The Stars Burn

Today:

“The world turns. The star burns,” he said. He came back again. This time at night.

I held the cigar before my face in the hopes that the haze would shroud me from his view. I glanced away from him and asked what he meant by this. Why it mattered to him whether the Earth spun on its axis and the Sun boiled the space around it.

“It doesn’t. The Sun will die. And your life will blink out in a span of time nearly indiscernible to that of existence: a diminutive cacophony of myriad experience. Your consciousness will fall away into a great void.”

He ashed his cigar. “So do not let your pride, your anger, your disgust, nor even your love get in the way of what you know: that you exist now.”

And my cigar went out, and the grey wisps rose into the night sky, and his eyes burned through the ever-unfolding present.The old lips twisted, as though the devil spoke in words too wise.

“It doesn’t matter.”

And I knew then that he was right. It doesn’t matter.

Five Days Ago:

My old hometown was a musty mix of decrepit mineral processing plants, low-slung warehouses, and industrial parks that sprawled out across what should have been open fields. Whenever I returned, I always tried to picture what it was like before everything was there. I imagined different animals running through open fields, like some idyllic little scene out of a children’s book: a deer, or some other four-legged beast, running with long, elegant strides. Likely in a pack, like wolves on the hunt for berries. The images got confused in my head, mixed up. They’ve always kind of been.

Four Days Ago:

I went to my sister’s house. She lived on a good street in a bad town. The house was built in the early 1900’s. It went through a renovation in the 50’s, but it still had lead paint and asbestos. Or maybe just one of those. I can’t remember. Even though it was a good street, she found a needle while she was raking leaves last fall. Probably some junkie who ditched it in her yard. They’ve been looking to move to a different town since.

Her front door was a light green, the exterior a bright blue with white trim. It clashed. I found it odd. The old lattice-work along the rotted out front porch. The colors. The way the house seemed to be build too tall and not wide enough. Her husband greeted me. I didn’t say anything about their oddly shaped home.

“Hey Todd,” I said. I said “Todd” with a heavy “d” sound at the end. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. It came out strangely. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Hey,” he said. Then after a second. “So sorry for you, brother.”

He hugged me. I half hugged him back. Literally half. One arm went around his back. The other stayed in my pocket. 

“Yeah, thanks.”  And I went inside.

And my sister’s kids said a short hello to me, then went up into their rooms. I understand. It’s tough when your grandfather dies. I would have done the same if I had known mine.

Three Days Ago:

I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. 

As I walked to the lectern, the hard soles of my shoes rung out against the marble. All else was quiet and still: a great holding of breath, by humans who came to mourn, by the marble structure of the church itself. By me. From the first pew, twelve strides to the ambo. I counted them because they seemed to be the only thing commanding a presence in the room. My steps walked me: a marionette drawn on by the hands of a dead man.

I remember being in this church as a young boy at Easter Vigil. The whole church was dark. The font where I was baptized was empty. The tabernacle stood open, like some giant golden ostrich egg that had been cracked open in clean lines, the insides removed. And then the Paschal candle was lit. I loved that light, like a star burning in the heavens.

The words I spoke about my father were empty. My eyes only moved over the lines, and sounds poured from between my lips, meaningless, strange sounding: too many hissing “s” sounds and guttural “h” sounds and the transition from one sound to the next nearly made me sick. Each syllable rung out like the hollow echoing of my footsteps. 

I did not think of my father as I spoke. I only thought of that single burning candle from when I was a boy. 

Two Days Ago:

My car is a ’05 Nissan Sentra. I’ve never gotten it washed. The carpets have crumbs, dirt, pieces of something or other woven into them. The floor mats are gone. My heel has driven an ugly depression into the floor beneath the gas pedal. I don’t like to use the brake. I don’t like to stop. So I take the backroads.

I went to the Manor. I didn’t know where else to go. The Manor was my father’s place of solace. It wasn’t a manor in any way, just a three room shack built on an unnamed creek that ran through the pines. He went there often when we were kids. No one ever went with him. Not my sister, not my mother, not me. We all hated it. It was dirty, cramped, virtually unfurnished but for an old sofa and two creeky twin beds. One was always unoccupied. No electricity. No plumbing.The foundations were sinking into the creek. We always joked about how we thought he’d die there in his sleep. The house would just slip beneath the water, and he’d sleep into drowning. 

