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.

The Pursuit

Photo by Scammah
Photo by Scammah

The incident I am about to recount is something I would have written in my diary and not shared with anyone else. But I have never kept a diary. I received one for my tenth or eleventh birthday, but I only used it for crossing out drawings I thought were too amateurish for my age. I remember, I also used it to hide girlie cards I traded with classmates. The only diary I now keep is in my head, which is anything but adventurous reading.

It all began at the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket. It is a popular supermarket on the border of my town’s wealthier neighborhood. People go there from poorer neighborhoods because there are regular, genuine discounts and the fresh, glossy produce is stacked in neat formations every day, as if it were on a permanent museum exhibition. Staff are always friendly. I won’t name the store because I fear the resulting publicity would drive unwanted, curious visitors there. People are always on the lookout for sensation. They slow down at the scene of a traffic accident – the greater the wreckage, the slower they pass. If they only tried harder, they would find more excitement in their everyday routines.
As I was about to pick a wholesome cluster of bananas, something struck my left ankle. I thought it was a fellow shopper who accidentally stumbled into me, and I was about to smile and assure her that these little accidents are not worth mentioning. But the person closest to me was standing by the crate of avocados, two aisles away. I looked down at what I first thought was a potato. But it had a small, curly tail, like a mouse’s, which made it a beet. Red beet. Beetroot. I know it has several common names because I have a perfectly healthy colleague who is a hypochondriac and drinks beet juice every day to spare him from cancer. His screen saver displays a beet that resembles a potent reservoir of superior blood, the kind used for life-saving transfusions at well-equipped clinics. I bent down to pick it up and place it back on the shelf, but the foot I suspected being there earlier appeared suddenly, out of nowhere, as it unintentionally kicked the vegetable. The woman, wearing a pointed shoe, didn’t notice. The beet darted straight into a promotional display of some fancy peelers and knocked some of them off the bottom row. I found this amusing for some reason. With time to kill before an appointment with my accountant, I decided to collect the beet and put an end to its ordeal. This time I was beaten by a shopping cart wheel. This small organic ball of health and energy, an essential ingredient of borscht, as I later found out, and many other recipes, was propelled in the direction of frozen foods, with assists given by a crowd of indifferent feet at the intersection of wine and cheese.
I was no longer interested in picking up the beet, but its random path made me curious, like the path of a ball kicked by boys from the top of the street. It was a frivolous diversion, but on that given day, after a heated argument with my wife, before a meeting with an accountant who should have enrolled in regular follow-up courses in adding and subtracting, and the possibility of the immobilizer’s keypad expecting a PIN code it chose to keep secret from me, I was drawn to projecting parallels between that particular vegetable and higher forms of life, to explore the way we are at the mercy of powers beyond our control.
After ricocheting around violently for a minute or two, the beet settled in a niche under artisanal pastries. It caught the attention of a diligent employee, who reached down for it, but let it go as a man with an obvious passion for pastries made a long, rumbling inquiry. It was not clear to me why the employee decided to leave the beet on the floor: Was it ordinary laziness or company code that prohibited the fondling of vegetables during face-to-face conversation with customers? A young man in bicycle wear, wearing a helmet, stepped on the beet and nearly fell. His glasses fogged up. He was visibly annoyed, so he booted the beet. It landed at the very center of the ice cream aisle. It was very hard not to notice it on the sand-colored tile. A mother was eager to make her mind up about the flavor of ice cream to buy, demanding that her scatter-brained son choose one of the gallon containers. He blurted out something to the effect of “slurpee” and “marshmallow,” made a premeditated five-yard dash and kicked the beet out of the bounds of retail space. The projectile shot past feet, carts and the checkout. It even made its way through the automatic sliding doors with the shoppers. I could follow its path because I was standing right behind the stupid kid, but I fell behind.
As opposed to my initial reaction, I decided not to reprimand him for what he did, and approached the checkout to see if anything was to be seen of the beet. It had rolled into the parking lot, offering itself as an easy target for bigger, heavier wheels. An eggplant-colored SUV missed it only by an inch or two. A man in a weathered windbreaker, with a white beard and an umbrella used as a walking cane, took the beet from the hands of a curious girl in a baseball cap, who had just picked it up, and stuffed it into his pocket. He walked away, mumbling something to himself. I was late, so I rushed back to fetch my bananas.

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