How Tall the Ladder, How Far the Moon by David Henson

David Henson's lighthearted tale of a man obsessed with measuring.

According to my mother, I quit squalling soon as the doctor recorded my birth weight and length. Mom always has been prone to exaggeration... prone to a lot of things. But it's certain I had a fascination with measuring. OK, I'll admit it: I teetered over the boundary into compulsion at a young age.

One of my first memories is from 20 or so years ago. I determined Miss Gilbert's desk was 22 first-grade hands wide and 11 deep. Billy Johnson's blue eye was less than a hand from his brown one.

My itch to measure intensified the older I got till - shortly after my tenth birthday, when I threatened to run away from home because I didn't get another ruler for my collection - my parents took me to a child psychologist.

He asked me to tell him the first measurement that popped into my mind. I gave him the distance to the moon in miles. And kilometers, feet, meters and inches. I wanted him to know he wasn't dealing with a stupid little kid - at least not when it came to measurements. He scribbled something in his pad and spent the rest of the session teaching me relaxation exercises. Then he asked my parents for $125. 

That evening I overheard my folks discussing things they'd have to give up to afford my sessions. Mom especially was upset about Saturday date night. Guilt pushed down on me, and I vowed to control my compulsion. Or at least hide it. When I felt an urge biting, I went to my room, flicked baseball cards and measured how far they flew. I admired my collection of rulers only under the covers with a flashlight in the middle of the night. I eventually convinced my folks I was cured, and they stopped my sessions.

I bumped along the next few years pretty well thanks to my relaxation exercises, and exercising discretion. I flicked a lot of baseball cards. I did have a few slip-ups though.

One was because of this crack in the floor outside the boys' room in middle school. I ignored the fracture till I couldn't resist any longer. I whipped out my tape, fell to my knees... and Principal Johnson, who I'm sure was rushing to the lounge for a smoke, tripped over me. I wouldn't have thought a little forehead cut could bleed so much. Or that a grown man would faint at the sight of blood. Anyway, the school counselor informed my parents I was "at it again" and recommended they take me to an OCD specialist, but Mom wouldn't have it.

My biggest mistake was sophomore year. I told Debbie Dunker she had pretty hands and asked how long her fingers were. After that, every time she or her clique saw me, they started laughing. I was glad when it came time to escape to college, but my relief wasn't to last long.

At university, I found that between having a roommate and struggling to keep up in classes, I barely had opportunity or time to measure anything. The pressure built until one day I exploded out of a lecture hall, my emergency tape in hand, and started measuring everything in sight - the water fountain, the width of the hallway, height of the exit door... the tire of a bike parked outside, the height of the curb.

I measured my way back to the dorm, found a janitor's ladder and climbed to the top to measure the distance down. I went onto the roof and dangled my pride and joy, a 100-foot Lufkin. I measured till exhaustion stumbled me to my room. I didn't leave it for two weeks except to eat and go to the toilet. I decided college wasn't for me and went home.

Mom had thrown out my baseball cards, so I rolled poker chips around the house and logged their distance. My fingers wore off the markings from my favorite tape measure. I found myself studying my hands as if they held the missing numbers. I stood outside, my open arms measuring empty spaces.

Dad finally couldn't take it anymore and got me a job on a construction crew. Mom said if I messed up, she'd kick me out of the house.

Turned out I loved my work, and my boss was impressed with my commitment to "measure twice, cut once." I didn't tell him how hard it was for me to stop at twice.

After about a year, I could afford my own studio apartment. Between my job and living alone, I could measure to my heart's content. I was probably overdoing it. Then I met Diana.

I was framing a house when I noticed a surveyor pinning the lot. My eyes leapt to her bright red hair. I had to know how long it was. During a break, I introduced myself, planning to distract her and quickly hold my tape measure to her hair. I asked her to point out the back property line to me. Before doing so, she explained, elegantly, the measurements she'd made. By the time she turned to point out the boundary, I was so smitten, I felt it would be wrong to secretly hold my tape to her head. Instead I asked her to dinner.

After our 12th date in 41 days, I was over the moon for Diana and decided to disclose my obsession. I feared she might dump me, but felt I owed her the truth. Diana listened carefully, took my hand and said if I ever needed to measure her hair or fingers or anything else, I could - as long as I asked first. It was as if something had picked me up, shook me gently and set me back down. From then on, my obsession became easier to manage. I found almost all I needed was to sneak a few extra measurements on the job. My boss was ever impressed that I never made a wrong cut.

Diana and I eventually moved into a small bungalow together. That was several years ago, and we're still there. Tall hedges seclude the back yard. Sometimes on warm, crickety nights, we take a blanket and fool around under the stars. One evening, we were lying on our backs when Diana asked me the distance to the moon. I told her it was closer than I ever imagined.

Note to reader: This story is 1,083 words long. (I'm much better, but not completely cured.)


  1. Glad this character found a place in the world--and a person that understands him--despite his quirk. All any of us can ask for, really.

  2. Heavy on examples of the narrator's OCD with a shallow to almost linear plot arc. Unusually narrow range of symptoms might be why he remains so functional. Not an expert on this disorder, but it felt under researched.

  3. As someone who has counted every stride of a half-marathon (just over 9500), I can relate to the main character. We all have our quirks; it all comes down to how we deal with them. This was more of a character study than a story but still well written and a fun read. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks, James. This was intended as a humorous piece...with a happy ending no less! Glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Funny story esp. about the childhood psychologist. There was one thing the MC didn't measure which a lot of guys are obsessed with...Good ending...with his moon quip, it sounds as if the MC is on his way to being cured..

  6. I enjoyed this. The story was quirky, interesting, great pace, and yet it didn't take itself too seriously. A+

  7. I love how towards the end of the story the narrator refrains from using specific numbers as if to say that you cannot measure love. And then that last sentence killed me! A really enjoyable read!

  8. I respectfully disagree with Chris; I didn’t think David’s story was markedly under-researched; it was a spoof and all in fun. After all, one can write about ice cream without understanding the biochemistry of human taste. And I always like a story wherein the beleaguered MC adapts and gets the girl.