original writing June 2009: The Moon Through a Coat SleeveJune 11, 2009
In choice of reading materials, I am devoted to the short story: Large, complicated people and situations crystallized into five or 10 or 20 pages. This month’s Proust victim Al Kratina reminds me how much I like Harlan “Don’t call me sci-fi” Ellison, but there’s also Alice Munro’s deceptive aloofness, Stephen King’s vigour (showcased with a new story in the July edition of Esquire), Ernest Hemingway’s spartan beauty, the unfinished seams of Raymond Carver and, my favourite story in the whole wide world, John O’Hara’s Flight, all the more precious for being a departure from his Butterfield 8 and Pal Joey stories and for being hard to find (I have it in The World of the Short Story, edited by Clifton Fadiman).
But write a short story myself? I’ve started many, but only this attempt ever finished itself. Though it’s not finished by any stretch. This is probably the third rewrite and after each attempt, I’ve hated it so much I’ve abandoned it until my memory softens and I decide I like it enough to keep trying. So it’s a work in progress. Feedback welcome but not required. And don’t worry. It’s quite short. If it leaves you rankled, click on any of the above story links. Me? I’m taking up with John O’Hara.
Still, still evening, the patter of voices, laughter from a late game on the diamond at the community club, across the street. The street lights had just come on but they were nothing compared to the clear moon rising in the window frame over my dad’s shoulder.
He was leaning in toward me, balancing on the kitchen chair he’d dragged into my bedroom, a rare one on one. I — solemn as on communion day but in worn-thin flannel jammies — lay on the bed, propped on the elbow of my pitching arm, eyes ping-ponging from him to the spot-lit darkening sky.
“Comes a time,” he said, pausing to flick off the overhead light, tipping back his stubby brown beer bottle, “comes a time in everyone’s life to see the moon through a coat sleeve.”
“But you have to be ready. Because once you see it, I mean really see it for yourself,” another bend of the arm, another pull of beer, “you won’t need me anymore.”
My eyes narrowed.
“What do you mean?”
He winked. “For me to know and you to find out,” he said, slouching back and casually turning his face to my mother, standing in the doorway, arms folded.
“Do you think it’s time?” he asked my mother.
“George.” My mother said, her voice somewhere between question and warning. My little brother Richard was clamped on to her leg. Round-eyed and quiet, he craned his neck to the window but wouldn’t let go.
“Don’t ‘George’ me. She says she’s ready. Right?” my dad asked me. Declared.
I looked at mum and then the window, the indigo sky now the blackest blue. I tried to read dad’s eyes, brown like mine, brown like raisin pie, which I didn’t like and ate only for the ice cream it came with. I hesitated. I nodded.
“Close the door, dear?” he said without looking again at mum. She reached in and yanked the doorknob and let it go, the triangle of light from the hallway narrowing to a spike and then gone. Only moonlight and dusk in my room.
“Sure you’re ready?” he said, the red beacon of his cigarette flaring as he dragged heavily.
“Are you nodding?” he asked, laughing.
Then a rustling and total darkness and the slightly metallic sweat smell, his ‘I need a beer’ after a day at the office smell. I felt he scratchy melton and heavier leather of his hockey club jacket, then the cool satin lining as he positioned the coat overtop of me, holding the sleeve up over my face like a telescope. My heart was hammering. Black black.
“I don’t see it. I don’t see anything!”
I heard a slosh (the beer?) and then Dad: “Ready?”
But instead of the glare of a fat moon, I was hit by what felt like a bucket of water and I pawed at the wet coat, choking in air and sputtering. When the blinding light came, it was from the hallway, as mum flung the door open.
“Are you done then?” she said tightly to my dad, who was laughing so hard he was bent over, hands on his thighs.
He bent to pick up his beer and something else I couldn’t see at first, then straightened to leave, swaying a little. “Well,” he tilted his chin to me, grinning. “Did you see it?”
I was silent, as cold inside as out, plastered with wet flannelette.
“No? Then you must’ve blinked.”
More fury. Then doubt. Had he really just poured a juice pitcher of water on me? Or … was that a part of it? Or. Or?
“George!” This time, mum’s voice definitely edged toward warning. She stepped into the room with a towel as he exited.
“Oh she’s fine,” he said over his shoulder. “She knows the score. Don’tcha?” But he didn’t wait for my reply. Like he was talking to me but not talking to me.
In the living room, there was the sound of the TV clicking on, of the sports pages being rattled into place, of the pssht, then ping of the beer cap in the ashtray. Maybe a chuckle. It was hard to hear over the TV.
My mum peeled off my wet PJ top, and combed my wet hair back with her fingers. I couldn’t meet her eyes, though I didn’t know why.
She cupped my chin to pull my gaze up but I lizarded my eyes to the side, the side of my room where the sky now showed moonless black.
“Honey, he didn’t…”
“I SAW it.” This startled me as much as her. She stilled for a second, staring hard and then took her hand away. She shook out the fresh PJ top and held it for me to put my arms through.
“I can DO it.” My voice was less angry, less loud this time.
I wanted to cry, to say sorry, to say I had seen nothing. I wanted to bury my face in her soft middle. It was laundry day and she and her shirt smelled of backyard and the macaroni and cheese we’d had for dinner. I wanted to.
“OK.” She stood up, nodded as if deciding. After a pause, she offered, “You know, it’s OK if…” but her voice trailed off into something I couldn’t recognize. She left with my dad’s jacket tightly folded over her arm. A cue to Richard, who rushed in.
“Was it scary?” “Why’s your hair wet?” Over the questions, I could hear angry voices in the living room, but couldn’t make out words. “Tell!” “C’mon!” Richard begged, bouncing at the side of the bed.
My heart was hammering again. And then in a rush that made my stomach clench: “Don’t be such a baby.”
“I am not a baby!” he yelled jumping up. He was smaller, but he was all fists. “Tell me! Tell me!” and then “Maaaaaaaaa,” as she pulled him off and put him to bed with a scolding in the next room.
I pulled the covers over my head, guts burning, tears stinging. I heard someone pull my door closed. Eventually, I fell asleep, but woke up in darkness to the shuffling sound of the wind playing with the now pulled-down window shade. Everyone else asleep. I pulled up the shade. Nothing but clouds above the neighbours’ eaves. I closed my eyes and pressed my nose against the screen, breathing in the smell of dust. Rain coming. Big rush of wind. And when I opened my eyes, the clouds swept away from a blaring bright moon. I saw the moon. I watched so long I fell asleep.
I awoke in my own bed.
With thanks to Jordan Zivitz and Al Kratina for reading and offering suggestions, for which anyone who’s gotten this far will be grateful.