Originally published in Speculative North, December 2019.
If you never met her, you’d think she was a real nice lady, yeah. Good with kids, never kicked no dog. Never sang a hymn out of tune. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she works down at the shelter, handing out socks and toothbrushes.
I go barefoot in my boots rather than take a single thing from Mona Luna.
Other folks call her Mona Blanchard, or Miz Mona. They say it with heads down, like they was praying. Some of them all serious, but some of them smiling.
Mona Luna always smiles back. She got this smile, yeah, it don’t get you hot. It gets you cool. Cool like you got no place to be but you got someplace to go. Cool like summer lemonade.
But Mona ain’t no summertime.
One kid, he made a joke like her name was a dirty sound and everyone shut him up quick. Hit his head, stomped his feet, hushed him so Mona Luna didn’t hear.
I thought maybe I could talk to him, later. Tell him what I knew, see if he knew the same. But then I saw him take his dinner from Mona Luna. Just a baked potato in foil, he didn’t want his greens. Kid wasn’t hungry enough yet.
“Please take some,” Mona Luna said in her low, sweet voice. “You have to stay healthy.”
She smiled at him. And I saw it. I saw him get caught. Hook in his mouth and it dragged his lips up until he was smiling too.
I never did talk to that kid after that. Wasn’t any point.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, I save my change for soda pop, as much as I can buy. Tonight it’s only one. I try to make it last.
“Why you always coming if you don’t eat?” someone asks me. I recognize his face but don’t know his name. Not much point to learning names.
I shrug and drink my pop.
“Free country,” says someone else. “Right Duffy?”
I nod. The pop will keep me awake, I hope.
“Oh, that’s Duffy?” someone else says. “Shit, man.”
I keep my eyes on Mona Luna.
She doesn’t do it often. Not even every week. But you bet your ass she does it every month, and I gotta be as ready as I can.
Tonight she’s handing out blankets and little bottles of shampoo that a hotel donates. I could take a little bottle, yeah. I could use a blanket. I know it’s not the things she gives you, it’s just her. But I don’t want to. Men like me don’t get too many choices. This one’s mine.
The others, they go over, they get their stuff. They smile at Mona Luna, and she smiles back. But when they go back to sit, she frowns. Rubs her neck like it hurts. Blinks her eyes too much.
I see it all.
She rubs her neck three times. She stretches. Arms behind her back, and nobody catcalls, even though her titties press up against her shirt. It makes me cold. Then she doesn’t blink again, not for a while. She rubs her neck again, four times.
Not tonight, yeah.
Thursday, though. Thursday might be her night. I watch her close, and I have two bottles of pop this time.
“Duffy, man, you coming?”
“Nah,” I say. It’s Greuber talking. Greuber was in the war too. People think we like each other because of the war. That’s shit. War doesn’t make you like people. War just makes you need em.
I need Greuber, but not tonight.
“C’mon,” he wheedles. And I want to. He has good stuff sometimes. But Mona Luna, she rubs her neck, and I can’t. I gotta make sure.
“Nah, keep it,” I tell him.
“Man, you going on that fucking wagon again? You?” He turns to the rest of the table. “This old fucker, they dropped him on his head when he was a baby. Been falling off the wagon ever since, just to get the feeling back.”
They laugh. I still don’t take my eyes off Mona Luna.
“Ah, fuck you, Duffy,” Greuber says, but he’s not pissed. He knows he can keep my share for himself.
“Yeah, fuck you, Duffy, what you staring at?”
“New meds,” I tell them, and they back off. Most of them know how it goes. Meds will make you stare, make you laugh, make you cotton-ball numb. Nobody likes a man on meds.
Especially not me. I don’t take em. Not anymore, yeah.
Mona Luna drops her shoulder. Rolls it. Then the other.
I wait for her across the street. She leaves with another woman, one with nice hair but a mean face. She’s mean to everyone. Except Mona Luna.
“Oh, I forgot my bag!” Mona Luna says, smiling like her teeth never bit off a lie.
“I’ll wait for you,” said mean-face.
“No, no, you go on. You have Jenny’s recital.”
“It’s not a good neighborhood…”
“It’s fine. I’m parked right there.”
