Don't believe what they say about a "dry" heat. Heat is heat and, if anything, August heat is the worst. At 98 in the shade and no rain for weeks, the orange sun setting over the red clay oil fields made Oklahoma look like Mars. Kelly didn't watch to see the bus pull out of the parking lot. Turning her back on the cloud of orange dust she dragged her suitcase across the gravel lot and into the diner.
Inside, she made her way to the counter, leaving behind a wakof casual glances. She was in her early twenties, thin, and had long, dirty blond hair pulled back and held by a black tattered cowboy hat. She wore a black studded halter top, tight jeans that were too worn in the seat, and sandals. Admittedly she was not beautiful, but often her subtle features seemed quite pretty, especially by comparison.
A round-faced Indian girl wiped the counter in front of her with dry cloth. "Water," Kelly said, pulling her hair back from her face, "and a Coke." A large, ceiling fan slowly stirred the smoke and steam and the crackle of the grill and the radio was nearly drowned in the thick air. The men were either truck drivers or roughnecks and the women had the tired look of wives and mothers. Kelly had little regard for either. "Give me a large order of fries with mayonnaise on the side," she said when the round-faced girl returned with her soda.
As she waited, she slowly stirred her straw in the large papecup and tried not to think too far ahead. She brushed her hand against her leg and, feeling the $412 still folded up tightly in her pocket, felt a little reassured.
Two empty stools away sat a young man reading a book. On the cover was a brightly colored photograph of a starry, red-blue cloud. She stared at it for several moments before she noticed its title, "Astronomy -- The Art of The Science." She put her finger over the end of the straw, lifted it out of the cup and, tilting her head back, let it drain into her mouth. "What is that?", she asked, waving the straw at the book.
Without moving his head, Peter darted his eyes toward herAlthough he had appeared to be thoroughly engrossed in his reading he had, in actuality, been watching Kelly since the moment she walked in. Now, as if startled by her presence, he lowered the book and looked at her.
"It's a book," he said, jokingly, although not meaning to souncondescending.
Kelly let her head fall limply to one side and rolled her eyesarcastically. "Well I know that," she said in an exceptionally heavy southern accent, normally reserved for mechanics and bartenders. "But what's that picture on the cover?" She extended her entire arm down the counter and touched the straw to the book.
Marking his page with his finger, Peter closed the book anlooked at the cover. "That's the Horse-Head Nebula. It's a giant cloud of gas and dust in space." Pulling his finger out he slid the book across the counter toward her. "See? In the center? The shape of the horse's head."
Kelly pulled the book toward her and studied the outline of thdark image. "Oh yeah," she said. "How did it get like that?"
Peter shrugged. "Nature."
"Where's it at?," she asked, then looked up sharply "and don'tell me in the sky, either."
Peter smiled. "It's in the Orion constellation, about twelvhundred light years from here."
"Wow." Kelly was less impressed with the distance than she wawith Peter. "How do you know all that?"
"I'm an instructor," Peter looked down, "or at least I'm going to be. I got a job at Seminole Community College in Florida. They want me to teach an 'Intro to Astronomy' course this Fall." He pointed to the book in front of Kelly. "That's the text I picked."
Kelly nodded thoughtfully. "Wow. A teacher. I think that's great.The girl appeared with Kelly's fries and set them on the counter beside her. Kelly slid the book back to Peter. "Would you like a fry?"
Peter eyed her plate. "Do you always eat mayonnaise on youfrench fries?"
"Uh huh," she picked up a fry, dipped it into the small plastic cuof mayonnaise and popped it into her mouth. "That's how the French do it."
Peter shook his head politely and, trying to seem disinterestedreturned to his book.
A moment passed before Kelly spoke again. "Of course, it's nolike I've ever really been to France or anything." She looked back to Peter to see if she had regained his interest. "Have you ever?"
Peter looked over his book. "What? Been to France? No."
Again, Kelly nodded in agreement and returned to her friesPeter closed his book and set it down. "But I'd like to, though. Someday."
Kelly smiled. "Me too." She swallowed a mouthful of fries anlicked the salt from her fingers. "Where are you from?"
Peter picked up his empty cup. "Wyoming."
"What are you doing here?"
"I thought I'd stop here and get something to eat. Maybe checout the meteor shower tonight."