*Image: “Short Migration” by Jeffrey Rothstein
The Goddamn Caped Canaveral
by Hubert Vigilla
Dylan Cape emerged from the marquee tent to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” The horns blared and the timpani thundered like daybreak and creation. Through the shimmering, rising heat Dylan surveyed the crowd gathered along the security barricades. Ten thousand strong, he was told, and all eyes on him atop his hungry, glugging motorcycle—a refurbished Harley XR-750, just like Evel Knievel’s but better, because it was his and he was The Caped Canaveral.
He wondered if anyone watching at home or on the Jumbotrons would notice the missing plastron buttons on his jacket. Would they see the scrapes in the brown leather from skidding on the plateaus of the Grand Canyon? Or those shadowy burns from when he cleared the oncoming train in Chattanooga but was speared mid-jump by a mistimed firework? The short cape, clasped at the epaulets, laundered to a muddy red like river clay? And would they notice the wear he actually wanted them to see: his lucky helmet, scuffed, chipped, patched, sticky with lipstick smears, irreplaceable? The crowd chanted “Cape-cape-cape! Cape-cape-cape!” as the song climaxed and echoed through the Snake River Canyon. Before the clip looped and replayed, The Caped Canaveral popped a wheelie and gunned down the gated path, speeding toward Ashley and the kids at the edge of the crowd and the launch ramp where the rocket waited in a skirt of steam.
The record for the longest motorcycle jump had been set by Rob Connors a year before: three hundred fifty-five feet. That beat Dylan’s old record by thirty feet and, worse, Connors actually stuck the landing. Dylan heard the news the morning after, hung-over in his room at Whiskey Pete’s Hotel and Casino. The television had been left on all night and when he woke up he was naked except for a gold apron stained with something—maybe food, hopefully food. He called Ashley and asked if she’d seen the news and what the fuck it was all about. She asked where he’d been the last few days and when he was coming home. A lazy-eyed slot-machine waitress emerged dripping from the bathroom. He blew through his lips like a horse. Ashley hung up.
“If there’s one thing that’s both exceptional and unexceptional,” he told a reporter after he’d sobered up a little, “it’s a world-record jump over nothing special, and I mean nothing.”
“There’s nothing dangerous about just jumping far,” he told a news team later the same day. “On one of those lightweight racing bikes I can clear three-fifty and a giraffe at the end, but where’s the thrill?”
Later, live via satellite: “Pretty Boy Connors ever break bones falling off that bike? I busted a baker’s dozen by his age, more since. Call me when he catches up. I might even sign his cast if he asks real nice.”
Dylan tore past the crowd in a blur. Brave arms reached out to him over the barricades. His fans wore the new, limited edition T-shirts with the picture of the Caped One atop his bike, red, white, and blue flames shooting out of the tailpipes—thirty-five bucks a piece, three for ninety, large and x-large only. Others wore replica capes and leather jackets that clung to their skin under the sun. Foam fingers tsk-tsk’d and gestured up into the sky. Cans of Rocket Fuel energy drink from the sponsor lay crushed underfoot. Admirers fanned themselves with collector booklets, glossy eight-by-tens, and all those publications they hoped their hero would sign: Cycle News Illustrated, Racer X, that morning’s Idaho Statesman, the latest Rolling Stone. (Accompanying the Rolling Stone piece was a photo of Dylan riding a missile, an homage to Knievel from an article in the November 1974 issue of the magazine. Beneath Dylan’s picture were the words “A Nation’s Strange Love for The Caped Canaveral.”)
Dylan slowed and let the bike idle when he reached Ashley and the kids, who were cloistered with the press away from the rest of the crowd. They stepped around the barricade while security pushed the photographers back. Ashley wasn’t in costume like they’d planned. She wore just a faded T-shirt and jeans with a bandana over her hair. Not the jacket like his but with the midriff exposed, not the leather pants so tight they looked vacuum-sealed. At least Dashiell and Cecilia had dressed their parts. Somewhere, maybe three years ago, a magazine ran a photo of them all together, really gussied up, sort of like a Sears portrait. They’d looked like a family of superheroes.
