Dancing With Lightning: Chapter 3

Dancing With Lightning: Chapter 3
Photo by Caden Drysdale on Unsplash
Synopsis

After a lifetime of transience with his now estranged migrant worker parents, Dave Copersmith wants nothing more in his adult independence than to settle down with a permanent job, home, and his own family in Denver. But owing to the severe handicap of a childhood brush with lightning that has scrambled his nerves, severed his ability to dream, and initiated a dangerous habit of sleepwalking, his ambitions remain elusive. Waking up in Mexico City from his longest sleepwalk ever, stealing dance lessons with a telescope, and pretending experience with diapers don’t help his cause. When the final indignity of losing his apartment to the new landlord’s aged mother threatens, he promptly infiltrates her senior living center with an alias and an unformed agenda to keep her at bay. His thoroughly improvised campaign forces him to waltz in cheap furniture TV commercials, engage in a protracted battle of wits with a crafty real estate agent, sing disguised in a talent show for the elderly, chase 80-year-old lovers joyriding a motor home all the way to Seattle while keeping a beautiful but nosy single mother off his lengthening trail of deceptions, and smuggle an exotic animal for safekeeping into the Denver Zoo with a band of bohemian actors. With a subconscious boost from movies as dream substitutes, the combined impact of these spirited misadventures forces him to accept the relationships he’s worked hardest to avoid and possibly provides the keys to realizing his long-tendered desires.

Chapter Three
Moonwalk on the Run

The year men first set foot on the moon, the Copersmith family had not depended on field work alone to fill their stomachs and gas tanks for two summers running. The San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, the furrowed plains of eastern Oregon, Washington’s orchards telescoping their columned bounty in every direction—all that had provided work enough for the four, and later the five, of them to subsist on was abandoned overnight. They left behind the familiarity of the land and its yield, the friendships annually rekindled with the other migrant farm laborers, the near guarantee of work and family security provided by the nation’s year ‘round harvest. When the spring of 1969 came, the West Coast agricultural channel was just another apple core tossed from the back of the pickup, a blur in the receding landscape. “I wouldn’t go back to those parts for love nor money,” Dave’s father had proclaimed, making the region sound like another country. “It’s cursed for us now. A man’s gotta protect his family, by god, and that’s the bottom.”

The curse alluded to was a rare bolt of Northwest lightning that had raced out of a still-blue August sky in 1967 and loosed its wicked charge on six-year-old Dave Copersmith napping beneath the broad lower limbs of a massive English oak. By the time the first drop of rain caught up with the damage a half hour later, the slowly arriving storm had invigorated every cell of superstition in the berry-picking crew’s collective psyche. No one had ever seen anything like it. Chests were crossed and amulets rubbed throughout the night. When the sun rose the next morning, the Copersmiths had already put 300 miles between themselves and the testament of charred trunk that had been transformed from shade tree to bonfire.

They tried Idaho for a couple months and then pushed on to southern Wyoming where John Copersmith did a brief stint in a steel mill and a shorter one in the suffocating tunnels of a coal mine. Dave endured the lightning’s multiple aftereffects for six months before his parents gave in and took him to see a doctor. His appetite had plummeted, he turned jumpy, his circulation was unpredictable. Sometimes he’d have to remain supine for days on end or risk passing out just from sitting up straight. Headaches, nosebleeds, panic attacks. His mother joked that they should rent him out to the Red Cross as a practice dummy. Marie Copersmith had tried every herbal antidote in her leather-bound arsenal, with only modest results.

It was the sleepwalking that finally got to them. They couldn’t lock the door where the boys slept for fear of fire, but Marie was a light enough sleeper she could usually catch Dave before his night rambles got him all the way outdoors. Usually. They almost always lived too close to rivers and train tracks to let it go on.

