Comet with a Nasty Tail by Tom Sheehan

Professor Clifton Agnuus brings a prop to impress his new students for the first lecture of term; by Tom Sheehan.

The morning, at the outset, had no promise of being ecstatic, though Professor Clifton Agnuus put the rock into his briefcase. Every time out it was about eight pounds of drama for him, at least at the start of every term, and here he was off on a new year. A storyteller he should have been, he argued, a spinner of yarns, the kind of a writer that Professor Albie Short, over in A&S, his one good buddy, drooled over, and had been doing for almost forty years. Albie was apt to open a conversation by saying something like, "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." There was a time Albie would likely answer a telephone call the same way, or with Bartlesby the Scrivener's opening remark, "I AM a rather elderly man," but all that had sloughed off when he was burned by some wise-ass responses. For reasons best known by them, he and Albie liked each other. If anything, Agnuus might say Albie was the other side of the coin.

Earlier that morning Agnuus had introduced a scowl to his face, as much a part of his morning as getting out of bed, sliding his feet into slippers and having coffee. On this day he also thought of the rock first, and then coffee. So if he did live in another world? So if it was his choice to do so, so what? How long would it take for the newest classes to discover the rock? "Who gives a crap!" he said aloud. He'd bullshit them as long as he could, see one wide-eyed coed smiling with the deepest mystery right back at his own eyes the way one of them always did, weather out another storm, find a few smart asses in the new classes, watch them move on. But he'd get tenure, and now and then a few late visitations, in the office, perhaps at home. It was in the cards; inevitably, dependably. Almost ten years and not a spot of trouble. What the hell, they're old enough.

Flick had yapped from under the bed and Agnuus put his hand down for the morning's first pat. Flick licked his hand and soon stood waiting for the morning bowl. He'd have his bowl of food and then his walk. The reverse start of Flick's day intrigued Agnuus, who patted the Boston Terrier and said, "Oh, good buddy, good morning to you." Flick licked his hand again. "Birds of a feather we are," and chuckled at his own strange expression of endearment. The one true thing in life was Flick, even though Flick was his eighth dog.

Later, after a short drive directly into the sunrise, the scowl still on his face, traffic abysmal as usual for the start of another day, another year, he slipped into a parking space at the college, available only because he'd arrived early. Tenure, among other things, will get me a permanent spot of my own. It will be worth it. And the rock, eight pounds of darkness and mystery, is trade-off for a bit of drama.

In his first class he propped the rock on his desk, on top of the textbook for the course. History and government were as dry as alkali bones; they had always been that way for him. The trail of life was full of bleached bones, the dung of old days. Little else there was he could cotton to. Literature really had not drawn him in, or poetry in any form, or music, feeling he was tone deaf, or art in any form. There were nights he'd argue with Albie. "Forgive my crap, Albie, but they are all so terminable, so fruitless. You keep referring to my story writing talents by using the meteorite bit, my piece of a comet perhaps, but that's the only story I know, or the only memoir I have ever drawn together in one piece. It's the miracle of it that must have blessed me, to be able to tell it, to get to this point in time, to still be alive. Goddamn, man, it was something else!" Then he had gone ahead, the Scotch as tasty as ever, the evening in fair wonderment, immediate pressures of education off and wandering, and told Albie the story for the hundredth time or so, with every item of detail he could scratch together. And Albie Short would nod again and smile, as he did each time the story came out.

Old Albie had given him a lesson when he had drawn out lyrically the first page and a half of cohort Reynolds Price's little book, A Long and Happy Life and a monumental ride on a motorcycle. It was the one thing he remembered with relish, outside of his own delivery; he could taste the words.

