A Little To The Left, a short story by Jonathan L. Segal
Because some jerks at NASA decided to hit a comet with a probe the size of a washing machine, the end of the world was fast approaching. They’d knocked it just that little nano-micro-mini-meter off course, and now it was, well you know, gonna smash the crap out of our little terrestrial paradise. While it’s true that their intentions were good, and that all they meant to do was to help us define the chemical makeup of a hunk of ice the size of Cleveland, flying through space at 6.5 kiloknots per minute, which is very fast, what they’d really done was to wreak havoc with Mama Nature, and handed all the other scientists in the world who weren’t consulted about this a cause for very fast speculation.
“Tofullopolis 3.1416", fondly known as “Tofu Pie", was now on a collision course that would have it smashing somewhere into the middle of the Atlantic, at such a speed that it was predicted (by those who knew) that enough angry water, fish, and discarded beer bottles would be displaced that the real Cleveland would be under fifty feet of water, along with most of the other cities of the industrial nations. That would be in the first few hours. As the Tsunamis spread and the water moved into the Pacific by any route necessary and available, most of the rest of the world would suffer a comparable (if non-industrialized) drowning.
With only one week to fix this little inconvenience, the United Nations held a special meeting to see how long they could argue and not get anything done until everybody died. Tensions were noticeably high, and civility went out the window faster than a New York cockroach outrunning a hammer. It was decided that the U.S.A. still had (but not by much) the best capability of rectifying this matter with a second washing machine sized probe. This one would reverse the directional damage done by the first (ostensibly). Well thank god we had another ready! This comet was already too close for comfort, and the second probe had to be launched within 48 hours or pal, don’t waste your money on that new Fall wardrobe, know what I mean? Don’t put down that deposit on that new apartment, lady. Let those bills rot, stop sending out resumes, and honey, let’s not have the wedding in June, how about tonight?
But here came the rub. Over at NASA, the heat was on from the media. Why’d those guys mess it up in the first place? How could they be so sloppy and let this whole profoundly stupid thing happen? Where were those great folks who put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon? The people who brought you docking in space, the shuttle, satellites, Mars landings, really exceptionally cool, well done stuff? Wha’ happen? With the TV talking heads now breathing down NASA’s necks, they lost their confidence. Since all their computers had blown it on the first probe, it was decided that a less technical and more intuitive approach might be called for, and fast.
The NASAns stayed up all night drinking coffee, trying to pinpoint who in the world had the best sense of a perfect deflection angle, to send this mutha back to the Big Bang from whence it came. This little ice cream cone that god had thrown in a split-fingered fastball in our direction. Who could bat that sucker over the centerfield fence on one pitch?
In a smoke filled haze exhaled from lungs that had learned to smoke at places like M.I.T. and all the best engineering schools, conversation waxed philosophic by around 4AM. It was resolved. There was one man in the world, who had a better understanding of angle deflection than anybody else alive. He inhabited that nether world, (nether here nor there) between art and science. Greatness clung heavily to his ankles as he limped along. Destiny beckoned to him to save the world as we know it. His moment on the stage had arrived, but he knew it not. That man’s name was Harold Untermeyer. He was a pool player.
Untermeyer (who had suffered rude unmentionable
nicknames as a child), was the world’s greatest eight-ball champion. Only a penchant for Jack Daniels & Friends, which he had developed in pool halls all over the lower 48 states, stopped him from the mainstream recognition that he so richly deserved. He was fifty years old and looked like sixty. Two hundred and forty pounds, a slowly loping six-foot-one, truly horrible long frizzy dark hair with grey streaks, climbing upwards and outwards into great tangled hedgerows. Bushy eyebrows, jowly and wrinkly and smelly from his cigarettes, unchanged shirt and his thrift shop suit. A mess. But what a mess. In his day Harold Untermeyer had run the table many times, subduing young guns and old pros alike. He wasn’t a trick player, but rather a charging rhino with a pool cue instead of a horn. He rarely missed back then, unless he wanted to dupe some poor sucker into raising the ante. Then Harold cut loose and hustled his way into a payday. He was a great and ruthless player, and he commanded respect. Then the bottle gradually came to command him. His bitterness at never hitting the big bucks drove him further down. He developed the shakes, and then it was all over. Cue ball in the corner pocket. Oblivion.
