arm of the chair, then realized that her skirt was too short. Now she sat with her knees crossed looking uncomfortable and not talking.
“Couple of years ago Stepan’s company bought an option on a story of mine,” I said. “I came out here and stayed in his guest house while we worked on the screen adaptation. That’s when I started walking his dog.”
Kristina perked up a little, whether at the mention of the dog, or the script, I’m not sure.
“Really, though, I just like to walk,” I said. “I do my best writing while walking. A dog makes you look less like a creeper, walking around at night.”
Molly extracted the cherry from the glass and popped it in her mouth, sucking the bourbon and sugar off her fingertip. “So what happened with your story?” she said. “This isn’t ‘TPP’ we’re talking about, right?” She made air quotes around ‘TPP’.
“No, that’s Stepan’s story. I’m just consulting,” I said. “My story didn’t go anywhere. We weren’t able to sell the adaptation. Really, it was a long shot for Hollywood. Everyone dies at the end.”
“Slacker,” said Kristina. “Shakespeare managed to pull that off.”
“No. I mean everyone dies. On Earth.”
“Hm. Well that does seem like a downer.”
“Yeah, like I said. A long shot.” I continued, “The story was about two people coming to terms with their existential crisis in the face of annihilation.”
“Yeah, I can see how that totally makes it less depressing,” said Molly, now trying to get the orange peel out of her glass.
“See?” I said. “When Stepan bought the option I thought he was crazy. I assumed he’d tack on a happy ending, some kind of deus ex machina to save them. I didn’t know him back then.”
“If that’s what you thought, why’d you sell the option?” said Kristina. “I mean, how would you have felt if he’d done that?”
“Bah,” I waved my hand, shooing the thought away. “Totally fine. It would have been publicity and more readers for me. Stephen King had some pretty shit screen adaptations of his stories, and look where he ended up.”
“So no such thing as artistic integrity then?”
“Look. The way I see it, storytellers have been taking other people’s stories and changing them since the dawn of time. At least now you get paid when someone does it to you. Imagine some poor traveling bard walks into Smyrna in seven-hundred BC. For some stew and a place to sleep he tells this poignant tale from the Trojan wars. Achilles is this deep guy, uncertain and conflicted and wanting to please his mother. Then, years later he hears that Homer is going around with his story. Except now it’s a superhero franchise — men lifting ‘stones that no two men today could lift’ and all that. Pretty sure that first guy wouldn’t have minded getting a donkey or a cow out of the deal.”
My drink was empty. I went to the bar for another and when I came back Molly and Kristina were gone. I went back to the game room to see if the pool table was free.
After midnight, the party started to feel rudderless and wild. Stepan had disappeared upstairs somewhere, and a crew of twenty-something L.A. bros had invaded the downstairs bar. They were all big lats and big tats and were in love with themselves like they thought they were the gang from Entourage. In the kitchen, some drunk college kid was walking around in a full-length fur coat, bumping into things. When anyone asked him about the coat, he’d say, “I’m from fuckin’ Alaska!” His friends told me he was from Iowa.
I slipped out the back. My plan was to get away from the noise, to take the dog out for a walk, but I didn’t make it. On the deck behind the pool, where the terraced the yard stepped down away from the villa, the great Cartesian plane of the city lights spread out beneath me, stretching out to the Pacific and infinity. It stopped me short. It always did. It was unreal. All those lights, all those people. No city could be that big.
I stood there and breathed.
From behind me, inside, came the muffled sound of a glass breaking and a burst of laughter. Then, unmuffled as the patio door opened, a woman’s voice shouted, “Assholes!” Laughter burst out again, cut off by the door slamming. A woman stalked across the patio and stopped at the edge of the terrace, twenty feet away from me. It was Kristina. She stood there, staring out at the lights and hugging her elbows, seething, her jaw set, foot-lit by the city, her dress still shimmering. She was even more stunning, now, at this moment, than any actress on screen.
