Read an Excerpt
Toward the End of Time
By John Updike
Ballantine Books Copyright © 1998 John Updike
All right reserved.
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 leucothok 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 good-bye 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.
"Look how he kept shitting everywhere! Little puddles of shit!"
"Can't you say something other than 'shit'?" In our courting days I had been attracted to her way of saying "fuck" instead of a softer expression. "With deer, I think you can say 'scat,'" I suggested. "Or 'spoor.'"
Scornfully Gloria stared at me, not even granting me a moment's incredulous amusement. Her face was pink in the morning cold, her ice-blue eyes vibrant beneath a bushy wool hat that, set square on her head like the hat of a wooden soldier, is oddly flattering. Symmetry, fine white teeth, and monomaniacal insistence upon her own concept of order mark her impress upon the world. Hunting and tracking and plotting an enemy's death become her, like fur at her throat. Before we were married I, still married to another, bought her a black cashmere coat trimmed in bushy gray fox at the collar. The middle-aged saleswoman exclaimed, "How great that looks on her!"-sublimating her hope of making the sale into the simple rapture of a shared vision. It was a blessing of sorts; she connived in our adultery. I yielded up fifteen hundred dollars as painlessly as emitting a sigh.
Gloria asked sharply, "Can you tell by the tracks which way he went?"
The deer had seemed to me clearly a large doe, but to my wife, in her animus, the creature was a "he."
For my own sanity I had to resist this inexorable, deer-pitched tilt the universe was taking on. "What does it matter? Into the woods one way or another," I said. Some of the woods were ours, and some belonged to our neighbors.
"It's important to know," Gloria said. Her pale, nearly white eyes narrowed; her killer instincts widened like nostrils to include me in her suspicions of a pervasive evil. "If he had been still there, shitting all over our hedge, would you have helped me throw golf balls?"
"Probably not," I admitted. My time on Earth is getting too short, gradually, for lies.
"Oh!" Her disgust couldn't have been more physical if I had held one of my turds-a sample of my own scat-up to her fair pink face. "You want him to destroy everything. Just to get at me."
"Not at all," I protested, yet so feebly the possible truth of her assertion would continue to gall her.
"If we got a gun, would you shoot it then?"
The cold air was sifting through my pajamas. The morning Globe was down by the mailbox, waiting to be retrieved. "Probably not." Yet I wasn't sure. In my youth in the Berkshires, those erosion-diminished, tourist-ridden green hills, I had handled a .22 owned by a friend less impoverished than I. There had been a thrill to it-the slender weight, the acrid whiff, the long-distance effect.
She sensed this uncertainty, and pried into it the wedge of her voice. "The homeowner can, you know. Out of season or anything, as long as it's on his property. Shoot any pest. That's the law."
"I'd be scared," I told her, knowing it would sting, "to shoot a neighbor. Talk about money, honey-what a lawsuit!"
That night, we planned to go to bed de bonne heure, to make love. In our old age we had to carefully schedule copulations that once had occurred spontaneously, without forethought or foreboding. Before heading upstairs, she said, "Let's look out the window, to see if the deer has come back."
The yard was dark, with the thinnest kind of cloud-veiled moonlight. My wife saw nothing and turned to go up to bed. Once I would have given all my assets, including my body's health and my children's happiness, to go to bed with her, and even now it was a pleasant prospect. But, damn my eyes, I saw a black hump sticking up from the curved euonymus hedge, whose top was crusted with hardened snow. The black shadow moved-changed shape like an amoeba in the dirty water of the dark, or like some ectoplasmic visitation from a former inhabitant of our venerable house. "Honey, he's eating the hedge," I said softly.
My wife screamed, "He is! Do something! Damn you, don't just stand there smiling!"
How could she know I was smiling? The living room was as dark as the front lawn with its ghostly herbivore.
"I'm calling the Pientas! It's not too late! It's not even eight-thirty! I'm going to borrow Charlie's gun! We've got to do something, and you won't do anything!"
The Pientas live fifteen minutes away. Louise is a Garden Club friend of Gloria's; Charlie has that Old World-peasant mentality which loves the American right to bear arms. He owns several shotguns, for ducks mostly, and my wife, having hurled herself and her teal-blue Japanese station wagon into the dark, brought one of Charlie's guns back with her, with a cardboard box half full of ammunition. The church bell down in the village was tolling nine. "I'll prop it right here behind the armchair," she said, "and we'll keep the bullets-"
"-shells on the bench in the upstairs hall. Charlie does that to keep children from putting them together."
