“Well?” my mother asked, reaching in to straighten one of the candles.
My father touched her arm. “Shh. Don’t rush him. He’s thinking.”
The blue and yellow flames danced in the draft of the air conditioner. Crêpe paper streamers dangled from the overhead lamp, and colored balloons decorated the corners of the doorways. We leaned in around the table, all of us wearing cardboard hats, as blithe and unsuspecting as partygoers on the Titanic.
In my usual chair on the left sat my father, Alan Broussard. His arms were crossed on the table, his hair slicked over to one side, his black-rimmed glasses slipping, always slipping, down the slope of his large nose. My mother, Lydia, sat next to him, dressed up for the occasion in a pink pantsuit with a white belt, her red hair styled in a low bouffant with a curl flattened against either cheek. On my right was sister Megan, an angry seventeen-year-old with an embroidered blouse, contact lenses, and a weight problem: a wannabe hippie trapped in the most unhip household in the world.
And I—I sat in my father’s chair, the seat of honor for the evening. Alan Broussard, Jr.: “Junior” to family and friends, a slight boy in a striped polyester shirt, tight blue jeans, and a cardboard Burger King crown.
What did I wish for, staring into the blaze of candles on my cake that summer of my fourteenth birthday? I wished for so many things that it would’ve been impossible to name just one; I was a swirling fog of dreams and dissatisfactions. I wished that I was somewhere else. I wished I had a different name, a different family. I wished that something, anything, would happen to change the unpromising course of my life.
I had no obvious talents, no great looks, no exceptional humor or intellect or passions. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t play an instrument or throw a ball or ride a horse. Except for that odd suffix on my signature, the loopy “Jr.” that linked me to my father and gave me my nickname, I was as close as anybody could get to indistinguishable.
The only thing I had any affinity for—and I hardly considered this a talent—was reading. I was a reader, a bookworm. My tastes weren’t sophisticated; just give me a ripping good yarn (a phrase I’d gotten from a book: “a ripping good yarn”) and I could stay up half the night with it. Best, of course, if the story had a swarm of deadly army ants, or a jet plane crashing in a desert, or submarines, or jungles, or a raft lost at sea. But really, I would read almost anything I could lay my hands on. Slumped in my bed or a corner of the couch with a good book, I’d look up and feel nothing but disappointment at my own world, so dull and colorless in comparison. If I could have, I would’ve gladly spent the rest of my life in books. Stories were my escape, my refuge, my consolation, my love—
My sister razzed a noisemaker at my cheek. “Jesus, hurry up.”
“Stop it!” I hissed, and knocked her hand away.
I narrowed my eyes on the candles until my family receded into a blurry background. An image rose up at the front of my mind, like a genie conjured by the flames: a tanned girl in pink standing on a lawn. That was all. It was only a glimpse, barely a notion. I hadn’t expected to see her here tonight; this girl in pink was so far outside the realm of possibility that she might have been a fiction herself, an imaginary character from one of my books. But here she was at my birthday, signaling to me through the fog of my desires, and I instantly felt, rather than understood, that she represented everything I could ever wish for. I puckered my lips and blew: Gabriella.
My family cheered, and my mother plucked the candles from the cake and began passing pieces around.
“Are you excited about starting high school?” she asked.
“A little, I guess.”
“Why would he be excited?” Megan asked.
“Oh, I’d be excited. New classes, new teachers. Meeting new friends. Dances, dating, all that.”
“Your first kiss. That’s something to look forward to,” said my father. “Maybe Meg can give you some pointers. Huh, Meg? What about that? Huh?” He laughed, an abrupt snorting sound.
Megan frowned. “Dad, you’re being gross.”
“Yes, Alan, that is a little gross,” my mother said.
“Anyhoo. I know I’m excited,” he said, settling back and digging into his cake. Though it was summer, he wore his teaching outfit: black shoes, dark pants, white short-sleeved shirt, and a narrow tie. He’d just returned from a science-teaching seminar in Baton Rouge that day, where, he told us, he’d picked up some nifty ideas for his class this year—group projects, cross-curricular study activities, interactive demonstrations.
