Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen

Buck’s biggest disappointment in his son’s ninth birthday wasn’t Jimmy’s lackluster response to his gift, but instead Jimmy’s decision to name his new hamster Armstrong.

“Buzz. Buzz is a good name,” Buck had insisted until he had felt the pressure of Mary’s hand on the small of his back. “I suppose Armstrong works, too.”

For months now, Buck has known that he will give Jimmy a model rocket set for his tenth birthday. The only books his son has read for the past year are about shuttles, space, the moon. Taped to the ceiling above Jimmy’s narrow bed is the cover photo from one of last year’s Life magazines. The photo shows a stiff American flag jutting from the grey lunar surface, its long, crisp shadow knifing off frame. Surrounding the flag is a mess of tracks, the footprints of Jimmy’s new heroes.

Jimmy’s tenth birthday falls on a Sunday, and after church, the family sits around the kitchen table to celebrate. Mary presents Jimmy with a cake sprouting ten lit candles. Jimmy blows out the candles two at a time. Then Buck walks into the master bedroom and returns with a wrapped package. He places it on the table and says, “It’s for you.”

Jimmy carefully unwraps his present. He hands the untorn gold wrapping paper to his mother for safekeeping. Then he turns his attention to the box. The front of it pictures a grinning boy, about Jimmy’s age, staring at a fiery rocket superimposed beside the boy’s face. The boy’s eyes are sparkling. It’s just the sort of image Buck draws for a living, though he’s never had a toy company as a client. Mostly Buck draws women in light blue dresses happily using household appliances—vacuums, ovens, and the like.

After inspecting the cover, Jimmy checks each side and then the back of the box. When he turns the box back over to inspect the cover once again, Buck reaches his arm over the unserved angel-food cake and lifts the box out of Jimmy’s hands.

“It’s not a puzzle,” Buck assures. “It’s a model rocket.” He taps on the box. “There’s a real rocket in here and a little engine, and we can shoot it up in the air.” Buck returns the box to his son and points at the sparkly-eyed youth on the front. “Just like that. It’ll really fly.”

Finally Jimmy speaks. “I thought that’s what it was.” And Buck can see his son’s eyes sparkling too.

Neither Buck nor Mary has to tell Jimmy to be careful as he opens the box. He works the tips of his thin fingers into key crevices, slowly unfolds the box’s flaps and corners.

Mary steps over to Buck and wraps her arm around his shoulders. “Come here,” she whispers to Buck and draws him back, draws him away from his perch over his son.

Jimmy completes his dissection and lays the box’s contents on the table one item at a time. There is a forearm-length rocket—white with red fins and a yellow tip—three rocket engines, a cardboard launch pad with a long, stiff wire extending up from it, and a coil of green fuse. Buck pulls away from Mary, and reaches into the pile, picking up one of the engines. It looks like a roll of dimes.

He holds it in front of Jimmy’s face. “This is what drives the rocket. The engine.”

Jimmy plucks the rocket out of his father’s hand. “I know, Dad,” he says, returning it to its brothers.

Buck stands up straight and gives his wife a peck on the lips. A boy’s tenth birthday is an important one, and Buck is confident that this year he’s nailed it. He gives his wife another peck, this one long enough to be called a kiss. Then he sings a line of song, “Up in the air, junior birdmen,” and he chuckles briefly and shakes his head because he has no idea where the jaunty little tune or the words came from. But he likes it, and he sings it again and then again.

A week after Jimmy’s tenth birthday, father and son prepare to launch the rocket for the third and final time. A cool and penetrating breeze reminds Buck that a harsh winter is approaching, and he curses.

Jimmy is inserting the fuse into the rocket engine and seems oblivious to his father’s slip. Buck repeats his invective, albeit slightly modified. “Dang wind!”

From his crouched position Jimmy looks up at his father. “Ready?” he asks.

Buck nods and hands Jimmy his old Zippo. This is the protocol they’ve established—Buck as supervisor, and Jimmy as actor. Buck walks backwards away from the launch pad as Jimmy scratches at the Zippo. Sparks flash, once, twice, and then a flame appears, and Jimmy holds it to the fuse, which ignites with a sizzle.

