Legerdemain

Dr. Nicholson Barnaby endlessly cluttered his small desk, peering at old photographs, pondering aloud. “Is this Ferguson from the first trip to Athens? Or is it that Irish fellow who joined us later? Not much Greek on him, but Lord what a drinker.” Terrence Carter, slowly mopping in the hallway, peeked in the door and smiled sweetly. Barnaby looked up briefly but was quickly back to his own thoughts. If this is Ferguson, then the woman must be his second wife Mariela, the dark woman with the hip dysplasia and no end of rude jokes. Mariela? Was that her name? Mariel. Muriel. What time was it anyway? It would not do to keep the Chancellor waiting.

“Is it time yet, Dr. Kota?” he called out, but Dr. Kota did not answer. Dr. Barnaby and Dr. Kota had shared a single spacious office for a good many of the twenty years both had been on the faculty, first at the beginning, then near the end. A good man, thought Barnaby, but will he help me with the Chancellor? Does he hold a grudge after all these years? The things a man remembers are always a puzzle. The photos helped some, exposing a fragment here and there of a vast fading riddle, but mostly they disturbed him, since many that so obviously included him were beyond recall. Other memories leaped up for no good reason. Doggerel from third grade: Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Jews, if you can spell that, I’ll give you my shoes. The hymns from church: Lead on O Kinky Turtle he would sing with the boys in the choir instead of Lead on O King Eternal. And they would laugh every time as though the joke were newly coined. He remembered the little Turkish boy who befriended him at the dig at Helicarnassus. One night after dinner Barnaby had shown the boy a simple sleight of hand with an old piastre coin. Easy trick really: the heavy coin drops unseen from right hand to left hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. But that child had viewed him with something like terror, as though the fabric of reality had torn and was in danger of shredding altogether. Those dark frightened eyes, wide and searching, he remembered those eyes and how they frightened him in turn.

“Dr. Kota, is it time?” Again the call went unheeded, and Barnaby thought about his last discussion with the Chancellor. Really I am quite able to teach. It was only that the Chancellor did not have the necessary information at his disposal. Dr. Kota will accompany me to the Chancellor’s office and put in a good word. Gravitas, gravitas, thought Barnaby. A serious demeanor and a stern word would put things to right. His eyes fell on the creased photo atop the messy desk. What was his wife’s name? Was that the Irish chap? Or it could be Ferguson. Mariel. Mariela. He pondered idly. If only he had something useful to strengthen his case with the Chancellor. Then he recalled the treasure he had uncovered in the archives that morning. Yes! I’ll show him the coin, he thought, as he drew it from his pocket and held its pleasing heft in his sturdy wrinkled hand. Good story in that. It was a splendid specimen, perhaps a fine old Alexandrian tetradrachm, brought to light during the course of his strenuous career. It looked vaguely familiar, and with what lovely workmanship! What pleasing symmetry! Just the sort of thing to begin his conversation with the Chancellor. This retirement he proposed overlooked far too much favorable evidence. He brightened as he considered the silvery object.

“Ah, Dr. Kota, here you are at last. Look here, look at this coin. Won’t the Chancellor be pleased?”

Terrence Carter nodded warmly and considered the coin. “That’s a nickel, Dr. Barnaby. It’s time for dinner.”

Nuts

I don’t know much about computers, but I know opportunity when I smell it.

Too many people have been getting rich on this internet thing, and I can’t wait anymore and let it pass me by. So last week I answered a want ad on MonsterCareers.com, quit my job at the Sporty Shoe, and took the train to Boston. Naturally, Mr. Perkins was upset, since he was losing his best salesman. But sometimes you have to think big and explore your options.

The interview at Soup4U.com! is all set for tomorrow, and I think I’ve already got a place to live lined up. At the EarthyFoods SuperMart in Cambridge I met a nice woman named Eileen who has a room at her house that just opened up, real cheap. I’m really looking forward to eating healthy organic food from EarthyFoods. Not like the junk I used to eat back home in Connecticut.

June 16

Something funny happened this morning. The cabby who drove me to the interview was raving on and on about his rabid right-wing politics (“We need gun control! We need rent control!” He was all about control). Then, as we pulled up to the building, a funny feeling came over me. For some reason I can’t explain, I knew the next thing he was going to say would be true — I knew it with all my heart. It was like the voice of God. Just before I get out of the cab, he looked back and said, “Nice shoes, kid.” “Is that all?” I asked. He said, “If you want to make money, you need nuts.”