The cowboys at NASA knew about Harold Untermeyer. A few of them had spent a lot of time in the bars and pool halls on the Florida coast, and they knew that this man had an inner knowledge of where to hit the ball that surpassed all mathematical calculation. Just as a triplet in music cannot be accurately represented with musical notation, but only played correctly by a human hand, so, reasoned the NASAns, some “Body English" would be required to hit the comet just right. Some “Body English" from somebody. But not somebody English. Somebody American. Somebody who’d ooze his way into the shot, the way a common cold oozes into your whole system. You know who.
Harold Untermeyer was asleep in his clothes at dawn, when the Feds came to get him in his fleabag second floor New Orleans walkup. He had long since run out of the kind of money he needed to buy the good stuff, and was now subsisting on watered down beer, potato chips, and the occasional desperate swig of hair tonic. When he didn’t answer their knock, they broke in. Harold tried to jump up and split some federal heads with a pool cue.
“W-What the hell do you want? Get the hell out of here!"
“Relax Mr. Untermeyer", said Captain Sterns, as his men restrained the awakened ogre. “Be very careful with this guy! We don’t want him injured. Our job is to deliver him intact!"
“I was gonna pay my rent! Whydjoo havta bust in on me?"
“Sir", said the Captain, “Your presence is needed immediately at a highly classified location, for a mission of great importance to the security of this nation."
“And the world." added young Agent O’Banion, with great pride.
“And the world." admitted Captain Sterns reluctantly, rolling his eyes.
A three cup limit of coffee was administered to Harold on the private Gulfstream IV jet that took him to Florida. They wanted to wake him, but not to shake him. He’d need an alert mind and an astronomically calm hand to accomplish the mission they’d drafted him for. It was decided that he was only to be semi-briefed on the plane. He knew that it involved his Billiard skills, but he had no idea that it was connected to Tofu Pie. He’d been in such a stupor lately that the Earth-shaking news had gone right by him. Though he’d heard people on Bourbon Street talking about it, the significance of it had breezed above his putrid sonar of an awareness. He was so deep in the bottle, that he might as well have been one of those “Ships in a bottle". A real work of art, trapped in glass.
“How much am I getting for this tournament?" he said.
Sterns and O’Banion looked at each other. They didn’t know. Their job was strictly to make the snatch. Nobody had given them negotiating parameters.
“Mr. Untermeyer", said Captain Sterns, with as much federal authority as he could muster up. “It should be apparent to you that the people who sent us to pick you up and fly you to Florida in a jet like this are not hurting for funding." (Actually, NASA was always hurting for funding). Untermeyer knew in a second that Sterns was bluffing. He knew B.S. before the B.S.er could even B.S. He’d seen it all, and this guy Sterns was out of his league here. Nevertheless Harold didn’t let on. That would have tipped his hand. He played along.
“Hokay by me."
They landed at Cape Canaveral. An armored Bradley fighting vehicle met them at the runway. Untermeyer had once seen these on CNN in Iraq, and this is when he realized that something highly unusual was shaping up. Private game with a General, maybe? The President? Maybe some Snookers with an alien ace from another galaxy?
As they rolled, Sterns got on the radio. He turned to Harold and asked him for his clothing measurements. Harold
smelled very funky and they were anxious to get him cleaned up.
“Why do you wanna know my size? Is it for clothing to wear when I play?"
“Yes", said Sterns, perfunctorily.
“You’re wasting your time, pal. I’m wearing what I play in."
“This is important. Very important, and you’re going to want to feel your best. You cold also use a shower, Mr. Untermeyer."
“This is my lucky suit, dipshit. I play in this suit, or I don’t play at all", growled the bear of a man.
Now it was Captain Alvin Stern’s turn to keep his mouth shut. His job was almost completed, and he didn’t want to get into a power struggle. Especially because, let’s face it, he was completely powerless.
