Full Story: Chasing the Moon
This story was published in Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, edited by Kaye George, and released by Wildside Press on July 21, 2017, in time for the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Madras, Oregon, 9:13 AM, Sunday, August 20, 2017
“Antarctica in 2014. Norway in 2015. Indonesia in 2016.” Daphne Yates ticked off the places she and husband Victor had viewed total eclipses of the sun on her smooth, pale, red-tipped fingers. Fingers that had probably never washed a dish, scrubbed a floor, or wiped a baby’s behind, Randi Lawrence thought. Her own hands were dry and chapped with bitten-down nails.
“And now here we are in . . .” Daphne paused and shook out her mane of perfectly styled blond hair. Her gaze took in the kitchen with its clean but cracked linoleum floor, ancient appliances and the dented wood table with mismatched chairs where she and her husband sat. “Madras, Oregon.” The peculiar emphasis Daphne placed on the last two words conveyed her low regard for the town.
Randi exchanged glances with her mom, who stood by the stove, flipping another batch of blueberry pancakes. Did Mom also wonder why the Yates had picked Madras as the spot to view the 2017 solar eclipse? After all, there were larger cities with more amenities that lay within the so-called “path of totality.” And why had the Yates chosen her family’s humble Airbnb over the Madras Chateau Inn & Suites? She wondered even more as Daphne went on about some of the luxury hotels she and her husband had stayed at previously.
Daphne was in the midst of describing the glass-domed lobby with live birch trees growing in the center at their hotel in Norway, when Randi’s five-year-old son, Derek, walked into the kitchen and asked, “What’s an eclipse?”
“You answer him, Vic.” Daphne cast a weary look at her husband. “And plee-zz, keep it short.”
Victor Yates turned to the boy with a smile. “Well, Derek, an eclipse is when the moon gets between the sun and the earth, and the moon covers up the sun.” He spoke in the gentle, reassuring voice of Mister Rogers welcoming kids to the neighborhood. Otherwise, Victor bore little resemblance to the late host of the children’s TV program. With unruly, salt and pepper hair and heavy, black-framed glasses, he looked like the UC-Berkeley astronomer he was.
“Do you have any more questions?” Victor asked Derek.
The boy stared at him, open-mouthed, as if he couldn’t believe this stranger actually wanted to hear from him. Then he launched a barrage of questions. “How does the moon get between the sun and the earth? What does it look like when the moon covers the sun? How long does it last?”
Victor answered every question Derek lobbed at him in the same gentle, reassuring voice. Warming to the subject, he grew animated. He used words like “umbra” and “corona.” Derek listened, captivated, repeating each new word after Victor.
Umbra, corona, Randi echoed silently, as enthralled as her son. And as disappointed as he when Daphne, who had frowned at her manicured nails the entire time Victor was speaking, declared, “Enough! I’m not spending the day sitting around in this kitchen. Let’s do something. Take a drive along the coast, see the sights of Portland.”
“All right.” Victor rose reluctantly. Before leaving, he told Derek. “If you have any more questions, hold onto them until I get back, okay?”
From the kitchen window, Randi and her mom watched the Yates drive away in their BMW.
“It’s a wonder he hasn’t divorced her,” Mom said.
Or done her in, Randi added silently.
As if she guessed Randi’s thoughts, Mom said, “Now don’t you be getting ideas. Just because he spoke nice to Derek doesn’t mean a thing. After tomorrow’s eclipse, him and his stuck-up wife will be gone for good.”
Gone for good, Randi repeated to herself. Like the boy in the rock band who’d knocked her up and left the next morning, never to be seen again.
Hopkinsville, Kentucky, 1:03 PM, the same day
Fred Denton peeled the rubber “Little Green Man” mask off his face. Lord, he was hot. Hungry, too. It was his third day at the “Little Green Men Festival,” held every year to celebrate the arrival of extraterrestrials at his wife’s granddad’s farm on August 21, 1955, and he was ready for a break. Not for the first time, he wished the folks from outer space hadn’t picked the steamiest month of the year to land their spaceship in a gully at Elmer “Lucky” Sutton’s place.
Even so, Fred was committed to upholding the Green Men tradition. He had been ever since the day, almost thirty years ago, when he’d intervened to stop Tim Murphy from bullying eight-year-old Betsy Sutton with taunts like, “Hey, little green girl, what a big head you have! What floppy, pointed ears! Getta look at those glowing eyes! Wanna go for a ride on my space ship?”
