Years later in school, Pookie heard the story of the man who flew too close to the sun. Excitedly, she raised her hand; this was one of the few times anything in school had seemed familiar to her.
—Miss Taylor! Miss Taylor! Pookie said, frantically waving her arm.
—Yes, what is it, Shawntelle?
Pookie hated her full name but Miss Taylor said nicknames were disrespectful and refused to use them. School and teachers just didn’t make any sense, most of the time.
—I saw him, Miss Taylor, I saw him.
—Saw who, Shawntelle?
—The flying man, Ickuss, I saw him.
—Now, Shawntelle, what have I told you about making up stories? His name is pronounced Ic-AR-us, and you couldn’t have seen him because he never really existed. It’s just a story, a myth.
—But I did, Miss Taylor. He never wore any clothes and lived right across the street from me in the big TV building and one day he flew out his window. . .
—Shawntelle! Miss Taylor said sternly.
— . . . all naked and flapping . . .
—Shawntelle! Stop this nonsense this instant or I’ll send you to the principal’s office again!
—But that was him, Miss Taylor, I know it was. Mama told me he was just some crazy white boy and Aunt Sarah said he was probably drunk but . . .
—Shawntelle! That will be enough. March yourself down to the office right now.
—But, Miss Taylor . . .
As she walked slowly down the hall, Pookie remembered the day she first saw the naked white man. She had been on the tiny balcony of her family’s apartment looking at the large apartment building that sat on a hill across the street. To Pookie, it was like having a nine-story multi-screened TV to watch. As the youngest, Pookie didn’t have much say in what appeared on the family TV, so she preferred to go out on the balcony and see what was happening on the other side of the sliding glass patio doors (that also doubled as the living room windows) of the apartments of her big TV building. Sometimes it was pretty boring, like when the curtains were drawn, but no one could make her change the channel.
On that particular summer afternoon, soon after her fourth birthday, Pookie had been at her usual post, standing at the balcony railing watching the sun set and the rush hour traffic crawl by. Every so often, she surveyed the ninth-story windows of the apartment building. It was hard to see
anything that high up, but the curtains were hardly ever closed on that floor so Pookie always gave them close attention.
Then she saw him. His glass doors were wide open: only a screen and railing stood between him and the open air. He was leaning on the railing, smoking a cigar, and he didn’t have any clothes on at all. Pookie had seen her brothers nude many times, so she knew the man was naked, even if he was white.
—What’cha lookin’ at, Pookie dear? Aunt Sarah asked her, as she came out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette.
—At the naked white man.
Aunt Sarah followed Pookie’s finger up to the ninth floor, leaned forward to get a better look, then began laughing and pointing.
—Hey, Ruth, take a look. There’s a white boy flashing the whole neighborhood!
Pookie’s mama stepped out on the balcony, took one look, snorted in disgust and grabbed Pookie’s arm.
—C’mon, that isn’t for you.
—But mama, Pookie protested, I want to stay outside.
—I won’t have you staring at naked strangers. He may be stupid, but it just isn’t polite.
Pookie turned to take one more look before she went inside, but by then the naked white man was no longer there.
Pookie saw the man several times after that, though he was never naked again until the day she saw him fly. It was rush hour again and Pookie was at her usual spot taking in the world. Her eyes methodically checked each window and then she saw him again, naked like the first time. It was difficult to tell, but this time the screen was apparently open, and the man appeared to be standing outside the railing, hanging on with his hands behind his back. Pookie looked around, but her mama and Aunt Sarah weren’t nearby and Pookie wasn’t going to say anything to change that. She turned back just in time to see the naked man stretch out his arms and dive in a slow graceful arc. At first, he seemed to drop straight down, but just before he fell out of sight, he swooped into view again and began a series of wide loops over the parking garage that sat just below the apartment building. Pookie was so excited she began to clap her hands and squeal with delight. Somehow the man heard her over the traffic noise. He looked her way and smiled. Pookie waved to the man and he waved back. Which was a mistake. His swoop began to fail and the man began beating his arms, but it was no use. He fell headfirst onto the roof of the parking garage.
Pookie screamed and her mama came running. Her mama didn’t believe her story, of course, even after the ambulance came and the fire department arrived with their ladders to take the body off the roof. But Pookie kept insisting until her mama finally sent her to her room, telling Pookie she would never be allowed out on the balcony ever, ever again.
Sitting in the principal’s office, Pookie resolved never to tell adults anything they hadn’t said first.
What’s the use, she thought. If they can’t fly, they think nobody can.
Pookie closed her eyes. She remembered the naked white man’s smile just before he fell, how the light from the setting sun made his skin shimmer like gold, how he hadn’t seemed all that upset about falling.
Pookie opened her eyes and looked around the office. The secretary was bent over a filing cabinet, so Pookie slipped out the door and headed outside. This would be a good time, she thought, to go looking for the sun.