Going out to see the Great Hale-Bopp Comet in Sam’s old jeep, out past the trailer park on Highway 6. We cut in on one of those gravel roads that punctuate each square mile from here to Saint Louis—pulling over and turning off the lights. The fields are black, but the sky is indigo and it pulls down on either side of us like the dome on a cake plate and I suddenly feel like we are on display, sitting in the middle of the plate helpless and certain to be eaten. When we get out and stand there it is just as I image ascension would be. The dome keeps sliding down, down, around us, until it closes up under our feet in one big O and we are marbles bounding around in the middle of a balloon.
Sam says the Great Hale-Bopp is from the Oort Cloud, some hundred thousand astronomical units from the sun. I ask what an astronomical unit is and he shrugs, “Whatever it is, it’s big.” The Great Hale-Bopp is a strange bluish green that draws my eye no matter where I look in the sky. I ask what the proper Oort greeting might be and Sam and I decide that waving must be universal, so we wave together.
A comet will spend billions of years in the Oort Cloud, with millions of others just like it—bumbling ice rocks shooting around together in darkness. It is only after some freak accident that the comet makes its way into the Inner Solar System…where it begins to shine. Sometime in the next few days I will read in the newspaper about an amateur astronomer from one town over observing Hale-Bopp, and he will say that a comet doesn’t live very long once it enters the warmer part of the Solar System. Just like a snowman melts in the summer, comets melt, he will say and continue, although it is the most glorious part of their lives, it eventually kills them.
Standing next to Sam I look down at the gravel road, which is also glowing an iridescent bluish green and I think it looks just like the ribbon of moonlight that leads the highwayman up to the old inn door in that ballad about the man and his lover on what certainly must have been the most glorious night of their lives.
It seems everyone is experiencing the most glorious part of their lives and I suddenly want to jump on old Hale-Bopp’s back and ride him wherever he is headed, over whatever ribboned road he is on. I tell him this and suddenly I am moving up off the earth and I can see the farmhouses every few miles with their white farmyard lights mimicking the comet, and I am calling down to Sam, “See you in 4397” but Sam is reaching up for me saying “wait, wait,” he is yelling now and I feel he has a hold of my leg, “that comet is just all show and he is cold and there is so much for you here,” he says. “Don’t you understand that it is all glorious, right here—don’t you realize how much glory there is?”
And I guess I do.
So I come back down to earth and Sam and I sit and start throwing the bluish green rocks as far down the road as we can, watching them arc and land, although we can’t actually see them land because of the darkness, can only hear the crisp thunk as they hit the ground.