The Tale of the Comet
by Robert Ellis Gordon
Rebecca Anne Fox was nine years old and was pretty sure her Uncle Peter was crazy. She didn't want to believe it of course. But the evidence was overwhelming.
It began when Rebecca was four. Over Christmas when Uncle Peter made his once-yearly visit, he didn't even know his colors. "My, what a pretty red tablecloth," he'd say.
"It's blue," Rebecca would correct him.
"So it is," he'd say. "How stupid of me. What a lovely green dress you have on."
"Uncle Peter, it's yellow.
"You're right," he'd say. "And to think I spent four years at Harvard."
The following Christmas when he came for his visit he kept calling her "Uncle Rebecca."
"No, Uncle Peter, you're the uncle," she'd explain. "I'm Rebecca, not the uncle, Uncle Peter."
"So that's how it goes. I'm the uncle," he'd say. But five minutes later he'd forget.
When Rebecca was six and Uncle Peter came to visit, he was somewhat less stupid than usual. He only called her "Uncle" three times by mistake, and almost always got his colors correct.
Then he missed Christmas for a couple of years, but returned when Rebecca was nine. And that's when he told her the story he told her, and that's when she realized he was crazy.
It was eight-thirty, bedtime, when he told the story. Rebecca was under her covers. And there was Uncle Peter by the window near her dresser, staring out at the night.
"What do you see?" Rebecca asked.
"The moon and the stars," he said.
"Oh," said Rebecca. "Hey Uncle Peter, guess what? We're going to have a comet."
"Really?" he said.
"Yes," said Rebecca. "Miss Laganas told us. In school. She said that it's old. A million years old. It's over a million, Uncle Peter."
"Indeed," he said.
"It's made of rocks, dust and ice."
"You don't say," he said.
Uncle Peter sat down by the carpet near her bed. "Well, I suppose," he said.
"Suppose what, Uncle Peter?" Rebecca said.
"Suppose that my toeses weren't toeses but roses--"
"Uncle Peter, talk regular!" Rebecca said.
"Okay, I'll talk regular," he said. Then he stretched out his legs, leaned back on his elbows, sat up again, and scratched his nose. "Say Rebecca, can you keep a secret?"
"Yes," she said.
"Then I guess I can tell." He leaned forward and whispered. "I was there."
"Where?" said Rebecca.
"I was there at the start. At the moment the comet was born. In fact you might say I caused it."
"Uncle Peter, it's over a million years old."
"So how old do you think I am?"
For a moment Rebecca was stumped. "Forty-seven?" she guessed. "Twenty-three?"
"Listen up and I'll tell you," he said.
Rebecca stared at her ceiling. She saw hundreds of multi-colored speckles. She watched for a minute as they floated around. Then she began to listen.
"People say," said Uncle Peter, "that the comet is made of rocks, dust and particles of ice. And that's true insofar as it goes. But I know for a fact that it's also made of bicycles, oats, lumpy gravy and cheese."
"Uncle Peter!" said Rebecca.
"Don't interrupt. Now as I was saying," he said. "Of course it's made of ice because it's cold in outer space. Especially during the winter. And any fool knows that a comet that old is bound to accumulate dust. It's filthy with dust, just filthy. But the Navajo blankets and the Limburger cheese, not to mention the old clipper ships. And the dragons and elephants and Calvin Klein jeans. How do you think they got there?"
Rebecca made no reply.
"Well I'll tell you," said Uncle Peter. "I'll tell you exactly what happened. It all goes back to my youth. You see, a long time ago, before I turned twenty, I held a great many jobs. I sailed the seas for a while. In fact I skippered the Nina. That was one of Columbus's boats. I was secretly hoping he wouldn't find America. I just knew it would come to no good. So I did all I could to screw up the works and make him find Poland instead. Unfortunately, however, my plan was betrayed and I barely escaped with my head. After that I played sax with the Glenn Miller Band and served as protocol chief under Eisenhower. Then, for a spell, I led wagons trains west, helped frame the Constitution, and so forth. In short you might say I was a jack of all trades, but eventually I became a haberdasher."
"What's that?" asked Rebecca.
