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Counting to Prettidase-Nine

I walk with my head down, looking for cracks in the pavement. The sidewalk is grey and rough, but my dirty white running shoes are worn and comfortable. Since I've already stepped on four cracks in the pavement with my left foot, I am trying to find four new cracks for my right foot. I have to find four cracks before I get to the hospital.

A pair of Doc Marten-clad feet suddenly blocks my progress. I stop walking. I slowly raise my head and see black jeans with worn knees, a loose leather belt, and a blue sweat shirt with the words "Daytona Beach" scrawled in yellow across its face. "Sorry," a bald man with dark glasses says as he steps out of my way. I wonder why he is shading his eyes. The sun has been hidden by thick clouds with black undersides all day, making everything around me look a little grey.

With the path clear, I begin to walk again. To avoid more near collisions, I resolve to raise my head to check for obstructions once every five steps. I can still feel the four cracks that my left foot has stepped on, physical memories lingering inside my shoe. One step, two steps, three steps. It is important to find new cracks in the pavement. Four steps, five steps, look up. My right foot feels empty and wants things evened up.

The block ends here; the sidewalk has become a short cliff overlooking the pavement of the road six inches below it. I look up and wait for the traffic to subside before attempting to cross the intersection. I look all the way down the thoroughfare and my eyes tell my brain that the street is wide where I'm standing, but gradually narrows into nothingness further down the road. There's a convenience store sign with a wide eyed red owl on the next block that looks twice the size of an apartment building ten blocks down that I know is at least five stories tall. My father told me a long time ago that it's the shape of our eyes that makes us see things like narrowing roads and tall buildings that seem tiny from far away. He also informed me that special eyeglasses exist to correct this deficiency but he just couldn't afford to buy any for our family. When I asked him when he might be able to get some of these glasses for us, he told me we'd have them in prettidase-nine weeks. "How long is that?" I asked. "It's a long time," he said. Prettidase-nine is the numerical equivalent to the letter Z; it's the last number.

For the moment, there aren't any cars on the street except for a dark green mini-van that looks to be about the size of a dog, so I cross. The pavement on the road is darker than on the sidewalk, more black than grey. There's a thin, lightning bolt-shaped crack next to a rusting manhole cover and I adjust my gait to get my right foot to step on it. One down, three to go. I step up onto the new sidewalk, quickly check ahead for obstacles, and hop over the shadow of the red owl sign, continuing on my way. The apartment building is slowly growing taller and I can see a green bench in front of it now. Accidentally, I step on a crack I hadn't noticed with my left foot. Now it's five to one, in favour of the left. I know, right foot, I know. But don't worry, I'm sure there are more than enough cracks between me and the hospital to make everything even.

My arms swing as I walk. My father told me this is natural because humans evolved from horses and we still hold on to the distant memory of walking on four legs. Arms actually think they are doing part of the walking, he said, and we should let them swing all they want. As I pass a lamp post, the side of my swinging left hand brushes against the metal pole. The impact lingers. I stop, turn around, and pass the grey pole on my right side, trying to recreate the incident for my other hand. I miss the spot, though, and only touch the lamp post with the back of my hand, not the side, so I just stop right in front of the pole. First, I softly touch the cold pole with the back of my left hand, getting that bit of unevenness out of the way, then reach out with the side of my right hand to take care of the original problem. My hands are back to normal again, they can get back to walking. There's a crack in the pavement edging out from the base of the lamp post. Little blades of green grass are growing inside the crack. I step on it twice with my right foot, cheating a bit, I know, and now it's five to three, in favour of the left.

Sometimes it's hard to keep track of all the scores. That's why when I walk I like to take care of little problems like the one I had with the lamp post right away, so that I don't get the big ones mixed up. I used to let everything get out of whack, but that was before my father told me how the body likes everything to be equal.

I came upon him in our living room one evening when he was standing facing the wall next to the mantle piece. He looked like he was playing a piano, the way he was tapping his fingers all over the wall. I asked him what he was doing, and he said that he was adjusting the house's central computer, but I couldn't see any buttons or anything. My mother was lying on the couch nearby, holding an empty glass on her stomach. She said, "Tell him what you're really doing," and he did.

"Tommy," my father said, "there are bees under my bed. If I don't want the bees to come out at night and sting me while I'm asleep, I have to make sure that everything is even on my body."

"Even?" I asked. I heard my mother groan and she got up from the couch, heading for the kitchen.