The interview went well enough. Naturally I had to be a little inventive about my marketing background, because who would give me a marketing job if they knew I had never had one before. How hard can it be, anyway? I think I sold them when I went on and on about how much I love soup. Every time I wanted to say “shoe” I just substituted “soup.” Simple! Internet startup, here I come!!

June 24

I got the job! I’ve settled into a routine in my new life here in Cambridge. I got the room at Eileen’s house. She lives with her boyfriend Colin, who happens to be from Hartford like me. I don’t think he likes me. He spends all his time trading old jazz records on eFlea.com (the online flea market auction site), but he says his true calling is ear-foot reflexology. It took me a while to figure it out, but it works like this: ear reflexologists understand your whole body by examining one ear. Foot reflexologists do the same thing with your foot. Ear-foot reflexologists can tell how you are by examining the tiny part of your ear that corresponds to your foot. Colin was really annoyed by the time he was done explaining it. When the FedEx guy showed up with a package for him, he jumped up and ran out of the room. Eileen gave an eyes-to-the-ceiling shrug and whispered “Pisces,” like that explained everything.

I headed out to EarthyFoods for some more groceries. Man, the food there is expensive! They don’t even have Froot Loops. I settled for Macrobiotic MegaMuesli and KarmaCow whole free-range milk. Next week I’m going to the BulkyMart. I’m tired of granola and leftover soup.

June 26

Work is going pretty well, except for my boss Mark yells at me a lot. I don’t think he likes me. My marketing job ends up being mostly lots of trips to KopyMat and OfficeWorld, and since I don’t have a car I’m spending a lot of money on cabs. I sent an email to a customer today where I forgot to put the exclamation point on “Soup4U.com!” and Mark lectured me for like an hour about how I personally am wrecking his stock options and how they only hired me because of my shoes, but it was a big mistake. This is the first I heard about the options. I’m not sure if I have any or not. I’m still trying to figure out how they work.

When I got home, Colin was getting another FedEx shipment, and he kind of snorted at me and stomped upstairs. My milk had been removed from the fridge and dumped into my dirty clothes basket. There was a little note taped on the empty carton that said “MILK MAKES MUCUS!!!! THERE CAN BE NO MILK IN THIS HOUSE!!!!”

Eileen took me aside and said she was sorry she hadn’t told me they were strict ovo-lacto intolerant vegetarians. She also told me that even though she works at a copy store part time to pay the bills, what she really wants to do is own a health foods store and practice ayurvedic neuro-linguistic homeopathy. It took me a while to figure it out but she has all these little bottles of what looks like water that she says can change your mood. She gave me one labeled “Quixotic hope.” It tasted like water to me.

July 15

Mark got fired yesterday, because Gary the systems guy figured out that his whole hard-drive was nothing but naked pictures. My new boss, Ed, likes me even less than Mark did, as far as I can tell. I asked him about the options thing, and he screamed “Is money all you can think about at a time like this, Shoe-boy?!” I heard from Gary that he has a lot of options.

When I got home, I tried to make small talk with Colin. He was very grumpy because he was expecting a FedEx shipment. I asked him how the foot-ear thing was going, and he said “Ear-foot! It’s ear-foot reflexology, you milk-drinker!” Pisces, I guess. Anyway, he agreed to look at my ear for a while. It was very calming, and after a minute of probing my ear lobe he made a surprised “hmmmph!” noise, gave me a sharp look and said “Do you have any stock options?”

August 12

Still no options. I don’t think I can get rich if I don’t have options, but I’m not sure. Gary told me that Soup4U.com! almost got bought out by the vertical food portal StuffYourFace.com, but the deal fell through because they got bought by VerticalFoodPortal.com. Now the KopyMat people won’t let me in the door anymore because our company stopped paying the bills. I had to go across town to the KopyKing, but my old boss Mark was working the counter there, so I kept going until I got to KuckooForKopies where Eileen works. Only she wasn’t there.

