Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives

I wrote this one way back in 1995, while I was still in high school. It's kind of neat to go back and see embryonic versions of my favorite themes, moods and rhythms appearing in these old stories.

Like Auld Lang Syne, Luna is a mood piece, this one primarily about religion and friendship. It's awkward and clunky in places, but I still like it.


Luna Solzhenitsyn was dressed in his usual tweed coat, his rumpled trousers and once-white sweater, and his balding head was covered with the same old grungy Giants baseball cap, pulled down low over his eyes. Still, I knew something was wrong. In the twenty-odd years I had been serving Luna he had always kept that beard of his tidy and trim, even when he was drop-down drunk, but now it was sticking out all over the place like an old washer-woman’s featherduster, little droplets of spit clinging to the tips of the beard for dear life.

“Luna?” I ventured, giving the bar a long, slow wipe with my apron as I watched him sit down on one of the few empty stools.

“Hrrrrack.” Luna cleared his throat, his fist rising to his mouth, a wet blowing coming out into the stained handkerchief clutched in his paw.

“Uh-huh,” I nodded, turning to the nozzles so he wouldn’t see the look of growing concern that I knew was growing in my eyes. “The regular, then?”

Luna groped around in one of his pockets and then dropped a fistful of ten-dollar bills onto the counter. “As many as you can find in there,” he rasped, his voice whiskery.

I threw a quick glance over my shoulder at the bills. “Rough night, huh?” I asked quietly.

Luna lifted his head to look at me, then opened his mouth to say something, but another fit of wet coughing took over. His whole frame shuddered with the force of the spasms as he snatched the soiled handkerchief back up to his mouth. But he was too late, I had already glimpsed the dribble of dark liquid that appeared at the corner of his mouth.

“I’ll get the drinks,” I murmured, but as I turned back to the nozzles I picked up the phone off of its cradle.

“No ambulance!” Luna bellowed, almost knocking his stool to the floor. “No ambulance! No hospital!”

“Easy, easy,” I hushed him, bringing the phone up to my ear. “You want to make a scene or something? I’m just calling a friend, that’s all.”

“No ambulance,” he rumbled one last time before he sat back down. He tried to clear his throat, but the coughing took him again. This time it was worse than before, a deep, rasping wheeze that seemed to come all the way up from the bottom of his soul.

I watched all this for a long moment, then started to dial quickly, keeping the phone in my left hand as I scooped up two mugs in my right and brought them to the tap. The phone rang. Luis picked up on the second ring, just like always. “It’s me, Joe.” I threw a glance over my shoulder before I continued, not letting him get a word in edgewise. “Luna’s here. I think maybe it’s time...” I glanced over my shoulder again. Luna was hunched over the bar, wiping his brow with a sleeve. “Yeah, I’d say you’d better hurry,” I added.

I dropped the phone back in the cradle, finished filling both glasses and then brought them back to where Luna was waiting.

“No ambulance, Joe?” Luna murmured.

“No ambulance, Luna,” I replied.

“Ah,” Luna nodded, lifting his eyes. An odd expression passed over his face as he saw the two glasses. “I am a big drinker, Joe, but two at once...?”

I smiled thinly at him as I pulled one of the glasses over to me. “It’s a good thing I own this place,” I said. “You should see the size of my tab.”

Luna grinned weakly, then lifted his glass and drank, though I noticed he winced as the beer went down his throat.

“So,” I began, then took a heavy gulp of my own. “Did you ever get things settled with that daughter of yours?”

Luna nodded slowly. “She and I had many, many... arguments. But a time comes when such things must be... let go.” He took another drink. “You know.”

I nodded, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at the clock on the wall. “Amen, brother.”

“Amen,” Luna agreed. He sighed and shifted on his seat. “I rewrote the will, Joe. Now she gets it all.” A chuckle came from somewhere in his enormous barrel chest. “Besides, what would a dog do with it?”

We both laughed at this and drank again, but no sooner had our glasses struck the bar then the bell over the door rang out over the din of the pub, and a tall man with grey hair walked in, water dripping from his long brown raincoat. He shook his head and shoulders, spraying droplets everywhere, and then sauntered up to the two of us.

“Father Luis,” I said.

Luna looked up at him and grinned. “Good,” he chuckled. “I just beat the storm. It’s you that got wet and not me!”

The priest grinned back. “Lucky for you, Luna,” he said. “You know, the Lord said that he would never flood the earth again, but nights like this make a man wonder if He ever changes His mind.”

All three of us had a good laugh at this, but after the priest and I had stopped Luna kept on, his laughter transformed into another long coughing fit. Father Luis looked at me with an eyebrow raised, and I nodded.

“Let me get you a drink,” I said to him, and moved off down the bar, but still remaining close enough to hear what was going on.

“Father,” Luna said. “I didn’t figure you to be a drinking man.”

“I’m not,” the priest admitted as he sat down. “But a man can get thirsty once in a while for other things. Like company, for instance.”

