Calling Out the Moon
by Marla Cantrell
On the day I said goodbye to Kenner, we saw an old girl we’d gone to high school with a hundred years ago. She still wore pants so tight you could almost see paradise. “Some of the best things don’t never change,” Kenner said, and then he waved her over to our table at the Earl’s down on Main Street. She had hair the color of apricots. She had rings on her thumbs. She looked like something you’d see at the circus is what I thought, but Kenner told her she looked foxy, and she smiled and fluttered her eyelashes. And after we said our farewells and left the diner, we saw a screech owl in a tree in broad daylight, its wings spread out even though it didn’t attempt to fly.
“Not a good sign,” Kenner sad. There were stories about seeing owls in the daytime. Old superstitions said an owl spotted in the bright light of day was really the soul of a wise person come to visit, or that big and often happy changes were on the way.
“Probably nothing,” I said, and Kenner shook his head like he didn’t believe me. My old Chevy truck had a spidery break in the windshield, a buckled tailgate, and when we got to it, I climbed behind the steering wheel. When we got in, Kenner said, “Let’s not go home just yet, Bird.”
I looked at my buddy. His arms looked like a car that birds had messed on after eating a fence row of blackberries—purple from his wrist to above his elbow where the sleeves of his cotton shirt hit. It was the blood thinner Kenner took that made his skin look that way. That medicine was nothing more than a bandaid, though. I was there at his last appointment, when the doctor showed us a picture of Kenner’s heart, a whole two-thirds of it gone to pot, not working any harder than a society girl who got carried around everywhere she went.
The sight of Kenner caused my own heart to clutch. I said, “Got nowhere to be Kenner. I’ll go anywhere you want.”
The truth was my wife, Ocie, expected me back. She wanted to go to the picture show to see a movie about a dog that had supernatural powers. I said, “Let me make one call,” and pulled out my cell phone, big as my wallet, and gave Ocie the news. She called me a name I deserved to be called and then hung up.
Me and Kenner drove past the grade school where we met in first grade. I was just three months younger than Kenner, but already he was more than a foot taller. He was a shy cuss, and his overalls hit him above the ankle. That kind of thing happened all the time back then, what with kids’ hand-me-downs getting passed around faster than gossip. Still, he seemed to think poorly of himself for it, walking hunched over like an apology. It wasn’t until we teamed up in the schoolyard, chasing the girls with grasshoppers we’d caught near the fencerow, that I first saw Kenner smile.
Kenner’s mind must have been sitting in near about the same spot in time. “You remember Mrs. Woodruff, in first grade?” he asked. I told him I did.
“I sat on her lap on day when I was burnt up with fever,” Kenner said. “She took me home in her car at lunchtime, and my mama liked to have stroked out because the house was a mess like it always was. Too many kids to take care of and Daddy always gone. Mrs. Woodruff smelled like rose petals on a spring morning. I thought she was the prettiest woman I ever saw.”
“It was that red hair,” I said. “And the starched white blouses. Our mamas never dressed like that.”
“You remember that time we tied old Miss Measles to her chair when she fell asleep? We were in fifth grade,” Kenner said, and he laughed, his belly rolling when he did. “I took a licking for that, Bird, but I’d do it again just to see her face when she woke up.”
“We both took a licking for that, Kenner, as I recall. And then I got licked again when I got home.”
Kenner’s hand was gripping the handle that hung above the passenger door. He looked out the window, his gaze turned toward the sign at the Pentecostal church that said ‘What Happens in Vegas is Forgiven Here.’ I thought he was going to mention it; he had a bushelful of ideas about the downfall of modern-day religion. Instead, he said, “Take me to the Hill.” The Hill was what we called the old Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium, closed since the 1970s.
I took the switchback roads across the hills and valleys, and the grass was so green it looked painted on. This beauty is the secret of Arkansas, a state that gets tormented by bigger places with skyscrapers and horn-blasting traffic. Our land is as pretty as a painting hanging in that big art museum in France.
