an excerpt from Challenger
a novel-in-progress by M. C. Armstrong
I remember nothing negative about Khalid.
But people change. This guy was brilliant.
If he used his knowledge in a good way,
he could have been a Nobel Prize winner.
— Sammy Zitawi
Khalid looked into the equations on the board and saw a world where ductility, rotating shafts, stress concentrations, pulsating torsional fatigue, flat leaf springs, high-frequency ripples—it all came together in a master fatigue diagram—an axis fanning out into a plotted grid where it was easy to see what the professor meant by “a constant-life line,” that dotted line as the difference between safety and danger, life and death, bridges holding and bridges falling, heated screams from the notches in steel beams.
“Wake up!” Hashim whispered.
Khalid wiped drool from his mouth and looked over at the clock on the wall. He was still in America. It was nearly eleven and he had no idea how Dr. Krishnamurti had arrived at the section on Stochastic Considerations. He followed Hashim to their next class, Thermodynamics. In the front of the room sat the white professor, Dr. Stack. He was bent over the grids in his grade book, his desk angled to the side to make room for a wheeled plastic cart with a muted television where Khalid could see that they were still making preparations for the launch of The Challenger.
The TV showed the black astronaut eating breakfast earlier that morning, the famous Ronald McNair in a white golf shirt. They showed the Jewish woman, Judith something. They showed the famous everyday person, Christa McCauliffe, receiving a ceremonial red apple, her parents in the stands in their winter clothes as the famous shuttle waited on its slab, clinging to the red external fuel tank.
“A white, a black and a Jew, but no Arab,” Khalid said.
“We are the fuel tank,” Hashim said.
“Exactly,” Khalid said.
“I saw Wahlid did not bother waking up for classes,” Hashim said. “His car was still there when I left.”
“His battery died,” Khalid said. “I gave him a ride.”
“He came to you? The great Wahlid Sarham?”
“Okay, books away,” Dr. Stack said. “You guys have ten minutes to take the quiz.”
As always, Stack had his sleeves rolled up. He wore a large Casio watch. Khalid did as he was told. As a mechanical engineering major, he would not graduate summa cum laude. That much was now clear, clearly a function of nothing more than language, the classes with writing. But he felt he understood the concepts of thermodynamics, believed an A was possible in this particular class, for here was the world explained in terms of not just numbers, but heat and fire. Here was Wahlid’s car not starting. Here was the whole reason to station the space program in Florida. Fifty-three degrees was the minimum temperature for safely firing the rocket boosters. The Challenger had been delayed five times because there wasn’t enough heat. Yet today, on one of the coldest days of the year, they were finally launching. The astronauts were now secured in their vessel. The Asian, the Jew, the black, the female teacher—they were finally ready. The captain of the ship was named Francis Scobee, a name that reminded Khalid of the crazy dog from the American cartoon: Scooby Doo.
“All right,” Dr. Stack said, gathering up the quizzes. “I can tell I won’t have anybody’s attention today, so here’s the plan, Stan.”
On Thursday Dr. Stack said they needed to be prepared to discuss the first law of thermodynamics as it applied to open systems, but for the remainder of class, they could watch the TV, the images of other classrooms across the country. A short overweight student named Marcus Satterwhite opened a bag of Fritos.
“Aggie pride!” said a girl named Paige Turner when the program showed another stock shot of Ronald McNair. McNair waved at the camera, as if waving to the classroom of Aggies, this famous man from this school now one of the chosen in his baby blue jumpsuit and his mustache and his tinted glasses, and for some reason Khalid thought of Toussaint L’Ouverture in his knickers and wig. The Challenger was set to launch in T-minus sixty seconds.
“Tell me this,” said Jamaal al Shabazz. “What other school produces astronauts and the next president of the United States? Answer me that?”
Jamaal received a low-five from Marcus Satterwhite, another shout of “Aggie Pride.”
“They ain’t never going to put a black woman in space,” said Paige Turner.
Dr. Stack smiled, turned up the volume. T-minus twenty-one seconds. Khalid liked the tense feeling in the room, the sense of spotlight and camaraderie. He liked what Hashim had said about the fuel tank. Yes, this was the way to see the world. Arabs were the strong and silent presence in the center, the ghost in the machine. Where would America be without its fuel?