They reached a large laboratory complex and Harold was led through various hydraulic door systems to a small hotel-like room that been furnished for his needs. He opened the mini-bar and found to his dismay that it contained only juice, herbal teas, and horrid looking health food snack bars. There was no bed, just a sofa. The TV played clips of Shuttle launchings with dreamy techno music. On the wall was a framed copy of a Mercury astronauts class photo from the 1960s. No sooner had Harold shut the door then there was a knock. It was a very old man wearing what looked like a bellhop outfit.
“Like ta ordah some food?", he said, showing Harold the menu.
“Whaddya got?" said the big man, eyeing this mysterious anachronism in red suspiciously.
“Eggs. Steak ‘n eggs. That’s what the astranauts have fuh breakfust ‘for dey fly."
“Steak and eggs it is."
Twenty minutes later he was halfway through his meal when two Feds showed up at the door.
“Sir, they’re ready for you in the control room."
“I’d like to finish my damn food, if you don’t mind!" he said through a full mouth of hash browns.
The Feds looked at each other, not used to Snafus.
“Sorry sir, they need you to be there right now."
Harold Untermeyer cursed under his breath. He put the plate back on the food cart and stared at it. Nice looking platter of steak and eggs and hash browns. Beautiful pitcher of Fresh squeezed O.J., not that canned crap. Little dish of cute soft muffins and all kinds of butters and jellies. He made up his mind in an instant as he always did at important junctures in his life.
“Okay, let’s go." he said, and he rolled the cart out the door.
“Sir? What are you doing?"
“What does it look like I’m doing?"
“Mr. Untermeyer, we were instructed to bring you, not the cart."
“Were you instructed to not bring the cart?"
“Let’s go, boys. I got pool to play, know what I mean?"
Main control room. Humongous video screen showing a remarkably clear, hi-definition night sky with no clouds. Straight from the Hubble telescope. Better then being outside looking up. Unbelievable. Sixty NASAns sitting in amphitheater-style rows at desks in front of their computer monitors. Mumbling, buzzing, beeping, on their headsets and microphone attachments. AC cold and whirring. A busy and serious place.
The Feds helped Harold get his food cart down the steps to the front center of the room, under the screen. Well, not quite under the screen. Almost directly under the screen was a pool table. A really beautiful, excellent, pool table. It had been designed for recreational purposes by the best engineers and scientists in the world. Tonight it would be utilized in an attempt to save the world from Tofu Pie crushing the Earth into Tofu Pie.
“What the...?" said Harold, dropping pieces of egg from his mouth.
“Mr. Untermeyer?" said a voice.
The voice belonged to a man. The man stood up. It was him. The president. President George Jefferson Clinton.
“Hey." said Harold softly, in a bit of a shock. He was going to play the Pres. How do you like that? But why all the hubbub, Bub?
The President, who was from Texarkana, shook Harold’s hand.
“That’s a fine grip you have there, Harold. Yessir, a fine grip, and it’s going to serve a great purpose tonight, right here."
“Eight-Ball or straight pool. Mr. President?"
Clinton looked ashen.
“Hasn’t this man been briefed on the mission?"
Silence from sixty people.
“For Christ’s sake, didn’t anybody tell this poor Bastard what’s up? How the hell did y’all screw this up? Goddammit!" And then the president laughed, a high pitched little nervous laugh, that chilled Harold’s bones.
“Hooboy." said the Pres.
“General, git your ass down here and tell this boy what’s goin’ on here. Now!"
General John J. Pomerantz, decked out in full regalia approached the President.
“Mr. President, with all due respect, I think that in view of the seriousness of this moment, Dr. Phipps would be a better
candidate to explain matters."
“Okay Jack", said the President, trying too cool down.
Dr. Phipps, bald on top and scraggly on the sides came over to Harold. They sized each other up. Phipps in his white lab coat and Untermeyer in his smelly old suit, shirt untucked, egg on his tie.
“Mr. Untermeyer, you are well known among our staff."
Harold’s lips pursed and his right eyebrow raised appreciatively.
Nice compliment. Does that mean that they’re not going to pay me? Screw that, just gimme the money, he thought.
“Your talents are legendary. We are aware of your victories in venues both reknowned and obscure. Your skills bridge the gap between science and art."