Because a doctor visit was so rarely conceded to, making an appointment never occurred to them. Patients came and went for five hours while Marie and her son stuck it out in the waiting room of Dr. Beetch’s office. Once in the morning and again in the afternoon, two different boys from the grade school who were around Dave’s age looked at him like they knew him yet didn’t make any friendly gestures. They knew very well that he was the new kid, but they acted like they’d never seen him before, and he acted like he didn’t care. They carried on with furtive glances and whispers to their parents or siblings, looking Dave’s way only when he wasn’t looking theirs.

It was always the same in the Copersmiths’ long string of moves. Second-horse Dave in each new one-horse town. He was used to being ignored by other boys during school or challenged by them to fight afterward. It exhausted him, having to pose in every new school, either tough as steel-toed boots or a nonthreatening pantywaist, depending on the situation. Sometimes, frozen with indecision at the complication of it all, he suffered a beating before he could gather himself.

Finally, the receptionist took pity and squeezed Dave in between the doctor’s last few patients of the day and another late dinner. When he was done checking Dave’s heart, lungs, and pulse and had listened to Marie recite the list of her son’s symptoms, Doctor Beetch lit up an unfiltered cigarette. He spat out a fleck of tobacco that had stuck to his tongue. “You’ve definitely suffered circulatory disruption, young man. You’re lucky to be alive, really. Most of us don’t come out the other end of a brush with lightning. And many that do are bound for a rest home at a young age.”  The doctor pulled the rubber-headed plexor out of a deep pocket in his white lab coat and whacked Dave on the knees a few times with the blue triangle. The responding bounce of his lower legs was disappointing. “I wouldn’t take those nerves into the operating room, either.”  He took the cigarette out of his mouth and whistled.

Marie seized on the thought of an operation and flinched. “What do you mean by that?” she asked. “Operating.”

“Oh, I don’t mean him, I mean me. If my nerves were that bad, they’d never let me near a scalpel again.”

Dave looked at his mother’s face. She was smoothing strands of her straight, seal-brown hair against her forehead with the palm of her hand like a crazy person. The doctor’s mention of surgery, no matter how it was directed, had really set her off. Dave saw that the signs were there for his skittish mother to make a quick exit. If he was going to get his own questions answered, he would have to act quickly.

“I can’t dream anymore,” he said in a rush, like it was all one word. He tried looking only at the doctor, hoping his mother wouldn’t interfere.

“Never mind,” Marie said, throwing him a hard glance. “I told you the doctor doesn’t want to hear about that. We’ve got more important worries.”

“Your mother’s got a point there, son,” Doctor Beetch concurred. He shot a drag of smoke at the ceiling. “Tell you the truth, I’d consider myself lucky if I didn’t remember most of my dreams.”  Then he addressed Marie as if Dave were no longer in the room. “It’s common not to remember our dreams. Nothing to worry about.”

Marie put the conversation back on her own track. “I think his circulation’d come around if he could rest more. He doesn’t always make it through a night. It’s not enough the poor kid’s dizzy and not eating enough—nothing tastes good to him—but the thing that’s really got us to fretting is the sleepwalking.”

“Sleepwalking?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“What does that have to do with the accident?”

“Well, everything,” Marie stammered. “That’s what started it.”

“Coincidence is what I’d call that,” Dr. Beetch countered. “I’ll tell you what, though. His nerves are a first class mess, which would certainly contribute to the sleepwalking. It’s all about anxiety, you see. But don’t worry, it won’t last. Everybody has a few episodes in their youth. It’s a phase. You say the lightning happened a year ago. Who’s been seeing him so far? What kind of treatment?”

Because Dave had never seen a doctor but had been entirely in Marie’s care, she skipped to the second question. “The skullcap and mistletoe are working on his blood. It just takes a while, and the same with the lavender and chamomile for his nervous condition. I’ve even tried cascara sagrada. His nerves are out of order, sure they are. My son’s been. . . .”  Marie stopped short of saying that Dave had been close to death. She dropped her hand from stroking her hair and held his head protectively against her ribcage. “He’s been touched from above. But he’s getting better. It’s slow and steady, that’s all, and I thought, well . . . . The herbs will do their job, they always do. I just figured an educated doctor like you would have something that could make it go faster.”