I found her when I got home. She looked completely distraught, like she had been crying for hours. She had caught Colin with the FedEx guy that afternoon. He swore he was doing a quick reflexology session, but I guess that didn’t explain what they were doing when she found them. I felt bad for her, so I said, “Why don’t you take one of those little drinks of yours so you can cheer up?” She kind of sobbed and said “It’s just water! I just pour water in there and write stuff on the label!” I was thirsty so I drank down one called Karmic Bliss.

August 18

Howard, the CEO, called us all in this morning and told us that Soup4U.com! was folding. He said that SoupySales.com had been first to market, and we never got into the game. I thought he was going to give us our paychecks, since I hadn’t been paid in a month, plus I had a wallet-full of cab receipts, but he just said “Sorry, there’s no money left. That’s it.” After the meeting, I went up to Howard and asked him straight out about the options. He laughed a little and said “There’s no more company… that’s it. Go home!” but I kept after him. After a while he said sure, he’d give me some options if it would make me feel better, and he sat down at his desk and wrote something up for me. I was too shy to ask him to explain to me how it all worked, but at least I got my options. I can figure it out later.

September 20

I decided to go back home. On the cab ride to the train station I had the same cabby as when I first showed up in Boston. I asked him if he remembered me, and he said, “Sure, you’re the kid with the nice shoes who stiffed me last June. Didn’t I tell it to you straight?” Mr. Perkins was sure glad to see me (just in time for the back-to-school rush), plus I was back in Hartford for only a few days when I saw a notice in the business pages: “Nuts2U.com acquires resuscitated Soup4U.com! to make dining megaportal Soup2Nuts.com.” It took me a while to figure it out, but my options are looking better all the time.

The Star Chamber Answer Man

Spring has come at last to the editorial offices here at Number One Star Chamber Place, and not a minute too soon. We didn’t have a particularly tough winter here, but the thinly rationed sunlight of winter can cast a seasonal affective pall over even the mildest weather. Once the sun gets a chance to smear on the light in great thick greasy slabs again, it’s amazing how cheery the old place gets.

This week we turn to one of our regular features, the Star Chamber Answer Man, in which curious readers of the Star Chamber from all around the globe try to stump the indefatigable and eponymous man of answers.

Continue reading “The Star Chamber Answer Man”

Y-No-K

TIME: 2 BC, late Wednesday afternoon

PLACE: The house of Gaius Tullus DeGustibus, in the northern suburbs of Rome, near the new Circus Maximus Mall.

[the phone rings]

ANTONINUS: Hello?

PROBONO: Hello there… am I speaking to Mr. Gaius T. DeGustibus?

ANTONINUS: [haughtily] No, this is his slave, Antoninus. May I ask who’s calling?

PROBONO: Yes indeed, my friend. Tell Mr. DeGustibus that Claude Probono is calling with some very important news about his future.

ANTONINUS: Certainly, sir. One moment. [he exits and returns with DeGustibus]

DEGUSTIBUS: [pulling on a robe, talking to Antoninus] I don’t remember anyone by that name. [picking up the phone] Hello?

PROBONO: Greetings, Mr. DeGustibus. My name is Claudius Probono, but please, call me Claude. I’m wondering what plans you have to deal with the impending Year Zero problem.

DEGUSTIBUS: The what?

PROBONO: The Year Zero problem, sometimes known as the Y-No-K problem. Do you have any plans to mitigate the vicious effects of this calamity on your lovely household at [sound of shuffling papers] 23 Pantheon Path?

DEGUSTIBUS: What on earth are you talking about? I’ll have you know I was just getting an olive oil rubdown from my slave when you called and—

PROBONO: I certainly understand your annoyance, Gaius. Can I call you Gay?

DEGUSTIBUS: You may call me Mr. DeGustibus.

PROBONO: I certainly understand your annoyance Mr. Gaius, and I wouldn’t bother you if I wasn’t trying to save your household from ruin and despair. Now isn’t that worth an interrupted salad job?

DEGUSTIBUS: I beg your pardon! What’s all this about ruining my house?

PROBONO: Gaius, let me begin with a simple question. What year is this?

DEGUSTIBUS: This is the year 2.

PROBONO: And what year comes after that?

DEGUSTIBUS: [impatiently] Why, the year 1, of course. Where are you going with this line of inquiry?

PROBONO: And what’s the year after that?