Dylan dismounted and tucked his helmet under his arm. His hair was pressed flat to his head. Out came a comb from his jacket pocket and in four deft swipes, the crowd counting them off, he sculpted a muscular pompadour. He bowed to them and then swaggered to his family. As he swiveled his hips, he felt a crunch in his knee from a botched landing in Tampa two years before—he’d been hurled from his bike in a sideways tumble and hadn’t stopped spinning until he hit a bank of hay bales. His smile quivered and went crooked from the pain, a familiar expression that most people mistook for a defiant sneer. The kids waved at him with half-gnawed churros as long as their forearms.
“Dash, Ceci,” he said. His finger tapped their noses and their sugary chins, dimpled but sharp like his, and always aimed skyward. They rested their hands on his love handles. “And Ash.” He kissed her dry and quick at the corner of her mouth while patting her on the hip. “I thought we were getting dressed up today.”
Ashley gave one of her slow blinks that doubled for a shake of the head. “Problem at the cleaners,” she said. It was probably a lie, but he went with it. She stepped in close and slid her cheek against his. “This is so fucking stupid, by the way.” There was a little nervous laughter in her voice.
“Oh, I know that, Baby, don’t worry,” he whispered back.
She slid back with another long blink. “Of course you do.” Her hands pressed the children’s shoulders, and she smoothed their hair with her fingers.
“Are you scared, papa?” Cecilia asked.
“Papa’s never scared, little C,” he smiled.
Ashley rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue in her cheek.
“Yeah, papa’s never scared,” Dashiell said with his mouth full of fried dough.
It was the same thing he’d told them from hospital beds or when in traction at home. As bullshit mottoes went, it sounded good even when his face was plastered over and his voice hummed through the cast like angry bees.
Ashley raised her eyebrows and he raised his back. “You going? Or you want us to act some more for the cameras?”
“I’m going, I’m going.” He raised his helmet to her. “But you’ve got to kiss it first.”
Wolf whistles and catcalls filled the air.
She bared her teeth as she sucked in a short hiss. “Don’t you get some cooze in the audience to do that these days?”
“Special occasion. I’d also planned on you kissing the rocket if you wanted.”
“You’re a child, Dylan.” Somewhere in that response was a touch of excitement just behind the malice. Or the other way around.
“A child who pays the goddamn bills. Now play nice for the marks.”
Her nostrils quivered first and then flared. On went the show-time smile, glimmering like the grille on a Tucker Torpedo. She pulled the bandana from her head and unpinned her hair. It spilled Crayola red past her shoulders. Her eyes narrowed as she tilted her head and winked at the crowd. Sex and dynamite, just like better times. She reached into Dylan’s pants pocket and fished around, making sure to jab him in the balls. As he winced, her arm extended. Behold, a silver tube of lipstick, held high like an Olympic torch. She thumbed off the cap, twisted the stick up with a single flick of her fingers, and coated her lips a red as loud as her hair, all to the chant of “Dan-ger Doll! Dan-ger Doll!” She tossed the lipstick into the crowd without looking, and they scuffled over it, raising a cloud of dust.
She yanked the helmet from his hands and looked it over for a clean spot.
“Fucking…” she murmured through the smile. “Help out for once, will you?”
He handed her an old receipt from his back pocket so she could spit shine part of the visor. Ashley angled her head and leaned in close. To the swelling cheers of the crowd, her lips met the helmet, pressed into it, her neck arched, eyes shut, and then she slowly peeled her mouth away. Her lips were rimmed in grey and there was a dark smudge on the tip of her nose. Her smile and her eyes pinched tight as she shoved the helmet back into his chest.
Dylan raised the anointed helmet. The crowd roared. He grunted as he dropped to one knee and held the helmet to the kids.
“Orlando?” Ashley asked.