I wanted to run away. The whole experience was starting to have a little too much of a Bob Seger “Hollywood Nights” vibe for me, but it felt wrong to leave her out there alone like that.
“People hate me,” she said after a minute.
“No, they don’t.”
“They do. Ever since…”
“Since what?” I moved closer.
“You know.” She stared at me, her glance an accusation. Her face was shiny. She swayed a bit, then righted herself.
“Hey, that was like ten years ago, right?” I said, guessing at what she meant. “And anyway, that show had tons of fans. Who cares about the haters?”
“You don’t hate it do you?”
“Well, I’ve never seen it.”
“I’ve never seen any of your work, actually. I’m a blank slate.”
She turned and looked at me. “I don’t think you’re supposed to say that to people in this town.”
“Have you read any of my work?”
“So we’re even,” I said. “Anyway, I hate this fucking town. Everyone is so… fake. If people think the problem with your acting is that too much of your own personality comes through… well, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”
“Is that what people say?” she said. She deflated a little.
“I don’t know,” I backpedaled. “Probably not. I’m drunk. Talking out my ass. Don’t listen to me.”
The wind kicked up from out over the city. It was welcome, cool, and I realized I was flushing in the dark. But Kristina shivered and hugged herself tighter. I wished I was wearing a jacket so I could give it to her.
“Has Stepan said anything to you about the project?” she asked.
“Anything like what? I mean, it’s the reason I’m here.”
“Like, you’re sure he still wants to do it?”
“Why wouldn’t he? He’s already hiring crew. We’re working on the script every day. He just said you’re in.”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head like she was trying to shake an idea out of it. “He’s canceled projects before. And he’s gotten so weird and zen and minimalist lately. I’m wondering now if he’s still down with doing a sci-fi adventure.”
“Minimalist? But…” I swept my hand around at the sprawling house.
“That’s all Francesco,” she said. “Without Francesco, Stepan would be living in an Airstream trailer out in the desert somewhere.”
She was right. I could see him under the awning of some vintage camper, in an old rocking chair, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, reading a script. There’d be a tall mojito resting on his belly and cholla cactus growing in the background.
“Anyway,” she said, “we haven’t signed the contract yet.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. I was desperate to get out of there. I felt myself teetering on the brink of saying or doing something stupid. Still, I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her face.
Every time I saw her I thought she looked like someone I should know already. Lose the makeup, and the party dress, and put her in a hoodie under a denim jacket, and she was someone from my past, from back east, from high school. I could see us drinking bottles of Stroh’s and smoking in the woods on a cold fall night. I could see us sharing a pair of gloves so we could each keep a beer hand warm.
The problem was that when I was in high school she hadn’t been born yet.
I wondered if other people had this false deja vu when they saw her, and if it was the reason some people hated her. People say they want the girl next door. But they mean fuzzy sweaters and sunshine glinting off ribbons in golden curls. They don’t mean the one with the strange, haunted eyes and the hole in the armpit of her t-shirt, smoking pot with you in the basement after school.
She turned and looked straight at me. “What?”
“You’re staring at me.”
“Sorry.” I turned to look at the city. “It’s just… never mind.”
“Your eyes,” I said, turning to look at her again. “They’re… they’re very striking.”
She laughed. “Is that the best you can do? I thought you were a writer.”
“Script consultant,” I said.
The patio door opened and Molly’s voice shouted. “Hey, chica! I called us an Uber. Let’s get the fuck outta here! Those dudes are douchebags.”
Kristina turned to go.
“Your eyes are like jade stones discovered in the ashes of a dying fire,” I said.
“Gah! I’m gonna go barf now,” she said without looking back.
“Whatever. You asked.”
She left. I imagined I saw her smile, but it was dark and I was drunk. And anyway her back was to me.
Three days later I got a text from a strange number.
747–523-####: hey kc. stepan said you’re working on some secret project for tpp and i should help you.