DEGUSTIBUS: Hmmm. Well I… [genuinely puzzled] Hmmm. I suppose no year at all. The year naught. No year. Hmmm. Yes, I suppose I never thought of that before. I’d gotten so used to counting down the years, I never gave much thought about what would happen at the end.

PROBONO: [triumphantly] EXACTLY! Do you think the Roman Federal Credit Union will pay you interest that year?

DEGUSTIBUS: [beginning to show some doubt] I expect so… it’s probably nothing that a public sacrifice wouldn’t fix.

PROBONO: I wouldn’t count on it, Gaius. Their tabulation systems are going to Hades in a handbasket. How long is the year zero, would you say? And how would you write a zero, anyway?

DEGUSTIBUS: Well it’s a matter of… I would… [giving up in frustration] it’s this damned numbering system! All X’s and V’s! This country can put a man in Britannia; you’d think we could figure out a way to write zero.

PROBONO: Think of the aqueduct running dry because of faulty calculations, Gaius. No Roman Meal bread at the Pigglius Wigglius. No water at the bath-house, the vomitorium shuttered and deserted—

DEGUSTIBUS: [growing increasingly horrified] Please stop it! Oh what can I do?

PROBONO: [urgently] Well, if you act today, I might be able to put you on our Zero Risk Survival Plan. I can set you up in a lovely gated compound in the mountains near Switzerlandium. We’ll bury a year’s supply of wine and freeze-dried olives on your property and provide you with some board games and a highly-trained security force to drive off the Flintstones and Visigoths.

DEGUSTIBUS: The who?

PROBONO: You don’t read the paper very much, do you Gay?

DEGUSTIBUS: What board games do you have? And what about my art supply store in Capitolium and my cat, Nero? Oh, it’s making my head spin.

PROBONO: You’ve got to stop thinking about clinging and start thinking about cashing out and saving your skin! And by the way, we offer a wide assortment of popular games, including backgammon, Candyland, Nails and Crosses, and Gladiator, the new hand-to-hand action figure combat game.

DEGUSTIBUS: Oh! I’d better start packing now. [loudly] Antoninus! Antoninus! Is my good toga still at the dry cleaner’s?

PROBONO: Gaius, I’m going to call you back with the details tomorrow. In the meantime, if any Centurions should ask you what’s going on, let’s just keep this our little secret, okay? [He hangs up]

[Cut to the offices of Veni Vidi Fleeci, Year Zero Consultants. Probono, hanging up the phone, turns to his co-worker Edwardius Pluribus Unum]

PROBONO: [shaking his head] I’m telling you, Ed, this Y-No-K gig is going to make us rich. You just call them up and reel them in. Year zero indeed. Sweet Jesus!

UNUM: Who?

PROBONO: Nothing.

UNUM: [after a pause] Tell the truth, Claude. Are you worried about this stuff really? You know, that whole world-is-ending mass-hysteria thing?

PROBONO: Naah, not a chance. But if there is any trouble, I’ll be ready. I am going to take all this money and buy myself a great big country estate south of here and watch the whole big mess blow over.

UNUM: Oh yeah? Whereabouts?

PROBONO: Sweet little beach spot called Pompeii.

Fisher Flies

I. Scott Proehl and his Hard-To-Pronounce-Last-Name

When Fisher Pinckney leaned forward for a better view of the commotion at the front of the line, he saw a tiny kerchiefed woman wagging her wrinkled brownspotted finger menacingly over the counter. He strained to hear her gravely measured words: “Then may this plane drop from the sky like a stone!” His eyebrows arched reflexively as he studied the agent’s unblinking stony reaction. Into the silence the computer terminal gave a plaintive bleat from behind the counter. The blue-suited gate agent managed a pinched professional smile and said, “Apparently we do have a seat for you after all, Mrs. Trismegos.” The woman just ahead of Fisher kick-shoved her lumpy carry-on bag one step toward the counter, saying in a low tone, “Don’t they have to treat that like a bomb threat or something? That woman gives me the creeps.”

