Preface to “Dreaming of a Paper Moon”
The first novel I ever wrote was entitled Setting Fire to the Paper Moon.
(That’s a lie. The first novel I ever wrote was called The Black Beret, a daring sci-fi adventure parody I wrote in high school. But we don’t speak of that.)
I wrote Paper Moon when I was nineteen. I wrote it longhand, in a leather-bound blank journal in a house in Riverside, Illinois. The house was empty because my aunt had died that summer, and my uncle decided to go away for awhile and not be in their house. So for two weeks I was there alone. And I wrote the whole time. The result was a strange and lovely novel, part me, part Jonathan Carroll, part Somewhere In Time.
I’ve always maintained that Paper Moon should live in a drawer. That it was the novel I had to write about me so I could get out of my own way and write the stories I wanted to write. And that’s certainly true. I’m the author of my novels, not a character in them (thank heavens). Whereas the lead in this novel was very much me. Not in terms of history, or even looks or sense of humor. But in his heart.
The novel’s a mess, but a good one. Looking at it now for the first time in twenty years, I’m moved by how raw it is. A part of me doesn’t want to touch it. I like having a record of me at nineteen, locked in a drawer, safe forever. A kind of eternal youth.
Nevertheless, I have friends who read it back then and still press me every year to pull it out, dust it off, and put it out there. And I have to admit, as the years go by, I hate the idea less and less.
So this is me dipping a toe in that water. I’ve taken one scene from about a third of the way through the novel, and written just a little at the top and bottom to make it whole, so it can stand alone.
Why this scene? Because this is the scene that made me realize I was a writer.
Be kind. This writer is very young, still.
Dreaming of a Paper Moon
I was driving north from Bath, focusing on shifting gears with my left hand and keeping on the wrong side of the road, when a rainstorm hit so hard I had to pull over and wait it out. “Perfect,” I said to no one.
I was next to a field of some kind. The rain was so thick I couldn’t see at all. But when the lightning flashed it lit up the whole field. There were trees and a fence that looked old and run down. Grass, thin and tall and beaten down by the rain and wind. In the distance there was some kind of tunnel or bridge.
Looking at that tunnel, it was like someone suddenly flipped a switch. All at once gray day turned to a clear night. Moon and stars glistened high over wispy clouds. The night air was cool on my face.
“Come on!” I was shouting over my running feet. My voice was odd in my ears. Or else the words were. But more odd was the sound in the air above us.
The woman was running just behind me, children all around her. She didn’t bother holding her long skirt, using her hands instead to usher the children ahead, in front of her. She wore a silly hat with a curled brim and a small grouping of flowers at the front. Her bangs hung down under it and every moment or two she would toss her head a fraction to get them out of her eyes. Then she would bend again, keeping herself close to her charges.
Ahead I thought I could make out the frame of a building. It was dim, there were no lights anywhere, but as we drew closer I became sure that had to be what it was.
“The barn!” I said loudly over my shoulder, pointing. She nodded and drew closer to the puffing children. Without missing a step she whispered for them to make for the barn.
“Miss Ro—” began one of them, a boy, but he was shushed by a girl running next to him. He clearly wanted to trip her in return, but this was important, and what was worse, he knew she was right.
We almost reached it. I was at the head, under twenty yards away when I head the whistling. I turned my body slightly and crouched down, my hands flying up to protect my face. Two of the children almost barreled by me, but I threw out my arms and caught them. “Get down! Get them down!” I was really shouting now, loud and frightened. The woman went to her knees, pulling children down with her as she did. I pulled the two I had caught close into me like a swan, pressing their faces into my jacket and my face into their hair.
There’s no describing what happens during an explosion. The world shakes and rocks and you have no idea what is where. Legs feel like rubber balls strung on a paddle, moving in all and no directions at once. You can only hope the string doesn’t break. Everything is confused in a jumble of senses.
Luckily my instincts served better than my conscious mind at making sense of things. The first bomb hit fifty or sixty yards to our left. The moment it went off I bent a little, and in a second my head was up. Scooping up the boys, one under each arm, I ran for the blast point. I kept my head down, but I could already see the woman – hardly more than a girl herself – poke her head up out of the huddle of children, looking for hurts. I’m sure she started rising to send them after me but the second bomb went off.
