by Eric Emmons
My town has a Rocket passing through, the way other towns have the circus or the mumps passing through. The Rocket takes up room on the horizon like a Ferris wheel does, packed up occasionally and hauled to new views. It is parked downtown tonight, looming over Mack’s with the maples; on Sundays it is dragged to stand beside the water tower, the only structure close to the Rocket’s height.
Nights like these, no one’s awake. The football game ended, and I did not play. Too young. The brass section had me swooning as I watched from the steeple of an Episcopal church. Admission, though illegal, was free.
People say I am copying the engineers. But I have always trespassed on rooftops. Ever since I learned there was an above and a below, I wanted the above. It is the engineers who copy me. They perch on their Rocket like aphids to a stalk. Like those mountain goats who sleep on the precipice, they sleep right on the Rocket. A bony scaffolding mated to the side like a fire escape lets them climb, by frightful stairs, from fins to nosecone. That is their steeple, and this is mine.
Gosh, we are a place so steeple-studded you could tour the town by hopping church eaves, never touching ground. If we are going by architecture, then steeples and Rockets are one phylum. Sharing a posture. Sharing a purpose: to bring forward Heaven, or at least souvenirs. Moon rocks or God-blesses. Amen amen amen.
The Rocket inspires a comparison to the dodo. Both are flightless, which makes them preposterous. A bird which only walks, a Rocket which only stands. But where the dodo had a waddle, the Rocket must be carried. A platform nicknamed the crawler manages this.
Crawler. What a machine. It looks like NASA stole a barge and put caterpillar tracks under it—the kind of bogus Apollo-era idea that is liable to work perfectly.
Mornings, men gather at the hardware store to blow on coffee and think. These are men who delight in what weight they can tow out of a ditch. As the crawler passes, it humbles their Chevys, the way a tiger humbles tabbies. For fifty years, the crawler towed Rockets from Kennedy Space Center to the launchpad. Carrying a Rocket to Arkansas is its latest miracle of engineering.
Why did they come to this town? Probably lost, for no one gets here except by being born here. I remember the arrival. From the roof of my house I saw the Rocket inching up I-30, being passed by truckers who honked, not for mean spirits, but because the engineers were pumping their fists up and down, asking them to.
I soon descended and met the Rocket in the street, blocking their way in tough who-goes-there postures. The crawler stopped the merest inch from my nose—a replica of that tank scene from Tiananmen Square, recast with American cool. A paper airplane fell down, folded from someone’s diploma: Cal Tech, a good school. A note on the back, done in shy writing, said, “Diesel?”
I pointed to Spring Street, where Parker’s Pumps are the fairest price in town.
A question, looming on the Rocket like condensation: “What’s inside there?” My classmates wonder on our way to school, jaywalking or else they’re a rotten egg. Arms out for stabilizer fins, lips buzzing to indicate horsepower: “If I were a Rocket, what would I keep inside?”
Kip Fain says probably fondue. But Lola, who knows better, says the Rocket is full of gold.
“Gold is too heavy. You can’t launch it to space.”
“Yeah, that’s why the Rocket’s driving around town, idiot, because it can’t launch.”
No need to call Kip an idiot, we all agree.
Passing through. Am I using that right? A Buddhist monk once passed through, living in his van and spreading vegetarian pamphlets through holes in the playground fence. He passed through for a month. The Rocket has been here a season.
We have cows in this town, toward the edges. Some are skinny, on strike for better hay. Unions of cows. They seem enchanted by the crawler, which exudes a burdened, bovine aspect. Some nights cattle break out dreaming, presumably, to elope. Descriptions are circulated for Daisy, Bessie, and Ruth who has a heart-shaped splotch. They are easy to find the next morning: grazers in the Rocket’s long shade.
“What I don’t get,” says the muddied sheriff’s deputy with one hand on Daisy’s haunch and the other porching his brow, “is why they won’t come down and eat.” He is squinting at the engineers, homeless if not for the crow’s nest.
The pastime here is to buy a pickup truck and void all warranties by “lifting” it beyond the safe heights of a suspension. Natural selection has produced whole populations of trucks whose drivers ride touching the face of God, bending down to receive their drive-thru catfish. These people admire the Rocket most, and they compare notes with the engineers on how to push vehicles ever higher.
Wasters away, these engineers. Their skinny arms wouldn’t do ten pushups.
There was debate at first about whether to feed people who won’t help themselves when all they have to do is come down for food.
“Exactly. You’d think a Ph.D. would have more dignity.”
But that’s a misconception. Scientists have always relied on handouts, which others call grants. They claim to be doomed. Word is, if the engineers descend from the Rocket, step off the crawler, they will dry up like their budget. “Poof,” they say, “We will go poof!”
