If he can make it through February, he’ll be all right. That’s what Joel thinks, all during the wintertime. If he can make it through December, like that old Merle Haggard song David had loved. If he can make it through January. But February is the hardest of all.
In the dark mornings he makes tea and stands at the window, looking out on the black woods while the kettle goes from silent to revving to boiling. As the world pinkens, he can see that everything is covered in a thick frost, sparkling like glints in a geode. On this particular morning there are a dozen redbirds playing on the dulled grass of the backyard beneath the clothesline. All male, startling in their redness. The good old dog is by his side as always, looking up at him with expectant eyes, as if Joel needs to be reminded that he should be fed immediately. Once the kettle clicks off, he pours the water into the rotund pot and leans close to relish the damp heat of the steam on his face. He bends to fill the beagle’s bowl. While the tea steeps, he watches Dandy crunch on the kibble, shuffling his two back feet as if the food is so delicious he can’t stand still.
A full two years, and still he has to pause before filling one mug instead of two. A couple of times he has gone ahead and made two, but each time he feared that if he added the milk to the second, he would have reached full-on loss of touch with reality.
Joel sits in the back room by the gas logs and sips his tea and reads the news on his phone for a time. Then he gets so overwhelmed by the surrealness of what’s happening in the world that he simply looks at the fire, trying not to think about the way he used to always get up before David, how he always loved the sound of him coming down the creaky stairs to find his mug of tea awaiting him. How David would come sit with him by the fire in the mornings, his feet bare and cold, no matter the season. The way he always smelled of pinewoods in the mornings. They used to talk in hushed tones, as if in reverence for the new day, and listen to the birds announcing that day had broken.
Dandy has finished his breakfast, so he pads into the back room and hops up onto the couch, perches his head on Joel’s thigh right where he knows Joel will find it easiest to pet him. Immediately he lets out a satisfied groan and falls back to sleep, kicking his hind leg when dreams of rabbit-chasing find him. Joel strokes the dog’s head and knows he has become too dependent upon him. Ever since he was a puppy, the dog has whined to climb into the bed at night, but only lately has Joel taken to patting the mattress and allowing Dandy to hop up there, where he curls up head to tail and doesn’t make a sound throughout the night except for the occasional rabbit-dreams-running. David had always wanted Dandy to sleep at their feet, but Joel had insisted that the dog was too filthy. He knows that he is spoiling the dog something fierce, but at this point, why shouldn’t he? He and the dog are both in their winters, and they might as well have any comfort they can find, now.
The house is very quiet. He can hear the tick of the old lumber tightening itself against the February cold. Then, just as Joel grabs his book from the end table and perches his readers upon his nose, there it is: the creak of stairs, the shuffling of bare feet across the kitchen floor.
“Uncle Joel?” the boy calls from the kitchen.
“Back here,” Joel says, and waits, knowing the boy will shuffle into the back room soon. Fox eases into the doorway. He never gets into a hurry about anything. He never makes much noise at all, and often Joel has to ask him to repeat what he says because he is so soft-spoken. Fox has already dressed: khaki pants cuffed twice at the ankle, black socks, a tee shirt emblazoned with the faces of some band Joel doesn’t know. In the two months he’s been here Joel has never once seen him in his bedclothes. “There’s a pot of tea on the counter. Make yourself some toast.”
“Thanks, Uncle.” Fox always insists on calling him this, although they only met two months ago when the boy showed up at his front door.
“I know this is weird, but my mom told me you might let me stay with you,” Fox had said, his arms folded against the cold.
“And who is your mother?” Joel had asked.
“Joanna. My granny is your sister, Dellie.”
So then he had let him into the house. Fox had knelt and petted the old dog while he talked. Dandy had dug his nose hard into Fox’s crotch, but the boy only smiled and guided him away, cupping Dandy’s face and touching the dog’s nose with his own.
“Joanna was just little when me and your granny fell out,” Joel had said. “But I only ever knew of Joanna having a little girl.” He had kept up with his family’s life through a cousin who loved to tell everything she knew.
“I used to be Sara, but now I’m Fox.”
Just like that.
“Oh,” Joel had said, and studied the boy closer. Fox had a strong jawline covered in a neatly trimmed beard, horn-rimmed wire glasses that straddled a small nose and drew attention to his large green eyes. There was a bulk about Fox’s shoulders that didn’t quite match the rest of his body; he wasn’t even as tall as Joel, who had always been thought of as a small man. But still, he would not have guessed. “I understand.”
