The Counter, by David Henson
I notice him staring at the maple in the front yard and go out.
He jabs the air with his finger. “Beautiful red leaves this time of year.”
“I don’t know what you’re doing, but I think you should move along.”
“I’m counting, Dennis.”
He knows my name? Maybe a parent of one of my students? I notice I’m standing about where I built a small pitcher’s mound for my son years ago. I’d preferred to put it in the backyard, but gave in because I knew Donny wanted to show off for the girl across the street. Suddenly the counting guy is the farthest thing from my mind, and I hurry inside as if fleeing from memories of my son. Once again, I try to escape them in the garage. Once again, I can’t gin up the courage to start the car.
Back in the kitchen, I look out and see the guy’s gone.
The next morning, I pour two cups of coffee out of habit. I dump my ex-wife’s in the sink, but see the counting fellow is here again and charge out.
“I told you yesterday —”
“Look familiar?” He holds up a chrome clicker counter.
Seeing the counter chokes the words in my throat. I have one just like it. My dad gave it to me when I was a boy. I walked around counting my steps, the peas on my plate, my folks’ words when they talked. Drove my parents crazy. It had the opposite effect on me not so long ago.
When a couple of leaves drift from the maple, the guy clicks twice. “It’s silly trying to count them on the branch. Going to tally as they fall.”
“I have a counter, too. I had a superstition about protecting my son.” Sometimes it’s easier to tell things to a stranger, and a guy who counts leaves is pretty strange.
“How so?” He looks over my shoulder and clicks.
“When I was a kid, my mom made me pray at bedtime. ‘If I should die before I wake…’ Scared the shit out of me. I took my counter to bed and, soon as my bedroom went dark at nine, I clicked three times, convinced that would protect me through the night.”
“Did you — look out!” The wind gusts, and the fellow clicks more times than I can count.
“I outgrew fear of the prayer but continued clicking three times at nine the night before little league ball games, tests…”
“I must say, that’s a little weird.” He thinks I’m weird. He stares at the clicker. “It’s a counter. Maybe you were trying to counter bad things.”
“That’s intellectual for a kid. Anyway, the superstition stuck with me. The clicker even got me through college exams. After I married Ellen and we had our son, Donny, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. Then Donny enlisted.”
“It must’ve been nerve-wracking when your boy shipped out to a combat zone.”
He probably read about my son in the paper. I explain how I retrieved the counter from behind my socks and, to keep Donny safe, clicked it three times every day at nine p.m. local time where he was stationed.
“That would’ve been early afternoon here. Did your students think you were weird?”
Aha, he is a parent of one of my eighth-graders. “I was subtle about it.”
“Except the time you left the counter in the car and sprinted down the corridor at the last minute.”
“Donny made it home without a scratch…”
“On the outside.”
“He couldn’t keep a job. Got into bar fights. Broke up with his fiancée.”
“It wasn’t long after he split with Jennifer that you found him passed out in his room with a needle on his bed stand and — Hold on.” The guy goes into a clicking frenzy.
“Ellen and I insisted he get help. He went to counseling a few times.”
“You tried to convince him to stick with it.”
“He wouldn’t. I wanted to make him move out. I believed it would force him to take care of himself. Tough love as they say. Ellen was afraid of what might happen if he were on his own.”
“I’d give anything if I’d listened to her. While Ellen was away at a conference, I persuaded Donny to move. I’d found him an apartment and paid three months rent.”
“He died of an overdose within a week of leaving… And Ellen divorced you a couple months later.”
“She — Wait a minute… How do you know all these things? Have you been talking to Ellen? Have you been fucking my wife?” I tell myself to calm down.
“Calm down, Dennis. I’m not seeing Ellen.”
“I think you should respect someone who’s letting you count his leaves.”
“Listen to yourself, Dennis. Doesn’t that sound crazy? This isn’t about leaves. It’s about you blaming yourself. Stop. You did what you thought was best. Out of love for your son.”
“I tell myself that, but —”
“As for what you’ve been contemplating… don’t do it.”
“Who the hell are you?”
He chuckles. “Guess I’m your counter.” He hands me the clicker. “Wind’s calmed. If you think this is about leaves, watch this.” He grabs a branch, and up he goes.
The tree shudders, but no leaves flutter to the ground. The maple goes still. When the fellow doesn’t return, I climb the tree, but he’s nowhere to be seen.
Back in the house, I stare at the counter the guy handed me. It looks like mine down to the scratches around the dial. I go into the bedroom and rummage through my sock drawer. There behind the argyles is my clicker.
I think about going into the garage. Instead, I pour a cup from the morning’s brew. The coffee’s steeped and bitter but drinkable.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Brussels and Hong Kong and now reside in Illinois. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions and has appeared in various journals including Moonpark Review, Literally Stories, Gone Lawn and Fiction on the Web. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.
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