My daughter was fearless about the near-earth object. “It’s just ice and sky dust,” she told me when I asked if she felt afraid.
Plenty of people were willing to talk to a pretty woman with a microphone. I heard bits and pieces. One white-haired guy had come all the way from Texas. “This is a very special event,” he explained to Sela, leaning in close to her. “With an orbital period of forty-five years, most will only get the chance to see it once. Some will see it twice. Only the very lucky will see it three times, but it’s technically possible, if you catch it when you’re young. It can only be seen by the naked eye from this specific location on Earth, and only for one night.”
A young couple told her they planned to marry as the mass crossed the sky. “My brother got ordained online,” said the bride-to-be. “We’re sleeping in our car.” It was obvious how romantic she thought it. I always thought I would feel that way about my wedding, and then I didn’t. Instead I felt tired and irritable at my mother, who had insisted I wear heels even though I never wear heels. The whole time I just wanted it to be over, something I maybe should have taken as a sign.
My daughter came in after school. She was unfazed by the crowd. I gave her chocolate milk and she did her homework in the back. It was like any other day, except the bar was full.
At quarter-to-six, they were all still there. I stood on a crate and told them to drink up and move on. Brenda might have said to stay open late, but Brenda doesn’t work on Thursdays and didn’t come in to help. The out-of-towners grumbled.
My daughter appeared behind me. “You heard her,” she roared. She’s young enough to want to have my back.
“Is there anywhere else to drink around here?” Sela leaned over the bar. “Or hang out?”
“You’re going to need to go to Belvidere if you want to get rowdy.”
“I just want to talk. Is this your kid?”
My daughter got in between us and said, “I just want to talk, too.” And then to me: “Can she come over for dinner?”
Sela stood in front of the bookshelves, looking at our knick-knacks. My daughter pointed to each figurine—a horse, a dog, a pelican with a fish in its beak—and told its origin story. She likes junk shops, my daughter. We go on the weekends. I give her a dollar and tell her to haggle.
I made grilled cheese and tomato soup. I thought about dusting off the nice dishes but told myself it is what it is and stuck with our regular plates and bowls, hard plastic in bright colors meant to entertain children at mealtimes.
After my daughter showed Sela her room, we ate.
“How has the fame of this celestial body affected your lives?”
“I have dreams. I am in the sky. I can see our house.”
Sela placed her cell phone on the table before my daughter and hit record.
“Nope,” I said. “Turn it off.”
Sela paused the recording without taking her eyes off my daughter. “Like you are a comet,” she said.
“Yes. I can see our house from the sky, like I am a comet.”
After dinner we sat out back in folding chairs, eating fudgesicles and watching the sun set over the garage. I lit citronella candles and wiped chocolate smudges from my daughter’s face with a wet paper towel.
Sela chewed on her popsicle stick with the distracted effort of someone trying to quit smoking. “This seems like a nice place to live.”
I couldn’t tell if she was making conversation or really thought so. “It’s unseasonably warm,” I said. “When I was younger, we could never sit outside in just a sweater on the last day of September.”
“When I grow up it’s going to be very, very hot,” said my daughter.
Sela looked up at the sky. “Just think what it will look like tomorrow night.”
The next morning, before school, my daughter helped me set up the tent. I stood on the instructions to keep them from flying away.
“Two of the big poles and one flat roof connector.”
She rooted through the pieces as I hammered a stake into the hard ground. When I looked up again, she was fitting two parts together, as if by instinct, as if her whole short life she had just been waiting for me to buy her a tent.
The streets were lined with even more cars, cars stretching down as far as we could see, past the town limit.
“Where’s Sela?” My daughter peered into the window of every white van we saw on the way to school. “Parking on the lawn is bad for the grass,” she said to no one.
The teachers had not prepared for so many visitors at field day. They didn’t have enough hula hoops. Some of the mothers didn’t want their kids playing with strangers anyway.
“We can let their children play,” my daughter’s teacher said.
After a terse conversation about property taxes, the mothers decided that visitors without kids could watch from the baseball field, and visitors with kids could stand on the sidelines of the soccer field, behind school parents. I stayed out of the negotiations.
As the children played Saturn’s Ring Toss and made shapes like constellations with their bodies in the grass, more and more visitors arrived. The area between the soccer field and the school swarmed. You could tell they weren’t from around here. Young women in expensive jackets with brass buttons that shone in the sun. Young men with long, silky hair.
I called my daughter over. “I have to go to work. There are a lot of strangers around today. You stay close to your teacher and don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.”
“I can talk to her.” My daughter pointed behind me to Sela, who stood at the edge of the field, holding up her phone and questioning a group of newcomers.
