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Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 20.3

Fiction

 

Richard PlantPicture of Richard Plant.

Talking on the Moon


Richard Plant teaches writing and literature at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, where he also directs the honors program. Recent publications include stories in U.S. Catholic and New Orleans Review. His fiction has also been anthologized in Prize Stories 1988 (Doubleday), Best Stories From New Writers (F & W Publications), and Sudden Fiction Continued (W. W. Norton).

 

For half my life I think I had a secret dread of Uncle Hobart's farm, my family's homestead and my father's childhood home. The place I finally came, at forty-two, to live and work. Four flatland quarters north of Weatherford, the farm is like a million others here in wheat and cattle country. Three generations of my kin are buried hereabouts. But growing up in Colorado, even through the high school years, the place would visit me in nightmares. A trapdoor in my closet ceiling called to me in ghostly voices. Zombie-like, I left my bed. Shoving my closet clothes aside to find the secret panel, I climbed a stool to reach it. When I pushed against it with my hands, a mighty wind would lift me up and through, and there I'd be—standing on the prairie in the dark. At first there's only wind, blowing hot against my face. Then the witches come. Three black-dressed hags do a dance around me. If I try to leave the circle (so the nightmare logic goes), I'll die. They thrust their faces into mine. They pluck at my pajamas with their bony fingers. Their sharp, insistent cackles fill the air. These voices are the major horror. If I pay attention to their incantations, something terrible will happen. Something unspeakable will suck me in. Wake up, wake up, I holler in my head. And finally I do.

* * *

When I was nine, we watched the astronauts walk on the moon at Uncle Hobart's house. I don't mean the landing. Dad and his brother, Uncle Hobart, heard this part at the co-op, where they'd gone to gas the pickup late that afternoon. Back at the house, they told us what they'd heard: how the pock-marked moonscape rose to greet the lunar module's spider legs. Mom got the blow-by-blow on Uncle Hobart's phone, in Uncle Hobart's farmhouse kitchen. Uncle Hobart's nearest neighbor to the north, Chloe Moray, called the house to say that brother Carl was on the tractor, Grace and Alberta had run into town, and she just had to talk to someone. And at the time the lunar module landed, 3:18 pm in this part of the country, I was either in the tractor barn, sitting on the perforated steel seat of my Grandpa's `52 John Deere, lost in dreams I've long forgotten now, or I was hiking in the shade of Robber's Creek. Turning in my hands the jawbone of a possum or raccoon, how could I know that high above me history was being made?

Sometime around 5:30, though, the four of us were gathered in the house and sharing what we'd heard, making plans to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin poke their heads out of the lunar module, set their human feet upon the moon.

This was Mother, Father, Uncle Hobart, and myself. And at Mother's invitation, the Moray sisters came to watch the television broadcast.

"I ain't used to hosting company," Uncle Hobart whined before they got
there.

"Nonsense," my mother said. "You're hosting us."

"You're family."

"Well, Hobart, what was I supposed to say? I'm trapped for fifteen minutes talking on the phone. I hardly know the woman. And the way she hinted, what else could I do?"

"How about say, `See you later'?"

"Is that how you put Chloe Moray off?" Dad said.

"Could be. That or something of the sort."

Chloe Moray's short and unsuccessful courtship of my Uncle Hobart was, like other snippets of his life, a mystery to me. I had heard that Hobart tried out college for a week. He'd been to Okinawa in the service. He'd traveled through New Mexico and Texas with a country-western band. Raised up a pup coyote as a pet, then shot it dead. "Right there," he told me one dark afternoon, resting back against his boot heels, pointing to the muddy bed of Robber's Creek, "I found a dead man's body once't."

 

The Moray sisters showed up sometime after supper—Alberta, Grace, and Chole. Chloe, I decided, was the skinny one who smoked. She had on blue jeans and a western shirt. Grace wore a gingham dress. Stout Alberta was the one in overalls. All of them had straight hair shorter than my mother's.

They hadn't all three made it through the door when Uncle Hobart asked, "Where's Carl?"