"A man who makes habs."
"What are habs?"
"They're what lead to bad habits. But the point is the job was part-time. So on my days off I wandered around."
"Where did you go?" asked Rebecca.
"Ohio, Missouri and Poughkeepsie."
"What about the comet?"
"I'm getting to that."
"Is anything you've told me true?"
Uncle Peter was silent for a while.
"Well?" said Rebecca.
"I only speak the truth. Now as I was saying," he said. "One day when I walked from Nebraska to Trenton a puppy dog followed me home. She was black and tan with big floppy ears. I named her Sadie Hawkins."
"But she belonged to someone else," Rebecca said. "Didn't you call the Pet Hotline?"
"Did I call the Pet Hotline?" said Uncle Peter. "I called and I called some more. I took out an ad in the Times. I put up posters with her picture on every telephone pole from the Upper West Side to Missoula. But nobody claimed her so what could I do?"
"You could take her to get her puppy shots."
"And that's what I did," said Uncle Peter. "Distemper, rabies, parvo, the works."
"Did they hurt?"
"They were unbearably excruciating"
"What happened next?"
"She grew up. And Sadie turned out to be a very smart dog who could sit, fetch sticks and peel bananas. For some reason, in chess, she always used a knight opening. But that defect aside, she was brilliant. Particularly with regard to the stock market. 'Buy IBM,' she told me in '52. If only I'd listened, but I didn't. And just before that, in September of '29, she advised me to sell all my stocks. I know, I know; I can tell what you're thinking. What do dogs know about stocks? And that, sad to say, was my thought as well, so I lost a huge fortune in the crash. Then I became a famous flying ace--"
"Wait a minute, Uncle Peter," Rebecca said. "I thought you said you were poor. So how could you have a fortune to lose?"
"That's an excellent question," he said. "But the point of this story isn't money. After all, what's money but something to spend? Now to pick up from where I left off: Sadie Hawkins and I were inseparable. We ate together and slept together and wandered the world together. But then one day I started to date the Governor's daughter, Esmeralda."
"That's not a real name," said Rebecca. "It's a fairy tale name."
"You bet," said Uncle Peter. "And Esmeralda was a fairy tale woman. She had ruby-like eyes, cooked a wicked soufflé, and got a score of 790 on her college boards. In short, Esmeralda was the woman of my dreams. The only problem was she didn't like dogs."
"Not even Sadie Hawkins?" said Rebecca.
"She hated Sadie Hawkins," said Uncle Peter.
"Why did she hate her, Uncle Peter?"
"She told me she was jealous," said Uncle Peter. "That she thought I loved Sadie more than her."
"Well, did you?" asked Rebecca.
Uncle Peter sighed. He looked at his watch. "It's past your bed-time."
He got up to go.
"Wait!" said Rebecca. "Wait! Whatever happened with the comet?"
"What comet?" said Uncle Peter.
"The one that you started."
Uncle Peter sat down. "Oh, that comet."
"Well?" said Rebecca.
"I was getting to the comet. In fact, that's why I'm telling this story."
"Do you think you could go a little faster?"
Uncle Peter sighed again. "Poor Sadie Hawkins," he said. "Whenever I went on a date with Esmeralda I had to leave her at home. But Sadie believed that her one job in life was to constantly be by my side. And she was truly a whiz at her profession. She'd escape from the house and join up with us wherever we happened to be. Once she arrived in time for hors d'oeuvres at a banquet at the Governor's mansion. Another evening she came to the opera. And when she sat in our pew at Salty Roark's funeral, even I was somewhat abashed."
"How did she find you?" asked Rebecca.
"She had an excellent sense of smell."
"But how did Sadie Hawkins get out of the house?"
"She jumped out a window. How else?"
"Why didn't you shut the windows?"
"I did said Uncle Peter. "That's just what I did. But then Sadie ate the front door."
"The dog ate the door?"
"She gobbled it down."
"Why didn't you build a big fence?"
"I did build a fence," said Uncle Peter. "And it took a whole month to do it. I used mahogany posts and imported teak slats. I hired craftsmen from Naples to carve the gargoyles. It was such a fine fence that it won an award."
