Moths of a Distant Light

Moths of a Distant Light

Moths of a Distant Light 896 883 William Burtch

The interior of the vinyl topped Buick would assault the senses of the lesser hardened. Ghosts of cigarettes past and stale booze sweat hung like an after-hours gin hall. My old man bought the car from the surplus fleet of the mining equipment company that employed him. The vehicle had hauled heavy machinery peddlers all over the coal mines of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Dad and I were journeying from Ohio to Pennsylvania to go trout fishing. The mountains of the Allegheny Range north of Pittsburgh could see suffocating heat or three feet of wet snow in the springtime. Hoping for something between those extremes, we pressed on, me at the wheel with my new license. The Reds home game against the Cubs crackled on the AM radio.

About halfway there, Dad looked at me.

“Davey, you drive like your mother,” he said.

My name is Will. We were going seventy-five, passing cars like they were parked.

Dad’s stepfather, who we called Uncle Henry, and my grandmother were putting us up for the weekend. A bucket full of wild onions would doubtless be consumed, all of us hunched over the kitchen sink. Incendiary combinations of cheap liquor would be poured into Mason jars. At sixteen, I was too young to drink but old enough to smoke Winstons whenever I could sneak them. I had reddish hair, thick and feral as tumbleweeds.

After a boisterous welcome, to ensure that all in the small brick-company town were made aware they had visitors, we sat down to dinner. The table finish was worn to the bare grain from Grandma’s obsessive solitaire sessions, and always sticky from Uncle Henry’s breakfast jam. Ham, home-canned green beans and carrots simmered in butter Grandma kept in the cupboard, in a dish, rather than the refrigerator. Voices surged. After the meal cigarette smoke singed the eyes and bludgeoned any lingering dinner aromas.

After demolishing a peanut butter pie we retired to the front yard. Amid belches of wild leeks and firefly pyrotechnics, we sat in lawn chairs with plans to fish early the next morning. More drinks were inhaled in a frenetic whirl. I wondered how Dad and Uncle Henry would be able to rise with the sun, but they always had.

“Ever see the Gibson Girl? The woman on the moon?” Uncle Henry bellowed.

He squatted down and aimed his finger at the moon like a handgun.

“Her face is on it. Look at the right half of the moon.”

I could not see this woman’s face on the moon.

“Bullshit. I’ll get binoculars,” he said.

 

Grandma noted the proceedings through narrowing eyes, by then mere slits.

“Where’s Sad Sack going?” she asked. Decades of chain smoking and dry martinis had left her with the growl of an old bulldog.

“Getting binoculars. Some Gibson lady on the moon,” I said.

“Horseshit,” she hacked. “His goddamn Gibson Girl.”

Dad, dozing in drunken bliss, unleashed a guttural groan. Ramp mist spewed forth.

Uncle Henry returned with hunting binoculars. Garlic, blended whiskey and sour sweat trailed him like a tavern rat ghost.

“Look through these. At the right half of the moon.” he ordered me.

I steadied the binoculars, squinted and then tried re-adjusting the lenses. I shook my head.

“Uncle Henry, I don’t see her. She only has eyes for you.”

“You must think I’m a crazy old kook.”

“Nope.”

“Well, bullshit.”

Head straight back, mouth agape, my father was snoring. Eyebrows relaxed, his entrenched scowl softened. As though afforded a private, if distorted, preview of the heavens.

“Let him sleep outside tonight,” Grandma croaked. “Let the bears get him.”

She closed her eyes. Her cigarette butt glowed in her makeshift ashtray, crafted of aluminum foil that had earlier covered the bean casserole.

“Oh, my Gibson Girl,” Uncle Henry sighed. “My pretty gal on the moon.”

Dad, Uncle Henry and Grandma were soon asleep. The pitch darkness was broken only by the dance of fireflies and the muted beams from the moon. Save for the crickets and the labored and harmonized snoring of the sleeping trio, there was a still quiet.

About a half an hour passed. Uncle Henry stirred. First with what sounded like the snort of swine, followed by a sharp cough on the tail of a hoarse and rattled moan. He popped his head up, rubbed his face fast and hard, like one of the Three Stooges. He glanced around. The cast of the moon revealed the red wells of his eyes.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.

“Hey there Uncle Henry.”

“What the…?”

“You’ve been sleeping a bit.”

“Goddamn.”

I studied Grandma and Dad for confirmation of life.

Uncle Henry adjusted himself in his chair. He shook his head as if ridding gnats from his ears. He was still for a long while, gazing into the darkness beyond the end of the driveway.

Uncle Henry at last broke the quiet.

“You know, you need to get hold of some religion. You need religion.”

He lit a cigarette.

“Religion?” I asked.

“Well, your grandma, she worries.”

I looked at him. I needed more to go on.

“Your dad, he’s Catholic,” Uncle Henry went on.

“Yeah.”

“Grandma was mad at your mom. The priest, too. For not raising you kids up Catholic. Pissed as a rattlesnake.”

A bat darted by the moon. It was devoured by the darkness. I could not absorb the notion that anyone could hold my mother in anything but the warmest of thoughts.