Chloe Moray answered. "I told Carl he should come. That hailstorm back in April broke off our antenna at the house so he won't see diddly-squat of astronauts. But you know Carl. He has this crackpot theory. He says the moon shot is a put-on, some kind of hoax to raise our taxes and divert attention from the hippie insurrection."

Alberta, who close up had two or three light whiskers on her chin, hooked her fingers in her overalls' front bib. She picked up where Chloe had left off. "I told him seeing was believing. But Baby Brother likes to grump. Carl goes, `What's this got to do with me? Not a blessed thing. Not unless they plan on sowing wheat up there.' Imagine! Carl's got no more sense of history than our cat Smoky. Not a tittle more."

"Carl's always like this in July," Chloe explained. "But come September, when the price of wheat goes up, his mood improves. You wait and see."

They had brought a watermelon and a Dr. Pepper six-pack for refreshment. Grace and Mother helped themselves to Uncle Hobart's kitchen. When they emerged, we made a party of it. Snacks and drinks on Uncle Hobart's coffee table. An ashtray for the cigarettes that Uncle Hobart and his one-time girlfriend Chloe smoked. It seems, in memory, a New Year's celebration in July. We stayed up long past midnight, talking, while Uncle Hobart's TV flickered images from space. Uncle Hobart's living room was host to laughter and applause, gay predictions for the decade poised to turn, fantastic prophecies for the succeeding generation, that generation for which I, myself, the only child among these six adults, seemed by default to stand.

I started getting sleepy from their chatter, bored by the technical reports relayed by Houston. I was hungry for the sight of something never seen, a vision of the future: spacemen walking on the moon. This I figured was the ideal place on God's green earth to watch it. To me, his nephew from the Denver suburbs, my Uncle Hobart seemed a mythic figure, not so different from the astronauts. Plus, NASA had some history here. Earlier that summer Thomas Stafford had commanded Apollo 10 in a dress rehearsal for 11's landing. Stafford and his crew had spent eight hours in the lunar module, orbiting the moon and taking photos of potential landing sites. So—when it finally flashed upon us from the airwaves—Neil Armstrong's hop down from the ladder, his boot's displacement of the lunar dust, we knew it was a feat to some degree made possible by Stafford, Young, and Cernan—Walter Cronkite even told the nation so. Astronaut Tom Stafford was a native son. He was born and raised in Weatherford, some twenty miles due south of Wallace. In later years, they'd name the local airport after him.

Somebody asked, "You figure they'll send Stafford up again?" We were watching Armstrong watching for Buzz Aldrin, still inside the lunar module.

Uncle Hobart said, "Most likely. Apollo 10 went smooth as clockwork."

I heard Grace Moray say, "There's a good chance Arthur here will get a chance to moonwalk. Maybe even visit Mars. Who can say?"

"All the things I've witnessed in my lifetime, I plumb give-up expecting all the things to come." This from Alberta, the chubby sister.

Nobody back in Boulder called me Arthur. I was Art or Artie to my friends and teachers. But here in Wallace—where my grandparents were buried, where four quarter-sections bore the family name—and on this night when Uncle Hobart's television glowed a scene of human destiny, I was proud to hear my formal name pronounced.

By radio, Armstrong guided Aldrin out the hatch and down the ladder. Chloe rasped, "I bet it's pretty cozy in that lunar module."

"Shoot," my uncle argued. "That John Glenn's Mercury weren't no bigger than my tractor cab. I expect Apollo's like a Cadillac to these boys." Then: "Here comes Aldrin!" Hobart hollered out, as if our eyes weren't glued already to the set. I was lying on my elbows, ankles crossed. Behind me, I heard creaks and rustles as the Moray sisters hunched forward in their folding chairs. I caught a whiff of someone's perfume, sickly sweet. Buzz Aldrin's voice came crackling from the moon. "Beautiful view…. Magnificent desolation."

Grace Moray said, "These men are heroes. That's what they are—true heroes."

Every half-minute or so, the television picture broke with static. This made the astronauts look frozen, cross-sectioned into planes, then totally dispersed by wavy lines. Seconds later they would reappear, their postures altered. I heard my mother's voice behind me from the couch, "They need to put a TV station out here. Oklahoma City's just too far."

"Good grief, Eileen. These are pictures from the moon."

