Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night
Looking for the fight of her life
At 2:30 pm I sit on the dusty hood of my Honda minivan, staring up at the bank of clouds that’s only thickened since I left the house more than two hours earlier.
“Damn you,” I mutter at the sky.
It’s going to last 2 hours, 45 minutes, 5 seconds. Here in Minnesota, the eclipse will only be partial, about 86%, and it will begin at 11:43:56 am. The eclipse will reach maximum at 1:06:41 pm and end at 2:20:01 pm. This is a narrow window of time.
My husband knows that I don’t have much self-control. For the last two weeks, I’ve been asking questions: How do they know that people go blind when they look at it? What if a person has an uncontrollable urge to look at it when it starts?
These questions send my husband 150 miles west to his family’s farm to retrieve his ancient red welding helmet. I try it on, staring through a cloudy Plexiglas panel directly in front of my eyes. The helmet prevents the welder from being burned alive, allowing her to look right at the fire spitting from the welding gun like dragon’s breath.
At first all I can see when I look at the helmet is Flashdance. I think, I want to weld by day, dance by night.
On August 21, the sun is still shining and visible by 10:00 am. I try to ignore the clouds that roll in at 11:40. By 11:45 am I sit on my lawn chair in the center of the yard, watching. Waiting.
When my husband comes home from the shop on his lunch break, he takes one look at my face and says, “It’s still clear to the east.” That’s all I need to hear.
“Winston,” I yell to my oldest son, tossing a box of mac and cheese on the kitchen counter. “Feed your brothers!” Five minutes later, I’m in the minivan, welding helmet on the seat beside me. I’m going to chase the eclipse.
At 1:10 pm I am still traveling southeast, listening to WCCO radio’s live broadcast from the Twin Cities. Just an hour north of my home in Saint Peter, a break in the clouds allows hundreds of people stationed near the Science Museum in Saint Paul to view the eclipse. They cheer as the announcer gushes about the miracle they’ve just witnessed. I start to hate these people.
By 1: 30 pm I am pumping gas at a Hyvee in the town of Faribault, Minnesota. I have followed backroads east through Le Sueur County to Route 60. I call my husband. “How much further do you think I should go?”
I realize that I should have driven to Nebraska to maximize my viewing opportunity. But we were moving Winston to college in Iowa on August 23. I forget all about the eclipse for most of the summer. Instead, for two months and twenty days I focus on nothing but the fact that Winston is leaving. I don’t write poems. I don’t play chess with my middle son, or take the ten-year old swimming. I just shop and make packing lists and read listicles about shopping and packing. Preparing my oldest boy for college feels ritualistic, like preparing him for war.
Winston is maddeningly unmotivated. I fight the compulsion to pack for him.
In mid-August, my son finally begins to organize his things. I try not to be hurt by what he chooses to leave behind. The Dr. Who tie I gave him two Chanukahs ago. The Virginia Tech Hokie Snuggie he asked for when he was fifteen. He is even leaving the two photo albums I made for him, careful to include pictures of his girlfriend in each. But they break up, just five weeks before he leaves for school.
Winston doesn’t want any of it. He doesn’t feel compelled to look at who or what he’s orbited during his years on the planet. Or maybe he’s afraid, like if he starts to look at what he’s leaving behind, he won’t be able to stop looking.
Maybe he needs a welding helmet, too, I think.
All summer, the world in front of my face shrinks, like I’m viewing everything around me through a tiny window. There is nothing in front of me but my son, packing to leave.
I am committed to this chase. The clouds are like stubborn children. Even though I drive as fast as I can, the clouds move west faster than I can drive east.
I pull off the side of the road and park in a ditch by a cornfield to acknowledge that I’ve missed the eclipse. I turn my attention to the helmet on the seat beside me. I so desperately wanted to learn how to see what’s in front of me, but not be hurt by it. I start the van’s engine again, and turn around to head west.
At 4:15 pm the rain starts. And unlike an eclipse, which reveals itself slowly, like a secret, as the moon passes in front of the sun, this rain erupts suddenly from a wall of clouds. Tiny hailstones pelt my windshield. I can barely see. I veer down the backroads of Le Sueur county, squinting in the storm. I’ve missed the last summer afternoon I may ever spend with my son before he leaves.
Soon the rain is torrential. Sheets of rain. Buckets of rain. The sky is so dark that I can almost pretend I’m viewing the eclipse. Now nothing matters but the road ahead of me. I drive west, trying to make sure I stay in my lane. But the lanes dissolve in the rain.
Rebecca Fremo’s poems and essays appear in journals including Water~Stone Review, Full Grown People, Compose, Lake Region Review, Mothers Always Write, and Naugatuck River Review. Her chapbook, Chasing Northern Lights, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. A Virginia native, she now lives in St. Peter, Minnesota with her husband and three sons.