The impact was enough to send me into the air, up about three feet, then back down, completely lost and pitching forward. The boys made hardly a sound as we hit the earth, a sprawling mass of arms and legs. I managed somehow to keep my arms about them. Back on the ground the tears began, but these amazing children bit their lips, refusing to cry.
The third bomb finally got the barn. I had no sense of anything any longer. At the sound I covered the boys’ heads with the sides of my coat. A tremendous heat pressed against my back. My bare hands felt like they were afire.
The moment the impact passed I turned my head, almost on reflex. The barn was like a tower made of matchsticks at a party that for the evening finale gets lit and knocked down. The hand of God didn’t smash it. He just split it with a finger and the whole of it went flying in splinters. Bits of burning wood were everywhere in the air. I covered my face as something warm brushed my ear.
Two more bombs went off on the other side of the barn, but the burning building sheltered us from the blasts. Then the bombing stopped.
I turned my head into my greatcoat. The boys had their eyes wide and were watching me. I looked from one to the other. “What are your names?” I asked quietly, a smile edging into my voice.
“William, sir,” said one.
“Phillip,” said two.
I cocked my head and listened. The drone of the planes disappeared. “Well, lads,” I said, “I’m Captain Trelawny, and I have the honor of telling you we’re still alive.” I pulled my greatcoat away from them and grinned. They blinked and rubbed their sore shoulders.
“Are they gone, sir?”
“Yes, Phillip. They’ve gone.”
They stared behind me at the burning barn. I could not imagine what it was like to be child in this war. It was so much closer to home than the last one. And that had been bad enough. Yet with all this fear and paranoia there must have been a tremendous amount of excitement as well. The great adventure all children dream of. How horrible to have it come true.
I turned… yes, she was all right. They all were. The children were standing at her feet, all looking at the barn. Glancing that way myself, I could see the interior beams aflame and falling, the roof entirely gone. Soon the last of those flaming beams would cascade down on one another and the thing would collapse forever.
One little boy sniffled. Their keeper patted him on the head and after a sigh I wasn’t meant to see, she turned so that the burning barn was behind her, one hand brushing the child’s face, the other holding her gardening hat at her side. Silhouetted by the firelight, she was beautiful beyond words. Venus, framed by Mars.
“William, Phillip, are you all right?” she asked. She was young, very young, a fact that had not fully impressed itself upon me until she spoke. The boys left my side and went running over to her. “Yes’m!” they chorused. Then William piped up. “Captain says they’ve gone. Didn’t ya, Captain?” He peered at me through the building smoke. So did she, with an earnest look reserved for grownups.
I hated to scare them, but I had to temper comfort with the truth. “I said they were gone for now. Doesn’t mean they won’t be back.”
“What do you suggest?” she asked, taking her silly hat from out her hands and placing it upon her head. Her fingers tucked the falling curls away, then went back to petting her younger charges, who clutched at her.
“I suggest we find some sturdy shelter to spend the night. A place we can sit and thumb our noses at them if they do come back.” I said this last to a little girl peeking out at me from behind her flat little sailor hat. I tugged on her ribbons, then looked up. “Any thoughts? I was only passing through. I don’t know the area.”
“Well…” the young miss began, biting the side of her lip, “I believe there’s a railway tunnel somewhere in that direction, not far from here.” She turned the last into a question, the notes high. One of those dark curls slipped petulantly out and fell into her eyes.
“Sounds fine.” I smiled and put on my best front for the children. “Perfect. Let’s go, troops. Tally ho.”
We started off. I stayed near the rear, with the children in a tight huddle in the middle, and their teacher in the lead. But soon the lights of the fire faded behind us. The night air drew the smoke from their clothes and the children became themselves again. They wandered off to the sides, talked and whispered among themselves or ran up to ask a question. They kept peeking over their shoulders at me in my rumpled uniform.
One of them, a girl I will love forever, went up front and asked the young miss a question. The reply didn’t satisfy the girl, who asked another, and this time she had a finger shaken at her as well as a scolding tone from lady. The girl returned to her friends and they continued to talk. The young miss stopped walking to watch the children pass. She nodded as she counted. When the last moved by her she smiled and sighed. I drew closer and her smile grew. I paused next to her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“For?” I really wasn’t sure.
“For taking charge. We might never have got out of the schoolhouse without you.”
