Voices from the Moon, page 1
Voices from the Moon
to my sisters, Kathryn and Beth
A BIOGRAPHY OF ANDRE DUBUS
IT’S DIVORCE THAT DID IT, his father had said last night. Those were the first words Richie Stowe remembered when he woke in the summer morning, ten minutes before the six-forty-five that his clock-radio was set for; but the words did not come to him as in memory, as something spoken even in the past of one night, but like other words that so often, in his twelve years, had seemed to wait above his sleeping face so that when he first opened his eyes he would see them like a banner predicting his day: Today is the math test; Howie is going to get you after school. … It’s divorce that did it, and he turned off the switch so the radio wouldn’t start, and lay in the breeze of the oscillating fan, a lean suntanned boy in underpants, neither tall nor short, and felt the opening of wounds he had believed were healed, felt again the deep and helpless sorrow, and the anger too because he was twelve and too young for it and had done nothing at all to cause it.
Then he got up, dressed in jeans and tee shirt and running shoes, went to his bathroom where a poster of Jim Rice hung behind the toilet, gazed at it while he urinated, studying the strong thighs and arms (in the poster Rice had swung his bat, and was looking up and toward left field), and Richie saw again that moment when Rice had broken his bat without hitting the ball: had checked his swing, and the bat had continued its forward motion, flown out toward first base, leaving Rice holding the handle. This was on television, and Richie had not believed what he had seen until he saw it again, the replay in slow motion.
His bicycle was in his room. He pushed it down the hall, at whose end, opposite his room, was the closed door leading to his father’s bathroom and bedroom. He went out the front door and off the slab of concrete in front of it, mounted, and rode down the blacktop street under a long arch of the green branches of trees. As he pedaled and shifted gears he prayed for his anger to leave him, and for his brother Larry, and Brenda, and his father, but as he prayed he saw them: Larry and Brenda when they were married, sitting at the kitchen table with him and his father, Brenda’s dark skin darker still from summer, her black hair separating at her shoulders, so that some of it rested on the bare flesh above her breasts. The men were watching her: slender and graceful Larry, who acted and danced, his taut face of angles and edges at the jaw and cheekbones, and a point at the nose; and Richie’s father, with Larry’s body twenty-two years older, wiry and quick, the face not rounded but softened over the bones.
Then he was at the church, and he locked his bicycle to a utility pole in front of it and went in, early for the seven o’clock Mass, genuflected then kneeled in an empty pew, and gazed at the crucifix, at the suffering head of Christ, but could not stop seeing what he had not seen last night but imagined as he lay in bed while his father and Larry sat and stood and paced on his ceiling, the floor of the living room. He shut his eyes, saw Larry’s blanched face looking at his father, and saying Marry her? Marry her? and saw his father and Brenda naked in her bed in the apartment she had lived in since the divorce, saw them as he had seen lovemaking in movies, his father on top and Brenda’s dark face, her moans, her cries, seeming more in pain than pleasure. As two altar boys and young Father Oberti entered from the left of the altar, Richie stood, praying Please Jesus Christ Our Lord help me, then said to Him: It will be very hard to be a Catholic in our house.
Knowing it would be hard not only in the today and tomorrow of twelve years old, but even harder as he grew older and had to face the temptations that everyone in the family had succumbed to. Even his mother, living a bicycle ride away in her apartment in Amesbury. Though he had never seen her with a man since his father, or heard her mention the name of one. Everyone in the family living in apartments now: his mother, Larry, Brenda, his sister Carol, older than Larry by a year, in her apartment in Boston, never married so not divorced, but at twenty-six had three times broken up with or lost men who lived with her. So only he and his father lived in the large house that to him was three stories, though his father said it was a split-level, the bedrooms and bathrooms on the first floor, then up a short flight of five steps to the kitchen and dining room and the west sundeck, up five more to the undivided one long room they used as two: at one end his father’s den with a desk, and at the other the living room with the television; outside that long room, past the glass door, was the east sundeck where they kept the hammock and lawn chairs and grill. Now Brenda would move in, and he must keep receiving the Eucharist daily, must move alone and with the strength of the saints through his high school years, past girls, toward the seminary. Hard enough to stay a Catholic, he prayed; even harder to be a good enough one to be a priest.
He was in bed and near sleep last night when he heard the front door open and knew it was Larry, because he had a key still, then he listened to footsteps: Larry’s going up to the kitchen, his father’s overhead, coming from the right, from the den. Richie flung back the top sheet, but did not move his feet to the floor. He was sleepy, already it was past ten o’clock, and five times this summer he had turned off the radio when it woke him, gone back to sleep and missed the weekday Mass and waked at nine or later, a failure for the day that had only begun. He pulled the sheet over his chest, settled into the pillow, and listened to their voices in the kitchen, the popping open of beer cans, and their going upstairs to the living room over his bed. He again pushed the sheet away and this time got up; sleepy or no, he would at least go see him, touch him, at least that. He opened his door and was going up the short flight to the kitchen when he heard Larry: “I don’t believe this.”
