Flash Fiction: Cargo Cult by Graham Robert Scott

Our university keeps acquiring expensive stuff that it can’t accommodate. Journalists’ notes from the Vietnam War. Raw documentary footage of cargo cult airfields, simulacra of air towers and wizened men with headphones carved from wood, confident that if they looked enough like an airfield, the cargo they saw during World War II would return. Twenty-two boxes of attorney’s notes from an abortion case. (Yes, that one.) Bins of interview notes and photocopied research from a Texas novelist. (Not that one.)

My wife is friends with Connie, our university’s exhibits director. By a degree of separation, I guess that makes Connie my friend, too. We’ve been box-seat witnesses as Connie’s voice has become more shrill. Her hair, more thin. The flesh under her eyes, more susceptible to gravity.

Connie runs emails past us, asking if she’s being deferential enough as she says, Hey, so, something to consider, maybe?, is that these acquisitions require us to invest in archivists, security, fire suppression alternatives. Also: We’ll need special HVAC so items don’t get damaged by humidity or mold. And: If we don’t take this kind of care with donated items, we’ll get a bad rep with donors and, you know, maybe possibly sued.

She forwards screenshots of the replies, the thrust of which is that the administrators have confidence in Connie. Amazing Connie. So good Connie. We appreciate you Connie. And anyway, there’s that spare corner room off the hallway, the adjunct faculty guy’s office, now an office to no one because of the budget crisis. Couldn’t she just clear out his junk? Empty those shelves of used textbooks he once loaned to students in poverty? Thereby make room for some of these critical projects? And a portable dehumidifier?

Every week there’s another rumor:

We’re starting a plantation woman museum.

We’re collecting dresses from former Miss Texas winners.

We’re creating a virtual reality tour about the history of downtown Brisco.

You’d think Connie would be the first to know if a rumor is true. Often, she’s the last. Her relief is palpable whenever one proves to be fiction.

My wife and I are texting Connie one night when, instead of trying to make her feel better, we punk her. It’s not anything we plan; it just kind of unfolds, as all the worst things do. Has she (we ask) heard the rumor about the space shuttle we’re acquiring from NASA—and the adjoining Sally Ride exhibit? Does she know which shuttle we’re getting? Did they really put the Challenger back together from all the pieces, like one-eyed Billy Crystal did with that girl’s door in the Pixar movie? What kind of outlet would the flight simulator need? Well of course there will be a flight simulator. Would a standard three-prong work? We have coasters for moving couches. We have an old octopus surge protector. Would either be helpful? Is there room for all this in the adjunct’s office?

Just how big is a space shuttle?

And things have been so outrageous lately, poor Connie buys it all. Her texts arrive in waves riddled with typos, all blue language and red emojis. She freaks and we howl, tears on our cheeks. Our marriage has never been healthier than this exact moment. Which lasts until we catch our breath and the tears stop and Connie’s still believing it and tells us, more typos than ever, that she just emailed her chain of command in a panic.

The laughter dies. My wife fidgets with her phone.

Outside, a duck flexes wings on the surface of the pool.

Everyone at Brisco works in an information bubble. Aside from the chancellor and maybe two lapdogs, no one ever knows what’s going on. Which means a bunch of the people Connie just emailed are now probably making calls.

Shit.

We’re not quite sure how to defuse this now that we’ve started it. Absent a plan, we shut off the lights and try to sleep. In the morning, we go to work, heads down. Shun water-cooler conversation.

That night, on regional news, our chancellor blinks amid a holocaust of flash photography and denies rumors that we’re starting a space-flight training program. No, he says, he didn’t slash faculty salaries just to turn around and buy a space shuttle. That would be nuts. Well, yes, we did buy an airfield, a golf course, and a chain of aromatherapy practices. But not a space shuttle.

No, no. Really. We checked: We can’t afford a space shuttle.

But you can see it in his eyes. The chancellor has lied so often—has, like the rest of us, internalized this heuristic so completely—that he no longer believes anything that comes out of his own mouth. Even he now thinks we’re getting a shuttle, and my wife says, Well, fuck; there goes parking.

Graham Robert Scott (he/him) grew up in California, resides in Texas, owns neither surfboard nor cowboy hat. His stories have appeared in HAD, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, and others.

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