The Closest Man to the Moon

I was in my room at The Manor Hotel, a dull place with a single light and a sticky patch on the rug. It was just after ten o’clock and I couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was the summer heat or working so far from home. I’d come up here to Harriston right after graduation, figuring I could handle a year or two in a small country station. I was into my second month and, outside of work, there wasn’t much to do besides fish or play baseball against the Kiwanis guys.

Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d go drive the back roads. About five miles from town, there was this reforestation reserve. Red Oberon, one of the station technicians, took me down the firebreak one time. It ended at the Crazy River. Not far from there was Arnett Cole’s farm. Arnett was a legend in these parts. Back in the fifties, he played drums with the big bands touring Ontario. One day, their bus broke down nearby. Arnett got off and never got back on again.

He took a job at the station, married, and had a daughter named Laurel. She lived in a trailer at the corner of his property. It sat just beyond the trees where the river curved. Laurel moved into the trailer when she started raising bloodhounds. There were six in all, each one seemingly louder than the other.

Laurel worked at the station, too. Arnett was a sound engineer and played drums with Hal Rainey’s Starliters. Laurel was a traffic coordinator. I’d see them around, but I didn’t know them personally.

I’d heard about Laurel. Red Oberon said she had a wild streak, being Arnett’s daughter and all.“You ever hear of Clive Ritz’s Orchestra?” he said while we were fishing. “Arnett played with them. There’s your pedigree.” He was looking up at Laurel’s trailer. Then he grabbed a beer out of the cooler. “Speaking of which,” he said. “Think I’ll go give Laurel a beer.”

As soon as he was through the trees, the dogs started yelping. Red came back five minutes later, smacking his cap against his leg. “Can’t hear yourself think with those damn canines,” he said. “Like to shoot the stupid things.”

Driving out later, Red pointed to Arnett’s farmhouse up on the hill. “I doubt he and Laurel ever lived more than a mile apart,” he said, pushing his hat back and spitting out the window. “Laurel’s a fun girl,” he winked. “Doesn’t mind a visitor now and then. If you’re so inclined.”

I was thinking about that when I drove down the fire break this particular night. The clearing was just up ahead. I parked behind some pines separating the forest from Laurel’s back yard. Lights were still on in her trailer.

The dogs were already starting up. Then the curtains moved and Laurel came outside. “Shut up, Tawny!” she yelled. She was wearing cut-offs, a plaid shirt, her long hair tied back. She shielded her eyes from my headlights.

“Hey, Laurel,” I said. “It’s Mike from the station.”

She came further across on the lawn. “What are you doing out here?” she said, scratching her leg, just about losing her balance.

“Just driving around.”

The dogs kept yelping.

“Quiet, Tawny!” she yelled. “I’d better shut them up or the Wilkes will complain. Come on in. I’ve got beer in the fridge.” She disappeared around the side of the trailer, the dogs still yelping like crazy. I turned off my car lights and grabbed my cigarettes. When I came around to the front, I could see Laurel standing in this large chainlink kennel. The bloodhounds were stumbling around, stepping on each other’s paws. Laurel was trying to grab one of them, the most fidgety, from what I could gather. “Come here, Tawny,” she said. “Get over here.” She grabbed Tawny by the snout. “You shut up now. Stop your yapping. Hear me? Stop it, be a good girl.”

The other dogs crowded around when I came to the fence.

“Put your fingers through,” she said. “They just want to sniff you.” She smacked Tawny on the flank. “They’ll calm down. C’mon inside.”

We went through the door and into the kitchen. It was a narrow galley-type, still bigger than I expected, with beer labels stuck to the cupboards. “Lager okay?” she said. “Arnett drank my other stuff. Make yourself comfortable.”

I went and sat on the couch in the living room. It looked like a guy’s trailer, the panel board, a mounted fish on the wall. It reminded me of a hunting lodge. “You fish?” I asked, lighting a cigarette, putting the match in this big ceramic ashtray with some kind of swirly green glaze.

“Not really,” she said, bringing the beer. “This used to be Arnett’s fishing camp.” She sat down, pulling her legs under her. “Cheers,” she said and pointed her beer bottle at the fish on the wall. “You always cheers Big Luke there. Arnett says he’s the biggest fish to ever come out of the Crazy River.”

I went over and read the plaque: Big Luke. Caught 1969.

“What is he?” I asked.

“Pike, I think,” she said. “That or a muskie. I don’t know much about fish. You toke? Arnett’s bringing over some grass after his show.” She got up and turned on the radio. Country Time was just finishing. “He just has to pack up his drums,” she said. “He won’t be long.”

“Does he come over every night?”

“Depends if he isn’t tired,” she said. “Sort of like you.”

She smiled when she said it.

I sat down again and we talked, mostly about the people in town. When I’d mention somebody, Laurel would laugh or shake her head. “Good old Jeffrey,” she’d say, or “That’s Ron’s wife. We went to school together.”

Laurel was telling me other stories when the dogs started yelping again. A car was coming up the driveway, headlights dancing in the trees. It turned by the kennel and stopped. Laurel went to the door.

“Shut up, Tawny,” she yelled. “Tell her to shut up, Arnett.”

Arnett was getting out of his old MG, stretching his legs. He went over and put his fingers through the fence. “Quiet now,” he said, then came up on the porch and put his arm around Laurel. “How you doin’, darlin’?” he said.

I was standing in the kitchen when they came through the door.

“Evening,” Arnett said to me. He got a beer out of the fridge and leaned against the kitchen counter. His gray hair was pulled back in a long ponytail and he wore Indian beads. He reminded me of Willie Nelson.

“Rainey’s got a cold,” he said. “Sounded like Donald Duck tonight.”