We were in too jangled a mood to attempt love; we read instead, and then kept waking each other up, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Though she is younger, her bladder is graciously weakening along with mine. It was still dark when she woke me in a voice between a tender sexual whisper and the whimper of a terrified child. "Ben! He's eating the euonymus again! Hurry! I've assembled your socks and boots and overcoat."
I had been dreaming of photographs, of life-moments that were photographs and had been placed in a marketing brochure for a mutual fund that called for them to be reduced to the size of postage stamps, though they were in full color. I couldn't quite make them out. My children by my former marriage? Their children? I was a grandfather ten times over. I wondered about the printing costs and determined to report my reservations to Firman Frothingham, then one of my colleagues at Sibbes, Dudley, and Wise given to such unseemly wooing of the general public. As Gloria insistently woke me I realized, with a twist in my stomach, that I was retired and this brochure was not my problem. I said, hoping to smuggle out my truth-telling wrapped in a blanket of sleepiness, "I don't want to shoot any fucking deer."
"Not shoot him," she pleaded, "shoot over his head, so he gets the idea we hate him. Oh please, darling, hurry!"
She rarely asked anything so heartfelt of me, not since we had managed, twenty years ago, amid many social impedimenta, to marry. With much of me still immersed in my warm, puzzling dream, I found myself outdoors in the pre-dawn murk, holding the shotgun, which I had with difficulty, drawing upon ancient boyhood memories, broken open and loaded with a Remington shell.
But by the time I got around the house, the front (or back) door opening noisily and the snow crunching at every step, the deer had vanished. A pile of fresh scat made a dark round spot on the snow by the euonymus hedge. Inside the house, her voice pathetically muffled and dwindled by the double glass of window and storm window, my wife was rapping the glass and shouting, "Shoot! Shoot!" It was like the voice of a cartoon mouse in a bell jar. Involuntarily a smile of sadistic pleasure creased my face. The peace of the gray morning-dawn just a sliver of salmon color above the lefthand, eastward side of the sea's horizon, beneath a leaning moon-was something sacred I didn't want to mar. And I didn't want to shock my sleeping neighbors. We own eleven acres but from the house the land stretches in only two directions. The Kellys live just a wedge shot away, on the other side of a wide-branching beech, and the Dunhams a solid three-iron down through the woods toward the railroad tracks, and Mrs. Lubbetts in the other direction, a good drive and then perhaps a five-iron drilled straight toward the sea. I trudged around, willing to shoot over her head if the doe showed herself; but the 360-degree panorama was virginally quiet, except for the pathetic racket my wife was making inside the house, trapped and muffled in her fury of frustration. If I by some mad quantum leap of impulse wheeled and fired at the living-room window, there would have been a mess of broken glass and splintered sash but likely no clean fatality.
"You bastardly coward," she said when I went back inside. "You didn't do anything."
"I didn't want to wake up the neighbors."
I noticed, uttering this remark, a certain oddity within myself, a displacement of empathy: I could empathize with the sleeping neighbors and the starving deer but not with my frantic wife and her helpless hedge. "That euonymus hedge," she amplified when I voiced this perception by way of apology, "can't run or hide; it can only stand there and be eaten."
Just as she, I thought, was helpless to do anything but attempt to direct and motivate me: ferocious female nagging is the price men pay for our much-lamented prerogatives, the power and the mobility and the penis.
Julian Jaynes thinks that until about three thousand years ago men went about in a trance, taking orders direct from the gods. After my wife went off to work-she still works, in a gift shop of which she owns a third, while I languish about the house, writing these paragraphs now and then as if by dictation-I did dutifully keep a lookout for the deer. She didn't show all day, beneath a dull sky lackadaisically spitting snow. But at dusk, walking down to the mailbox, I saw her-up by the flagpole, in the corner of my eye, the shadow of a ducking head. Did I see or imagine her alert sensitive ears and questioning stare? I scrambled up the path by the rock-face and saw her bounding away in that unhurried, possessive way that animals have, leaping to lift her legs from the crusty snow, down past the garage into the woods on this side of the railroad tracks. I write "possessive" to convey the air of spiritual adhesion to the earth, of her guiltlessly occupying the volume of space needed for her blood and innards, her musculature and fur.