“Oh yeah, shit, that one.” She sighed. “Hell of a time for the knee to act up.”
He nodded, then lowered his gaze. “Bump daddy’s crown for good luck,” he told the kids. They patted it like it was a runt puppy. He grabbed Ashley’s wrist to pull himself up. She just stood there smiling into the crowd.
“I know what you’re going to say about the leg,” he said. “Don’t.”
“Break it. Or the other one.” She winked and then looked down at the kids who looked back up at her. A small crease had formed between her eyes. She was still smiling, but it was much softer, braver, and just for them. Like he always told her, she was a miracle of German engineering.
“You’re a pro, Ash.” He tugged at the hem of her shirt. “Mostly.”
Her smile widened and she shut her eyes and shook her head, “Go.”
On went the helmet. Dash gave a thumbs-up and went back to work on his churro; Ceci was still staring at the dark spot on her mom’s nose. Dylan got back on his bike and drove away, his family receding into the crowd.
Connors’ record-breaking jump had kept Dylan up late, obsessing over the right counter stunt to eclipse the son of a bitch. The Caped Canaveral would not be shone up by some sissy upstart in body spray ads. Dylan’s first idea was to jump three hundred seventy-five feet over buses and Mack trucks, but who’d pay to watch that?
“That distance between the ramps, it’s just parsley on a plate,” Ashley had told him when they first met. He was driving between El Centro and San Diego, and she was some fresh-out-of-high-school thing working at a greasy spoon along the route, serving up a late lunch of chicken fried steak, apple pie à la mode, and her phone number. He was twice her age almost.
“What the people really want,” she’d said, brimming his coffee, “is danger.”
She was on the road with him a few weeks later, and soon she was in costume. She was the brains behind the merchandise, and she helped him cook up the mid-jump pyrotechnics, the flaming piles of crushed cars (“The Hot Stack”), the tanks of live crocodiles, the oncoming trains, and that one just-made-it leap over an I-5 overpass.
Whenever Ashley ran out of ideas, she and Dylan turned to his heroes for inspiration. There were his folks, The Mercury Rockets, the best damn human bullets in the business. In tandem they’d coursed through the air from a pair of long-barreled cannons—twirling, flipping, tucking, and flying spread-eagled into the waiting safety nets. He’d framed all of their show posters and even the crinkling yellowed flyers of his great aunts and great uncles, The Flying Capellinis and The High-Wire Gibsons. He thought about the air shows from his youth, the fighter pilots barrel rolling, the stunt flyers sonic booming, the colored contrails slicing the sky. He remembered those first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, and then the Apollo program heroes, and the impossible marvel of space flight.
And then there was Evel Knievel on TV at the Snake River Canyon. Dylan, just a kid, had refused to budge from his spot on the living room floor for the full harrowing duration of that damn-fool jump. The rocket cycle waited on the ramp, poised to leap three-quarters of a mile from one ledge to the other. Dylan counted down, gripping handfuls of carpet as the announcer neared zero. He knocked over his juice as the rocket hissed up, up and away. But something was wrong. The parachute. It had deployed just after takeoff. The rocket wobbled into a nose-first descent. The wind toyed with it, pushing Knievel back in the direction of the launch ramp. He plummeted to the water below. The camera wasn’t high enough to reveal where he’d crashed. Dylan had risen up on his knees and craned above the TV, as if he could peer behind the screen and over the ledge for a better look. Finally Knievel appeared, waving to the camera, triumphant even in failure. Dylan shot to his feet and ran around the house punching the air, jumping higher and higher off couches and beds until he hit a ceiling fan and sprained his wrist.
“In 1974,” Dylan would say at a small press conference in Reno, “Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket. So I say to Pretty Boy Connors, keep your world record—that’s my gift to you. I’m the better man. I’m the greater man.” He stood up and pointed past the heads of the press. “And I’m aiming higher, and I’m going farther than you, and I’m doing it in a fucking rocket!”