Me: Who is this?
747–523-####: its kristina stupid
Dammit. Stepan had told me he might do this. I added a contact entry for the number. First name Kristina. Last name Stupid.
KS: so what’s this project?
Me: If I told you that, it wouldn’t be a secret 😎🤫😈
KS: what do i have to do?
Me: The first thing we need is supplies.
Me: Are you free this afternoon?
Me: we need to go shopping.
KS: yeah, that’s cool
KS: i like shopping
Me: LOL. We’ll see.
I texted her my shopping list.
KS: wtf is all this crap?!?
KS: peppercorns? gumballs?
Me: Supplies! You’ll see.
She had me meet her at some diner on Reseda in Northridge between a tax preparer’s office and a storefront church. I found her in a booth in the back, in jeans and Timberland boots, and a black concert shirt from Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil tour. Molly was with her. They were both leaning in and talking quietly.
“You two make a cute couple,” I said as I walked up. The quip triggered a glance between the two of them laden with indecipherable meaning. Molly brushed it off as I slid into the booth next to Kristina.
“Tell me about my eyes,” Molly said. She looked like she was going incognito, with a ponytail through the back of a UCLA ballcap, the brim pulled down over sleek oval shades.
“What?” I asked.
“Are my eyes like emeralds in a campfire?” she asked, taking off her sunglasses.
“Jadestones,” said Kristina.
“And that’s not how I put it,” I said. “Fucking actors. Gotta write everything down for you people.”
“Whatever,” said Molly. “Tell me about my eyes.” She leaned forward and stared at me with a sultry expression.
I looked into her eyes until the silence started to get uncomfortable.
Kristina squirmed. “Guys, this is stupid.”
I held Molly’s gaze. She didn’t blink. She was good at this. My eyes started to feel dry. Someone dropped something in the kitchen. Molly didn’t even move.
At last, I gave in. I sat back and looked out toward the street.
“Nope, I got nothin,” I said.
“What? Come on!” said Molly.
“Hey, sometimes your muse is with you, sometimes it ain’t,” I said. I turned to Kristina. “You ready to do some shopping?”
We left Molly at the diner and headed out in my car, with a plan to stop at Wal-Mart, and maybe Home Depot. With Molly gone, Kristina was even less talkative, staring out the window at the suburban wasteland of the valley like a bored kid on a field trip bus.
“I’ve been watching some of your films,” I said after a few minutes.
“Yeah. And you should be grateful for your haters.”
“Really,” she said, not so much a question as a rejection of the idea. She turned and looked at me, eyes narrowed. “I can’t wait to hear this wisdom.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “They gave you a gift. They set you free, man.”
“How do you figure?” She looked back out the window.
“Look,” I said. “Seven or eight years ago, you could have been the it girl, sought after to play the ingénue in everyone’s romantic comedy. You’d have been the star under the plum tree at Gatsby’s party. And that would be all anyone would ever have wanted you for. Now, instead, you get to practice your art. You can go to work knowing that if someone hires you it’s because they believe in your acting ability. They do. Stepan does.”
“Tell that to the Oscar committee,” she said, but her mood seemed to lighten and I thought she might even smile.
“Next time I see them,” I said. “But… is that why you do this?”
“Yeah, I figured.”
We got back to Stepan’s from the Wal-Mart, and dumped all the stuff we’d bought out on the big kitchen island. Ten wooden stakes like you use for garage sale signs, a few nails, glue, tape, markers, a pack of index cards, some sewing pins, a small container of peppercorns, a tiny bag of whole bean coffee, a couple of gumballs from the machines at the store entrance, and a white soccer ball.
I looked it all over.
“Are you going to tell me what we’re doing now?” Kristina asked.
I told her.
“So like an elementary school science project?”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Except, no, not really. You remember the other night when I said that Stepan wanted realism, but I thought he might change his mind?”
“No. I wasn’t really paying attention to you.”