“Granny was raising me because my mother ran off to Nashville. When Granny kicked me out, I called Mom and she said for me to come to you.” As the boy spoke, Joel had pictured Dellie, forty years ago, brows fretted, mouth small and tight, telling him he was going to hell for being who he is. He couldn’t imagine what she had put this boy through. He didn’t completely understand some of the stuff Fox talked about—dysphoria, cis-gendered—but whenever he was frustrated by that, he thought of how he had been turned away by everyone who was blood kin to him, and he wasn’t about to let that happen to his great-nephew. And he thought of how David would have calmed his fears. Joel knew that David would have wanted him to take the boy in.
So he had. And ever since they have lived here together just fine, getting to know each other in fits and starts. The boy is seventeen and works at the Neon Moon, a dance hall way out in horse country, while he gets his GED. Fox has dropped out of school because people made too much fun of him there. He had been beaten at the high school a couple times, too, which hurt Joel to hear, seeing how little Fox was. Joel had only not been beaten himself because he had lived in hiding for most of his life. He and David had moved to Lexington in 1979 and had created a whole new life for themselves, away from their families and everything they had known their entire lives. Despite knowing he can never live there again, he always thinks of Hawk as “back home” and still feels like a visitor to this city. David had never looked back but said Joel was a perpetual Lot’s wife.
“A thousand wonders you haven’t turned to a pillar of salt by now, honey.” He can hear David, whispering this in his ear. He remembers so many times he had pulled his hand away when David tried to take it as they walked down the street, shifting away from him in the movie theater when David wanted to lean close. David had been brave and he had not.
There is a comfort in hearing Fox in the kitchen: the gurgle of tea into his mug, the shake of Cheerios into his bowl, the guh-lug of milk sliding into the cereal. Dandy flops his tail three times when Fox shuffles over to the kitchen table where he can be seen without disturbing Joel if the old man wants to read his book. But he doesn’t feel like reading this morning.
“You have to work today?” Joel asks.
“This evening.” Fox is shoveling spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth with one hand and scrolling along on his phone with the other. “I go in at seven.”
“Why do you work way out there in horse country?”
“They gave me a job, so I took it.”
“But it takes so long to get out there.”
“Only about twenty minutes.” Still he can’t tear himself away from his phone.
Back when he’d lived in eastern Kentucky, he wouldn’t have had a second thought about driving longer than that to get somewhere, but since moving to the city he hardly drives anywhere. He can walk to the grocery, the bakery, even the post office. Back when David was still alive and they drove out to stores and restaurants away from their neighborhood, most everything in town was no more than fifteen minutes from their house. Fox grew up out in the country, so of course he doesn’t think a thing of it.
“Hey, why don’t you turn off that phone and talk to me?”
“I can do both,” Fox says, his face lit in a ghostly glow as he studies the phone. “I’m just looking at the news.”
“It’s rude, though,” Joel says, not minding if he sounds crotchety.
“My generation doesn’t think it’s rude,” Fox says, good-natured as always. “We just think it’s multi-tasking. We don’t have to look each other right in the eye the whole time we’re having a conversation.”
Joel sighs. “Well, you should. And I’m not part of your generation, so it feels rude to me.”
“Okay, boomer,” Fox says, and laughs. His laugh is deep and pleasing to hear. Fox leaves his phone on the table and comes to stand near Joel, eating his cereal with a little smile on his face.
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Something stupid.”
Dandy arises and jumps from the couch where he does a yawning stretch on the floor before dawdling over to sniff at Fox’s pant legs. Fox reaches down and gives him a rub behind his ears, and Dandy looks up at him with adoration. The old dog plops down at Fox’s feet where he scratches at his ear then shakes his head in satisfaction, the metal tag on his collar clinking out a quick song.
“David always wanted to go out there, to the Neon Moon.”
“Why didn’t he?”
“I didn’t see the point of going out to watch a bunch of straight people dancing. Why do you want to work at the place where the most rednecks hang out, anyway?”
“Most of them are really nice,” Fox says. “And once you’ve lived with my granny, you can survive anything. Besides, I want to be part of the world. All of it.”
“Easier said than done,” Joel says.
“David should’ve left you at home and gone by himself,” Fox says, not unkindly. His large green eyes latch onto Joel’s.
“Well, he could have. But he was like you. He wanted to show them we existed. I didn’t see why we had to always be the ones educating them.”
“Sounds to me like you were afraid, Uncle.”
