Have you ever tried to count the stars when the sun is shining and the sky is blue and the voices of your father’s friends sail by like empty train cars? Have you ever? Ever tried?
Right now, we’re there, with them, his friends who are littered about the civic center, pretending they don’t know us, and we’re there with them, the police, and the lights and the sirens and I’m looking for something to count and I want it to be stars, I want to count the stars, but the sun is hard to look at when they’re asking you questions and then when I squeeze my eyes shut, real tight and hard, I see this gray world and it looks like something but it isn’t a place for stars. It isn’t the sky all black and green and blue with little pieces of something to count. And all I want to do is go back in time and see what I saw and get back to that dream I thought up and all I want to do is get a step or two closer to standing under something bigger and wider and held together by its own gravity.
Do you see them? Do you see them? Do you see them? Do you see the stars?
So I say to the officer, “No more questions. No more questions. No more questions!”
And then I rub my leg where it hurts. And I yell, “No more questions!”
And then I think, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going back there. To before this moment. To before we rode the train. To before I found what I’d found. To before my father lost us another chance at finding a home. But I know that I can forgive him because now I know there are other things to find. Other places to go. Other rides to ride.
And then the officer stops leaning down to me and then he turns to my father and he asks again, “What happened here?”
And then I listen as my father talks and he lies and he tells the truth.
Calder G. Lorenz is the author of One Way Down (Or Another), his debut novel from Civil Coping Mechanisms. His writing can be found in sPARKLE & bLINK 2.4, Switchback, Curly Red Stories, FictionDaily, Two Dollar Radio’s Noise, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Black Heart Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Forge Literary, The Birds Piled Loosely, New Pop Lit, Devil’s Lake, bad pony Magazine, and gravel.
Today my father took me on the train. We rode from where we stay. We stay under the freeway. In Oakland. But it’s big there and the streets feel like they change and we are new there. Not new, new, like we got there today, but new, like we got there last week. One night, we put together this little wooden shelter that looks exactly like the picture. A picture we’d found. That first night we’d slept in it, our neighbor called out tiny, tiny, tiny house as he pushed on by. And then we added something fun for me. We attached a tent to the side of it so that I’d have somewhere to go and somewhere to stretch out and somewhere to stay cool because you can unzip the sides and the top of the tent and then you can look up and then there is the underbelly of those humming concrete screeching freeways.
He said that the train ride to San Francisco would take twenty-nine minutes and we saw the machines at the port that look like the skeletons of elephants and we saw the faces of people who stare at the things in their hands and we saw the light go black and we heard the scream of the breaks and we saw the bags and the bikes and my father talked and he lied and he told the truth. If I’m honest. And I can be honest. I can tell the truth. Because that makes me feel good. It makes me feel like we will find something. Like we might find all those things my father talks about. The lies and the truths.
I watched my father fall asleep right before we went into the tunnel. He clutched our backpacks. I zipped the top pockets for him. He looked at ease. He looked tired. He looked like always. I watched him and then I watched this man holding his bicycle and then I watched this old woman who was also sleeping and I watched and I watched and I watched. Then the train slowed. Then it stopped. And we all waited there. In the dark of the tunnel. And then that was when I saw it. The advertisement.
I helped myself up. I walked on my toes. I walked slow, slow, slow. I was worried it would start without any warning. That I might fall. That I might get hurt by the train. But it was frozen there. And everyone was looking down or looking into the glass. Looking at themselves.
And so I kept going. I walked over to the sliding doors. To where there was the sign for elderly people and people who need help, need assistance, and there was all the reasons why we should move for other people. Why it was our job to get up when someone else needed to get down. And next to all of that was the picture. In the bottom of the frame there was a young man who was gazing up at the sky. There was a big river. A wide river. And it had ripples. And there was the outdoors. Hills. And wild lands that rolled off into what I didn’t know how to see but there was also the sky. I knew that. I mean, I’d never seen it like I was seeing it right then, but it was green and blue and even yellow and orange with the blackness of the night behind it. And there spackled about the top of the picture were the stars. The letters said that it was Iceland. That you could go there. That people could get on planes and they fly and that they find places like this by taking trains from their homes and buying tickets and when they get there, they count stars and they feel the wild waters go on by and they see colors of the earth painted across the blackened universe.
And that was when I closed my eyes and took a photograph with my memory and I promised myself that I would be there and if I couldn’t get there tomorrow or the next day or the day after that I would keep taking photographs with my mind and I would keep printing them out with my dreams and I would keep doing this until I was standing there by that river like that young man in the advertisement and I would keep going and going and going like that until it was real and I was real and all those colors were mine to see. Mine to hold. Mine, mine, mine!
And then I felt the train kick off and I wasn’t paying any attention to how I was standing and I went right over the arm of the seats and I landed on the cushions and I could smell the smells of the people who were there before and I caught myself and I held myself as the train picked up speed and the screams of the train were at it again and I watched as my father was yelling at me to do something but I couldn’t hear him over the train because it was yelling louder and I sat myself upright and watched as another passenger was telling him something that I couldn’t hear and he was turning all that yelling and arm swinging at the passenger and they were both throwing their hands every which way until the train was slowing and then stopping and I knew the universal motion to move my butt off that train and then we were standing there collecting our things and watching the doors shut and he was breathing hard and I got busy getting my backpack strapped around my shoulders.
He was calm then and he said, “We have one shot at getting into this place.”
He said, “We’re going to listen and we’re going to fill out what they need us to fill out and we’re going to do our best to get off the street.”
And I said, “Ok.”
And he was nodding at me and he was scratching the back of his head and he put his hand around the back of my neck and he said, “Life isn’t always going to be hard. It will be sometimes but not always.”
And I knew he was talking in his truths. I knew that because I had my destination. I had my path to the stars. And so I followed him. We walked up the stairs and walked through the seagulls and the pigeons and we walked up the streets with the shit and the trash and the orange caps and we walked by the guys who were saying hello to my father and the old women who sold their bread and we walked past huge glass panels where people drank their coffee and talked to their things and we walked passed the murals that covered the sides of the buildings and we walked past the smiles and the frowns and the folks who were hurting and sleeping and I said to my father, “Even if it doesn’t work today, I’ll be fine.”
And he clapped his hands. And he said, “That’s what we need. We need that kind of attitude today.” And he reached down and he took my hand. And we walked to the entrance of the building that said Hotel and he led me to the desk and the woman who was smiling and then she shook my father’s hand and said, “It’s good you’re back, I’m hoping we can help you.”
And my father said, “I’m not sure I’ll last much longer out there.”
And she smiled at me and then looked down at the papers she held and then I watched as her expression changed.
And then she reached out and waved us behind the desk and as we headed inside the office, I heard her say, “Like I said, before, I can’t make you any promises.”
I heard her say, “This might take some time. It might not happen today”
And then I listened as my father talked and he lied and he told the truth.