My Father's Life, Furnished in Stars
by Maxwell Peterson
An old man lay dying, as old men do. It wasn't so bad. His name was Melvin, and Melvin wasn't
dying in a dope haze, in an antiseptic hospital bed, beneath the blazing idiot squawk of Fox News
and glossy, rictal women teaching him to cook things he would never get to eat. He wasn't fading
in one of those faceless cement buildings promising convalescence, where busy children send
their parents to die.
Melvin lay in a wide, deep bed. A bed with history, and character, in which he'd laughed
and read and fought and made love. A bed he'd shared with his wife for sixty-five years. He lay
in the top room of an old brown house, warm under a thick down comforter and a worn wool
quilt the color of day-old cream.
Six months earlier, a doctor had shown Melvin an x-ray speckled with little tenebrous
clouds in important places. He'd explained how the body was like a clock, and the black spots
little wrenches. He'd cautioned Melvin that his clock was old, and delicate, and these particularly
The doctor was young, with thick black hair and a fresh copper wedding band. The doctor
spoke slowly, and loudly, and did cogs and sprockets with his hands, and when he was finished,
Melvin had thanked him. Then he had gone home to die.
Cancer takes a lot of things as it walks along with you--motor skills and dignity and the
meat off your bones--but Melvin still had a few things left. He had his hair, as his father had. He
had time, though not much. He had a thrift store hardback on the nightstand, with a wonderful
Harlan Ellison story in it.
He was often in pain, though not as much as he had expected. The coffee was better here,
at home. He ate small meals of real food, and his family was with him: his wife, Anne, and her
sister Adelaide, whom he liked well enough. His youngest son, Jeff, had come up from Virginia
the month before, with his wife, who said very little, and smelled like cigarettes and lavender in
the evenings, when her resolve broke down.
There was a fire in the fireplace, a counterpoint to the high New England wind in the
eaves. The room smelled of applewood and the books which lined every wall, which were
stacked on chairs and the floor and everywhere: books about bold journeys to the stars, bumbling
galactic heroes with mismatched limbs, and wars in which the dilation of time made any enemy
or outcome unknowable. Well-worn, swashbuckling books about loss and love and wonder.
The old man dozed under a susurrus of rain. Somewhere below, Jeff's wife smoked a
furtive cigarette, assuring herself there was always tomorrow. Somewhere else, Anne brewed
coffee for the night watch, and argued quietly with Adelaide about me.
I thumbed a sequence into the panel on my arm and phased fully into the room, released
the catch at my neck and set the face shield aside, the seal dewed with stale breath. The clock and
the calendar on the wall by the bed told me just how close I'd cut it, but it couldn't be helped.
Time travel truly is more art than science: the nuance of a near-infinity of infinitesimal
calculations makes precision impossible.
My father's hand felt so small under mine, like bird's bones wrapped in newsprint, cold
"Hey, Dad," I said.
He opened his eyes, found me, looked me over a moment. "Hey, Marshall," he said.
"Where've you been?"
"I've been around," I said.
"You should've come by sooner." He coughed into the sleeve of his pajamas and winced.
"Everyone was here. Jeff and your mother and everyone." He coughed again. "Help me up a
When he was settled, he motioned to a pitcher and a glass on the table by the window.
As I filled his glass, he said, "I've been sick, you know."
I handed him the glass and sat down again. "I know. That's why I'm here."
"Couldn't just come by for a visit?"
"I did it, Dad."
He took a drink. "You did not."
He looked up at me, searched my eyes for the lie a long time. Then he smiled.
"Backwards and forwards?"
He laughed and rubbed his hands together. "Polytransmutational--"
"Synchronous chronos combustion. Just like you figured." I glanced at a clock on the
wall. "Some of your math was wrong, and your theoretical physics was a little dated, but . . . ."
He snorted. "My math is never wrong," he said. Then, "You really did it."
"I couldn't have done it without you."
He waved a hand at me. "I know that," he said. "You're an idiot by nature. I taught you
everything you know. Just make sure you tell the Nobel people that when they write the million-dollar check." His laughter turned to a coughing fit, juddering in his chest like nuts and bolts
loose in an idling engine.