A half-dozen comments came to mind to impress this pretty, courageous young woman. Luckily I couldn’t get my tongue around any of them and wound up saying the best thing I could have. “You’re welcome.”
A girl giggled. The woman beside me looked ahead. Her face broke into a half-crooked grin. “She wants to know if you’re married.”
“If I say no, will I get a proposal?” I laughed. So did she.
We began walking again. I picked up the conversation. “You might well wish you’d stayed in there, you know. Never know what they’ll hit and what they won’t.”
“I thought they only hit big cities. London…” She brushed her hair back with her hand, black hair that fell across the nape of her neck.
“Ever since…” Whoa, Peter. Little husky, aren’t we? Deep breath. Try again. “Sorry. Ever since our aeroplanes moved out to the coasts the damn Luftwafe have been trying every place that could possibly hide one. They know our forces are split up and separated for safety. There are no hangers or runways to bomb.”
“Are you with the Flying Corps, Captain?”
“No,” I said, trying to defuse the topic with my tone.
“What are you with?”
“I’m part of a – fact-finding group attached to the Home Office.” Not a clever lie at all.
She gave me a curious look. “And what are you doing out here?”
“I landed at Dover yesterday, on my way back from the continent. My train was stopped and we were told to find shelter. I found the school house.”
“The continent? But isn’t France..?”
“I barely made it to the coast. I was very lucky.”
“What was it like there? Was it terrible?”
“Yes. Terrible is about as good a word as any. I passed through Nice about a day ahead of them. There were all sort of announcements on the radio, informing people how to act.” I chuckled. “People were pouring wine on their gardens, saying French wine would go down French gullets or none at all.” She smiled, and I continued, “I was lucky. And when I arrived tonight I thought everything would be safe as houses. Then the air raid sirens went off and the whole train full of people went scrambling for cover.”
“We were lucky to have you find us. The schoolhouse might have been a target after all. I suppose the place is a bit of a barn.”
She looked at me as if she just remembered something. Taking a couple of quick steps she stood on her toes and counted, bobbing her head for each child. At the end she relaxed.
“How many?” I asked.
“Seventeen, thank God,” she breathed.
It didn’t seem proper to ask about her. “Where are they from?”
She nodded. “Their families are still there.” She frowned and looked up at me. “They play all day, we talk. I try to teach them numbers and letters, but it all seems…useless. If you understand.”
“I think I do,” I said.
“They’re so brave. They all pretend, even think they’re happy.” She started to drop back further, out of earshot of the children. “About ten at night, when they’re supposed to sleep, they begin to get frightened. They don’t cry much, and usually when they do the others tell them it’s all right. Then they all come to me. We spend the night sleeping in the schoolroom.”
Her eyes glistened. I said nothing.
“They think they’re safe, you see?” she went on, doggedly pursuing her point. “They left their families to be safe. Then this! This happens so often. When the air raid sirens start I can hear them all thinking ‘Why did I need to leave the city if I’m going to be bombed anyway?’ Oh, Captain…” Her words stopped.
I could feel a heat in my eyes. There was no answer for her. For any of us. But, just as if there were, I took her in my arms and held her. Shivering, she stepped into me, pressing her head against my chest. I could feel myself fall under the scent of her hair, a sweet, natural perfume made up only of her.
After a moment she stepped back and looked at me with a child’s eyes, wide, trusting, afraid. Excited. She was a person to care for. I smiled into those eyes and, leaning forward, kissed the fallen strands of hair across her face.
A child’s giggle made us both look ahead. One of the girls was standing, staring at us with a tiny hand covering her mouth. All the children had stopped and were waiting. Some wore huge smiles, others looked conspicuously up at the night sky, at the giant moon hanging over us, so large it looked false. One boy in a short-brimmed hat and baggy trousers was making silent retching gestures.
She and I shared a look of culprits caught. I chuckled as she moved away, shooing the children on. After a moment I started walking as well, thinking suddenly dangerous thoughts. Was she married? Engaged? How young was she? Couldn’t be over six and twenty. A sweet age! But that, compared to my almost forty! That was bad. Nevertheless, a part of me was shrieking, ‘You’ve found her! Don’t’ be a fool!’
I quickened my pace and fell in step next to her. Jaded years fell away with each step. I felt younger than I could remember feeling my whole life. It’s queer what falling in love will do to a body.
