Exactly four years ago, I found myself in a condition that I never find myself in at 4:30 in the morning—awake. But, then, I think the reason was a pretty good one. In honor of the first cold snap of autumn to hit Jackson, here’s a journal entry from four years ago. I’ve edited it silently to fix typos, but have otherwise left it alone. Have a good weekend.
Sunday, 18 November 2001, Jackson, Mississippi. It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m not making any sense.
At least the three people lying on the hood of their 1989 Nissan Sentra can speak coherently. Every now and then they sputter “Shit! That was badass right there!”, “Fuck, it’s cold!” or—my favorite—a beautifully rough drawl of “Goddamn!” In another part of the parking lot, two blond girls with their parents point excitedly and say, “Daddy, did you see that one? Did you see it?” Meanwhile, I’ve got my fists punched down in my jacket pockets and am walking around my car in starts and fits, growling and yelping things would be decipherable only to a Pentecostal snake handler in a reverie. The husband and wife lying on a thermal blanket, five parking spaces away, are probably shaking their heads and thinking, “Oh, that poor retarded boy. Bless his heart.”
But how else should I react to my first meteor shower? My neck will be in a kink all day tomorrow, my ears are numb from the cold, my ankles ache from my constant pacing, but I either don’t care or haven’t noticed. Every five seconds, another streak cuts through the night sky and I say something even more brief and unintelligible than the last phrase. These streaks are like little rips in the swath of stars, constellations and nebulous gases. No matter how quickly I pace, whip my neck up and down or yank my eyes around, I seem to glimpse the meteors only on the periphery of my vision. As often as I see them, I just as often catch only the rapidly fading light trails left in their wake.
I tumbled out of bed at three-thirty in the morning thinking, “This had better be as good as a first kiss, on a bridge, at sunset, overlooking the Seine River. With tongue. Or else I’m going to be very, very upset.” I slung myself into the clothes I had worn yesterday, slouched into my brown jacket—which has too many zippers and which does not actually match a single piece of clothing I own—and headed out of the apartment. To get away from the aurora commercialis of the downtown buildings and interstate roadlights, I drove out to the H. Ross Barnett Reservoir. On the Rankin county side, after the spillway bridge, there is a parking lot and a barely lit fishing pier, and I figured it would be the perfect spot.
About a hundred people must have thought the exact same thing. This parking lot is empty on the Fourth of July, even during the fireworks displays that burst over, and are reflected on, the glassy-still reservoir. Because the police patrol this area, it’s not even a popular Lover’s Lane or beer-guzzling spot for teenagers. But now the place is more packed than a honky-tonk on Saturday night, though it’s much quieter. In fact, as I crept in, people glared at me as if I had just answered a cell phone during a recital of Beethoven’s Fifth.
After a few minutes out here, I understand how they feel. Driving over the spillway, I had already seen two falling meteors. They started out as white as the North Star, but the trails quickly turned red, and then purple, and then nothing.
Now they’re yellow throughout the ride, exploding in a flash of eerie green somewhere below the Big Dipper. Sometimes, they’re bolts of incandescent red. Regardless of their colors, they always disappear as suddenly as they appear, so much so that I’m almost afraid I haven’t actually seen them at all.
To see them in their entirety, then, I must be alert. My pupils must be extended as widely as possible. I swivel your head around slowly enough so that I don’t miss anything by accident but quickly enough to follow the disintegrating trail of one that flared up as I was following another one. For reasons that defy logic but not sentiment, I must be silent. It’s a nuisance to contend with someone’s headlights interfering with the stars or with the slurred crunch of tires on asphalt as another car lurches around, looking for a parking space.
I stay out here an hour. At times, they are coming down or up so fast that I almost mistake them for raindrops. More than once, three or four will drop or ascend simultaneously. That’s the odd part: fall or rise. Because the sky appears as a dome when I look straight up at it, a meteor often looks like it’s ascending, a phoenix rising up from the horizon to the peak of the sky.
Sometimes, thirty seconds or more go by without seeing one and I gradually regain consciousness of my surroundings. It’s frigid enough to see my breath. The cars are thinning out. The dawn begins to seep out of the horizon. I’m tired. Maybe it’s time to head for home. Then a wide, long flare tears through the sky—or, instead, five tiny darts of light streak through the night—and I’m back where I started. A luxury sedan reverse-parks into a spot and I mutter, “Who does this jerk think he is?”
Because there’s something intimate about this, something more private even then bedside prayer or late-afternoon lovemaking. This sort of thing does not tolerate intruders. It’s funny, though. As soon as the two people step out of the car and shiver-jump as they see their first meteor, I smile at them in the dark, because now they’re like the rest of us out here, worshippers kneeling at the altar of a sacred sky.