“You’re treating him with herbs?” the doctor asked. He kept his mouth closed, barely able to muffle the chuckling in his throat.

Marie had twice visited doctors who were sympathetic to traditional medicines, steered by other pickers. No one had referred her to Dr. Beetch, but she understood now that he’d been a mistake. “Sure I am,” she answered firmly. “The best I can get ahold of.”

“I think what your son needs is a thoroughly modern medical approach,” Dr. Beetch declared, stubbing out his cigarette. “If you folks could commit to some long-term therapy, for instance. The state institution’s not far from here in Rock Springs. They’ve had some luck with a lightning victim or two, but it would mean a few months there in the state hospital. It’s the only way to make the treatment effective. He wouldn’t be in the same ward as the insane or anything. You wouldn’t have to worry about that.”

Marie wordlessly hustled Dave into his shirt, not bothering with the buttons. At the door, she turned again to the doctor and tried to think which piece of her mind to give him. But his white coat and the sterile room reminded her that he was bound as tightly to his professional environment as she was to a different one outdoors. Marie’s vision swept down and out the door with her son before her, the mysterious world of institutional medicine safely behind them.

After a year of constant roaming, John Copersmith felt like New Mexico was far enough away from the scene of the celestial crime. Albuquerque began to serve as a new homebase for travel in and out of the southern Rockies and parts of Texas, though even within the city, the family was liable to move to new neighborhoods or out to the hills if Dave’s father sensed half a reason to shift their address.

John forced ends to meet most of three seasons with odd jobs around town. Construction labor, yard work, a little remodeling. And the most profitable of his independent ventures, which he called “vehicle resuscitation.” When the last days of some months put a rush on boosting income, he would suddenly spend the bottom of the cookie tin and assemble the whole family outside to see what he’d dragged home behind the pickup. “I’m gonna resuscitate that poor abused machine there,” he’d reiterate about the newest wreck of a car acquired for next to nothing, “even though a good vet’narian or old cowboy would prob’ly just shoot it.”

And sure enough, he’d tinker a little with the engine, pop the majority of dimple dents out with ice cubes under the sun before pounding the rest, then combine the leftovers from dozens of discarded paint cans he’d collected on construction sites for a haphazardly shiny layer of Manor White. When he couldn’t borrow a garage and a compressor, he’d tape up the windows and chrome and have the boys keep watch while he borrowed air from an all-night gas station with an extra length of hose and coupling snaked around the corner to his sprayer in the alley. After Dave and Stevan shined the interior vinyl and outside faces of the tires, voila!  Worthless heap became five-hundred dollar heap.

Around the early Albuquerque days, John and Marie Copersmith’s Mexican rug and pottery trading got started, too. It eventually became a more or less full-time occupation, but in the beginning, John was just experimenting with ways to escape the finger-biting cold of winter construction work. Mays through Septembers, different story. The Texas-Colorado harvesting corridor offered enough picking work to keep everybody busy for another warm season on the road. Besides the orchards, there were plenty of the less desirable beets and onions and whatnot to bend over, but for their backs’ sake, those were kept to a minimum.

Like a lot of migrant workers, Dave’s parents dreamed openly about a different future for their kids. Music appeared to be a natural for Dave and Stevan. Both could sing, and Stevan was coming along on guitar. “You guys practice,” John told them, “and you can play in the big clubs someday. Your ol’ dad can’t give ya much, but I put the music bones in you both, so make the most of whatcha got.”  John constantly urged them to practice along with songs on the radio, and a handy AM station was always available to vehicle or living room.

The road life was not without its pragmatic needs, though, so they were taught to handle the tools of the construction and mechanic trades. “Just in case you need some extra between hit records,” John would joke. “Can’t everybody roll in it like Sinatra or those lucky Beatles. Look at ol’ Jack Elliott and Phil Ochs.”