For Fisher, air travel brought with it a luxurious sense of abdication. Against all expectation, it was a temporary suspension of worldly hassle. The aluminum airframe had a womblike embracing appeal: for the duration of a flight he was completely, blissfully beyond reach. There was nothing else to do except read a book, perhaps drink a beer or two while mysterious forces conducted him through the air. Flight delays troubled him very little, because it just meant a little more off-line reading time. More so than ever, he wasn’t looking forward to the end of this flight. He had made up his mind to break up with Molly once and for all once he got back to Baltimore. He could picture her waiting for him at the end of the exit ramp. What reaction would he give? What emotion should he project, must he betray? When would he break open his bottle of poison? He felt so sick and bleak that the thought of spiraling from the sky because of the kerchiefed woman’s curse had a certain tragic appeal.

As he was preparing to board Flight 817 to Baltimore, his ear picked a familiar southern drawl from the airport noise: “Not Prole. P-R-O-E-H-L, like Prail.” He turned to see, at the checkin desk, Scott Proehl, his high school classmate and one-time best friend. Fisher caught a clear glimpse of him: heavier, balder, and very tired. Then he gave his ticket to the attendant and moved down the jetway.

II. Controlled Flight Into Terrain

Scott and Fisher had played in a band together in high school. Scott was the more talented of the two, and Fisher later learned that he had gone on to some musical success in college. Fisher had played in a college band too, the Sad Clichés, but when he realized they had fanatical groupies despite the fact that they were extremely bad, it depressed him so much that he had to quit. Now as he moved to his seat, he fretted over whether or how to greet Scott.

Fisher found himself four rows behind Scott Proehl and in the same row, but just across the aisle from, Mrs. Trismegos. Her mouth was drawn in a taut, stitched line of concern; her hands clutched what Fisher supposed was a crucifix. He made a point of smiling at her. Whether it was friendly and encouraging or smug and baiting he couldn’t be sure. His emotional compass, never reliable, was off its bearings entirely recently.

The flight, as it happened, was extremely bumpy and chaotic. At one point, the flight attendent lurched to prevent being knocked to the floor, sending a spray of Diet Coke over Fisher. She cried out with a sharp expletive, then, flustered, hurried the drink cart back to be locked down. Fisher met eyes with the kerchiefed woman. “Young man, do you think we are going to die?” He smiled again, though queasiness drained his voice of real confidence. “No, we’re not going to die. Weather like this almost never knocks down planes. If a plane crashes, it’s usually because the pilots don’t know any better and fly straight into a mountain, BOOM!” He smacked a fist into his other hand forcefully. “But we’re way up high. It’s uncomfortable, but very safe.” She nodded blankly, then stared out the window and crossed herself. After a few seconds she chuckled in a deep, chronic-smoker sort of way and turned again to look at him. Her gaze was piercing but surprisingly calm and warm. “Yes yes,” she said slowly and distinctly, “Never fate, only blindness. That is true.” Soon after that, despite continued turbulence and flashes of lightning, Mrs. Trismegos fell soundly asleep.

III. No time to lose

After the plane had landed, Fisher stood in the crowded aisle and debated his next move. Though it was avoidable, he decided he had to say something to Scott. It had been a long time, after all. As he started forward he called forward, “Scott, it’s me, Fisher Pinckney. Remember?”

“Well hey, Fisher. Long time no see.” The last time they saw each other was at the beach immediately after high school graduation. There had been an awkward drunken fight, the kind of fight that middle-class kids who never fought before have. Before that moment, Fisher would have described Scott as a close friend. Since that moment, they had not spoken. Because they went to different colleges? Because they hated each other? Scott looked oily and overweight.

Scott said, “You got a mess on your shirt, there, Fisher.” Fisher said, “Turbulence.”

Fisher asked a question. Scott said, “I’m a sales engineer for DPM. We make electrical connectors.” Fisher asked another question. Scott said, “Yeah, two little boys. Lynn and I just had our seventh anniversary.” Scott didn’t ask a question. Fisher didn’t say, “Fuck you for how you treated me. Fuck you for never apologizing.” Scott said “Okay, then. Well…!” as though that were an ordinary way to say goodbye. Then he turned slightly to indicate that the conversation was now over. His face wore an absent transaction-completed smile. They waddled off the plane and through the umbilical connection to the terminal.

Fisher walked slowly, so slowly, toward the greeting area, pulling himself from the unhappy past into the cruel present. He looked up, expecting to catch sight of Molly, and was amazed to see the tiny Mrs. Trismegos talking animatedly to Molly and gesturing toward him. By the time he reached Molly, the old woman had moved on.

