The Loneliest Man on Earth

Alfred Worden walked into a bar one night. It was almost completely deserted--at 1:30 a.m., the majority of the crowd had moved on or gone home. With the low lighting, jacket-and-tie dress code and quiet piano music in the background, this bar wasn't the kind of place people usually wound up around last call.

Though the room had seating at bar and at various candlelit tables for close to a hundred, only a handful remained, clumped into groups of two or three--a couple at a corner table who seemed to be enjoying the night a little too much to remain in public, a small group of businessmen at another table, laughing at what Worden knew to be a dirty joke.

But Worden was drawn to the man at the end of the bar, nursing a glass of whiskey with his eyes fixed on the copper-plated bar counter. As the strains of "Con te Partiro" tinkled over the piano, Worden strolled over to the end of the bar and sat down. The stranger looked up, his hair tousled, tie loosened and eyes dull and vacant.

Worden smiled. "You okay, pal? You look like the loneliest man on Earth."

The man shrugged and finished his whiskey. "I don't know. It feels like that sometimes," he said. His English was seasoned with a South American accent, one that Worden couldn't place.

"How so?"

"I find myself all the time in hostile territory, isolated, trying to protect something very important from men who will stop at nothing to take it away."

"What are you drinking?"

"Knob Creek."

Worden flagged down the bartender and ordered a weapons-grade bourbon for his new friend and a martini for himself. "So what ails you?" Worden asked.

"This spring," he said after taking a sip of his drink, "I came to Philadelphia for work. They had an opening, and the man I replaced was extremely good at his job, and extremely popular. They brought me in and gave me the job instead of two younger men they'd been grooming for years."

"Do you feel resented?"

"No. Not at all, at least, not at the beginning, but as we started work...I do a very specific job. The man I replaced was sort of a jack-of-all-trades, but I'm not him. I know that. They know that. So what I do is go out in advance of the team and try to establish a presence. Usually it's against tremendous odds, and not everyone in our industry works this way, but we do. It's not advanced, but it can be effective, and we're kind of a straightforward group of guys."

"I'm following."

"So in order for this to work, I go first, but I need support. And quickly. If no one shows up to help, I'm screwed."

"Why is that?"

"I'm alone, in hostile territory. And our thinking is so reactive, so defensive-minded, that the boys don't come out of our own territory to help."

"So what happens then?"

"I get beat up, lose what we came there for in the first place, and we have to start all over."

Worden nodded and sipped his martini. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.

"No."

"My name is Alfred Worden. I was the command module pilot on Apollo 15."

"You went to the moon?"

"Yes, but I didn't land. I was the guy they left in orbit."

"That sounds lonely."

Worden shrugged. "At my farthest point, I was more than 2,000 miles from the nearest human being. Never before or since has one man been so far from civilization. On the way home, I completed the first deep-space EVA--I left the capsule, tens of thousands of miles from the nearest planetary body, traveling at tens of thousands of miles an hour. I know what lonely means."

The stranger's jaw dropped. "How did you cope?" he asked. "I'm never more than a few dozen yards from my support, but it feels like I'm going to suffocate out there all alone."

"I had constant contact with the other astronauts, and with Earth," Worden said. "And I knew they'd be coming back."

The stranger nodded gravely. Worden raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong, son? Help will come at some point."

"I don't have that faith," he said. "Every time I'm up there alone it seems like no one will ever come to help. And you know the worst part?"

"What's that?"

"We could organize ourselves differently. We fail because we're timid. I don't need to go up there alone, but they send me out there, by myself, day after day after day. It's not smart, Mr. Worden, and it's not safe, but they keep sending me."

Worden patted the man on the back. "It will get better. You're good at this, right?"

The man shrugged. "We'll never know. It's tough to do anything substantive when you're alone, outnumbered, in hostile territory, and there's no telling if help will come, or if it does, what form it will take."

"That sounds awful."

The man turned suddenly to face Worden, his eyes widening now, and bright with madness. "It is. You have no idea."

The lights went up at the bar and the bartender rang the bell to signal last call. Worden reached into his pocket, peeled off a few bills and left them on the bar to cover himself and his new friend. "So what can you do?"

"Nothing. We keep dashing ourselves against the rocks. It's a disaster, and there's no change on the horizon."

Worden was speechless. "You really are the loneliest man on Earth."

The stranger smiled the grim half-smile of a man who, if he didn't wish for death, wouldn't turn down a helping if it came. He straightened his tie, thanked Worden for the drink, and put his wrinkled suit jacket back on, prepared to return to his life of thankless isolation.

"If I don't make it back next week," he said. "Make sure I'm not forgotten."

Worden was stunned. "But I don't even know your name."

He turned. "My name is Lionard Pajoy. I'm a forward for the Philadelphia Union."

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