The next week took a year to go by. Mom decided it was time to repaint the porch and set me down with a scraper to take off the old layers down to bare wood. It was fun at first, popping the blisters and seeing how big a paint chip I could take intact, but after the first half hour, it was real work again. After an hour, I had one board scraped with thirty seven to go.
“We can’t go see the rocket launch until we get this done,” Mom said, and silenced my coming protest just by tilting her head. She left me on the porch to do whatever it was Mom did in the house when she wasn’t finding chores for me to do.
I spent the time thinking about the snake in my old classroom. After our unit on insects, we moved on to reptiles. The teacher brought in a garter snake, and set in an aquarium in the window. The crickets, having no further scientific purpose, became food. I wondered if the snake’s belly hurt from the spines on their legs, but it didn’t seem to notice. I figured it was a smart snake, because after we finished learning all about reptiles, it escaped and couldn’t be found. Our next unit was on amphibians, which didn’t eat snakes, but the snake didn’t know that. I understand there is still a story floating around the school that it has since grown to the size of an anaconda and lives in the girl’s bathroom.
A cracking voice said, “Did you get it?”
I must have jumped ten feet, but I didn’t look around. The thin green man had never come to the house before.
“Ted?” my mom called.
“That yelling didn’t sound like nothing to me.”
“Spider crawled over my hand.”
“You okay now?
“Yeah, smushed it,” I called back. I glanced a few inches to the side, where I saw a pointed toe sticking out from around the corner. “Shh! You’re gonna get me in trouble.”
“Sorry,” it said.
“I got it. I used my comic money and bought it when Mom and Dad weren’t looking.” I gave the board an extra hard scrape and left a gouge.
“Excellent. I am ready to go.”
“Well I’m gonna be stuck here all summer. Mom’s not going to let me go until this porch is done.”
“She doesn’t mean that.”
“You don’t know her. This one time, she made me sit at the dinner table for a whole hour until I ate all my salad.”
I think it laughed. “Well, we can’t have that. Close your eyes.”
I listened as it stepped onto the porch and tapped at the boards until they made a note. Tap–tap-tong, tap-tap-tong, like a xylophone. When it finished at the far end, a breeze cooled my sweaty neck, and its voice came from around the corner.
“Take a look.”
The paint on each board’s end had curled. I reached out and pulled a strip of paint away from the porch like a banana peel. The wood beneath was clean and clear.
“Keen,” I said.
“You should be done in an hour.” It said, and was gone.
When I showed Mom, she couldn’t speak for a long, long time. She just looked from the bare porch to the pile of paint chips.
“Well, I guess it needed painting more than I thought,” she finally said. “Let’s go get the brushes.”
Driving eighteen hours in a car was bad enough without a green man in your pocket. It didn’t weigh much more than a piece of gum, and didn’t take up any space, but I knew it was there. It moved and poked my leg by accident some times and others on purpose if I started squishing it as I crawled around the backseat. Eventually, I found a way to sit that was half-way comfortable.
We camped at a beach within sight of the launch pad. They had these huge lights on the rocket, so you could see it in the dark. When Mom and Dad went for a walk, the green man slipped out of my pocket and found a deep shadow to hide in.
“I recognize this place,” it said.
“It’s Cape Kennedy. It was in that magazine I gave you.”
“No, before it was called that, I watched some of your explorers come by and discover it and name it something else.”
“What’d they call it?”
“I don’t remember,” it said. “Something long and beautiful. Then many years later, more explorers in iron helmets came and re-discovered it.”
“Did they name it Canaveral?” I asked. “That’s what Dad calls it. He says it’s only been Kennedy for a few years.”
“Something like that, but in a different language. Cañaveral. I wasn’t around when they settled on this name.”
I thought for a moment. “So if you were here first, what did you name it?”
It sighed. “I could not name this place; I wasn’t the first of my people here. I arrived much later.”
“There are more like you?”
It shifted in the darkness. “Far away in other places. Places like the hills behind your home, or deep underground, or on the bottom of the ocean, exploring, discovering new things and naming them.”
“Do you want to name something?”
“Very much, but everything here has been discovered. The unexplored places are very difficult to reach for someone as young as myself.”
“Oh. Like how Dad had to drive us here in the car? I don’t know how to drive and I’m not old enough anyway.”
“Yes, very much like that. I’m not old enough to drive.”
The next day, we drove as close to the launch pad as we could. Dad finally gave up fighting the traffic and declared we were as close as we were ever going to get. We trudged out and stood next to others set up on the beach with telescopes, binoculars, lawn chairs, and a radio tuned to the countdown. A gang of kids ran in and out of the waves. The boy in front held up a beach ball, and the others chased him waving sticks, model rockets, and Buck Rogers ray guns.
“Why don’t you go over and see if you can play too,” my mom said.
It looked like fun. One kid even had a helmet that said NASA on it. I bet if I played long enough, he’d let me have a turn with it. Or maybe the other kid with the ray gun would share. Mom didn’t let me have ray guns, and wasn’t happy with Grandma when she got me a Sunset Carson six-shooter cap gun either. This looked like the only time in my life I would get a chance to hold an actual ray gun. Then one of the boys fell head-first into the sand. He spluttered and shook his head like a dog before pushing himself up and running after the gang, his front all crusted with sand and salt water. My stomach flipped as I remembered what I had in my pockets, and so I shook my head.
“No, I’m gonna stay here,” I said.
“Well, okay, but no complaining.”
Mom and Dad talked with the other grown-ups about boring stuff while I watched the rocket and listened to mission control count backwards. A man walked down the beach with a cart and umbrella decorated with orange, red, and purple soda pops.
