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Local Infuences

Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, no force moving them forward

By mid-afternoon it was snowing, one of those early spring one-last-time sucker- punch squalls, and as the sun went down, and the streetlights came on the temperature rose a couple degrees and the snow began to mix with freezing rain. This would have been around the rush hour. There were only five people in the Tip Top, two of them playing pool and requiring quarters, but the rest just sitting there, so the bartender had enough time on his hands to give himself over fully to an elaborate bar trick he had practiced intermittently since he had first opened the place up that morning. It involved a shot glass of Kahlua and a shot glass of milk and a credit card. He was placing the credit card on top of the shot glass of Kahlua and carefully attempting to turn it over onto the shot glass of milk. No one knew what was supposed to happen next or what the point of the trick was supposed to be. He hadn’t gotten past that crucial first step--he kept spilling the Kahlua and cursing and starting over--but there was hope burning in his eyes. He wasn’t giving up, and as he struggled Toby and Shawn were watching him, drinking beer, and talking about physics.

The choice of topics was appropriate because there was an interesting little experiment in the laws of motion happening right outside the front window as they talked. One of the main drags home from downtown was Manhattan Ave. and Eagle St., where the Tip Top was just off of Manhattan. Directly across the street from the Tip Top was a puke-green mid-seventies Ford Pinto, with a few rust spots and a cracked windshield, just sitting there, looking all forlorn. You could see the Pinto from the front window of the bar. And as people drove home from their jobs downtown in the snow and freezing rain, towards kids and supper and prime-time TV, some would turn left onto Eagle St., and every so often, maybe twice an hour, one of those left-turning cars would misjudge the curve and slam straight into the side of the Pinto. The Pinto wasn’t totaled, because the cars weren’t going that fast, not in this weather, but there were several large dents on the driver’s side of the car, near the front door, dents that hadn’t been there a day ago. None of the drivers involved left their cars to seek out the owner or leave a note. They’d just back up, slowly, sheepishly, and drive away as quickly as the weather allowed.

The sound of the collision was not loud but seemed to carry in the cold, wet air, a muffled thud. When the sound reached the bar everyone would stop what they were doing, if they were doing anything, and turn around to watch the offending car pull away. Everyone except an old man at the end of the bar, nursing his beer, watching baseball on the TV, oblivious to the show taking place outside.

After the second collision, Toby and Shawn began to put bets down on the Pinto. Shawn had set the odds as twenty-to-one, two dollars to a dime, but Toby, because he was playing the long odds, got his choice of which car to bet on. He’d make his pick and pull out a dime from his pile of change on the bar, and they would stop talking, watch the car, see what happened, and then one of them (usually Toby) would pay up and they would continue their conversation. They quit betting when Toby started winning. He started winning because after watching at least forty cars turn the corner, and five of the forty hit the Pinto. He was able to judge the cars most likely to misjudge the turn. The ones driving faster than the rest of the traffic on Manhattan Ave., the ones who made the lane change at the last second, the ones who overshot the traffic light one block down. He didn’t have to call every accident to make money. He only had to do better than one in twenty.

It was sometime after Toby stopped betting that he learned he was wrong about the Corealis Effect.

Shawn, Toby’s drinking partner, was a pimply alcoholic physics major down at the University, and he loved to hold court about his area of study, particularly after a few beers. This habit made him unbearably annoying to most people, and for good reason, but it made him an ideal drinking partner for Toby, because the physics thing was an endless source of conversation, and genuinely interesting to him. They talked about other things, the usual subjects, as they drank, but whenever the conversation ground to a halt, Toby would bring up some physics question. Some problem he had been thinking about and couldn’t solve. Something nobody else he knew was interested in, like why the dimples in a golf ball make it travel farther, like why hot water freezes faster than cold water, like why the moon looks bigger on the horizon than it does way up in the sky. And on the day the Pinto was getting creamed outside the bar, Toby brought up the fact that although the water in his bathtub went down the drain counter-clockwise, if he swirled the water in the opposite direction with his finger he could make it go clockwise, for a while, anyway, before the funnel sort of collapsed and reverted to the counter-clockwise motion. What Toby wanted to know was if the Corealis Effect--the principle that states that, because of the rotation of the earth, all liquids in the southern hemisphere flow down the drain clockwise, while in the northern hemisphere they flow counter-clockwise--could be defeated so easily.