Kenner said, “My Granddaddy Box had the TB. Got down to a hundred pounds eventually. Coughed so much he could hardly talk. He said when somebody died, the nurses would come by and shut all the patients’ doors, but that didn’t keep you from hearing the gurney, wheels wobbling, rolling down the marble hallways. When the empty gurney swung back by again, the wheels never shimmied.” Kenner looked out the window. “The weight of the body and whatnot,” he said. “The weight of what had just happened. I wonder if Granddaddy was thinking of that Gurney when he died.”
I looked at Kenner then. His mouth was turned down. He rubbed his eyes and breathed hard.
“That place was a masterpiece, though,” I said. “It was like a little town all on its own. The library. The dairy full of black and white milk cows. The rolling hills. The air spiked with honeysuckle in the summer. That main building, five stories plus a basement. It looked like a piece of art.”
“I snuck Granddaddy cigarettes when I visited. It was all I could think to do.”
When we got to the edge of the sanatorium, Kenner changed his mind. “Bird,” he said, “I don’t want to go.”
I turned the truck around. Kenner still gripped that handle. “I got an idea,” I said, and pressed hard on the gas pedal. The old truck shook, and then it kicked in, and I got it up to forty miles an hour. Kenner said, “Now you’re cooking with propane!” and shifted so that his free hand rested on the dash.
We made it to the Last Stop bar by two in the afternoon. There were no other customers there. I got us two beers, and we sat in the corner by the jukebox. I dropped in a quarter and played “Make the World Go Away,” by Eddy Arnold. Kenner closed his eyes and sang along, his voice like a thing dropped from heaven by mistake.
When the song ended, Kenner sipped his beer. “I forgot how good it was,” he said. And I said, “The beer?” (It tasted like flaked soap because of my heart medicine.) And he said, “No, this whole dang planet.”
Kenner’s hair was white, and he wore it combed back. You could see the comb marks and his pink scalp underneath. He said, “One time I got sunburned so bad my skin was peeling off. That was back when I was framing houses for Goose, and I’d taken my shirt off in the heat. When I got home, Everline cussed me blind and stripped my clothes off and made me get in the tub. The water was lukewarm, but it felt like ice water. She sat on the side of the tub with an A&W root beer mug, and she dunked water on my head for a long time. She had a Glen Campbell album going, and every once in a while she’d sing along.” Kenner looked away. “Happiness stares you in the face when you’re young, and you don’t even recognize it.”
“She must’ve stole that mug from the A&W,” I said. “You couldn’t by one back then.”
“You know it!” Kenner said, and he hooked his thumbs in his suspenders like he’d just won something. Then he said, “There ain’t a day goes by that I don’t miss her.”
After we finished the beers, the bartender asked us if we wanted another. Kenner looked around at the empty tables, the bar stools still learned over like fallen trees at the bar’s edge, and he said, “We like to drink where there’s a little more spirit. This place is drier than happy hour at the Betty Ford Clinic.”
When we got back in the truck, he said, “Let’s go stick our toes in some water.”
And so I drove out to Deerbone Creek, to the low-water spot down a rutted road so rough the truck jostled us like cats in a tow sack. A breeze was swaying the trees, and the sun was warm as a wood stove in winter. It was late afternoon, maybe a half hour or so until the sun would go down. We knew we didn’t have much time, so we got out of the truck as fast as we could, inched down the small bank together, holding onto each other’s shoulder.
We sat on a spot beneath a willow tree that leaned out over the water, easing ourselves down little by little until our butts were safe on the ground. We took off our shoes and then our socks and rolled up our pants. Our legs were shiny white, our feet ugly.
“Mama used to chew the bark of the willow for her rheumatism,” I said. “It was like aspirin.”
“Willows don’t live long enough,” Kenner said. He looked up. The undersides of the long green leaves were silvery white. “But how long is long enough when you think about it?”
I started to answer, but then I realized it was not really a question for me. I felt the leaves, and they were silk ribbons in my hand. We scooted closer to the creek and stuck our feet in, the cold a jolt through our old bones.