“Thanks. Well, what I meant was this: The reality of space is that there’s nothing there to look at. It’s empty. That’s the biggest challenge of shooting realistic films about space. There’s nothing fucking out there.”
“What about all the other planets, and asteroids and comets and things?”
“Hah. You’ll see.” I took out the pack of index cards. “How’s your handwriting?”
“Not bad, I guess.”
“Great. Put the names of the Sun and planets on these cards. Print as big as you can. If you screw one up, chuck it and start over. We have like two hundred extra cards.”
While she worked on that, I started working on another set of cards, like signposts. Each one pointing the way from one planet to the nearest others, like this:
⟵(MARS) — (VENUS)⟶
She handed me a pile of cards. Each labeled in neat, angular block letters that would be visible from far off. I rifled through them.
“You forgot Pluto,” I said.
“Pluto’s not a planet.”
“It was a planet when I was a kid. Just make it.”
“But it’s not now.”
“Just make it.”
“The name of the script is The Pluto Project.”
“Oh yeah, shit.” She started writing.
While she worked on that, I started laying out the other cards.
SUN — MERCURY — VENUS — EARTH — MARS — JUPITER — SATURN — URINOUS — NEPTUNE.
I handed her the URINOUS one back.
“Funny,” I said. “C’mon fix it.”
“That’s how they say it.”
“Come on. ur-AY-ness.” I pronounced it the other way to emphasize the spelling.
In a minute she handed me back two cards, giggling: PLUTO — YER ANUS.
“What’re you, in junior high?”
She couldn’t stop giggling.
“Fine.” I put it on the pile with the others.
“No! Give it back, I’ll fix it.”
“Too late, I’m using it. Here, help me get the planets glued on.”
Soon we had a little scale model of Sun and planets. The Sun and each planet stood on a wooden stake, labeled with our little handmade panels.
The soccer ball was the Sun. Mounting it on the stake had been a challenge. But we managed, with the help of some clear packing tape. From a distance, you could hardly see the tape.
Jupiter was a large gumball, a little less than an inch across. Saturn was a smaller gumball. We mounted them with hot glue.
Neptune and Uranus were coffee beans. Earth and Venus were peppercorns. All these we glued onto the name cards.
Mercury, Mars, and Pluto were pinheads. We pushed the pins through their index cards, bent them flat in the back and held them in place with scotch tape.
“Look!” Kristina said. “The solar system!” She held up the Earth and the Sun. “Is earth really that small?”
“The Sun is that big,” I said. “It’s a hundred earths across. Hey. We’ve got some room here, why don’t you try and lay out the distances.”
I thought she’d just set them out across the counter on the kitchen island, but she guessed at where I was going. She set the Sun at one end of the kitchen floor and Pluto at the other and distributed the rest evenly between them. Mercury was about a foot or two from the Sun, Earth about five feet away, Pluto maybe fifteen feet.
“There! How’s that?” she asked.
“Nice try. Better than a grade school science project, anyway.”
“Wait til Thursday. You’ll see. There’s a reason we’re doing this on the beach.”
The core members of Stepan’s crew had already arrived when I pulled into the parking lot at Will Rogers Beach on Thursday morning. I hadn’t expected so many to show, but Stepan had told them to come and they came. They hung together in a little clique near one of their cars, drinking coffee and grumbling.
I wanted to start early, so there wouldn’t be too many people on the beach, but it turned out there was no need. A long fickle finger of NorCal winter had stretched south toward us overnight and the weather had turned windy, damp, and gray. The beach was empty save for one white-haired couple in matching windbreakers walking hand-in-hand toward the pier.
Molly and Kristina were sitting on the trunk of a restored sixties-era Buick Skylark convertible that I guessed must be Molly’s. Kristina wore a charcoal gray North Face fleece, jeans, and sneakers, her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. The time-machine illusion of the other night returned. Again, somehow she was someone I should have known from my past. I pulled in next to them. Molly smiled and waved. Kristina just nodded, ‘sup dude.