Laurel laughed. “Good one, Arnett,” she said.

“They want him throwing the first pitch at the Kiwanis game tomorrow night. You play ball?” he asked me. “We could use another player.”

“Come out,” Laurel said to me. “It’ll be a laugh.”

“We play a pretty good game,” Arnett went on. “Might even do a few numbers over at the Legion afterwards.”

“Hey, Arnett,” Laurel said. “What’s Big Luke?”

“Big Luke? Why?”

“Mike wants to know.”

“Walleye. I bought him at an auction in Lucknow.”

“You said you caught him in the river.”

“Did I say that?” Arnett winked at me.

“I’m never going to believe you again,” Laurel laughed. “Go into the living room. Did you bring the grass?”

“I got something that should suffice.”

Arnett sat in this old easy chair, taking a baggie out of his faded jean jacket. Under that, he wore an Indian linen shirt. “Hope this stuff’s okay,” he said. “Just started drying it a few weeks ago. We’ll know soon enough, won’t we?”

Laurel brought the beer and sat next to me. Arnett lit the joint, inhaled, and handed it to Laurel. She did the same, then passed it to me. We both coughed. I handed the joint back to Arnett.

“It’s a bit rough,” Arnett said, stroking his beard.

Laurel wrapped her arms around her knees. “I thought I was used to your stuff, Arnett,” she said, coughing again. “It really burns. You okay, Mike? He’s one of the copywriters,” she said, and Arnett nodded. “I found him out back,” she laughed again. “He said he was just driving around.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Arnett said. “I probably drove most of this county when I got up here. Sometimes you can’t sleep.”

“What do you call that?” Laurel asked. “When you can’t sleep?”

“Boredom,” Arnett said.

“Good one,” Laurel said. “Hey, put some music. I’ll get some chips.”

“What do you want to hear, darlin’?”

“Play the Tennessee Waltz.”

“Let’s see if I can find it.”

Laurel got some chips from the kitchen and shook them out on the coffee table. “I’m such a slob,” she said. “How are the tunes coming, Arnett?”

The music started and Laurel suddenly grabbed my hand. “Come on, mister,” she said. “Let’s see what you can do.” She pulled me up, putting my arm around her waist. Arnett sat down with his long legs sticking out, cowboy boots crossed. He tapped his fingers and nodded to the beat. When we’d go past, Laurel would ask how he was doing.

“Doing just fine,” he said. “Carry on.”

We danced until the song ended, then Laurel went over to Arnett. “Up you get, old-timer,” she said, pulling him to his feet, putting his hand behind her neck.

“You two dance,” he said. “I’m happy just watching.”

“Come on, Arnett, I want to do the Orange Blossom Special.”

“Let me find it.”

Arnett changed the record and they started. It was something to see this tall, gangly old guy swinging his daughter back and forth. He did these quick moves, backing Laurel almost to the wall, then turning her real fast. Each time, she’d laugh, telling him her head was going to roll off any minute. He’d let out a few hoots, this big grin on his face. “Cut in any time, young fella,” he’d say to me, or, “Here we go,” as he’d give Laurel another twirl.

Towards the end of the song, Arnett dipped Laurel back and her head seemed to flop. It went right over. Arnett took her face in his hands.

“You okay, darlin’?” he said.

Laurel leaned back and looked at him for a minute. Then she put her arms tight around his neck. They just stood there in this embrace. I had to look down at my beer. When I glanced up again, Laurel had dropped her hands. She mumbled something to Arnett, then she went to her bedroom and closed the door. Arnett sat down again and pointed to the baggie on the coffee table.

“You want any more?” he asked. I said I was fine. “I’ll put it away, then,” he said, stuffing the baggie back in his jean jacket.

“I guess I should get going,” I said.

“You okay to drive? Where’s your car?”

“Behind the trees.”

He got up and found a flashlight on top of the fridge.

“Let’s go find it, then,” he said.

Outside, the moon was high, everything bright. The dogs were lying on the hard-packed ground. Their coats looked like they’d just been oiled. A few got up and came over to the chain link, sniffing away. Others just yawned.

“Some moon, huh?” Arnett said, looking up.

He pointed the flashlight up at the sky.

“Don’t even need this thing,” he said.

We walked across the grass to my car.

“You sure you’re all right to drive?” he asked. He leaned against the hood and stared down at the water, a silver ribbon in the moonlight.

“Nicest part of the river,” he said. “Laurel’s mother used to have a swing over there. Swung right out over the bend there. She’s in Tobermory now with some retired dentist. Laurel used to go up until the dogs came along. Some breeder, huh? Hasn’t parted with one yet.”

“Hope she’s all right now,” I said.

“Laurel? She’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”

I got in my car and started the engine. When I turned around, Arnett was up on a rock, flashlight on his shoulder. He looked for all the world like the closest man to the moon. I waved, he waved back. As I drove away, I saw him jump down off the rock and head back in the trailer. The porch light went out.

I only stayed in Harriston a few months after that. A station in Windsor offered me a job and I went there. A year later, I was working in Lindsey. I never got back to Harriston. I heard Arnett eventually moved into town and Laurel married one of the station technicians. They’re living in Arnett’s old house now, one kid, another on the way.

I’ve been thinking about them lately, Laurel and Arnett, them dancing. I remember lying on my bed after leaving Laurel’s that night, listening to the sounds outside. It was nothing more than crickets and a truck turning down the street. I was already planning to go, but I remembered the calm I felt, thinking about Arnett up on that rock, looking out over the Crazy River where his wife swung out on the water, and how, driving home from their place, I could still smell the pine and the earth on my shoes.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels


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