John and Marie actually worried about their new daughter, Penny, more than they did the boys. She wasn’t their own flesh and blood—had just been informally adopted out of a bad situation—but her two-and-a-half years with the family seemed to everybody like all of her fourteen. She was four years older than Stevan and six more than Dave. Unless the folks wanted to talk privately, Penny rode up front with them in the cab instead of on the hard bed of the pickup with the boys. Marie Copersmith said they needed to spoil her up in a hurry to get the field kinks out of her spine, so she could still marry decent. “She’s already not Sophia Loren. Least we can do is give her posture.”

Partly for Penny’s sake but also in deference to their middle-aged joints, John and Marie became progressively more selective about what and how they picked, favoring the orchards. They had lost some of the bowed curvature in their own backs by avoiding stoop labor, for the most part, had done their time swinging the evil short-handled hoe, and now preferred stretching in the other direction when they returned to agriculture for income. “With the tree work,” Dave’s father was fond of saying, “you’re not wallowin’ in the dirt and turnin’ yourself into a hunchback of Noder Dame. You got some shade in the heat, better facilities. Wouldn’t go back to vegetables full time even if Cesar Chavez was elected president of America.”

May was still a week off in the moonwalk year when John Copersmith announced that work had given out again, and they had to take to the road right away. No time for everybody to finish the school year. The story was always the same, and the big coincidence of the chance to go north for work was the earth’s way of telling the wise to get a move on, John said. Besides, there was no sense tempting fate by letting the lightning take a good, steady aim at cursed people who sat still too long when they knew better.

Stevan was uncharacteristically rankled by the spurious news that there wouldn’t be enough summer construction to bother seeing the school year out and sticking around town for the hot months. The kids had been in the new school long enough for him to start getting popular with the girls, his single classroom priority. He’d envisioned a perfect summer before him, flexing on baseball diamonds and the diving board at the swimming pool. Now it had been yanked away.

Stevan fumed as they threw clothes into the cardboard box he and Dave shared as a suitcase. “Dad quit just so he can hit the road again, plain and simple. Shane Haaland’s dad has plenty of work, man. I’ll bet he could get Dad on somewhere.”  He crammed in his orange baseball T-shirt with the sponsor’s name in white block letters: Sanitary Tortilla Factory, Home of the Five-Hongo Burrito. He wouldn’t be playing for them that summer unless somebody hit a fly ball four hundred miles. “Lightning’s comin’, my ass,” he said. “He’s just gotta stay on the move like an ol’ coyote. Can’t live without it.”

Dave’s biggest worry was that he would miss the television broadcast of the Apollo moon mission come July. His third-grade teachers had talked for months about the historical importance of the moonwalk in both schools he’d attended that spring. History aside, it appeared the world was fast losing all its future police officers, nurses, firemen, and teachers, as kids were lining up like lemmings to prepare themselves for the next available rocket. Teachers could hardly complain about the new enthusiasm for science. The children endlessly drew and signed pictures of the Saturn V in various stages of moonbound ascent to send to NASA. There were more drawings of astronauts floating in space, posing on the edges of craters with black lunch buckets. Colored mice in their own fat little spacesuits lounging on playground equipment and nibbling pieces of the moon.

All through March and April, Dave had begged his parents to watch the proceedings on a neighbor’s TV, keeping them informed every two weeks of the scheduled touchdown in July. He considered it his duty to make them appreciate the historic significance of the first men treading moon soil since they seemed barely aware. He would carry on at length during dinner with all the details he could remember from school. The razzle-dazzle high-tech tools. The fact that the astronauts drank powdered Tang just like they did. The sheer adventure of the tremendous galactic mileage. If reaching into the environment of the stars didn’t impress them, long-distance miles should be something they could relate to—240,000 of them—but no response. Stevan jumped in once about staying ahead of the Russians, but they had no use for politics, either.

For reasons none of their kids understood, John and Marie Copersmith had nothing but contempt for the moonshot. “Just more money kept away from the poor,” John Copersmith said, pushing himself away from the conversation at the dinner table one night. He stared out the window with his back to the family. “The moon’s got better things to do than let these monkeys climb all over her back. It’s a pure disgrace. I’ll bet they never even get there.”