“Back here!” says Buck.

Like his father, Jimmy retreats backwards from the rocket, but his gait is casual—a walk in the park—and Buck yells again, “Come on, Jim!”

Jimmy does not change his pace. When he finally makes it to his father’s side, he says, “We’ve got twenty-four seconds, Dad.”

Buck knows his son has measured exactly, and he is proud, amazed by his son’s confidence. But still he admonishes, “Jim, you never know,” and he places his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. Before he has a chance to continue, to say, “Better safe than sorry,” the engine ignites.

The sound starts as a hiss and rapidly increases to a roar—a tornado trapped in a train tunnel—and for the third time, Buck is startled by the violence that this sound suggests. The rocket’s roar reaches its crescendo, and like a jack-in-the-box, the rocket suddenly springs off the launching pad. In its acceleration, Jimmy’s carefully painted letters are not legible on its fuselage, though Buck is fully aware of the name Jimmy has given his rocket. The Aardvark.

“Up in the air, junior birdmen!” Buck sings, and Jimmy smiles and in a quieter voice repeats, “Up in the air.”

Their heads tilt back at a slow and even pace as they follow the rocket on its short, ripping flight. Even before its parachute opens, Buck can see that the rocket is being pushed off course by the east blowing wind.

“God-dammit!” says Buck, the words leaping from his mouth, uncensored.

“What?” asks Jimmy.

“The wind,” Buck says, keeping his eyes in the sky.

The rocket’s parachute deploys, and indeed the rocket is floating down at a strong angle, headed toward the pine grove abutting the Arthur family’s land.

“Dangit,” says Buck. “Let’s follow,” and off he goes, running across the lawn with his head in the air, trying to track the descent of the Aardvark as he negotiates a hedge, the long gravel driveway, and finally a drainage ditch.

Jimmy runs behind his father, and he yells, “It’s okay, Dad,” but Buck does not slow his pace.

The rocket finally disappears behind the tips of massive pine trees, and Buck stops to catch his breath. He rests his hands on his hips and shakes his head, and thinks to himself that at least they were able to use all three of the engines.

Buck and Jimmy search within the pine grove for half an hour. Little pure sunlight reaches the springy, needle-lined earth, and Buck knows it is time to tell Jimmy the truth of the matter.

He finds his son lying face-up on the forest floor, eyes open, hands at his side.

“Jim,” says Buck. “I think it’s lost.”

“That’s okay. It was the last engine anyway.”

Buck is pleased by his son’s faultless reasoning, but he feels compelled to add a final condolence. “I’m sorry. Today was just too windy.”

Jimmy sits up. “Dad, it’s okay.” Then he stands and brushes brown, brittle needles off the back of his head and the seat of his pants. “I’m going to make my own rocket,” he says. He displays his hands to his father, indicating a two-foot length. “And it’s going to be big.”

Buck smiles down at his indomitable son. “What are you going to make it out of?” he asks.

“Cardboard,” says Jimmy.

Father and son walk out of the green and brown forest and back to the front lawn.

“I need bigger engines too,” says Jimmy as he recovers the launching pad.

Buck considers this request, nods. He points back at the pine grove, at the rocket’s final resting place. “Why’d you name it the Aardvark?” he asks.

Jimmy returns the dented Zippo to his father.

“Because it’s the first word in the dictionary.”

Later in the week, Buck buys Jimmy a book on model rockets from the hobby store. It’s a Thursday, and that evening, following a meal of baked potatoes and pork chops, the family watches Gunsmoke. It’s Jimmy and Buck’s favorite television show, and they’ve watched it together since Jimmy was a baby.

Mary and Buck sit on the couch and Jimmy on the floor. He’s brought his book, Rockets in Flight. Buck keeps an eye on his son, who does not watch the television once.

In the final scene, Dillon confronts the man with the missing ears in the church’s sanctuary. A frightened priest scuttles out of the building, slamming the massive double doors shut behind him. Hero and villain are left to face each other undisturbed, their fingers shivering in anticipation, their eyes motionless.

“Jimmy, it’s a standoff. Dillon and Carver.”

Jimmy nods his head but his eyes remain on his book.