Fred swiped at drops of sweat beading his forehead and trickling down his neck. He lifted the edges of the long black cloak he wore over a green robe and flapped them like wings to create a breeze. That was better. Now he’d get some food.
Fred found a place at a shaded picnic table, took off his green rubber gloves and placed them with his mask on the bench beside him. Then he dug into the two hot dogs and a double order of fries he’d bought at the concession stand. His mother always said he ate like a horse with its head in a trough. Maybe she was right. Only after he’d licked the last of the catsup and mustard off his lips and taken his last swallow of Coke from the jumbo-sized plastic container did he realize his Little Green Man mask was missing.
Fred searched the grass under the bench. He found his gloves, but no mask. Desperate, he asked people around him if they’d seen anyone with his mask. No one had.
Noticing Fred’s distress, Officer Charlie Lombardo, grandson of the police chief who’d investigated the 1955 encounter, approached him. “What’s up, Fred?”
“Somebody swiped my mask.”
“Nah, probably some kid picked it up. He’ll lose interest and leave it some place where it’ll be found. Or, if he’s a good kid, he’ll return it to you. You go ahead with your Little Green Man thing and I’ll keep an eye out for your mask.”
Fred agreed. But just as the Lone Ranger became an ordinary cowboy without his mask, so Fred couldn’t truly be a Little Green Man without his. He stuck it out until the festival’s evening closing and returned home, downcast but determined. He’d find the person who’d deprived him of his Little Green Manhood, and make him pay!
Nashville, Tennessee, 4:44 PM, the same day
Jesse Ray Richards slipped on a pair of dark glasses before entering Leroy’s Place, a dive bar on 2nd Avenue. He tried to steer a straight course to the bar, but kept listing to one side or the other. When he was almost there, he crashed into a table and nearly fell.
“You shit-faced already?” From behind the bar, Leroy the owner greeted Jesse Ray in his raspy smoker’s voice.
“Nah.” Jesse Ray balanced precariously on a stool.
“Then why the shades?”
“These are protective glasses. I’m trying them out for tomorrow’s eclipse.”
“Don’t look like protectives to me. Ain’t no sunlight in here neither. You shit-faced. At the rate you’re going, you gonna wind up in a coffin before you hit thirty.”
“Cut the sermon, and get me a double straight up,” Jesse Ray said. “You’d be hitting the bottle yourself, if you’d been kicked outta your own band.”
“So, you’ve told me a million times before. If you sobered up, maybe they’d take you back.”
“No, the bastards wouldn’t.”
“Start another band.”
“Jesse Ray and the Riot Police is the only band for me. It’s got my name, for chrissake.”
“If that band was so important to you, why’d you do that crazy stuff that got you kicked off?
“What crazy stuff?”
“You don’t remember? Jeez, man, your brain’s more fried than I thought.”
“Give me a minute. It’ll come back to me.” Jesse Ray closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips on either of his head. “Got it. What’s so bad about passing out onstage? I was worn out. We’d been on the road for days. Maybe I shouldn’t of got into a fight with that guy in the audience beforehand, but he was hassling us. Besides, that stuff didn’t get me off the band.”
“Whaddya think did it, then?”
“Jealousy. I was the star. The one everybody came to hear. The one everybody wanted a piece of. The other guys couldn’t wait to steal my thunder. But without me, they’re nothing.”
“Seem to be doing okay.”
“Yeah, doing covers.”
“Your band was doing covers long before they kicked you out. Heard it was because you hadn’t written any new music.”
“To hell with ‘em. I’m not some kind of machine that cranks out songs. I gotta be in the mood, be inspired.”
“What’s it take to get you there?”
“That bourbon I asked for would sure help.”
“You don’t think maybe that’s the problem, ‘stead of−” Leroy broke off at the creak of the bar door opening. “Uh-oh, here comes trouble.”
Jesse Ray stole a glance over his shoulder. Big Bobby stood in the doorway, three hundred pounds of meanness. Jesse Ray hunched over the counter. Maybe if he played dead, Big Bobby would leave him alone.
“That you, Jesse Ray?” Big Bobby bellowed. “And here I was thinkin’ you drunk yourself to death.” Lumbering to the bar, he placed a hand the size of a baseball mitt on Jesse Ray’s shoulder. “Seein’ as how you’s still livin’ an’ breathin’, how ‘bout a song for your old pal, Big Bobby?”
Jesse Ray kept quiet, hoping Big Bobby would tire of the game and find someone else to pick on. Instead, the baseball mitt tightened on his shoulder until his bones were ready to snap. “Sing, boy. Not gonna ask twice.”
