Flash Gordon, home from the terrible emptiness of space, has to make up stories for fear of worldwide despair. ‘It’s beautiful, Dale,’ he says. ‘Martians are intelligent beings, Professor.’ ‘Suddenly, Mr President, I understood the meaning of existence.’
To his friend Buck, who drops by once all the insufferable parades are over, he says: ‘Emptiness on such a scale staggers the mind, Buck.’ His voice seems to emerge from that emptiness. Dale brings them coffee and homemade peanut butter cookies, Flash’s favorites when he’s back on Earth, and she and Buck exchange worried glances. ‘Yeah, I know, buster,’ says Buck, ‘but you gotta get such notions outta your conk. Ain’t good for it nor not for the bowels neither, take it from me. Focus on the quiet things. Putter about the house. Plant some roses. Get back out on the golf course, bring your handicap down.’
When Buck leaves, Flash picks up a can of white paint for the picket fence, a brush, puts them down again, moves ponderously back into the front room, sinks into his recliner chair in front of the television without turning it on. ‘Everything is so heavy,’ he says, perhaps to no one, though Dale is standing morosely in the doorway, wondering if her husband has lumped her in with the heavy things, for it’s true, she has put on a bit of weight since he’s been gone.
Flash’s return has not been easy for Dale. While he was away, she had been obliged to complete all his chores. Now, she finds she still has to do it all. He doesn’t want to cut the grass or clean the swimming pool or take the trash out. It’s all he can do to pull his socks on. Moreover, when he left, she was younger than he; now she is older, and he treats her more like his mother. She has fond memories of their early days, winging it through space, when they both stayed young and everything was possible, but to hear him tell it, that’s all changed. ‘We were just kidding ourselves,’ he tells Buck, gazing gloomily at the ceiling from his recliner.
On the golf course, having a round with Buck and Jim Kirk, which both hope will be therapeutic, Flash swings the club like a sledgehammer, but underhits every shot. When he tries to compensate for this, he drives his putts onto the next tee. ‘You’re dropping your shoulder,’ Jim says, but he knows that’s probably not the problem.
Flash’s son Rick, a space technology company executive, comes out to toss a ball around with him as in the old days, hoping to pep him up, but his dad can barely lift the ball, much less throw it. Rick tells his mother that ‘the old man’ as he calls him, though there’s no longer much difference in their physical ages, could probably use some iron pills, and he asks if at least their sex is still good. ‘Are you kidding?’ she replies, and twists her hands in her apron.
When they were very young, she and Flash and crazy Hans were a kind of kinky intergalactic ménage à trois, and they took on just about every living thing that came along. Life in outer space was like that. Earth’s rules were out the window. They had a lot of fun, defeating evil the least of it, though she realizes that what she thought of as fun then she probably wouldn’t enjoy now. A romp in the kitty litter with Prince Thun of the Lion Men? Forget it. Pregnancy brought an end to their escapades, hers at least. She began suffering from motion sickness and vitamin and mineral depletion and the fetus needed gravity, of both the body and the spirit; she has been grounded ever since.
Buck and Jim do what they can to lighten Flash’s spirit, but it’s not easy. At the country-club bar, they have to lift his Dry Manhattan to his lips, yet at the bowling alley he throws the ball overhand with such venom that he smashes all the pins, and they are politely, apologetically, asked to leave and not come back. In their swimming pool he merely sinks to the bottom, so Dale tarps it over. At the pool table up at the Legion Hall, he pops the cue ball out the window and halfway across town, but seems to lack the strength and dexterity to zip up his fly or sign his name. He can barely move without assistance, but behind the wheel of their car he only knows to floor the thing, tearing down Main Street as though trying to lift off. Some damage is done and people are hurt, but he’s a national hero and is forgiven. At the mayor’s request, however, Dale has to garage the car and turn over the keys.
Dale invites Buck and Jim over for a game of bridge, and this goes better. It’s hard to tell if Flash is enjoying it, but he doesn’t complain, and he actually seems interested in the cards, running his index finger over them thoughtfully. He tends to overbid but that’s all right, Dale is used to losing. But then he breaks through the grand-slam limit and bids eight, ten, twenty. Buck, generously playing along, stays with him, but has to top a hundred before Flash stops raising. ‘I keep feeling this cold wind,’ he says, and leaves the table in a fit of deep despond. Dale wonders if he’s been having it off out there with the ice queen again. A famous adventure – Dale had to help thaw out his crotch – which she’d rather forget.
Maybe, she thinks, it would help if she went back out herself and bopped about at the speed of light long enough for his years back on earth to catch up to hers. She might also be able to shed a few pounds on those disgusting food capsules that always gave her constipation. But she’s too late. The government decides that it is better for the world to make movies about outer space than to go there and they call off all further flights. Her husband apparently recommended this. Does he not want her younger again? She also feels the cold wind.
Flash is still young and handsome enough to play himself in a movie about his mid-career exploits, but he turns the part down and in his place they hire a young kid with zits and needle tracks who talks dirty. ‘If only something would happen,’ Flash says, sinking back into his recliner. Dale is given a bit role in the movie as the scheming mother of Ming the Merciless, which in the old days, when the universe was new and rich with adventure, would have allowed her to put Flash under a spell, make him think she had her figure back, show him what he’s been missing. But these are not the old days and nothing is new.
author’s note: Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were mid-twentieth-century comic-strip and B-movie space heroes. Dale Evans traveled with Flash and they eventually had a son, Rick. Jim Kirk is of course Captain Kirk of Star Trek.
Artwork © Edward Tuckwell