I got out of the car and as I did, a few of the crew pointed over at me. A tiny woman detached herself from the group and crossed the parking lot. She was all in black: black hoodie, black jeans, black calf-high boots. Each piece of her ensemble was simple and unremarkable, something you would see anyone wearing. Yet together their combined effect conveyed an intimidating confidence.
“Are you Casey?” she asked when she got to me. Large eyes the color of dark roast espresso locked onto mine with a plain directness that made me uncomfortable. She was chewing gum. She looked too young to be out of school.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said.
“Stepan told me to meet you here. Why? What are we doing?”
“It’s hard to explain. It’s easier just to do it. We’re just waiting for Stepan now. Then we can start.”
The girl blew and popped a bubble with heavy-lidded eyes. Without a glance at the actresses, she turned on her heel and walked away.
Molly leaned toward me and whispered, “That’s Lizzy Munroe. She’s a fucking prodigy. Oscar-nominated for costumes at eighteen.”
“Nice,” I said. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I need to know about this mysterious project of yours. This bitch won’t tell me anything.”
Kristina interrupted us, “Hey, you wanna tell me what I need to do, here?”
“Yeah, good idea,” I said. I walked with her over to the edge of the beach and explained the plan, handing her a page of notes from my pocket.
She read it over a couple of times, then looked out at the beach and said, “Okay.”
The deep-throated exhaust note of Stepan’s Mercedes roadster sounded at the mouth of the parking lot. He rolled into a spot with the top down despite the weather and shouted, “Casey! Let’s get this show on the road.”
I got the model planets on their stakes out of the trunk of my car. I handed some to Kristina and a few to Molly. Then I cocked my head toward the beach and started walking. I didn’t look back or wait for the others. If Stepan was coming, they would follow.
I took us to a spot about halfway to the lifeguard station and planted the stake with the soccer ball Sun. We waited for everyone to gather.
Between the parking lot and where we stopped, Kristina had produced a pair of glasses from somewhere and put them on. They were thick, black, plastic frames with rectangular lenses, nothing special. You’d see the same glasses a dozen times walking down a crowded street. And yet she was transformed. I looked her over, and it occurred to me that the fleece, the jeans, the ponytail weren’t chosen by accident. Before she had been Kristina. Now she was Chloë the PhD student. The glasses were the final piece.
It seemed impossible that the outfit alone could have made such a change. But if there was something in her expression, or the way she was standing, I couldn’t make it out. The others were gathering around now. Lizzy Munroe also seemed to have noticed something, too. The teenager looked Kristina up and down with that unflinching gaze of hers. Then she blew a bubble and looked off into the distance, distracted by some inner thought.
The last stragglers had caught up and gathered around in a messy semicircle. Stepan tipped me a nod and I started.
I introduced myself and then explained what we’d be doing. By the time I was done, the designers and CGI people had started to look interested. Lizzy Munroe still looked bored. She popped another bubble and said, “Like in elementary school.”
“Yeah, like that,” I said. “Except not really. In this model, all the distances will be to scale. One inch equals one hundred thousand miles. Behold the Sun!” I held out my hand and presented the soccer ball on its stake.
Then I held up one of the other stakes. “This pinhead is Mercury. Two hundred ninety Mercurys fit across the diameter of the Sun.” Nobody looked too surprised yet. I handed the Mercury stake to Kristina.
“Follow me please,” she said with a businesslike friendliness that I hadn’t expected. Then she turned and started walking down the beach, counting paces. Molly, Stepan, and I followed. At ten paces she stopped and planted the stake in the sand. She looked at me. I had given her blocking but no lines.
“This is Mercury, in its orbit,” I said to the others, who were straggling along in clumps. Lizzy was still standing next to the Sun and staring, narrow-eyed.
I continued, “Compared to our soccer ball Sun, Mercury is the size of a pinhead and is ten yards away.”
