“For every sensible line of straightforward statement there are leagues of senseless cacophonies. . .” – Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel"
There was a small man named Ray who lived in a two-story house by himself at the corner of a subdivision south of Kamsack. There wasn’t a lot of brick in the area, or a lot of cement, so most of the houses were made of wood, insulated with fiberglass, and covered in siding. Many people had painted their siding a bright colour – for the winter, to cheer each other up. But not Ray. His house was a drab grey. He didn’t really believe in winter, and he didn’t need cheering up in it, that’s for sure. He had a warm parka, a stack of Xbox 360 games and a flat screen TV, a garage, a snowmobile, and a large collection of magnifying glasses.
These weren’t historically interesting magnifying glasses, or scientifically interesting magnifying glasses. The collection wasn’t so much a collection of different things as it was a collection because it was a lot of the same thing. They were mostly duplicates of the same magnifying glasses that Ray had bought at the nearby Dollar Mart for $1.20—more than a dollar, as usual. Ray used these magnifying glasses to look at the bugs in his house: silverfish, carpenter ants, centipedes, greenbottle flies, mosquitoes, wasps, bedbugs, ladybugs, and – once – a praying mantis. He didn’t clean his house very much, but he left at least three magnifying glasses in each room. That way, he couldn’t miss anything. The only problem was that the magnifying glasses, being uninteresting historically and scientifically, had an unduly intense focal point, so if Ray looked at a bug too long, the light of the sun or his lamps passing through would become so concentrated that it would heat up the bug and sometimes kill it. Often kill it – Ray wasn’t too careful about how long he was looking at bugs, or from how far away, or with what light.
Ray also had a penchant for telling tall tales. One of his neighbours, Mrs. Donna Zwick, condescendingly asked him one day how the devil the slats on his shutters had gotten so disjointed, and whatever was he going to do about it, and he informed Mrs. Zwick, solemnly, that the damage was the work of a freak windstorm, a windstorm so powerful that it tore the glass panes out of his windows, and on their way out they jostled the shutters. Mrs. Zwick wondered what windstorm this was, and Ray said that it was an isolated windstorm, the kind that only strikes a small radius, and very rarely. Like a windstorm in your brain, said Ray, playing on her skepticism. Not a surprise you wouldn’t notice it, said Ray, the master of noticing things. Mrs. Zwick didn’t talk to him anymore.
Ray could remember as a boy watching jittery black and white news reports of the moon landing. He never bothered himself with the conspiracy theories or the reality of the situation. What he perceived was real enough to him and so, he presumed, real enough for everyone else. Alternative explanations were not Ray’s strength, unless he was the one doing the alternative explaining. He could also remember as a young man seeing images of shuttle launches in technicolor, and wondering what was up there beyond the nose of the shuttle. A great vastness, nothingness unbound, tiny flecks of light in the darkness, tiny specks of something in all that nothing. Unless it was all nothing, which, thought young Ray to himself, it probably was. Even the stars. Imaginary foci of light from some distant observer’s magnifying glass, trying to burn him up. He watched the Challenger burn up fuel and smoke up the launch pad, and then burn up itself. He thought that was fitting, a journey into nothingness ending with burning up. Sad, avoidably sad, but fitting.
The little flicker of this memory stayed with Ray as he grew up. He thought he had stolen it, perhaps, or that it was his duty to bring it to all mankind. It sometimes ignited in his dreams, sometimes in his daydreams. Naturally, he got it into his head that he would explore the nothingness of space. He was retired now, so he had the spare time. He skimmed some old books the library had discarded for details on how rockets were built, and while he may not have been a rocket scientist, he certainly got the gist of what the books were trying to say.
Luckily, Ray’s town had a large hardware store that specialised in second-hand goods. That meant it was cheap, which suited Ray. He bought a stack of offcut spruce, a bucket of reused roofing nails, a hammer, measuring tape, and saw, and went to work. After all was said and done, Ray spent $214.52 on wood, $43.88 on nails, and $17.95 on tools. For an engine, he paid two of his neighbours each $50 for their old snowmobiles, which with global warming they said they wouldn’t be needing this winter, or something. He modified the snowmobile engines after browsing some instructions he found online and ordering some casing, tubing, valves, and sprockets online for $189.99.