“Jimmy!” says his father again. Mary’s hand appears on Buck’s thigh, and it is the only thing that stops Buck from saying something inane, from saying, “We’re watching television as a family, Jim.”

But then Jimmy sets aside his book, and focuses his attention on the bright screen. Buck relaxes, Dillon draws, and the bad man falls to his knees and begs for mercy as befits a gut-shot sinner in a church. Jimmy twists around to look at his parents, and he’s smiling. “Fastest gun in the West,” he says.

Buck nods. “No one can beat Marshall Matt Dillon.”

Buck makes a deal with his son. He’s already bought the book, and he’ll buy the hobby knife too, X-Acto brand like Rockets in Flight advises. Jimmy will have to purchase the glue and cardboard. Buck tells him he’ll have to use money out of his own pocket. He explains to his son that a personal investment in a hobby can make it all the more satisfying, and Jimmy nods with appreciation.

Together at the hobby store, Buck finds the knife, and Jimmy picks out several cardboard tubes of varying length and diameter. Buck brings his son a sheet of white cardstock. He hands the sheet over. “For the fins and the tip.” Buck points toward the rear of the store. “They’ve got other colors too. Red and green.”

Jimmy tries to return the sheet to his father. “I don’t need this. I’m going to use the covers off my old spelling books,” he says.

Buck eyes widen. “Your school books?”

Jimmy is still proffering the sheet. “From first grade and second grade. They’re all filled in. I already know how to spell ‘family’ and ‘super’ and stuff like that.”

Buck takes back the cardstock, and Jimmy mumbles, “Third grade’s too,” and before Buck can respond, before he can say, “Maybe you should keep third grade’s, just in case,” Jimmy points at the cardstock and says, “If I buy that, I won’t have enough for the engines.”

Buck is surprised again. But, of course, he forgot to explain to his son the second part of the deal. “I’ll buy the engines, two every month,” he assures.

“Yes!” says Jimmy.

“But,” Buck says and smiles. “But you need to start taking better care of Armstrong. Keep his cage clean. Always make sure he’s got food and water. No complaining.”

Jimmy nods. “I won’t complain, Dad. I like Armstrong. He’s never bitten me.”

“And you have to talk to him too,” says Buck.

“I’ll talk to him. I promise. Every day I’ll tell him the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Buck nods as if he understands Jimmy’s logic. “Let’s get some engines.”

The first time Jimmy uses the hobby knife, he grips it in his fist like it’s a heavy tool and tries to cut using the power of his shoulder and elbow.

Buck sits across from him at the kitchen table, pretending to read Rockets in Flight as he watches his son’s awkward manipulations of the knife. He is glad to see that Jimmy is not drawing the knife toward his off-hand, though despite Jimmy’s safety precautions, Buck knows that what his son produces will be inferior.

Jimmy holds up the little triangle of stiff paper he’s cut out, examining its ragged edges. One side of the sloppy fin is white, and the other side is orange with the letters “ell” in blocky, black print. In his peripheral vision, Buck watches Jimmy turn the fin over and over again, and finally Buck sets the book on the table and looks Jimmy in the eyes.

“It’s bad,” says Jimmy.

Buck pulls his chair over to his son.

“You’ve got to hold it like a pencil.” Buck picks up the X-Acto and holds it gently between his fat thumb and middle finger. He rolls his wrist, tracing a tight circle in the air in front of Jimmy’s face with the tip of the knife. Then he slides Jimmy’s old spelling book over and begins cutting out the letter “g.”

“It’s all in the wrist,” says Buck as he smoothly traces the g’s outline. A few seconds later, Buck peels the released letter out of the cover and hands it to Jimmy.

“It’s perfect,” Jimmy states.

Buck returns the knife, making a show of offering his son the handled end. “It’s what I do,” he says, and then adds, “But with pens.” Buck twirls his wrist for Jimmy a final time. “Use your wrist, not your shoulder.”

As Buck moves away to give his son space to try again, he can’t help but add a final bit of advice. “Practice makes perfect.”

In the months that follow, Buck frequently reminds Mary of the ingenuity and intelligence of their son. And Buck truly is amazed, almost disturbed, by his son’s capabilities. After his X-Acto lesson, Jimmy needed no further help beyond being told where the string was kept, or which old sheet he could harvest for parachute material.