The handful of reporters politely laughed. He didn’t laugh back. Someone coughed.
“I’m clearing the Snake River Canyon, just like Evel tried, but I’m doing it right, because I’m the goddamn Caped Canaveral!”
Dylan and his mechanics had built their steam-powered son-of-a-gun using schematics similar to Knievel’s. They’d tweaked some of the design, but the end result was essentially the same: eleven-feet long, open cockpit, dual exhaust, five thousand pounds of thrust, fifteen thousand jet horsepower, one hundred eight feet in two seconds from a dead stop. “Think a half-ton bullet with fins and a paint job,” he’d described it to the kids.
Dylan slowed by the launching ramp and killed the engine. He nodded to Bill and his crew as they approached. As instructed, they all had toy rockets holstered in their tool belts for the occasion. At least some people could follow directions.
“You ready for this, Chief?” Bill asked.
Dylan flipped up his visor and nodded. “Always have been, Baby. Always have been.” He slid off his bike and stood with his hands on his hips. The rocket rested on a pair of ramp rails pitched at fifty-five degrees. In tribute to his parents (watching the event live from a Branson rest home), the words The Mercury Legend had been stenciled on its sides along with their poster logo: a blue, white, and red target like a Royal Air Force roundel, a red rocket silhouette where the center dot would have been. The rocket’s four reinforced tailfins were sharpened for the landing. Steam rose from its base, and even from where he stood it reeked of ozone.
There had been two unmanned test firings with prototype rockets earlier in the week. The first had fallen into the canyon fifty feet from the other ledge. The parachute deployed as planned and the rocket drifted slowly into the shallows of the river, its fins sunk between the rocks. The second launch was juiced up but the parachute didn’t deploy in time. The prototype landed like a dart in the dirt, but made it.
Bill pointed to the crane beside the launch ramp and walked Dylan in that direction. “Quadruple checked already. B-crew’s on the other end to make sure you come down safe. Pair of copters. Four boat and land crews in the canyon. Walkie-talkies all around.”
Bill laughed. “He’s ready when you are.”
They waved to the man in the green sequined suit. Andrew Grady, former soul sensation with three hit forty-fives, now known as Grady Greer Green, announcer extraordinaire. He’d been emceeing the event all day. Between short sets by local bands and some clumsy chants led by strippers in cheerleader outfits, it was Grady’s job to taunt Connors, who might have been somewhere in the crowd. (“You’ll smell Pretty Boy before you see him—he reeks of that cheap-ass perfume he’s selling on the tee-vee!”) Grady paced back and forth behind the stage flanked by video cameras, his face mostly lost under his oversized sunglasses. He waved back at them and then held his thumbs up high.
Dylan patted Bill on the back and punched his shoulder. “Fucking A-plus, then. A round of Montana Marys when I touch down.” It was his drink of choice: a blunting cocktail of tomato juice, beer, and Wild Turkey.
Bill winced and shook his head. “That’s all you.”
“When you come see me on the other side, don’t forget your purse.”
“Break both legs, Boss.” He slapped Dylan’s girdled paunch with the back of his hand. “And your fucking face.”
The Caped Canaveral plopped down in the swing suspended by the crane. “I love you too, Baby.”
Dylan ascended. From this far away, the crowd looked like candy sprinkles. On the other side of the canyon he could make out the target where he was supposed to land, a large version of his parents’ logo. Bookies had it one-thousand-to-one that he’d hit the rocket-shaped bull’s eye, five-hundred-to-one he’d hit any part of the target, one-hundred-to-one he’d even make it across. Odds were one-to-sixty he’d crash in the canyon. Dylan put eight hundred bucks on clearing the gap but no money on hitting the target. Even he wasn’t that stupid.
The crew stood on ladders astride the rocket and eased him into the cockpit. They clapped his lap belt and chest harness secure and yanked. He punched the center hub of his straps to make sure they would unlatch and his crew buckled him up again. They pointed to the lone red button on the console, then slapped his helmet and descended, leaving him alone. Past the nose of the rocket was the end of the launch ramp and open sky, a few wisps of cloud high up like dust on a mirror.
