by Ira Sukrungruang, Winner of the 2008 Just Desserts Short-Short Fiction Prize
I knew all about the stars, their names and the names of the constellations, the way they moved through the night sky like runners on a track, each keeping to its own invisible and predetermined lane. When I was thirteen, I began keeping a journal of stars, and in it I tracked their movement night to night. I documented their brightness and recorded their names and their translations: Sulafat, tortoise; Arneb, hare; Muphrid, lance bearer. The names seemed otherworldly, which of course the stars themselves were, and though they were in the sky for anyone to see, I felt that the stars—the entire expanse of the sky for that matter—was mine and mine alone. All I had to do was keep looking up.
In late summer, my favorite three stars would come into view after sunset. The Summer Triangle: Vega, Denab, and Altair, all three of them in the top twenty of the brightest stars in the sky, and all three of them part of other constellations—Lyre the Harp, Cygnus the Swan, and Aquila the Eagle. The Summer Triangle usually lasts until late fall, sometimes until Halloween if we are lucky. Each night, the stars slowly edge east, a centimeter or two a day, until they simply vanish.
The first time I discovered the Summer Triangle, my mother died. I was looking through the telescope when the phone rang. I had bought a book of stars with my allowance and was determined to find all the stars listed in the book, checking them off in the margins. I had located about one hundred stars that summer. I jotted each discovery in my journal and noted their position in the sky. I had been waiting for the Summer Triangle since June, but it was too early for all three stars to come into view together. But then, on the last day of July, they appeared at the lower left of the sky. I looked through the telescope, the stars large and bright, especially Vega. I looked without the telescope and traced my finger in the air. Just about when I was going to tell my father about my find, I heard him repeating a one-word question—What? What? What?—his voice shaking, his head shaking. My mother was in a car accident on her way back from work. My father told me it was quick. That night, I wrote in my journal: I found the Summer Triangle. And next to that: Mom is dead.
Each year, the emergence of the three stars indicated to me that the summer was nearing an end and school would start soon. They told me about the gathering winter clouds and it was almost time to pack up the telescope until late April.
Before her death, we lived an hour outside of Chicago, so the sky was clear of the city lights, and the pollution didn’t disrupt my stargazing. I used to tell my father all my findings, and he would pat me on the back and tell me to find a star no one has found and name it after him, Jonathan Agnes Thompson. “How would that be, huh?” Once, right after my mother’s death, I told him if I ever found a new star, the likelihood a zillion to one with this telescope, then I would never name the star Agnes. “That’s a good name,” he said a little too cheery. “It’s a family name.” He went on about Agnes Radford, the woman who left one of the colonies in the east and came to settle in the plains by herself, which was unheard of back then. Agnes isn’t a woman’s name, he told me, but one that signifies power and perseverance. I told him there’s an Agnes who works in the principal’s office and she’s old and crabby. I told him that if I found a star I would name it after my mother, Cynthia Jane. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a star named after Mom?” My father smiled and said there wouldn’t be a better name for a star he could think of.
Two years after my mother’s death, my father got laid off. I was fifteen and my father didn’t seem to take an interest in my stars anymore. When I told him I spotted Arcturus again, my father didn’t say anything, but washed the dishes. I spouted off facts: Arcturus is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere and it’s dying; it’s thirty-seven light years away, which means the light we’re getting from that star is the light from thirty-seven years ago. My father slammed a pot into the sink. He told me to stop watching the sky. “Don’t waste time with stars and constellations and planets,” he said. Stars were my future. I wanted to look at them for the rest of my life. I reminded him I wanted to name one after Mom. He shook his head and said, “Who’s going to pay for all this schooling? How much money can stars bring in?” I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to say to my father, who suddenly began to cry. He jammed his palms into his eyes, as if he was ashamed of himself. I could do nothing but watch his bulky body shake.
Not long after that we moved out of our home, into an apartment near the city where the night sky was lit up in a faint pink haze. I could barely see a star. My father got another job as a night patrolman at some factory, and I landed here, washing dishes from four to eleven each night. It pays okay. The food is all right. But I spend most of my time dreaming about stars. I see constellations in the flecks of food left on plates. I imagine bubbles and suds as universes and galaxies unfound. I never unpacked the telescope from its box when we moved, but keep it close to me, under the bed just in case Chicago blacks out and white, pulsating dots illuminate the sky. Whenever that happens, I’ll be ready.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. His work has appeared in many literary magazines, including Third Coast, The Sun, and Crab Orchard Review. He is the co-founding editor of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches at the University of South Florida.