[Image Credit: facebook.com/TPstudio888]
The rocket ship stood head and shoulders taller than me and twice as wide. I kept it in my bedroom and stuffed a towel beneath the door when I worked on it. From blueprints to paper mache it took about a month to complete. All it needed now was paint.
Tools and scraps of wood radiated from beneath the fins. I found solid footing in a pile of newspapers and James stepped into my room and closed the door behind him. He followed me as I backed up so my heels hit the wall. James had biked over to talk about Beth, but now he crossed his arms beside me. He ran his thumb back and forth across his eyebrow.
“How many apartments are there in New York City?” he finally asked.
“A thousand posts by noon when I was looking.”
“You couldn’t find one a little farther away?”
My room was a sliver, a shoebox with a window, even compared to the one James and I shared our freshman year. I flattened my back against the wall and he moved to the corner to get a better view.
“I need to be close for the rocket ship,” I said.
“It’s for her.”
He untucked his shirt and billowed it to cool off from his ride. I shifted my feet, hoping to hide the bag of fireworks by my leg.
We had all finished college the previous spring. Most of our friends went to Chicago but some of us came to New York. James came to write for a news site. Beth came not for art but for a master’s in psychology. I came because Beth came and New York is where musicians go.
Beth and I got a studio together and a few months of her working at a restaurant, me ringing up customers at a hardware store. But then she started school and one morning told me there were lots of opportunities and we shouldn’t limit ourselves. We had both signed the lease and Beth packed a bag and took her books. She said if I was there when she got back, she’d find somewhere else to live.
The new place was close enough that I walked when I moved. I had given up on keeping my room clean, and now a thin layer of sawdust coated the floor. As James stepped forward, his shoes left zigazagging lines behind him.
“I’ve been meaning to call you,” he said.
“I’ve been here.”
“What about music?”
“Not much with the neighbors.”
Three feet of velvet covered the opening for the cockpit. A bench spanned the interior and I climbed inside and took a seat. I let the velvet fall beside me and sat there in the gray dark, with my legs folded against my chest. I had punched holes into a sheet of construction paper and rigged a flashlight to project constellations. When I turned it on, the big dipper curved with the wall in front of me.
“Have you seen her recently?”
“Only once,” I said.
James pulled the velvet aside and light from the room washed out the stars.
“You know she’s a friend of mine.”
“But no telling her,” I said. “It’s going to be a surprise.”
James thought it would be a good idea to get out and I suggested a bar down by Myrtle. He said we could explore my dating options but I wanted to go because Beth and I used to go there, when I’d get my paycheck and we’d drink a few beers.
Inside the door a stuffed raccoon sat on a ledge. Animal hides shaded the ceiling lights. James mentioned a drink with venison-infused syrup and I told him I would buy the first round. He wandered off and I scanned the cocktail menu and saw that the “Poacher” cost as much as I made in two hours at the hardware store. I ordered one from the bartender and a beer for myself.
The room was full and I stood on my tip-toes to look for Beth. She wore sweatshirts with pictures of hunting dogs on them, cut-off shorts and tights underneath when the weather was cool. I kept looking for the big crazy earrings that dangled to her shoulders, the messy bun that showed the back of her neck. Instead I saw James on the other side of the room, standing beneath a pheasant. He was already talking to a girl and I pushed through the crowd and he waved me over.
“I’ve been chatting with your friend here,” she said as I joined them. “Are you among our ranks? A fellow journalist?”
“Nothing as professional as that,” I said.
James crossed one arm over the other and pretended to play a hi-hat and snare in 4/4.
“He’s a musician,” he said.
“Rock?” she asked.
“Mostly jazz,” I said.
I handed James his drink and he smiled as he introduced us.
“Patrick, Mary. Mary, Patrick. She just graduated from Columbia.”
“They told me journalism is a viable career,” she said.
James smiled some more.
“We’re all scrambling for lifeboats,” he said. “We’re all doing the best we can.”
She drank the last sip from her glass and chewed an ice cube.
“I don’t know. The LSATs are next month and I’m seriously considering it.”
Her blouse ended at her shoulders and she was pretty but the kind I saw everywhere if I spun in a circle.
“And how about you?” she asked me. “What does a jazz musician do with his days?”
“The plumbing section is always a mess,” I said.
“He’s an incredible musician,” James said.
She stirred her ice with a cinnamon stick and James offered to buy her another drink. When she left to gather her friends, James nodded at the beer in my hand that was still full to the neck.
“I haven’t seen you in weeks,” he said. “Let me get you something nice.”
