by Aaron DiMunno
BANG! BANG! BANG!
A hammer, outside, in the night.
Summer dusk has settled, thick and dark and damp in the trees and grass behind the distressed solitary blue-gray farmhouse where Joey Melluso lives. Now and then, phantom headlights flash rectangles of light between the staggered tree trunks that separate the backyard from the rural highway beyond. Yard bugs are making their music in the dark.
Every window of the forlorn home is illuminated, but it sits silent and still. On a well worn rug, in a tiny bedroom up the stairs, curly-haired Joey is playing with his Matchbox cars alone.
Each night Joey’s mother Diedre makes sure to kiss him good-bye before she leaves. Deidre works nights down in town, serving beer in cans and thick glass mugs to old drunk guys with abandoned faces. And ever since the summer before last, just after Joey’s mom vanishes in a swirl of lipstick and cigarettes, his dad, Frank, disappears too. Out the back of the kitchen, with a creaking slam of the torn screen door, to his workshop, an old barn-like shed.
Frank usually putters around for a short time after Deidre leaves. Messing with household repairs, looking at notebooks and loose scraps of paper marked with stuff that Joey doesn’t understand, smoking nervously at the window. The smoke goes in his eyes but he never squints. Now and again he’ll stare blankly at Joey with a wet woeful gaze before suddenly smiling out from under his mustache and turning away. Joey is old enough to know that something is wrong, but too young to have any idea what it is. Just feels the dread in his belly. Like climbing the basement stairs alone with the darkness chomping at his back.
It’s his father’s eyes that make Joey wish his mother was home.
Not long ago, on a muggy summer Sunday evening, Joey sat crying in the running car while his father tossed a knotted burlap sack of rocks and kittens into the pond down the road.
The kittens had been mewing nonstop and Joey could feel their ribs when he tried to calm them. But their mom – a calico mouse catcher named Pumpkin – wouldn’t feed them. The veterinarian recommended a clean clinical death but charged more than Frank or Deidre could pinch from their pockets.
Joey recognizes the look in his father’s eyes. It’s the same look he had when he came back to the car that day and slammed it into gear. It makes Joey want to cry. So he spends the evenings in his bedroom until his dad comes in from the shed and sends him to bed.
Joey has a baby sister named Marisa. She makes him feel like crying too. The doctor found a brain tumor and now Marisa’s face is all slouched and scrunched like a doll-sized old man. Her hair is falling out in patches, heightening her geriatric visage. Joey doesn’t want to think about his sister. So he plays.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Joey quits his carpet car chase and shuts his bedroom light off. Miniature cars paused mid-wreck, he puts his hands in the dusty canal of old paint chips and dead bugs filling the open windowsill. The window screen adds a metallic sour to the thick current of night squeezing through its galvanized mesh. Joey presses his nose to the flex and air. It’s the only way he can see the big shed out there in the dark.
Cracks and crevices in the wooden hodgepodge of planks that make up the walls of the outbuilding, unseen by daylight, expose themselves as a plexus of sharp bright slashes. When a slash dissolves and reappears, Joey knows it’s his father moving around in there. He has no idea what his dad is up to every night. But Frank always brings Marisa with him.
Joey hasn’t been allowed in the shed since his father started working in there all the time. He used to play out there, hiding under the workbench, loading caulking guns with tubes of construction adhesive to defend against the imaginary alien hordes assaulting his lunar outpost.
Two years ago, just before the end of the school year, his dad put a big rusty lock on the door and it stayed that way.
Joey remembers those last few weeks of school. They were learning about jobs and a policeman had come in to speak to the class about his occupation. The teacher asked each of the students to tell the class what their parents did for a living. When it was his turn Joey got excited and forgot all about his mother. He stood up and beamed at his classmates.
“My Daddy’s a carpenter! He builds things.”
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The hammer again. From behind the plank walls, the toothy “zoop” of a handsaw biting into wood. Then nothing.
A few crickets begin to tune up and then the nighttime concerto begins.
Then, all at once, the whine and grind of a power drill obliterates the backyard insect orchestra.
The yard falls silent again.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
From beneath the barn door Frank’s shadow licks the graveled earth and sharp stones of the short driveway. The door slides open and the ground turns a sickly mustard yellow. Frank stands silhouetted in the doorway, the angry glow of a cigarette swelling red one last time. Then the tiny point of flame arcs into the wet grass like a comet.
There had been a night last fall when Joey had been down in the kitchen, up on a stool, about to pour himself a glass of milk. His father came through the wooden screen door from the backyard carrying Marisa in her baby seat. She was asleep. Frank’s formidable forehead of creases and dents was glistening with sweat and his shirt was soaked with dark patches. He stopped short when he saw Joey at the counter and put the baby seat down.