I handed him the water glass again, and he drank it as best he could. His eyes were
bloodshot red and rheumy.
"Better tell them soon, I think," he said.
"Tell them yourself," I said. I checked the readout on my wrist. There was time. "I'm
taking you with me."
"Sure." He lay back, sweat on his brow. "Let me get my No-More-Cancer-Pants on. I'll
be right behind you. Where'd you park the time machine?"
"Right here," I said.
"I anchored the time machine right here." I motioned to the threadbare scrap of carpet in
front of the fireplace, where I had lain and read comics as a kid. "One second from now, relative
to my position in time."
My father blinked, staring at the empty space. He looked back at me. I could see it: the
physics he'd loved as a young man, theoretical, disreputable, impossible, working behind his
eyes. Mathematical communication between quasars, wild black hole theories, the hypothetical
interactions of third and fourth dimensional technology.
"The suit is a fixed point in the stream," he said. "It's the rock."
"Always a second away." He looked again at the nothing in front of the fireplace. "I'm
proud of you."
"Do you want to see it?" I thumbed a few numbers into my arm.
He caught my hand. "Not yet."
"You don't want to see it?"
He settled into the bed again, pulling his pillow down as he went. He tucked the covers
high on his chest, pinned them with his elbows. He looked like a child settling in to hear his story
I suppose he was, in a way.
"Tell me about it," he said, reaching for his water. There wasn't much left.
I gestured to the buttons and dials, the adaptive displays and flesh-jack fiber optics wired
to instinct drives in my brain, and all the rest of it. It all seemed less important, suddenly.
"I could show you," I said. "The things I've seen . . . I could show you everything you
ever dreamed of."
He smiled. "Could you? Well."
It was the reason I'd built the machine, the reason I'd dedicated my life to numbers and
imaginary mathematics I had no interest in--not beyond a determination to understand, and a
belief that it would all be worth it. Years online, bidding on experimental processors and
experimental alloys, years of winning the right card games in the right places to avoid the wrong
people. I'd made and spent fortunes. One failed career, two failed surgeries, one failed marriage,
adding up to this one great success.
The one good thing I'd ever done, because when my father was a little boy, he wanted to
grow up to be an astronaut.
I found the tapes in the attic the day after my mother had her heart attack. My brother and I
rushed up from Boston. (We both lived in the city back then, about a mile from each other, but I
never saw much of him. It's funny, the distances you can take for granted.) I was thirty-three, and
still married, and my wife came along.
It wasn't the sort of heart attack that gives you pills and restrictions, and makes you feel
afraid for the rest of your life. My mother spent a night in the hospital and was home resting the
following afternoon. That was that: the last big Medical Moment until Dad got sick. My mom
was lucky. It hardly affected her at all.
For me and my dad, it changed everything.
Jeff and I stayed a few days, but Mom was fine. By the second day, she had my brother and I
staining the faded front steps and replacing old doorknobs. I can't speak for Jeff--I haven't
spoken to my brother in years--but I didn't mind the busywork. New Hampshire is beautiful in
the spring. We shaved trim, drank coffee, and played cards with the windows open. In the
evenings, the house was warmed by ironwood, hot bricks, and brandy, and the ubiquitous smell
of old paperbacks. It seemed yellowed softback books were everywhere in my parents' house--on
odd, mismatched bookshelves, stacked on end tables and under ottomans, dog-eared restless
copies on mantelpieces and the arms of chairs, spread like Tribbles through every room. In the
mornings, Mary and I went for walks, remarking on the progress of the apple blossoms and the
coy budding of witch hazel at the mouth of my parents' long dirt drive.
Mary is my ex-wife. I should have mentioned that.