The same online instructions told him how to make fuel, and may have warned him to be extra cautious when making fuel, but Ray knew how to be extra cautious, and so he was. He bought a barrel of diesel from the hardware store for $201.30, and while wearing the ventilator his father, who had spray-painted car doors on a Ford assembly line that was now in Mexico, had given him, he mixed that diesel with three bags of fertilizer and a can of nitroglycerin he had purchased online for $121.40. The fertilizer and the nitroglycerin arrived with a special investigator from the RCMP, who, after annoying Ray with questions about his intentions and demands to see every square inch of his two-story house, finally left shaking her head.
The rocket was almost done. It had taken seventeen months, three days, and nine hours, including breaks and sleeping time and one two-week vacation to Meadow Portage where Ray stood on a pebble beach every night and grinned smugly at the stars over Lake Winnipegosis. With the $346.21 for chrome and special wide-headed chrome tacks, which Ray used to cover the entire rocket to make it the kind of rocket that could punch through the upper atmosphere, it had cost $1,235.25. But that was nothing compared to the beauty of the thing now. A whole greater than the sum of its parts, said Ray to himself. A sight to behold.
Ray phoned up NASA, to let them know what he was doing and that they should look to him in the future for guidance, but a patronizing receptionist passed him off to something called the CSA. So he told the Canadian Space Agency everything he had planned to tell NASA. The guy on the end of the line sounded tired and bored and, after trying to dissuade Ray from launching his rocket, hung up. Ray called again and got a different guy, who told him that he was insane before Ray asked to be passed to somebody who actually built rockets instead of answering phones all day. He turned a magnifying glass over in his hand as he waited, burnt a groggy fly to a crisp in light stolen from his spotted kitchen window. Finally Ray was on the line with the CSA’s chief engineer.
“I hear you’re building a rocket,” said the engineer, whose voice sounded like a befuddled housewife from an infomercial, opening her pantry and knocking medicine bottles all over herself because she didn’t have the right shelf organizer for only $19.99. “You should’ve called us sooner. Why – how can I help you?”
“I don’t need your help,” said Ray, “and I want you to know that you people have no idea how to build rockets.”
The engineer was quiet for a moment, and Ray imagined her nodding as this cold realization washed over her and images of the Challenger seared through her mind. Then the line went dead.
His neighbours, even Mrs. Zwick, had grown restlessly curious, the kind of curious that makes you frustrated and itchy, and they chucked glances into his garage whenever he had it open even a crack. Mrs. Zwick snuck up behind Ray one day and asked if that thing in his garage was, in fact, a rocket. It was hard to tell, she said, because it was lying on its side. She seemed nervous. Ray said yes, it was, and he was going to outer space very soon.
Mrs. Zwick asked him how, and Ray slid his handwritten notes, based on the website that had told him how to make rocket fuel, out of his pocket with an illusionist’s flourish. He flashed it at Mrs. Zwick, insinuating that whether a flash or a prolonged study, no look was going to be enough for her to understand this stuff anyway. He crunched it back into his pocket to her stifled sigh. She said that he was something, really something, but that everyone in the subdivision wished him the best. Ray thanked her with two cold pebble words like the beach on Lake Winnipegosis.
It was time. Ray wheeled the rocket out of his garage on the two disassembled snowmobile treads he had bought from his neighbours. He pulled it upright using a pulley he had made from his clothesline, and fastened it to a temporary stand he had made from the skis of the snowmobiles. Mrs. Zwick looked out her window from across the street and then closed the curtain. Hartford Nolan walked past with his girl Jamie and shook his head. Ray nodded at them ceremoniously, grabbed a match, and then stuffed himself into his rocket like he had stuffed his almost-forgotten parka into his suitcase for his trip to Meadow Portage. The sun shone through his porthole and made his armpits sweat. He lit the match on his seventeen-month-old stubble and dropped it beneath him, into the top of the engine.