Joel’s attention is drawn by a flash of red and then there is a tremendous thump against the window that startles both Joel and Fox.
“Oh no,” Fox says, rushing to the window. Joel arises and stands beside the boy. One of the redbirds has flown headfirst into the window and is lying on the frosty ground, twitching. Joel hustles out the kitchen door, steps out into the cold morning with Fox and Dandy close at his heels. The February air feels like icy water thrown onto his face. Dandy races forward to snatch up the bird, but Joel lets loose a firm “No!” that causes the dog to slink backward.
Joel leans down near the bird—a miracle of red feathers—and puts his hands together to scoop it up. “Oh, beauty,” he hears himself say. Just as his fingers reach out for the bird, it flutters into its full self again and rises suddenly. It’s unable to fly too high, though, and settles in the lowest branches of a maple sapling, shaking its head as if trying to right itself.
“What were you going to do?” Fox asks after Joel has stood and they have kept their eyes on the bird for a short time.
“I don’t know,” he says, but he did know. He would have held the bird in his hands so it wouldn’t die alone the way David had in that hospital bed. Joel had left only that one time, to go home for a shower and a change of clothes, and when he came back, David was dead. Sometimes they wait until their loved ones aren’t there, a kind nurse had told him. She had rubbed his back in a circle while he tried to catch his breath.
Fox wraps his arms around himself and runs his hands up and down his arms. “Jesus, it’s cold as knives out here.” Joel hasn’t heard that phrase in ages. He knows they both probably last heard it from Dellie. She had always been so wonderful and terrible, one or the other depending on the moment at hand. He had adored her, once upon a time. He has never stopped missing her, even after the terrible things she said to him. That’s how it is with blood.
That evening Joel fries chicken and makes biscuits. He fries potatoes and apples, and stirs up a skillet of gravy in the chicken grease. Cooking and reading are about the only activities that give him any pleasure during the wintertime. In warm weather he likes to be outside with his hands in the dirt, the sunshine on his back, the old dog always nearby. As he works tonight, he finds himself whistling that old Brooks & Dunn song that the Neon Moon is named for. “We ought to go. You love that song, and they play it every night as the last song to close the place down,” David had said. If only Joel could go back in time. He would do it all so differently. He wouldn’t have refused David anything. Not once.
“These biscuits are just like my granny’s,” Fox says after Joel has said the brief blessing.
“She taught me how to make them,” Joel says and takes a sip of his coffee.
“Our family is crazy as hell, but we sure can cook,” Fox says, and smiles.
“I can make mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs, and I was learning to make gravy when she ran me off,” Fox says.
“I can teach you. It’s the easiest thing in the world once you’ve done it.”
In that widening moment just after the boy rushes out, afraid he’ll be late for work, Joel is surprised by how much he misses him, surprised by how silent the house is without Fox’s presence. After he washes the dishes—the soapy water, the lemon smell of it, the clatter of cutlery against plates—he goes to the back room and looks out the windows, half-expecting to see the redbird still perched on the low branch of the sapling. But the bird is gone.
Joel lights the gas logs and settles on the couch with Dandy lying as close to him as he can get, his good head settled happily upon Joel’s thigh. Joel tries to read his book, but he keeps feeling like David is leaning in the doorway to the kitchen, watching him. He looks up twice, fancying his presence but of course finding nothing there. Suddenly the worst nicotine craving of his life blooms in his mouth, his tongue watering at the thought. He and David quit together thirty years ago, but what difference will it make now? He has ten years at the most left, he figures. Might as well enjoy something. So he outfits Dandy with his harness, and they go out into the cold night.
Tiny feathers of snow drift down as they walk to the corner store. This is the best neighborhood in Lexington, he has always thought. The oldest trees. Perfectly situated between two large parks. But the best part is how quiet and dark it is. The streetlights are purposely dim and spaced out so the night sky can be seen. There is a gracious plenty of stars. The old dog loves nothing more than a walk, even when the February air is this bitter, and he is padding along, his nose to the ground, savoring everything.
Halfway back from the store he has to stop and steady himself against a rock wall because the cigarette makes him so light-headed. For a brief moment he thinks he might throw up, and he considers dropping the Marlboro to the ground and grinding it out with his heel, but he takes another drag and that old deliciousness comes back to him. Smoking makes him want to drink Tullamore Dew, which he has not done in years because the whiskey always made him want to smoke.