A radio voice announced T-minus ten seconds at the Kennedy Space Center. Seeing the name of the slain American leader flash in gold letters made it all seem so clear to Khalid. Three years in this country and he felt like he was finally learning how to read America. The rich white Kennedys would never allow an Arab on a space shuttle, not after Sirhan Sirhan killed the brother named Robert F. This Robert F. was the typical blind American. This Robert F., who threatened to send fifty phantom jets to Israel—did he not expect fifty bullets to be sent to his head from a Palestinian?
The shuttle seemed to hover for a moment, and then fire burst out of the boosters. The packed people in the cold Florida bleachers cheered. The father of the teacher wore a flat brown hat and smiled as he held his wife in her white fur-lined coat. A banner was shown: “Go Christa!”
The black and white shuttle clung to the red fuel tank. The famous teacher’s maiden name was Corrigan. Paige Turner clapped and swiveled. Khalid could see the bindings of her bra through her purple blouse. Dr. Stack stood with his bearded chin in his hand. The shuttle veered to the right. The sky was blue. There was something so American about the whole scene: The clear blue sky, the red rocket, the white shuttle, the multi-ethnic crew, the children with their handheld flags, the first “every day citizen” to enter space: Christa McCauliffe. And something in Khalid struggled with what he was seeing, the fact of the woman, the momentum of history, the world one big happy television family where only one group of people were always left out, and maybe if Kennedy had not been shot by a Palestinian then maybe there would be a man like Khalid in a blue padded suit, Khalid himself with his bearded cheeks jiggling as he broke the speed of sound, a classroom of Arab children cheering a television in a mud brick hut in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Throttling down at ninety-four percent,” said a voice from the NASA control room.
“I bet they going to have a roller coaster on the moon by the year 2000,” said Jamaal.
And then something happened.
A seam opened in the red tank, a thin white breath from the rocket, as if a gill in a fish. The flames from the boosters climbed, chewed their way up the shaft of the shuttle, as if there was some voracious force that had suddenly burst, leaving a strange white shape on the screen, ropes of smoke, a Y of burrowing white dirt screwing down and out into curdles and debris, ghostly fingers scraping toward the sea.
“Oh, my God,” said Paige Turner.
“Fuck,” said Marcus Satterwhite.
Hashim gripped Khalid’s forearm.
“Ron,” said Dr. Stack.
And then took a step toward the TV, as if he could reach in like a giant and catch what was falling.
Khalid had never seen someone die on TV. He was certainly not unfamiliar with death, but he’d never seen it like this, so caught off guard, surrounded by strangers, the bodies of the dead nothing but framed bits in the blue sky of the TV on in its little wheels in this little room. For a moment, it was like he, too, was falling to the ocean, like he was the debris, the gray father, the old man holding the brittle-faced mother of the teacher whose real name was Corrigan and she, too, had a classroom of children who were watching her die.
“Oh, God, no,” Dr. Stack said.
And when his teacher turned toward the class, Khalid could see that something had changed in his face. He looked slurred, like something was wrong with the picture. It was like his mouth had turned into a gash. Khalid had never seen so much emotion in the face of a white American man. Perhaps this Dr. Stack, who referred to the black astronaut as “Ron,” was a friend, and suddenly, Khalid had the urge to look at the faces of all the students in the class, the open mouths, the clawed hands, the blinking eyes. He heard moans from the other rooms down the hall, a ripple of animal sounds now everywhere in the building, like the building itself was alive, a bee hive stirred by the hand of a bear.
“It appears as if there’s been some kind of explosion,” said the voice on TV.
Dr. Stack walked out of the room but then quickly came back to where the sky seemed to be bleeding smoke. The curdled shapes in the sky were getting stranger, the clear Y now just a million thin tracks of snow thinning further and further until they were nothing more than chalk lines, fingernails scraping down a blue board.
Dr. Stack muttered the name of the savior, “Jesus.” He held up his hand like he had a question, like he was trying to swat away an insect. There was a scream down the hallway, like the shriek of some ancient bird. Dr. Stack turned his head to the sound. Khalid knew that Jesse Jackson’s sons were classmates of his, but was it possible that the dead astronaut had a daughter in Cherry Hall, a child wailing for her father whose body was now falling to the sea? Dr. Stack walked out of the room toward the cry, left the students alone, Hashim with his hand still clutching Khalid.