Richie stood, his hand on the flat banister. His father’s voice was low, and neither angry nor sad, but tired: “It’s divorce that did it.”
“Yours. Mine. Fucking divorce. You think I chose her?”
“What am I supposed to think?”
“It just happened. It always just happens.”
“Beautiful. What happened to will?”
“Don’t talk to me about will. Did you will your marriage to end? Did your mother and me? Will is for those bullshit guys to write books about. Out here it’s—”
“—Survival of the quickest, right. Woops, sorry son, out of the way, boy, I’m grabbing your ex-wife.”
“Out here it’s balls and hanging on. I need her, Larry.”
Richie imagined them, facing each other in the room, in the blown air from the window fan, as he had seen them all his life, facing each other in quarrels, their arms bent at their sides, fists clenched, save when they gestured and their arms came up with open hands; they never struck the blow that, always, they seemed prepared for; not even his father, when Larry was a boy. Even as Richie stood in dread on the stairs, his fingers and palm pressing down on the banister as if to achieve even more silence from his rigid body, he knew there would be no hitting tonight. His father was not like any other father he knew: at forty-seven, he was still quick of temper, and fought in bars. Yet he had never struck anyone in the family, not even a spanking: for your kids, he said, the tongue is plenty. Richie backed down the stairs, turned and crept into his room, and softly closed the door.
He stood beneath them and listened for a while, then lay in bed and heard the rest of what came to him through his ceiling when their voices rose, less in anger, it seemed, than in excitement, and his heart beat with it too, and in that beat he recognized another feeling that usually he associated with temptation, with sin,
He prayed against it, incantations of Lord, have mercy, as he prayed now in Mass to overcome his anger, his sorrowful loss, and to both endure and help his family. Father Oberti was approaching the Consecration and Richie waited for the miracle, then watched it, nearly breathless, and prayed My Lord and my God to the white Host elevated in Father Oberti’s hands, and softly struck his breast. Beneath the Host, Father Oberti’s face was upturned and transformed. It was a look Richie noticed only on young priests, and only when they consecrated the bread and wine. In movies he had seen faces like it, men or women gazing at a lover, their lips and eyes seeming near both tears and a murmur of love, but they only resembled what he saw in Father Oberti’s face, and were not at all the same. Now Father Oberti lifted the chalice and Richie imagined being inside of him, feeling what he felt as the wine he held became the Blood of Christ. My Lord and my God, Richie prayed, striking his breast, immersing himself in the longing he felt there in his heart: a longing to consume Christ, to be consumed through Him into the priesthood, to stand some morning purified and adoring in white vestments, and to watch his hands holding bread, then God. His eyes followed the descent of the chalice.
From there the Mass moved quickly forward, and he was able to concentrate on it, to keep memory and imagination from returning to last night and tomorrow, or at least from distracting him. Images of his father and Larry and Brenda collided with his prayers, but they did not penetrate him as they had before the Consecration. Even when he was a boy of seven and eight, nothing distracted him from the Consecration and the time afterward, until the Mass ended, and he had believed he was better than the other children. Now, at twelve, he knew he had received a gift, with his First Communion or even before, and that he had done nothing to earn it, and he must be ever grateful and humble about it, or risk losing it.
He rose to approach the altar. With clasped hands resting on his stomach, his head bowed, he walked up the aisle behind three white-haired old women. When it was his turn, he stepped to Father Oberti at the head of the aisle, turned his left palm up, with his right under it, as Father Oberti took a Host from the chalice, raised it, said Body of Christ, and Richie said Amen. Father Oberti placed the Host on his palm. He looked at it as he turned to go down the aisle. Then with his right thumb and forefinger he put it in his mouth, let it rest on his tongue, then softly chewed as he walked to the pew. He felt that he embraced the universe, and was in the arms of God.
When the Mass ended he kneeled until everyone had left the church. Then he went up to the altar, genuflected, looked up at Christ on the cross, and went around the altar and into the sacristy. The altar boys were leaving, and Father Oberti was in his white shirt and black pants.
“Can I talk to you, Father?”
They watched the altar boys go out the door, onto the lawn.
“What is it?”
“My father and Brenda. My brother’s ex-wife? They’re getting married.”
“Oh my. Oh my, Richie, you poor boy.”
Father Oberti sat in a chair and motioned to another, but Richie stood, his eyes moving about the room, sometimes settling on Father Oberti’s, but then he nearly cried, so he looked again at walls and windows and floor, telling it as he both heard and imagined last night.
“And, see, Father, the whole family is living outside the Church. In sin. And now Dad and Brenda will be in the house.”
“Don’t think of it as sin.”
He looked at Father Oberti.
“It’s even against the law,” Richie said. “Massachusetts law. They’re going to get married in another state, but Dad’s talking to somebody in the—legislature?”
“To try to change the law.”
“It’s probably a very old law, Richie.” Father Oberti did not look shocked, or even surprised, but calm and gentle. “The Church had them too. It was to prevent murder, or the temptation to it.”