The verbal stroke that comes before the sword stroke, thought Harold.
“You are no doubt aware of the quandary we find ourselves in at this time."
What’s he talking about?
“The entire globe is on the edge of the abyss, so to speak."
Is this about pool?
President George Clinton pushed Phipps aside.
“Asshole!" he said, looking at Harold but directed at Phipps.
“Look here, Untermeyer. That fucking comet? Tofu Pie? It’s gonna slam into the goddamn Earth next week if we don’t stop it somehow."
A comet? This is about a comet?
“So here’s the deal. We need you to hit a ball on that pool table to knock that damned thing back out into outer space."
I must have had some bad booze. But this guy really looks like the prez.
“Actually", said Dr. Phipps, “You will strike a ball into another ball that contains advanced laser technology, and the signal will be relayed to a probe aimed in the general direction of Tofullopolis 3.1416. Your shot will control the launch angle and determine the result. We only have one probe, so we only get one chance."
These guys in white coats aren’t really NASA guys. They’re Bellevue guys. I’ve lost my mind and they’re trying to make me believe that I’m at NASA. Any second they’re gonna put the straitjacket on me and throw me into the rubber room. I don’t wanna go back there again.
“So that’s the story, Mr. Untermeyer.", said the president, morosely. “You’re gonna go over there to that table in a few hours and make that shot, and save the world……,okay?"
“This is for real?" Harold finally said.
“Very real, I’m afraid", said Phipps. “And time is of the essence. We must launch our probe from it’s present rocket based location in space within five hours, or else the comet will be too close to successfully alter it’s trajectory enough.
We are all in grave danger, I’m afraid."
Harold took a final bite of scrambled eggs, and then he picked up the pitcher of orange juice and chugalugged it down. He let out a tremendous belch and then walked over to the table. They followed him excitedly. He looked at the table. He reached out and stroked the green felt. He picked up a ball and rolled it.
“Nice table." He said. They fawned over him as if we were a mighty cleric making an important decree.
“It has been ground to 1 billionth of a micro-fiber for a perfect level playing field.", bragged Phipps.
“Almost perfect, right Doc?" Said Harold.
“Well yes, you’re right, almost perfect."
“Like I said Doc, nice table. The thing is, this shot is really important, isn’t it?"
“Well yes it is."
“So’s I gotta be at my best, know what I mean?"
“Of course, of course!"
“Foods’s good, table’s nice, got my lucky suit."
“The thing is, the room’s lousy."
“You mean that your accommodations aren’t satisfactory? But we’re not going to be here long enough for you to even sleep!"
“Nah, Doc, I don’t mean that hotel room. I mean this room. Right here."
“I can’t shoot in this room."
“Bu-but, why not?" blubbered Dr. Phipps.
“This ain’t no small time tournament. This shot is for keeps, ya know?"
“Know what they say, Doc? Everything after ‘But’ is Bullshit. I need a better room. I gotta feel at home. I gotta be very very calm for this one. Now look, we’re in Florida, right? There’s a joint over in Jacksonville that I always liked, back in the day. So what we gotta do is set up this rig over there."
“I’m afraid that that’s not possible, sir", said Phipps. “Great care has been taken to wire this room….."
“Well screw that, Doc. I’d say you’d better start unplugging fast,‘cause if I’m gonna make this shot it’s gonna be at ‘Billy’s Boogaloo Bar’ in Jacksonville."
“Billy’s…..Boo-Ga-Loo?" said Phipps, slowly and incredulously.
“Yeah. Call ahead now and order some fried clams, okay?"
Phipps turned red and turned to look at the president and the general. The president turned to the General.
“Jack, get this sumbitch what he needs. Move this shit to Jacksonville…now!"
Ninety-three minutes later at “Billy’s Boogaloo", the sound of helicopters brought customers out into the street. A large Chinook lowered cargo to the ground right outside the bar while special forces teams scoured the area for problems. Blackhawks flew over the neighborhood. Two blocks from the bar, a Blackhawk landed in a parking lot and out came Harold, Phipps, Pomerantz and Clinton. They were immediately surrounded by special forces as they climbed into a Bradley for the two block ride.
