Whistling Up The Moon
Sharon Frame Gay
I whistled up the moon tonight. It answered straight away, rising between the rooftops and lighting up the back alley. I'm glad that old moon paid us a visit. It seems like wherever we go, it knows how to find us.
Curled up on the back seat, I gaze at it through the rear window. An orphan-thin pillow cups my head, and a ragged army blanket scratches my skin, coarse as a cob. Nicky takes up the rest of the seat where my feet should be. He's a gruff little guy, almost fourteen years old. Nicky spends a lot of time chewing on his feet and licking his balls. For a Boston Terrier, living in this car day and night is torture for him. He wants to run around outside like before, but we can't just set him free here in the city. I have to walk him every few hours on a leash, and he resents it. Nicky tugs on my arm and skitters back and forth so I look like a blind person on the other end of a divining rod, searchin' for underground water so folks can dig a well. To tell the truth, Nicky and I both don't like being locked up all the time.
Mom says this is temporary. We've been homeless for six months now. I still can't believe my father died in a car accident on his way home from work right before Thanksgiving. A drunken old fart who walked away without a scratch hit him head-on. Thinking about it haunts me. I miss Daddy so much. I keep hoping it was a mistake, and he'll show up any minute now and say it was a big joke, only it's not at all funny. It seems so long ago now, and yet it's as fresh in my mind as the last song I heard on the radio before Mom turned it off to conserve the battery.
We sure weren't living high on the hog back then either, but at least we had a small apartment in the city where Daddy worked for the electric company. Mom worked too. She'd take a bus to the suburbs, where she still has the same job in the cafeteria at an elementary school. It doesn't pay too well. With Daddy gone, the rent money ran out after a couple of months, so now here we are.
The car smells stale. My little brother Ronny sleeps up front with Mom in a dog bed on the floorboard, wearing faded Spiderman pajamas. He's four years old and doesn't take up as much room as I do. At age twelve, I get the luxury of the back seat with Nicky. We stuffed everything we owned in the trunk. Mom either sold or pawned our furniture and television. Then we took only what we could and left the rest. Mom kept her thin gold wedding band. She says to sell it would be the worst insult to Daddy in heaven. Who wants to make someone mad in Paradise? Heck, God might even catch wind of it, and then it would really be somethin'.
Mom twists the ring round and round her finger when she talks. "We'll climb out of this mess one of these days, Ruthie, and then you'll see. You and Ronny will have proper beds and food in the fridge and a television, so we can watch the comedies at night."
Mom's a big fan of comedies. She said it helps people crawl out of their worries and set 'em down for a time instead of rubbing against them until they're raw.
I ain't interested in those dumb television comedies. There's nothing to laugh about when you're hungry and cold. I rely on the moon for entertainment. I swear, sometimes it smiles through the back window and keeps me company, if only for a while.
I never see the stars. Ever since we left Alabama three years ago, any stars in the sky decided to keep as far away from the city as possible. I can't say I blame 'em. I'm just happy they at least glitter somewhere else. Maybe they glimmer for another girl in a car, far away. Maybe she's looking out her rear window too, and the stars talk to her and say everything will be okay.
Five mornings a week, Mom drives the old beater sedan she bought with her last pennies to the elementary school. She leaves us in shopping center parking lots and walks the rest of the way to the job. Mom parks somewhere different each time, so we aren't too familiar a sight in any one place and raise suspicion. I have to watch Ronny and Nicky all day while she works. Afterward, we go to a local park, where we eat leftover food she takes from the cafeteria. Ronny and Nicky get to stretch their legs and play a while, then we head back to the city, where there are lots of alleys to hide in. Folks see us but don't say a word. Mom says they have their own fish to fry, and they ain't in a hurry to pay much mind to us.
I haven't gone to school since we lost our home. Even though Mom works for the school district, she doesn't want to call attention to our situation by enrolling me. Besides, who would watch over Ronny?
I'll be far behind when I finally go back to class, but that's fine with me. I don't have nice things to wear, anyway. The only shoes I have hurt my feet 'cause they are too small. My clothes smell like an old dog, which is not a coincidence, by the way. It's bad enough that even the drunks and addicts who pass by as we sleep in the car feel sorry for us. I ain't about to have the entire school cryin' their eyes out because I lost my daddy and my home, and I'm a walking charity case. I still have some pride, even if I am sittin' in the backseat of this battered sedan.
Sometimes I worry because punks come down the alley and poke and prod at the car like we were some sort of specimen under a microscope or something. Haven't they seen homeless people before? That's when Mom gets brave and honks the horn and hollers through the window, telling them to get the hell outta here. They laugh and point and give her the finger and make other gestures to me, which upsets Mom even more.