“That’s how you make a lesson more fun,” he said, gesturing with his fork. “You get the students up and moving around. Science is interesting. It’s just the teachers that are boring. Of course, it would help if we had a decent lab. We can hardly do anything with that junk we’ve got now.”
He launched into his usual complaint about the lack of support for the sciences in the Louisiana public schools. No respect, he said, none at all. Football and baseball, that was all anyone cared about. While Principal Lee showered money on Coach DuPleiss, his labs meantime were falling to pieces. . . .
Megan rolled her eyes, and my mother gave a little sigh as she began picking at a ridge of frosting with her fork. We had no interest in what my father had to say, but we were his family, after all, the kindest audience he had, and so we ate our cake and let him talk.
Other people—tellers at the bank, cashiers at the IGA—all had a way of grinning when my father began to speak, as if they couldn’t take him quite seriously. And certainly, he was peculiar. A tall, angular man, he was always blinking and peering around, like he’d just stumbled into a room and wasn’t sure where he was. He rode a rattling Raleigh three-speed bicycle to school, instead of driving a car like any normal person would do, and he carried a brown briefcase that he swung stiffly at his right side with a ridiculous air of importance. More than once I had seen students, high schoolers, even third graders, following my father down the hallway and imitating his jerky walk, swinging invisible briefcases, twitching and snorting and then falling all over themselves with laughter.
That year I would be entering his freshman Earth and Space Science class, and the thought of being his student, sitting in his classroom, filled me with dread.
“God help you. Although not even God can help you there,” my sister had warned me. “I have yet to recover.”
He pushed back from the table. “I picked up something else in Baton Rouge.” He winked. “Special order. Be right back,” he said, and disappeared into the bedroom.
“He’s really excited. He could hardly wait to give it to you,” my mother whispered as she bent in to take my plate. “At least try to pretend you like it, okay? It means a lot to him.”
My father reappeared carrying a bulky gift-wrapped box. “Here we are.” He rested it carefully on the coffee table and called us into the front room. “Go ahead, open it. It’s yours.”
My heart sank. I knew what it was. He’d been hinting at it all summer. I sat on the couch and cradled the gift in my lap. Megan settled heavily on the armrest. “What is it?” she asked. My father stood at the edge of the rug, bracing his hands on his hips and twitching all over, like he was holding himself back from diving in and ripping off the paper himself. “You’ll see. You’ll see.”
“It’s a telescope,” I said when I got the wrapping off. “Wow. Gosh. Look at that.” I turned the box around and looked it up and down, trying to show some enthusiasm.
“Huh? Yeah? Huh?” he said.
“Look up. Smile!” my mother called, and took a Polaroid.
My father already had his own telescope, of course, but his was old and not very powerful. What a person really needed, he’d been saying—if you really wanted to get good resolution—was a Celestron C8. It was the Mercedes-Benz of telescopes, the latest thing, made in California. A high-quality telescope like that wasn’t cheap, but a good one would last a lifetime. An investment, he called it. Wouldn’t I like something like that? We’d be able to track the comet with it, catch it before anyone else saw it, follow it all the way to the Sun and back.
“That’s not a toy, you know,” he said as I lifted it out of the box. “It’s a serious piece of scientific equipment. But I figured that you were old enough now. . . .”
Megan asked practical questions about the telescope: How far could you see with it? How did it work? And why was it so short and stumpy-looking? I knew all the answers; my father had already schooled me on the C8. It was a compound refractor-reflector, which was why it was so short. The light came in at the open end, bounced off a big mirror at the back, bounced off another mirror at the front, and then was focused down to the viewing lens, here—
My father interrupted my explanation. “With the forty millimeter Plössl eyepiece, you’ll get a magnification of about fifty power. Although theoretically, with the C8 you could get a maximum magnification of four hundred and eighty power. Cool, huh?”
“Far out,” said Megan. Her interest spent, her family obligations fulfilled, she headed upstairs to listen to records. “Happy birthday,” she called and closed the door to her bedroom.