Billy was tending the bar, and though he’d seen a lot, this was the first time the military had burst in carrying automatic weapons fully drawn. He squinted through his bifocals to make sure he was seeing what he was seeing. He was.
In came the president of these here United States. Billy did a triple take. Then in walked Harold Untermeyer.
“Harold? Zat you?"
“Hey Billy! You ain’t dead neither, huh?" Billy walked over to the bar, reached across, and bearhugged Billy.
“Fried clams and Jack, Billy." barked Harold. “Pile ‘em high." Harold said. “Mr. President, you hungry? Best fried clams in Florida."
“Water for me, bartender", said the Prez.
“Jeez, that’s him, huh Harold!?" said Billy.
“Yeah, yeah. For now. It’s kinda up to me if he keeps his job"
“Say Mr. Untermeyer", said President Clinton, “Tell me you’re not gonna drink whiskey tonight, for chrissakes."
“Steadies my nerves."
“It steadies your nerves, huh?" said a flustered Clinton.
“Yes sir, Mr. President. Helps me forget Charisse, my ex."
“Oh, divorced, huh?"
“Yeah. Ran off with a poker player. A Frigging card player!" Harold was starting to growl.
“Sorry I asked, Harold. Sorry ‘bout that. Let’s all remain calm,’kay? Hey bartender, hurry up with that Jack Daniels! This man wants his drink!"
The Boogaloo’s pool table was ripped out of the floor by some big guys with big tools. The new table was quickly lowered into the same floor marks.
“Don’t be droppin’ that thing, or you’ll be runnin’ a hot dog stand in North Korea!" said the president to the Nasa technicians and special forces soldiers as they adjusted the table.
A technician came over to Harold.
“Mr. Untermeyer, you’re going to need to strip to the waist so that we can wire electrodes to your chest."
“What? The jacket stays on. I came to shoot pool, not show off my saggy chest."
“Sir, this is imperative. You’re going to be part of the mechanism. Your heart, respiration and nervous system need to be synched up with the cue stick, the balls, the tables, the satellites, lasers and projectile. Please, we have only one chance to do this."
Harold looked just a bit serious for the first time. Reality was setting in and starting to weigh him down. Billy brought over the Jack Daniels. Harold ignored the shot glass and swiped the bottle from Billy. Clinton cringed.
“Fuck it, okay. But once I’m hotwired, I want my clothes back on." He took a deep swig.
In five seconds they had his jacket and shirt off. He was a site to behold. Big, round, hairy and pungently aromatic in the worst way. The special forces guys flashed on refugee camps around the world. They knew that smell. But they were used to emaciated people with that smell. This was more like getting close to a sick Rhino. A sick, soon to be drunk rhino. A sick, drunk rhino who would be called upon in a few minutes to save the world.
As they applied the cold paste to his skin that would hold the electrodes, he reached out and grabbed Dr. Phipps by the shoulder, very tightly.
“Phipps", he whispered. “What happens if I miss?"
Phipps raised his eyebrows and inhaled deeply.
“Well. Mr. Untermeyer. Should you miss, we will all be up the stellar version of Shit’s Creek without a paddle."
Harold tightened his grip and Phipps winced.
“Can you be just a little bit more specific?"
“Tofullopolis 3.1416 is only a few miles in diameter, yet at the speed it’s proceeding, it will create tsunami waves that will destroy all surface life as we know it."
“Damn." Said Harold, taking another swig of Jack. Phipps went on.
“It might even knock us out of our orbit and into the sun. A most deadly game, with the earth as the eightball and the sun as the corner pocket. Scratch. We lose."
“Way, I’m afraid. But Mr. Untermeyer, be of good cheer. You are the one man on Earth who has a chance to prevent this awful cataclysm from ever occurring. If you can make this shot, it will aim our projectile into Tofullopolis 3.1416 at such an angle that it will cause the comet to pass the Earth at such a distance that we won’t be negatively affected." Phipps grabbed the bottle from Harold and took a long drink.
Harold took a deep breath, farted loudly and walked over to the table. The immediate perimeter of the table had been left clear for his girth, but outside that unobstructed rectangle, the rocket science boys were setting up computers, large plasma video screens, lighting stands and various other mysterious gadgets.