“Who has done this?” he asked.
And then they watched the explosion again.
God ain’t pleased. That’s my political principle. Is God pleased?
On every question, I proceed from that. Reaganomics, corporate
welfare, giant military, supporting friendly dictators—might be
convenient, might make us feel good, might be comfortable, might
be expedient, might be profitable, might even seem political. But
God ain’t pleased. The problem in the end is not really any particular
individuals or personalities, but powers and principalities, like the
Scriptures say. The structure of society has got to be challenged.
— Jesse Jackson
The TV people with the peacock patches and rainbow cables marched together with the students to hear the speech of the negro leader. Khalid wondered if he himself might turn up on the news. In the million clicks of the cameras and high heeled shoes he heard a sound like a mouth chewing something crisp, and there was a smell like puke from the mulch the workers had forked out for the commemoration of the apartheid protest, the great revolution that had started in this little southern city: Greensboro.
“Smells like hell,” said a woman with her hair straight and yellow like the whites.
Khalid and his friend, Hashim, moved in the jostle of the heavily scented black bodies, saw the wispy newsmen posted on the steps of the student union, the red, white, and blue of the cop cars. Inside Moore Gym, Khalid walked across the honey colored wood of the court, saw the curled flags and the white ceremonial flowers. On the podium under the backboard he saw the easled portrait of the dead negro astronaut, Ronald McNair.
“Do you see Jesse Jackson?” Hashim asked.
As they climbed the bleachers, Khalid scanned the loose cluster of faces on the stage and tried to locate the man his friends hoped would be the next President of the United States. But the whites, with their love of Israel and money, would never let this happen. Khalid had seen the black and white photographs of the young Jesse Jackson searching the skyline for the assassin of the bleeding man at his feet. On the day Martin Luther King was killed, Jesse Jackson had been helping him organize a march for the poor. There was a lesson to be learned from this.
The crowd kept coming, negroes pouring in out of the light, fellow physics students talking about how Ronald McNair gave them his home phone number and used to speak to them like a friend. Khalid heard a group of girls launch into a tirade over the paper plates in Williams Cafeteria.
“Don’t get the fruit cuz the fruit’s got the juice.”
“Oh, I don’t touch the fruit.”
“Because if you get the fruit forget it. My plate just tore in half the other day. It’s like we’re refugees or something. I try to cut my croaker and I end up cutting my plate square in half.”
Khalid looked at Hashim and smiled. No one wore their joys and pains more plainly on their sleeves than the American negroes. When Khalid was gone, he would miss them, the way he’d sometimes see them clapping and bouncing while driving in their cars, the way they’d suddenly break into song on the sidewalk. But most of all he’d just miss the daily speech and warmth of these people, these past few days when he felt he was truly getting to know these classmates of his who were now crowding into the gym out of the morning light, and he couldn’t help but notice the panty hose sheen of a woman’s knee, the white media in their stiff coats standing like security guards on the fringe, white people watching black people grieve, men in sunglasses whispering secret messages into wrist radios, and this was what America was all about, this crowded scene, and it struck Khalid kinda funny, it being Friday and all, because Friday was the holy day, and Khalid hadn’t eaten in twelve hours, and he felt a strange calm, felt his eyes sharpen to the colors in the crowd as if he was being granted something special, a vision of the future: whites on the margins, blacks and Muslims coming together in a new America: Malcom X, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabaar—yes, it was starting to happen everywhere, and look at the Muslim students in their tweed jackets and bow ties walking into the gym.
“I will miss this school,” Khalid said.
Hashim responded with a studied blink. His thin eyebrows arched over his pursed face, like there was Ethiopian in his blood, like he himself had a bit of the black. Hashim Al-Banna drove a Porsche. Hashim kept his cash in a money clip instead of a wallet. He had a ton of crazy ideas. He believed that masturbation was the play of the devil, that the future of America was embodied by this lonely sinful act. Hashim was the tallest and the wealthiest of the men who lived in the apartments on Montrose, and his father was an engineer for the Kuwait Oil Company who expected his son to follow in his path. But sometimes Hashim liked to taunt Khalid with other possibilities. They both had brothers in Pakistan, the edge of the war. It would be easy to avoid working for the corporations after graduation if they were willing to take a risk. They could teach in the madrassas, provide media for the movement, then work their way up. They would sleep in caves, fire machine guns into the milky bodies of the godless steroid-fed Soviets.
