What Happened to Rocketman

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Larry Caldwell

His name was Wesley B. Thurman his whole life, but the papers knew him for a day and saw fit to call him Rocketman. Even all these years later, the local news finds some way to mention him on his anniversary—always with that soulless Elton John pop playing.

People ask me all the time about Wesley, like I’m some spokesperson, and I tell them the truth: he was a good man and he was a damn fool too. Always had this notion he’d be the first Negro on the moon. You should have heard some of the nonsense schemes he had for getting there. Most never made it farther than the air in front of his face, but some did and, boy, you never heard so much laughing in all your life. Like once he built this flying robot out of corrugated steel and telephone parts. Said he knew just how to do it. So we all gathered on the roof of our building, me, his wife Vivicca (Vigh-vee-kah, she’s telling me, you make sure they say it right), Stan and Stacy, all of us, and we watched him wheel out this trashcan-looking thing with big red buttons for eyes and a dry pasta mouth. The robot had this fold-down flap on its backside and Wesley sat there, buckled in, and told us he and the robot were going to outer space. There were fuses attached to the thing’s feet and we stood back as he lit them like Wile E. Coyote. Well, that crazy robot went up all right—right up in flames! And we all about fell on our faces laughing, Wesley loudest of all.

It was more than a year later when he stepped out on the roof with the jet pack. We lumbered up there again, eyeing that sci-fi-looking junk strapped to his back, giggling our asses off. He’d made it out of a hard drive, bicycle handlebars, and a rocket booster he’d bought himself on eBay and wrapped in tinfoil for whatever reason. “Amazing, the schooling in the library,” he told us. “Believe the hype.”

For his thirty-eighth attempt at the moon, Wesley snatched five things off us: From Stan, a pack of Lucky Strikes; from me, my Polaroid—“Gonna take some mighty fine ones,” he promised—from his wife, her imitation mink coat; from Stacy, her copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son; and the fifth item he wanted from me too: My lucky bling. Of course you know I never called it that sorry word, it’s just how he and Viv spoke. (What are you laughing at? Viv’s asking me. Nothing, I say.) I held tight to my gold cross. “You already got the Polaroid,” I reminded him. But he had such a look on his face, I couldn’t resist, just took the chain off, tossed it at him. None of us had any bets his ass was even getting off the ground, right?

Long story short, he fired his rocket. You should have seen our jaws drop when he rose up like some supernatural fool. He levitated, the rocket flaming and hissing. Poor Stan had his damn eyebrows singed. We were left staring at the bottoms of his Converse, a wad of gum on one.

“Somebody grab him,” Viv yelled.

Stan swiped at Wesley’s ankle, missed by a mile. He was so out of shape from those Lucky Strikes, pathetic. “Can’t do it,” he panted, looking to me. “I bet you can.”

“Now what on earth is that supposed to mean?” My unsinged eyebrows raised.

“It means you’re a foot taller than me, dummy,” he said.

So I jumped up and missed by a mile too. Then put a little run into the second try, stretching my fingers. Caught the bottom of his sneaker, that funky gum wad. I suppose if the Hubba Bubba was a little fresher, I’d have been carried off to wherever Wesley went. Because the second I fell back on the roof, he made some correction to the control panel on his handlebars and the rocket kicked into overdrive. And, damn, up he went.

We watched him blast off over Flatbush, his legs kicking. “I see the Trade Center,” he shouted. And I got pissed, because he was making off with my cross, and yelled up to drop it back down. “Who cares about your bling?” he shouted. Going to space went right to that man’s head. I yelled all kinds of shit I don’t remember. But then he was too high, just a shape getting small in all that blue, the sky eating him up.

“Oh my God,” Stacy cried, and we saw what she meant. Thing about Wesley, he never thought beyond the moment. And like a real jerk, he’d launched himself into the descent path to LaGuardia. We watched helpless, a 7-something-7 heading straight for him. The two intersected and I thought about his funeral. Probably just let the brother keep my cross if there was anything left to put in the casket.

Then the plane passed and we still saw him, untouched, the red of the rocket boosting him into orbit. Damn, why didn’t we stop him? What kind of geniuses gave him all their stuff and not an oxygen tank? And how was the first black man on the moon going to get off that damn moon?

The papers showed up not long later. There’d been a lot of witnesses and it wasn’t so hard to track Rocketman to our brownstone. We were stars a while, stunned and confused on every channel. Then the cameras went away, like my Polaroid went away. Every day we scoured the internet, expecting to hear how Rocketman landed in the Alps or dangerously close to some Hawaiian volcano.

