Moon Shot! 25 cents!
by Grady C. Jaynes
Blissfully chained, hand in hand, they walk down Castetter Avenue on a Sunday afternoon. There is the father and the mother and between them their son. The boy can barely keep up. He walks and pauses, distracted by the cars rushing down the street. Tires plow through puddles with a gush and a whoosh and glittering sprays of water.
The boy shouts whoosh and jumps ahead of his parents. The father pulls up hard on the boy's wrist and he floats to the ground with his half-bare legs kicking in short pants and knee socks.
When the boy says gush and prepares to leap again, his mother tightens her grip on his hand.
Be good, she says.
Good boys get ice-cream, the boy says. He presses his tongue against an empty slot in the front of his top row of teeth. He squints against the sun as he looks up at her. The wide brim of her hat, casts a shadow over her face and he cannot see her very well.
He hears, Don't scuff your shoes, and you might get ice cream.
The cars continue to splash through the shallow puddles. Sunday shoes, he chatters repeatedly and he doesn't jump anymore.
His left hand stays hidden in his father's warm and dampening grip. His right hand wraps around a finger on his mother's hand. She wears white linen gloves and there is a button at the wrist. The boy thinks about undoing that button, but then he thinks about the promise of ice cream.
Sunday shoes, he continues to say, until the words are nonsense sounds stretching and popping in his mouth.
The mother and father march steadily, silently down the sidewalk until they arrive in front of the malt shop.
Across the shop window is a brass rod and a tied back red and white checker curtain. Inside the shop is crowded with people.
Pity me, his mother says as she stares through the glass. She doesn't want to talk with the women from the church. It's just too much, she says.
The father removes his hat and holds it to his chest. He strokes his hair with the palm of his hand and straightens the coat of his black suit. Of course, he says and a bell chimes as he steps through the door, alone.
The mother and the boy stand facing the street. The boy tugs on the hem of the mother’s black skirt and rubs the material between his fingers. The mother reaches down and pulls his hand away.
The father returns through the door and crouches. He holds two vanilla ice-cream cones and gives one to the boy, who takes it in both hands. It numbs the tip of his tongue.
He stares over the top of the ice cream as they continue their walk. He feels the cold of it against the tip of his nose and in the air against his eyes.
The father halts and tips his hat as he makes room for a young woman passing from the other direction on the sidewalk. The boy looks at the young woman's blue and green plaid skirt and her pale calves. He counts the clicks of the young woman's heels on the concrete as the father trots up beside him.
I thought she had left town, the mother says.
Please, not today, the father says.
A drop of the melting ice cream falls on his shirt and the boy quickly brushes it away. He glances up at the mother, hoping she hasn't noticed and, across the street, he sees the rocket ship.
It is new and beautiful and the boy halts. He stares, wide eyed at the magnificent ship. It sits finger straight, upright in front of the C.R. Anthony's store. Its blue fuselage is the color of the ocean on television, bright green fins turn out at the sides, and gold lightning bolts strike from a red cone tip. It sways gently on a large coiled spring that twists up from a low round platform.
The boy hurries across the street. The mother and father protest and then follow. Together they stand before the rocket and the boy inspects the small opening and the yellow, molded plastic cockpit—just his size. A sign reads Moon Shot! 25 cents.
The father reaches into a pocket and pulls out a coin. He steps to the metal box on a pole beside the platform. The boy climbs through the oval opening and takes his seat at the controls. There are gauges and buttons painted on the console in front of him. The coin drops in and first there is a low sound of motors, metal pushing metal, and an electric hum vibrating through the plastic chair. The sound grows louder and he feels the shake move rattle his bones and teeth. The ice cream cone wavers in his hand as he reaches with the other, pressing at the painted buttons.
The boy thinks of systems checks. It is important to do this. He knows from the movies that every good pilot tests his equipment. He studies the gauges and looks to his father through the opening. He wants to hand off his ice cream and say Keep this for me.
His father should take it and say Roger dodger! and We are all counting on you. They should call each other Buzz and Rocky but outside on the sidewalk the father does not see him.
The father is looking at the store window where a man is undressing a lady mannequin. The mother is watching the father. The boy wants to wave at them. He will not be back for a very long time, he thinks. Traveling at the speed of light, his teacher, Ms. Godwin, has told him, Stops time for the traveler. When he returns, his parents will be old and he will not have aged at all. He thinks of this but decides he has a mission to complete.
He closes his eyes and counts down from ten. Before he reaches three, he feels a blast of heat from beneath the rocket. It blows his hair and the gray smoke stings his eyes and nostrils. He feels himself rising and thinks of last summer's vacation, an elevator ride to the top of the St. Louis Arch. He and the father rode together, pretended to be in a rocket ship, and the mother waited below. This time is not pretend, he thinks, and he must go alone.
His eyes shut, pressed closed from the force of lift-off. On television, the Apollo rose so slowly, he knows. As clouds of exhaust plumed out, the scaffold arced gently away. Something here is wrong. He is going too fast. He will shoot past the moon. He strains to open his eyes.
The father is waving his arms, but not at the boy. The father and mother look at each other. The mother puts her hands against her face.
The boy wonders how far he might get. He imagines overshooting the moon, past streaking meteors and the rings of Saturn.
The boy had asked, How far is it to heaven?
It is beyond the moon, his schoolteacher said. It is too far for people to reach. A human body can't get there, only a soul is light enough to fly that far.
He had believed her, but this ship is sleeker than anything he has ever seen. He imagines his little ship speeding out of control and golden bells ringing an alarm as he hurtles toward heaven, the red cone piercing the cloud floor. He sees little angel boys and little angel girls crowding the hallways of their school. They are holding textbooks over their halos as they crouch against the walls. He sees unlucky ones, bright as stars, falling to earth.
Stand back, the boy shouts through the open door. I can't stop this.