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Copyright © 2011

Andrew Mitchell

The Rocket in the Sky




Perry Abbot is nine years old. He’s playing Little League baseball at Turner Park, and here’s this little rocket ripping across the sky like a needle on fire—“A meteor!” somebody shouts—only it’s not a meteor, it’s a rocket, and here it comes, a shard of shrapnel digging into the guts of the blue sky, and the color deepens into that yellow-orange-brown of a rotten pumpkin smashed on scorched asphalt, and a woman sipping root beer says, “What’s happening?” and what’s happening is this rocket will someday end the world.

. . .

Perry’s parents sit and watch the game in blue-striped lawn chairs. They’re drinking coffee, talking with other parents, clapping, cheering. Perry is at second base. He pounds his fist into the leather mitt, making it pop.

The sun is a burning white hole, and the dry heat makes the air shiver, the grass shimmer. Each individual leaf on each individual tree shines as if dipped in wax, as if every puzzle piece of green has been glossed, polished.

Perry crouches lower—his coach calls this the athletic stance. At home plate, the batter swings at a low pitch; the aluminum bat pings and the baseball hisses over Perry’s head. The center-fielder, a redhead with early acne, lets the ball drop at his feet.

“Throw it in!” Perry screams. He pounds his fist into the mitt. Pop. Pop. The center-fielder does not move. The conversations of the spectators fade. Far off, a lawn mower buzzes. Perry scans the field and sees that the other players are also motionless. They’re all looking at the sky. The batter is still at home plate. The umpire stands, too, with his black face mask at his hip like a gun.

The dog leashed to the chain-link fence is barking and barking and barking.

Perry sees the rocket in the sky. It is small—no bigger than a grain of rice pasted on blue paper.

He thinks: What’s the big deal? Why is the little girl in the pink dress crying on the bleachers? Why is the old man with the brown-spotted face swaying on his heels? Why has everything stopped?

And now Perry’s grandmother stands. Once, when she was fifteen, she saw the Devil smoke a cigarette in a black Studebaker. He’d been dressed in pressed Navy whites, and he leaned out of the window and said, “Hey there, sunshine!” His cigarette fell from his mouth, and when it struck the pavement it turned into a fat brown viper that slithered down a storm drain. Perry’s grandmother hadn’t told anybody because, really, how could she?

The sun glints on her glasses and turns the lenses into two coins of light. Perry shields his eyes with the mitt. Grandmother cups her mouth with twisted hands and shouts, “You’re gonna die, Perry Abbot!” The other spectators nod but say nothing.

Perry has a headache now—a throbbing pain behind his eyeballs. Something whizzes past his face. From the dugout the coach yells, “Pay attention, Perry!” The batter runs. The first-base umpire shouts, “Safe!”

The dog stops barking and everybody sits down. They are laughing, talking. Everything has continued as if nothing stopped, so Perry spits out a mouthful of sunflower seeds and pops a fist into his mitt.

. . .

At seventeen years old, Perry stands in the woods behind his first girlfriend’s house.

She says, “I can’t wait any longer, Perry.”

She has a Ziploc bag full of green grapes, and she peels the flesh from the fruit with her front teeth. She wears a V-neck blouse; the skin visible on her throat glistens. Perry leans against the trunk of a birch tree. He touches Ashley Gerenoma’s face. His hand shakes.

Ashley steps closer. She unbuttons her blouse and hangs it on a branch. Perry grips the birch as Ashley undoes his jeans and pulls them off over his Nikes. It is an awkward maneuver. They both laugh. Still shaking, Perry moves forward, and his fingers work feverishly to unclasp Ashley’s turquoise brassiere, and now they are just lying there. Her hot lips press against his neck; Perry’s body tightens. He kisses Ashley’s head. Her hair is all mangoes and coconut. Perry swallows great gulps of cinnamon breath. Beneath their bodies dead leaves crackle like static.

Perry slips inside of her and Ashley cries and smiles and says, “Oh Jesus.”

But Perry does not hear her because he’s listening to the roar of the rocket in the sky.

“It sounds like a train,” says Ashley.

The earth trembles. Pebbles jump on the dirt. Ferns shudder. Leaves spin in the air like orange and red and brown flakes of confetti.

“It’s closer,” says Ashley. “The rocket.”

“Yes,” says Perry.

The roar softens. Clouds cover the sky like bloody gauze.

Perry rolls off of Ashley. They fall asleep and wake at dusk, covered in ants. They laugh, get dressed, and walk home.

. . .

After graduation, Perry has a party as his apartment. He’s graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a Political Science degree. Some-day, he hopes, he can go to law school—he never will.

