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Peter Gerrard

The Rocket Ship

The scarlet-red bougainvillea hanging off the Dinwiddie’s dilapidated back fence is the only expression of color on this dull morning. It’s erupted so far from its confines that it’s trespassing on the playground’s gray asphalt. The Dinwiddies either haven’t noticed or don’t care. Nor does the elementary school, which borders my backyard.

The school does little upkeep on the playground. The surface is cracked. A tetherball pole hasn’t had a chain or ball in years. There’s a single basketball backboard. A tired rocket ship, three levels of metal framework with a mid-section slide, rooted by four fins. I’d climbed into it and squirreled my backpack at the top level, with stuff from school, spit-polished dress shoes, and my Bible. “Keep your Bible close,” we’re told, “the Word of God is there written.”

When I’m shooting baskets, getting lost in the heartbeat of my basketball’s rhythmic thump, thump, thump as I dribble, I think that sound’s the sole sign of life in this world.

The morning sky has no texture. It’s an endless depressing gray, mirroring the playground. The basketball court’s still a little damp from the omnipresent clouds and their constant misting. Hey, I used a big word. Not bad for a kid not quite ten years old.

Mrs. Shaeffer notices when I do this in class. I’ll get a subtle smile, and her old blue eyes seem to light up a little. Most of the kids don’t enjoy reading as much as me, and she’s not supposed to push us beyond the approved texts.

My dad wasn’t happy with me going off alone after our morning prayer, before we left for the day’s church service. I was dressed for the service, shirt, suit coat, tie, and all.

“Don’t scuff your good shoes,” his words rang off my back. I’d already turned to leave. “Take your sneakers.”

Hence the backpack.

“I’m already wearing them,” I call without turning around.

My dad often doesn’t notice what I’m doing. To be fair, being the family Patriarch in our community weighs on him and most of the other men who aren’t Elders. The Elders, from what I see, don’t do very much but demand unquestioning faith and fealty from us, their flock. Sometimes, what they do doesn’t seem very… Christian? I think that’s the word, but I guess I’m too young to really understand the mystery and consequences of its meaning.

“This is a big day for our family,” my dad calls, as the screen door wheezes on its hinges, then shuts with a clang.

“And our goddamn faith,” I mutter very quietly to myself, my back to him.

”We must show respect in the Lord’s house,” I hear through the closed door. You can’t be a Patriarch if your voice doesn’t carry and resound with confidence and authority. I nod in case he’s watching me as I walk away.

I haven’t taken any shots at the basket yet. The rusted hoop is bent, the front edge slightly twisted down, with the net consisting of one strand of chain, a sorry piece of metal that moves when the ball hits it, making an anemic jangling sound.

A blue jay buzzes the backboard, then swoops over to the bougainvillea, chattering about his (or her) availability. Should I just say “their”? My teachers dance around this question. I‘ve stopped asking; knowing they’re uncomfortable with the likely fallout from any answer they provide is good enough for me.

The bird darts to a perch atop the backboard. I dribble. He watches. Do we symbolically channel a perfect red, white, and blue America? The bird, the Bougainvillea, and me. I’m the white element. That’s how our community looks.

Spots of dirt collect on my suit pants as I dribble. I don’t think anyone at church will notice. I bounce the grimy basketball off my left shoe, which leaves a subtle, dull spot atop the worn white canvas. I wish I’d not changed from my dress shoes.

The sky is still morbidly gray, but there is a hint of the humidity that’s expected by the time church starts and my younger sister Faith is given away to one of the Elders.

“All according to Scripture,” my dad said, with certainty, at dinner last night. My mom just shook her head in agreement. It’s not her place to argue. I think that’s been her way of coping, not questioning, rigidly staying in the narrow path all my friends’ mothers also quietly follow.

I wish I could rescue Faith, do something heroic, but I really have no options.

The jay flits off to the rocket ship. Perched on the nose cone, he looks at me, and starts his whisper song. He clicks and trills. I imagine the rocket ship moves a little, and hints of chrome and gold appear in the weathered metal.

I stop dribbling the basketball, lean it against the support pole, and walk over to the ship. It’s looking shinier now. I notice a plaque I’d never seen. It’s grimy. I pull the left side of my shirt from my pants and wipe it off, figuring I can tuck the dirty hem back in, and no one’s the wiser.

The plaque’s inscribed “NCC-1. Starship Asimov.” Below this, words note some writer came here and dedicated this playground toy in 1963. “Imagine Yourself in Space!”

I’d like to do that: imagine both Faith and me anywhere but here.

When I run my hands over the plaque it feels warm and alive, as if hidden engines are purring, waiting for launch.

The metal framework is slowly being covered from the fins on the ground up with a smooth silver skin.

I climb inside, twisting my way up the two ladders, and grab my backpack. The new skin hasn’t quite reached the top section of the ship. Looking out, I see Faith walking towards the rocket, hunched over, as if she’s bearing a terrible, invisible burden. Something no one, especially a child, should be carrying. I descend a level to the slide and drop down.

I walk towards Faith. In my backpack, aside from my dress shoes, are notebooks from school, a couple of pens, my Bible, and a dusty, worn novel. I’d found it hidden behind other books on a shelf in the library, when Mrs. Shafer had asked me to straighten the shelves for no apparent reason. I liked to help her out. “Make sure nothing has gotten lost accidentally,” she’d said with a twinkle in her eyes.

I’d grabbed it out of curiosity and furtively crammed it into my backpack. The novel has a white label on the spine, with “SCI-FI” in bold black letters. The Martian Chronicles is the title. I’ve read it, cover to cover, more than once. Its words speak to me and embolden my imagination, creating a certainty that there’s something—hope?—somewhere beyond what I’ve been told are my life’s circumscribed boundaries. Mrs. Shaeffer taught me that word, too.

Glancing up at the sky, all I see is a carpet of monotony. But, I’m struck with the certainty that there is a Mars beyond what I can see. My salvation. I know I just have to trust my feelings and imagination.

The rocket begins rumbling, and wisps of smoke swirl about the tail fins.

Faith is beside me now, sadness limning her golden eyes. We are the only family members with eyes this color–kindred unhappy spirits.

I understand the blue jay’s song now: “Follow your dreams. Follow your dreams.”

I hold out my hand. Faith takes it.

We go back to the ship and climb in.

A sudden and very loud thundering startles the woman washing dishes at a house on the edge of the playground. The countertop vibrates; water sloshes out of the sink and pools onto the yellow linoleum floor. She looks out the kitchen window in time to see the old, rusted, and worn rocket, now silver and alive, start to rise into the sky.

She runs to the back door onto the playground, anxiously watching the ship accelerate upwards, circles of glowing red and smoke marking its arc.

She spots her son’s shiny black dress shoes, cradled against his basketball, a paper neatly folded into one of them. It’s the title page from a Bible. There’s a new inscription. It’s her son’s handwriting.

“Took the Bible. Faith is with me. Tell dad we’re answering our calling.”

The ship is now only a pin prick of bright light in the sky above her. Still, she cries out, “Take me with you. Take me with you. Take me with you.”

About the Author

Peter Gerrard is a native Southern Californian currently “Behind the Orange Curtain.” Along with his spouse, Kimberly, he skis, plays pickleball, and rides embarrassingly expensive bikes—when not watching (and learning from) their two grandkids. Classes and seminars at IVC and Chapman encouraged his interest in words and writing.

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