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A Glimpse of the Moon
by Joseph Freda

an excerpt from The Patience of Rivers
published in StoryQuarterly 38

On the Wild Turkey’s snowy television screen, Neil Armstrong’s left foot touched the surface of the moon.

“That’s one small step for man,” Armstrong said, “one giant leap for mankind.”

Nick and the others at the bar raised their beers and cheered. “And that’s one dude who really knows how to get out of town,” Darlene said.

Charlie nodded. “Sky pi-lot,” he sang into his pool cue. “How high can you fly?”

They were finishing off a quiet Sunday night. Nick and Darlene at the bar, Charlie and Eva at the pool table. Drinking a few beers and watching the moon shot. Nick clung to the television with a kind of awe. It was incredible, watching live images being broadcast from the moon. The moon! Incredible to have hit the target in the first place, to rocket the Apollo 11 spacecraft two hundred thousand miles on a trajectory to intersect a moving chunk of rock. Like shooting skeet on a grand scale, NASA had to lead the target and then get in position to launch the lunar module and then—this was the part Nick liked most—fly the little maneuverable vehicle to the surface. The television said Neil Armstrong didn’t like the original landing spot so he flew above the moon’s surface to a better site four miles away, where he touched down perfectly. So cool—driving a sports car in space!

Maybe he’d be an astronaut. Fly cool machines, catch some good views. Go on television. But you had to be a scientific or military dude, you’d have to cut your hair.

Still, he admired the astronauts. President Kennedy had urged Americans to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and some smart people had gone and done it. America wasn’t afraid to take on big, bold projects. With enough technology and planning and gumption, Americans could do whatever they set their minds to. Put a man on the moon. Transplant a beating heart. Stop the Communists in a steamy little Asian country.

So Nick and Charlie and the Van Vooren sisters raised their glasses to the astronauts. Charlie ran five stripes and buried the cue ball behind the four. Darlene ordered another vodka and tonic. She watched Charlie execute a bank shot and tap the eight ball into a corner pocket, whipped her drink down, and called, “Nice shot!”

Charlie racked the next game. By now it was no secret: Charlie and Eva were spending time together—a lot of time, it seemed to Nick. But tonight Charlie was paying attention to Darlene. He grinned as he held up the cue ball and the eight.

“Give me luck, Darlene. Touch my balls.”

Darlene smiled around her straw and glanced at the television.

Charlie always had it easy with girls. He’d come back from his private schools and tell Nick stories about girls and easy sex. He never went with them for very long, and he could never talk to them afterwards, but girls were drawn to Charlie like bugs to a lit window. He hadn’t gone with any Delaware Ford girls—they weren’t in his league, really, except for the Van Voorens—but he had hung out with plenty of chicks at the campgrounds, and he’d cruise the off-duty Jewish camp counselors in the bars, and he claimed—claimed—to have nailed his fair share.

Nick, on the other hand, was shyer. He had had two girlfriends in high school, Vicki Rykowski and Beatrice Kordt. They had been nice girls looking forward to college or marriage, but both relationships had reached a plateau and gone no higher. In Vicki’s case it was a physical plateau. They’d go parking after a dance and when the flesh-to-flesh contact went beyond what was covered by street clothes, she would gently remove his hand from the off-limits body part and continue kissing him. With Beatrice, the plateau had been emotional. She seemed willing to go as far, physically, as Nick wanted to, had even suggested, when they were studying the Greeks in history class, that they practice wrestling at her place after school, before her parents came home from work, and that they do it as “authentically” as possible, with a mischievous glint in her eye. But Nick had not felt much for Beatrice, had been put off by her aggressiveness, in fact, and thought it wise to respect the boundary of their particular plateau.

He had discovered that he was the sort of young man who would do the right thing by a girl, who would talk things over with her and then part ways amicably. He was a good boy. He didn’t really like this about himself. He figured he was some sort of pussy. He longed to get laid, but he didn’t like Beatrice’s cheapness, wished for something more than Charlie’s fuck-’em-and-shuck-’em approach. He wanted to meet a girl who really rocked him.

He didn’t think it was going to happen in Delaware Ford. But then Darlene Van Vooren had started paying attention to him. They’d gone to the movies twice, seen Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and Paul Newman in Winning. They went bowling once, although Darlene didn’t really dig it, didn’t like hanging out with all the straights in crewcuts and farmer’s tans, the women in bouffants and caked eye makeup. Nick didn’t like bowling that much either, but he could drink beers while watching Darlene’s hiphuggers crease her sweet denim-clad buns as she approached the long expanse of hardwood, and—maybe the coolest thing about the game—he got to wear those funky red-and-green shoes.

They first kissed on a float trip down the river. They took a big truck tube—Beagle’s sold old tubes for a dollar; it was up to the kids to make them hold air—and put in at Van Voorens’ cottage. They trailed a bottle of Boone’s Farm apple wine in a mesh bag. It stayed cool and Nick hauled it up whenever they got to shallow water. They splashed and drifted, kicked and teased. Darlene wore a blue cotton bikini, and they touched feet across the tube or kept each other from slipping off. Her breasts beaded up with water and the soaked bikini pretty much showed everything, and Nick was glad he could keep his cutoffs under the tube so she couldn’t see what was happening there.

They went swimming off a big rock below Callicoon and then baked on the slab, drying in the sun side by side, elbows and knees and feet touching, and then Darlene made a joke and Nick laughed and they turned their faces toward each other, and they kissed. They were still smiling from the joke, still chuckling in their throats—Nick could feel it in the kiss—but then it got serious and Darlene turned both eager and tentative, wanting to go forward, to kiss him harder, to let go, yet she held herself back and so he did, too, and they kissed long and sweet on the warm rock in the middle of the Delaware.