On Saturday afternoons, after Buck shovels snow off the path from the front door to the carport, or walks down the long driveway to fetch the mail, he sits at the kitchen table and eats Mary’s grilled-cheese sandwiches, her deviled eggs. Often his son is there too, and as Buck munches on his fare, he watches his son make measurements, cut precise shapes, and paint fins and tubes and cones in solid colors. Sometimes his son weighs his rockets with the scale Buck’s father once used in the old pharmacy. “So I know how big to make the parachute,” Jimmy explains. Other times, Jimmy ties the end of a long piece of string around the middle of a completed rocket, at its center of balance. Then he clears out the living room, pushing the rocking chair and couch against the wall, and stands in the middle of this opened space. He spins the rocket around his head, slowly letting out inch by inch of string until the rocket is flying along a ten-foot wide circle with Jimmy at its center. “To see how it will fly,” he explains. Sometimes, when the glue holding his rockets together is drying, Jimmy watches the television, or goes outside to refill the birdfeeders and make a quick snow angel.

Throughout the winter, the rockets go up and up. Sunday afternoons, after church, are launch days, and despite their initial deal, Buck supplies Jimmy with an engine each week. Twice, launches are postponed due to wind. “Remember the Aardvark!” Buck will say, and Jimmy will remember.

Once, snow falls so heavily that father and son can barely see the launch pad from their vantage point behind the hedge. It is Jimmy’s biggest rocket yet, The Abnormal, and it is equipped with a D-class engine, an engine twice as powerful as a C, four times as powerful as a B, and eight times as powerful as the tiny A engine that sent the Aardvark into the pine trees.

Buck pretends to be oblivious to the snow and gives his son the battered Zippo. He can just make out Jimmy’s back as he crouches in front of the two-foot long rocket. Moments later, Jimmy ambles toward his father, and as details emerge from the heavy snow, Buck sees that his son is carrying the rocket.

“We’d better not do it,” says Jimmy. “I want to be able to see it”—Jimmy points up—“all the way.”

Buck nods, and father and son begin walking toward the house. “Wise choice,” Buck tells his son.

On a bright Saturday in early March, Buck is under the carport changing his car’s oil. He is sitting on a stool, waiting for the oil to drain when Jimmy appears. His son is not wearing a coat or hat, and although it’s an unseasonably warm day, it is still cold. Before Buck reminds his son of the weather, Jimmy says, “Dad, I want you to see the rocket I made.”

“Of course,” says Buck. This is unusual, a special invitation, and Buck feels honored.

“It’s in my room,” says Jimmy, and then he retreats back to the house.

Later, Buck finds Jimmy waiting in his room. Along the wall of Jimmy’s room stand eleven rockets ordered from shortest to tallest. All are painted white and have black lettering running down their bodies proclaiming their names. Abacus, Abalone, Abandon, and so on. The fins are painted in black, yellow, and red, and the cones are uniformly orange. A few of the rockets are damaged, have mangled fins or collapsed tips. These are the ones whose parachutes did not open. One rocket, Buck knows, is missing entirely. The Abdomen was incinerated on the launch pad, a casualty of a faulty engine.

Jimmy hops off his bed when Buck enters. He picks up the newest rocket in the line and carries it to his father.

The rocket is not any taller than The Abnormal, but Buck can immediately tell it is the fattest rocket Jimmy’s ever made, bigger around than a toilet-paper tube. Buck turns the rocket over in his hands, and he’s surprised to find he has little to say.

“Looks good,” he offers. He nods and extends his lower lip. “Really looks good.” Buck turns the rocket in his hands once more and notices a little ball of dried glue on its side. He tugs at the pea-sized blob but instead of removing the offending protrusion, he pulls open a little door. Inside the door is an enclosed cavity, a holding cell. The chamber is empty, and Buck smiles, closes the hatch, and returns the rocket to his son’s outstretched hands.

“You know you’ll have to ask your mother first.”

Jimmy nods. “It needs an E,” he says. “For the extra weight.”