I have memories that no man or woman in this time can fathom. I have seen the
crystalline rime at the event horizon of a black hole, the light of innumerable long-dead stars
compressed by the gravity of impossible mass into scintillating gems for which far tomorrow's
lovers risk their lives to say with more than words, I Cannot Live Without You. I have picked a
rose from the surface of Mars. I have been infected by a language, inoculated against the
rhetorical thoughtform plagues of Halcyon 5, watched as these colonizing ideas rewrote the mind
of a man I'd met an hour before to a perfect madness previously unknown and shortly thereafter
eradicated. I can see, even now, the sudden clarity and understanding in his eyes, and the terror.
I remember all this, but those few New Hampshire days, walking the wooded foothills
with my wife, the plucked crocus tucked behind her ear, the morning's coffee and honey in her
laugh: those are the most vivid memories I have.
The attic was dark and cool, the ocean on the breeze through the window. The tapes were
in a dusty boot box, with an old cassette recorder. I remembered some of them from childhood
afternoons watching Dad work to keep a string of battered old American cars on the road with
junkyard parts and a grin. My childhood is scored by fleet-fingered men and roaring halfstacks.
I listened while I cleaned, tousling dust as the day wore down, moving old boxes filled
with the flotsam of my father's life: science fiction paperbacks, textbooks, master's degrees and
Ph.D.s in cheap frames, battered black journals full of inscrutable geometry, models of the lunar
The sun was low, bathing the attic in that moment photographers call "The Golden
Hour." There's a planet near Alpha Centauri B, where everything--atmospheric conditions, orbit,
even the pigment and reflectivity of the soil--converges such that every hour is a "Golden Hour,"
but something in the steadiness of that wonder lessens it, I think.
The constellations of dust hanging in the evening were beautiful. Somewhere below, the
chattering burr of the coffee grinder meant the last pot of the day. Dad was watching the news,
Jeff reheating something for dinner. Mary was out painting, but I've never known a woman so
reliably roused by the smell of freshly-ground coffee.
There was an unmarked tape in the box, shuffled in with all the old memories, an old
Maxell. Something taped off the radio, I thought, or some psychedelic fragment of my father's
college years. I put it in, and turned back to the boxes.
Then my father's voice, younger than I'd ever known it, came crackling through the small
speaker. I turned to listen. After a few minutes, I sat down.
"I think they loved each other. Mom and the Bastard. That's what she called him, all through my
childhood, after he left. I still think of him like that. Even now that we have a relationship, and I
know better. Even sick as he is. I love him, but only out loud is he 'Dad.' In my head, he's the
"What a way to start.
"I don't remember my parents together very well. We lived in a small house--small, small
as this room--in the bottom of a gully, at the end of a cul-de-sac. It felt like as low as you could
go, a lonely little dead end at the bottom of everything.
"They didn't yell at each other, there was never any violence that I saw, or heard about. I
heard a lot, after Dad left, but never anything like that. I remember their voices, late at night
when they thought Jack and I were asleep. Jack could sleep through anything, but I don't know.
Maybe it got in his dreams. Look how he turned out."
My uncle Jack had been killed in the last of a long string of midnight bar fights in mining
towns all across the Midwest. He died in an alley, leaning against a piss-stained wall, an
important artery in his arm opened by a broken gin bottle. My father cried at the funeral, but I
think my mother cried only for him.
In the attic, the light was fading. The dance of dust motes had stilled.
"They fought in flat voices," my father continued. "Like they were arguing opposite
rhetoric to obdurate children. I don't think they spoke over each other, either. I don't know. In my
memory, they don't. They let the other deliver their cut, waiting their turn. That's what I
remember: the dirt smell of the gully, and the mossy riverbanks a little way behind the house, and
those flat, low arguments.
"The only other thing I remember that far back is the fighter jets.
"I never heard them in the day. I guess I was at school, or I'm misremembering. The F-16s from Sawyer ran their formations over Dog Creek past midnight. Anybody that deep in the
sticks would be sleeping or drunk when they did their night runs. But not my parents. Not me.
"The jets were like . . ." There was a pause. I thought I could hear the crackle of a fire in
the background, but it might've just been old tape heads and old tape.
"The jets were like a scream," my father said at last.