It’s Saturday. The sky is a gray and featureless movie screen. Still, it is hot. People mill around the backyard, talking and drinking beer. One man, somebody Perry only vaguely knows, has filled a graduation cap with ice and is using it to chill a beer.

“I’m gonna patent it!” he says. “Make a million buckaroos!”

For most people, the rocket in the sky is white noise; the sound is present but peripheral. Many have stopped listening entirely, though they know someday this rocket will explode. It is unavoidable. It sounds like a whirring hornet. The Air Force says it cannot find it. The radar is blank and the F-22’s zoom through open space. Yet there it is, this rocket, a ghost haunting the world.

Perry stands at the grill and flips burgers and hot dogs. He presses the spatula on the beef patties, squeezing the grease from the meat so the flames hiss; this sound always makes him happy. He sips a Corona and listens to his friends say things like: “God, it’s hard to believe college is over, isn’t it?”

Or: “If you soak a slice of watermelon in vodka and then eat it, you won’t taste the booze, but you’ll get really smashed.”

By the hydrangea bush, Perry’s drunk mother talks loudly with an anonymous pregnant woman. Perry’s father has not yet arrived—he’s in Dover, stuck in traffic, because he’s just gone to Big Ray’s Used Auto to pick up the green Buick he purchased as Perry’s graduation gift. It is a secret, but Perry is annoyed because his father is always late.

Through the haze of barbeque smoke, Perry studies Evelyn Baker. She sips a pink smoothie and chats with a cluster of girls from the Wildcats volleyball team. Perry isn’t dating Evelyn yet, though they will be married in four years. At this party they’re barely friends. She’s dating Perry’s freshman-year roommate, Mikey Ohrn. Mikey Ohrn is addicted to morphine. He’s falling apart, collapsing, like a dark star. One day, when Evelyn eventually ends the relationship, Mikey will say, “The rocket in the sky is a spaceship from the future. Don’t you get it, you silly bitch? We’re trying to find ourselves!”

At this exact moment—during the graduation party—Perry’s father has an aneurism as he turns the green Buick on to Church Street. The car smashes into a telephone pole; the wires snap and smack the street like crazed snakes spitting sparks. The wail of ambulance sirens scrapes the summer air, and, momentarily, the party is hushed. Nobody will admit it later, but many tacitly wonder if the rocket has finally detonated, and they look at Perry, dazed, as if he has called their attention, as if he has chimed his beer bottle with a fork and made a toast to the apocalypse.

The sirens fade. The party continues.

An hour later Perry sees his smiling mother answer the phone. She looks suddenly confused, like she’s trying to decipher bad English. She staggers across the lawn and goes into Perry’s apartment. Perry follows. When he reaches the front door he hears his mother shriek. It is an impossible sound—shrill, inhuman—like a drill grinding through aluminum. She’s slouched against the refrigerator. She holds the phone an arm’s length away, like a rat that has just tried to bite her.

She tells Perry what has happened. A neighbor saw the accident and called. Perry’s mother called the hospital: Frank Abbot, dead on arrival. Just like that.

Perry remembers an old game he used to play with his father. When Mom was at work, Frank Abbot would drag the king-size mattress into the living room and cover it with pillows. Then he’d sit on the couch and toss the football, just out of reach, so that Perry would have to dive onto the mattress to make the catch.

Frank Abbot quoted Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi—“If you can touch it, you can catch it!”

This is what Perry thinks when his mother vomits on the kitchen floor. The radio crackles—Come on down to Cam’s Fish Shack. We’ve got the best fish n’ chips you’ll ever have!

Perry stumbles outside. The screen door bangs on the frame. He walks down the street and is chased by the slurred voices of oblivious partiers. He looks up and watches the rocket dig its incandescent trench in the shapeless clouds. Soft rain falls. Perry sits on the curb. A Chinese boy draws on the pavement with chalk.

. . .

Perry is twenty-seven years old, and a coyote steals his golf ball at the Rattlesnake Mountain Country Club. It is Perry’s best shot of the day, but the ragged canine scurries from the woods, snatches the ball in its jaws, and vanishes into the pines and maples like a phantom. The man trimming the fairway laughs so hard he has to turn the mower off.

Evelyn Baker’s father, Desmond, grins and says, “That’ll be a two stroke penalty.”

Perry says, “Sir, I want to marry your daughter.”

He doesn’t know he will say such a thing until he actually says it. The words sound absurd, even inappropriate, like laughter in a cemetery. However, the sight of this mangy and emaciated coyote has struck Perry like a premonition, and he sits in the golf cart, breathless, while spiderwebs of white light revolve in his eyes.