Buck nods back at his son. “E’s a real powerhouse, a monster.” Then he points at the fat rocket in Jimmy’s hands. “If you let me name this one, we can go buy the engine today.” Buck has secretly checked his son’s children’s dictionary. The next word up is “abode.”

Jimmy stares down at the rocket in his hands. “Okay, but you can’t name it monster.”

Buck shakes his head and laughs.

Mary serves a baked chicken for dinner. Buck chews on a drumstick and wonders when his son is going to act. When Jimmy asks for a second helping of mashed potatoes, Buck knows that Jimmy must be nervous. As Mary spoons her son a healthy scoop, Buck decides to speak up.

“Jimmy, why don’t you tell Mom about your rocket?”

Jimmy watches his mother as she taps the serving spoon against his plate, trying to convince the potatoes to let go.

“I made a rocket for Armstrong. To fly in.”

Mary says nothing. She returns the spoon to the pot and looks across the table into her husband’s eyes. Buck looks away, and Mary rubs her forehead.

“Isn’t the rocket dangerous?” she asks.

Buck is unsure who the question is for, but he’d rather not answer it. Mary doesn’t know about the failed parachutes or the unexpected incineration.

Jimmy imbeds his fork in the potatoes and then pulls it back out and sets it on his plate. “This rocket is safe,” he says.

Mary makes eye-contact with her husband again, and this time he shrugs his shoulders lightly.

“Jimmy, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she says.

Jimmy stares at his mother, eyes wide in incomprehension.

Mary massages her forehead again. “I’m sorry. If something happened. No. Honey, I know it sounds fun, but…”

Jimmy turns to his father. “Fun?” he asks.

Buck begins to smile but then stops, unsure what kind of smile will work.

“Honey, why don’t you send up a cricket instead?” Mary suggests.

Again Jimmy looks at his mother and Buck is frightened by the complexity of emotion on his son’s delicate face, the incredulousness of his parted lips mixed with the contempt of his squinting eyes.

“Or maybe an earthworm?” says Mary.

Jimmy turns to his father, his face transformed into one of pleading. “Dad, he has to go up. His name is Armstrong. He has to.”

Buck is still unsure how to proceed, but he knows what not to do. His wife has given him that look, and he will not countermand her. But what can he say to Jimmy? Yes, it would have been amazing to send up little Armstrong, but it looks like we’ve got a party-pooper on our hands.

“Would an egg survive in the rocket?” Mary asks. Buck knows from her tone that this question is his to answer

Jimmy keeps his eyes on his father, expectant, and finally Buck sighs and shakes his head. “It’d break,” he says. “It’d probably break.”

Jimmy’s eyes drop to his cooling mashed potatoes, and Buck waits for tears.

“Okay, Jimmy, how about this,” says Mary. She touches Jimmy on the shoulder. “I know you want Armstrong to fly. I know that’s important to you. If you can fly an egg without it breaking, if you can show me”—her eyes leap reflexively up to her husband’s face and then back down to Jimmy—“show us that it’s safe, then you can send up Armstrong.”

The change in Jimmy is immediate, and Buck is glad to see ordinary relief and pleasure expressed in his son’s relaxed shoulders, in the way Jimmy’s eyes are wide-open, lively under his long black lashes. Buck also feels irritated, just a little, that he wasn’t the one to propose this elegant compromise.

Jimmy holds out his hand to his mother. “Shake on it?” Buck smiles across the table at his wife, who doesn’t seem to understand why Jimmy is offering her his open hand.

“Shake on it,” Jimmy says again, and Mary finally takes her son’s hand and shakes. Then Jimmy twists his body and holds his hand out to his father. “Of course,” Buck says, still smiling. This is the Jimmy he knows. Buck stands up to reach his son’s outstretched hand, and he gives Jimmy a strong, punctuated handshake. “It’s a deal.”

Jimmy is smiling widely. “Tomorrow,” he says.

Mary stands up. “How about some ice cream?” She takes a step toward the kitchen and stops. “He’s your pet, Jim,” she says, and Jimmy nods his head energetically.

While Mary is in the kitchen Jimmy asks his father, “What do you want to name it—Armstrong’s rocket?”

