Orion by Brad Shurmantine

The first summer right after she moved in was the best. They came at an odd time, during Easter vacation, right when the weather was beginning to warm, the snow all melted except for patches where it had been piled high, and the yards were soft and soggy. Most people moved into the neighborhood during the summer or at Christmas–at least the people with children did, and everyone in that neighborhood had children. So it was odd.

They bought the house two doors down. He watched as the van backed into the driveway and the driver and his helper began carrying out large sheet-covered furniture. It was a beautiful day, the streets practically dry, and he had a chance to bring out the bicycle he got that Christmas and ride it up and down the street.

Soon a station wagon pulled up and a family got out, two parents and four pretty little girls. Two were definitely older but two seemed more or less his age. Two little girls were moving in practically next door, a jolt of spring, and he peddled faster and faster up and down the street. They all started collecting small things from the van and carrying them inside. He began doing little tricks: standing up on the seat, sitting on the handlebars, riding side-saddle. They were absorbed in the adventure of moving into a new home and didn’t acknowledge him; eventually he gave up and went home, his face hot and wet and his eyes bright. One of them was prettier than the other.

When school resumed she was in his class, standing up front with Sister Eugenia, thoroughly embarrassed and shuffling around. Everyone stared impolitely.

Class, this is Jennifer Johnson. She’ll be with us for the rest of the year. Jennifer, there’s an empty desk at the end of row four. Why don’t you sit there?

And Jennifer Johnson, free as a bird now, brighter, came out of the glare and joined the class. He tried to catch her eye as she walked down the aisle to her desk; he tried to make her notice him as the nun and generous classmates contributed manilla paper and glue and scissors and rulers and erasers and worn textbooks and still more implements of parochial education to this lucky, happy girl, this center of attention and care. But it seemed that she saw and smiled at everyone but him.

This was his class; he was the smartest one in it, he was Sister Eugenia’s favorite. They soon became friends and playmates and soon he realized that everything he did in class he did for her. When he read aloud, and he read better than anyone, he read especially carefully and effortlessly for her. When he went to the board and finished his multiplication before the others, or clapped erasers, or played kickball and made a good catch, it was for her to see; he sought her eyes out a dozen times a day.

The weeks blurred by and it was summer. That summer was the best. He glowed and played hard and was the best, all that summer. He and Jenny were together every day; they played in her room and his basement, read together, built a treehouse, explored a ghost house one hot muggy afternoon, walked through the woods, played in the creek catching frogs and snakes, watched TV: always together. 

He told her about snakes and he told her about baseball and about King Arthur and Robin Hood and he taught her how to hold her breath underwater for vast stretches of time. How to hammer, how to fight with wooden swords, how to eat peanut butter and celery. They wrestled in the wet warm grass in her backyard on humid twilit evenings.

That was his summer. He played second base on his Little League team and always got a hit, always caught the grounders, and sometimes she was there to see. He was on the swimming team and always won a ribbon and always showed it to her. He would never forget that summer, when everyone wanted him on their team, and there was always something fun to do, and it never seemed to rain except once, when it rained so hard they put on their swimsuits and laid in the warm concrete gutters, six inches deep in turbulent fresh water. Always the days were hot and bright and long, always the tar bubbled. It was the best summer. There would never be another one like it.

 In January he saw Orion chasing through the sky, tumbling over roots and rocks in blind pursuit of the Pleiades; he picked out the two horrible horns of Taurus and he saw Castor and Pollux for the first time. In March he spotted Leo and Sirius. Always he was conscious of the northern stars, tireless, churning: vain Cassiopeia and Cepheus; the great brown bear Callisto and her cub Arcas; Draco the serpent of the night. He’s seeing the stars for the first time, picking out the patterns and learning their names. Now he’s reading a book about the summer stars: Cygnus flapping in the darkness, Scorpius and Antares, Ophiuchus.

But tonight he can see none of these for tonight a full white moon is center stage; only a few stars glitter through. He’s not that interested in the moon but he’s come out anyway. In the past few months he’s grown accustomed to these brief escapes from the odors and noise and boredom of his house. The few cars that slowly roll by gently rock him; their sure sounds relax him and balance the excitement and fear the night arouses.