"Yes, even," my father continued. "You know, Tom, how sometimes you might be walking down the hall and one of your hands touches the wall? But you didn't mean for it to touch the wall? Well, if you don't want the bees to sting you at night, you have to touch the wall with your other hand, to make it even. I want to go to bed now, but I didn't keep up with everything that I did with my fingers today, so now I'm making everything even." He turned around and continued tapping the wall.

"There aren't any bees under my bed, Daddy."

"That's because you're only six years old, Tommy. The bees only start coming around when people turn seven."

My mother was back in the room, I could hear the ice clinking against the sides of her glass. "Oh, for Christ's sake, Arnold. What are you telling him now?" My father did not answer her, he just kept making everything even. My mother took a sip from her glass, wiped her chin, and lay back down on the couch.

"Do you have bees, Mommy?"

My mother closed her eyes and groaned through another sip, slightly lifting her head from the couch pillow. She crunched some ice in her mouth. She wasn't opening her eyes so I walked over and shook her arm. Her lips were gooey wet and she smelled like the medicine she rubbed on my chest when I had the sniffles. I asked again.

"Bees? Me? No, Tommy, I killed my bees a long time ago. Your father just can't get rid of his, that's all." She then seemed to fall asleep, holding her glass on her belly.

I'm looking for cracks in the sidewalk for my right foot to step on so I can keep the bees away tonight. I've been keeping the bees away for fifteen years now. The feet are the most important to keep even, because the bees love to sting people's feet. It's five to three, in favour of the left. Somebody's tin garbage can suddenly gets in my way, and I remind myself to keep checking ahead. There's the five story apartment building with the green bench in front of it, only a few steps away. I stop and turn around to see how big the red owl looks now. My eyes tell my brain that the sign is about the size of a donut hole, but I know that it's actually around five feet tall. In turning, I accidentally swept the side of my right foot against the pavement while my left only touched it with the sole. I drag my left foot on its side along the sidewalk; one to one, even.

I trudge on towards the hospital. One step, two steps, three steps. They probably have those glasses to fix eyesight there, probably kept in a safe or something. Four steps, five steps, look up. There's a telephone booth at the end of the block on my side of the street, so I run across to the other. I don't want any hot lava shooting out of the receiver and burning my skin. There's another green bench on this side of the street. I find a crack in the sidewalk next to the bench and step on it with my right foot. Five to four, in favour of the left.

Running from the lava tired me out, so I decide to sit down for a bit. I turn and face the street. The centre of the bench is right behind me. I raise both arms in the air and sit down slowly on the bench. Even though I am being careful, the right side of my bum touches the bench first. I collapse into a regular sitting position, though, keeping my arms in the air, keeping them from touching anything, until I can feel the bench with my entire bum. I stand up again, my arms are tired, and sit back down, this time purposefully touching the bench with the left side of my bum first. I check my watch, it's twenty-two minutes after twelve. I check my other watch, it's the same time. They are still synchronized. Settled, I fold my hands in my lap.

Now that I am resting, I decide to use the time to get a little bit closer to prettidase-nine. It's taking a long time, but I'm determined to count all the way up to it. When I began counting to prettidase-nine, starting right from number one, Brian was still the Prime Minister. It's a lot of fun, too, because the closer I get to the end of the numbers, the funnier and funnier the names of the numbers get.

This morning, back at home, I decided to do nothing at all but go out to the back yard and count. I was determined to make some progress. Sitting on my old swing set, I got past santaclaus-nine, cornflake-nine, and gingerale-nine. After gingerale-nine came nipple. I laughed so hard when the nipple numbers came up that I only made it to nipple-six before I had to run in the house to tell my father about it.

I pushed the back door open with both of my palms at the same time, a perfect job, and went into the kitchen. I was really anxious to find my father; I wanted to show off a little bit. He's been trying to count to prettidase-nine, too, but he's way behind me, stuck at manitoba-seven. I looked around the kitchen, but my father was nowhere to be found. I noticed the cutting board was left out on the kitchen counter next to a bowl full of tomatoes. There was one tomato on the board, half of it cut into thin slices. There were drops of tomato juice on the floor, a trail, so I followed them. The little drops of tomato led to the living room, and there was more juice on the beige area rug in the middle of the floor. There wasn't anybody in the living room except for my mother, but she's always there now, in the green vase on top of the mantle piece. I said, "Hi, I'm looking for Dad," and ran to the staircase that leads up to my parents' bedroom.