“Wait a second,” Molly broke in. “Mercury is super hot, right? It’s that far from the Sun? I thought it was almost touching the Sun.”
“Crazy, right?” I said. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Kristina,” I said, “how far to Venus?”
She walked it off and planted Venus. Without waiting for instructions, she went on seven more paces and planted the Earth. The crew was following behind now. Some of them grouped together and talked amongst themselves. One of the CGI guys stopped and knelt with his eye next to Venus, trying to line up the peppercorn with the soccer ball. Stepan had stopped halfway between Venus and Earth, hands in the pockets of his long coat. He was turning back and forth looking at the Earth and the Sun.
“Let’s let them catch up,” I said to Kristina.
When they had all gathered, I said “Here is the Earth…”
“This is impossible,” Stepan interrupted. “It can’t be right. Look at Earth. It would be lost in the sand if it wasn’t glued to that stick.”
“Like I was saying,” I continued, “Here is the Earth, a peppercorn, almost eighty feet from the Sun. Like the real sun on the horizon, from here you can cover the soccer ball with the tip of a finger held at arm's length. Try it now.”
Then for a minute we were a crowd of people all holding out fingers and thumbs, squinting down the beach at a soccer ball on a stick. I did it myself. I didn’t quite believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.
I was still squinting down the beach when Kristina spoke up. “Okay folks, once you’ve satisfied yourself that the scale is correct, please follow me. Fourteen paces to Mars,” she said, and she turned and started walking.
I glanced at Stepan as we walked. He gave me a half smile and nod that seemed to say See? That’s what I’m talking about.
Fourteen yards were more than half as far as we’d walked to get to Earth. Kristina paced it off, and then we waited again while the group caught up, and gathered around. I looked back, watching them as they walked. Some faces were blank. Some looked back along our path now and then. Others looked out toward the ocean. I felt what they were feeling. Small. Not even as big as grains of sand on an endless beach.
And we hadn’t even started yet.
Molly was carrying the Mars stake. Kristina took it from her and planted it in the ground.
“Mars,” I said. “A pinhead, more than a hundred feet from the Sun. If you’re not amazed yet, think of this. Some recent NASA rovers went to Mars and landed there without even going into orbit first. Basically, NASA shot a tiny speck, too small to see, from that peppercorn over there,” I pointed back at Earth, “and hit this pinhead with it.”
A few of the crew laughed. A couple of the CGI guys knelt again next to the Mars pinhead, squinting and lining it up with the Sun and the other planets and continuing some conversation they’d started while walking. Stepan smiled.
“Mars is the last planet in the inner solar system,” I continued, “where the rocky, Earth-like planets live. Kristina, how far to Jupiter?”
Without looking at her notes, Kristina said “Sixty-three paces.”
The crew exploded. “What the fuck?” “No way.” “That’s like as far as we’ve come so far.”
“Let’s go to Jupiter, people.” She turned and started counting paces.
As we walked, Molly held up our Jupiter model, the gumball glued on the end of the stake. “At least you can see this one,” she said.
But when we got there and planted it, it hardly mattered. We were four hundred feet out now. Our model Sun had dwindled to one fifth the width of the actual Sun. Earth, Mars, Venus, and Mercury were invisible, although we could see the stakes they were mounted on.
“Jupiter,” I declared. “The largest planet.”
“This can’t be right,” said one of the CGI guys. “I’ve heard that Jupiter is so big that its gravity protects the inner solar system from asteroids and things. Look at it. It’s impossible.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” I said. “And we haven’t even gotten to the really crazy part yet. Kristina, how far to Saturn?”
I’d seen her looking at the notes a minute before with an uncomfortable look on her face. But she chimed in without blinking, “A hundred and thirteen paces.”
While the crew moaned again in disbelief, Kristina broke character and whispered to me and Molly, “I’m gonna lose count!”
