Fiction · 12/26/2012

The Meteor

Mr. Tibberly found a meteorite on his hike in the desert. He knew straight off it had once been a meteor, but he hadn’t studied geology in school, so he decided to take it to the university meteorite lab to be sure.

His life had become very lonely lately. His failures disappointed him. Possibilities flooded his mind like mudslides.

Feels like everything is potential, he thought, but nothing has become.

If he were a robot, he would have shut himself off. 

Mr. Tibberly held the meteorite closely. Everything is potential. But not this.

The meteorite came from someplace else, he knew. It had weight and texture and almost looked like it belonged with the other rocks on the desert floor, but didn’t, and that almost was the key.

Still, Mr. Tibberly wanted to be sure.

He dropped by the meteorite lab during lunchtime, opening the heavy doors and thunking his meteorite on the gray counter. “I’d like you to run a few tests,” he said.

But the university lab wouldn’t take it. Due to a rise in demand, the scientist said through his full red beard, the lab didn’t like samples anymore. “Too many people think they have meteorites,” he said.

Mr. Tibberly lifted his meteorite and set it down again. “But I work here,” he said.

“Half a million people work here,” the scientist said. “Does it look like we can hold thousands of rocks?” Mr. Tibberly saw waist-level glass cases, the lighting soft like in an airplane when everyone’s asleep. A wide moon mural covered the wall behind — even the moon had blemishes.

“Our shelves would collapse,” the scientist said. Without apologizing, he gave a small nod and turned. Mr. Tibberly wanted to talk more — he was usually good at reasoning with people — but his throat had dried up.

He needed to eat. It would be noted if he returned late from lunch.

Everything is potential, he thought, walking away from campus towards the enchilada place. Nothing is itself yet. Except this. Of course it’s a meteorite, he told himself. Who needs a lab’s ruling when you already know?

But he wasn’t completely sure — 98%, maybe 99%, but that tiny dot of un-sureness needled him, created a small emptiness in him that had been filled before.

 He walked sadly along the sidewalk past the bookstore, the commuting commons, and the employee parking lots. His neck burned, making his blonde hair look white. The news this morning had said 113. It felt like blow dryers aimed at his face.

Everything is potential. For a flash he saw his eight-year old self with front-yard sprinklers at his ankles; the toy piano with green and blue keys, and removable legs so it could be stored flat; the snow cone machine they’d gummed up with honey until the blades wouldn’t turn: where were any of those things now? Mr. Tibberly adjusted his shirt collar and sweated through his clothes.

Halfway to the enchilada place, he neared a guy sitting in a lawn chair at the corner of the church parking lot. The guy was tanned to a deep rust. He wore shorts and a white seashell choker and held a sign saying $5.

Mr. Tibberly didn’t know if the pastor had hired him or not. Sometimes the little church leased out spots during the school year, but this was summer. This man could have been a stranger from elsewhere just taking someone’s dollars. He sat by the fence in bougainvillea shade, probably had to move his chair often to chase the shadow.

Mr. Tibberly wasn’t sure if the parking lot man saw him approach. The man gazed at Mill Avenue, at people streaming down brick sidewalks, at silver-white cars lurching up to the intersection or down to Tempe Town Lake.

Mr. Tibberly had almost passed when the man’s gaze shifted — like someone drew a dark line from his eyes to Mr. Tibberly, to the rock in his hand, the rock that Mr. Tibberly had decided was a meteorite.

 Everything is potential, Mr. Tibberly thought, feeling the meteorite’s roughness in his palm, the weight of a small cantaloupe.

The parking lot man didn’t remove his eyes. “Five dollars,” he said.

“I don’t need to park,” Mr. Tibberly said. “I’m walking.” He lifted feet and elbows to pantomime walking.

“For that.” The guy pointed his chin towards Mr. Tibberly’s meteorite.

Mr. Tibberly couldn’t imagine selling it, and surely not for five dollars. He would string it on a silver chain and wear it around his neck if he could. Maybe the women in marketing would look up from their desks when he passed.

He shook his head and continued, the sidewalk blazing his shoes. Soon he had already passed the church parking lot, had almost reached the corner bungalow and soon the Mediterranean cafe where he sometimes bought pita.

The parking lot man stood, toppling his chair and calling down the street, “Want to know if it’s real or not?”

Everything but this.

“It’s real,” Mr. Tibberly said but found himself walking back to the man anyway. “It’s real. ” – yet placing the meteorite in the hand extended out to him.

 Parking lot man studied the rock, holding it upside down, fingering the curves and edges. He tapped it on his chair’s metal arm and listened for vibrations. “I don’t know,” he told Mr. Tibberly finally, shaking it one more time. “Could be?” He handed it back with a shrug.

Mr. Tibberly cradled it like a kitten pulled from a flood. Like he was the only one who cared for it.

Parking lot man slumped back into the chair, sockless in his shoes. “I’m sorry,” he said, then shifted since the sun had reached him again.

Mr. Tibberly shook his head and started walking, heading back to his office on campus where for eleven years now he’d witnessed other people’s transformations. They were spectacular. But never his.