I wish that’s how he had died.

I thought maybe I could die for him that way now.

One Day Ago:

The next morning I sat on the sinking back porch of the Manor. It was pitched at a hideous angle, half below water, small, wind blown crests lapping weakly against the rotting boards. I sat in my father’s old beach chair, toes in the brown-clear tide water, my center of gravity low so that I wouldn’t turn over. I think the house was starting to fall in at that point, but I didn’t notice it. Or I didn’t want to.

I was on the fifth or sixth drink. Maybe the eighth or ninth. And I saw him then. He was sitting right next to me. Same position as me. Same beach chair. The one with the brown fabric and the lime green turtles swimming across it, the screw holes tinged by rust. 

A sea gull cut aimlessly across the sun. I tracked him through it, then held my sight on it. It burned. I was hoping that I would go blind, so that I didn’t need to turn and look at my father beside me. But I failed to burn my eyes out. I turned slowly to look at him. He was still there. A martini rose to his lips and he drank it in three long swallows. He looked straight ahead, out across the creek, toward the marsh and the trees and the distant power lines.

“You never did want to come here with me. I wanted you to. I wanted your mother to, and your sister,” he said. “But I wouldn’t beg you to. I was too proud.”

He spoke honestly, as if even my pain couldn’t touch him. He pulled a cigar from the chest pocket of his shirt, a Havannah style button up, none of the buttons closed, replete with the same lime green turtles swimming across a brown background. 

“But I wasn’t proud enough. I took women here. I went to the bar, Scooter’s, you know it. Just down the road. And I took them here.”

He placed the unlit cigar between his lips.

“And then I would kick them out afterward,” he let me fill the details in in my own mind. The creaky bed, the smell of vodka, the nakedness of my father. “And each time I did it, I felt like I was sliding off this damned dilapidated dock. Not because I was, but because I wanted to. I was too proud to do it. I just thought about it. All the time.”

My toes weren’t really there anymore. My legs weren’t either. Nothing felt attached. Not me, not my father, not my father’s memory, not my sister or my mother, not my past. 

I curled forward, a lifeless lump of flesh, and fell headlong into the brown, cool water of the creek. Then I came back up, paddled to the edge of the sinking porch, swallowed the rest of my martini, and floated down the creek until I reached the bay.

Today:

“The world turns. The star burns,” he said. He came back again. This time at night.

I held the cigar before my face in the hopes that the haze would shroud me from his view. I glanced away from him and asked what he meant by this. Why it mattered to him whether the Earth spun on its axis and the Sun boiled the space around it.

“It doesn’t. The Sun will die. And your life will blink out in a span of time nearly indiscernible to that of existence: a diminutive cacophony of myriad experience. Your consciousness will fall away into a great void.”

He ashed his cigar. “So do not let your pride, your anger, your disgust, nor even your love get in the way of what you know: that you exist now.”And my cigar went out, and the grey wisps rose into the night sky, and his eyes burned through the ever-unfolding present.The old lips twisted, as though the devil spoke in words too wise.

“It doesn’t matter.”

And I knew then that he was right. It doesn’t matter.

I felt something like a continuously churning cosmic crucible, burning away all souls, reconstituting them with the souls of others, and burning them away again. And in one iteration, my soul was joined with that of my father. A random occurrence, no more significant than any other iteration that I felt. But in it, his sin was burnt away in me, of me, by me, for me. And the ghost of my father became disconnected from me, and I from it, and I from all the world, and the world from all of me. It became easy to forgive.

I held onto the doorframe to keep from falling into the rising water. It was rising to my loins at this point. I took a breath as it rose above my waist—that shock of water that only hits home at that point on the human body. 

I let go the frame, floated easily into the current of the creek, and swam to shore. Soaked in the ashes of my father, which were now inert, now forgiven, now burnt in that cosmic crucible, I listened to the Manor die. It creaked once, a long, struggling call into the world, then a crack, and it slid, in one hulking mass, into the creek. It drifts by me now, still proudly upright upon the waters, on its way to the sea.


Note from the Author: This is a short story built of parts that I write in separate sittings. Each sitting is essentially a short, quick exercise. My hope is that I can string these little portions together to form a cohesive story over numerous parts. In order to accomplish this, edits will be made to the previous sections in order to attain continuity. It’s an experiment of sorts into the writing process through flash fiction.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

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