From the second floor window of his classroom Agnuus watched the new buds coming up the walk, the glitter of the litter of them bouncing a few books on their hips, bouncing their young and eager breasts in loose arrangement, and their skirts almost an inch shorter than the year before. Too, their jeans were tighter, their crotches ominously like a jock's cup coming up to bat, mounded, headlining. The frosh males, all eyes, avid, most of them not yet sure of themselves, nodded involuntarily at near-scandalous buttocks. But one of them approached a coed in a blue skirt and a white blouse; her hair was black as sin, her body excised from Nirvana. They walked into Carson Hall together; moments later, still paired, they were sitting in the front row of his class. The bell rang, his new year was started, and he took the rock from his briefcase and placed it on his desk, immediately on top of the course textbook. It was, he felt, like bringing the horse into Troy's inner flanks. Pardon the interruption, boys and girls, but I am here to stay.

In the front row, the girl was stunning in a white blouse, blue skirt, and adorned with a frosh male sitting beside her hanging on her every breath (much as an earring), the one who had approached her outside and walked into the classroom as company, mischief afoot in his eyes. Her eyes were sea green but for a moment, and went elsewhere when she turned her head, as if the tide had changed. On the first day of the new term of the new year, in the first minute, in the first row, Agnuus was drawn to another world. The underworld, he thought. Subtly he ran an inspection from the corner of his eye, took in a whole framework, and made immediate judgments. She did not chew on the end of a pencil, did not flick her fingers at imaginary surfaces or exhibit any loose energy, did not cross her feet; her legs are elegant, her calves touch neatly, oh my, they do go on. A volume of breast was barely visible above the white blouse and against the material of the blouse. She stared at the black rock sitting on the textbook. Back came her eyes caught in the tide of an ancient sea, stories afloat, pronouncements at work.

He had to speak over her head, to a point at the back of the room where a puffy, bland-faced girl sat. Not with a ten-foot pole, he asserted quietly. "I am Professor Clifton Agnuus." He pronounced it like goose. "We will meet here three times a week as posted on the schedule. Our target is not a difficult one. At term's end you will be highly intimate with the first 180 pages of the text. And I mean intimate." In his voice he found a sense of joy, an edge of the risqué, a point hopefully of new departure for some of them. And he found it most difficult not to look where he could further discern that small cleft of white below her armrest, parting the blue of her skirt. If he allowed himself, he could have choked on the attributes. He heard himself say beatitudes; it seemed, without question, to fit appropriately. The announcement in his eyes was more than subtle.

Her voice had a bit of smoke in it, a late night residue, a channel marker, when she said, "Please tell us about the rock, professor. It sounds, oh oh, so fascinating." The oh oh was telegraphic. He was sure she could move without moving. There's more of attributes.

He'd tell it the way he told Albie each and every time. Albie liked all the details, every damn one of them; the temperature of the air, the degree of darkness, the accompanying sounds, the falling away, the eventual silence and the solitary beat of his heart. The dog Jump, the very original dog, dead under the bed, crushed by the infinities of life.

He swore that he could feel it, could hear it, the implosion, the sudden demolition, the near combustion, and the soundless death of his dog. He was there!

"It's like this eight-pound hunk of eternity picked me out, came charging at me from out there. Way way out there!" He made arm movements, signals. "Whisssh! Whooosh!" He nodded over his shoulder, a universal nod. "I was asleep, dreaming, floating in some joyous liquid world. I was warm, in the lap of personal comfort, though I was extremely tired. I had just come back from a trip to Mexico, through torturous mountains, through strange small villages that might not have seen a tourist in a decade or so." Pause... pause... pause.

"For four days I had driven, the sand in my eyes it seemed, the strain of sun and chromed glare dancing behind my eyeballs. You know the feeling. You've undoubtedly had the same feeling, how it grabs you and won't let go. I'll have no idea ever of what made me move on the bed, turn on my side. It was hot, no bed covers on me, a bare breath of breeze coming over the windowsill." Pause... pause... pause.

The bland girl at the back of the room was mesmerized, mouth agape, staring at him. He caught a smile at the corners of a young man's mouth that quickly disappeared. Silence sat in the room like a sentry.