“Can I marry your daughter?”

Desmond practically yells: “What? I can’t hear you over that God damn rocket.”

The rocket in the sky roars. The sound reminds Perry of baths—as a boy he’d lay in the tub of water while mother leaned over him and shampooed his hair. Perry would submerge his ears so that all he heard was that hard rush of water, that incessant dreamlike drone, and he’d feel sleepy, safe, his mother hovering like a mirage. She’d tell him knock-knock jokes, and her voice sounded so strange, so distant.

This is what the rocket in the sky sounds like to Perry: a bathtub filling with water.

He shouts, “Can I marry, Evy? I love her and want to marry her.”

“What the hell you askin’ me for?” says Desmond. “Go ask Evy!”

They both laugh. Desmond chews on the little scorecard pencil. He unzips his golf bag and pulls out a bottle of Jim Beam and two cigars wrapped in purple cellophane.

He says, “I knew you’d ask me someday, you slow son-of-a-bitch, and I thought I better be prepared.”

“I don’t like whiskey,” says Perry, smiling.

“Well you won’t like marriage, either,” says Desmond. He pats Perry on the back.

On the seventh hole they smoke the cigars and drink burning gulps of whiskey straight from the bottle. They sit silently in the golf cart and watch the sun melt until Desmond says, “Let’s skip golf and go order a pizza.”

. . .


Perry sits at the table with Evy and his white-haired mother. The phone rings. It’s his half brother, Eric, the accidental offspring of this old widow. Eric is stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri—“Misery!” he calls it—and in two years he’ll be shot and killed in Afghanistan by his own traitorous translator. At this moment, however, he’s eating turkey with other Marines.

He says, “Perry, how the hell are ya?”

Perry says he’s great. He despises small talk but manages: “Yes, work is fine and real-estate is finally booming again…Evy’s doing well . . . Don’t worry, she made the turkey . . . Love you too, Eric.”

Perry gives the phone to his mother, but she cannot remember how to use it because Alzheimer’s is picking her brain apart like a vulture. She holds the phone away from her face and grimaces.

Perry thinks of the younger and prettier woman slouched against the refrigerator in his old apartment. In this blurry past, his mother sobs while the radio hums in the window. Partiers roam around the lawn and eat hamburgers and drink beer. These people are ghosts now. They’re simply haunts clattering around in an old corroded memory. Every second that passes creates an entire world of people who no longer exist—people who dwell only as shadows of that previous moment. No meat, no bones. Their bodies plow onward, leaving slime-trails like slugs. It is a realization that makes him dizzy. Claustrophobic.

“Perry, hon,” says Evy. She bites her lip. “Your brother is still on the phone.”

Perry puts the phone to his ear, steadies his voice, and says, “Sorry, Eric, but Mom is having a tough time right now.”

A pause.

Eric says, “Okay brother. Well, happy Turkey Day to you. I’ll talk with you all again real soon,” and hangs up before Perry can respond.

The plates rattle on the table as the rocket tears over the house. Evy cuts a pearl onion in half with her fork but does not eat it. She brings her plate to the kitchen, washes it in the sink. From the window she watches a galaxy of dust float in the soft sunshine.

Perry clears his throat in the dining room. It is the sound Evy will inexplicably hear years later, right before the rocket in the sky ends the world—though by then she’ll be in love with a different man.

Perry stares at his blank-eyed mother. She pulls a strip of turkey apart with greasy fingers. She’s lost. Perry envisions her crouched at the bottom of a dark well. She is looking up the shaft, at the circle of light above—the sky—and Perry wants to lean over the edge and say something comforting—a joke, maybe—but all he mutters is, “Would you like some more cranberry sauce, Mom?”

. . .

The bar is nearly empty—Fisky’s is never empty on a Friday night. A dark-skinned woman with peroxide-bleached hair shoots pool under the glare of a neon Budweiser sign. She wears red high heels. Perry sits at the bar and observes her chalk a stick.

The bartender puts a plate of nachos in front of Perry and says, “The rocket is going to hit soon. Can you believe that? All these years and it’s finally going to hit. Ka-boom.”

“That’s wild,” says Perry flatly. He pops a jalapeño in his mouth.

As if to offer proof, the bartender turns on the television bolted to the wall. Any day now, the news anchors say. Any day now the rocket in the sky will strike. The broadcast shows images of overflowing churches and mosques and synagogues, parades and festivals, fireworks, closed shops with boarded windows, vacant city streets, sunrises, sunsets.

“Turn on the Sox game,” says Perry. “They’re playing tonight, right?”

The bartender laughs. “Boston is empty, chief. The Sox are done. The players are with their families. Where’s your family?”