He’d seen a similar sky when he was nine. Between human bullet shows at a fair near Topeka, the barrels of his parents’ cannon had been cranked low. Dylan had wobbled on his tiptoes atop some stacked crates to look down inside. There was a little glimmer at the bottom like the reflection of the moon in a well, and an oily smell like his fingertips had after touching a bike chain. He called into the cannon barrel, and his voice returned not thin like an echo but bellowing like an adult. He checked if anyone was looking and then pulled himself up and inside feet first. Even though the angle wasn’t that steep, he had to sprawl and use his arms and sneakers to keep from sliding too fast. Bursting balloons, dunk tank splashes, and the occasional clang from the Test of Strength traveled down into the barrel. It sounded like Saturdays inside of a seashell. There was just a hole of sky in the dark, not even the topmost edge of the Ferris wheel. The whole universe had narrowed into a wild blue yonder.
It had been hours until his parents finally found him. The afternoon Mercury Rockets show was a couple minutes late on account of the scare and a bit of prideful spanking.
The music cut out. On the PA, Grady let out a long, rattling “Hey!” The crowd called back to him. Another “Hey” and another in return.
“That’s what I like to hear,” Grady said. “But, ladies and gentlemen, you’re not here for me, are you?”
Muffled applause and screams.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, but Grady Greer Green doesn’t need the love. You know who does?” He paused for the crowd to cry out the answer. “That’s right. Dylan Cape-Cape-Cape, The Caped Canaveral!”
The crowd chanted his name. Sweat ran into Dylan’s eyes.
“Yeah, that’s right. And today we’re going to see him do something not even the late great Evel Knievel could do. Isn’t that something?” He laughed. “More than thirty years ago, Evel Knievel tried to jump this very canyon—all three-quarter miles of it—on this very land we’re on right now. He didn’t make it. But you know that. You’re here to see The Caped Canaveral make it, isn’t that right?” They hooted and chanted. “Isn’t that right?” he asked again, and the crowd grew louder. “So I’m not going to gab much longer because Grady knows what you want and The Caped Canaveral knows what you want, isn’t that right, Caped One?”
Dylan raised his arms out of the cockpit as high as he could.
“That’s the man, right there,” Grady said. “Okay, Caped Canaveral. Are you ready like we’re ready?”
He gave a thumbs up and his stomach turned over. He started punching the sides of his helmet and stomping the floor of the cockpit to fight the nausea. Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit.
“And more importantly, all of you out there: Are you all ready like he’s ready?”
The crowd whooped and hollered “Cape-cape-cape” again in unison.
“All right!” Grady yelled, and then paused. “Now everybody look at the screens. We’re going to count this down together. Everybody, everybody, everybody, on my lead! Ten, nine, eight—”
Dylan clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. Down went the visor.
“—seven, six, five—”
He held his hand over the button. The smudge from Ashley’s lipstick made him go cross-eyed.
“—four, three, two—”
His fingers curled into a fist.
A slam and a hiss and then a sudden concussive blast, like cannons and fire extinguishers shooting off together. The thrust mashed him into his seat. His teeth clacked even though they were clenched. His tongue retreated to the back of his throat. The breath was sucked out of him. His hands shot around his shoulder harness. Knuckles grated against each other through his gloves. The rocket creaked and rattled. It wobbled. Dylan couldn’t tell if it would hold together or disintegrate. Fucking hold together. His collarbones felt bent. His legs felt weak, even though they were pushed firm into the floor. He felt upside down and then right side up and then upside down. The rumbling got worse and he curled to his side. His stomach seemed next to his lungs. Bile burned his throat, stuck there midway to his mouth, confused by his muscles misfiring. His knees knocked against the console and the bad one locked and spasmed. He couldn’t tell how high he was. He couldn’t breathe. He tried. He choked. Puke spilled out his lips and down his chin. He saw sky in double turning bluer and brighter.