But no matter. Starvation’s nearly a sin. Evenings after church now, the town brings food, and, like so much of Christianity, it’s a shindig. Lovers, Kiwanis Clubbers, anyone who is anyone brings a casserole, sipping communion from brown bags. Even the sheriff does it. Here comes Viola, a teacher of piano, with her tater tot casserole. Viola sees Brenda, who has also brought a tater tot casserole. Viola slips away to remake hers, chicken-artichoke style. Father Milo brings his chayote and lamb casserole. None of my friends know what chayote is, though we agree lamb is cliche for a clergyman and next time he should do venison. Casserole cliques. Hominy. Hegemony. And rare recipes I have not seen described anywhere else.
Mom sends me out the door with her Hot Fudge Casserole. “Everyone else’s will be savory,” she tells me, a wooden spoon waving, “but they need something for dessert, don’t they?” It is that kind of forward-thinking that I hope I have inherited.
This town has always gossiped greedily. Half-heard rumors are tomorrow’s affidavits. Here’s how I heard the story told:
NASA, like a boogeyman, always needed a quorum of belief to operate. So when a wet Senate thumb smudged NASA’s name from the budget pie-chart, it was as if the country had finally grown up, grown out of that space phase which afflicts kids; un-belief was ratified. And NASA began to desiccate in the Cape Canaveral air.
Poof is the verb for it, like supernova is the verb for stars. Their launchpads went poof during a rollout. The crawler had to do a three-point turn, and the Rocket rode back to Kennedy like a monument being removed.
Inside Kennedy Space Center the lights were cut, and a crackling PA told the engineers to get a real job. Real jobs were at IBM or in Pentagons. Most engineers refused. Rather be bums.
“That’s fine too,” said the PA, exactly as God’s staticky voice said to the Old Testament heads before taking his finger off the button for good, “just scatter.”
Everyone had two or three diplomas under their arms as they cleaned out their desks. These would make great paper planes. One engineer folded hers into the classic dart-nose variety and watched it depart out the window. The little aircraft tried a barrel roll, and this is what it saw tumbling: palm trees, 400 engineers in the body language of goodbye, the morning star to see them off.
In the parking lot, the Rocket reposed on the crawler, like a ship made mostly of mast. All aboard now. Engineers scaled scaffolding to the Rocket’s nose cone. They pointed west because the Atlantic lined the east.
“Let’s go somewhere, happier.” And so they came here.
But that’s just how I heard it.
“So what did they expect?” It’s a group discussion in Sunday school. “Really. That they could build a Tower of Babel and not get scattered?” Rumor around the pews says that something unholy inside the Rocket sustains the engineers and prevents them from going poof with their budget. If they hug it close, maybe they can wait this out.
Mornings arrive to get lopped off the calendar. The noble casserole, a seasonal dish, incorporates more pumpkin, then pheasant. And the Rocket is still passing through.
I am on the roof of the school again, binoculars owling my eyes, watching the engineers with a suspicion otherwise reserved for my mother’s boyfriends. The crawler’s tracks tear up the softball field real good, as if plowing. They carve eights, initials, erections, into the turf — same as what kids with house keys carve on the handicap stall.
So tall, the Rocket snags a powerline. The POP! disperses birds, and in the class below, light flees. Kids breathe again when they realize the dark is not a lockdown, only an outage. They visit the window.
“What were you learning in there?” I call down to the whorl in Mr. Puck’s hair. “Did I miss any work?” For it is Mr. Puck’s class I am skipping.
Mr. Puck shakes his grays. “We were about to watch that VHS again.” The science curriculum has been reduced to a few episodes of Bill Nye The Science Guy, passed around among the teachers the way my friends and I once passed around that cache of Playboy we found dilapidating in the woods one summer. Not worthless, but after so many viewings, ceases to be educational. Our school and NASA have suffered the same cuts. Textbooks have gone poof, and we cannot afford the new edition.
A paper airplane flies up (a lot of these are flying since the Rocket came, popularizing them) to land on my palm. It is my essay, lacerated by red pen. Count the marks: it’s an F.
“You exceeded the class average,” Mr. Puck, bragging on me.
Science in my town is mostly concerned with the plausibility of arks.
Regarded as an ark, the Rocket fails —it’s my thesis for the spring science fair. Will it float? Yes, but only in space, where everything will. Worse, it charts only a particular course called an orbit. About the animals: there is nowhere to shack them. Traditionally (and science is sick with traditions) the only animals allowed in Rockets are humans and chimps. Repopulate with that.