"Did it work?"
"No, she ate it," said Uncle Peter. "I was really in a terrible bind. The dog was eating me out of house and home so I went to a friend for advice."
"Who was your friend?" asked Rebecca.
"Have you ever heard of Sigmund Freud?"
"No," said Rebecca.
"Good," said Uncle Peter. "Well that's who I went to, old Sigmund. 'Sig,' I said. 'What's going on here? Can you account for this deviant behavior?'
"'Separation anxiety,' he said.
"'Ah,' I said. 'And how can I cure her?'
"'The best way is to shoot her,' he said."
"Uncle Peter!" said Rebecca. "You didn't shoot Sadie!"
"Of course not."
"Well what did you do?"
"I put Sadie Hawkins on a chain. It was a hundred feet long and staked to the ground. Its links were made of cast iron. And no dog alive can eat a cast iron chain."
"But did Sadie eat it anyway?" Rebecca said.
"You ask a lot of questions," said Uncle Peter. "Just listen to this. I put Sadie on the chain and drove over to see Esmeralda. I told her, 'My beloved. The dog problem is solved. Now will you be my bride?'"
"'What? With your paltry earning potential? Marry you? No way!' Esmeralda said.
"Yes, she laughed in my face. I was shattered. But worse news was waiting when I got home. Sadie Hawkins and her chain had vanished!"
"Where did they go?" asked Rebecca.
"I found out soon enough. The phone started ringing off the hook. It seems that Sadie was making the rounds. She was visiting the homes of all of my friends plus my past, present and future parole officers."
"What's a parole officer?" asked Rebecca
"The Man," said Uncle Peter. "He's The Man. The Man who's in charge of us pharmacists."
"You mean you work in a drugstore?"
"Precisely," said Uncle Peter. "Precisely. That's where I work. In a drugstore. In fact, I run my own drugstore. A philanthropic drugstore I might add. One that furnishes herbs- medicinal herbs- to the halt, the lame and--"
"But wait, Uncle Peter. Wait. I thought you worked--"
"You thought?" said Uncle Peter. "You thought?" Don't you know thinking is dangerous? And worse yet, it's bad for your health. And for the health of the body politic. Take Copernicus. Galileo. John Locke. Rousseau. Take--"
"Who?" said Rebecca. "What?"
"Take those thinkers, those fools who thought their fool thoughts, their so-called rational thoughts. They put an end to The Age of Dog Reason. And the end of Dog Reason led to the Age of Human Reason. And what do you think happened next?"
"What about Sadie?" said Rebecca. "Whatever happened--"
"I'll tell you what happened," said Uncle Peter. He was waving his arms and practically shouting. "I'll tell you exactly what happened. When the end of Dog Reason led to the age of Human Reason, there went the mystical ballgame. And the mystical saints fell hard. Including Sadie's friend, Saint Francis."
"Who's he?" asked Rebecca.
"Who's he? Why he's the saint who personifies the Age of Dog Reason! Well, both him and your uncle the druggist. And we were thrust to the margins of society. To the margins of the margins I should say. And so it passed," said Uncle Peter, "that the end of Dog Reason led to the mess that we're in today. Famine, AIDS, genocide, war. Wasting taxpayer dollars on my parole officer. Not to mention the end of hope. Which just goes to show what happens when people think. So don't think too much, young lady. In fact don't think at all if you can help it."
"Don't think?" said Rebecca.
"Don't think. At least not with your brain," said Uncle Peter. "With your heart if you must, but not your brain."
"But Uncle Peter," said Rebecca. "That's what my brain's for."
Uncle Peter thought about this. He thought for a good long while. And as he thought he remembered something sad. He remembered something very very sad.
He turned away from Rebecca so she wouldn't see his face and gazed out at the moon and the stars.
"Uncle Peter?" said Rebecca. "Are you--"
He turned back to Rebecca and smiled. Then he continued in a soft tone of voice. "I was thinking about what you said. Thinking about what the brain's for. And I have to admit you make a good point. A very good point indeed. But the point of this story isn't points. The point of this story is Sadie Hawkins. Who was making the rounds as I say. Visiting the homes of all of my friends, acquaintances and professional associates. She'd burst through a door without even knocking or wiping her paws on the mat. Then she'd check every room for a sign of my presence, dragging that long chain behind her.
