The Leonids

Posted: October 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

  the leonidsWe met at the City Lake around 1:30 a.m.  As promised by the

weatherman the sky was clear and shone with a million stars.  The

moon would not be putting in her appearance until sometime around

five a.m., so there would be no obscurity.  We’d be getting the full

effect.

    I pulled my old Ford off the gravel roadway, expecting to have to

wait, but a set of headlights pulled off the highway and turned down

the narrow road a quarter of a mile back.  Twin spears of light

penetrated the settling cloud of dust I’d left behind scant moments

before.  I wouldn’t even have time for a cigarette.

    After a minute of watching the headlights bounce and dodge all

over creation Matt and Mandy and the kids pulled up beside me,

their windows rolled down.
“Probably won’t see anything,” Matt said from the driver’s seat.
“Hey Bill,” Mandy said to me.  We couldn’t see each other worth a damn.  We were two ghostly faces in the night, mere feet away from one another.  She had her arm hanging outside the minivan.
“Hey, Amanda,” I said.  “Are you bored yet?”
She laughed.  I’d always loved her laugh.  Matt was a damned lucky man and I’d often wondered to what depths he knew that singular fact.
“I am,” a voice intoned from the back seat.  That would be Stuart, the eldest.  Stu was a lot like his father–he saw the rust-lining in everything.
“Did you bring the booze?” Matt asked me as he got out and slammed the door behind him.
“Hush, Matt,” Mandy said.  “Get the chairs.”
I waited while the Prescott family disembarked.  An onlooker might have thought we were all up to no good–a single man meeting a husband, wife and kids in the dead of night in a closed lake park miles from town.  We’d had it figured that there would eventually be cops coming by on patrol.  They’d see the vehicles, run an obligatory check or two of the plates, then start to nose around and see if they could find us and run us off.  Maybe even give us a ticket.  Or two.  But the plan was that if that happened I was supposed to flash my badge and magically make everything alright.
I fished the beer out of my trunk and Matt and Mandy and the kids each had their hands full as we trudged across the mown grass, up a hill and around the stand of trees down to the lakes edge.  We’d be out of sight from the road, so truthfully, anyone wanted to find us could, but it might take them awhile.  I estimated we were a couple football field lengths from the cars.
Mandy and the kids opened up the lawn chairs.  Matt clicked on a flashlight and inspected my cooler.
“Coors Light,” I told him.  “And a little something-something for us hard-core drinkers.”  I pulled out a flask and handed it to him.  Matt unscrewed the lid and sniffed.
“Scotch,” he said.  “How old?”
“Older than you,” I said.
“Bill,” Mandy said, “you’re contributing to the delinquency of a major.”
“I know,” I said.  “With malice aforethought.”
“Just so’s you know.”
I took the flask back, screwed the cap on.
“It’ll keep till later,” I told Matt and then tossed him a cold beer.  “In the meantime, shut off that damned light so we can see.”

*****

You can see the stars on the water on a clear night with no wind, no tide and no moon.  And the silence is its own presence.
“There’s one!” Suzie, the youngest Prescott exclaimed and pointed.  Our eyes had adjusted, so we could see her arm.
A line of light lasting about half a second traced itself across the sky just west of Leo.
“Oooo. . .  Ahh. . .” Stu said, clearly unimpressed.  What more can you expect from a fourteen year-old?
“Shut up, Stu,” Matt said.
“Good one, Suze,” Mandy encouraged.  “You be nice, Stuart.”
“Hey, Bill.  You heard about that water truck we crashed out at the Extension Service?”
“Nope,” I said, and sipped my beer. “But I’ve got the feeling I’m about to.”
“You sure are,” Matt said, and went on for five minutes about how he orchestrated a fully loaded truck crash into a concrete barrier at sixty miles per hour and managed to catch video from ten different angles for study purposes.  The whole time he talked I nodded, watched the sky, and kept Mandy’s perfume in my nose.
Three more lines came into the sky in rapid succession.  This time the ooo’s and ahhh’s were real.
Then, for five minutes, nothing.
Matt was my best friend.  I’d known him all our lives.  But I wondered what Mandy saw in him that I didn’t.  What stars in their courses had brought them together?  And why were they still together?
Mandy had always kept me at arms length, but at the same time she had always treated me with a deference I could not fathom.  A certain softness found its way into her voice whenever Matt wasn’t around and we had a moment to talk, which happened at least once every few weeks.  She would never know that I lived for those brief encounters.  And not for the first time, as I watched the night sky and breathed in her perfume and her presence not three feet away, I wondered if something was there.
“Say, Bill,” Matt said.  “I brought something I meant to show you, but I left it in the van.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a surprise.  I’ll go get it.”
“Matt, can’t it wait?” Mandy asked.
“I’ll only be a minute,” he said and got up.  “Stu, walk with your dad.”
“Oh hell!” Stuart said.
“Stu!” Mandy admonished him.  “Do what your father says.”
“Alright,” Stuart said, the way only a fourteen year-old who knew everything there was to know on God’s green Earth could say it.
“Be right back,” Matt said, and the darkness swallowed them.
The silence came again.
I breathed in Mandy.
“Mom,” Suzie said.  “I’ma gonna wade in the water.  Is that alright?”
“What do you think, Bill?  Can anything get her?”
“Anything that could get her will run from her,” I offered.  “Suzie, make sure you don’t go deeper than your knees.  This lake drops off pretty quick out there.”
“Cool!” Suzie said and darted toward the shore, ten yards or more away.
Silence again, but for little feet making gingerly, quiet splashes.
“Mandy,” I said.  “How are you doing?”
“I’m okay.  You?”
“You know me.  I’m fine.”
“Yeah,” she said.  “I know.”
Silence once more.
There came a thudding.  A fatalistic thumping as of some oil well a mile away broaching the earth.  After a moment of careful listening I decided it was my chest.
“Are you happy?” I asked her.
A moment appeared, stretched itself out, and flitted away.
“I’m not unhappy,” she said.
“That’s not an answer.”
Another moment.
“I know,” she said.
A spray of meteors thirty degrees up visited us and our breaths caught as one.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.  “He found me first, Bill.  It should have been you.”
“I know,” I said.  “There’s nothing we can do about that.  Ever.”
“Ever.”
I stood up, turned away.
“Thank you, Bill,” she said.
“For what?”
“For not saying it.  Those words.”
“Oh,” I said.  “Those words.  Any time, Mandy.  But if Matt ever hurts you, I’ll hurt him pretty bad.  And then I’m coming for you.”
“I know, Bill,” she said.  “I know.”

*****

The Leonids quit the sky around four, or so the newspapers say.  But these Leonids–Bill and Matt and Mandy and Stu and Suzie–we quit long before then.
I moved to Grapevine, Texas and took a job with the Sheriff’s Office ten years later.  Matt had a heart attack and died after coming home from work one cold January night.  I remember that my new wife comforted me while I cried, offering solace for one who rarely showed emotion.
I walk out in the back yard some nights and study the night sky.  Sometimes I feel like I can distinguish the relative distances between the stars, and can even tell which ones are closer and which are farther, and let me tell you, it has nothing to do with brightness.
And once or twice in a blue moon I’ll catch a shooting star.  So brief they are.  So very damned brief.

finis

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