There were drops of tomato all over the stairs. I got about halfway up before I realized that I was stepping harder with my left foot than with my right, so I turned around and hopped back down, jumping on each step with both feet at the same time. I climbed to the middle of the staircase again, putting more pressure on my right foot this time, and hopped back down again to start fresh. Then I accidentally touched the wall with my left hand and had to do the same with my right. While I was fixing that up, I bit my tongue with the left side of my teeth. I took a deep breath and told myself to slow down. If I wasn't careful, I could have been stuck at the bottom of the stairs all day.

Before fixing the inequalities in my mouth, I called up to my father. "Are you up there, Dad?"

"Yes," I heard him answer. "Can you give me a hand? I'm trying to get even."

I closed my eyes and concentrated on getting everything fixed as quickly as possible. I bit down on my tongue with the right side of my teeth and was about to attempt climbing the stairs again when I realized that my eyes had been open when I made the first bite. I bit my tongue with the left side of my teeth with my eyes closed, then with the right side with my eyes open. "Tom?" my father called.

"I'm coming, Dad. I'm just having trouble getting up there again."

"All right. Take your time."

I decided to stop taking chances and hopped all the way up the stairs with both feet. I fell at the top of the stairs and had to touch my elbows to the floor a few times as I lay on my stomach. When my elbows were finally even, I got up very carefully, pressing down on the carpet with equal force in both palms, sliding both knees beneath me simultaneously, and rising slowly to a standing position. I tapped the toe of my right shoe twice on the floor, then my left once and my right again to be sure, and walked to the bedroom. I pushed the door open with both of my palms at the same time.

My father was sitting on the floor, between the end of the bed and the dresser, naked except for his underwear, sitting in a pool of red tomato juice. He was making a long cut in his right leg from his foot to his knee with the tomato knife. I saw a corresponding slash on his left leg and realized that I hadn't been following a trail of tomato juice after all.

"Are you okay, Dad?"

He looked up at me and shrugged his shoulders. His clothes, stained red, lay in a pile beside him on the floor. He held his left index finger out to me, cut to ribbons. He put the knife down on the floor and stretched out his other hand, its index finger sliced in similar fashion. "Do you think they're even?" he asked.

There were more cuts on his arms, his bare shoulders, chest, plus the new gashes in his legs. My father loves toasted tomato sandwiches but sometimes forgets to put on his cutting gloves when he gets a craving. "They look fine, Dad," I lied. "Your fingers are even." Actually, his left index finger was in slightly worse shape than his right, but I judged that a few bee stings in the night would be worth it if I could get him to stop cutting himself. I picked up the knife and passed it back and forth between my hands as I stood over him.

"Hey," my father said, "I'm not finished. Look at this cut here," he pointed to his left leg, "it's not as straight as the other one."

"I think it looks just fine, Dad." There was a lot more blood than the last time. "I think I better get a doctor for you. I think maybe I should call one from next door this time."

"No, Tom-the lava!"

"Okay. I'll go get a doctor. Just wait here."

After nipple-nine comes candlestick. After candlestick-nine comes rockgarden. After rockgarden-nine comes corncob, and after corncob-nine comes paintbrush. After that, paintbrush-one, paintbrush-two, paintbrush-three. I can't wait to find out what comes after paintbrush-nine, but I should get myself over to the hospital. I look at my watches. I've been sitting for eleven minutes, forty seconds. I'll have to wait until it's been twelve minutes to leave, the next even number after eleven. I have more time to count. Where did I leave the knife? Paintbrush-four, paintbrush-five. My watches say it's been twelve minutes now, so I get up, slowly, carefully.

I walk along the sidewalk again, the hospital is in sight now, slightly larger than a breadbox. I check for cracks in the pavement. Paintbrush-six, paintbrush-seven. There's one! I step on the crack with my right foot. The score is five to five, a tie again. Both feet feel empty. Paintbrush-eight, paintbrush-nine. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and everything around me looks a little yellow. I squint, but my left eye closes just before my right.

Maybe I'll fix that later.

Let's see, paintbrush-nine: what comes after? I wasn't expecting this. The next number is prettidase. Prettidase-one, prettidase-two.

It's nearly over.

Montreal writer, producer, and host at Grimy Windows Showcase, crafting tales of injury, aliens, and self-indulgence in a novel.