For some reason he’s carried the telescope practically into Jenny’s yard. There are fewer trees here, more sky, but that’s not the real reason. He supposes he wants Jenny to come out and join him, but he’s not too sure of that. He wouldn’t know what to say to her. He hasn’t talked to her in a year. She is strange to him, now that she goes to public school; she is somehow tainted, hardened. She has completely new friends, rough, different; they wear jeans to school; they’re Protestants; he doesn’t know them; they’re unpredictable.

The night is pleasantly warm and soothingly illuminated. For a while he stands quietly examining the May moon, his very own. It is beautiful and remote; it calms him. He looks about. In the pale flood light he can see all around him, every bush and shadow. Behind him the street ascends gently, lined on both sides with small wooden houses. It is surprisingly quiet; a few dogs bark, a few television sets murmur. Everyone’s inside tonight; he can feel them all settled on couches and soft warm chairs before the blue picture tube, quiet, engrossed. 

In front of him the street intersects another road, the oldest in the area. Beyond that road is the new housing development spreading  out below him, a dozen or so houses barely begun, their thin skeletons propped up in the moonlight. Last summer that was an empty field, with four or five cows and a small pond; now he can make out a shadowy maze of sewer ditches, the simple geometry of freshly-laid asphalt streets. In the hot afternoon his brother loads up a red wagon with ice and bottles of Coke and wheels it around to the sweating workers. He’s done well these last few days but other kids are catching on and there’s nothing his brother can do about it; they’re new kids, strangers, and they’re big and unfriendly.

He begins to feel self-conscious, afraid she’ll come out, afraid she won’t. This is a mistake. He tries to line up the moon through the spotter tube, to familiarize himself with his toy’s cheap features, but that doesn’t work so he breaks off abruptly and looks directly into the eye-piece. He wants to have the telescope set and fixed before she comes out, if she comes out, but he’s having trouble. The long tube moves jerkily on its single ball-bearing which he hasn’t thought to oil. A globby whiteness flashes by several times, taunting him, until by degrees he captures the image. He stands back, relieved.

He hears the screen door behind him open and someone step out, but he pretends he doesn’t notice and idly looks about, hands in the pockets of his shorts. He is suddenly aware of how white and thin his legs are in the moonlight, and for a second considers running home and putting on some jeans.

After a few torturous seconds he hears her shy voice. Hi David. It’s Jenny.

Oh. Hi. He turns around, smiling. She is dark and pretty, standing in shadow on the porch.

What’s that?

He looks where her eyes indicate. A telescope.

You looking at the moon?

Uh huh.

Can I look?

Uh huh.

She walks down the steps and comes out on the lawn toward him. As she approaches he can see her clearly, every curve in her face, as if the moonlight was inside and filling her. He is strange to her too. It’s been years since he was the wonderful friend who knocked on her door each morning with exciting plans for the day. Now he’s just the odd boy who lives two doors down.

Do I have to do anything?  Can I just look?

Yeah, go ahead.  It’s all set up and ready.

With both hands she sweeps her long pretty brown hair behind her. It makes David’s heart stir. She leans over the tube.

I can’t see anything.

Open both your eyes, he says, an edge of panic in his voice. What if she knocked the telescope and lost the image! Use that knob to focus if you have to.

Oh there it is, she gushes. Oh it’s so pretty! I’ve never seen it so close before! What are all those places, what are those mountains? Do you know any of their names? Is that big dark spot the Sea of Tranquility? That’s the only one I know. Is that it?

I don’t know, he murmurs. I think so.

She looks up at him, eye to eye, and studies him for a second. Her gaze is cool and impersonal and shrinks him, like that time, right here, when Jerry tackled him, sat on his back and pushed his face into the ground. That fucking bully. Thumped the back of his head with his fist. And she was watching from the window of her room. Jerry jumped up and ran off laughing while he wiped the dirt from his lips, spit it out, and saw her, in the window, watching him. Like this.