Dave’s teacher at Aguilar Elementary, Mrs. Mora, was willing to let the whole family come over and watch the event on her TV, but John and Marie politely refused her invitation. In the end, Dave was set to sneak over to Felipe and Elena Bustamante’s house to watch. Maybe he would have told Stevan and Penny at the last minute. But it didn’t matter. They ended up on the road again anyway.

The family was a long ways from Dave’s original viewing plans when the moment for mankind’s giant leap finally arrived. They were headed up Highway 50 for sour cherries and apricots around Palisade, Colorado, after working sweet cherries in Paonia. A Cherry Festival parade, a fair, a rodeo, and the grueling schedule of twelve-hour days in the summer sun had distracted Dave from the promise of a broadcast of the Apollo mission landing. It wasn’t exactly popular discussion among pickers, who didn’t concern themselves much with space travel when they could barely afford a bus ride. With time, Dave’s attention fell back to earth and the fast-faded hope that he’d have access to a TV among strangers. His young life had taught him the general reliability of pessimism.

In the darkening blue starrise of that landmark eve, July 20th, they stopped at a service station in the alkali flats of Whitewater, Colorado, a few miles shy of Orchard Mesa. Penny was riding up front, and Dave and Stevan were collapsed in the back of the pickup after another long day’s work. Dave wasn’t yet coordinated or strong enough to be of much use groping produce, but he exhausted himself nonetheless, toting jugs of drinking water, running messages, and dragging around more empty boxes to be filled.

When they pulled in beside the gas pumps, Stevan heard young voices frolicking outside in the gathering dark and propped himself up to see. He woke Dave and made him look out through the screen of the camper shell side window. Forty yards away, two boys wearing football helmets hopped around like kangaroos on their lawn, miniature American flags in their hands. A larger flag hung from a short aluminum pole jutting from under an eave of the house.

“Jesus, get a load o’ these dumbbells,” Stevan mocked with an arching sneer he’d culled from reruns of The Untouchables. “They look like they just got out of a parade,” he said, laughing. “Too early for Halloween. What do you think they’re s’posed to be, Davey?”  Then it hit him. “Wait a minute. Maybe today’s the big day, huh? Get it? It’s the moon landing. These guys think they’re astronauts. Oh my god. What morons.”

“Now?” Dave asked, flushed with excitement. “Right now, d’you think?” he asked again, frantic.

Stevan feigned indifference. “How the hell do I know? Maybe they already did it.”

Dave immediately felt wide awake, panicked that he could have missed everything. He imagined Felipe and Elena in front of their television. He thought of the astronauts toddling around on the moon in their bulky pressure suits. Instinctively, he looked up into the sky’s eastern half, dyeing itself the color of new jeans. Stars showed faintly in patches as Colorado rolled by degrees farther away from the sun, disappearing under the horizon. “I’m gonna ask them,” he said suddenly and started out of the back of the pickup, crawling over the cardboard cupboardry of clothes, sandwich material, tent, and spare car battery.

“Don’t,” Stevan warned. “Dad’ll whip your butt if you get out. We’re gonna take off in a minute. And don’t step on my guitar, you dink.”

Dave couldn’t hear anymore. He silently lifted the back window of the camper shell and slid his belly over the tailgate into the heat still rising off the fuel pumps’ concrete pads. On the far side of the vehicle, John Copersmith stared intently at the pump register, inching the numbers nearer to $2.00. Dave could see his father mumbling and squinting as he pumped. He was working himself into a character before going in to pay. For the last two years, he’d steadfastly maintained that it wasn’t just the lightning’s curse they were eluding three states away but the person or group that had cast the curse. If most strangers on the road recalled their encounters with John Copersmith as several very different people, he explained, then he and the family were not as likely to be easily followed. He might be remembered by the gas station attendant as a slow-talking man named Junior from Georgia with a heavy accent and a military past. The next time through, he could be a guy named Darrell who limped or a mute fella in a straw cowboy hat who smiled broadly when he presented people with the note stating that he couldn’t talk. As often as not, the names and behavior were some modification of a character just seen in the most recent movie they’d been to. John was so good at voices and spontaneous bullshit that he needed few props or disguises but seemed to indulge in them anyway for the pure fun of it.