"I remember lying there at night, holding my breath under the sound of my parents
wearing each other down, then, somewhere high up . . . this shriek, this furious bird of rage, and I
could breathe again. Somewhere there was sound and fire, roaring wind and terror, and nothing
smelled like dirt. Those pilots could go anywhere. They were free."
"Marsh?" My wife's voice, close behind me. I snapped the tape off, like I'd been caught
with one fist full of magazines. My heart pounded. I got up off the floor.
"There's coffee," Mary said. She touched my arm. "Are you alright? You're flushed."
She tilted my head down, put her cheek to my forehead. She smelled like lavender.
"Microwaving now. Your dad's stir-fry from Monday."
Then she kissed me, in the dark, in the fust of old attic cardboard, hard enough to make
my mouth hurt.
"I love you so much," she said.
I wonder, sometimes, what she saw in my face, to kiss me like that. I wonder what she
was thinking. If she was afraid.
But I've been busy. I haven't spoken to Mary in years.
I filled my father's glass from the pitcher by the window.
"Thanks," he said. He held the glass up to the bedside lamp, as though searching for
something in the bottom, then took a sip, tasting the little droplets left behind on his lips. "Do
you remember that card trick you used to do?" he asked. "Back when you were little. Jeff's
I'd gotten a book called Cards, Coins, and Conjurations for my tenth birthday, and
became, for the next year or so, in the manner of ten-year-old boys, a fanatical and devoted
prestidigitator. "Which one?" I asked.
My father cleared his throat. "The differences between Time and a Glass of Water," he
began, with the flourish of the seasoned patterist, "are not so great as one might imagine. In fact,
while we are too big to take advantage of this cup of seemingly superfluous fluid. . . ."
"Perhaps this humble card can capitalize on those subtle similarities," I finished, the
patter flooding back. I'd always loved the words that went with magic: the little stories you told
the audience, to misdirect them from the great, glaring trick that was coming. "I can't believe you
remember that. I haven't thought of that in forever."
The effect was straightforward: a deck of cards, a glass of water. A volunteer from the
audience picked a card, any card, wrote their name on it, tore it into tiny pieces, and stirred them
into the water. A handkerchief over it all, the magic words, and voilà: only water in the glass. As
for the card . . . .
"Back in time," I said, "and back into the deck, signature and all, not a tear in sight."
"All the glamour, none of the mileage." My father slapped his hands together and picked
up the water glass. "If we had a deck of cards," he said. "That was something, Marsh." He
winked. "Even if ace-high straights in hearts never seemed to come together for me after."
"You should've come and played with me," I said, and regretted it as I said it.
The kinship between theoretical physics and gambling was unmistakable: both exist in
the gossamer of probability and multifarity, both rely on strategic adaptation not to certainties or
inevitabilities, but nearly infinite possibilities. When I got my first invoice for eight troy ounces
of rhodium, I saw the potential symbiosis between the two. I could use the permutations of 52
cards to buy into the endless permutations of the fourth dimension.
My family didn't see the obsessive reading and research, or the weekend classes at
technical colleges. They saw the round-trip tickets to Las Vegas, and the dates of private high-stakes games in Boston circled on the calendar, and, sometimes, the broken fingers and broken
teeth. Mary didn't even see the gambling--she saw weekends away and distraction and
disinterest, and, eventually, saw other women where there weren't any, so she left me while I
developed and tested experimental fuels and alloys, and I hardly saw her go.
Sometimes I took drugs to stay awake. I often took drugs to sleep. None of that mattered.
What mattered was my father, and his dreams, on old tape.
"I'm sorry, Dad," I said.
He waved me off. "You're here, now. Make it up to me."
"Alright, how about sushi at the precise point of equipoise between a black hole and a
neutron star?" I said, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
"Sounds modern," he said.
"Oh, it's all glass and black Hephaetite, and it spins, so you can see the Two Cosmic
Titans in their Tug of Forever War."
My father raised his eyebrows. "That's quite poetic, Marshall."
"It's on their menus," I admitted.
"Do they have yellowtail?" he asked.