After that they were tender with each other, quieter. Nick helped her into the tube, and they sat arm in arm and passed the cool wine back and forth. They kissed some more as they floated along, and he tasted wine and river water and his own desire for more—a taste like blood or iron that made him want to keep going until he overcame it. In this way they made slow, drifting progress down the river, a couple more dates, and now to this evening in the bar.

Eva won the pool game and hung up her cue.

“Finish those drinks,” she said to Nick and Darlene, “and let’s go see if there’s a moon.”

“Cool,” Darlene said.

Charlie bought a bottle of Boone’s Farm from Jake. He cranked it open as soon as everybody settled into his van.

“Where to?” he asked.

“High Rock,” Eva said. “It’s about as close to the moon as we can get.”

High Rock was the local party spot. Across the river from Delaware Ford, it rose in a sheer bluestone cliff from the river. Nick was relieved to see no other cars parked on the worn pull-off at the top of the hill. A misty Sunday night, everybody watching the moonshot on television. The weeds were wet on the trail. Trees dripped. Wind whooshed the leaves, and heavy clouds dragged across the mountaintops.

“Not a great night for moon-watching,” Eva said, as they stepped out onto the ledge.

The sky was torn and mottled, but across the river Delaware Ford glowed in the valley. The streetlights and houselights defined the town’s bone structure: the parallel spines of Railroad Avenue and Upper Main and the eight ribs of residential streets. On the north end of Upper Main, the theater marquee announced 2001: A Space Odyssey. They could see the barber shop, two real estate offices, the Chuck Wagon, Darnell’s Clothing Store, Kick’s Superette, the hardware store, the Delaware Inn rising four Victorian stories above everything else, and behind it, in deep shadow, the darkened Opera House. The old stone library, the modern brick bank. The neon beer signs of the Wild Turkey and the Depot and Doc’s (“Stop in for a Treatment!”) glittered orange and blue and green. A single car rolled down Railroad Avenue and left a red-taillight sheen on the wet street . At the campgrounds on the south end of town, gas lanterns and campfires spotted the riverbank. Up on the spur to Route 97, Beagle’s Gulf sign shimmered in the mist.

“There’s your moon,” Charlie said, nodding at the round orange sign.

“Have to do, I guess,” Eva said.

Charlie got a fire going and Nick rolled up a couple of logs. Darlene sat on one. Nick squatted next to her, Indian-style, and took a hit of Boone’s Farm. He could see Charlie pretending to fuss with the fire, but he knew what Charlie was doing. Sure enough, when he had finished poking at the flames and adjusting the logs, Charlie sat himself on the other side of Darlene. Eva watched this maneuvering, too, and stayed off a bit. A bemused look flickered about her face, and then she leaned against a stump on the other side of the fire, rummaged in her backpack, and came up with her sketchpad.

Darlene lit a joint and passed it around.

“You getting my best angle?” Charlie mugged for Eva, swiveling side to side.
Darlene joined in, posing and cocking her head, flipping her hair. She and Charlie put their faces together and leaned toward Eva.

“Couple of knuckleheads,” Eva said. “I’m getting Nick, actually.”

“The quiet one,” Darlene said.

Nick had been quiet since Charlie and Darlene took notice of each other. He always got that way when Charlie started showing off. He figured there was room in the spotlight for one only, and he was happy to let his friend have it. But he was bothered by Charlie’s cozying up to Darlene. Why did Charlie have to have all the girls?

Darlene offered him the joint in exchange for the wine.

“What’re you thinking about, quiet one?” she asked.

He toked at the joint, pointed it up at the sky.

“The moon,” he said. “Thinking about Neil Armstrong walking around up there. How strange it must be. Wonder what he’s thinking?”

“About his air supply?” Darlene asked. “About gravity? If he jumped high enough, maybe he could float away.”

“He has floated away,” Eva said. “I mean, he’s out there on that little dead planet. You can’t get farther away than that. He must be thinking about his wife, about all of us back here on Earth.”

“Right,” Nick said. “And we’re here with our rock concerts and our war. Life goes on, but one of us is walking on the moon.”

“Maybe he’s thinking about how to take a leak in a spacesuit,” Charlie offered.

Darlene giggled at this, but she leaned over against Nick, and Nick put his arm around her. The wind scudded the clouds across some faint illumination and caused the campfire to ripple horizontally.

Eva folded her sketchpad and set it on her backpack. She eased around the fire, the breeze billowing her long skirt, and then she stood over Charlie and kneeled so she straddled his hips. She took the bottle of wine from Darlene and tilted it in a long swig.

“How do you do that, spaceman?” she asked and then covered his face with her hair.

Darlene turned to Nick and they leaned against the log. When they kissed, Darlene took the lead, opening her mouth and nibbling his lip. Nick eased his hand inside her shirt and she stiffened but let him go. Her skin was damp and her muscles tight, and he wondered if she did situps or whether she was just nervous. He opened an eye to get a clue from her face, but she was turned from the fire and shadowed. The wind gusted and the trees swooshed. A volley of drops pelted the fire and hissed. Was there light up on the moon? Moonlight? Could old Neil Armstrong see where he was going? When Nick touched the edge of Darlene’s bra she swiveled, and Nick knew to stay on the familiar terrain of her stomach. The wind gusted again and made the fire hiss some more, and Nick wished the clouds would part so he could glimpse the moon.

continued in StoryQuarterly 38.

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The Patience of Rivers

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