Evy has left me, Perry wants to say. She’s remarried a dentist in Massachusetts. He’s a great guy, I’ve heard. He bought her a purebred Dalmatian. Evy always wanted a Dalmatian. You know, Mr. Bartender, every thought I have stings and stings. Hornets. I can’t sleep. This rocket keeps me awake.

Perry wants to tell the bartender all of this.

Instead he says, “Where’s your family?”

“Home,” says the fat bartender. He folds a napkin into a triangle. Behind him bottles of liquor shake and fall and shatter. The cooks laugh in the kitchen. Where are their families? Why have they come on a Friday night to sweat over dirty ovens while the end of things roars so inexorably in the sky?

The lights flicker and go out.

“Goodnight,” says Perry. He reaches for his wallet.

“On the house,” says the bartender. He looks like he may cry.

“Thanks,” says Perry, “and good luck.”

He goes out into the rainy July night.

. . .

The bleach-haired woman who’d been shooting pool follows Perry and asks for a ride home. In the car she says she’s Puerto Rican.

“My name is Yamile,” she says.

“Pretty name,” says Perry.

Yamile talks about her father. She says he sold tangerines and strawberries and sometimes zucchinis on a street corner in Brooklyn. He sold them out of a wooden crate.

She says he used to take the entire family—four children, a wife—to the Korean grocery store on North Dedalus Street. He’d push a cart along the aisles and pretend to shop while the family ate the food. Then he’d abandon the cart and everyone would go home with heavy stomachs. The Koreans never caught on, Yamile explains, because they packaged heroin in a back room.

“Where was home for you?” asks Perry. He merges onto the highway. Lightning bursts in a canyon of purple clouds. The wipers toss fans of rain from the windshield.

“The basement of a movie theater,” says Yamile, applying lipstick in the dark. “The owner charged no rent as long as Mama slept in his bed on Saturday nights. We put mattresses on the concrete floor. There were rats in that basement. Big as dogs. Bigger. When Papa saw a rat he’d say, ‘Get me a saddle!’” Yamile smiles. She rolls down the window and tosses her red heels outside.

“That’s how big they were,” she whispers, “big as dogs.”

Perry brings her to his apartment. They sit on the kitchen counter and talk until four in the morning. They drink a bottle of wine and eat spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar. They sleep in Perry’s big bed.

He wakes up once, sweaty and disoriented, and thinks fleetingly that Yamile is actually Evy, that he has drifted into his old life again.

. . .

Perry decides to drive cross-country with Yamile. They’re in New York. They stay in an abandoned hotel with marble floors and gilded ceilings. There is a fountain in the lobby: an angel spits an arc of rose-colored water. Goldfish dart in the green pool like flakes of sunlight.

Perry and Yamile take the penthouse suite. They throw the flat-screen television over the balcony and watch it crash on the street below. They chain-smoke and make love.

It is morning and Yamile is gone.

Perry waits. He stays in the penthouse for another night.

Alone, he continues west.

. . .

Empty streets.

The storefront windows are boarded with plywood. A plastic grocery bag scrapes over the sidewalk. It’s Wednesday.

In less than an hour, the rocket in the sky will explode.

Perry Abbot walks with his head down. He kicks a chunk of asphalt along the road for nearly a mile until it rattles down a storm drain and splashes in the dirty water below the city. He’s in Portland, Oregon.

He has come to watch the rocket crash over the Pacific Ocean. There is supposed to be a big festival in Lincoln City. Thousands of people have flocked to the beach for one last party before the end of things. There are bands playing on the boardwalk—trumpets and drums and bagpipes. Kites slap the sky. Children splash in the icy ocean. The rocket is low and loud and dragging a tail of fire. The sky looks like raw meat. Blood, guts.

But people are happy. It’s beautiful. It’s the end.

Perry will not make it to this festival. He wanders through the deserted city. He pulls his pockets inside-out so that all of his change clatters on the pavement. A dog barks in the distance. Perry wonders if it might possibly be Evy’s Dalmatian. He even says, “Hell, wouldn’t that be something?”

There is a café on the street corner that is not boarded. A little bell jingles over the door. The room has already gathered dust; spiderwebs hang from the ceiling. The air in the room is heavy and acidic, like vomit, though Perry knows it’s just the month-old stink of coffee.

He takes a bottle of water from the cooler and a moldy croissant from a glass display case. He goes outside, climbs on top of a taxicab, sits, and eats. Windows shatter on the skyscrapers; glass tinkles on the ground like errant notes.

Perry says, “If you can touch it, you can catch it.”

Far off, a dog is barking and barking and barking at all of the ghosts.