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.