Dave ran tiptoe toward the kids in helmets, skidding to a stop in the graveled dirt when a German shepherd let out a bark as it hit the end of its chain with all four feet off the ground, startling Dave enough for him to take three steps back.

He called out in a big whisper to the smaller of the brothers, “Hey, kid. Did they walk on the moon yet?”  The boy froze. He peered out through the heavy plastic bars of his face guard but didn’t answer.

The older brother told his dog to shut up as he walked over. “What’s your name?” he asked Dave, his voice sounding hollow and low from inside the helmet. Dave said nothing right away. The dog barked twice, and the boy shouted at him again. “King, no!” Dave had been taught to stay quiet around most strangers on the road, let his parents do the talking. But now he’d initiated contact himself. The mission was personal business. His hands began to sweat. He had to know if the astronauts had made it to the moon.

The bigger boy looked almost Penny’s age. “Where you goin’?” Dave was asked. “Grand Junction?”

Dave knew they were cutting off short of the Junction and going to Orchard Mesa. For a second he was tempted to tell the truth, let down his guard and be chummy with the helmeted boys. They seemed harmless enough, ordinary. He was sure he could befriend the dog with a few minutes and a stick of beef jerky. There had to be a TV inside, and it wasn’t farfetched to think it could be maintaining a steady broadcast of the Apollo mission. Then he came back to his senses. If his father had told him once, he’d told him two hundred times that the fastest way to straighten up and act right around strangers was to become one yourself. He turned and saw his father going into the station to pay. He had maybe a minute left. “Right. Junction. Hey, did they get to the moon yet?” he asked the older boy.

“Yeah, they’re up there. Don’t you guys at least have a radio in your truck?” he asked.

Of course they had a radio in the pickup, but Dave knew very well it wasn’t tuned to a broadcast of the lunar landing. “I can’t hear it in the back,” he said.

It was done, then. Captains Armstrong and Aldrin were there now, romping on the moon. Manifesting dreams. Dave looked up again at the spreading night, seeing no sign of the cratered orb, without realizing it could be veiled by the eddies of cirrus clouds tumbling across the lower western sky. He felt dizzy and dropped his sight. He contemplated dashing in the front door of the house to get a quick glimpse of activity on the television screen. Bursts of gray light from the TV fluttered against the windows and ceiling inside the boys’ house. The briefest peek captured for later savoring would satisfy him.

The dog studied Dave’s eyes for any sign of intent.

The taller helmet spoke again. “I bet they can’t hear it too good in the front of your truck, either. The astronauts are so far away, it’s all scratchy. You gotta have a TV.”

Dave surveyed the boys and their dog. The house behind the gas station was a pale yellow, shingle-sided contraption surrounded by a barren environment made poison white in weed-free stretches by the alkaline content of the soil, but a place that invited running up and rolling down the gray and buff hills that cockled the plain. On the other side of the highway was a greener stretch of land where the Gunnison River curved north for a quarter mile, offering enough moisture to support cottonwoods and willow brush. Dave envied their life deeply in the moment. They were settled into a place they could act like they owned, even if they didn’t, simply because they lived there year ‘round. They walked out the front door to the same scene every day of their little country lives and knew exactly where to go for fun, which kid-hating coots to avoid, the name of the town cop.

Stevan held the shell window up for Dave to climb back in. “What did they say?” he asked.

Dave said nothing, wrenching his face into a fierce pout as he rolled over boxes and curled around the wheel well.

“Come on, Davey, what’d they say? They there yet?”

Dave narrowed his wet eyes at the battered white and orange metal of the pickup bed, the rusted dents blearing next to his nose. He stiffened every muscle in his body against the urge to cry that inflated like a hot blister in his lungs.

Stevan hit him on the arm with his fist. “Tell me,” he demanded.