Shawn, using his most professorial tone, dismissed the Corealis Effect as an old wive’s tale. Sure, it existed, he said. Things couldn’t help but be affected by the rotation of the earth, but it wasn’t strong enough of an influence to be the controlling factor in the motion of all things going down the drain. He told Toby to start watching drains more closely. If he did, said Shawn, he would surely notice that liquids flowing down a drain, or any hole, for that matter, were just as likely to go clockwise as counterclockwise. Shawn said the whole thing made him angry. People would be doing their dishes, and pull the plug, and the water would go away. They’d watch it go away and say, “Oh, look, the Corealis Effect,” no matter which way the water flowed, clockwise, counterclockwise, never bothering to notice, to check it out, to get their facts right. They just assumed the direction the water was flowing was the direction it always flowed, the direction it was supposed to flow. And that the reason behind it was some ill-defined scientific principle they heard about in high school from a teacher who didn’t know any better than they did.

Shawn continued, about the stupidity of science teachers, and people in general, their inability to notice the most basic patterns in the world around them. His face was getting red, a combination of anger and approaching drunkenness. He paused in his diatribe long enough to order a shot (pulling the bartender irritably away from his Kahlua and milk), and while he waited for the shot Toby listened to the gentle click of colliding pool balls behind him. The bartender gave Shawn what he wanted, and as he drank it down, they heard a crash and all three of them looked around to see the Pinto get slammed in the side again. The car drove away. The bartender went back to his trick. Shawn quit complaining though his mood didn’t change. He sat on his stool, silently fuming, inordinately angry, and then, perhaps because the shot had taken hold, continued in a calmer voice.

“The things that determine the direction of the water,” he said, “are local influences. Forget anything as big and grand and cosmic as the rotation of the earth. Forget the Corealis Effect. That’s what people wanna believe because it sounds cool, it’s a fancy explanation, but it’s bullshit. The result is decided by the little things. Local influences. The size and shape of the bathtub. How level the floor of the bathroom is. Where your feet are, if you’re still in the bathtub. Irregularities in the drain, and the pipe beneath the drain.”

Shawn quit talking again, no longer as angry, which was good news to Toby. Shawn got angry at the smallest things, unpredictably, and when it happened you just had to ride it out like a passing storm, wait for him to calm down, then continue where you had left off. It was another reason (along with his obsessive interest in physics) nobody wanted to hang out with him. He had a fiancee for awhile, maybe a year or so, it was before Toby knew him very well, but she got tired of him, or tired of something, and finally she left him, left town, left her life. The latest word was she had found Jesus and moved to Duluth to live with other people who had found Jesus. Shawn didn’t talk about it much. But he spent more time in the Tip Top after it happened, and Toby got to know him because, after losing his job and going on unemployment, he was spending quite a bit of time at the Tip Top himself. He didn’t have anything else to do. In a roundabout way, having time on his hands was why he had brought up the Corealis Effect. He had the time to take baths now, instead of showers, and time to sit in the tub and watch the water drain away after he had pulled the plug, time to study the motion of the water. Only when all the water was gone would he get out of the tub.

No big deal, either of them, either way.

The old man was muttering to himself, about something that had happened in the game he was watching, and Shawn got sucked into the game for a few minutes himself, watching it with the old man. When he re-emerged into reality, he continued with his lecture.

“Theoretically, it works. With no other influences. If the world were a perfect sphere, and all the bathtubs in the world were perfectly round, and the all the drains in all the tubs were perfectly round, and all the pipes beneath the drains were perfectly round, well, then, yeah, all the water in the southern hemisphere would flow clockwise and all the water in the northern hemisphere would flow counter-clockwise.” He paused. “Unless you were in the tub. Then it wouldn’t work. You’d have to be out of the tub.” He paused again. “And the drain would have to be in the center of the tub.”