Her comment on the ragged moon transmission might have seemed a layered criticism, a jibe not only at my father's place of origin ("out here"), but a sideways slap at his profession as a news producer for a Denver TV station.

We didn't visit Uncle Hobart often, but enough times that I recognized the tensions that these visits raised between my parents. I guessed it was because they'd met at San Diego State. My father's hometown, in the center of the country, a small (she called it "shabby") place of some two thousand souls linked tightly by a hundred years of history and rituals that my mother showed no interest in exploring or embracing, had no link to her, my mother, but through marriage. "God knows it's not a place I'd visit otherwise," I once heard her pronounce. At home, my father seldom spoke of Wallace, Oklahoma, good or bad. But at some point on our journey there, perhaps to preempt her complaints, Dad would turn nostalgic, even effusive in his praise: "Look at that sunset, Leeny. You can't see sunsets like this up in Boulder." At some point I had figured out that Mother's muttered references to scamp relations meant—perhaps exclusively—my Uncle Hobart. To me this tension (Spoken or unspoken, it was palpable.) became another feature of the trip, familiar as the rhythm of the pavement breaks on Highway 66 or the tinge of sulfur-taste in Uncle Hobart's water.

"The whole thing seems a miracle to me," Grace Moray sighed. Alberta asked if anybody wanted coffee.

"I'll fetch something in a minute," Uncle Hobart said.

Chloe said, "I bet you will. Two-to-one it won't be coffee either."

"Chloe Nell!" Grace exclaimed, "You let Hobart alone. I'll swan! In his own house."

Hobart said, "Now looky here. These spacemen know the value of a snort. Part and parcel of their hero training. How else you figure this chap got himself a name like `Buzz'?"

"His real name's Edwin," Chloe said.

"See there? Fella has to earn a nickname."

"I suppose you know he has a Ph.D."

The Moray sisters, cloistered all these years with only Carl for company, had settled neatly into their distinctive roles, set attitudes that must have greased their daily interactions in close quarters. Chloe was the family intellectual.

Part of me was stretched out on my Uncle Hobart's oval rug, my right foot scratching at a chigger bite on my left ankle, familiar voices buzzing in my ears. And part of me was standing on the moon, dressed in a silver space suit, memorizing every feature of the rocky, gray terrain. Perhaps because I was a traveler myself, here at Uncle Hobart's farm in western Oklahoma, I felt cut and dissipated, like the pictures of the astronauts, both here and there. For all its oddity, it was a pleasant feeling. Expansive, somehow. The way one feels inside a theater. The way I feel now, inhabiting this thirty-year old memory, hearing these voices echo in my head, while I face a window that looks out upon a field of stubble waiting to be turned, a world from which my father, Uncle Hobart, Grace and Alberta Moray are all absent. Tonight, I know, the harvest moon will shine as it did then, bright and undiminished. Down here, some things have changed.

* * *

Late that night, our whole party followed Uncle Hobart through the kitchen door to gaze upon the moon. Without a city's sheen to dull the stars, the fields were limned by moonlight, stretching out in all directions. I remember us as standing close together, speaking in hushed voices. Blackie, Hobart's hound, came sniffing round our ankles. I remember someone's arm across my shoulders, a warm weight grounding me.

"Whereabouts are they supposed to be?" somebody whispered.

Uncle Hobart lit a cigarette. "They ought to set off fireworks or flares. Ain't no one gonna see a puny flag from here."

That's when I spoke up. I told them what I knew from Walter Cronkite and the moon maps in the paper, what I'd memorized from press kits that my father had brought home from work: the astronauts had set down in a place somebody dubbed Sea of Tranquility.

Chloe said, "One of those wide, smooth swatches, don't you reckon?"

Hobart said, "Shoot, I thought only Jesus walked upon the sea."

"Hush!" Grace Moray hissed.

I felt a hot wind blowing through my hair, heard the same wind rattling across the pasture south of Uncle Hobart's house.

"You know what," Alberta giggled. "For all his grousing, I bet'cha brother Carl's outside and looking up, the very same as us."

My father added, "Probably Tom Stafford too. Probably the President."

"It's like a miracle, for sure."