I began to notice all manner of things about her. Her funny walk, legs just a fraction too long made her gait just a little too wide. But she seemed very sure-footed. Her tiny ankles were in huge knit socks that fell loosely over the tops of her small, square, solid shoes that often looked awkward on women. They looked fine on her. All her clothes looked fine. A scarf, hand-woven I was sure, swirled around her shoulders, green and blue and purple dancing. A gray wool sweater with cozy, fuzzy little sleeves.
She gave me a sidelong glance. When I smiled at her, she blushed, then laughed. A wonderful sound.
A burst of light close by made me snap my head around. The boy with the baggy trousers was flicking away a match he’d lit on his fingernail, watching it sail into the darkness and burn out in the grass. The boys around him were very impressed. As he reached for another match, I said rather sharply, “No light. Even the smallest light could draw their eyes.”
The boy looked mulish. His eyes held more potential fire than his matches. But he obeyed.
We soon saw the train tracks. It wasn’t wise to walk along them – they were an excellent target – but we turned and shadowed them at a safe distance. The moon seemed closer to us than before, so large and full it looked false. Unreal.
As we walked on, I saw a shiver race across the woman’s shoulders. I had my coat off and around her in seconds. As soon as I placed it I should have slipped my arm around her as well, but I didn’t. I stepped back again, and continued to walk at a safe distance. I wanted to feel her hand in mine. I could do it, just hold my hand out to her. But that same exaltation I felt had a sting in it. She might say no. I had to laugh at myself. I had braved African trenches, sneaked over enemy lines, even fought off a gang of toughs on a steamer. I had proved myself under every crisis life had ever thrown in my path. In the face of that single ‘no,’ however, I was as cowardly as the timid wave that never reaches the shore.
But Fate was looking my way. We were climbing up the slope of a hill when she slipped. I reached out and caught her in my arms. She righted herself and, freeing herself of my hold, brushed herself off. Then, with a smile clear and whole, she slipped her arm through mine and pressed it to her side. We walked the rest of the way to the bridge like that. If it had been up to me that walk would have lasted days.
The tunnel was just in sight. I was helping the woman climb over a small post fence, children all around straddling the fence themselves, when we heard it again. All heads turned upwards, peering into the night sky. “Damn,” I breathed. “Go. Everyone, get to the tunnel. GO!”
The children began sprinting. I helped their mistress over the fence, but once on the ground, she didn’t run, but looked to me.
“Run!” I said loudly. Too loudly. I couldn’t bark orders at her, but I couldn’t let her stay out where the danger lived.
“Captain—” she started to protest.
“I’ll take the count. Seventeen?”
She bit her lip, nodded. “There were sixteen but one more, just today—”
I pressed her arm and looked urgently into her eyes. “Later.”
She looked back at me, her eyes wide open. She leaned forward. For a brief eternity, we shared each other. She was all I ever needed.
An instant later we both pulled back and she began to run. She turned mid-stride, skirt blowing in the night breeze, a hand up to her hat. “Rose! I’m Rose!”
“I think, Peter —”
The sound overhead grew distinctly louder and I panicked. “Go!”
She turned. Thank God she was doing it. I couldn’t lose her.
I helped the last stragglers over the fence and then started after the group, slower, counting. It was a good half-mile to the bridge, and I tried to see heads in the darkness. The roar of planes rose. There were no sirens this far into the country. Only the whirring over the clouds heralded the death of anyone, anywhere.
I was half running, half slipping down a sudden slope when I counted sixteen. Seventeen was nowhere to be seen. Hell and damnation. I spun, nearly wrenching my ankle in the earth, searching. My eyes caught a flicker of movement at the fence. It was the imp with the matches. How could I have missed him? His trousers were caught on the old fence. I cursed and pushed back up the hill, digging into the grass with my fingers. I went as fast as I could. A whistling in the air told me we had not long.
I reached the child flat out. He was pulling on the caught leg. Without bothering about the hitch, I tore the child from the fence, yanking hard to pull him free. The little demon was a heavy burden. I tossed him down and he was off like small-shot down the hill.
I’d barely started around when the world rocked again. I went flat on my face, my teeth clattering in my head. Another explosion lifted me off the ground, like a marionette whose lines are twisted, only to deposit me again to the burning earth.