Kenner used my shoulder to push himself up, and he stood in the water, lifting his face to the fading sun. I stood myself, there on the bank, ready to catch him if he started to fall. When he didn’t, I joined him. In a minute, he said, “You remember Tank?”
Tank was killed in a car accident when we were all in sixth grade. I said of course I did, and Kenner went on. “He was an Indian, but I don’t know if you can say that now.” He frowned. “I think you say Native American.
“Anyway,” Kenner said, “I spent the night at Tank’s house one time. His mama made dumplings out of grapes, and they were about as good as anything I’d ever eaten. The next morning, before the sun come up, I seen him from the bedroom window. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, a few yards away, with his hands raised up above his head. He stayed that way till the sun was up good and proper.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was willing the sun to come up. Said he did it every morning. Said he willed the moon to come up every night, even when the clouds covered it up. Somehow he knew when it was settled in for the night. He’d learnt how to do it from one elder or another. It was one of the best things I ever saw, Bird, and I’ve been to Talladega to see Bill Elliott race.”
“I can’t believe Tank died so young. First funeral I ever went to. What did you think when you heard the news?”
“I thought the sun might never rise again.”
“I thought it meant the rest of us could go at any minute, but then I was always thinking about myself,” I said, and Kenner said, “You were always too hard on yourself.”
In the creek, you could see tadpoles swimming in packs. Kenner rubbed his arms like he was chilly, although it was a hot Arkansas afternoon. Even the sun dipping lower and lower toward the earth didn’t cool things off. I held my right hand out, and he took it, and we walked out of the green water. When he sat back down beneath the willow, I dried his feet with my own socks and put his dark socks back on his feet. I rolled them down—he was the only person I ever knew who rolled his socks that way — and I tugged his shoes back on and tied them.
Inside the truck, with the windows down, you could still hear the creek rushing along. You could hear the frogs that sounded like an engine trying to start. Kenner leaned against the seat and sighed. He had a liver spot by his left eye and a scar that ran across his cheek. I knew the map of his face as well as I did my own. My wife Ocie didn’t think men knew how to be friends, and mostly she was right. But somehow me and Kenner had figured it out.
I turned on the radio. The new hopped-up country music was playing, the singer sounding like a beat dog. I got back out of the truck and picked up a couple of crushed beer cans I’d seen earlier, near the willow tree, and tossed them in the truck bed. The sun was just a skinny orange line on the horizon by then. I said, “What do you want to do now?” but Kenner had his eyes closed. I said his name. I said it louder. Then again, almost yelling it. I jostled his shoulder. Still nothing. That’s when I knew he was gone.
Here’s what happened when I said his name for the third time. Darkness fell, not like it normally did, bit by bit, but all of a sudden. I could see the numbers on the radio dial glow yellow in the charcoal light of the truck cab. I could make out the shape of the willow tree, but just barely. I looked up. The stars danced above us. The moon shot light across the rippling creek water. Somewhere on the other side of the water, a screech owl called out, so mournful it sounded like wailing.
I wiped my tears and got hold of myself after a minute or two. I kept my hand on Kenner’s shoulder all the way to the hospital, where I knew there was nothing anybody could do.
When I think about that day through the smudgy lens of time, I see it clearer. I figure Kenner was seeing Tank sitting in the clouds as he took his last breath, Tank’s hands held at shoulder-height, palms down, making the sun sink low in the heavens, as easy as a boy tugging the string of a yo-yo. And then Tank lifted those hands, calling out the moon, this time just for Kenner, getting it right where it belonged, so even and steady no one on earth would see it as magic. But I knew it was. I guarantee you I did.
Marla Cantrell is an award-winning writer, editor and writing instructor who lives in Arkansas. She’s had more than 100 short stories published in magazines and anthologies. Her work in Southern fiction was recognized by her home state in 2014 when she won an Arkansas Arts Council Fellowship Award in Short Fiction.