Molly wore a long purple dress. She carried a single rose, but it drooped to one side. Instead she offered him a card.

“What did she say to you?” Fisher asked.

“She asked me to give this to you. She said you were her friend. Do you know her?”

“We talked for maybe two minutes on the plane. Why would she come up to you like that?” He examined the card. It was a business card labeled “M. Trismegos, Tarot, Palmistry.” Then in italics next to a bad drawing of three candles and a rose: “No time to lose.

“Did she say anything else to you?”

Molly hesitated. “She said I was very beautiful.”

Surprised, Fisher looked up from the card and into Molly’s flushed, anxious face, saw her shining eyes. “You are very beautiful,” he said quietly. She looked down at her sandaled feet and moved closer to him, uncertain whether to hug. She looked up again.

Then: the intercom said, “Mr. Scott Prole, please meet your party at the baggage claim.”

Fisher felt strangely light, like a tiny bubble of carbonation spiraling upward in a glass of Diet Coke. He realized he was surpressing a tiny grin.

Molly said, “What’s that on your shirt?”

Fisher said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Bubbling Hot Springs

Larry assured me of this: each day on the river, the image of Bubbling Hot Springs got more and more appealing. In addition to being my friend, Larry was an experienced river guide on the wild and scenic part of the Rogue River in Oregon. He was also something of a storyteller, as all river guides seem to be, so as we slowly paddled downstream in the rain-swelled Rogue river one June afternoon, he told me the story of Bubbling Hot Springs.

Working as a river guide is entertaining, but the pay ain’t great, as they say, and it can be a real grind after a few weeks, particularly if you have an unpleasant customer or two. Running a raft through the rapids is one thing, but cooking and cleaning up for a pack of demanding tourists is something else entirely. Of course, what pay there is comes from paying customers, so you do what you can to keep them happy, sometimes even to the point of lending them warm clothes they should have had the sense to bring themselves. You do all that and more, and sometimes the bastards still stiff you on the tip at the end of the trip. As a result both the customers and the river guides, lying awake and cold at night, dripping with river water and rain, dirty and water-wrinkled, they both have good reason to look forward to Bubbling Hot Springs.

If you’re a paying customer, any of the guides will tell you (after some prodding) that one of the joys of rafting the Rogue river wild and scenic wilderness area is the pre-dawn hike to Bubbling Hot Springs. Normally this would occur on the fourth day of the trip, and I can tell you from experience that by the fourth day of the trip, the ice-cold waters of the Rogue have lost some of their charm. The vision of a steaming spring emptying into a natural hot tub is a tempting one.

No customer is expected or even encouraged to go on the hike to Bubbling Hot Springs; it isn’t on the official itinerary so it has to be squeezed in early. It isn’t suitable for the aged, the pregnant, the halt and lame. To make the trek you have to wake up early and hike hard and fast. You have to get up when stars are still just twinkling in the western sky, when the cool river mist is still curling around the reeds, when the birds are tuning their morning songs.

You follow the sure-footed river guides up up up on a short but steep hike during which time few people really have the energy or inclination to talk. The guides are moving fast now in happy anticipation. Scramble over a rock ledge and walk across a small clearing and there it is: Bubbling Hot Springs, bubbling and steaming just like you’d expect. The river guides hop in first without the least hesitation. In with a mighty splash and then they float blissfully up to the surface wearing contented smiles.

And well they might, too, because they’re the only ones who know that the water of Bubbling Hot Springs is only slightly warmer than the frigid Rogue itself. This information tends to become widespread rather quickly. On a bad trip, someone will stick a toe in prematurely and ruin the fun. On a good trip, two or three customers will actually hop in before the comprehension is general. In fact, one or two customers have actually been known to regain their composure as they float to the surface and emerge with a convincing enough smile to induce the rest of the crowd to jump on in. River guides really like people like this.

River guiding is hard work, and the pay ain’t great, as they say. But it has its own rewards, as Larry will tell you. Customers and river guides, lying awake and cold at night, they both have good reason to look forward to Bubbling Hot Springs. It may well be, however, that only the river guides look back on it with the same warmth.

Hardball

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:

Kurt:

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.

Hi Paul,

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.