Buck grins. “The Aardvark Two,” he says, and Jimmy squints like he doesn’t understand. “In memory,” Buck explains, and Jimmy’s eyes remain squinted.

The next day, after church and a lunch of chicken-salad sandwiches, the family bundles up and assembles at the launch site. Buck and Mary stand behind their son and watch him prepare. The day is clear and windless, and only a few patches of snow remain under the eaves and along the hedge line.

“All ready,” says Jimmy.

“Do you have the egg?” his mother asks.

Jimmy produces an egg from his coat pocket, and the white egg makes Jimmy’s black-gloved hand look especially delicate. Jimmy pulls open the hatch and sets the egg inside. He’s added a second bump of glue next to the hatch’s little doorknob, and he secures the door shut by wrapping a twist tie around the two protruding knobs.

“Okay,” he says, and extends his gloved hand. Buck passes over the Zippo, and then his wife begins to gently pull him away from the launch site.

“Up in the air, junior eggman,” Buck whispers.

Mary whispers back. “The egg will break, right?

“It’ll break,” Buck assures.

Neither Jimmy nor his father have ever experienced an E-class engine, and when the engine ignites, as it bellows its intent, as it screams for freedom and flight, Buck knows that it’s true, that the egg will never survive. When the rocket does suddenly leap off the launch pad, all three spectators instinctively flinch, despite their protection behind the hedge.

The rocket flies high and straight, its parachute deploys in a flawless bloom, and it lands gently on the lawn less than fifty feet from the launch pad.

Jimmy runs to the rocket, and when Buck and Mary catch up to him, he is unwinding the wire holding the little door shut. He opens the hatch and lifts out the unbroken egg and holds it out for his parents to see while shouting, “See? See? I knew it was safe!”

And then Jimmy is off again, sprinting toward the house.

“Where’s he going?” asks Mary.

Buck shrugs his shoulders, and replies as coolly as possible. “To get Armstrong.”

“What?” asks Mary. She pulls at Buck’s arm.
“That was the deal.” Buck holds out his hand in pantomime. “We shook on it.” He looks his wife in the eyes. “Both of us.”

“Buck, it’s too loud. I don’t care if it’s safe.” Mary points at the perfect sky. “We can’t let him go up there. He’ll be terrified.”

It feels good to know exactly what to do. “Mary, we made a deal. We have to—Buck thinks for a moment—“it’s about respect. Armstrong will be fine anyways. He won’t remember any of this tomorrow.”

Mary offers no further objections, and Buck knows he’s doing the right thing.

Soon Jimmy returns with the cage. He sets it on the ground and busies himself with repacking the parachute and installing the fresh engine while Buck and Mary watch in silence.

It only takes Jimmy five minutes to reset for launch. Having fully prepared the rocket, Jimmy reaches his narrow hand into the cage and withdraws a ball of shivering orange fluff. No one speaks as Jimmy opens the hatch, and Buck is surprised to see his son bring the little creature up to his face and give it a kiss before placing it in the hold. This time, it is Buck who leads Mary to the hedge, his arm firm across her shoulders.

As he watches his son trying to catch a flame with the lighter, Buck knows that Jimmy is right. Armstrong has to fly. The months and months of trials, the measuring and building and testing—now it all means something. Buck also knows this is a truth that Mary will never understand.

The fuse is lit, and Jimmy is walking backwards toward his parents. He positions himself next to his father. The rocket begins to roar, louder and louder. Buck sees his wife turn her head away, but Buck’s heart is pumping, his neck throbbing with excitement, and when the rocket suddenly flings itself into the air, Buck pumps his fist and yells, “Up in the air!” and Jimmy raises both hands and jumps and yells along with his father, “Up in the air!”

Again the rocket flies straight and true, and again, the parachute deploys beautifully, like a bloom of ink puffed out by some sea creature swimming in the sky. It floats down at a slightly sharper angle, and they watch as it disappears behind the house in its gentle descent. Buck is not worried. The backyard is relatively open, and at worst, the rocket might have landed in the cherry tree.