Grace Moray laid her hand upon my head. "Arthur, you'll remember this your whole life long."

"Yes, ma'am."

That's when it started. The talk of memories. At first they seemed like unexpected gifts, brittle and expensive. Alberta Moray said, "I was Arthur's age when Lindbergh flew his airplane all the way to France." Grace Moray said, "I remember Lindbergh's baby kidnapped. It made me stay awake nights, scared somebody might snatch Baby Carl." My father said, "I was a teenager when Roosevelt died. I didn't know that any man but FDR could be the US President." Alberta Moray said, "First President I knew was Coolidge. I can still remember Papa's Model-T. Now there's rockets to the moon. Lawd."

Patiently, nobody interrupting anybody else, the grown-ups kept unpacking early facts and mental pictures. Today, I understand a lot I didn't then. I know how people who grow up together find a pleasure sharing stories everybody knows. It's like paging through a family album, pronouncing names of people, dead or living, that everybody recognizes. But then, at nine, I somehow got the sense that they—Chloe, Grace, Uncle Hobart, and Alberta—were unraveling their memories to me. These facts, the very words, I somehow felt responsible for them. The astronauts had brought a flag and plaque to mark their visit to the moon. Nobody said so, but I felt like I was being charged with hauling all these memories, safeguarding them for whatever future time when I would take off on whatever hero's mission came my way. I could feel my own imaginary space suit filling up with names and dates, pressing on my very skin.

Chloe remembered when King George VI was crowned. Everyone except my parents could remember when Will Rogers died in the Alaskan plane crash. Uncle Hobart murmured, "Mama cried at supper. You know they shut down Congress for the day?"

"Flew the flags at half-mast, too."

"Hey Chloe, you recollect when Hampton Jones died? I was in the second grade, I guess you'd be about the fourth."

"Yes I do. The whole school body marched through town and `round his house. I carried violets. Widow Jones was sitting in a rocker on the porch."

"He was the first school principal. Folks said he fought back in the Civil War."

Someone remembered when the Baptist Church burned down. Someone remembered when Houdini died, when Dillinger was shot, when Woodrow Wilson passed by Wallace on the train.

"Papa's brother fought in Mexico with General Pershing."

"Morgan Tasker lived for ten years in an iron lung."

"Grandma Zucker didn't know a word of English."

When there was a lull, I heard my mother speak. "Maybe I'll call Mama in La Jolla. Hobart, would you mind?"

"Shoot, Eileen, don't even ask. What's mine is yours, gal, you know that. Always has been."

There was something soft and sad in Uncle Hobart's voice. Or do I only hear that now? Now that I recognize my long-recurring boyhood nightmare for what it surely was: a projection of my mother's long unspoken fear that finally I'd shuck my raising and my city life to come back here. Year by year, as Hobart aged without a wife (Was he lonely? Who can say?) it grew into a given that eventually I'd be sole heir to these four quarter-sections, my Uncle Hobart's and the two he farmed for Dad. Although it now seems evident, recalling our sporadic visits to that childless house, nobody in my family ever dared discuss aloud this future legacy, this choice I'd someday have to face. Which now, of course, I have. Not that it was all that difficult. When a man hits forty with no family nor any other tenure as a tether, one place seems just about as good as any other. Plus, there's comfort in what seems familiar. All this, of course, came later. What I heard then was the clatter of the screen door closing at my mother's back.

Afterwards, although we kept on standing there, nobody spoke. The cloudless moon shone down on all of us, making luminous our upturned faces and parked vehicles. It might have been an hour, maybe less, before the dawn. When my neck got sore, I remember lowering my gaze and looking over at my uncle's grainery, that sleek and silver obelisk packed full of next year's seed. I was probably observing, for the first time ever, how closely it resembled a squat rocket ship. I was probably imagining that it was set to fly us—me, at least—to another, more fantastic world. But now when I look back, seeing our ghosts gathered there together in the past, underneath the stars and standing on the border of my Uncle Hobart's farm, it feels instead as though the ship had landed, as though we too were cosmic voyagers, a small band plunked down somewhere newly strange, gazing at the future through these portholes rounded by the past. 

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