 Parking lot man called after, “Hey, five dollars.”

 Mr. Tibberly wasn’t going to pay. He was shy but also reasonable; he didn’t like to get swindled. “It’s real,” he said. And kept walking.

But Mr. Tibberly felt bad at five o’clock. He had only talked to three people since yesterday, and parking lot man was one of them. Maybe there was a divine reason for that. He felt a surge of compassion, had a need for human kindness even if he supplied it himself.

He darted through the leaving-work rush and returned to the church parking lot with a five-dollar bill. But the parking lot man wasn’t there. “Back in ten” said the sign, so Mr. Tibberly waited. Maybe parking lot man was just a wayfarer camping out, anything he said as harmless as a fortune cookie.

“You’re back,” the parking lot man said, loping up the sidewalk. He pawed a fast food milkshake, sweat-stain charging across his shirt.

“Did you think some more?” Mr. Tibberly said, straightening his shoulders. “Whether it’s real or not?”

The parking lot man sipped long on his shake, reaching the part where it bubbled like a boat engine. “Dude, it can’t be real,” he said at last. “That shit would be glowing or something.”

Mr. Tibberly felt a dull, cold arrow hit, and emptiness bled through and through him. Still, he handed the parking lot man his five-dollar bill.

“I’m sorry, dude,” the parking lot man said, squeezing it into his hip pocket.

Mr. Tibberly gave a brief smile, so faint it seemed pencil-drawn, and headed towards the brick sidewalk that led to the light rail. He hoped he wouldn’t catch his foot on uneven bricks and go stumbling forward. He hoped the dueling piano bar hostess who helloed everyone would say hello to him, too. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wait long for the train.

Parking lot man yelled after Mr. Tibberly just before he turned the corner. “They’re out there somewhere, you know,” he shouted. “Somewhere they’re real.”

 “I know,” said Mr. Tibberly, soon boarding the train. “I know,” he told himself, scouting for a seat, unsuccessfully. The train was so crowded. Outside was so hot. “I know,” he told his reflection, pocketing his hand with the rock, holding it for the forty-five minute ride home, then the ten-minute walk, and the two-minute fumbling at the mailbox.

+

At night, though, Mr. Tibberly couldn’t sleep, unusual for him. He stared at the air-conditioning vent in the ceiling for a while but couldn’t stop his brain from jangling, from starting a thought, then dashing to another one. So he went outside, the heat still bossy and encompassing.

What had felt most familiar about the desert when his family had first moved there was the night sky: pure like an ironed bed sheet. He had had to leave the ocean when they moved. Not all the time, but sometimes he could rely on the sky for renewal. Once he’d had a whole conversation with it sitting in his car, looking up through his windshield. If you’re upside down, the sky is ocean, he’d thought.

Mr. Tibberly’s apartment didn’t have a balcony, so tonight he stood on the one-block cement porch that faced the parking lot, silent and black. He closed his eyes, looked up, and opened them again. The first bright orb — he found it and concentrated, admiring how it steadied for him, as though knowing he watched. It could have been a planet or star. He wouldn’t let himself consider it might be a byproduct of airport machinery, maybe even a plane. It was too steady for that, watching him back.

Mr. Tibberly remembered the feeling of everything open, limitless, possible. He remembered that. Even through junior high, he’d practiced scuba diving in summers and schemed ways to get to space camp. Eventually, they’d discover whole oceans on far-off planets, and he’d be dispatched to explore. How had he forgotten? For several years, he’d thought of living out his life in space, meeting a woman with blue or green skin. Star Trek had shaped him, definitely — but he wasn’t sure they took it seriously enough.

Eventually Mr. Tibberly’s feet went numb with standing. The cement felt grainy and sharp beneath his toes. Sweat drops ran the length of his back and pooled at the elastic of his shorts. He willed the invincible feeling to come back. He willed the world again to be possible. There might have been mosquitoes. The moment passed.

Mr. Tibberly had left the meteorite on the kitchen table when he’d returned from work. It still sat between the salt and peppershakers, as though a fancy paperweight meant to lord over mail. When he came back inside, the meteorite looked up at him, face wide like a child’s, open to any meaning he gave it. He stared at it, there in the night, the air-conditioning seeping through his limbs. The meteorite could have been anything after a while, his eyes lost focus. Maybe a weathered piece of sidewalk or old brick. Maybe a boulder chunk that had cracked off and tumbled down a canyon wall. He closed his eyes and opened them one last time — and decided to be sure about it. That’s what mattered, he decided. Nothing is itself yet. Except this. “Except this,” he said aloud.

Finally, he rubbed his feet on the carpet and accidentally dribbled a glass of water down his shirt. He wallowed back into bed, pulling the sheet up around his shoulders because the room actually felt cold.

In the kitchen sat his meteorite. He was dreaming of oceans.

And he didn’t even see it was glowing.

+++

Corey Campbell’s short fiction has appeared in Anderbo, Conte, Gulf Stream Online, The Coachella Review, New Southerner, and The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers, Ms. Campbell now lives in Phoenix, AZ and is working on her first collection of short stories.