He screamed through teeth clamped so hard it felt as if his molars would crack. Foam formed at the sides of his mouth. How long would the initial thrust last? Would he just keep going? And then what?
And then quiet. The rocket sounded more like a blowtorch, or maybe that was the wind pouring over the windshield. It was cool against his drenched neck. All motion ceased. He flipped back the visor and drank the cold air. His body contracted and then relaxed like a single cord of muscle. He slumped as far forward as the straps would allow. Sweat went viscous as it trickled off his forehead, down into his lap, then hovered before him in a dance of shining threads. He felt himself go weightless. His hands on his harness drifted up and his feet and legs drifted up and his whole body felt lifted up out of the soft crater in his seat.
He began to smile. These were the best moments of every jump. The untethered life. These seconds justified the titanium plates and screws in his body, and the long burn scar across his sternum from a flaming Buick he’d hit at thirty miles an hour, and the missing chunk of his left heel from a crocodile catching hold of his boot, and the fights with Ash that kept getting worse, and the kids learning he wasn’t invincible, and the blood when he took a leak, and the stiffness in his joints in the mornings that turned into pain at night. Maybe six minutes total of untethered time pooled over the years, if even that; six minutes when he felt like the Mercury Seven, the Apollo heroes, his bulleteer parents in midflight, Dash and Ceci and Ashley lifted high above his head in his arms and spun around and around and around. And when the horizon shifted, he could see, just for a little bit, the other side of the canyon and the blue outer ring of the roundel. Nothing seemed too far; nothing seemed impossible.
The parachute bloomed large and red from the nose of the rocket. The whole body of The Mercury Legend jarred. He fell back into his seat as the rocket swung in the air. The straps dug up into his armpits. Everything inside him twirled and then he was overcome by a gliding sensation. He laughed and howled up into the opening, but his voice thinned as soon as it left his mouth. He tried to twist in his seat to see where he was falling and just how fast, if the wind was taking him to the other side of the canyon or back to the gap and the river below. He couldn’t turn, he was strapped so tight; he should have fought harder for that rearview fucking mirror. The parachute engulfed the sky above him, save for the lone hole in the apex. It seemed his descent would never end.
Later, much later, he would try to relive this moment a couple times a day. He’d watch news footage and clips taken from a seventy-minute cable documentary called Cape. But this would be years after the Snake River Canyon, after the jump in Corpus Christi that collapsed a lung, and the one in Eugene where he almost lost his ear, and the one in Raleigh that nearly pulverized his hand when he tumbled over the handlebars and caught his wrist and fingers in the wheel spokes. Years after his parents succumbed to strokes and he missed each of the funerals while in traction; after he and Ashley made their split official and she got the kids; after he proposed to some nightclub singer who didn’t know any better; just after that career-ending Tuscaloosa crash, the one that claimed his right leg up to the knee (his good one) when one of the mini-booster rockets welded to the frame of his Harley blew up.
He’d sit in his recliner, alone in the living room of that house in Riverside, a cane on one side and the prosthesis on the other, memorabilia all around; posters, glossy photos, magazine covers, some cheap statuettes, piles of fan art—his favorite, a life-size silkscreen canvas of him in his prime with arrows pointing to his various injuries. All of that junk arranged to draw eyes to the mantle. That’s where his old helmet sat on display, split in half like a geode, a casualty of the Snake River Canyon.
He’d get visitors. Bill would stop by every week, since they were practically neighbors; he was also the only member of the mechanical crew who’d kept in touch. Their stories never got old, or at least Bill never let on if they did. Once a month they’d go out to the Sultan’s Banquet buffet and bullshit the afternoon away over sweet tea, cornbread, and soft serve. Grady would stop by twice a year while visiting family in L.A. He was out on the East Coast now, and even though he couldn’t remember a word of what he’d sung, he kept talking about a comeback. His kids knew session musicians, and some of the young talent was finally getting hip to his work. “It’s serious now, man,” Grady would say every time. “I’m telling you it’s gonna get ser-i-ous, Grizzly Bear.” Each time he headed out the door, Dylan would tell him, “Grady baby, don’t you ever change.”
