In the cool night air of mid-May somewhere in the canyon-cut hills near Prescott, Arizona, Paul Rossetti leaned back in his worn-out aluminum deck chair and scanned the heavens with a big pair of binoculars. Friends used to tease him about the irony of a one-eyed man using binoculars, until eventually Rossetti affixed a jaunty black paper patch over the left exit tube of his favorite binoculars. Every night when the weather permitted, which was often, he would tune the radio to KFCS, the local country music station, lean back and comb through the skies for anything new. In particular he was looking for a distinctive faint fuzzball of bluish light. In particular, he was looking for a comet. It was not an idle occupation — across twelve years he had narrowly missed getting his name on a comet three times, twice losing to Shirou Shikakura. His one claim to the record books was Comet 1989 II Shikakura-Ortiz-Rossetti, a dim bulb of a comet that was never visible to the naked eye. He craved bigger game.
When it finally swam into Paul Rossetti’s field of view, his eye widened and his stomach tightened with excitement. As soon as his laptop’s modem dialed in, he tapped out a hasty email to Kurt Drovecki at the Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge:
I've got an object in Leo right next to Sigma Leonis, have you seen it? RA 11h 21m 12s, dec 05deg 45min 03sec.
After fifteen excruciating minutes of checking for new messages, he was about to pick up the phone when he got a reply.
You're the first to spot it, and I've verified its existence with Joanne and her south skies survey crew in Chile. Looks like you got yourself a comet :-) Interim designation is 1998 VII.
By that time, Paul Rossetti had been following the tiny incandescent fuzzball for some twenty minutes. Comet Designate 1998 VII, soon to be known as Comet Rossetti. “Comet Rossetti” he announced quietly to the tall saguaro cactus near his driveway, to his satellite dish, to his sunburned Chevy Suburban. He stood up, his heartbeat beginning to gallop, and screamed “Comet Rossetti!” to the city of Prescott, Arizona, to the Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, to the approaching Comet 1998 VII somewhere inside the orbit of Saturn.
Rossetti was still savoring a celebratory Scotch in his living room at 4 AM when the phone rang. Drovecki, calling from Cambridge, wasted no time: “Look, Paul, I ran some numbers on your comet and it, well it looks like there’s a good chance it’ll hit Earth next June after it hooks around the Sun. It’s… it looks like a big boy. Obviously I’m running the calculations every way I can think of, but I wanted to let you know right away. Why don’t you sit tight on this one till we get a little more information.” There followed a tense jargon-filled interchange which served to convince Rossetti that his planet would likely be smashed beyond recognition before he could pay off his Chevy.
He sat perfectly still and listened to the dial tone that Drovecki left behind. For perhaps a full minute, his mind was jammed, clogged with the inconsequential details of an inconceivable event. As the details sifted slowly down to dust, he was overcome with a soul-eclipsing loneliness. It swallowed him like the horizon-to-horizon shadow of a fast-approaching storm. Immediately his thoughts went to his ex-wife Karen. He thought not about how they met at the university bowling alley, not about the ridiculously expensive wedding in Louisiana, or the corrosive hateful lies they told each other in their last bitter year together. Instead, he thought about how they made love a month after the divorce was final. He thought about how he knew, even as it was happening, that they were both going to regret it terribly, but in fact they never had.
Now that moment hung in his mind like a glowing jewel. If Comet 1998 VII had any sense of justice, it would have smacked him then, in that moment of pure burned-over joy, perched between known misery and unseen despair. He had set out with unfeigned relief the next day to give his full attention to the skies, the rational skies, the lonely skies. Now five years later at this singular moment he was choked with a desire to hold her, but she lay in someone else’s arms.
And this was his reward: a snowball the size of South America bearing his name set to eliminate civilization. Not simply life as we know it, but perhaps life, all life, forever. Only now was it starting to reach him, setting in with a wave overpowering nausea — this Doomsday missile will be called Comet Rossetti, with him playing the role of, what? Executioner? Betrayer? No, it was as though he were the doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis to an entire planet. No future for him, for the his parents, for the inhabitants of Prescott, of Los Angeles, of Moscow, no future for the birds, the fish, all silenced forever. The name Rossetti eternally synonymous with doom. Staggering to the bathroom, he vomited into the wide toilet mouth the remains of a vegetable burrito and his celebratory Scotch.
Of course, it might not be. The calculations might have come out wrong, or it might be somehow avoided. But the stupefying dead weight of bleak pessimism let in no light. He dragged himself outside and slumped into the old battered chair and there he wept.
Some time near dawn, he became aware of the ringing phone. It was Drovecki.
“Paul, I’ve been trying to reach you for three hours. Listen, the numbers check out. I’ve had five different teams working this and it looks damn bad. We found some plates from last March that confirm the trajectory. We’re getting ready to hold a press conference, and…”
Rossetti’s knees buckled; he hit the green carpeted floor of his house with a thump, cradled his forehead, watched a viscous string of drool dangle downward. Through the phone he heard whining printers, ringing phones, anxious voices, shuffling papers. A room pregnant with the message that would change everything.
“Paul, are you still there?”
“I need to know, Paul, do you want your name on this thing? Because we can still take it off.”
This caught him off guard, pulled him straight up, stanched his tears. He glimpsed a brief but clear and potent mental image of the planetary ballet, Sun and Earth, Earth and Moon, Sun and Comet 1998 VII, all bowing and dancing exactly as they had ever been meant to dance, all spinning along their paths in arresting perfection. He saw a small tired man shivering in a canyon house near Prescott, Arizona, drooling on his phone as the rising sun colored the desert.
“Paul? … Paul?”
“Make it mine,” he said.