But that was all a lot of nonsense. Wesley never came down, and a lot changed since he left. No one builds flying robots no more, I’ll tell you that much. Stan and Stacy went mad and moved off to the Heights, Cosby-style. Also, in case you haven’t guessed, I went ahead and married Wesley’s wife. I mean, what were we supposed to do? Viv held me off for years, but a woman needs what she needs.

Now my wife pretends she’s quit looking in her telescope at full moons. One night she woke me up screaming, the telescope in her hands. “I saw him up there,” she cried. “Dancing around in my coat and your bling. He’s shooting the moon all full of rhythm and groove. I read his lips. He says he’ll be dancing up there long after we’re gone.”

“You rest,” I told her. “He’s probably just singing soulless white-boy pop.”

(What are you shivering for? Viv asks. Nothing, baby. Just relax.)

Funky stuff happens, I’m telling you. And so last week, I was doing my Sunday thing, strolling through Prospect Park, watching the birds. I was jamming on a Tower of Power CD—which if you’ve never heard, why don’t you do yourself a favor—when I saw them. Hopping all around on the path and in the grass, fluttering in the elms. American robins, like they never existed before Columbus sailed them over. They’d gone mad, collecting this litter off the ground. I got a little closer and saw the litter was charred tinfoil, like someone didn’t know how to barbeque. That, and itty bits of fake fur. And the page of a book. I lifted that out of the grass. Read its print: We kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed. No mistaking the only book I knew every word to. Native Son.

A ways over in the grass I found his crater, oval and real deep—the damn thing still smoking. In the branches of the nearest tree, I saw a robin nest, reflecting in the sun because it was partly made of tinfoil. Don’t ask me why this was a good idea, but I shimmied up the trunk and took a look inside. There were four turquoise eggs and right in the middle of them—you kidding me?—there was my bling, all coiled up. “God damn,” I said, and then I said it again, because Moma Robin landed in her nest, her eyes fixed on me, real pissed. I jumped down—sister could have that gold chain, I was an older man than the one who’d stood on that roof, didn’t need it anymore.

Searching other trees I found the Lucky Strikes, empty, and one Converse sneaker. There was movement in the bushes then and you know who it was. I shouted his real name. Don’t think he even recognized it. He booked and I chased. Well, you never would have thought the park had so much woods, but I’m serious, we ran on for hours.

Finally, we came to the duck pond and he dove in and didn’t come up for air. I caught a glimpse just before he hit the water—his ass naked as the day God made him—and stood there on the edge, yelling ’til I was the color of those robin eggs. Man knew I couldn’t swim. I took the Converse I had and pitched it into the water. There were a bunch of rocks around me and I wanted to throw them in too, fill the whole damn pond so he had no place to hide. But then I’d seen something under a bench, like maybe something he dropped.

Yeah, it was a Polaroid. I held it in the sun. Might have been the surface of the moon or maybe it was just some blurry gray nothing. But I’m telling you, in the light, it looked so real and scary. (Don’t tell me you’re not shivering. I see you, Viv says. Just chill, all right? Just give a man a minute.)

Couple of park rangers happened by then. They’d witnessed what I’d done with the sneaker and it was their job to give me shit. “What do you think you’re up to?” this brother ranger asks, stalking over with his bearded friend, Ranger Rick.

I started babbling about Rocketman being back, back from space, but all they did was look at each other. “Nothing,” I said. “Not doing nothing.”

About then a robin landed on the nearest bench, a Lucky Strike perched in its beak, orange belly puffed. And now, come on, how did that thing get lit? The brother ranger’s eyes went wide. I was holding the empty pack right in my hand.

“Is there no end to your cruelty, sir?” Ranger Rick demanded.

Before we could get into it, there was a splash in the pond, the shuffling of Wesley booking ass through the marshy brush on the other side. We blinked our eyes, then he was gone forever. I offered the rangers my cross to pay whatever fine he’d caused me, then walked, let them deal with getting it off Moma Robin.

(Yeah now I’m done, woman. And look, not even shaking no more.)

Well, years later, I sold that Polaroid to the Whitney Museum and retired. I called the “abstract print,” with its accompanying essay, “Wesley B. Thurman, the First Negro on the Moon.” But they went ahead and called it—well, now, you know what those fools called it.

Larry Caldwell has lived in Brooklyn, Boston, and now North Hollywood, California. His work has been published in the New England Writers’ Market and Outer Darkness. He has a pet hammerhead shark, in case of intruders. E-mail: write2larryc[at]aol.com.

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