"You're growin' up, Ruthie, and pretty as a picture. The boys are starting to look at you, so you be careful when you take Nicky out for walks."
I'm not sure what those boys might do, but I see a wild fear in my mother's eyes. Nicky and I never go far now.
Mom is too proud to take us to one of those homeless shelters. I kind of wish she would, so I could stretch out my legs for once and maybe eat something hot for a change and have a nice shower.
"Ruthie, I just can't do it." She lifts her chin and flicks strands of long blond hair off her sweaty neck. "Just like them old-fashioned Native Americans who thought a camera takin' their picture might steal their soul, I feel like if I give us over to the shelters, they might steal far more than that from me."
Her hand reaches for Ronny's silky hair to stroke, and he smiles at her like she hung the moon I conjured up.
I nod. I think I know what she means. It would kill the three of us dead if they ever separated us. I just wish we had enough money to go home to Alabama. Back there, the nights are warm, and there are plenty of country roads we could live on instead of rotting away in these alleys. I'd walk Nicky along the banks of a creek or through a farmer's field. The air would smell like hay and promise, not the rank odors here that make me gag sometimes.
At night, I close my eyes and picture the moon to feel better. It's the only thing that's stayed with me, like an old friend. I keep praying there's life up there, and someday I can go for a visit. In this whole wide world, I believe it holds me in a special place in its heart. I talk to it sometimes when Ronny and Mom are asleep. It's never answered back, but I know it listens.
I wonder what the moon is doing in Alabama tonight. I bet it's painting those open fields with brushstrokes of silver. Enough stars might sparkle across the southern sky to make a sequin dress for me when I become famous. I don't know how I'll do it. But I will. Then I'll take care of Mom and Ronny and old Nicky. Maybe hire somebody to teach Nicky not to lick his balls so much. I'll buy a big house where we can live with pretty pictures on the walls and beds as soft as the kitten I found abandoned in a trash can last month. I had to let it go, and I cried like a baby as it wandered down the alley all by itself. That's another thing I'll be doin' when I'm famous. I'll own a cat ranch somewhere, so no cat goes hungry, and they all pile around each other to sleep at night, the way clouds hug the sun.
A pickup truck comes down the alley. Its headlights sweep through our car like an intruder. It slows as it passes, and I see my face reflected in the window. I look lonely and scared. Dirty blond hair tangles about my shoulders like a tattered old shawl. Sometimes I wish I could pull my hair clear across my face so nobody could see me.
The moon has other ideas. It pours through the window with its pure light and turns the inside of the car a dreamy color. Funny how all the imperfections disappear then. The moon kisses my skin, so I look like a fancy lady who bathes in milk. I'm pulled out of my sadness by a tender tide and feel a tug of hope.
I glance over at Mom. Her profile is soft and innocent in the shadows. The moon is touching the back of her neck with its caress. As though she feels it, she shakes her hair a bit and leans against the headrest. Right then and there, I swear she looks like she's my age. I wonder how she carries this heavy load and what's gonna happen to us next.
I hate the nights when the moon doesn't show up. That's when I feel all shivery inside like ghosts are walking over my grave, howlin' like those feral dogs that trot up and down the alley and make Nicky bark himself silly. Then I have to hunker down and wait for it to come back. I guess that's what faith is all about.
Tonight, though, it's puttin' on a real show. I step out of the car with Nicky and let him pee against an old metal trash can in the pearly light. Far away, I hear a siren. Closer by, there's a couple shouting at each other from an apartment above the alley. How could they be unhappy with electric lights and ovens that bake cookies and a warm bed?
I shake my head and look away. Tilting my face to the sky, I peer at the moon and ask the same question every night.
The moon knows what I mean, knows I wonder when we will live like normal people again. When I'll go back to school and make friends. When we will get the money to go home to Alabama without shaming ourselves.
Of course, it doesn't answer right off. But I know it's mulling it over. When it's good and ready, it's gonna ask the heavens for a miracle. Then it will all happen, just like in my dreams.
There's a strange noise in the darkness like bones rattling. Then footsteps. Several voices rumble in the alley, gettin' louder. I pick up Nicky and head back to the car, my lips turnin' too dry to whistle, and hope the moon keeps us safe.
About the Author
Award-winning author Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. She has been internationally published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Crannóg, Saddlebag Dispatches, Owl Hollow Press, 5-Star Publishing, and others. Her work has won awards in Women on Writing, Rope and Wire Magazine, Pen 2 Paper, and The Writing District. Sharon is a 2021 recipient of the Will Rogers Award for excellence in Western Writing and has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize and nominated for the Peacemaker Award, Washington Science Fiction Association Award, and Best of the Net. Her collections of short stories, Song of the Highway and The Nomad Diner, are available on Amazon.