What Happened to Rocketman

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.

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