Then again, maybe it’s an opposite-ark. Room only for Noah and Noah’s grim wife, but built by a whole creation of engineers, some of them never described. From where I’m standing I sight engineers for guidance, propulsion, metallurgy, photonics, telecom, safety, nanotech, and even a blushing ceramics person, whose glamorous function no one can guess.
The library here is run by tyrants and kings. No amnesty. A photo wall depicting most of the townspeople shows who has fines, who got banned. Like those law schools walled with dead deans, the portraits are huge.
Revolt. This spring we break ground on a little free library. Well, hardly ground. We hang the books by chip clips and strings from the side of the Rocket. Some patrons don’t read, so they press leaves in the pages for others to find and wonder about. Some folks from afar mistake the books for windchimes, get mad when the books don’t jingle, and then add the windchimes themselves. Viola has special chimes that capture the wind inside, playing an odd fugue; makes them herself, she alleges. Some strings break. Books everywhere.
“So there’s a tinkling tower spitting literature ‘round town and you didn’t think to paint it?” A child said to the mayor.
Now the city has enlisted Jo, an itinerant muralist, to paint the Rocket. Jo did the mural at the high school; she painted goddesses Democracy and Justice entwined in scintillating postures. The mayor envisions something more “pee cee” this time, something that captures the spirit of Arkansas. Instead, Jo paints a pinup girl, bomber style.
The free library grows, and a free pantry is planned higher up.
A stage play occurs, starring the fourth grade. The Rocket is scenery.
Community gardeners use the Rocket for a trellis, growing tomatoes clear to Venus.
Kids build birdhouses, not up to code, and send these to hang from reckless heights.
A weathervane tells the breeze.
How do the engineers feel about this? It is their Rocket, after all, being made plebeian, tacky. “No,” they say, “it belonged to taxpayers all along.” The Rocket is in every sense a community space.
Mr. Puck is being dramatic. He has pushed everything off his desk so he may lay on top of it; his hairy arms and ankles dangle.
“Mr. Puck, get off there.”
“I will not.”
“And teach us something.”
Mr. Puck feels he is going to go poof like the textbooks. It’s a feeling in his stomach, migrating to his lymph nodes. One of the art students composes the scene: “You, with the beautiful bow, hold his clammy hand. You, dab his forehead with this cloth. Rule of thirds now.” Someone donates a juice box to his lips, and we are making a Death of Socrates, the size of life.
“What does it mean for a man to be defunded?”
“It means they don’t want him anymore.”
“But we want him.”
“Yes but the Powers That Be don’t.”
Last week the Powers defunded the Park Service. Powers That Be (we say it with a snort), scrounging for change in government-sized sofa cushions. Who are these grownups mugging our dreams? “Soon it’ll be us, and we’ll make it better.”
Darn tooting. Someday we kids will infiltrate the Powers. Height and age will be our disguise. We’ll make textbooks cheaper. The ice caps colder. Some will go for the Senate, and we will send them fan mail. It’s always exciting: kids planning their future.
Mr. Puck, sensing the attention going away from him, announces he will die now. He sighs a terrible noise which segues to a coma. We all clap at his style and bear him down from the desk, which is not high, and the scene becomes a pietá. We carry him to the playground where the Rocket is waiting, with a little red wagon hitched behind to be a hearse. Maybe some air—some time in the field, as they say—will revive him.
With Mr. Puck gone we must teach science to ourselves. Armchair experts. We never know what we are talking about. One day we take our ignorance to the playground where the engineers can maybe help.
Slow as tectonics, the crawler tows the Rocket toward us while the class puts big questions to paper. Some of us, not advanced, wad the papers and knuckleball them to the engineers, who catch. Others are already good at paper planes which go up like Icarus. The engineers read, consider, jot answers, and return the papers to us, refolded with better aerodynamics. Here’s one:
“What is the nature of truth?” it says.
The answer: “We’re getting there.”
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” asks Jamie-Lou.
“We’re getting there,” say the engineers.
“Did those fruit flies we killed have consciousness?” wonders Bunny, “and does the dog have free will.”
“We’re getting there.”
“What about the problem of evil?”
“We’re getting to that.”
“We’re getting there. We’re getting there.” An answer for every girl and boy. Without exception, we are getting there.
“Heard that one before,” I say. But where? Where did I hear it before? My classmates, meantime, are oddly thrilled. Looking swiftly to the bright side: these questions, the prime ribs of science, are still waiting for a kiddie scientist to grow up and answer them. They start calling dibs, though there’s enough Nobel-material on the playground to go around. We’re getting there.
But where did I hear that before?
On the Bible’s last page: “Surely I am coming quickly,” said the Redeemer, as He exited through the back of the book. “Amen.” His promise turns two thousand soon, and science started earlier than Him. Pythagoras in the sand must have thought he was getting there too.