In a faint, quavering voice, Jesse Ray sang, “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away”
Big Bobby slapped him hard on the cheek. “None of that Beatles’ shit. I wanna song you wrote special for me.”
“Now, Big Bobby,” Leroy intervened. “You can’t expect Jesse Ray to come up with a song just like that. ‘Specially since he’s a bit under the weather. I’m sure he’ll think of something if you can be patient. While you’re waiting, here’s a shot an’ a beer.” Leroy pushed the glasses at Big Bobby, who accepted them grudgingly. Big Bobby tried to settle his bulk onto a stool, but ended up retreating to a nearby table.
After Big Bobby had downed several drinks, Jesse Ray figured he was safe. “I owe you big-time,” he told Leroy. “If you hadn’t said something, that big, dumb baboon would’ve clobbered me.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the baseball mitt seized him by the shoulder and yanked him backwards off the stool. His skull cracked on the wooden floor. Everything went black.
Columbia, South Carolina, 7:21 PM, the same day
Hattie Menefee was in the bathroom washing her hands when the phone rang. Drying them hastily, she gripped the two sides of her walker and began the march to the phone in the living room.
Her goal was to make it before the tenth ring when the answering machine kicked in. Otherwise, her son Harold would think she’d grown even more feeble, and insist on having a phone installed in the bathroom as well as every other room in the house. Harold usually called at eight PM, so she got herself in place at a quarter to. But tonight he was early. His way of testing her? She reached the phone before the tenth ring, but was so breathless she could barely speak at first.
“Everything okay, Mom?” Harold said.
“Fine, just fine.”
“How was today’s Meal on Wheels? If you’re not happy with them, I could−”
“It was fine,” Hattie fibbed, though she preferred her own cooking. She accepted this and other services Harold arranged to please him and keep him from nagging her about going into a nursing home.
“How about your meds−are you well stocked? Is the delivery service working all right?”
“Fine, just fine.” She wouldn’t tell him that the delivery man had been set upon by hoodlums, who’d stolen a month’s supply of the pain pills she took for her rheumatoid arthritis. Or that the supplier was out of the drug at the moment.
“Sounds like tomorrow’s going to be big day in Columbia with the solar eclipse and all,” Harold said. “I wish I could be there to take you someplace where you’d get a good view, but things have been crazy at the office. I could arrange for a driver to pick you up and ferry you to a good viewing spot, if you’d like.”
“I’m fine staying put.”
As if to challenge Hattie’s assurance that everything was fine, a siren wailed in the street.
“What’s that? Some kind of trouble?”
“Just cops on TV,” Hattie lied.
“Sure? Two Notch Road isn’t the safest−”
“Neighborhood’s changed since the last time you were here. Got a Home Depot now, a Holiday Inn, and an Outback Steakhouse.”
No need to mention that those businesses were located at the far end of Two Notch Road from where she lived. Or that last year, two kids had been shot and killed a block away from her home.
“Tell you what,” Hattie said, warming to the subject, “next time you come, you can take me out for a steak dinner at the Outback.”
“You gotta date, Mom!”
Hearing the excitement in his voice, Hattie felt a pang. Harold was a sweet boy and meant well by her. She just wished he understood how important it was to her to be independent and live her life as she saw fit.
The call over, Hattie grabbed her walker and clunked to the window that looked out on the street. Two shadowy figures came together like lovers for a tryst. A quick exchange and they went their separate ways. Hattie was glad Harold wasn’t there to see another drug deal go down. Her side of Two Notch Road wasn’t safe at night. But tomorrow in the daylight when she took the bus to Martin Luther King Park to watch the eclipse, everything would be fine.
Madras, Oregon, 10:17 AM, Monday, August 21, 2017
Randi Lawrence couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Or whom she was seeing it with. For over an hour, she, Mom, Derek and Victor Yates had watched in awe as the moon’s shadow moved over the mountains to the west. Over Mount Hood, crowned with snow even in August, and over the Three Sisters, nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity, also snow-capped. In a few minutes, it would arrive at the spot where they stood at the City-County Airport.
Last night, after Derek and Mom had gone to bed, Randi had dozed in front of the TV in the living room. The sound of a car pulling into the driveway woke her. Eager to avoid snotty Daphne, she headed for the stairs. Halfway up, a voice called her name. Victor Yates stood in doorway, his face haggard and his salt-and-pepper hair wilder than ever.