Dave hardened himself further and balled up his body to hide his eyes. He spoke with his back to Stevan. “They got there a long time ago. I knew this would happen. We didn’t get to see anything.”  Dave squeezed his eyelids shut and tried to force an image of the men on the moon, but his imagination was short circuiting on the tears still held in check. He couldn’t even conjure the magazine photographs of mission preparation from school. “I can’t believe they don’t care about somethin’ so important,” he wailed, referring to his parents.

Stevan was brimming with questions. “Did those kids see it on their TV? What’s it look like? They said somethin’, ‘cause I saw you talkin’ to ‘em.”

“I don’t know what it looks like,” Dave answered, stifling a whimper. “I didn’t see anything. Okay?”

John Copersmith lifted the camper shell window and poked his head in, grinning. “Hey, ever’thing all right back here, boys?” he asked with a nasal twang, followed by a snorting chuckle. He must be doing that George character in Easy Rider, Dave thought. They’d just seen it at Delta’s Tru Vu Drive In only a few nights before.

Stevan spoke for them. “Ready to roll, Dad.”

“Good deal. About four miles to go, and the stars ‘re ours he said. “Let’s go grab some soft spots and set up camp, shall we?”

When the pickup engine started, vibrating the boys in back, Dave looked forward into the cab at his parents and Penny. He could hear the muted sound of the radio tuned to music and his dad already starting to accompany the lyrics before they were on the highway. Penny was smiling at him, basking in the serenade.

Dave felt deeply betrayed by his parents. The trip to the moon was like the Second Coming to every school kid in the country and anybody with a speck of interest in science. He couldn’t believe they were ignoring the biggest piece of history since he didn’t know what. They looked silly to him and even childish in his eight-year-old eyes, goofing to a radio song while the moon received the first visit ever from people. “Dad and Mama are stupid. I hate them,” he said with finality.

They came to the Highway 141 turnoff two miles down the road and headed north across Orchard Mesa. They were at the Thorsons’ place in no time, where they would start working pears first thing in the morning. They found the other pickers camped out behind the packing sheds, nodded brief hellos in the dim evening light, and then moved a few tree rows off for some privacy. The night was too warm for the camper shell, so Stevan and Dave threw their sleeping bags out beside the tent where Penny and their folks were setting up. The fragrant trees, heavy with pears, buffeted the faint trace of a faraway skunk. Using the edges of their shoes, they scraped the furrowed ground as flat as they could in four-foot lengths and laid the bags end-to-end with the openings facing each other in case they wanted to talk. Stevan was too tired to think straight, let alone carry on a conversation, and was out in seconds.

Dave stared up at the grand spectacle of space, shaking his head at intervals against the drowsiness that threatened to cut off his vision. Only the alley between branches directly above him was visible. He searched the high lane of sky from north to south by arching his neck before he decided to climb a stout-limbed apple tree and gain the full dome of the universe to its horizons.

Still no sign of the moon, but he thought that if he could hold out, it would drift into view, and he’d have a chance to see something, anything. Mrs. Mora could be wrong. Maybe a telescope wasn’t necessary. He had good vision. Could distinguish a Northern Harrier from a red-tailed hawk gliding at hunting altitude. And he’d been taught a few constellations. How in the world his parents could have curried a nominal interest in the moon and the shapes made by stars but then ignore the Apollo mission arriving on the doorstep of outer space, he would never fathom.

In the southern sky, just above the leafy billow of orchards, Dave could make out the profile of Sagittarius, galloping westward after the Scorpion with bow raised to shoot his arrow any millennium now. He stopped thinking about his parents for a moment, allowing himself to be dazzled by the vastness of the cosmos. “It just goes on and on,” Mrs. Mora had told her third graders. “It’s a hard thing for us to understand, but the scientists say it never stops.”

While he gazed into the black map of the zodiac, his family lay beneath him, remote in their deep repose. He felt alone under the glimmering stars and their bewildering worlds, wrestling with the concept of infinite space.