“Sure. So that hundreds of years ago your father wouldn’t be tempted to kill Larry. To get his wife, and all her land and so forth. It’s just an old law, Richie. Don’t think of your father and Brenda as sin.”
“I’m afraid I’ll lose my faith.” Heat rose to his face, tears to his eyes, and he looked at the dark blue carpet and Father Oberti’s shining black shoes.
“No. This should strengthen it. You must live like the Lord, with His kindness. Don’t think of them as sinful. Don’t just think of sex. People don’t marry for that. Think of love. They are two people who love each other, and as painful as it is for others, and even if it is wrong, it’s still love, and that is always near the grace of God. Has he been a bad father?”
Richie shook his head.
“Look at me. Don’t mind crying. I’m not scolding you.”
He wiped away his tears and raised his face and looked into Father Oberti’s brown eyes.
“It is very hard to live like Christ. For most of us, it’s impossible. The best we can do is try. And two of the hardest virtues for a Christian are forgiveness and compassion. Not judging people. But they are essential parts of love.” His hands rose from his lap, and he clasped them in front of his chest, the fingers squeezing. “We can’t love without those two. And the message of Christ is love. For everyone. Certainly you will love your father. And his wife. Try to imagine what they feel like, how they comfort each other, how much they love each other, to risk so much to be together. It’s not evil. It may be weak, or less strong than the Church wants people to be; than you want people to be. And of course you’re right. It would be far better if they had fought their love before it grew. But there are much worse things than loving. Much worse, Richie. Be kind, and pray for them, and I will too. I’ll pray for you too. And I hope you’ll pray for me. People don’t think of priests as sinners. Or if they do, they think of sex or drinking. That’s very simple-minded. There are sins that are far more complicated, that a priest can commit: pride, neglect, others. He can be guilty of these while ministering sacraments, saying the Mass.” His hands parted, reached out, and took Richie’s shoulders. “You’ll love your father and his wife, and you’ll grow up to be a good priest. If it’s what you want, and if it’s God’s will. Don’t leave God out of this. Your father and the young lady are in His hands, not yours. You will have some embarrassment. Even some pain. What is that, for a strong boy like you? A devout boy, a daily communicant.”
His right hand left Richie’s shoulder, and he moved it in a cross between them, then placed his palm on Richie’s forehead.
“Thank you, Father.”
“We can keep talking.”
“No. Thank you, Father.”
Father Oberti stood and held out his hand, and Richie shook it.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Father Oberti said.
“Or sooner, if you want.”
“Good. Go play baseball, and live your life.”
Richie lifted his hand in a wave, then turned and left the sacristy, entered the church near the altar, genuflected, looked up at Christ, and went down the aisle. At the door he turned back to the altar, looked at Christ on the cross, then pushed open the heavy brown wooden door, and stepped into warm sunlight and cool air.
On the street near his house, in the shadows under the arch of maples, he saw Melissa Donnelly and her golden retriever. She was two blocks ahead, walking away from him in the middle of the empty street. He pedaled harder three times before he was aware of it, then he slowed but did not touch the brake, and the bicycle kept its quiet speed on the blacktop. Melissa was wearing faded cut-off jeans and sandals, and a blue denim shirt with its sleeves rolled up to her elbows. The dog was named Conroy, and was not on a leash; he zigzagged, nose to ground, in the grass beside the street. When Richi
“Where you going?” she said.
“Home. You walking Conroy?”
“To the field. So I can smoke.”
“How did he get his name?”
“He’s named for an old friend of my dad’s. From the war.”
“Did he die?”
“No. My dad just never saw him again.”
Her shirttails were knotted above her waist, showing a suntanned oblong of her stomach. Her legs were smooth and brown. He was looking past the handlebar at her sandaled feet, when the blacktop ended at a weed-grown, deeply rutted trail beside a stand of trees. Beyond the trees was the athletic field.
“Come on,” she said, and he followed her through the trees, while Conroy darted ahead and onto the field. On open ground at the edge of the trees they stopped, and Richie stood his bicycle with its stand. Melissa leaned against an oak, looked over each shoulder, then drew a pack of Marlboros from between her breasts and offered it to him. He shook his head.
“Afraid of cancer?”
“I just don’t want to smoke.”
She shrugged, and he watched her eyes and the cigarette in the middle of her lips as she took a lighter from her pocket. She inhaled and blew smoke and said: “Ah. First since last night.”
He imagined her, while he lay in bed before Larry came, or maybe as he stood on the steps or later as he listened in his room, saw her out here under the stars, the glow of her cigarette in the shadows of these trees as Conroy ran in the field.
“Did you walk him last night?”
“Yeah. You’d think they’d catch on. They used to have to tell me to, and now I’m always walking the dog.”
“What time were you out here?”
Other author's books:
- Voices from the MoonAndre Dubus: Selected StoriesThe Last Worthless EveningSeparate Flights
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