He pushed his way through the room and I stood on my tip-toes to search for Beth again. Most of the crowd looked like they had come from work—young, dressed like James, which was weird considering the number of dead animals on the walls. In one corner, a DJ flipped through records behind a booth with a horseshoe on it.
I set my beer on a ledge and pulled out my phone. I scrolled through Facebook. I found the internet dating sites James mentioned but couldn’t look at them without signing up. I scrolled through Facebook some more and saw a notification. I shouldered my way through the crowd and nudged James in the back.
“Does Beth have a show tomorrow?” I asked.
He was trying to catch the bartender’s eye and didn’t turn around.
“There are like ten other artists,” he said.
“I’ll meet you over there.”
“Beth probably needs some space.”
“I’ll just say hi.”
He pulled his wallet out and faced me.
“I’m trying to set you up,” he said.
“One more drink.”
“Let’s hang out tomorrow.”
He looked at me and it felt like college, when he would try to get me to go out but I was always on my way to the music building.
“Tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll go to the show. I’ll meet you over there.”
I almost flinched when he reached toward me but he laid his arm over my shoulders and led me toward the door. When Mary spotted us, he pointed at me and bobbled his head like I had drunk too much.
Outside, James checked his phone and said he had to work in the morning. He needed to get his bike from my apartment and I led us down the street. I had circled around the block to avoid Beth’s place on the way over, but this time I took the direct route. She lived four blocks up the street from me. Her window was on the third floor. As we passed, the curtain beside her bed was down but light from the room shone around its edges.
James pushed me along and I kept going. A few more blocks and then James unlocked his bike and rode back up the street.
The next morning I got up from my sleeping bag and stuck my head out the window. My bedroom was sharp with fumes and I waved my arms to try to clear them. Before going to bed I had put a layer of primer on the rocket ship. I touched the nose and it felt dry but the can said it needed 24 hours to set.
I found a shirt and toasted a bagel in the kitchen. As I buttered it I noticed a pot of old macaroni on the stove. I lived with two grad students who went to different schools and studied different things. I quieted my breath to listen for them but only heard a car alarm.
I ate the bagel in my room beside my drums. They were stacked on the floor because I got a note from a neighbor when Beth and I lived together. I looked into rehearsal spaces but the monthly fees cost more than my rent. In the meantime I used a practice kit made of rubber pads.
What I liked about music was that the results were clear: if you put in the work, you would get better. That was what my teachers had preached to me and that was what I planned to preach to my students if I ever lined any up.
I finished my bagel and set my metronome to 172. I practiced and the rubber pads made it feel like I was working on a golf swing with a broom. It was my day off so I did three hours of exercises. I put on my headphones and played along with an album. I wrote another hour of exercises and practiced some more.
The show started at 6 and I took the train into Williamsburg. When I got to the gallery James’s bike was already locked up outside. I walked in but there were so many people I couldn’t get more than three feet from the door. I looked over everyone and saw that Beth had maybe five prints on the back wall. She was standing in front of them, wearing a shirt I had never seen before.
Beth already looked different and I didn’t understand it because the thing about Beth is that she was a weirdo just like me. In college she’d be in the studio so late that I’d sleep with a pillow over my head for when she came home. A double major in fine arts and psychology. The two of us at a liberal arts college, on a bubble campus in the Midwest surrounded by rivers.
I pushed through the crowd to get to her but on the way saw James. He saw me too and headed in the same direction.
“Hi,” I said to Beth when I reached her.
“Hi,” Beth said.
“Hey,” James said, walking up with a plastic cup of wine.
Beth’s face was quiet and it was different than the last time I saw her, when she spotted me on the street and I told her where I lived. That time she held her hands in front of her and picked at her thumb. Now she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“You made some more screen prints?” I asked.
“They’re old,” she said.
James handed her the cup he was holding and she took it from him without looking at him or me. I tried to think of something to say, but James was there and everything I wanted to say I wanted to say to Beth and not to him.
Beth pulled a thread from her shirt and looked down at it. The shirt was sleek and new and had dozens of tiny black handprints on it. Somebody tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around and James joined their conversation because apparently he knew the guy as well.
While they talked I looked at Beth’s prints. One had an angry ice cream cone on it. Others had tigers and sharks and reapers. They were all posters for concerts she had organized in school. She would talk to the student union, petition money for rock bands to play on campus after Milwaukee or Chicago on tour.
James touched my arm and asked if I wanted to get a drink. I followed him toward a table with wine but he stopped short.
“You came,” he said.
“I wanted to say hi.”