“Can I have an orange Nehi?” I asked.
“No,” Dad said, but that didn’t mean anything so I looked at Mom.
“Curtis, it is hot out here. I wouldn’t mind something to drink myself.”
“Hm?” Dad said, and turned away from the other dad he was talking to. “Oh sure. What do you want?”
“Just a cola. Orange for Ted.”
“Okay, be right back.”
As Dad went to get the drinks, Mom smiled at me. Then the other dad offered her a cigarette and she turned away. The dad tried lighting the cigarette for her, but his lighter wasn’t working. He seemed embarrassed, but Mom just waved a hand at him.
“Teddy, can you get Mom’s lighter, please?” she asked.
I never knew a purse could hold so much. There was a kind of long wallet, lipstick, tissues, a pen, a mirror, a magazine, a pack of gum, and tiny paper wads. I pushed it to the side and found her cigarette case at the bottom of it all, with a shiny lighter in a side pouch.
“Thank you, Teddy,” she said, taking the lighter and letting the other dad light her cigarette. Her mouth made a soft popping sound as she finished her first puff. I thought she looked just like a movie star.
“Could you put this back?” She said, and went back to talking with the other grown-ups. I put the lighter in my other pocket, not knowing if the green man would pinch me for making him share space.
Dad came back with the clanking, sweaty bottles and handed me my orange Nehi. I guzzled half of it right away, letting the tangy sweet drink run past my tongue. It was good enough to make me almost forget about all the fun the other kids were having. As the last of the bubbles fizzed from my tongue, I let out a grown-up-sized burp.
“Ted!” Dad said.
“Excuse me,” I said. Dad shook his head and put his arm around Mom’s waist as he told the other grown-ups all about what he did all day at home. I got up and walked to the ocean.
“Do you have everything?” the green man asked from my pocket.
“Yes.” I took another gulp of Nehi.
“Are there any places to hide?”
“Then can you build me a shadow place in the sand? So that I can see the rocket without being seen?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I can build a sandcastle.”
“That would be acceptable.”
I bent down and started mounding up wet sand while the grownups talked, the other kids chased each other around, and the astronauts sat in their rocket. The green man talked about explorers who traveled over the oceans, mountains, grasslands and deserts. How they would travel for months or years before returning home. Sometimes, they wouldn’t return at all.
“Do your mom and dad miss you?” I asked
“I do not know.”
“Do you miss them?”
“No. But it is different for me. You might say I was built to be an explorer, and do not mind staying away for a long time,” it said.
“What am I built for?”
“Today, you are built to watch a rocket go to the moon. Tomorrow, who knows?”
“Well, your sandcastle is done.”
“A fine castle in every respect,” it said.
It was really just three lumps of wet sand mounded on each other with the Nehi bottle as a turret. The shadowed side was scooped out at the bottom to make the launch pad visible. I stood behind the castle on the other side as the green man left my pocket.
“The rocket has three parts,” I said. “The top part is where the astronauts sit, the other two parts fall off when they’re out of gas.”
“Thank you, I remember,” it said.
A cheer went up from the crowd and people darted around, picking up their cameras and binoculars. Dad shouted my name. He waved his hands and pointed at the launch pad. I waved and gave him a thumbs-up.
“Get ready,” the green man said.
Plumes of smoke and fire poured out of the rocket seconds before the terrible rumble hit me. It was like a thunderstorm under my feet. I pulled the lighter from my pocket along with the bottle rocket I had bought at the grocery store last time instead of a comic book.
“Now!” it said.
I stuck the firework in the bottle and fumbled at the lighter. A second sun seemed to grow from the launch pad, leaving the green man with only the tiniest of shadows. The roar filled my ears, my chest, my eyeballs. I lit the fuse and a green flash jumped on top of the bottle.
The rocket leapt from the bottle, and even though I wasn’t supposed to look, I did. The green man seemed no bigger than a toy car, with knees and arms wrapped around the rocket like a cowboy on a wild Mustang. I waited for the rocket to pop like they did on Fourth of July, but it kept going, shrinking to a little black dot, and then it was gone.
The other rocket was almost gone too, just a ball of fire on a coil of smoke. As the ringing in my ears faded, I heard people cheering, clapping, and whistling. A hand fell on my shoulder, and I looked up into my dad’s face.
“What did you think?” he asked.
“Can we see another one?”
He laughed. “Not for a while, you’ll just have to make these memories last.”
“But don’t worry, I’m sure that by the time you’re my age, there will be a spaceport in every city in the country. Heck, you may even live on the moon!”
I don’t know if the green man made it to the moon. I used a magnifying glass on all the pictures the astronauts took, I stared at the moon with the telescope I got for Christmas, but I didn’t really expect to see anything. The trips home from the grocery store seemed longer without it following from the edge of the trees and fog, there to tickle at the corner of my eye. We stopped going to the moon three years later, and I stopped looking for the green man not too long after that.
And yet –
And yet, in today’s newspaper, a picture from the Chinese lunar explorer Jade Rabbit caught my eye. At the edge of a crater, a shadow blurs from its crisp edge as if something with absurdly long limbs and weeds for hair had ducked the instant the shutter snapped. I rubbed at my chest to soothe my hammering heart, and my mouth watered at the sudden memory of orange Nehi on my tongue.
And while I can’t speak for Mars, I am certain that there is at least one little green man on the moon. And while I can’t blast off to the moon myself, or visit a spaceport in my hometown, rockets launch from Cape Canaveral each year. I’ll have my tickets and bottle rockets ready.