"Well as you can imagine the chain caught on fish tanks, grandfather clocks and pianos; swivel-head razors and gold candlesticks; Mickey Mouse dolls and cantaloupes. But did that stop Sadie Hawkins? No it didn't. She was a dog on a mission who had places to go and all those objects had no choice but to go with her.
"When she got to Esmeralda's she snatched an armoire that pre-dated Van Gogh by several centuries. And at my friend Louie's house--"
"But wait, Uncle Peter. Wait. Why didn't you use your car? All you had to do was go pick her up."
"That's easy to say," said Uncle Peter. "But wherever I went I was five minutes late. So I never did manage to catch her."
"What happened next?"
"Years passed. And during those years I traveled. I fought against Custer at Custer's last stand and I battled the Fascists in Spain. I served with distinction in King Arthur's Court and after that I taught high school in Scarsdale. Then I undertook a perilous journey that brought me to Middle Earth. I wandered with Bilbo, gave counsel to the Elves, and was Aragorn's comrade-in-arms. When the Great War was over I set sail from the Havens and started the Boxer Rebellion.
"In later years I mined gold in the Klondike. You should've seen those mosquitoes. They were as big as a fist with three-foot long stingers--"
"But I thought you worked in a copy shop."
"What? You thought what?" said Uncle Peter.
"I thought you worked in a place that makes copies. That's what my daddy says."
"Your dad's such a joker," said Uncle Peter. "The man is a born story teller. But in any event, getting back to Sadie Hawkins, she'd been hot on my trail all this time. Not that she ever overtook me. But in Micronesia, rumor has it, she came close. I heard that in Paris she only missed me by a day, and I actually caught a glimpse of her in Hong Kong. My junk was just leaving when I looked back at the dock and there was Sadie Hawkins with her chain.
"And so it went in Argentina, Vienna and Cincinnati, Beirut, Beijing and Shaker Heights. Wherever I sojourned Sadie followed. And the chain kept grabbing more and more stuff: tambourines, rogue states, and so forth.
"Well, to make a long story short, I bought a little mansion in Baton Rouge. And one afternoon as I lazed on the porch, a very old dog trudged up the lane. Her muzzle was gray, she had big floppy ears, and she was dragging a long chain behind her. Attached to this chain was every object you could think of, along with several thousand that you couldn't.
"I looked at the dog and the dog looked at me. 'Is that you, Sadie Hawkins?' I said.
"She wagged her tail and nodded her head. Then she lay down and died."
Rebecca knew that this story was most likely untrue, but even so she almost felt like crying.
"Well anyway," continued Uncle Peter. "It turns out that God--yes, Le Grande Formage Himself--was looking down at this scene. And He was moved by Sadie's devotion. He was so moved, in fact, that He took Sadie Hawkins and tossed her high in the sky. And then the Lord God put her chain in the sky, and all the things on her chain in the sky. He put the fish tanks, the elephants, the majestic clipper ships, the whole history of Sadie's journey in the sky. And what was that history but toil and hope, which is to say the whole history of humankind.
"He made Sadie the head, all those doodads the tail, and God liked it and called it a comet. Then He lit up His comet with a dazzling fire, the fire of love and devotion. And friendship and courage and all those good things.
"That was about 1910 as I recall. And the comet did have an effect. Warfare diminished, there was slightly less torture, and greed, hunger and malice decreased. Overall the amount of gratuitous suffering declined by seven percent. But by 1914 this trend had reversed, and today there's more agony than ever. So God, in His wisdom, has brought Sadie Back, and that's why we're having a comet."
Rebecca thought about all of this. Then she said, "What happened to Esmeralda?"
"She had a meaningful relationship with a waitperson."
"How old are you really?"
"Miss Laganas says the comet is a million years old."
"Then obviously we're talking about different comets."
"But Uncle Peter," said Rebecca.
"No buts," said Uncle Peter. "It's way past your bedtime. Goodnight."