Galvanized, obedient to the dictates my wife had planted in me like tiny electrodes, I ran inside and got Charlie Pienta's gun and, my heart drumming, cocked it open and slipped in a green-jacketed cartridge of buckshot and cracked it shut. I went outside. I hadn't walked around with a gun since I toted that borrowed (from my best friend, Billy Beckett, whose father worked in a sawmill) .22, squeezing off shots at tin cans and perching birds. One bird, at what it thought was a safe distance, dropped like a stone from its branchlet and when I went up to it I had taken off its head, clean, leaving a fluffy ball with wings and a chickadee's dapper black and white markings.
I have no declared appetite for killing, but sensing the deer somewhere in the blue-tinted dusk, conscious of me as I was conscious of her, was more exciting than anything I had done lately, including making love to Gloria. She is still handsome, with her crown of ash-blond hair, and dresses with a beautiful trim sternness, but there is no faking that tight lean knit of a young woman's body. Her instructions, which I was following as blindly as Assyrians in the time of Hammurabi followed Ishtar's, had been to scare the deer with a blast.
I had the mail under one arm-bills and catalogues and a few early Christmas cards-and the gun under the other when there she was, suddenly, standing sideways in the driveway, closer to me than the chickadee had been fifty years ago. I slowly set the mail down on a bare spot (the snow melts first on the black asphalt) and then straightened and aimed the shotgun ten feet above the frozen silhouette's back (it was a good direction, there are no neighbors that way for a quarter of a mile) and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing. The trigger felt welded fast. The safety catch was on. Trembling but not panicked, I examined the unfamiliar gun and found no catch, just the flip lever to uncock it, and at last realized I must set the hammer with my thumb. Though there was no noise, my haste and frustration must have generated a scent that communicated itself to the deer, for with a burst of astonishing easy vigor she bounded over the wall there-low on the driveway side, with an eight-foot drop on the other-and on into the deer-colored woods. I fired, blindly, into the mist of the dusky trees where she had vanished. The noise was enormous-flat, absolute-and the kick against my shoulder rude and unexpected. For what seemed a full minute there was a faint pattering in the woods, like sleet, as the buckshot settled and dry leaves detached by the blast (the oaks and beeches hang on forever) drifted to the cold, hushed earth, the forest floor whose trackable paths and branchings were sinking beneath the rising tide of darkness. My mail glimmered on the driveway like white scat.
Gloria, coming home, was thrilled to hear that I at least had fired Charlie Pienta's gun. She kissed me with a killer's ardor. After dinner, thus rewarded and stimulated, I checked the yard just in case, and, sure enough, against the snow I saw the deer's hungry silhouette nibbling at the round privet bush by the birdbath. I lifted the loaded, cocked gun and fired, high, but not so high that I didn't think that a few pellets would sting her flank. To my amazement the deer didn't move. She just kept nuzzling the bush, chewing its outmost leaves, like a wife ignoring your most vehement arguments, having heard them before. It was only when, at last sharing my real wife's indignation, I moved toward the deer as if to throttle her with my hands or beat her with the gun butt that the creature, with a shadowy surge of her extended head, loped off, as if awoken from a trance.
As my reward for coming over to her side against the deer, my wife offered to make love to me in any position I chose. I like it when she lies on top, doing the thrusting, and also it is bliss to fuck her from behind, with no thought of her own orgasm. But by the time we went to bed, after dinner and the network news and a glance at Channel Two, and did a little reading-Scientific American for me and for her the competition's Christmas gift catalogues-we were both too sleepy to act upon our new rapport. Outside, in the dark, a wobbly patch of life upon the blue snow, the deer perhaps browsed, her soft blob of a nose rapturously sunk in the chilly winter greenery, her modest brain-stem steeped in some dream of a Cockaigne for herbivores.