My father couldn’t hold back any longer. He scooted in and squatted next to me. Soon he had the telescope in his own hands, running his fingers excitedly over the tube, his eyes bright behind his glasses. “How about that? You like it? Huh? You like it?”
While he checked all the parts, my mother, to make the occasion more festive, put a Pete Fountain record on the hi-fi and made drinks, a Coke for me, a rum and Coke for her and my father—“For fun,” as she liked to say. If our family had anything like a cheerleader, she was it. She was the one who staged all our birthdays, planned our holidays, arranged the group photos, and signed our names to Christmas cards when she mailed them out. That we had any sense at all of “the Broussards” as a family unit was mostly due to her—although, to be sure, she rarely got credit for this. If anything, my sister and I wondered why our mother bothered to make such a fuss over such a lost cause.
She was just returning with the drinks when my father stood up.
“Let’s bring it outside,” he said, and, carrying the scope in his arms, he headed for the door.
The air was swampy and warm. To either side were more homes like ours, small boxy hutches with clapboard siding, screened-in porches, and muddy yards. A broken line of bald cypresses and tupelos marked the edge of Bayou Black, a low, sluggish creek that passed behind the neighborhood. When a north breeze blew, as it did tonight, you could smell the Gulf. Bullfrogs and crickets kept up their noisy racket, lending a feeling of wildness to our damp little backyard, and a reminder that we barely had a foothold here—that given half a chance, the water and swamp would rush back in and reclaim the land from under us. “Terra non firma,” my father liked to call it, stamping his foot on the ground as though to demonstrate its unsoundness.
I stood by while he set up the telescope. My mother stood back by the porch, arms crossed lightly over her chest with her drink in one hand, smiling at her two boys.
“Check the ground surface first to make sure it’s level, no rocks or holes,” my father said as he bobbed around the tripod. He still had on his party hat, a red cone with white polka dots, like what a clown would wear. “Be sure the legs are locked. You don’t want it tipping over. Now, the first thing we do is polar align it.”
I looked over the top of his hat, across the black water to our new neighbors’ house on the opposite bank of the bayou. Spotlights shone on the walls and up into the fronds of tall, freshly planted palm trees on the back patio. Upstairs and down, lights glowed goldenly behind the windows, suggesting a rich, vibrant interior life. Their house stood out like a jewel in the darkness.
“Man-oh-man. Look at that. Sharp.”
My father stepped back and called me over. I bent to the eyepiece, curious in spite of myself. A bright blob wavered into view.
“What is it?”
“It’s the Moon, silly. Don’t you recognize the Moon?”
“You have to hold still. Breathe easy. I trained it on the Sea of Tranquility. They were right there, Mr. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walking around. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
I blinked and breathed. The image steadied itself in the glass, revealing a silvery, desolate landscape. My father squatted at my side, pointing out some of the more prominent lunar features while reciting their names at my ear: The Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Fecundity, the rays of Tycho, the rays of Copernicus. I peered closer, hoping I might see something interesting, an American flag, maybe, or leftover pieces of a landing module, but all I could make out were dusty hills and shadows. I wondered why anyone would ever want to go there, it looked so cold and lonely.
“Come see,” he called to my mother.
She tottered down the yard in her high-heeled sandals and, holding her drink aside in one hand, bent to the telescope.
“Careful you don’t spill on it,” he said.
She had a slim figure, narrow shoulders, and a straight back. Even though she was my mother, I could see it was true what people said about her, that she was a pretty woman. Even in a cardboard party hat, Lydia Simoneaux Broussard managed to look pretty. It was only lately that I had begun to notice what an unlikely couple my parents made: she petite and stylish and full of spunk, he gawky and birdlike and dull as a stick. I sometimes wondered what they were even doing together in the first place. Did they love each other? What did love even look like between two adults like them? And who in the world were these two strange creatures, Alan and Lydia, who called themselves my parents, anyway?
“Is this the comet?” my mother asked, blinking into the eyepiece.
“No, it’s not the comet. It’s the Moon! My god, doesn’t anyone recognize the Moon when they see it?”
Excerpted from The Night of the Comet by George Bishop. Copyright © 2013 by George Bishop. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.