“Wait! I’ve got something,” I said. I took out my phone and opened it to an app I had downloaded. “Tap the screen,” I showed her. All the app did was increase a counter with each tap. 1… 2… 3… There was another button to zero out the count.
She took it without comment. “Come on, people!” she commanded and started walking.
We went on. One hundred thirteen yards to plant Saturn, a gumball three quarters of an inch wide. The soccer ball Sun was more than seven hundred feet away.
After that, it was two hundred forty-nine paces to Uranus. The crew had fallen silent. But when I looked at Stepan, he was smiling in a vague and dreamy way, lost in thought.
When Kristina planted the “YER ANUS” marker, Molly leaned to me and said, “I would have thought it was closer.” But the joke felt small now, like everything. The “gas giant” Uranus was a coffee bean, fifteen hundred feet from the Sun.
We were halfway to Pluto.
The beach stretched out, a gray purgatory under the clouds. We slogged on, two hundred eighty-one paces more, to Neptune, another coffee bean. The walk from Uranus was two and a half times as long as it had taken to walk to Jupiter from the Sun. It was little relief that the walk to Pluto was nominally shorter, only two hundred thirty-seven paces.
I planted the stake with Pluto, a pinhead, and without speaking we all looked back the way we’d come. Back there, three thousand feet, a thousand yards, more than a half mile away, the soccer ball Sun couldn’t be seen.
We all stood there without saying anything, as the waves crashed softly like the cosmic microwave background in our ears. A gust of wind broke the reverie. Everyone turned to me as if I should say something.
I stood, unprepared to speak. Unprepared for any of it. Reading the numbers on paper was not the same as seeing it. Reading it was not the same as walking and walking as the tiny effigy of our world receded behind us. I hadn’t mentioned it, but this model, with the planets all in a line, was still too small. It showed the planets at the closest they would ever get to each other. Most of the time, of course, they were not lined up. Instead, they spread all around the Sun in different directions. I wanted to explain that, in fact, the solar system was even bigger and emptier than this. I opened my mouth in an act of faith that something sensible would come out of it.
That was all I had. I tried to start again, but before I could, another voice started. It was Kristina.
“We have arrived at Pluto,” she said. “This tiny speck of ice will be our new home. Our ship has traveled across this vastness, more alone than any ship of Vikings or Spanish explorers. Back there, behind us, is the Earth, our old home. Everything and everyone we’ve ever known is there, on a tiny speck too small to see. All our friends and family, our brothers and sisters, our tribes and nations, our cliques and networks, all our lovers, all our haters, are there now, too small to see. And we are here, in our ship, with everything we need to build a new world. A seed to start again….”. Then she faltered and stopped.
There was a long moment in which we all looked at each other while the surf crashed in our ears.
Then Stepan turned with a wide smile and said, “Guys, this was wonderful. It was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.”
That was the cue that the show was over. The crew all began talking amongst themselves, asking questions, pointing. It was time to get back to work.
“Jeez we’re so far out,” someone said. “How far to the next star from here?”
“Proxima Centauri,” I said, “would be in Reykjavik, Iceland, four thousand miles from here.”
“Get the fuck out!” said Molly, and pushed me on the shoulder with the palm of her hand.
The group started walking back.
Lizzy Munroe walked up beside Kristina and said, “Hey, can I see those glasses?” Kristina handed them to her, and the two started to talk as they walked along.
Stepan and I stayed behind and watched them all. I was about to start pulling up the stakes. But as I looked along the line back the way we came, I could see a family, a mom and two small children with a dog. The mom was kneeling at one of the stakes. Jupiter, I think. She was talking to the kids and pointing up and down along the line of planets.
“Let’s leave it,” Stepan said, smiling.
“Hey,” he continued, “when did you write that bit you gave Kristina at the end? I hadn’t heard that before.”
“That was all her,” I said.
He smiled and nodded and we started back.
[Many thanks to Guy Ottewell for his Peppercorn Model of the Solar System.]
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