A grieving man meets a distraught dad on a starlit night. Each struggles to make sense of their losses.

This story began as a dream I had about starry nights. Enjoy!

Condoms Underfoot, Stars Overhead

Bob Gillen

My name is Frank. At the moment I am sitting in my four-wheel drive Jeep in the parking lot at the top of Lump Rock. One a.m. on a Wednesday in mid December. A night that would be pitch black if it were not for the universe of stars blazing above me. Why I’m here isn’t important. I have nowhere else to be.

I live in a town that has as its motto: Where Boredom Goes to Die. We try to imitate other places. Never works. Vegas can build an entire city with imitations of other cities. Paris. London. New York. Right in the middle of a friggin’ desert. Not us. We never get it right. 

TV and movies will tell you that when you want to get laid, you drive up to Inspiration Point. Beautiful. Quiet. Get the job done. We have Lump Rock. Yeah, it’s a magnificent vantage point once you get here. But getting here, that takes a lot out of you.

Lump Rock lies twenty miles north of my town. One lane winding road, unlit, badly maintained, all the way up. No passing lanes. Ever have that nightmare about driving a Porsche and getting stuck behind a VW micro bus? That dream would be set here.

In the dead of winter it’s near impossible to get here. The crews rarely salt and plow. Why bother? The town horn dogs could just get a room in town or out on the interstate.

Early winter is, in my mind, the best time to be on Lump Rock. No people. No north winds. They come later. If you dare to get out of your car, the soiled condoms on the ground are frozen and the empty beer cans could be kicked aside without splashing beer on your shoe.

So here I am, early winter on Lump Rock. It’s been a year since I lost my wife. We ran a bed and breakfast in town. Did so for twenty of the twenty-five years we were married. We called it The Hi and Bye Inn. We knew our clientele. Travelers passing through on their way to somewhere else. We gave them a clean bed, coffee, a hearty breakfast, and a wave goodbye. We had no rack of sightseeing brochures. No point. No one wanted them. 

She’s gone now. I sold the B&B right away. Couldn’t bear to run it without her. Got a good price for it. Haven’t figured out what I want to do yet. Maybe move someplace far less boring. But for now I find myself on Lump Rock in the middle of the night. Alone. Not even pondering what to do. Just sitting. Alone. 

The view is spectacular. Nothing but a blanket of stars spread across the night sky. Immense. Powerful. Planets. Galaxies. Millions of years of energy and light.

I get out of my car to better see the stars. I step carefully. State maintenance crews only come up here to clean a few times a year. They keep a chart behind the supervisor’s door. When complaints reach fifteen, the supervisor begins to eye the junior staff, or the ones who piss him off. At twenty complaints he sends two guys in a pickup truck to clean the parking lot. Brooms. The only way to do it. Sweep and dump in a barrel. Back at the garage, the rest of the crew would gather and cheer as the two toss the barrel’s contents into trash dumpsters. 

Headlights surprise me as they pierce the black parking lot. A nondescript sedan pulls to a stop on the side opposite where I am parked. I wait. No need to interrupt the deed. But there is no movement.  

My curiosity gets the better of me. I dodge condoms to walk over and peer in the passenger window of the other car. I see a man, maybe late thirties, sitting at the wheel, hugging a backpack to his chest. His head slumps forward on the steering wheel. I can see his chest rise and fall. He seems okay.

Something prompts me to tap on the window. The man startles, looks around.

“Are you okay?” I ask through the glass. He nods. After a moment he rolls the window down. 

“Who are you?”

“My name is Frank. I saw you pull in. You looked slumped over. Just checking.”

The man pops the lock. “Get in. It’s too cold out there.”

I slip into the passenger seat. Take a deep breath.

“I can sit here with you if that’s what you need.”

The man shrugs. “I don’t know what I need.”

I sit in silence. Stare out at the star-studded sky. Try to breathe easily. 

After maybe ten minutes, the man grasps the backpack on his chest, holds it out to me. It’s pale blue. The word Cheerio is printed across the front. I do a double take.

There’s an enormous dark red stain across the front. In the center is a jagged hole.

“My kid’s backpack,” he says. “A bullet hole. Her blood.”

“Shit.” I say. “Is she…?” 

“Dead? Yeah.”

“The school shooting over in the next town? Three months ago?”

He nods.

I can’t find the words to even say Sorry.

“It was a seventeen-year old kid with an assault rifle. What world of pain does a kid have to be in to do something like this to children?”

I remain silent. 

“He tried to kill himself. The gun jammed. He will now spend his entire lifetime in prison. In a whole other world of pain.”

The man says, “My name is Jerry, by the way.”

“Hi, Jerry.” I slip the backpack to the floor of the car where I cannot see it.

Jerry turns to look at me. “What’re you doing up here?”

“Just hanging. No where else to go. My house is empty.”

Jerry nods. “Who did you lose?”

“My wife. A year ago. After twenty-five years together.”


“Nope. Not a conscious decision. Somehow we just never got to it.”

“Saved yourself a lot of pain, let me tell you.”

“It hurts bad enough losing my wife. I can’t imagine losing a kid.”

“No one can imagine it. Talk about a world of pain.”

We stop talking for a while. Sit under the spread of stars. I think, What words could possibly change the course of this universe?

I think I may have nodded off for a while. I wake to find Jerry gone from the car. I peer out into the darkness. I spy his silhouette over near the edge of the hill. Something tells me to sit tight. I wait. I try to recall what I had seen in the news about the school shooting. Four kids and a teacher dead. Lots of kids wounded. Like Jerry said, a world of pain. Created by one shooter. 

I find myself crying. I haven’t cried since my wife’s funeral.

After I wipe away the tears, I look again for Jerry. 

Do not see him.

I jump out of the car. Dash to the edge, dodging the frozen condoms and cans on the ground. He’s nowhere to be seen.

“Over here, buddy,” a voice says out of the darkness.

Jerry steps towards me.

“Did I scare you?”

I nod.

“No worries.”

He takes another step closer. He waves up at the sky. “My world of pain is about that big,” he says. “But it’s my world of pain to deal with. I won’t add to the pain already in existence.”

Here we are, side by side, in the darkness and the cold, under a sky pierced with countless lights. “My baby’s light is up there somewhere,” Jerry says. “She will shine on forever.”

Two strangers, standing together. Two broken, empty hearts. 

Frozen soiled condoms at our feet. A universe of stars above us.