"I had no thoughts of eternity, of survival, of anything but a sense of comfort, of liquid warmth. It was like I was shoved over on my side. I had rolled over, a breeze was touching me. Whoosh! Wham! It came down through the roof, through the ceiling, right past my head. Plaster falling in chunks, in dust like a cloud, a thunderous cloud. Hunks smashed loose. I could almost see the camel hair in the old plaster mix. Whoosh! Wham! It went clean through the mattress. Why am I still here? Wham! It went right on through. My dog Jump slept under the bed. He was a Golden Lab Retriever, a most honest dog, a most faithful pal. Oh, if I could only have another Jump." Pause... pause... pause. Oh, shit, he'd almost lost it there.

But the real old-time mist was in his eyes again, the true mist; a piece of cake. "The best pal I ever had, I swear to you. The universe took him. This piece of the universe," pause... pause... his hand now on the rock... pause some more... wait... speak directly to her... now... "came crashing down, missing me by inches, by a fraction of a second, and killed my dog Jump. Why am I still here?" His shoulders sloped, his face caught up with question and fright, he thought he could have been the guy in The Oxbow Incident waiting for the rope to snap or the true posse to arrive. In the air he dangled himself, waiting.

She wasn't faking her reaction, he was sure of that, though she snapped a whole roll of pictures of him. He remembered the first time he'd propped the rock, wore it in excitement almost through the whole first semester any time he wanted it to grab attention, move an argument, find a method of displacement. The kid beside her leaned over and whispered in her ear. She shushed him aside. He said something again. She elbowed him. Her eyes were wide and receptive. Agnuus thought she looked like a convert. One a year had been sufficient for him. Maybe this year would be a two-bagger. Perhaps he was ahead of the game already.

The bell rang. The class was almost emptied. She was standing beside his desk, looking at the rock, looking into his eyes. "That's the most fascinating thing I have ever heard. I wish you were teaching my English classes. I'll bet they won't be as exciting as this. This is the real thing." Her hand was on the rock. She was looking in his eyes. A hundred years old she could have been, or ten. "My friend, the one that was sitting beside me, doesn't think it's a meteorite. But he's awfully pessimistic about things. I went to high school with him. He's kind of a jock, if you know what I mean."

"Jocks hardly know what a meteorite is." He stopped. He didn't even know her name. It was on the list. He couldn't look down, could not look away from those angel eyes. He thought of the white tunnel as an energy traveled his body. It could have been alertness or expectation.

She was receptive, alert, as if she could read his mind. "My name is Shioban Furlong. My friends call me Shovey. My old classmate's name is Diold Mackey. We're both going to be here for four more years."

Later that evening, in his house off campus, on a sofa, the shades drawn low, she sat across his lap and took him into another world.

"My god, where did you learn this? I never felt so good in my whole life."

"In the front seat of an old Fairlane, my knees against the back of the seat. I always want to be on top. Always."

Shovey could have any reason she wanted, he assented later. Life was sweet. The first day, the first night, made it miraculous. His rock was magical and dynamic, was far from ephemeral, brought out the best in everyone, including himself. Tenure would not be far away. This is going to be one grand semester, perhaps one grand year. He slept and Flick's tail slapped at the bottom the bed. Flick's tail slapped at the bottom of the bed three more times in the next two weeks. A torturously distant comet, tail afire, came into his dreams.

Diold Mackey started the conversation near the end of class. It was in the third week of the semester. Shovey's clothing had become slightly daring, joining some of the others seeking attention, making statements. He thought all of it was strictly for him. "What do historians say when one of their contemporaries misrepresents the past?" The student's strange arm caught his eye again; perhaps he could use it as a method of equalization, of balance, of evening up the score? "Perhaps," Mackey continued, "he conjures up events to match his own interpretation of things. Like a secret meeting we know nothing about. Or secret alliances that never fully, until him, come to light? What does the establishment have to say about that?"

Goddamn baboon! Why didn't that smart ass kid own up to what he knew about rocks, if anything? Was he hiding something? "That's a whole mouthful, Mr. Mackey. Did you memorize it? Is it spontaneous? What are you really reaching for?" Get him off this kick right now. There's always one like him, every year, some smart ass! Treat 'em as they come. Kick 'em in the ass as they leave.