“Don’t go,” he said in a voice that was ragged instead of reassuring.
Randi hurried down the stairs. “What is it? Where’s your wife?”
“Gone. I left her at the Portland airport earlier this evening.”
“Why?” Randi blurted, even though she knew it was none of her business.
“Let’s go into the kitchen and I’ll explain.”
Seated opposite Randi at the dented kitchen table, Victor told her that his marriage had been in trouble for some time. He and his wife wanted different things. He preferred the simple life. Daphne craved glamour and excitement. He was happy living in a modest bungalow in Berkeley. She wanted a McMansion in Sausalito or Marin County. He was content to work in obscurity. She wanted him to become another Carl Sagan. He wanted children. She did not. She was furious he’d brought her here for the eclipse, instead of a posh big city hotel.
“She told me she was leaving me, and demanded I drive her to the airport immediately. I think she was surprised I took her at her word. In the past when she threatened to leave, I tried to appease her. This time, I drove her to the airport, got her luggage out of the trunk and left her on the curb, screaming curses.” Victor paused to a run hand through his hair. “I know that sounds cruel, but I’ve had it.”
Randi wasn’t sure how to respond. “I’m sorry,” she said at last.
“Don’t be. It’s for the best.” Victor stared thoughtfully into space. Then he got up, yawned and stretched. “Time to catch a few winks before we watch the eclipse.”
“We?” Randi repeated.
“Yes.” Victor smiled for the first time that night. “With Derek and your mom, of course.”
Now, Randi, Derek, Victor and Mom huddled on the tarmac, while the moon’s shadow drew closer and closer. As darkness enveloped them, turning day into night, Derek, who stood on one side of Randi with Victor on the other, took her hand and squeezed it. “Pass along,” he whispered. “Like at school.” Randi took Victor’s hand and squeezed, he squeezed Mom’s hand, and they passed the squeeze back and forth for the duration of the eclipse.
In those three minutes, Randi felt they were a family. And even if she and Victor went their different ways, she would always treasure the moments spent together in the wondrous shadow of the moon.
Hopkinsville, Kentucky, 1: 09 PM, the same day
Do criminals return to the scene of the crime? Fred Denton thought so. He showed up at the fairgrounds where the Little Green Men Festival was being held bright and early the next morning. But to no avail. Discouraged, he decided to focus on the partial eclipse that was just beginning. He put on his protective glasses, and was about to train his gaze upward when a flash of green caught his eye.
A man wearing a Darth Vader costume stood to one side of the Music Stand where a local gospel group was performing. He waved a green mask teasingly at Fred before disappearing behind the bandstand. Fred gave chase. When the man suddenly leaped onto the stage with the startled musicians, Fred followed. He tripped on a tangle of electrical cords and fell.
Untangling himself and scrambling to his feet, Fred spotted his quarry near the entrance to a huge inflatable UFO. He dashed toward it, zigzagging around kids wearing green outfits with antennas for the Little Aliens Costume Contest later in the day, and adults bearing trays of green drinks and “Alien Stew.” Liquid sloshed and antennas bobbed crazily.
Seconds before Fred arrived at the UFO, Darth Vader dove inside. Fred went after him. He grabbed at Darth’s bouncing figure, but the Dark Lord eluded him and bounced out of the UFO. Fred tried to follow, but was met with a rushing tide of screaming kids coming in.
Torpedoing through them, Fred sprawled onto the grass. He picked himself up and glanced around. The eclipse was only minutes away from totality. If he didn’t find Darth soon, he risked losing him for good. But the Dark Lord was nowhere to be seen.
Fred was ready to give up when a figure emerged from behind a concession booth and raced toward the 38-foot metal flying saucer that was a prominent fixture of the festival. Fred took off after the figure and chased it around the saucer. Round and round the men went. Then, in a burst of energy worthy of the football player he’d been, Fred overtook Darth, tackled and brought him to the ground, even as the last rays of light gave way to total darkness.
Fred lay, panting, on top of Darth. When the darkness began to lift, he ripped off the man’s mask. His antagonist was none other than his wife’s old tormentor, Tim Murphy. “Still up to your old tricks, eh, Tim?” Fred said. “I’ve a good mind to . . .” He shook a fist in Murphy’s face.
A hand on his shoulder restrained him. “I’m in charge here,” Officer Lombardo said. Fred rolled off Murphy and levered himself up. “He’s the guy who swiped my Little Green Man Mask.”
“That so?” Lombardo demanded.