Phipps picked up the cue ball and handed it to Harold.
“Looks and feels like an ordinary cue ball, doesn’t it?"
Harold took the ball from Phipps and felt its weight. Then he threw it up in the air and caught it as Phipps screamed “No!"
“Relax Doc. This is how I get up to speed, okay?"
“Don’t do that! The mechanisms implanted in that ball do not like to be shaken!"
“Yeah, but they like being hit by the cue stick into another ball, huh?"
“That is a dynamically different process!" Phipps was almost choking on fear and anger.
“This ball was designed for one purpose and one purpose only. To be struck laterally and to roll perfectly, and to finally strike another ball of related design. When that second ball is hit, the signal will launch our projectile from its locartion in space toward Tofullopolis 3.1416."
“What if I accidentally knock it off the table when I shoot? Won’t that break it?
“Mr. Untermeyer, you will not do that under any circumstances. Should you do such a thing, billions of people will die. Try to keep that fact in the front of your mind."
“I wanna take some practice shots."
“We have other identically weighted balls for just this purpose."
Harold racked up the practice balls. He rolled the rack around the table till he found his spot. The Nasans brought out their chronoengraved titanium-living plastic hybrid cue sticks. They handed Harold their organically regurgitated platinum granulated chalk cubes to chalk up the stick.
“Don’t use that." said the big man.
“You’ve got to use it" said Phipps. “We’ve engineered its molecules to perfectly enhance the striking surface of the titanium sticks. We’ve left nothing to chance."
“Hey Phipps." Offered Harold. “Seems to me that if you guys left nothing to chance, how come you got a pool player making a shot to stop a comet that you accidentally set on course to blow our asses out of the water?"
Phipps said nothing.
“Got something better than that." Said Harold.
He took the cue stick, touched the tip of it to his tongue. Then he dipped the stick into the Jack Daniels bottle.
“Works like a charm. Works better for me than for anybody else, too. My spit’s got something in it that’s different from your spit, or the Presidential spit. Must be something I ate once."
He lifted the rack off the balls and before anyone in the room could really register it, he had split the pack with a mighty shot and three balls shot into three corner pockets. The energy in the room changed instantly as the military, scientific and executive branch bigwigs realized what an incredible athlete was hiding in this smelly, hairy disheveled hulk of a man.
Now he stepped quickly around the table. It didn’t seem possible that such a man could move that fast. Shot after shot, he cleared the table. Then, with only the eight ball and the cueball left, he took a breath and shot the cueball into the eightball. The eightball hit the edge of the far corner pocket and stayed on the table. An audible groan came up from the onlookers. Harold looked ashen.
“I’m always that way. Gotta be more money riding on it, then I get it. That was just a warmup."
Now the Nasa graphic arts squad set to work creating a diagram on the table. They drew arrows and circles and numbers on the pool table.
“Mr. Untermeyer", said Phipps rather deferentially, “What we have reproduced here is a trajectory map of the S.T.O."
“Space Theater of Operations. In other words, a mathematically accurate representation of the environment and positions in space of The Earth, Tofullopolis 3.1416, and our probe, ‘Ganymede.’ This arrow shows the angle parameters within which Ganymede’s projectile must be launched in order to deflect Tofullopolis 3.1416 away from its present trajectory toward Earth."
“So I just gotta hit the ball within those lines?"
“Sounds easy. What’s the catch?"
“The catch is that those are hypothetical parameters. We are looking for a ‘sweet spot’ within the range."
“Well what makes you think I’m gonna do better than all you jerks in Bellevue coats?"
“If truth be told, sir, you were called in because we created the problem with our first projectile. All our equations didn’t stop of us from committing a blunder of titanic proportions. And though I am rather reluctant to disclose or admit these facts sir, having endangered the mother planet by over zealously depending on computers, we at Nasa have come to the conclusion that a more instinctive and primitive approach.."
