Tred Well Across the Sky O Mightiest of Comets
February 6. Not as cold as we’d expected, though windy as hell. We parked our van across the street from the park, which closed at dusk.
“Shhh!” cried Sammy, as we got out and grabbed our gear.
We planned it days in advance, our military-like operation of sneaking into the park, taking the high hill, setting up our telescope, and then partying afterward.
This was the first night that offered a clear view of the western skies.
Sammy led the way with a flashlight that outlined the snow-covered path, tramped down by intrepid hikers and joggers. Tiny pebbles of deer scat littered the path like breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel.
Atop the hill, my little brother David, who had Asperger syndrome, began to recite what he’d read about it, while the rest of us scurried about setting up camp.
David, who was a handsome twelve-year-old with dark hair like my own, spoke in a soft voice.
“Louder, David,” said Maggie.
He gave her a look, yes, he had good eye contact, and began again.
“Comet Lovejoy was discovered on August 17, 2014 by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer in Queensland, Australia. It was the fifth comet he’d discovered.”
“Okay, David,” I said. “Get to the good parts. Tell us where to find it.”
He cleared his throat and looked up at the vast winter sky atop our hill. The moon was halfway above the horse farm off in the distance. And the stars were blinking on and off like diamonds.
“Visible to the naked eye for experienced observers..”
“That’s us!” cried Maggie and a couple others hooted with joy.
“…with dark skies and keen eyesight. In January 2015, it brightened and became one of the brightest comets located high in a dark sky in years. The comet came to perihelion – closest approach to the sun – on January 30 – that’s a week ago - at a distance of 120,000,000 miles from the sun.”
“Shee-it!!! A hundred twenty million miles from the sun!” said Bill, who was already swigging from his private stock of booze he removed from his jacket pocket. Who did he think he was? Hemingway?
Bill was my neighbor, a clever guy, who lived with his old father. He’d just been released from prison. Again. For another DUI.
Sammy told everyone to relax, we have plenty of time to party and see the comet. He pointed toward the sky. “We have a perfect view up here. Give me a few minutes while I set up my telescope.”
The Meade Telescope glowed white. The snow up here was so frozen our feet didn’t sink in. We walked on top of the snow banks, careful not to slip and fall.
“Please, everyone, be careful,” I said. “It’s treacherous up here.”
Out of my backpack, I took out my offerings. Removing my gloves with my mouth, I set out a blue glass tray, then opened a baggie and poured out Triscuits, which I set in a circular pattern. Onto each cracker, I put cut-up cheese: Muenster, horseradish cheddar, and Swiss.
With “smoke” pouring out of our mouths, we were as busy as a real military operation planning its assault on unsuspecting troops down below. My brother David had pulled out his black Nikon and began taking photos. Click! Click! Click! That boy had more interests than I did.
I will tell you this, though. I was interested, very interested, in Sammy. He was a divorced man who lived in the neighborhood. I’d wave to him when I walked our dog, Fluffers. I still lived with my folks and David, saving money to buy my own place.
As David was taking a picture of the white telescope, he stepped too far backward and slipped. There he was, sliding down the hill in his green jacket and matching hat, his camera held aloft in the air.
“Wheeeeeee!” he screamed as he went down the hill.
Jesus, here I was, in charge of my younger brother, and look what I’d done.
He came to a stop somewhere near the bottom. Sammy went after him, sliding down on his butt. “He’s fine!” he yelled up at us and led David up the hill, very slowly, by the hand.
I hugged David when he made it back to camp. Hugged him hard. “Sorry, Diddy,” I said. “You okay?”
“Embarrassed,” he said. “But I kind of liked it. Sort of like skiing, backward.”
I walked around, clapping my hands together to keep warm, and decided to make an announcement.
“So, we’ll watch the comet and then we’ll eat. Right?”
I waited to hear what Sammy would say. I was relieved when he looked up from the telescope – he had removed his cap and his field of black curls tumbled out – and he stuck out his thumb and said, “Right-o, Katydid!”
Maggie and I huddled together. She was jumping up and down to keep warm. She lived far away in Philadelphia, but we were best friends since childhood. She was the only normal one in her family. She called her parents “fiends” as they were always arguing with each other and the four children, two of whom became heroin addicts. Maggie, with the stoicism of a Buddhist monk, knew enough not to indulge, and kept firm on her course to become a psychologist. She lived in a dorm at Temple University.
David had come over and photographed us in our huddle, Maggie’s blond curls spilling out of her warm cap.
Sammy stood up. “Ladies and gents,” he announced. His black mustache had snowflakes on it.
“The telescope awaits you. What you do is close one eye and put your best eye – usually the right – on the lenspiece. Blink a couple of times for your eye to adjust and then gaze upon the heavens.
“Ladies first,” he said, motioning to me and Maggie.
Maggie stooped down a bit and put her eye to the lenspiece.
“Wait a minute!” she said. “I should close one eye, right?”
“Yes,” said Sammy, “I just told you that.” He patted her on the back.
In a moment she began to shout.
“I think I see it!” she called. “I do see it!”
There was complete silence on our hill. Five people conjoined in the wonder of the universe.
The nearly-full moon was off to our left. A hazy moon, white with gray shadows on it.
It was my turn next. I brushed my hair from my face, closed my left eye, stooped down and viewed the night skies. It took a moment to focus. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.
“I see it moving,” I whispered.
“Impossible,” said Sammy. “It’s too far away.”
Nonetheless I saw what I saw. The comet swung along like a slow-moving horse and carriage, orange as a tabby cat, sweeping slowly across the sky. I could even hear it singing. A sort of lullaby. The comet was huge – as big as three moons – and I could barely tear myself away.
To my surprise, Sammy grabbed my bare hand when I moved away. He held it a moment before letting go.
“Katy, lovely, Katy,” he said.
When it was David’s turn, my brother looked through the lens and said, “Hello thou mightiest of comets. Tred well across the sky, say hello to Perseus and Andromeda, who sparkle above you, and I shall see you when I, too, have turned into a star, the Star of David.”
“Whoa, man,” said Sammy. “You is one profound dude.”
“I’ll toast to that,” said Billy, taking a swig, like Hemingway.
What merriment traversed after each one of us – Bill, Maggie, Sammy, David, and myself – paid obeisance to the comet. Then we attacked the hors d’oeuvre table. I bit into the delicious combination of the horseradish cheddar, which I had just discovered, and the salty taste of the Triscuit.
“Yum!” I said out loud.
“Sammy, can I get you some?”
“Sure, lovely lady,” he answered.
Afterward the five of us stood atop the hill, each one immersed in our own thoughts.
“Let’s everyone make a wish,” I said.
We felt the cold air burnish our faces and rush through our clothing. Standing as still as chess pieces, we were silent, immersed in our own thoughts.
“Please, God,” I thought. “Please make Bill stop drinking. He is a good man. I wish this for Bill and his elderly father, Luke.”
Maggie said we should all tell what we wished.
“No way!” we all said.
“Okay, everyone,” said Sammy, removing his jacket, his gray argyle sweater and unbuckling his jeans. “In the fine tradition of the ‘Polar Bear Club, who jump into the Atlantic when it’s freezing, I dare you all to get undressed.’”
Amidst loud laughter and moans, we all peeled off our jackets and hats, our winter boots and warm clothes and stripped down to our bare naked bodies. We whooped and hollered and jumped up and down on that high hill, while my brother David photographed us all.