Dave climbed down and got into his bag. Infinity was too far. The moon seemed close by comparison. If he couldn’t reach it with a television or radio, he would at least get there with his imagination. He visualized his way to magazine memories of the Cape Kennedy blast pads before conking out.

Southeast

After an hour’s slumbering toward the depths of oblivion, but short of the elusive REM that had been dodging his grasp since the lightning cauterized it, Dave Copersmith's first long-distance episode of sleepwalking came on. The night trance lifted him from his sleeping bag and set him heading straight as a mason's string back toward the smoke-colored plains of Whitewater. As he made his way southeast, his fingers trembling like busy seismograph needles, the odor of burnt cinnamon filled his nostrils, and his tongue tasted of iron.

Dave began the descent of Orchard Mesa's long sloping toward the banks of the Gunnison River in a steady trudge. After the first two miles, the earth's plane tilted harder. The added declination made his body feel lighter, and his pace lifted. A wild hare started at his surprise arrival, springing high into the night sky and then disappearing in southern darkness without a sound.

The scud of ragged cumulus above made a shadow play of the moon's rays, intermittently striking the ground near Dave's path and turning the high desert's surface into an ocean floor of distorted undulation. Spiky clumps of Mormon tea twisted in the wavering beams like seaweed. He jogged on, his footprints punctuating the raveled communion of earth and sky in tiny divots. Plumes of ancient silt gathered in his wake.

The landscape tipped more steeply again toward the river basin, and Dave ran even faster, dodging the sagebrush, cactus, and lithic debris of the taller Grand Mesa's volcanic past. An arroyo opened beneath him and, as he vaulted the sudden space, he lost another degree of contact with his fifty-four pounds. He began sailing straight over the rocks and plants to maintain a direct line toward the television broadcast.  He felt less and less in touch with the earth. By the time he came within sight of Whitewater, it seemed that his legs moved purely from habit. He didn’t notice the ground connect with his stride any longer, only the spaces between, as if his feet pedaled nothing but air, and he was actually flying.

Ahead of him in the stuttering luminance, the mirages began. First, superimposed like wind-blown chiffon over the terrain rushing beneath him, the steadfast view of himself gliding miles above the trees—memorized detritus the lightning had not snuffed from one of his five old recurring dreams. The one in which even soaring birds of prey had to look up to see him. His smooth and endless flight through foamy clouds and the pure blue heat of vast desert skies. Searching among the miniature houses below for the perfect place to touch down.

Then in dim, black-and-white patches, he saw images of the astronauts, ingrained from TV broadcasts of the Apollo preparation months before, practicing their weightless somersaults in the padded vacuum chambers of reduced gravity, the world’s most expensive amusement park ride. Spinning, happy. Thumbs up for the fans. Disconnected from the real world, yet safe as babies in the womb.

Dave ran in the direction of Florida, skimming the planet, suspended in the belly of its warm and fluctuant atmosphere. In the distance, television light projected out the windows of a dozen Whitewater abodes. It looked like the whole community was watching the first humans romp around the moon's surface. The monochrome flicker that came from the little yellow house with the flag laid a warped rectangle quivering on the brief swath of lawn in front.

Pausing to breathe atop the bluffs overlooking the arid village, Dave gazed up through the dissipating cloud cover at the moonlight that streamed toward him with increasing brilliance and then looked down at his sneakered toes in the soft dirt of the high mound. He stomped a foot and watched the powdery dust fly up and float back to earth in slow motion. A billow of the gray silicate flowed down the precipice like a heavy vapor. He filled his lungs with the charged air and launched himself from the crest of the hill.

About the Author

Ran Diego Russell

Ran Diego Russell’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in the journals Witness, Spillway, Tar River Poetry, Oyez Review, The RavensPerch, and many others. His itinerant childhood rambled throughout the deserts and foothills of the Rocky Mountain region. Prior to his teaching career, he worked as a ranch hand, construction laborer, fruit picker, and truck driver. During his non-writing free time, it’s all about jazz bass, carpentry, and serving the Border collies’ energy.