The crowd went silent as Chancellor Fort, a short man with a receding hairline, approached the microphones with his head bowed. Khalid looked up into the rafters and ducts, the walls of brick. He listened to the sweep of sniffles, the splatter of coughs.
“Ronald McNair was an authentic American hero,” Fort said. “He was an explorer. He was a scientist extraordinary. He was a husband and father. And above all, Ronald McNair was a believer in the destiny of mankind.”
Hearing these words boom from the speakers gave them a unique power. The English language was still new to Khalid, a challenge. The “scientist extraordinary” was a moment of poetry, a construction: Extra. Ordinary. Khalid saw the explosion from the TV once again in his mind, the smoke in the sky, the shocked mother covering her eyes. He listened closely with the ears of a young man who knew that the end was near. If his grades were good, this would be his last year in America. Dr. William Parker, chairman of the A&T Board of Trustees, read a letter from the President:
“Nancy and I join in thought and spirit with all those gathered today to pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Ronald McNair. By sharing together our grief and sadness, perhaps we may find the strength to bear our sorrow and courage to renew our hope. Words will never suffice to measure the honor and sacrifice of those we have lost.”
Khalid listened to the ripples of groan and mutter. He knew from his time on campus what the negroes thought of Ronald Reagan and his white Republican Party. He was not surprised that the old white man declined to visit the black college. This school, more than any other in the country, belonged to the opposition, the alumni figure climbing to the stage a revolutionary who seemed even bigger in person than he did on TV. Khalid could now see the famous face, the grave leonine gaze, the proud bulge of the Reverend’s chest.
“Jesse!” screamed a woman from the upper bleachers.
Khalid felt something wild and gritty in his teeth and in the pit of his hungry stomach. There was something magnetic about Jackson. Magnetic was the American word, borrowed from physics and geology, an understanding of the power of sacred stones, the voice of prophets.
“I will have to call my brother about this,” Hashim whispered.
Khalid nodded, not wanting to look away from the stage. He heard an increase in the clicks from the cameras. He took a deep breath, tried to fix the image of the revolutionary in his mind, as if he himself was the camera.
“We live our lives,” Jackson said, and took a dramatic pause, gathered the crowd into his words, this irrefutable first claim containing so heavily its opposite, its promise of exploring that other side, the deepest mystery of all.
“We live our lives as if life is certain and death is uncertain. But the fact remains that life is uncertain. Death is certain.”
Jackson gripped the podium and stood still as a statue, letting another moment of silence sink in. Seven years earlier Jackson had embraced Yasser Arafat on camera, this symbolic hug leading to wild praise from the Arabs and horror to the Jews who thought of Arafat as nothing more than a short little terrorist in a tea cloth, and Khalid thought again of the famous black and white photograph from the history books, Jackson on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The assassination of the leader of the blacks took place in the same year as the assassination of the second Kennedy brother, a year after the war with Israel. Jesse Jackson, as a man who had handled the blood of a martyr, knew something about struggle and death, and for this, he had Khalid’s immediate respect and attention.
Jackson sniffed, as if holding back his tears. He then roared about a world of people so caught up in accomplishments but always forgetting exactly whose they were. They belong to God, he argued. From time to time God intercedes to get our attention and remind us that we belong to him, taking without warning the young, the brave, and the courageous.
“Ronald McNair, dead at 35; Dr. King at 39; Malcom at 39; and Jesus at 33. The guarantee is not for a long life but a meaningful life.”