“Told your mom she might go to hell. Or purgatory. Some such place. You kids, too.”

Our mother had endured a persistent armada of nuns and priests. They pelted her with dark condemnations and warnings of excommunication and eternal damnation. Perhaps her miscarriages were punishment, they had suggested.

These were insinuations she could not bear. Our mother took my three years older sister and me and fled to a Philadelphia row house on a bus. To save face in the local pubs, teeming with vets fresh back from Korea like himself, my old man swore he would never bring up religion again if she returned.

“Your mom came home after your dad shooed away the Church. You were too young to know any different.”

“Grandma’s still angry about all of that?” I asked.

“Hell yes.”

“You think that’s why Dad’s, you know, like he is? To me? To everyone?”

“Never understood your old man. I always figured it was because you looked just like your uncle Davey.”

“Dad calls me by his name sometimes,” I said.

“Your dad bullied him God awful. Oh shit, he did. Including the last time they were ever together. Before the wreck. Still feels guilt, I reckon.”

“What about Davey?” Grandma mumbled. Then she dropped back into oblivion.

“Davey was her favorite,” Uncle Henry said.

My eyes shot to Dad. He slept.  I tried to imagine my old man bothering with anything in the spiritual realm. Never brought up such things with me.

“You think Dad even gives a shit about the Church?” I asked Uncle Henry. “Maybe just a big deal over nothing. I mean, what good has it done?”

Uncle Henry shrugged. He blew a stream of smoke out into the night.

“The priest figured your Dad a lost cause. But you kids. He wanted you kids in the Church,” he said. “Wanted all kids to be in the Church.”

“That priest, he still around?” I asked.

“Father Sweeny? They shipped him to Brazil or some such place.” Uncle Henry said. “A goddamn shame that was. That boy must have dreamt all that up.t. Ridiculous. Father Sweeny was part of this town for a long time.”

“What boy?” ?”

“That boy was confused. Dreamt it all up,” Uncle Henry went on.

“What are you talking about”

“That altar boy. The Hobson kid. Claimed he could identify Father Sweeny’s aftershave. Describe his breath. The kid hanged himself with his robe belt.”

“You ever dream up shit like that?” I asked.

“I haven’t.”

“Me neither.”

“Father Sweeny admitted to maybe drinking too much. That’s all. We all drink too much.”

 

“So even with all that Grandma’s still pissed us kids aren’t in the Church?”

Uncle Henry was quiet, the blue cast of the moon across his worn profile. He shifted in his chair. Leaned forward.

“Listen. We didn’t believe that boy. No one in town did. A snotty boy from a rich family. Your grandma had to serve that boy and his friends shrimp cocktails at the country club. This was Father Sweeny, for Christ’s sake.”

It was quiet for a long while. Only the hunting sounds of the night searchers. The scavengers.

“When your grandpa was killed, Father Sweeny stepped in himself to watch your young dad and your uncle Davey. So Grandma could go find work. Get on her feet,” Uncle Henry went on.

“It’s just, I mean the kid killed himself,” I said. “Sometimes people can’t see shit others do.”Or won’t see it. Even with binoculars.”

“I suppose.” Uncle Henry said.

I wanted to be alone, lost out in the night

“Well, Uncle Henry. No need to worry. God and I will hang out once a big old trout takes my fly tomorrow. Always do.

“Hope so, Will. I really do.”

I looked down at my intoxicated grandmother, passed out in her chair. Beads of sweat channeled through the wrinkles on her forehead.

“What about Davey?” Grandma slurred again, without opening her eyes.

I strolled to the end of the yard near the gravel by the road. Kicked a few stones around with my sneaker. I strived to see beyond the infinite blanket of stars. My eyes were drawn back to the moon and its bluish white glow. Like a towering truck stop sign on some solemn highway where thousands of moths flitted about, in frantic quests to touch the light. A quest that never ended well. Death and dust.

I searched the moon surface again for Uncle Henry’s Gibson Girl. With my finger I traced what may have been the outline of her hair. A crater cluster looked like a cropped mustache. I was sure she didn’t sport a mustache. Fuck it, I thought.

Back amongst them, I made sure the cigarettes were all crushed. As a boy I had developed an ability to move about as though I wasn’t there, as though I went into the mists.

Dad, Grandma and Uncle Henry were all still passed out. I tested the back of Uncle Henry’s chair to see whether I could drag him. It grated across the pavement and into the garage. Uncle Henry did not stir. I did the same with Grandma’s chair. Situated her next to Uncle Henry in the garage.

Before pulling on Dad’s chair, I was taken by his expression. His mouth was wide open as though singing a hymn into the darkness. Even as he snored, a fleeting serenity was blanketing my old man. As liquor induced as it may have been.

My old man was more of a load than the others, gut heavy. I dragged him into the garage. I took in the scene of the three of them sitting there. Lined up like tourists on the night train to Happy Junction.

I lowered the garage door with a honed quietness. I searched my father’s face once again, then faded into the dark emptiness of the house. Into the mists, where I knew my way around.

Header photography © Henry Brown.

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