I don’t know anything about the moon. I’ve never really looked at it before. Usually I look at the stars. I know some constellations. I know about the stars, he says quickly, but you can’t see them tonight, trailing off. Then he adds, The moon’s too bright, as if to say, it’s not my fault.

She bends her head again and there is silence between them. It’s so pretty, she murmurs, her voice almost indistinct.

Let me look for awhile. He adjusts the lens and loses himself in the brightness, his mind spinning for something to say. I like looking at the edge, he comes up with, where the mountains and craters are shadowy and . . . mysterious . . .

When did you get this telescope?

Two weeks ago, for my birthday. It’s a cheap one. I wanted it for the stars . . . but it’s really not good for the stars, not powerful enough. I really don’t need it after all. Here, you can look.

Again the silence returns, as she bends over the tube. He examines her thin back and the brown moon-sheen of her hair, hanging to her waist and spilling off the side. He knows the only reason she’s come out is to look through the telescope.

He suddenly thinks to ask, How’s school, Jenny? Do you like it?

She gives a little snort and says defensively, I’m not going to school. We’re out. Our summer vacation is just as long as yours.

I know that, he blurts, off-kilter. I meant, did you like it, is it very different, going to Brookridge?

Oh it’s a lot better. The teachers are a lot nicer. Everything’s clean and new. They’re not allowed to hit you, which flicks his mind to Mrs. Evjen who hated him, scolded him all the time, shook him once, right outside the door, where the whole class could see. He did everything wrong that year. How’s St. Elizabeth’s? Who’d you have this year?

A new teacher, Miss Jasmund. She was nice . . . I did real well.

She begins to fidget, getting bored. I was surprised Mrs. Evjen passed you. You were the worst in the class. She just says it, her mind elsewhere; she really doesn’t think about what she’s saying.

He flushes deeply, there in the dark. I was not the worst! He stumbles for words. I was not! I’m not as dumb as she said I was. There were plenty of kids worse than me. You should have been in my class this year!

She looks at him, a slight smirk on her face. But you were in the easy class. Sister Charles Marie teaches the smart class.

They were mixed this year, he insists, his stomach caving away. It’s no use, talking to her; it’s worse than ever. He wants to explain himself, explain everything that happened. But he doesn’t know what happened. He doesn’t know where to begin. Silence flaps around him. A warm restless breeze folds into his hair, untangles itself and flees. He hears it passing through the trees.

If you say so. She doesn’t want to go into it. She wants to go in. Well, thanks for letting me look. I’ve got to go in now. She speaks distantly, head tilted back on her thin white neck, hypnotized by the moon, her cruel attack of a few seconds ago simply forgotten. He is too abashed to speak, to hold her back, then too numb, then something worse: the avalanche inside him rolls off a cliff into a blue, bottomless gorge.

She begins to move away. Bye. See you.

Come out some night and I’ll show you some constellations. His voice is flat and forced.

Okay. Bye.

Bye.

He hears the screen door slam shut behind her and then the wooden door heavily close and latch. She’s gone.

He wouldn’t know where to begin, to sort it all out. The moon glows down, harsh, unblinking. He studies the empty streets and wooden house frames below, and spots a stray dog trotting along, head low, sniffing all the pungent smells of asphalt and sawdust. Tired and discouraged, he lifts the telescope and holds it with both arms to his chest, embracing it. It’s light but it fills his arms, and he can’t move. He feels that he’s carrying some great load he’s too little and too alone to carry. He wants, with all his heart, to relive the past two years. Do better this time.

All around him the neighborhood dogs are howling at the intruder. Suddenly he hears them. He should go in now. He walks the thirty yards to his house, and before going in casts one final gaze to the sky, to the east where the night is blackest. A few stars, barely visible, poke through. He thinks that’s Hercules, on his knees.

 Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, Ca.  He spends time writing, reading, tending three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), keeping bees, learning to play the piano, taking care of chickens, ducks, and cats, and trying to be a good companion for his wife.  He backpacks in the Sierras and travels when he can, and has a serious passion for George Eliot.

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