Mean-face hesitates. But she does have that recital, and so she goes.
Now it’ll happen, yeah.
Mona Luna goes back. She gets her bag. And when she comes out, she looks around. And there’s Juke, right on the corner. He sells, sometimes. I know it. She sure knows it.
She goes to him.
I follow slow, and so I don’t hear. But I see her pat his arm. I see her smile. I know he smiles back.
They go walking down the next street together. Juke, he’s alright. He wouldn’t take advantage. But she can’t be sure, so what’s she doing walking with him?
Mona Luna. The night makes her soft and shiny, a woman like we used to dream about. Back in the war.
I follow them, but I don’t walk so good anymore. I see them go round a corner, and when I get there I see just the swish of her skirt go round another. And when I get there, they’re gone.
I don’t see Juke the next day or the next, and then I can’t be looking out because I have to see the doctor. I forgot last month and they don’t let you get your benefits if you forget so much, so I take two trains. At least they’re warm.
The man down at the VA, he listens to my heart. Deep breath, one two. Let it out, three four. Have I been taking my meds?
He knows I’m lying. What can he do? There are ten guys waiting and only half have all their arms and legs. So he writes me some notes and talks big about shit he’s never smelled, and he lets me go.
On the way out, there’s Greuber again. “You seen Juke?” I ask.
“Who the fuck is that?” he asks back.
Juke’s not gone, though. They’re never gone. They just aren’t there. I see Juke and it’s like the moon when it’s empty going across the sky. He’s in line for his food, and they give it to him and he takes it, and he’s smiling that stupid smile. And he doesn’t eat. And he doesn’t sit at a table. He just keeps on smiling.
“Hey Juke,” I say to him. “What’s good?”
He looks over at me slow, and it’s like he switched up his shadow and his body. His shadows, they all respond. His body is flat and quiet.
I don’t want to, but I get closer. “What happened, Juke?”
The shadows around his eyes, those wrinkle cracks, they stutter. They move like the jungle in ’Nam used to move, straining in every direction. But he doesn’t say nothing. Just smiles and smiles.
“Juke?” It’s my last try.
“Who’s he talking to?” someone asks.
“Duffy, man, you coming?” Greuber asks. And yeah, I’m coming. I fucked it up this month. And now I gotta wait all over again. Might as well fill the time.
It’s more than a month, turns out. Mona Luna is always changing things up. But she never stops, so I can’t stop watching her.
Juke is gone. Maybe he left, maybe he died: people can’t remember and don’t care. But I know he just went dark. So dark that now I can’t see him either. But he’s out there, all his shadows. Smiling.
And there’s Mona Luna, smiling too. Now she’s smiling at some kid I don’t know. He looks like some kid I used to be. And I think maybe I can will him to see, to not smile back. But he does.
I drink all my pop and crush the can in my fist. I got two more cans today, and I got something from Greuber for the pain. I’m gonna be fast enough this time. This kid, he’s on his way to being nobody, but he’s not there yet. I’m not gonna let her take him all the way there.
Mona Luna makes her move even before closing. She holds her belly like there’s a baby or a pain, and the other workers nod at her. She leaves, but not before talking to that kid. And he goes with her out the door.
I thought I had more time. I was gonna find something, a brick or a rock or something, but I just gotta follow.
At least I got that something from Greuber. It comes in a bottle, and there’s not much left. I finish it as I follow. It helps me ignore the way my knees go off like firecrackers.
Mona Luna keeps going with the kid, further than I thought she would. Can she see me following? Can she hear me breathing hard? The streets are usually so long, but now it feels like the city is made of sharp corners.
But I’m good for it tonight, yeah. My knees can melt clean off for all I care. This is the jungle. This is war. No man left behind.
I keep up with them until Mona Luna gets to a park. Then there’s nowhere for me to hide, so I wait while they cross the street. But the light changes on me, and then I gotta wait too long for all the cars, and it’s hard to get going again. I look down at my knees like I can get them to shape up. When I look back, I don’t see Mona Luna.