He smokes another one before they make it home, Dandy occasionally glancing back at him as if to say, this is not a good idea. But then he turns back to drawing in the scents of every dog who has peed along this route in the previous weeks.
On the porch Dandy whines, quick and high, and when Joel puts the key in the lock he realizes the door is ajar. He hesitates, thinking someone might have broken in, but Dandy pushes forward, forcing through the opening, and bounds onto the couch where Fox sits, badly beaten. One of his eyes is already starting to bruise and his mouth is swollen. He’s holding a bloody paper towel to his nose. Dandy licks at the blood at the corner of the boy’s mouth before Fox pushes him away, gently. “Quit now, buddy,” Fox says.
“You need to tip your head back,” Joel says.
“You’re supposed to hold it forward,” Fox says, “or the blood runs down your throat. The school nurse taught me.”
“I’m taking you to the emergency room.”
“No. Not as bad as it looks.”
Joel wets a washrag, grabs peroxide and ibuprofen. When he closes the medicine cabinet, he catches sight of himself in its mirror and is startled at how distressed his own face looks, how old he is. “I’d like to kill them,” he says to his reflection, and he means it, wishing he could find the bastards who would hurt this boy.
Fox doesn’t cringe when Joel wipes the blood away, but the muscle in his jaw tightens. The boy is tougher than he ever was.
“You’re not going back there,” Joel says. “You don’t have to pay me anything; you can take your time finding a job that suits you better.”
“Most everybody there is good. It’s just the occasional prick.”
“It’s foolish to put yourself in harm’s way,” Joel says. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to prove.”
“I just want to live my life like everyone else in the world,” Fox says. He can’t look Joel in the eye. “My boss really stuck up for me tonight, though. He called the law, and those assholes are going to jail.”
Joel wants to beg the boy to quit, to stay home, to just stay there with him. But all Fox really has is his own choice. Joel knows that much is true.
“Have you been smoking?” Fox asks. “You smell awful.”
“I’m gonna run you some hot bathwater.”
“No,” Fox says, slipping his hand around Joel’s wrist when the old man is about to rise. “Can I just sleep here, on the couch? I just don’t want to move.”
Joel finds the quilt in the hallway closet, and when he opens it to spread over the boy, the scent of cedar washes through the room. “Your granny made me this when I graduated high school,” Joel says, but Fox has closed his eyes already and makes no reply.
Joel lies awake a long time that night, feeling the weight of David in the bed beside him. Contented little moans escape Dandy’s throat as he settles into sleep. Instead of daring to put his hand out to find his husband’s fingers awaiting his own, Joel caps his palm over the dog’s skull and studies the black skeletal limbs of the winter trees he can see from his window. But he knows David is there.
Fox goes right back to work the next night, despite Joel making one more argument against it. The boy won’t listen, though, and drives away in his rusty little Ford Escort while Joel stands at the front door, watching.
Joel washes the dishes. Wipes down the counters and the stove. Puts away all of the leftovers, whistling “Secret Heart” the entire time. He always was a good whistler. The only thing he could do better than David because David couldn’t whistle at all. He stands out back and smokes a cigarette, but doesn’t gain much pleasure from it. Instead of being delicious, the Marlboro settles a dull brown taste on his tongue that causes him to go in and brush his teeth. When he sits down in the back room to read his book, Dandy doesn’t jump onto the couch beside him like he usually does. Instead, the beagle sits on the floor in front of Joel, his front paws close together as he looks his man in the eye, trying to tell him something. “If only I could read your mind, old buddy,” Joel says aloud.
The night is very black and fully settled by the time he climbs the stairs and changes clothes. He plucks down a plaid button-up shirt, fishes out his tightest Levi’s, and sits on the edge of the bed to pull on David’s cowboy boots. They always shared shoes, but he hasn’t worn any of David’s since he died; it had seemed too maudlin, but now the boots feel just right. He looks in the mirror and thinks he looks pretty damn good for a seventy-four-year-old.
As he drives out into the country, the road is lined with miles of wooden fences. Somewhere back in the darkest parts of the fields the thoroughbreds are settled into their fancy barns for the night, breathing out plumes of wintry air. The land rises and falls, the small, low bridges carrying him across Town Branch and South Elkhorn Creek. Overhead the sky is clean with starlight.