I returned long enough to set down the priest’s water, then retreated again down the bar.

“Thank you, Joe,” the priest called after me.

“I should’ve known,” Luna laughed weakly, pointing at the water, but his first chuckle already trailed off into another hacking fit. Up came the handkerchief, but again the gesture was too late. The blood trickled from his mouth and onto his beard like his tobacco juice had a thousand times before. The only difference was that this time, Luna didn’t curse as he wiped it away.

“Looks like it’s time, eh, Father?” Luna mumbled after he had caught his breath.

“Let me take you to the hospital, Luna,” the priest whispered. “My car is right outside - "

“No hospitals.” Luna shook his head wearily. “If it is my time, then it is my time."

The priest took a long drink from his glass. “Do you want to call your daughter?”

Luna shook his head again. “No, Father. Things are solved there as much as ever they will be.”

The priest pursed his lips and frowned. “So, then, tell me. Is there anything I can do?”

Luna paused, coughed once, paused again, and then looked up at the priest. “I was never a religious man until I moved here, Father,” he rumbled. “My country, that provided me no hope. Religion there offered me nothing. Everything, it fell apart -- even my own daughter and I had a breaking of the ways. So I came to America, with a rich friend. But America was not all it should have been, until I began to attend your sermons with neighbors, to meet people. Your words, Father, gave an old man hope, a new feeling for me. So I kept coming, every Sunday.” He coughed. “You are the finest priest ever have I known, and I would like you to do one thing for me before I must go on.”

The holy man nodded slowly. “Anything, Luna.”

Luna gazed into his beer. “I have never been baptized.”

Father Luis stared at him for a moment, then down at his glass. “How much time do you think you have, Luna -- "

But Luna cut him off with another fit of coughing. This one was different, though. The others had been violent but had passed quickly, this bout seemed to last forever. I came back from my hiding place behind the kitchen door with a fistful of tissues and a wastebasket. Luna took them gratefully. Each Kleenex was dropped into the basket blackened.

The priest looked at me. “I need one of your pretzel bowls, Joe.”

I reached down the bar and pulled up an empty one. “How’s this?” I asked.

“Fine,” the priest replied, taking it in his hands. He set the bowl on the bar, then placed his right hand over the top of his glass and picked it up by the handle with his left. Slowly he began to pour the water into the bowl, straining it through his fingers as if cleansing it, as he mumbled a prayer under his breath.

“There,” the priest nodded when he had finished, setting the glass down and wiping his hands on his coat. He turned to Luna, who was still shaking with the coughs. The priest reached up and drew off the old man’s hat.

“Just a moment,” I said to the priest, then I turned to the rest of the bar patrons. “Hey everybody - shut up a minute!”

The pub fell silent, all eyes turning to the priest, the old man, and me. For a long moment, everything was still. My eyes flitted from face to face -- old customers, new customers, businessmen, drunks. A wildy-varied crowd, I knew, but I also knew not one of them was about to say a thing.

“Thank you,” the priest nodded again, then dipped his fingers down in the bowl. Slowly, carefully, he brought them up over Luna’s head and sprinkled a few drops onto the man’s high forehead, murmuring another prayer under his breath. The water shivered and gleamed, shaken up by the old man’s restrained coughing, mixing with Luna’s sweat until it ran down his face and into his eyes.

Father Luis began to speak, slowly and clearly. Luna lowered his eyes, trying to control his coughing. I lowered my head as well, just like I was taught to do. In fact, everyone in the room removed their hats and even dropped their eyes.

As the priest spoke, however, I kept my eyes on Luna, the sweat and holy water running down his face, tracing the wrinkles it found there, not unlike a child counting the rings of a tree trunk. It trickled down past his nose, through his mustache and onto his lips and beard, mingling with beer, saliva and blood. Then the water drizzled down the grey hairs of Luna’s beard, riding the loops and curls before finally dripping from the ends and onto the old man’s hands folded dutifully in his lap.

The minister finished, crossing himself.

“Thank you, Father,” Luna whispered, looking up at him as his coughing subsided for a moment. He stood up, took his hat and handkerchief in his left hand, and shook the priest’s hand with his right. "And thank you, Joe," he said to me, his voice solemn and oddly noble. Then he reached up, smoothed out his beard with a long sweep of his hand, and slowly made his way out the door.

The priest and I both watched him go, then turned to face each other. I glanced down at Luna’s four or five ten-dollar-bills still lying there on the counter. I handed them to the priest. “Here,” I said. “Put this in the plate when you get the chance.”

“Thank you,” he nodded, taking the money without looking at it at all. He just looked at me, an odd look in his eyes. Then he cast a glance back towards the door.

“Do you think he’ll get home all right?” I said then, thinking out loud.

“I do believe, Joe,” the priest answered softly, not taking his eyes off the door as the din wound up again, “we just took him there.”

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