A second ago, they were by the big statue of some guy on a horse. Maybe they’re behind it now, moving into the trees. I get as close as I can to a run, never mind the Fourth of July shooting up and down both my legs now, and never mind that I’m not hiding. They gotta be there. They gotta.
Around the base of the statue, I catch a soft curve of light like the twirl of a skirt. And I’m so grateful, I don’t notice anything else for a second. But then I do.
Mona Luna is turning toward me. Smiling.
“Where’s the kid?” I want it to sound like a threat, but it’s just a wheeze.
“Oh, around.” She tilts her head this way and that. “I’m more interested in you at the moment. You’re the man who watches me, aren’t you?”
“Duffy. That’s what they call you, right?” I don’t respond, but she doesn’t care. “Yes, Duffy. But that’s your last name. What’s your full name, Mr. Duffy?”
I shake my head. I hold my bottle. But her eyes. They’re dog’s eyes. They just shine and shine with trust, and how can you look away from love like that, love you never had to deserve?
“Jim. It’s so nice to meet you at last, Jim.” I hate my name in her mouth. Like it’s a sucker she’s going to wear down to spit.
She moves, and I step back. But she’s only holding out her hand to shake. I don’t take it.
“Come on, Jim, I don’t bite,” she said, and she smiles. Smiles bright and gentle like the curve of the moon.
“How’d you do that?” I say instead.
“Get my name.”
“I asked you, of course!” She smiles like it’s funny. She hasn’t stopped smiling. “Even dogs greet each other.”
“You forced me.”
“Oh, Jim. I don’t force. Do you really think I could?” Her smile is so bright and gentle.
“Yes ma’am, I do.” I can’t help the ma’am. When I’m scared my training comes out, and I’m scared, yeah.
She laughs. “Well, I don’t. Never have. But—should I make an exception for you?” Her eyes are huge, too huge for a human face. I should hear her skull cracking to make room for those owl eyes. Moon eyes. Eyes like open mouths.
“No, ma’am,” I tell her, calm as I can. You don’t startle a wild animal. I know that much.
Her eyes don’t go back to normal, but they don’t get bigger. She cocks her head. The way she does it, it’s like she jumped a noose. I almost hear the crack.
“What a funny man you are, Jim. Come, sit next to me. Tell me about yourself.”
“No, ma’am,” I say, but just barely. I’m so tired and my knees are made of napalm. I want to sit, but I just keep holding my bottle like it can hold me up.
“Well all right. I’ll sit, though. You don’t mind, do you?” She doesn’t wait for my say-so, though. She just sweeps her skirt under her and flounces down, pretty as a debutante.
I know I probably don’t have too much left in me, and I gotta at least try one more time. “Where’s the kid?” It comes out better, at least.
She looks up at me. She still has that puppy dog look, but we forget, don’t we? We forget that dogs were all wolves and jackals, once. But I remember now, looking at her.
“‘That kid’ is mine. So are you, Jim. The mad and melancholy are all mine.”
I want to say, like hell. I want to say, no, ma’am. But I’m scared. I’m so scared that the bottle I meant to smash on her head, the bottle with no more relief left in it, it’s too heavy of a sudden. I can’t hold it. It shatters on the sidewalk, and all the pieces turn into brightness and shadow.
“Oops!” she cries. But she leans forward and stares into the scattered glass. “Look at that, Jim. That’s your future. Don’t you see it?”
It’s hard to look away from her, but I dart my eyes down. I don’t see anything more than broken pieces.
“Yes, broken pieces,” she agrees. Did I speak? Or are my thoughts just at a pitch she can hear? “That’s you, Jim. Pieces of you in the war. Pieces of you in the city. Pieces of you all over the place. And here you are—a shadow of your former self.” She laughs at her own joke. It sounds like a whole pack of jackals. “In the light of day, shadows are just broken pieces scuttling around. Lost. But in the moonlight, shadows are part of the night. Don’t you want to be part of something, Jim?”
I want to say yes. I want to say no. All I can say is, “part of what?”
“Part of me,” she says, and she’s brighter than anything I ever knew, but I don’t have to look away. Such a gentle light. Such a pretty smile. She’s smiling with her teeth now, and her teeth are sharp enough to bite my bones in two.
But I can’t help it anymore. I smile back.