If you’re going to count the stars you can’t stop without counting them all. The trouble is in losing track of what’s been counted and what still needs counting. The obvious solution is to section off parts of the sky, string boundary lines between the memorable standouts, clusters to divide, kingdoms to create, without repeating a single one.
# # #
It took my landlord 23 weeks to evict me. She showed up at the door with an actual cop, wringing her hands and speaking slowly. I could tell she had rehearsed. For her benefit I pretended to be surprised. In a way, maybe I was. When you’ve gotten away with something for 23 weeks — avoiding windows, burning letters — you begin to think it will last forever.
# # #
I paid the cab with money I borrowed from my dad’s wallet. I’ve never tipped anyone in my life. I took a dump and read an article ranking fifty of the season’s best hunting knives, then made a sandwich and opened a diet Pepsi before turning down the TV and greeting my father.
“Food in the fridge,” he shouted, his voice unused to a quiet TV. I never felt he was anything but happy to see me. Sometimes that thought made me cry.
“What’s on?” I nodded towards the TV.
“You need money?”
“Sure,” I said, and handed him his wallet.
We ordered pizza and watched Death Race 2, The Shawshank Redemption, and several episodes of Lodge 49. My dad fell asleep in the recliner, his wallet empty. I took my sleeping bag into his bedroom. Memories and dreams are hard to separate, moments morphed like personal fables, but the dark particle board suffocating that room always reminded me of being a baby in a crib, running my fingers down the rough slots where the boards intersected. I imagined the walls were darker now, the carpet denser with whatever it was that age retched into the places of our past. In my mind it was all the same. I hardly looked at the undusted photographs fading in my mother’s frames. I didn’t need to.
# # #
My father told me that rent would be chores. He seemed happy to say something like that to his full-grown son, like he’d been waiting all his life for it. I couldn’t imagine why. I had never known him to care about work.
I rummaged through the garage and brought out the mower and a tool I assumed was for pruning, but before I could get going it started to rain. I clipped a couple branches and returned to the couch, my father’s snores reverberating from his armchair. The rain outside tapped like a beggar on the glass. I turned up the TV.
That afternoon I helped my dad into his jacket and drove him to the doctor. He didn’t mention the mower by the driveway, the pools of rainwater collecting in its curves.
“Nice weather,” the receptionist said. My father smiled.
In the waiting room I thumbed through candids of actors and rock stars, lamenting how normal they looked in bathing suits or at restaurants, pushing strollers and arguing with their wives. I liked them better on the screen where they looked perfect and beautiful, impossibly smooth. To think of their success as unachievable because of their perfection, it made it easier to live a life like mine. A life like my father’s and, I guessed, his father’s before him. “One day at a time,” my father would say. “That’s all you can ask for.” Ambition, purpose, direction: they meant nothing to people like us.
A nurse came into the waiting room and said my name. I followed her through a hallway that smelled like piss and bleach. “You can have a seat here,” she said, then left. My dad smiled at me. He was propped at the end of the exam table, naked beneath his smock. His ankles were stark white with purple and red splotches and his arms mostly matched. I noticed that someone had folded his clothes on one of the extra chairs. I took out my phone then put it away.
When the doctor arrived she shook my hand.
“Your father’s condition is not improving,” she said. I couldn’t decide how to react. My dad and I rarely talked and when we did it was definitely not about our health. “Heart failure and stroke are now very serious concerns. Inevitable, it seems to me.”
She proceeded to lecture about lifestyle and diet, about options for in-home care. Doctors always made me feel guilty.
“How bad are we talking?” I asked.
She made a sad little smile and handed me a sheet titled “End of Life Solutions.”
“I suggest you start taking this seriously,” she said.
# # #
We went for ice cream on the ride home. We ordered from the same window my father used to lift me up to see into, but the menu held no splendor. It was chipped and peeling. Mildew stained the sill. The server wouldn’t look us in the eye as she listed off the flavors she was out of.
“Sorry,” my dad said. “About all this.” He waved his arm weakly. “I should have told you. Or left you out of it.”
I tried putting myself in his place, his colorless tongue scooping rivulets off his cone. Maybe you reach an age and you stop caring. Maybe you care more and more as the reality of life sets in. Or maybe age and caring have nothing to do with it. I handed him a napkin to wipe his face.
# # #
I made sandwiches for dinner and we watched The Fugitive, Independence Day, and MASH until my dad fell asleep in his recliner. With the TV still flickering I took my sleeping bag onto the uncut grass, feeling its wetness creep through the down and into my clothes and skin. The sky was a million miles away.
You have to pick a place to begin. Pick a point and know that no matter what, you won’t return to it. You have to draw lines. Cut it all apart and string it together in a way you won’t forget. A way that moves you forward, only forward, so you’ll never go back and count it twice. Because if you did you’d risk every piece of progress, risk losing it all as the sky twists past, twisting so to start again would be a new task entirely.
An entirely new sky with entirely new stars to count.
LUCAS LEERY is an educator at a maritime history museum in Maine. He likes noisy guitars, unhinged sentimentalities, and falling asleep on the beach. Some of his stories have appeared in Mad Scientist Journal and Sorrow: A Horror Anthology.