"It's planetoid to table, just stuff sourced locally from Komenol 33." I didn't tell him that
Yellowtail went extinct in 2021. "Best sake I've ever had. It's distilled in a renovated Soviet
satellite on a nearby moon. Hammer and Sickle on the label. It's called 'The Space Rice.' "
My father laughed. "You're kidding."
"Come find out," I said. "First bottle's on me."
The last log popped and crumbled into the bed of embers. I got up and fed a few poplar
halves to the heat.
Dad settled further into the bed. "When your mother and I first started dating," he said.
"When things got serious, the first thing I asked her was if she would live on the moon with me."
"Really?" I stirred the embers.
"Why not? This was, what, nineteen-seventy-eight? Nine? We'd landed there a decade
before. I figured it was a matter of sooner, rather than later." He smiled. "Wanted to live on
Mars, too, in a little pod, but I never told her that."
"What'd she say?"
"About the moon? She was sixteen. I was her first real boyfriend. She ran home to your
grandmother and cried."
After dinner, the day I first heard the tapes, I asked my father if he had any regrets.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know," I said. "Is there anything you never got to do?" We were alone in the
My father considered. He looked old, then. He looked tired.
"Nothing comes to mind," he said.
"What did you want to be when you were a little kid?" I asked.
He looked out the window into the fog that rolled off the shore and hung stubborn around
the trees. There was only the fire in the room. Outside, the just-budding birch branches stood like
a charcoal sketch against the moon.
"Who can remember that long ago?" he said.
"Before the divorce, I wanted to be a pilot," said my father's voice on the old tape. "After, too, I
guess. The divorce didn't really change much. Jack and I stayed with Mom. We were poorer,
after, sure, but I still read the same comics, I still had my refrigerator box and my imagination.
Enemy Ace, that kind of thing. Anything with dog fights and wide-open blood-red skies."
I was at the bottom of the driveway, huddled in the Oldsmobile with the engine running
and the lights off. I didn't want to drain the battery, and there was something comforting in the
Listening to the tape felt strange, like I was talking with my father behind my father's
back. The effect was heightened by listening in the car--surrounded by speakers, it seemed like
Dad was sitting next to me, regretting the old man up the hill.
"Niven, Burroughs, Bradbury, Card," said my father, on the tape. "I don't know.
Somewhere in there, I decided I wanted to fly a little higher. It's funny: we lived in a house
smaller than this bedroom, Mom and Jack and I, but I had a cardboard box with the universe
inside. Once I knew I would fly across the stars, nowhere ever felt small again."
In his battered old bed, my father coughed. I moved for the pitcher.
"I'm alright," he said.
"Okay," I said. "At least let me take you to Apyspiria."
Dad settled into the pillows, his hands curled on the comforter. "And what's on
Apyspiria? The never-ending lozenge? The Fountain of Youth?"
"The cure for cancer," I said, quietly.
He raised his eyebrows. "And we have to go all that way for it?"
"It's an algae," I said. "The shores in the north are blue a thousand miles with it.
Underfoot, it smells like sugared elderflower." I took my dad's hand.
"How does it taste?" he asked.
He laughed. "I've never heard of Apyspiria. It must be a long way away, and you've built
a time machine, not a rocket. How would we get there?"
"We'd go five hundred years in a moment, and use an Empathy Box."
My father laughed and clapped the back of my hand, his eyes bright. "And what's that?"
"Come on. I'll show you."
"No, no. Not yet. Tell me. I want to be ready for the shock."
"They're small. You imagine the place you want to go, then the Intelligel finds that
location in the Nostalgia Drive and starts feeding in sensory cues--the sound of waves, the wet
scent of the stones. The walls glow the green of the sea, the floor the exact slick cerulean of the
shore. You feel the breeze, taste the earth on the air, swept in from meadows miles off." I smiled.
"Then you're there."
Dad looked out the window at the rain, reduced to falling white slashes in the night by the
thief light over the door. "Everywhere," he said, softly. "Everywhere is in us."
"Sort of, yeah." I checked the display on my forearm: not much time left. I stood up.
"Come on, Dad. I'll help you, but we have to go right now."