Jimmy is off and running, and Buck faces his wife, is pleased to see that she is relieved, that she is smiling almost sheepishly. Buck and Mary follow Jimmy and when they round the corner of the house, they are confused because Jimmy is not there. Suddenly he appears at the far corner of the house and runs up to his parents.

“I can’t find it!” he says, panting and wild-eyed.

They search and search for the rocket. “It came down right behind the house,” Jimmy keeps insisting, and when he is out of earshot, Buck, too, keeps insisting, “It should be here.” After a while, Mary says, “These things just happen,” and then she goes inside to start dinner.

Buck and Jimmy search until darkness falls. How they could lose the fat rocket with its red and black fins, its bright, orange tip, is beyond the imagination of both father and son. As a last resort, Buck climbs onto the roof. He searches in the gutters; he uses his vantage point to look out across the backyard, hoping to see a glint of color. But he sees nothing.

When Buck tells his son it’s time to head in, that the search can be resumed the next day, Jimmy asks, “But what about Armstrong?”

“I don’t know,” says Buck, and Jimmy stops. Even in the low light Buck can see the quiver of Jimmy’s lips, the papery fluttering of Jimmy’s eyelids.

“Armstrong’ll be fine.” Buck gestures expansively at the backyard. “He’d do great out here,” and then lamely adds, “no cats around.”

Jimmy’s face breaks then, and he sits down on the damp earth and cries.

“But he can’t get out, Dad. He’s stuck. He can’t get out of the rocket.”

After a week of searching every day after school, Jimmy gives up. There are only so many times the cherry tree can be reexamined for evidence, so many times the same plot of damp earth can be scoured for nonexistent clues.

On Friday night, before retiring to his bedroom, Buck checks in on his son. When he pokes his head into Jimmy’s dark room, he hears “Dad?”

“Yes?” Buck asks.

“Come here.”

Buck opens Jimmy’s door and light from the hallway spills into the room. He walks to his son’s bed.

“It was my fault,” says Jimmy.

Buck knows what Jimmy is talking about, and he is disheartened that Armstrong cannot simply be forgotten, cannot be eradicated from Jimmy’s memory. “What’s your fault?” he asks.


Buck places his hand on Jimmy’s bed. “It’s my fault too.”

“No!” says Jimmy, and he sits up. “It’s my fault. My fault.” In the half-light Buck sees his son reach under his pillow. He pulls out an egg and holds it out to his father, saying, “It’s not a real egg.”

“What?” says Buck, reaching for the egg.

Jimmy pulls the egg away from his father’s hand and presses it against his nose and cheek like a cooling salve. “I mean, it is a real egg, but it’s hardboiled.”

Buck does not respond. After a moment, Jimmy continues. “I snuck downstairs the night before and took it from the refrigerator.”

Buck is wondering why Jimmy still has the egg, why in the world he would keep the evidence. He makes another move to take the egg, but again, Jimmy shrinks from his grasping hand.

Buck steps away from Jimmy’s bed. He is tired. “It’s not your fault, Jim.”

“But it wasn’t a real egg,” Jimmy whimpers as he clutches at the egg. “And it did crack a little, right here on the bottom.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Whose fault is it, then?” Jimmy asks.

Buck thinks about the question. Where did that god-damn rocket go? It really did disappear, just like that. Into thin air.

Finally Buck responds. “It’s God’s fault.” He knows this is the wrong answer, but what else is there? He steps out of Jimmy’s room, and before he walks away he says, “Goodnight, Jim. I love you.”

For her sixty-fifth birthday, Mary asks Buck to unbrick the fireplace.

“What’s the point?” Buck asks. After all, they’ve been living in the house for decades, the entirety of their married life, and the basement furnace has done a fine job of keeping them warm through the bitter winter months.

“We live in Maine, Buck,” Mary replies. “Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have a real fire?”

Buck acquiesces, and on a warm, May Saturday, a month before Mary’s sixty-fifth birthday, he takes a drill and sledge to the sealed up fireplace. First he riddles it with holes with his special-ordered masonry drill bit. Then he clobbers the weakened wall with his eight-pound sledge. The work is hard, and positioning his body to make powerful swings proves awkward, but Buck isn’t too old, a year younger than his wife in fact, and it feels good to coordinate his back and shoulders and arms into smashing violence. It feels good to be a mover and a shaker again.