“Whaddya doin’ sneaking around the house at night?” Frank snatched the carton from his hands and smacked him on the back of the head. “Get back upstairs. I don’t wanna hear it from ya muther.”
Joey was stunned. His dad never hit him before. But he did as he was told and the glass sat empty on the counter.
Now Joey watches his dad crossing the midnight lawn toward the house and he’s frightened of him. He isn’t carrying Marisa.
Frank comes for Joey in his bedroom. Doesn’t speak a word but takes him by the hand and leads him through the deep dark night of the backyard. The cuffs of Joey’s pajama bottoms get wet and heavy and cold against his ankles. The dampness is shocking. Joey has never been out in the grass this late. Not after the dew.
Father and son reach the entrance to the workshop. Joey stands stock-still in his sailboat pajamas. He is momentarily blinded as his father opens the shed door and lets go of his hand. Frank walks into the light.
Joey’s eyes slowly adjust to the bright light and the first thing he sees is his old go-kart in the corner. It looks burned.
Before Joey learned to ride a bicycle, Frank built him a go-cart out of plywood, using the wheels, axles, and steering apparatus of an old pedal-powered fire truck. He had used a hacksaw to cut the end from a silver pipe on an old canister vacuum and installed it at the back of the car like a tail pipe. He even transferred the rusty silver bell, tying it to a string so Joey could ring it racing down the hill.
The go-cart was too heavy for Joey, though, and Frank quickly grew tired of pushing the weight of all that wood and metal back up the hill for another go.
“I wish it had a engine,” Joey had said to his dad after his last ride. But the car went to the back corner of the barn to be forgotten.
Joey moves his gaze from the go-cart and finally sees what his father has been building.
There, in the barn-like shed, on the cracked concrete floor, under the highest part of the disintegrating roof, stands a rocket. The rocket is made of wood. Frank is beaming up at his unlikely creation.
It looks like a cartoon. Or as if a 1950s’ sci-fi landing party might emerge with helmets and laser guns. Joey’s father helps him up the aluminum hardware store ladder leaning against the side of the craft. The rungs have ridges and Joey remembers his father holding the same ladder for him when he climbed onto the porch roof for a styrofoam glider gone astray.
The ladder leads to a small circular opening just below the nose of the rocket. The opening is sanded down and smoothed to perfection. No splinters. No sharp edges. The glow from the incandescent bulbs strung about on orange extension cords projects a perfect stage-light oval into the interior of the craft, directly onto Marisa. An old vaudevillian in a child’s safety seat, she flails her little baby arms and a laugh burbles from her strangely septuagenarian face. Her right eye droops instead of carrying the smile.
“Give ya sister a kiss, Joey,” says Frank from down below, his voice thick.
Joey climbs into the wooden rocket. Tears are on his cheeks. The interior of the craft, walled and floored with rough damp plywood, seems incomplete and desperate. It smells of sawdust and sweat like his father after a day of hard work.
It also smells of gasoline.
“Go on, we gotta get goin.'”
Joey kisses his sister on the cheek below her good eye. She spits and giggles. Frank prods him back down the ladder.
Joey is a zombie. He’s out on the driveway. He feels the press of his father’s mustache on his forehead and the heavy T-bone-steak weight of his father’s calloused hand on the top of his head.
Frank goes back into the shed and closes the door. Joey doesn’t know what to do. Warm pee soaks his pajamas against his legs. It turns cold in the night air and he stands there.
From behind the barn door he can hear his father’s work boots clanking up the ladder and Marisa’s distant muffled baby laughter… then the alarming clatter of aluminum on concrete. Silence returns and the insects get back to their music.
At first there is just a vibration, the ground and rocks trembling against his bare feet. The driveway is warm. It hasn’t cooled much since the sun went down.
The rumbling quickly becomes a roar and there is a tremendous flash. An invisible wave hits Joey in the face and he is on his back, skidding across the wet. He can’t grab a breath and his ears are ringing like he exploded a whole roll of cap gun ammo with a rock.
The shed nearly explodes as what’s left of the roof blasts up and everywhere and the wooden rocket shoots out against the stars.
Joey just lays there, dumbfounded and sobbing in the grass.
The cartoon rocket ship is not a cartoon at all. It is real and it is made of wood. Almost immediately it catches fire and plummets back to the earth. The fireball drops like an apocalypse down behind the dense border of big trees that separates the backyard from the old turnpike.
There is a second explosion and a screeching of tires across that thick summer night. Then silence, before the bugs begin again.
AARON DIMUNNO likes putting words together and having sex and sleeping in a sunny bedroom. He’s taking a break from New York City to do more of the words and sunny bedroom thing. Too much coffee makes him shake and shit. Right now there are squirrels fighting on a branch outside his window.