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THE NIGHT OF THE COMET
A Novel

AN EXCERPT

 

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion-year-old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
—Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
 
“Hey, look! It’s right out there. I tell you, it’s one of the most
beautiful creations I’ve ever seen. It’s so graceful.”
“It’s yellow and orange, just like a flame.”
—astronauts Edward Gibson and Gerald Carr, on spotting
Comet Kohoutek from Skylab, December 1973
 
 

HERE in Baton Rouge you can still see the stars at night.

Our backyard abuts the last patch of pastureland in the neighborhood, a piece of the old Pike-Burden farm still hanging on at the edge of the city. On a clear night like tonight, when my wife and boy are busy inside, I like to leave my desk for a few minutes and walk down to the rear of our yard, down to where my quarter acre ends at a low ditch and a barb-wire fence, and take in the night air. Beyond the fence the land stretches out flat as calm water. Stands of pine and oak ring the field. Off in the far corner a cow pond gleams in the moonlight. From the east comes the swish of cars passing on Perkins Road; from the north, the distant rumble of trucks on I-10.

But a person can’t stand for long on a night like this without looking up. Call it the lure of the ineffable: your eyes are drawn skyward, and there they are. The stars. The night is filled with them. They cluster, they scatter, they shine, they go on forever. They’re beautiful, aren’t they? I’m no expert; I can name only the brightest ones, pick out the most obvious constellations: there’s Polaris, Sirius, and Vega; Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cancer, and Gemini . . . But no matter how little I know them, I still love the stars. How could anyone not? Wherever you go, you know they’ll always be there, shining. All you have to do is turn your eyes up.

Also up there, I know, somewhere behind the stars, is the comet. You don’t hear much about Kohoutek these days—“C/1973 E1” as it’s known by its modern designation. You can’t see it now; not even the most powerful of telescopes can see it. It’s billions of miles away, far beyond the edge of the solar system, a small lump of ice and rock spinning out into the black vacuum of space. In the planetary scale of things, Kohoutek barely registers as a speck of dust; really, it’s nothing anyone needs to be afraid of anymore. And yet, lately, when the sky is clear and the neighborhood is quiet, I find myself thinking about it. In fact, more and more, I find I can hardly stop thinking about it.

I suppose it’s because I’m turning forty soon, the same age my father was when the comet came crashing through our lives, and I worry that heredity might catch up with me at last—that a genetically preprogrammed crisis is due for a generational reoccurrence right about now and I won’t be able to dodge it.

Or perhaps it’s because in not so many years my own son will be the age I was then, and I worry for him, worry that he’ll finally have to step up to the world, the real world of hope and love and loss, and I don’t want him to have to go through all that like I did. I believe if I could, I’d put a blindfold on Ben and pick him up and run with him through all the burning years of his adolescence and not set him down again until he’s safe on the other side, when he’s thirty or so and I know he’ll be all right.

Because it’s not true what they say, that you get over it—that with time, whatever happens to you, good or bad, drifts away into the harmless river of the past. You never get over it, not really. The past never leaves you. You carry it around with you for as long as you live, like a pale, stubborn worm lodged there in your gut, keeping you up at night.

My son’s in the house behind me now, helping his mother clean up after dinner. The kitchen window’s open. I can hear the soft rattle of dishes as they load the washer, their voices as they talk about beautifully inconsequential things. (“If you use too much soap, then what happens?” “I don’t know. Maybe the dishwasher will explode.” “No, it won’t!”)

The comet, I know, is long gone, not to return for millions of years. In another sense, though, it never left. It’s still there; it’ll always be there, hanging like a black star above my head wherever I turn. And on an evening like this, all it takes is the sound of my boy’s voice, and the bright stars above, and the cool air wafting around me, to stir the worm of memory. Then the past comes flooding back, and whether I want to go there or not, I’m instantly transported again to that night.

* * *

“Dad? Dad, is that you?”

I sat up in bed to listen. The night was quiet; the Moon shone in at my window. I wasn’t altogether sure if I was still dreaming or not. I heard a rattling noise outside at the garage shed, and I got up and went to the top of the stairs.

“Dad?”

But his bedroom door was ajar and the house was empty, as I knew it would be. There was the tilting Christmas tree in the corner, the TV set, the couch, the rug, the chairs, all looking abandoned. The broken telescope, what was left of it, sat in pieces on the floor near the back door. I paused just long enough to pick up the phone in the living room and dial a number.

“Something’s wrong. Something terrible is happening . . . Hurry.”
 
 
Copyright © 2013 by George Bishop
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York.