A Storyby Jerry D. Mathes II
The moment of totality takes your breath away.
On our first morning out, he stood on the bow of the boat with an old sextant he had taken from the leather case at his feet. He wore an old tweed suit that looked like it might have been made in the 1950s, which was odd for someone who looked only middle-aged and clearly well-off enough to join us on our eclipse cruise. We weren’t on a large ship, a 150-footer, capable of traveling in the open ocean but intimate enough that we eclipse chasers could mingle freely and get to know everyone. There were the usual faces I’d met on two previous trips and some new faces. We numbered about thirty-four, which I’d noted was a Fibonacci number, and included those who’d traveled the world to see eclipses and had dozens of hatpins from each one, and a few eclipse virgins. We were all a little tired from our flights to Tahiti, where we joined the ship, so few of us paid the man much attention at the time. Someone, Maggie maybe, said the strange man expected to be picked up by aliens during the eclipse, and, along with his sextant, the leather case had some extra clothes, his journals, and pencils. A lot of pencils, because they work best and are more reliable than pens in zero gravity. Several in the circle of friends tittered and mentioned lunacy and its root, lunar.
Rick asked if she was joking. “Hand to God,” she said. Yes, it was Maggie. I remember now. With her long red hair and flashing smile. She was always the type to talk with awkward strangers.
Our captain told us we were sailing for the heart of totality in the heart of a high-pressure system. Low pressure seemed on track in the following days, but nothing should obscure our view. He said we should go rest and get ready for dinner and a cocktail reception afterward. Sounded like an excellent idea. Ellen, my wife, and I followed the porter to our stateroom.
At dinner this strange man counted out kernels of corn before eating them in multiples of three. He cut his meat into thirds and each third into thirds and then once more into bite-sized thirds. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed this, but I’m a mathematician with the quirk of watching people for their mathematical regularity or irregularity. I’m not a behavioral mathematician by trade like Maggie, but I still find the application fascinating. He didn’t engage his tablemates in conversation, focused on his plate, and occasionally scribbled in his journal like a restaurant critic who takes quick notes before the waiter can catch him at it. He refused dessert, which was a delicious New York cheesecake. I don’t indulge in many sweets, but I never pass on cheesecake.
When coffee was served, the chatter in the dining room went up a bit. The strange man sat sipping his coffee, three empty sugar packets by his saucer. Maggie and her man, Sergio, were sitting with us, and Maggie noticed me looking at the strange man. “I’ll go see if he’ll join us. I’m dying to know more of his alien business.”
“No. Let him be, Maggie,” I said. But she was already halfway to his table.
Ellen leaned over and with a wink said, “Maybe he can fill us in on the physics of interstellar travel.”
I chuckled. “I just wish she’d let him be. It exhausts me to talk with these people. They’re worse than astrologers. Astrology is not astronomy, no matter how many stars they chart.”
He looked up from his journal, startled by the sudden spotlight of her gaze. He folded his arms over his pages and looked as if he wanted to melt into the floor, but Maggie had that quality of making everyone feel as if they’d been lifelong friends after a few sentences. I can calculate the time at which this occurs to within a few seconds. He smiled at her but shook his head when she motioned toward our table.