“How was that with Beth?”
“I don’t think she hates me.”
“I don’t think so either.”
The room was small and square and condensation had formed on the windows from all the people.
“What are your plans?” he asked.
“I was going to hang out for a bit.”
“We could go to your place. Pick up a six-pack.”
Some other guy walked up to Beth and I tried to isolate their conversation among all the others in the room. James kept talking but I wasn’t listening. I could separate Beth’s voice but her words were faint and one became the next before I could process it.
“Come on,” James said. “Let’s go. Just give her a wave.”
He punched me in the shoulder and I walked over and did exactly that.
James brought his bike on the subway. He held onto it as we bounced and swayed. When we got to my stop, he carried it on his shoulder and we climbed the stairs to the street.
A few people exited with us and took off in different directions. I walked and James coasted beside me. He didn’t sit on the bike but rather rode it by standing on one of the pedals with both his legs on one side of the frame. He kicked himself along with his free foot, kind of like he was on a scooter. It reminded me that beneath his office clothes, James was actually athletic—he had played soccer at school and used to tie a rolled bandanna around his head to keep his hair behind his ears. But now his hair was cut short and his beard grown out. James who had turned an internship into a full-time position over a summer, who always had a knack for making things fall into place.
We passed a corner store and he bought a six-pack. Outside my building he set it on the ground while he locked up his bike.
Inside my apartment I opened the door to my bedroom and James looked for somewhere to sit. There was no furniture so he took a seat on my sleeping bag. He pulled a beer from the six-pack and I handed him a lighter. He popped the cap on the bottle, gave me the open beer and opened another for himself.
“How’s the job search coming?” he asked.
“Do you have contacts from school?”
“I’ve been talking to a band teacher on the Upper West Side.”
“Just students to pass on but not even that.”
James leaned back against the wall and stretched out his legs to the side of the rocket ship. It had come a long way from when I began, when the wood was laid out on the floor like a jigssaw puzzle. After that I connected the two-by-fours and stapled on sheets of chicken wire. I boiled glue on the stove and for the paper mache, I raided newspapers from one of the free boxes on the street.
The tools that I had rented from the hardware store needed to go back. Looking at the rocket ship still required a little imagination, but I spotted my brush on a piece of wood where I had set it to dry. I pried open a can of paint and dunked the bristles beneath the surface to let them soften.
“So what are you going to do?” he asked.
I added a streak of white to the rocket ship.
“Sit in the cockpit,” I said.
“You and Beth?”
“It can hold two.”
He walked over with a crumpled sheet of newspaper and laid it beneath the fins so I wouldn’t drip on the floor.
“And the fireworks?” he asked.
He picked up a bottle rocket from the bag and crossed his arms over his chest.
“And you’re sure Beth wants a rocket ship?” he asked.
I thought about Beth’s lamp that was shaped like one. But she also had a mug and a piggy bank, and her aunt always sent her a rocket ship card for her birthday.
“She’s always wanted one,” I said. “She’s into them.”
I dunked the brush back into the paint and James sat down on my sleeping bag. He took a sip from his beer and I kept working.
Unlike the primer, the acrylic paint dried quickly and by the time I finished the bottom the top was ready for more. James’s phone dinged in his pocket and he looked at it and said he should go. I walked him outside and he unlocked his bike and headed up the street.
Back inside I ate a snack and washed the brush. I opened another can of paint and started on the nose. When I finished I turned back to the body and touched up all the spots where the paper mache showed through. I worked until the car stereos quieted on the street. I worked until the air blowing through the window was cool.
When I woke up the next day my room was bright. I got up from my sleeping bag and stood in the corner. I couldn’t back up far enough so I stepped into the kitchen and from there the rocket ship looked magic. The body was white. The nose and fins black. I had painted it just like Beth’s lamp—the one beside her bed that was literally right in front of me every morning after she left—and now it looked like I could push a big red button and make it fly.
I put on fresh clothes and found my wallet beside my sleeping bag. Outside, the days had shortened with the beginning of fall, and shadows fell from the buildings as I headed up the street.
When I reached Beth’s block I crossed to the opposite sidewalk. I turned into the bakery where we used to go on Saturday mornings. We’d order coffee and croissants and draw on napkins. From there we could see our window, and Beth’s prints on the walls if we squinted.
I got a bottomless cup and sat down. I texted James but he didn’t text back. As my coffee cooled I texted him again. I told him I needed his help and he asked if everything was OK. He said he’d be over.