"Perhaps": the word is like the little fork in reality when a quantum measurement is made. Each time that we measure either the position or momentum of an elementary particle, the other specific becomes, by Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle, unknowable. The "wave function" of the particle collapses. Our universe is the one containing our observation. But, some cosmic theorists aver, the system-containing the particle, the measuring apparatus, and the observer-continues to exist in its other possible states, in parallel universes that have branched from this moment of measurement. The theory is called that of "many worlds." It is intellectually repulsive, which does not mean it is not true. Truth can be intellectually repulsive. From the same verifiable quantum formulations arises the possibility that our universe, born from nothing, was instantly boosted, by the gravity-reversing properties of a "false" vacuum, into an expansion so monstrous that the universe's real limits lie many times beyond the matter of which we can gather evidence with our farthest-seeing telescopes.
My wife's two sons, Roger and Henry, and her daughter, Carolyn, with Roger's wife, Marcia, and Carolyn's husband, Felix, have come for Christmas. It is nice to have the big old house trembling with other footsteps and the murmur of multiple domestic discussions. The rooms, even to the third floor, are permeated by the scent of woodsmoke from the fire the boys keep going in the living-room fireplace, which my wife and I rarely use. We just want, after dinner and the news, to get upstairs to bed. Often we are in our pajamas and nightie by eight o'clock; we have made a joke of it-"Damn it, you won again!"-as if it is a sporting event, the race to bed. But in fact we are in a more serious race, to the death. Which of us will die first? We look each other over every day, appraising the odds. I have given her five years' handicap, but two of my grandparents lived to ninety-hill folk from up near Cheshire, tough as beef jerky. When my mother died, and her meagre heirlooms descended to me, I gave the squinting, thin-lipped photographic portraits of her parents to the Pittsfield Historical Society. But I have never been back to see if they are hanging on the wall.
By Christmas all but one of Charlie Pienta's shotgun shells were used up in scaring off the deer, but still she kept coming back, nibbling, at dawn or dusk, when the snow was blue. Snow that falls this early is slow to go away; it sinks in upon itself and hardens. Despairing of my effectuality, my wife through her network of Garden Club colleagues reached a young man from Maine who had grown up hunting and who loved venison. Slim and politely spoken, he came and stood in the driveway, listening to Gloria's tale of cervine persecution. Even though hunting season had passed, he promised to come back the day after Christmas and see what he could do. He drove a tomato-red pickup truck, a Toyota. She confided to me that he seemed too much of a boy to do the job; she wanted her hunter to be big and grizzled-a twin of me, with a less oppositional character.
We had to attend a Boxing Day celebration provided annually by an English immigrant we knew. We asked my stepchildren and their mates to stay in the house, lest they be shot. We made nervous jokes about not wearing deerskin and pulling in their horns. Throughout the Boxing Day lunch-lamb, creamed broccoli, pear tart-we envisioned carnage, which robbed the food of taste. But when we came back, around four-fifteen in the semi-dark, all was quiet. There were the tracks of truck-tire treads in the driveway but no pickup and no trace of blood in the snow. Our five guests were gathered safely around the fire in the living room reading their Christmas books. Marcia-who is so like Carolyn, with the same shiny brushed brown hair, straight nose, aristocratic brow, and confident candor of expression, that I keep forgetting who is Gloria's daughter and who her daughter-in-law-looked up and, with a trace of her Philadelphia drawl, twanged, "We never heard a shot. There was a lot of walking around looking very solemn, but no shots. Sorry, you two."
Again, it seemed to me we were on a certain branch of possibility, and there was another in which something had been killed, and then, ramifying, many things were killed, everything-a universe packed black with death. This universe, I saw as the log fire settled with a flurry of sparks, was one that we were all certain to enter. We must have sinned greatly, at some juncture long buried in our protozoic past, to deserve such a universe. I devoutly wished that there was not this cruel war between the deer and my wife.
"Isn't that the pits!" Gloria said. "That deer is always here at this time of day. I bet he scared it away with his show-offy dumb truck. I thought he looked too young."
"There were two men, Mom," Carolyn said. "The older one was the more committed. He walked all around the yard, into the woods, looking for deer clues." Yet another word nicer than "shit."
"Did he say he'd be back?"
It turned out that nobody had gone out to talk to him. We had told them to stay indoors-we had planted those electrodes in their heads-and they had obeyed.
Excerpted from Toward the End of Time by John Updike Copyright © 1998 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission.
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