Diold Mackey said, "What I'm asking about, professor, is your star rock!" Beside his chair, standing somewhat at attention, one arm really seemed longer than the other, an imperfection Agnuus had barely noted before. His voice was deep, a sense of awe in it, distilled but carried awe.

How did he mean the words that he stressed? Those words? Star rock? "We'll have to leave this for another time, Mr. Mackey. That piece of rock, that swift meteor, that piece of a comet, has played a dear hand in my lifetime." What distance lies between a Fairlane and a comet?

"Simply put, I think your star rock is a piece of blast furnace slag, either from the Saugus Iron Works or further up there in Maine, at the Katahdin Iron Works. Fake pieces of meteorites are found all over the place. Like basalt stuff. I read that, on the Internet. Maybe some huge catapult threw it."

Malevolent little son of a bitch. "You have a lot of nerve, Mr. Mackey, putting yourself up as an expert geologist."

Shovey was looking at the floor, not her high school classmate. He wondered, Did Mackey own a Fairlane?

Oh, God, he hoped not.

"I didn't start this, professor. You did. That chill and kill story you spun off the first day, that's distorting history, or inventing it. That's more like it. An invention."

"And what do you really know, mister?"

"Common meteorites, the stony ones, are easily confused with basalt. Like I said, I read it. A boulder of basalt worn down by water can look like a meteorite. Travel or water surge can treat it like it was in a kind of tumbling machine. My father had one in his shop. Basalt is a very common rock found all over the world. There is a huge basalt intrusion down there in Medford and by the overpass near Kelly's Roast Beef in Saugus. You can see it right from the seat of the car as you go by. Some hills, I've read, are made up of lava flows that were pumped out of ground during the time of the dinosaurs. Water-worn, rounded fragments of this basalt might look like meteorite to some eyes. Some of that same kind of basalt is found in the Bay of Fundy, and in New Jersey at the Watchung Mountains, and all along our East Coast from the Maritimes to the Carolinas. It's all over the place, professor. Basalt, as they say, is one of the most common rocks, even a first year student would know, and it's commonly mistaken for meteorites by the lay person."

The kid wasn't letting go! He hasn't done enough. There has to be a Fairlane back there. Maybe his old man never taught him how to drive.

"Now, I don't know a helluva lot about these meteorites, professor, but I'm going to do a paper on them. There are some great sites that pop up if you type meteorite into Internet search engines. They explain there are two types of meteorites, stony meteorites and iron-nickel meteorites. The iron-nickel meteorites are much heavier than the stony type but less common. The stony types are from pieces of rock spinning in the universe, pieces of very old stuff when the solar system was forming, about as old as the earth, and large ones strike our planet every million years or so. You know what those odds say, professor, about a rock being a meteorite or plain old basalt."

The little son of a bitch is in the sandbox playing with me.

"The other cool thing about meteorites is that some come from the moon and some come from Mars, but also quite rare. They come from meteorite strikes on the Moon or Mars. When the collision generates enough escape velocity for the pieces of rock to get out of the gravitational pull."

All alone now, Jump gone forever, Albie hearing the story again, Shovey staring down at the floor, measuring some idea he had no credentials for, Clifton Agnuus could hear the guy in the TV commercial saying, "Wouldn't you rather be some place else?" He couldn't remember if he had seen an old Fairlane sitting out there in the parking lot.


  1. A witty tale with great energy. It whispers a graphic novel? Thanks,

  2. beautiful language, randy professor, a fine story. Agnuus and Albie do sound like a potential double act.
    Mike McC

  3. Star rock? Rock star? Whether it's slag from the iron works or from outer space it's unequivocally a mojo and dangerous. Some enjoyable Joycean writing.
    B r o o k e

  4. Wow - pace, tension, language. Well crafted to keep reader interest. I enjoyed reading this fine story. Thank you.