He paused a third time, trying to come up with more exceptions to prove his point, but the pause turned into silence. Toby watched the game. Somebody got a base hit, the ball traveling straight out over second base before curving into left field as it fell, and, echoing the hit, there was a sharp crack of the eight ball going into the side pocket of the pool table, behind him. Toby looked out the window, expecting another collision, and sure enough, right on cue, a mini-van slid around the corner and slapped into the Pinto. Two for two. Shawn turned around to look at the accident, and when the van pulled away from the scene, he said, “The bathroom floors would all have to be level too. You know, in the bathroom. In order for things to work right.”

Toby was trying to picture Shawn’s theoretical bathroom in his own mind. It was perfectly level like it was supposed to be, and everything was white, everything sterile, and not just the tub was round, the whole room was round, and the whole house surrounding the bathroom was round as well. It would be nice to live in a house like that, Toby was thinking.

“Those Pintos blow up, you know,” said the bartender, bringing Toby another beer, unasked. “I saw it on 60 Minutes, years ago. The gas tank in the wrong place. Some car rear ends a Pinto, the gas tank blows up, everybody dies.”

“I’d like to see that,” said Shawn, looking out the window. “That would be cool.” Toby looked out the window at the Pinto, wondering how cool it would actually be. His thoughts kept returning to the comforts of living in a round, white house, out in the middle of nowhere, on a level plain. In the center of the house, there would be a round bathroom. In the center of the room a round bathtub, and in the center of the tub a round drain, and underneath the drain a round pipe, heading straight down, into the ground, to the center of a perfectly round earth. The glaring inconsistency in all this symmetry was Toby himself, even though it was Toby’s image, his fantasy, his creation. He couldn’t take himself out of the picture. He couldn’t picture the bathtub without himself inside it. Watching the water go down the drain between his feet, like he did at home, in the real world, wet and naked. He had to watch the water as it drained away.

“Hey, look,” said Shawn. Toby looked, half-expecting to see the Pinto go up in flames, but instead he saw the bartender, smiling broadly, triumphantly staring down at the creation below him, a shot glass full of Kahlua balanced upside down on a shot glass full of milk, with a credit card between them, separating the liquids. As he slowly pulled the credit card out from between the glasses, just a bit, the Kahlua began to flow into the milk, forming small, graceful tendrils below it, like roots. The milk mimicked the action of the Kahlua, gliding into the upper shot glass at the same rate, forming similar patterns, flowing tendrils like the limbs of a tiny, perfect tree.

“Congratulations,” said Toby.

“You missed your calling,” said one of the guys playing pool.

“You’re the David Copperfield of liquor,” said the other.

“Home run!” said the old guy at the end of the bar. The first thing he had said out loud all day, and everyone turned to look at the ball as it traveled over the fence. As the baserunners slowly turned the bases, circling the perfect square formed by the bases, first to second to third to home. Then one of the guys playing pool broke, the cue ball slashing into the triangle of colored balls at the other end, all angles and spin, collision and reaction. The balls scattered, bouncing off the sides and each other, a couple going down into the pockets, and Toby thought of water going down drains, no rules, no guiding principles, just going down the drain any old way it wanted, as random and unpredictable as the appearance of snow in April. He looked to the window again, expecting to see a collision, go three for three, but that didn’t happen. Instead, a bewildered man in a tattered suit walked out of the building behind the car and walked over to the driver’s side door. The Pinto was clearly his car. He stopped, looking at the series of dents along the side of the door, one blending into the other. He looked very confused. No explanation as to what had happened to his car. No reason. No rules. He just stood there, in the snow and rain, wearing a beat-up suit, staring at the beat-up side of his car, trying to understand. Toby was tempted to go out there and explain it to him, but it was warm in the bar, and cold outside. Toby knew the guy would probably figure it all out for himself, eventually, if only he stood there long enough.

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