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Towards the End of Time

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Towards the End of Time

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Author: John Updike
Publisher: Random House, 2009
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate/Parallel Universe
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Ben Turnbull is a sixty-six-year-old retired investment counselor living north of Boston in the year 2020. A recent war between the United States and China has thinned the population and brought social chaos. The dollar has been locally replaced by Massachusetts scrip; instead of taxes, one pays protection money to competing racketeers. Nevertheless, Ben's life, traced by his journal entries over the course of a year, retains many of its accustomed comforts, as supervised by his vibrant wife, Gloria.

He plays golf; he pays visits to his five children and ten grandchildren. Something of a science buff, he finds his personal history caught up in the disjunctions and vagaries of the "many-worlds hypothesis derived from the indeterminacy of quantum theory. His identity branches into variants extending back through history and ahead in the evolution of the universe, as both it and his own mortal, nature-enshrouded existence move toward the end of time.


i. The Deer

First snow: it came this year late in November. Gloria and I awoke to see a fragile white inch on the oak branches outside the bathroom windows, and on the curving driveway below, and on the circle of lawn the driveway encloses--the leaves still unraked, the grass still green. I looked into myself for a trace of childhood exhilaration at the sight and found none, just a quickened awareness of being behind in my chores and an unfocused dread of time itself, time that churns the seasons and that had brought me this new offering, this heavy new radiant day like a fresh meal brightly served in a hospital to a patient with a dwindling appetite.

And yet does the appetite for new days ever really cease? An hour later, I was exhilarated, clearing my porch and its single long granite step with my new orange plastic shovel, bought cheap and shaped like a scoop and much more silkily serviceable than the cumbersome metal snow shovels of my childhood, with their sticky surfaces and noisy bent edges. Plastic shovels are an improvement--can you believe it? The world does not only get worse. Lightweight, the shovel hurled flakes sparkling into the still air, onto the bobbing leucothoë in the border bed. There had been bloated yews there, planted by the previous owner beneath the windowsills and over the years grown to eclipse the windows and darken the living room. My wife, the dynamic Gloria, commanded men to come and tear them out and plant little bushes that in turn are getting increasingly shaggy. Nature refuses to rest.

The transient sparkles seemed for a microsecond engraved upon the air. The weathervane on the garage, a copper mallard in the act of landing--wings lifted, webbed feet spread--pointed west, into a wind too faint to be felt. The snow was too early and light to summon the plowing service (our garden-and-lawn service in its winter guise), and I hadn't even planted the reflector stakes around the driveway; but that inch evidently intimidated the FedEx truck driver, for at some point in the quiet morning a stiff purple, orange, and white FedEx envelope appeared between the storm door and the front door without the truck's making its way up the driveway. How did the envelope--containing some bond slips I was in no hurry for--get there? By the time I walked, in mid-afternoon, down to the mailbox, a number of trucks and cars, including one cautiously driven by my wife, had passed up and down. It was only when walking back up the hill that I was struck by--between the two broad grooves worn by tire treads--the footprints.

They were not mine. My boots have a distinctive sole, a mix of arcs and horizontals like the longitude and latitude lines on a globe. Nor could I match my stride to the other footprints--they were too far apart, though I am not short-legged, or unvigorous. But, stretch my legs as I would, I could not place my boots in the oblongs left by this other's passing. Had a giant invaded my terrain? An angel dropped down from Heaven? The solution eventually came to me: the FedEx driver this morning, not wishing to trust his (or her; a number are women, in their policelike uniforms of gray-blue) wide truck to the upward twists of our driveway, had dismounted and raced up and back. He--no woman could have run uphill with such a stride--had cruelly felt the pressure of time.

Yet, though I had solved the mystery, the idea of a visitation by a supernatural being stayed with me, as I clumped into the house and spread the mail, the main spiritual meal of my day, upon the kitchen table. Perhaps the word is not "spiritual" but "social" or "contactual"--since my retirement from the Boston financial world I go for days without talking to anyone but my wife. I have kept a few old clients, and transactions for them and my own portfolio are frequently handled by FedEx. I once enjoyed the resources of faxing and e-mail, but when I retired I cut the wires, so to speak. I wanted to get back to nature and my own human basics before saying goodbye to everything.