“And by primitive, sir, let me say that I use the term in it’s primordial meaning, as in ‘prime’ and ‘genesis’ and all things unsoiled by a consumer society. Nature in its pure state. Perhaps one might even refer to the idea of a man of your stature having a gift that involves an unconscious connection to nature’s laws. Yes, we feel a primitive approach brings us the highest possibility of success."
“Doc, ya ever been to Vegas?"
“Yes. My wife Fredonia and I were there on our honeymoon."
“Did you gamble?"
“Well, Las Vegas. Naturally."
Phipps looked at the ground.
“I regret that I lost my shirt, so to speak."
“Bad track record, Doc. Hope you do better with me than the slot machines."
“I did not, nor do I have now, your particular gift, Mr. Untermeyer. A deep special sense of space that expresses itself externally as mastery of the angle. In a hostile environment that knows no ups and downs sir, you are the one man on this planet who understands direction. The ball is in your court, sir."
“Mixed metaphor, Doc, but I get it."
After repeatedly racking the balls and clearing the tables shot by shot, with very few misses, Harold was warmed up and ready. He finished his practice session with incredible trick shots. One foot off the floor. Multiple cushion bounces. Cue ball jumping over a ball (though he was instructed that this was strictly Verboten on the final shot). Shots with his eyes closed.
“We’re just about ready, Mr. Untermeyer" said Phipps."
As he spoke, the video screens booted up live images of Tofu Pie taken from Ganymede. Harold blinked and stared. He could see the whole shape of the comet, almost filling the screen. Like some monstrous Potato flying through space. Like staring at a fastball thrown by Roger Clemens in the instant before it smashes you in the face. Harold felt the impact and the inevitable watery death approaching. He studied the eyes of this potato. Great cavernous meteor craters. A weatherbeaten pockmarked face of an angry oldtimer, charging the Earth at incredible speed.
“Show me a picture of the projectile." He said to a technician. The technician hit a few strokes on his keyboard and up came Ganymede’s projectile in a computer animation. She looked like a torpedo (They referred to it as “She" but it certainly looked male), or a great white shark. The technician rotated the 3D image. Harold studied it carefully. Then he looked at the comet on another screen. He picked up the cue ball and felt it with his eyes closed. He threw it up in the air with his eyes closed. Phipps almost screamed but muffled it with his hand.
“Let’s do it." Said Harold. He found his location at the table. He took a swig of Jack Daniels. He belched. He farted. He spat on the floor. He sweated under the hot light stands. He was going to shoot.
The screens went dead.
“Dr. Phipps." It was one of the Nasa technicians.
“Our satellite visual link is down."
“What the hell!?" yelled the president.
“Sir", said the technician to Phipps. “Tofu Pie’s proximity to earth is affecting electrical transmissions."
“Is the cortical-laser-link to Ganymede still up?" said Phipps.
President George Jefferson Clinton turned to General Pomerantz. “What the fuck’s up, Jack?" he yelled. “Can’t they get this friggin’ tinker toy moving?"
Pomerantz was speechless.
“Look here, Phipps." Said the President. You got no visual, but you got your launch mechanism still hooked up to this pool table. Zat right?"
“Precisely, Mr. President."
“Then here’s what’s gonna happen. We don’t have any goddamn time left. As it is, even if he shoots successfully right now, we don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen. Zat right?"
“Yes, Mr. President."
“So let this feller ride this bronco without a saddle, know what ah’m sayin’?"
“Drive the car with a stick. Get his hands dirty. Fly without instruments is what ah’m talkin’ ‘bout here. Do you get it, Doctor?"
General Pomerantz stepped up. “I believe the president is saying that with no other alternative, Untermeyer’s going to have to make this shot on instinct. Without the benefit of any computer corrected technology."
“That’s very, very dangerous, sir." Said Phipps, whose voice was shaking badly. He grabbed the bottle from Harold and took a swig.
“Well goddammit Phipps" said the Prez, “that’s how John Glenn did it, didn’t he?"
“And the boys in Apollo 13." Said the General.
“And Lindbergh over the Atlantic." said a Green Beret.
“This country’s full of bright individuals with good instincts." Said Clinton. “Self made men and women with nothing but talent and balls. Folks who bucked the trends and charged full speed ahead into the abyss, so to speak. Harold, you up for it?"