I felt warm all over. I wondered for a moment if I was on fire, but this was different. This warmth was inside me. I tried to push up and bring my knees to bear, but fell painfully on my side after my legs gave out. I was filled with indescribable agony as something in my back jiggered.
Hot now. It hurt horribly. Sweat covered my face. Looking over my shoulder though the haze I saw it. There was a good three feet of wooden post imbedded in my back. It jutted out, thick and jagged, at a weird angle.
I was going to die.
Between clenched teeth I let out a long breath. Half way through it became a moan. My face contorted and became a masque of pain and despair. Physical pain was swept aside by one worse. Why now? Why not an hour before? Why, God, why? Why had I been allowed to live long enough to love her? Was life that cruel?
The next time I could see, Rose was there. “You’ll be fine, Captain. Help is on the way. They’ve got to…they’ll be here soon.” I wasn’t sure to whom she was lying.
She lifted my head and slid her legs underneath it. It hurt, but I couldn’t mind that. My grimy face felt sticky and hot. I could feel the blood behind my eyes pounding. I wasn’t going to live another hour.
She took off her handmade scarf and began mopping my face. It felt soft and carried her scent. I closed my eyes. The sensations made me think of my father. He’d have liked her, I thought. He would have loved to see us get married and have children of our own. But he was dead. And now so was I. I wouldn’t even live as long as he had. I wouldn’t get to be a father.
I opened my eyes and looked at this woman. My thoughts turned to only her. Her hat was off, and that soft raven hair spilled across her face and brushed my cheek.
I held up a hand. She quickly took it. I tried to look at her eyes, but the firelight was behind, and shadowed her features. Her figure glowed, flickeringly. I tried to smile. I could feel the softness in my eyes.
“Carry on,” I said.
She nodded. “Always. Always, Peter.”
It seemed important to tell her something. Make sure of her. “Be happy. Be wonderful—”
Her only answer was to continue stroking my face. I couldn’t believe how soft her hand was. I tried to move, but the pain took me. I fell limply in her arms.
“Peter!” She tried to hold me up. I opened my eyes again.
“You don’t even…know me.” I spluttered a laugh. “Could…be Mous’lini.”
She leaned over and brushed my face with her fingers. Closer now I could see a trace of a smile under her tearful eyes. “Silly.” She said it again and the smile left. “Silly,” and she began to cry.
The children gathered around us. I couldn’t make them out in the dim firelight. My eyes went over them each. They looked back with knowing eyes. All the boys had taken the caps from their heads.
All but one.
He was standing there, trousers ripped, hands in pockets. When my eyes fell on him he grinned and took out a match. There was something about that face. He hated me, that was clear. Enjoyed my suffering. With a flick the match blazed to life, then receded to a mere flutter of light before he flung it at the burning fence. He never took his eyes from mine as he stepped back and passed from view, into the fire.
Rose went on caressing my face until the lights went out of my world. I could still feel her fingers on my face.
* * *
“What the fuck!?” I bolted in my seat, gasping for breath, confused by my surroundings. Fumbling, I pushed at the door and stumbled out into the pouring rain. In a moment I was soaked head to toe. It didn’t feel real.
I moved fast. Twenty feet into the field and I was at the fence. I hopped over and went down on one knee. Yes. There was a patch of earth that looked as if it had been scooped out long ago. I could barely see it, but my fingers found the drop in the ground. Grass had grown back. There was no sign of the explosion, but for the telltale drop in the earth.
I stood, rain pouring down on me, and found myself unable to make a sound. My body shook. I’d like to believe it was only because of the rain. I opened my mouth, but it merely hung without words. I looked down the hill, towards the bridge…
She was there. She had to be there. She couldn’t not be there. I had a brief image of Rose, sitting curled up against a wall in the middle of that tunnel under the bridge, sheltering herself from the rain and the wind that pelted the land so harshly. She would be crying, and feel cold. I ran to find her, warm her, hold her in my arms. I reached the tunnel—
She wasn’t there.
An eternity later, I could feel the moment passing, reality imposing itself. No, not reality. The present. The present was dominating the past. My name wasn’t Peter. I was in my twenties, not my forties. I wasn’t a spy. I wasn’t even English! And there wasn’t a damned thing under that bridge now. That time had gone. Rose wasn’t there. The children weren’t there. Nothing. It was empty.
Empty, except for one lone match, there, right by my foot. Dry as a bone. Ready to light my world on fire.