Buck has lugged in the fifty-gallon trashcan from the carport, and he enjoys tossing chucks of brick over his shoulder and into the container. He aims his swings to break off the biggest pieces possible, a challenge of efficiency and accuracy. Smaller shards of brick annoy him, as scrounging around to pick up these little bits exhausts his already overworked back. As for the dust, he has every intention of leaving anything smaller than his thumbnail for Mary to sweep up later.

Buck feels like a tomb raider breaking into a sealed treasure-chest, and when he reaches into the hole—now as big as a cookie sheet—to retrieve a satisfying chuck of brick, a jolt of boyish excitement rocks his body. True to metaphor, there is something in there, something utterly unbrick-like. Buck pulls out the object, a white model rocket with black and red fins. The tattered remains of a grey, silk parachute cling to the orange tip of the rocket. Buck set down his sledge. Painted in somewhat uneven black letters along the side of the rocket are the words, “Aardvark II.”

Buck brings the rocket outside to show Mary. She is in the garden, sloshing about in Buck’s black galoshes, trying to determine the best spot for her basil.

“Mary,” calls Buck. He’s smiling broadly, and he strides across the lawn toward his wife. “Guess what I found?”

Mary straightens, bringing one hand to the small of her back and the other up to her eyes to shield them from the bright sun.

Buck reaches his wife and holds out the rocket. “Do you remember?” he asks. “I found it in the fireplace.” Buck laughs and nods his head. “Must have come down just perfect, right down the chimney.”

Mary takes the rocket from Buck and silently studies it. She brings one gloved hand up to her face and presses the clean skin exposed at her wrist against her lips.

“Jim,” she says.

Buck nods, “Yeah.”

Mary points at the little hatch. “And Armstrong.”

“Armstrong?” asks Buck, and for a moment he is confused, and then he remembers. “Oh yeah. Little Armstrong.”

In one hand Mary holds the rocket. With her other, she undoes the twist tie holding the hatch shut. She drops the wire onto the muddy earth at her feet and pries open the little door. Buck leans over his wife, trying to see into the hatch. It appears empty.

“Huh,” Buck grunts. “You think he made it out alive?”

Mary pulls off a glove and inserts a thin finger into the hatch.

“What?” asks Buck.

Mary scrapes at something in the hatch. Then she withdraws a shard of white from the chamber.

“What?” Buck asks again.

“It’s a little”—she pauses and sets the old rocket on the ground—“a little jaw bone.”

Mary places the tiny bone in Buck’s open palm, and he brings it up to his eyes. The bone is yellowish and encrusted with bits of black, desiccated skin. Two teeth are still attached, like little, mean scimitars.

Buck is curious if all of Armstrong’s bones are intact, dried up and stuck to the walls of the hatch. He bends down to pick up the rocket, and as he straightens back up, Mary says, “We shouldn’t have let him go.”

Buck turns the rocket in his thick hands, pretends to check the hatch, pretends not to be remembering Jim. Jim standing tall in full dress, shoulders squared, eyes dark. Jim saluting—

deadly serious—but then giving Buck the smallest of smiles, a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Jim sharing some secret with his father before turning and marching away.

Anger and stubbornness begins to rise, but Buck stays in control. He doesn’t stomp his foot, doesn’t say to Mary, “It’s not our fault he’s gone. It’s not our fault.”

Buck’s anger doesn’t linger. He places the jawbone back in the hatch and then touches his wife on the arm. “Should we bury the rocket?” he asks.

Mary nods, face and eyes directed away. Buck looks away too, tries to see what his wife is seeing. What he sees are rolling green hills spotted with trees and wispy clouds running in long windrows across the sky.

About the Author

Nathan Malenke

Nate Malenke is a lecturer at Penn State University, where he earned his MFA in creative writing last spring. "Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen," his first published work of fiction, is part of a larger collection of stories he wrote for his master's thesis. Nate was born in Grenada during his parents' MCC service there, and he grew up in a Mennonite land trust community called Deer Spring in rural Ohio. His writing necessarily and often unconsciously reflects the values and religion instilled in him by his parents and his church.