His whole life, his name was Wesley B. Thurman, 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 crap playing on.
People ask me about Wesley all the time, like I’m some spokesperson, and so I always 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–should have heard some of the nonsense schemes he had for making it there. Most never got past the air in front of his face, but you know some did and, boy, you never heard so much laughing in all your life. Like this once, he built a flying robot out of corrugated steel and telephone guts. Said he knew just how to do it too. All of us went and gathered up on the roof of our building–me, his wife Vivicca (Vigh-vee-kah, she’s telling me, you make sure they get it right), Stan, Stacy, all of us. And we watched him wheel out this trashcan-looking thing with big red buttons for eyes and a dry-pasta smiley mouth. That 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 the cosmos. There were fuses attached to the thing’s feet and we stood back while he lit them up like Wile E. Coyote. Well, that crazy robot went up all right–right up in flames! And you should have seen, we all about fell on our faces laughing, Wesley loudest of us all.
More than a year later, he showed us the jet pack. We lumbered up to the roof 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 off eBay and then wrapped up in tinfoil for whatever reason. "It’s amazing the schooling you get in the library," he told us. "Go believe the hype."
For his thirty-eighth attempt at the moon, Wesley snatched five things off us: from Stan, his pack of premium Lucky Strikes; from me, my Polaroid camera–"Gonna take some fine ones," he promised; from his wife, her imitation mink; from Stacy, her copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son; and the fifth item he also wanted from me: my lucky bling. Of course you know I never use that sorry word, bling, it’s just how he and Viv spoke. (What are you laughing at? Viv’s asking me. Nothing, I say.) I held tight to that gold cross of mine. "You already got the Polaroid," I reminded him. But he had such a look on his face, I couldn’t resist, just took off the chain, and tossed it over. None of us had any bets his ass was even getting anywhere, right?
Well, you should have seen our jaws drop when he fired his rocket and rose up like the supernatural. I mean, there he was, levitating over us, the rocket flaming and hissing, and poor Stan getting his damn eyebrows singed off. All we could see of him was the bottoms of his Converse, a wad of gum stuck on one of them. Then Viv was yelling, "My God, somebody grab him!"
Stan leaped up, swiped at Wesley’s ankle. Missed by a mile. He was so out of shape from those Lucky Strikes, real pathetic. "Can’t do it," he panted, looking to me. "But I bet you can."
"Now what on earth is that supposed to mean?" I asked, hands on my hips, my unsinged eyebrows raised.
"It means you’re a foot taller than me, dummy."
So I jumped up and missed by a mile. Then put a little run into the second try and stretched my fingers and caught the bottom of his sneaker–the funky gum wad. Yeah, I suppose if that Hubba Bubba was just a little fresher, I might have been carried off to outer space too. Because the second I fell back on the roof, he made some correction to the control panel on his handlebars and his rocket kicked into overdrive, and, damn, up he went, blasting off over Flatbush, legs kicking.
"I can see the Trade Center," we heard him shout. And then I got pissed, because he was making off with my cross and not apologizing. Then I yelled up for him to drop it down. "Who cares about your bling?" he shouted, going to space going right to that man’s head. I yelled all kinds of junk I don’t remember, but then he was too high, just a shape getting small in all that blue, the sky just eating him up.
"Oi gehvult," Stacy cried, and we saw what she meant. Wesley never did like to think past the moment. So like a real jerk, he’d launched himself into LaGuardia’s descent path. And we watched helpless, a 7-something-7 heading straight for him. The two shapes intersected and I thought about his funeral. Probably just let the brother keep my cross if there was anything left of him 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, to this day I’m wondering 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 Mr. Rocketman to our brownstone. We were stars awhile, stunned and confused on every channel. Except those cameras went away, like my Polaroid went away, and every day after we scoured the Internet, expecting to hear how Wesley had landed in the Alps, or on the lip of some volcano in Aloha.