“Yeah. Whatcha gonna do about it?” Murphy challenged.
“Tim Murphy,” Lombardo intoned solemnly, “in the name of the law, I arrest you for the theft of a Little Green Man Mask, impersonating Darth Vader, and disturbing the peace during a solar eclipse.”
“You can’t do that,” Murphy whined.
“Oh, yes, I can!” Clapping a pair of handcuffs on Murphy, Lombardo hauled him to his feet. Fred grinned. He had his Little Green Man Mask back, and he could just imagine the headlines on tomorrow’s paper: Little Green Man Triumphs Over Dark Lord during Total Solar Eclipse
Nashville, Tennessee, 1:17 PM, the same day
Wind whipped Jesse Ray’s face and tore at his hair, while a band of demented demons beat drums in his brain. Groaning, he opened his eyes to find himself zooming down the highway in a red early-model convertible that was equal parts chrome and rust, and the length and width of a king-size mattress.
“Wass going on? What’re we doing in this junker?” Jesse Ray asked Leroy, who sat behind the wheel.
“Don’t you be calling my Chevy Impala land yacht a junker,” Leroy scolded.
“Sorry. Didn’t know you had a car.”
“Lots ‘bout me you don’t know,” Leroy replied cryptically.
“Okay. But do you mind telling me where we’re going?”
“We be driving on beautiful Briley Parkway headed for the Grand Ole Opry,” Leroy said in his best tour guide voice.
“The Grand Ole Opry−why?”
“Because, my man, while you was out cold after Big Bobby knocked you off the stool, I got to thinkin’ ‘bout how you oughta get out more if you’s ever gonna find your inspiration someplace other than the bottle.”
“Yeah, well, the Opry ain’t gonna do it. It’ll just make me feel worse being around all those successful dudes. Besides, I can’t afford a ticket.”
“You don’t need one. The show we gonna see is free. Outdoors, too.”
“This little group called Sun, Moon, an’ Earth.”
“If you mean the eclipse, I don’t have the right glasses to−”
“Now you do.” Leroy tossed a small plastic package into Jesse Ray’s lap.
Jesse Ray couldn’t remember when anything had moved him so much. As the moon slowly covered up the sun until it became a black disc, surrounded by a wispy glow, he felt something stir deep within him. He was sorry when the moon moved on and ordinary daylight replaced the eerie twilight of the eclipse. It was like a wonderful dream he didn’t want to end. A confidence he hadn’t felt in a long time filled him. Music played in his head. He began to hum.
“What’s that you humming? Leroy asked.
“A new song.”
“What’s it called?”
“ ‘Chasing the Moon’ ”
Columbia, South Carolina, 2:14 PM, the same day.
When the bus reached the stop for Martin Luther King Park, Hattie Menefee rose slowly from her seat near the front. She hobbled toward the door with her rolling walker folded under her arm.
“Let me help you, ma’am.” The bus driver sprang from his seat, took her walker, and was down the steps in a flash. Hattie accepted his proffered hand and eased herself down, one step at a time. At the bottom, she gripped the walker he’d unfolded for her and thanked him. Would a white driver have shown her the same courtesy? She wasn’t sure. At least now she didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus.
An open space in the midst of busy city streets, the park was crowded on the afternoon of the solar eclipse. Hattie saw college students, families with small children, and teenagers travelling in packs. Black folks mingled with whites, though that hadn’t always been so. She remembered a time when the park had been for whites only, when it was called Valley Park instead of Martin Luther King Park.
It was good to be out among other people, but it was also tiring. The small children racing about made Hattie feel all of her eighty-seven years. So much energy! “Slow down,” she wanted to say to them. “You got your whole lives before you.”
She had a different message for the group of black youths sharing a joint in a far corner of the baseball field. “It’s not too late to turn your lives around and make something of yourselves.” But the words went unspoken, as Hattie pushed on, fighting fatigue, achy joints and a leaky heart to reach the place where she would lay herself down.
She arrived at the Stone of Hope moments before the eclipse became total. In the remaining light, she folded up her walker and settled on the bench around the fountain. In the middle of the water, a stone shaped like a globe perched on top of an uncapped pyramid.
Hattie didn’t need to read the inscription carved on the monument stone in front, which came from Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. She already knew the words by heart: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Hattie felt pain, but also release. And when the darkness came for her, she was not afraid. It gathered her up like the sweet chariot in the gospel song, carrying her home−over the edge of the continent, across the ocean to Africa, where the red ball of the sun was setting.