“Makes no difference to me, Mr. President. In the end, I hit one ball into another ball."
“Well hell, let’s do it, and let’s do it right now!"
It was time. Harold would hit the hi-tech cueball into the eightball, launching the Ganymede projectile into Tofullopolis 3.1416. It didn’t matter whether or not the eightball hit any other balls or entered a pocket on the table. Once the cue ball hit the eightball, the projectile would head off in the direction that the eightball first started to move. If the eightball later curved or struck anything, it wouldn’t affect the projectile. The projectile needed to smack the comet just right in order to reverse the altered trajectory caused by Nasa’s first altercation with Tofu Pie.
President Clinton put his arm around Harold Untermeyer. With his other arm he held his own nose. “Jesus!"
“A lot of folks around the world are depending on you, my friend. Little babies in China. Palestinians and Jews. Austrians down under. North Dakotans and South Dakotans. Unborn babies and secular humanists. Red states and blue. All depending on you, Harold Untermeyer. Can you do it?"
“Clinton slapped him on the back. “Good. I don’t wanna go down in history as the president who let the world get blowed up."
“Not likely if the world gets destroyed." Said Pomerantz.
“Shut up, Jack." Said Clinton.
“Very well." Said Phipps. “Mr. Untermeyer, we have no visual, but you will hear a series of bleeps. Once those bleeps complete themselves after about three seconds, you will have a window of opportunity of about sixty seconds to complete your shot. Because we have only one projectile, you have only one shot."
“You must knock Tofullopolis 3.1416 far enough from its present trajectory so that it misses the Earth completely."
“Then let’s begin. Begin the ten second countdown that intiates the sixty second launch window!"
Harold heard the technician count down from ten. He tried to slow his slightly drunken heart and respiratory system.
“Three, two, one!"
He heard the infernally loud bleeps. After three seconds they stopped.
He looked at the cue ball and the eight ball. He studied the diagram on the table. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. He drew back the cue as if he were William Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head. He peered only through his left eye. Then only through his right eye. He blinked and opened both eyes. Then he ever so slowly began to exhale. He could feel the sweat drops about to invade his vision. No time to wipe them away.
You’re probably wondering what happened to the Earth. Harold Untermeyer, reluctant savior, succeeded in knocking Tofu Pie out of its Earth bound trajectory into a new one. The great comet did not smash into the Atlantic Ocean. It barely touched the Earth at all. Instead of a direct hit, Earth received an interstellar grazing. This grazing, moving laterally across the Atlantic, swept up much of the ocean, drawing it into space in a great hissing, boiling mass of water. Earth’s remaining water swept the world in great tsunamis, inundating coastlines throughout Europe and Africa. Cities were washed away. Water levels West of the grazing were so low that for a week, kids from New Jersey and Manhattan were able to meet out in the middle of what was normally the Hudson River to play baseball. An interesting side phenomenon was that the grazing sped up the Earth’s rotation so that the next twenty-four hour day took only eighteen hours. This had a disconcerting effect on schools, businesses, and of course, bars. Some people benefitted, some died. Hundreds of Millions died. Harold Untermeyer was vilified by what was left of the world’s media. Only the scientists appreciated that this horrid situation might have been terminal for the entire planet if not for Harold’s skills with a cue stick.
President George Jefferson Clinton was impeached, and Vice-President Averil Hogwash took over the reins of the nation. A nation in tatters, but still a nation.
Harold Untermeyer went underground in an adjunct version of the witness protection program. He lost eighty-five pounds on a liquid protein diet. He was ordered to wear new clothes and get a haircut. Harold “sightings" went on for years, but folks didn’t really know what he looked like. Many innocent pool hustlers were mercilessly beaten. One was even tarred and feathered in Florida. “Kill Harold" bumper stickers and songs proliferated. They never found him. Nobody noticed the slim, nattily dressed new high school astronomy teacher at Fairfax high school in Phoenix, Arizona. He taught and went home each day. He minded his own business. And late at night, he sat out on the lawn with his telescope and his bottle of Jack Daniels, thinking about the biggest shot he had ever made.
A Little To The Left, a short story by Jonathan L. Segal