Khalid felt a shiver as he remembered his childhood fears, the way he’d always been taken by the dead, the constant spirit of his mother’s work. Her name was Halema. She was an undertaker. She dressed the corpses of women, washed their feet, and then came home to Khalid, and sometimes he couldn’t help but imagine the frozen frowns of people who knew they were being taken away from their lives just a moment too soon. But what if we all lived our lives like the revolutionaries, knowing we would be dead by forty? Where would the wealthy whites be if we lived like our heroes, if we rejected the world of money and Lamborghinis and golf courses and hyperbaric bubbles? Where would we be if we embraced death like the prophets? Jesse Jackson thundered on, talked about the trust people put in their machines. Khalid felt like Jackson was talking straight to him, the mechanical engineering student. Jackson roared at the crowd, pounded his fist on the podium.
“When our hearts are broken, our dreams reduced to nightmares, and our days turned to midnights, we don’t say ‘Oh, my scientist,’ or ‘Oh, my computer,’ but ‘Oh, my God!’”
The girl with the panty-hosed knee stood up and raised her arm. There was a slit in her hose, her true skin the color of a river that led to an ocean Khalid had never known.
“Amen!” she said.
“Amen,” Khalid said.
The movement of the crowd reminded Khalid of the game from the American arcade, wack-a-mole, the bodies standing up and sitting down like a vast system of pistons.
“There are treasures in the tragedy,” Jackson said.
“Amen,” someone said.
“These seven lives could be the key to saving a billion lives.”
“What makes A&T so great is its willingness to reach the unreachable and to teach the unteachable. All flowers do not blossom at the same time.”
“As individuals we may suffer alone, but as a nation we grow together, live together, and die together. Together!”
Jackson referred to Ronald McNair as a rejected stone, a man turned away by other universities because of the color of his skin. Khalid formed a fist, remembering the feelings of rejection he, too, had known, his new shoes sinking like stones in the lake behind the football field at Chowan College, his first school in America, the way the white football players called him sand nigger behind his back, the way they used to prop trash cans full of water against the door of the chapel when he and the other Muslim students were praying, and how they’d knock and run, what some people called ‘nigger knocking,’ this prank that led to Khalid opening the door like a fool and the trash water spilling everywhere and ruining the prayer, and Khalid felt more and more torn as the speech went on, divided by a feeling for the suffering of the people around him and by a refusal for anyone in this world of television cameras to speak about people like him.
Yes, he was here with the blacks, but it was like he was the rejected stone, the one no one could see, like, in a way, he truly was a “sand nigger.” Ever since the press’s persecution of Jackson for calling New York “Hymietown,” Jesse Jackson had grown silent on the issue of the Arabs, as if Israel had gotten to him, as if someone had told Jackson that his silence was required if he was to eventually become President of the United States. Jesse Jackson came to campus all the time, leading protests over the crimes of apartheid in Africa, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the murders of dissidents, the horrors of poverty and bigotry, and yes, Jesse Jackson spoke of “the rainbow in the sky,” but if a rainbow was an arch of certain colors, what about the colors in between? The world Khalid saw every day in America was always this world of black versus white, never a word about the people in the middle, what Americans called “The Mid-East,” as if it wasn’t even a real place, nothing more than a limbo between Asia and America, east and west, and it was all because of the great sin called Israel.
“It’s the black hole in the center of history,” his Civilization professor said. “It’s the enemy you’re not allowed to have, the untouchables that have turned into the untouched with their American weapons now pointed toward you, my brother.”
No, nobody would ever listen to the people in the middle of the world, the people upon whom the world depended—nobody would ever hear their story because there was one untouchable story the Americans—the great dispensers of all stories—had forced into the center of the world: the sacred story of the Jews, the ones who thought of themselves as both chosen and cursed, and Khalid knew a man was doomed if he tried to challenge that story. He didn’t blame Jesse Jackson for avoiding the fires of the truth, for playing it safe in the face of the white’s distaste for the Arab race, for sticking to the world of black and white. But one day a preacher would emerge to tell the true story of the world, a new man with a new voice.
“There’s some more Ronald McNairs out there,” Jackson said. “There’s more McNairs all over this building today. Long live the spirit and legacy of Dr. Ronald McNair.”
The crowd rose in a wave of colors, and Khalid rose with them, his brood washed away in the heat and the roar, the pounding of hands, the grazing of flesh, bodies surging toward the open doors, Khalid and his classmates marching past the cameras for a few final steps before parting like birds under the white light of that Friday afternoon.