He let go of my hand. "I'm not going, Marsh," he said.
Somewhere below us, deeper in the house, a glass shattered on the tiles in the kitchen. My
brother would swear, and clean it up. My mother would make a pot of coffee, and start up the
stairs, and my father would die.
"What are you talking about? Dad, I did it. We did it." I gestured toward the fire. "You
don't have to die."
"Everybody has to die."
"But not you, not today." I heard everything welling in my voice and I did not care. "Why
not go of old, old age on the shores of the oceans of Mars? Why die eaten by disease in an attic in
"No," he said.
"Dad, I could show you," I said. "I could show you everywhere, everything you've ever
dreamed of." The room was stifling. "I could show you Mars."
My father smiled. "I've seen it," he said. He raised a hand to the bookshelf, to a book by a
bright man, long dead. "And its Warlords, and the many heavens in the rings of Saturn, and the
dog star Sirius, and empires come and gone, like livid tattoos in time." His hand came to rest on
the quilt once more. "I've stood on the shore of a green sea, and tasted elderflower on the air."
Downstairs, glass fell into a paper bag. The coffee grinder burred.
My father looked to the fire, to the place where the time machine would always be one
second away. "Wherever we imagine, there we are."
"Dad," I said. I could feel something in me kicking up to the surface to scream. "You're
not listening. I can save you."
"Marsh." He was smiling. "Why didn't you go back further? Why not whisk me away to
the stars when I was a kid?"
"Because you would have missed the rest of it," I said. "And the rest of it was a good life,
but it doesn't have to end here, please."
"Marsh." He reached for my hand.
"You selfish old man."
"Bastard?" he raised an eyebrow.
All the air went out of me, and I sat back on the bed. Somewhere, the coffeepot beeped,
and time ran out. I took my father's hand once more.
"No, Dad," I said. "Never that."
"I'd rather live the last little while with my son," he said, "than die stunned by any of a
thousand wonders on a thousand worlds." He patted my hand. "I'm glad you're here."
We sat quiet, in the faraway burble of coffee brewing.
"The rest of it was a good life," he said after awhile. "It was, wasn't it?" He winked, and,
a little later, he died, as old men do.
I took off my jumpsuit. Lights blipped and skittered on the displays. I wrapped my
faceplate in the suit and walked to the closet in the corner, by the door. A few of my father's old
flannels hung to one side, and I slipped one on, faded buffalo plaid covering the ports and jacks
in my arms. It was old and comfortable, and smelled of oil, and of him. I tucked the suit in a
battered leather valise that hadn't been used in ages, and put it back up on the shelf.
The door opened, and my mother came in with a carafe and coffee cups. "Marsh?" she
said. Then she saw my dad.
Jeff came in behind her, and for a while there was only mourning.
Much later, after the three women from the funeral home had come and gone, leaving us
their condolences, as we sat in that high room, around that old bed, in the smells of apple smoke
and paperbacks, drinking coffee and picking at cold shepherd's pie, after we'd cried, and caught
up, and talked in turn about beginnings and endings and what we would do tomorrow and the day
after tomorrow and the day after that, after we'd talked until there was no more to say, and Jeff's
wife and Adelaide had gone off to bed, I picked my father's water glass up off the nightstand and
refilled it. I looked through it, and through the place where the time machine was only ever a
moment away, at the fire.
My mother reached out and touched my arm. "Marsh? You're far away."
"I'm here, Mom."
I imagined all the things I hadn't seen yet. Lucid moondogs in the spray of the ocean of
Enceladus, and the edges of the vastness of the oceans of night. I remembered playing cards and
coffee, the smell of yellow paper, the sound of my father's laugh.
The Universe would always be there.
And, somewhere in time, there would always be a small boy, looking up to the eye of
Orion and wondering just how far a boy might go, up above the screaming jets, into the stars and
The fire had burned low, but there was still time to rekindle it. I built it up and blew on
Jeff looked down into his empty cup. "Think you might stay awhile, Marsh?"
"Yeah," I said, on my knees on the rug by the fireplace. "I've got all the time there is."