I’m Baptist, but I could hop denominations, go to Father Milo, and spill beans in the booth. A good confession, like a good B-flat, begins in the diaphragm and vents so the sins mix with the air and dilute to parts per million. A harmless concentration.
Personally I prefer to confess while people are sleeping. I have often gone to my mom, napping on the couch, and whispered grudges.
“That chicken was dry.”
“I hated my birthday present.”
“Your new boyfriend is a cad.”
That is how I am confessing tonight, to the engineers. The Rocket is a block away, and the engineers are asleep. I am cross-legged on the crown of the water tower while my ham radio cackles funny popcorn noises in my lap. I stare the Rocket down, press the button, and speak:
“I hate your stupid guts.”
Now ham radio is a wondrous hobby. I got this rig at a rummage sale to tell limericks over the police scanners. Tonight I am broadcasting at 151 MHz—an oddball frequency no one tunes in to but maybe Lars who is a doomsday prepper. Good. I don’t want an audience, only a voice. Again the button:
“Why did you come to this town? I wish you hadn’t come.”
It’s a good height for broadcast—almost the Rocket’s own. I could pitch a tent up here, and live.
“I wish you’d stayed in Cape Canaveral.”
There is, I think, Polaris.
“We are the ones who voted you down. We voted away your budget and made all your plans go poof.”
And there’s Pollux.
“Hardworking towns like ours—we saw a Rocket full of money rolling on a pedestal, and we said, ‘That’s not science. That’s something else.’ Real science cures disease. Real science makes light bulbs last longer. You’ve strayed.”
“Why launch all that money into space when we have so many problems to fix here on Earth? We’ve got potholes old as August. And teens pregnant. And feral cats who want the rabies drug.”
A star, dislodged from darkness, shoots.
“I wish you hadn’t come. Worst, you told my friends a lie. You said ‘We’re getting there,’ but you’ll never get there. For three thousand years, scientists still haven’t gotten there.”
Using my pulpit voice.
“Can’t you see you are being cursed to wander? Casting kids from the Garden.”
“We should be spending that money here on Earth.”
“I can’t think of one reason why Rockets should exist.”
The paper airplane pricks me in the cheek. Nearly puts an eye out. I take my thumb off the transmitter and unfold the note: Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? Impossible that anyone could have thrown it this far.
No welcome outstayed. No party left early. The Rocket departs the correct day exactly. How many months? About a period of human gestation. Loaned casserole dishes return cleaner than the day they were made. Recipes get extorted hush-hush onto napkin backs, then stowed into Rocket creases like those papered prayers stowed in Jerusalem walls. Brenda brags how hotly she was begged for hers.
I am on the school roof again, feeling how kids often feel, which is to say bloated. They bloat us with knowledge. Bloat us in a desire that each child learn new things each day, so that on the day we are adults, we will have a survey of all subjects informing our whims. One subject is science. Another is home economics.
Over the Rocket is an armada of paper planes, some caught, stamped with lipstick smooches, and sent up again. Drivers pull their tall trucks over, and tonight they will pour one out for NASA. There goes a cow, free.
Soon the Rocket is in silhouette and smaller than it was a minute ago. My classmates wave for a long time. I wave too, just a pinky finger waggling—a conductor for songs of good riddance.
Where did they go?
Evening in a field. The horizon looks like the sun has crashed there and left a red rump jutting. In the gloaming, fireflies improvise new constellations. It is a waist-high galaxy kids can catch in jars—and they do. Not in our town. These kids are many interstates west, where the light pollution is not so serious. Founders of a middle school astronomy team, they are waiting for the sunset to finish so they can take turns finding Mars again. Got to be fifty of them.
There goes a family dog: a collie, in ecstasy, trying to herd the Rocket which is just arriving. As the crawler parks, the diesel runs out, and that is no issue; they are at the destination. At last and after all. My town was a sideshow, like for those probes who circle planets to use them as gravitational slingshots, flinging toward better views.
Someone gives the all clear. “Sunset’s done. Telescopes out.” She must be president.
Small tubes come from backpacks to stand on three legs. Amateurs, half of them stargazing with the lens cap still on. Even the dog wants to see. Atop the Rocket, the pros unpack their cargo. The crawler moved slow so as not to damage its fine optics.
A space telescope. These kids named it once, in a NASA contest, back when the future was still a promise. It is blind down here, but the engineers point the lens up anyway, letting the light from space come over it. “That’s what you’re missing.”
As the kids wink at the sky, a tune rises in them. A tune composed by no one in particular, but which sort of poofed onto the scene, as life did once—spontaneous then as now.