Beth’s curtain was open but I couldn’t see any movement. I finished my cup and got a refill. It took a while but eventually James rode by on his bike. There was still no movement in Beth’s window but then I saw her on the sidewalk. She was coming from the same direction as James, carrying a poster tube. As she got closer, I noticed she was wearing the same shirt from the night before.
My face went warm as she stepped into her building. I left my cup on the counter and crossed through traffic to go to my apartment. The coffee was in my system and I thought about Beth with her shirt and from up the block I saw James. He was standing in front of my door, his bike locked to a street sign.
“I just texted you,” he said as I ran to a stop.
“I was up the street.”
I fiddled open the door and tried to slow my breaths.
“Things are OK?” he asked.
“I finished the rocket ship. I just need help carrying it.”
I rushed up the stairwell and inside my room started clearing a path on the floor. I heard James’s footsteps in the kitchen but he stopped in the doorway.
“It’s not as heavy as it looks,” I said.
I kicked the wood and newspapers from in front of the fins while James stayed by the door.
“Maybe we should wait until it’s dark,” he said.
“But she’s there now.”
“You saw her?”
“Like five minutes ago.”
I grabbed the flashlight from the cockpit and placed it in the grocery bag with the fireworks. I stood on one side of the rocket ship and motioned for James to stand opposite me.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“The bakery across the street.”
I kept motioning but he didn’t move. He rubbed his eyebrow. He rubbed his eyebrow some more and then something changed and he stepped forward.
With James on the other side of the rocket ship, I tipped it toward him and he raised his hands and caught it. As I lifted the fins, he lowered the nose to his waist.
James backed through the door and going down the stairwell, he carried the nose on his shoulder and I held the fins by my knees. On the sidewalk we shuffled past awnings and storefronts. People gave us space and we rested the rocket ship on our hips when we had to stop for lights.
We reached Beth’s building and a little kid asked if the rocket ship was going to fly. His mom pulled him away and I set the bottom down and James pushed up the nose so the rocket ship was standing. Beth’s curtain was still open and James held his hand to his forehead and looked up. I placed the flashlight in the cockpit and turned the bag of fireworks upside down. I arranged them in a circle around the fins.
I flicked my lighter and sparks shot against my hand as I launched a bottle rocket. It hit the wall of Beth’s building and bounced across the street. I dropped to my knees and lit a big fountain and turned my face. I went from one fuse to the next, holding my lighter until they caught and burned.
Smoke bombs, black cats, spinners, whistlers. Crackling and exploding. Louder and louder. Each one joining the chorus.
Embers hit my cheek. Smoke billowed black and green and yellow and I covered my face. Flashes of light. Percussive blasts. Sizzling and shrieking and I closed my eyes and pulled the top of my shirt over my mouth. I couldn’t breathe and I started coughing. I kept lighting the fireworks. I turned around for air and when I opened my eyes, Beth was coming from the door of her building.
“Patrick you crazy fuck,” she said. She ran to the rocket ship and stomped on the fireworks. “Get some water, James. Somebody’s already called the police.”
The fireworks exploded around her ankles. She kicked them and they tumbled off the curb. They rolled under the rocket ship and hit the fins and started to flame.
“What do you want me to say to this?” she asked.
I tried to clear the fireworks with my feet.
“You always wanted a rocket ship,” I said.
She swung her arms but the smoke kept billowing. The fireworks burned black dots onto her jeans. She stepped back and I thought she was going to yell at me, or knock the whole thing down, but then I recognized the look on her face. Her eyebrows flattened and her lips went limp. I remembered that face from school, when we would go to a jazz show and the tempo was so fast and the sax so loud, the drums tipped off kilter and the songs blurred into chaos.
The fireworks erupted and James tugged me off the curb. In his other hand he held Beth’s wrist. He pulled us through traffic and from the opposite sidewalk we watched the showers of sparks. We listened to the blasts and pops. A small crowd gathered but the fireworks burned out one by one. When they quieted, everybody kept walking.
James let go of my arm and Beth faced me. Her eyes were wet and I didn’t know if she was crying or if it was from the smoke. James kept holding her wrist and I saw the black streaks beneath her eyelashes. I remembered mornings after I played a concert, or after one of the shows she had put together, when she had been too tired to wash her face before bed.
Across the street, the smoke cleared and the rocket ship stood with its paint singed and speckled. I could see the nose but a parked car blocked the fins. Traffic flowed and none of the drivers turned to look.
Beth touched my elbow and I thought about how beautiful her eyes were.
“Patrick,” she said.
“Patrick,” James said.
A siren sounded in the distance but it moved in the opposite direction.