Whatshername, that fucking nightclub singer, would stop by sometimes with some home cooking. He’d toss it out once she left. They’d broken off their engagement before actually going through with it, thank Jesus.
One time Pretty Boy Connors graced him with his presence. The former world-record holder, Dylan pointed out twice during the visit. Some pup name of Zodiac Lee had since hit the four hundred-foot mark on his bike. His parents must’ve been missiles.
“Way I see it, China’s beat us everywhere else,” Connors said while helping himself to the last cold one in the fridge. “Figures they’d wind up clipping our wings too.”
All the aerosol perfume in the world couldn’t hide Pretty Boy’s girly blonde hairpiece or the stubborn gut hanging out over his jeans. They kept it as civil as they could. Mostly talked about the business from way back when, traded stories from the road, compared their scars and aches like kids going through baseball cards. Before Connors left, they shook hands. If his grip weren’t ruined from Raleigh, Dylan swore to himself he’d have mashed Pretty Boy’s hand into a diamond like in the comic books.
A few times he saw Dash and Ceci. How strong and beautiful, how much like their mother they’d become. Dash owned a furniture business and Ceci taught high school physics. Neither was much for conversation. Sometimes they just sat waiting to be spoken to. He wondered if they pitied him or loved him, because it couldn’t have been both, at least not equally. They always seemed a little relieved when they were taking off, and he felt the same.
Ash stopped by once a year after he lost the leg, usually with a little container of that ambrosia salad stuff she liked to make. She’d aged real nice, probably because she didn’t stick around with him. Her visits were brief, all pleasantries and awkward silences. She always visited when the weather was nice, so there was at least that to talk about. It was something. He could tell by the quiver in her eyes she was happy to see him, and her smile, lipstick or no, was genuine. For some reason, she’d always cared, and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed that all along.
Fans still dropped by a few times a month, but they weren’t getting any younger or prettier. They seemed to be getting fatter. Sometimes they’d drag their kids along with them, and they’d just stare at his stump leg. The grafts and surgical scars were wrinkled and shiny like the skin that forms on soup that’s been cooling for too long. He’d tell the fans a story if they fixed him a drink and sprang for some take-out, or maybe cleaned up around the place a little. Any jump they’d ask about, he’d tell it to them straight; or if he couldn’t remember—who knew if it was Detroit where the front wheel flew off the Harley or if it was Lansing—he’d fake his way through it with their help. No photos allowed, though. The fans could pick one of the old eight-by-tens on an end table for him to sign. After they were gone, it was back to watching himself on the TV.
The glory days, he’d think as he watched his body pulled limp but breathing out of the wreckage of The Mercury Legend, which looked more like a bent cigarette than a marvel of mechanical know-how. The crew hoisted him above their heads. “Rock and Roll (Part Two)” played on the PA as he’d planned. Grady was in tears. (“I thought you were dead,” he said at the hospital later.) There wasn’t much press where he landed since most assumed he wouldn’t make it, and there weren’t many fans either for the same reason, but those there crowded around him and sprayed him with shook-up beers and the one bottle of champagne until he came to.
When the video was over, he’d loop it again once or twice, then he’d turn off the player and sit watching the glowing screen. Before dozing with an oxygen mask and his pills, he’d recall again the crunch of the ground beneath him and how it had forced the last of the air out of his lungs. There was the vertigo as the rocket teetered, creaked, tottered, and then flopped. His head whipped back into his chair and the light began to leave him. He looked up into the hole in the parachute and how distant it seemed, narrowing as though it were floating farther and farther away, too distant, puffing like a jellyfish desperate for warm water. The sky stretched blue and round one last time, trembling there in the wind, and then, the world crashing red around it, winked shut.