The Neon Moon sits on a hill near the county line. On its green metal roof is a large sign lit with clear lightbulbs instead of neon. Hot Food Cold Beer Good Music in moveable letters underneath the place’s name. His boots crunch across the blue gravels of the parking lot, and at the door a squat man with a nose-ring and a Bocephus shirt asks for his ID, which makes Joel laugh, but he hands it over. The little man shines a small flashlight on his license then glances up at Joel’s face with great seriousness. “All right, buddy. Enjoy.”
Over the dance floor hangs the namesake of the place: a half-moon composed of bright yellow neon. Beneath it couples are two-stepping to a George Strait song. He is surprised to find a variety of ages, all moving about the floor together. When he was growing up, old folks and young people were together all the time, but he never sees that nowadays. Everybody lives in their own little rooms, it seems to him. But there are a couple of teenagers two-stepping perfectly and earnestly, as well as a couple who look to be about his age. The woman has on a big skirt that becomes a perfect bell when her man spins her. Lots of others gliding easily about the floor.
“What can I get you, baby?” a young woman says to him. She’s wearing a tight black tank top exactly like Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy, a movie he and David always loved. This girl’s hair is dyed pink and there’s a big tattoo of a naked woman on her right forearm. Joel hasn’t realized he stopped at the corner of the bar until she speaks. He tells her he doesn’t know so he’ll have her favorite lager.
“Let’s pull you a Cougar Bait, then,” she says, and instantly places a pint glass beneath a tap to fill. “Here you go, handsome,” she says when she hands it to him. She has enormous brown eyes that make him like her. “Start you a tab?” she asks, and he nods, raises the glass to her in a little toast, and she winks.
Joel hasn’t had a beer in years, and he has forgotten how delicious they can be, especially when they’re ice-cold like this one. Just as he brings the first drink down from his mouth, he sees Fox weaving his way through a flock of small round tables littered with paper plates, beer bottles, and wadded napkins. The boy is wearing a white cloth apron that he occasionally wipes his hands on as he loads his bus tray. Fox latches its weight over the top of his leather belt and maneuvers back to the swinging doors of the kitchen. When Fox pushes one of the doors open with the large tray, Joel catches a silver glimpse of the dishwasher back there.
Joel chooses one of the little tables and watches the dance floor, which is being overtaken by half the population of the club as the first notes of a drum-driven song he’s never heard comes on. Once situated, they launch into a line dance, some of them laughing, some of them concentrating too hard, all of them moving in unison that strikes Joel as a thing of great beauty. He has always been moved by communal happenings, whether choirs or orchestras or an entire movie audience laughing at the same time.
He catches Fox’s eye as soon as the boy comes back out to bus more tables.
“You came,” Fox says, smiling widely despite his busted lip.
“You get a break?”
“No, we close in a couple hours,” Fox says.
“I’ll just sit here until you get off.”
“Did you come just to look out for me?” Fox shifts the weight of the bus tray. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll be all right.”
“No,” Joel says. “I was just tired of not being out in the world.”
For the rest of the night he watches the boy work about as much as he watches the dancers. He envies the people out there line-dancing and two-stepping and slow-dancing. The couples, of course, but all of them. He envies Fox maybe most of all, the way he moves through the place like he’s not afraid of anything. He has never had confidence like any of them. Not ever.
Joel drinks three more beers, and he is buzzing hard by the time Fox stands before him, taking off his white apron. Behind him, couples are going out onto the floor, and the announcer is saying something across the fuzzy loudspeakers. Fox is holding his hand out to him.
“Come on, it’s the last song of the night,” he says. “They always play ‘Neon Moon,’ and it’s my favorite.”
Joel starts to ask him what does he mean, is he crazy, they can’t dance. Not together. But he doesn’t. Instead, he stands. He takes hold of his great-nephew’s hand, and they are going out onto the dance floor. There is a pulsing beat, a pedal steel, and then a woman’s voice. Not the version of the song he knows so well, but a completely new version, a perfect blend of country and disco. There is more pining in this woman’s voice. A sadness he has never recognized in the song before.
Then Fox puts one hand on Joel’s belt and holds the other one up before them. Joel does the same. And they are dancing. A couple glides by them, hugged up tight, and over a man’s shoulder a woman smiles at him. He and Fox are floating around the dance floor with all of the others, and no one seems concerned. Everyone is just enjoying the song and each other. The big silver disco ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling is sending magic glints over all of them, and Joel feels like they’re part of the night sky. The woman is singing There’s always room here for the lonely over a pedal steel and a synthesizer, and his feet are moving right in time. Joel is dancing with his flesh and blood, with his kin. Here they are, two men dancing.