eclipse photo
Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

The surf swept the shore in a boring, sluggish rhythm, rewinding itself in an endless loop until the coming of the tide. The wind was completely still. The bathers were out of the water, as if a shark alarm had gone off. The lumpy curves of the woman on the right of Vinnie Kjellstrom wiggled in the heat to the exclamations of her phone conversation, with injections and implants of Botox and silicone seemingly swelling with each increment of mercury in the thermometer. His friend, a grilled walrus, snored on the ground with a mouth on the receiving end of sand. He reluctantly returned a couple’s inflated beach ball that had bounced off his head for the second time. For a faint fraction of a second, he thought there was a real trapdoor to his left that opened up to a steep staircase, spiraling downward into a cold abyss, offering a fast exit from the blistering bed of sand.

But there was no trapdoor, only the lid of the cooler that contained canned peaches and leftover warm beer. He had hoped to sweat the beer out of his system and not have to go into the water to pee, but the walk-in was becoming inevitable. Despite the reassuring updates posted on the local website, the ocean was swarming with jellyfish and two of them had left blotched burns on his body. The wound on his belly resembled the contours of a tilting Eiffel tower. Grains of sand lay scattered across the screen of his iPad, which he found almost impossible to remove with the sticky sunblock on his fingers. They made the swipes on the screen difficult and left scratch marks. He was terribly irritated by sticky things and irreparable damage. The newly posted images of Pluto upset Vinnie even more as he browsed the gallery containing the first photos of the planet. It had the color of dirty old sand and a large, irregular stain that looked like hardened flour on a pastry board or a bungled patch of plaster on a wall. It was an ordinary, ugly ball, a cheap bowling ball, which had been degraded into a dwarf planet. It was not what he had imagined it to be: a mystical, dark sphere with whirling masses of matter in its atmosphere and beyond, in the shades of comet gray, supernova amber and ghost white. His oil painting of Pluto – a Christmas present given to his ex-wife – hung in his bedroom, above the stationary bike. Vinnie had taken an Internet course in painting. A dwarf! Only people in high places, with big academic titles would call something smaller than Earth a dwarf. The Concorde could cross the Atlantic in three hours. Before Concordes were taken down. Before he could afford a flight on one, with some back-up from his retirement plan. And birds, ordinary birds, just like those gliding above the surf, weightless bundles of brittle bone and feathers, would fly halfway across the world in a matter of days.

Vinnie made a tepid attempt to move, to ask the couple if he could join their beach ball game, but his limbs felt like molten lead. He lamented his incapacity with a whining groan aimed at the ocean. With the horizon leveled above the deep water and the immensity of everything behind it, this little planet expanded into something unfathomable and intimidating.