“You can talk to her if she talks to you.”
I had to push my way through the crowd outside The Farm Stand. “I have the keys,” I called out, and the people parted.
Brenda came in around noon.
“Should have brought back the sandwiches,” she said.
“Now we know.”
“Yeah, I’ll stock sandwiches next time, when I’m ninety-six.” She laughed.
“Did you see it when you were a kid?”
Brenda shook her head. “I had a fever and slept through it. And my parents didn’t wake me up, not even to take me to the window. Unbelievable.”
I closed out a check and the guy told me to keep the change, nine bucks on an eleven-dollar tab.
“Did you see it?” Brenda asked.
“I wasn’t born yet.”
“My mom saw it. She claimed it was the night she met my dad. A stranger from out of town who whisked her away.”
“Isn’t that a story.”
“Yeah, but she wound up back here.”
Brenda surveyed the people drinking. Later, there would be a wild party in the field next to the school, music and dancing and howling at the moon. The head of the PTA would say that she saw a group of women running naked through the trees. The next morning, some of us would go out there with garbage bags and rubber gloves and clean it all up. Now, the visitors were all getting good and buzzed.
My daughter was the life of the party from after school til closing. She had won the three-legged race at field day and went around to every table showing off her trophy, a cheap plastic comet on a cheap plastic stand, spray-painted a color like gold. Sela accompanied her, led by the hand, thrusting her microphone into the faces of tipsy adventurers. Her camera crew followed her, getting two angles on every shot. I watched them, prepared to call out the moment they turned the camera on my daughter, but they didn’t.
By the time we closed, the comet on my daughter’s trophy had detached from its stand, but she didn’t care because she was rich with new friends.
“At home we have superglue,” she told everybody, and everybody cheered.
We poured over a thousand beers in seven hours, a record by a long shot. Kicked two kegs.
We caught the tail end of the chicken dinner, the part where the county clerk made a speech about the historic occasion. The chicken had already run out.
“Some of those out-of-towners have three and four legs,” one of my regulars told me when I peered into the chafing dishes. Chicken fat glistened.
“We’ll make pizza,” I said to my daughter.
We never make pizza from scratch. “From frozen.”
“Can Sela come?”
My daughter doesn’t have a lot of close friends. The other kids seem to like her, but for some reason she doesn’t get invited to their houses very often. I tell her to invite kids to our house. She says she does.
“Sela can come.”
But Sela had to get footage of the massive gathering down at the ravine.
“These astronomy professors have set up high-powered telescopes and are teaching people how to use them, and scout groups are selling cookies, and I guess some people are swimming.”
“That water is freezing,” I said.
“You can have another fudgesicle,” my daughter said. “There’s only one left, but you can have it.”
“I’d really, really love to,” Sela said to my daughter. “But I’m on the job.” She followed her crew in the direction of the streaming crowd.
We went home and counted the minutes until the pizza was done and the sun went down.
When I looked up again, she was fitting two parts together, as if by instinct, as if her whole short life she had just been waiting for me to buy her a tent.
“The astronomical phenomenon will cross the sky at exactly 8:32,” my daughter said. She was reading from the hamburger-folded pamphlet. “It will be visible until 8:45.” She mouthed the counting in her mind. “Thirteen minutes.”
She burned the roof of her mouth on pizza cheese.
“Blow on it,” I said, too late.
She didn’t complain. She bounced in her seat and looked out the window at the rising moon.
It was a bath night, but we decided to skip it.
At 8:20, I pulled a fleece over my daughter’s head and handed her a flashlight.
At 8:21, I opened the door and a mosquito flew in. My daughter bare-palm squashed it.
At 8:24, we pulled the folding chairs out to the center of the backyard. “We’ll have the best view from the middle,” my daughter said.
We sat side by side and listened to the sounds of celebration coming from the school, Stan Janson’s yard, the line of cars on Mill, the ravine. It sounded like passing a church on Sunday, but the whole town was the church and there were no doors.
“Which one is the North Star?” my daughter asked.
I studied the tiny sparks. I missed my mother terribly. “I have no idea.”
“Why isn’t there anyone Sela’s age here?”
“Most people leave when they’re finished with school.”
“Why do they leave?”
“A lot of reasons.” I looked at my daughter, looking at the sky. “Sometimes they come back.”
“Do you think Sela will come back?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Is it 8:32 yet?”
I took off my watch and handed it to her.
She shone her flashlight on the watch face. “Two minutes.”
But then, it showed up. It showed up early and bright and it burned across the sky like a car on fire for fifteen whole minutes, and when my daughter asked me why it was visible for longer than the scientists had predicted, I told her sometimes people are wrong in a magnificent way.