My premonition of the FedEx driver as a supernatural creature was not merely an aging man's mirage: creatures other than ourselves do exist, some of them quite large. Whales, elephants, rhinoceri, Bengal tigers, not quite extinct, though the last Siberian tigers perished in the recent war. Giraffes and moose, those towering creations, even flourish. Deer haunt our property here. Walking on our driveway, I sometimes see an especially bold doe in the woods--a big haunchy animal the dull dun color of a rabbit, holding motionless as if to blend into the shadows of the trees. The doe stares at me with a directness I might think was insolence instead of an alert wariness. Her heart must be racing. Mine is. When I say a word or make as if to fling a stone, she wheels and flees. The amount of white tail she shows is startling. Startling also are the white edges of her large round ears, which swivel like dish antennae, above the black, globular, wet eyes.

Gloria does not share my enchantment, so I do not tell her of these surreptitious encounters. She rants against these poor deer, who ate her tulip shoots in the spring and trimmed her rosebush of blooms in September. Who would imagine that deer would eat roses? My wife wants the deer killed. She gets on the telephone, searching for men with rifles or bows and arrows and an atavistic hunger for venison and the patience to stand for hours on a platform they will build in the trees; she has heard rumors of such men. So much projected effort makes me weary. My wife is a killer. She dreams at night of my death, and when she awakens, in her guilty consciousness she gives my body a hug that shatters my own desirous dreams. By daylight she pumps me full of vitamins and advice as if to prolong my life but I know her dreams' truth: she wants me and the deer both dead.

More snow, in early December. This morning, as I dressed to the shimmering, straining (what are they aspiring to? what Heaven awaits at the edge of their resolved harmonies?) violins of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, I saw a deer, looking like a large dark dog, curled up on the flagpole platform at the front of the lawn, toward the sea, with its snow-dusted islands. We have a majestic view, south and southwest across Massachusetts Bay, and the sight of the reposing deer was also majestic. I must have thought I was married to some other wife, to judge from the innocent enthusiasm with which I called the deer to the attention of my own. She became galvanized, rapidly dressing and urging me to follow her downstairs while still in my pajamas. "Just put on boots and a coat," she commanded.

Obedient, I yet thought of my years, my heart. Gloria makes my heart race, once with appetite, now with fear.

She raced to the closet under the stairs and from its hiding place there she brought her basket of my old golf balls. She keeps them to throw at the deer. When I had first protested against this waste she cited an article she had read, to the effect that golf balls lose compression within a few months of being unsealed, and balls over a year old are basically worthless. Outside we went, she in her righteous fury and shimmering mink coat, me in my pajamas and boots and old parka spouting goose down through its broken seams; but by the time we had trudged through the crusty snow around the side porch the deer, hearing us close the front door, had disappeared. "Look!" said my wife, the basket under her arm giving her the burdened, innocent air of a primitive gatherer. "Its tracks go everywhere!"

And it was true, one could see how the hungry animal, its innocence burdened only by the needs of its own sizable body, had gone from the yew bush by the rose bed to the box bush on the other side, from the box to the privet ball by the birdbath, and from the birdbath to the euonymus over by the driveway, not so far from our front door.

Among my minor conflicts with Gloria is an inability to agree which is the front of the house and which is the back: she thinks the side facing the sea should be considered the front, and I the other side, where the people park their cars and enter from the driveway. Perhaps the house has no back, but two fronts. It does not turn its back upon either visitors or the ocean breezes.

The poor graceful, bulky creature had nibbled only the merest bit from each bush, like a dieting banqueter sampling each course. I must have smiled slightly to myself--a mistake. "You don't give a damn," my wife told me, "but each bush would cost hundreds of dollars to replace." Like many of us past a certain age, she says "dollars" when she means "welders," the Massachusetts unit of currency named after a fabled pre-war governor, a rare Republican. She corrected herself. "This deer will do fifty thousand welders' worth of damage--then see how funny you think it all is." Whenever Gloria feels me balking, she pulls out the whip of money, knowing me to have been a poor boy, and in my well-padded retirement still tender with financial anxiety.

"Do I think it's funny?" I asked. I doubted it. Rapacity, competition, desperation, death to other living things: the forces that make the world go around. The euonymus bush once had some powder-blue irises beneath it, but its spreading green growth, insufficiently pruned, had smothered them, even as their roots crept forward, damaging the lawn.

Copyright © 1997 by John Updike


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