But that was a whole lot of nonsense. He never came down, and a lot of things changed once he left. No one around here built flying robots, I’m telling you it was a cautionary tale. Then Stan and Stacy went off and moved to the Heights, Cosby-style. Also, in case your brain hasn’t guessed it, I went ahead and married the man’s wife. Now Viv fended me off for years, but what was she supposed to do? A woman needs what she needs.
Nowadays my wife pretends she’s quit looking at full moons. But one night she woke me screaming, our telescope cradled in her hands like a stolen baby. "I saw him up there," she cried. "Dancing around in my mink and your bling. He’s shooting the moon all full of rhythm and groove. I read his lips, and oh Jesus, he says he’ll be dancing up there long after we’re gone."
"You rest," I told her. "He’s probably just singing some soulless white-boy pop."
(What are you shivering for? Viv asks. Nothing, baby. Just relax.)
Funky stuff happens sometimes, I’m telling you. And so last week, I was doing my Sunday thing, strolling through Prospect Park, just 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, and fluttering in the elms. Robins. American robins. You know, like they never existed before Columbus sailed them over. They were going mad, collecting all this litter off the ground. I got a little closer and saw it was charred-up tinfoil, scattered all in the grass. That, and the page of a book. I lifted it up and 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 off in the grass I found his crater, oval and deep, the damn thing still smoking. Up in a tree, there was a robin’s nest, reflecting in the sun because most of it was made of tinfoil. Don’t ask me why this was a good idea, but I shimmied up that trunk and took a good look at the four or five turquoise eggs inside. And right in the middle of them–you kidding me?–there was my cross, all coiled up and perfect. "God damn," I said, and then I said it again, because Moma Robin landed in her nest, her eyes fixed on me, real pissed. Jumped out of that tree like the Sundance Kid–little sister could have the bling, I’m an older man than the one who’d stood on that roof, didn’t need it.
Searching other trees I found the pack of Lucky Strikes, empty, and one Converse sneaker, no gum. And then there was movement in the bushes and you better know who that was. I shouted his name. Not Rocketman, his real name. But I don’t think he even recognized it. He booked then and I chased.
Well, you never would have thought the park had so much woods, but I’m serious, we ran for hours and hours.
Finally, we came to this duck pond and he dove in and didn’t come up for air. I caught a glimpse of him before he hit the water–ass naked as the day God made him–and stood there on the shore, yelling till I was the color of those robin eggs. That man knew I couldn’t swim. I took the Converse and pitched it into the water. There was a bunch of rocks around me and I wanted to throw them too, fill the whole damn pond so he had no place to hide. But then I saw something up under a bench, like maybe something he’d dropped.
A Polaroid. I plucked it up and held it in the sun. Yeah, it might have been the surface of the moon, or maybe it was just some blurry gray nothing, don’t know. But I’m telling you, in the sunlight, it looked so real and scary. (Don’t tell me you’re not shivering. I see you, Viv says. Just chill. Just give a man a minute.)
A couple of park rangers witnessed what I’d done with the sneaker and you know it was their job to raise hell. "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, fallen from space. All they did was look at each other. "Nothing," I said. "Not doing nothing."
About then a robin landed on the nearest bench, orange belly puffing, and a Lucky Strike perched in its beak. And now, come on, how did that thing get lit? The brother ranger’s eyes went wide. I was holding the empty Strike pack right in my hand.
"And is there no end to your cruelty?" Ranger Rick demanded.
Before we could get into it, there was a splash in the pond, and the shuffling of Wesley booking ass through the marshy brush on the other side. We all blinked and then Rocketman was gone forever.
I offered the rangers my cross to pay whatever fine he’d caused me, then walked off. Let them deal with getting that bling off Moma Robin.
(Yeah, okay, now I’m done, woman. And look, not even shaking no more.)
Oh, but last thing: Years later, I sold that Polaroid I found to the Whitney Museum and went ahead and retired myself. I called this "abstract print", along with my accompanying essay, Wesley B. Thurman, the First Negro on the Moon. Those art folks just shook their surly heads. They called it–well, now, you know what those damn fools called it.