The End of Everything
I have a job telemarketing for a carpet cleaning service. I sit in a bullpen of low cubicles, reading a script about our patented dry foam technique. It’s guaranteed, the other telemarketers joke: this foam is so dry, you’ll shit yourself. They smoke and make fun of customers on their breaks. The high school dropouts try to get me to buy them cigarettes so they can join in, but I don’t.
People are nicer to telemarketers than you’d think. Sometimes they complain about their privacy, my having barged into it. I suspect the word they’re looking for is aloneness, and because I feel bad, because it seems their only shot at release, I let them rant until they’re ready to hang up.
This one woman, though. She said we should all go to jail for bothering people at dinnertime. I told her I killed someone with my sister’s car and that was a lot worse. I didn’t qualify that it was actually Eva because you can’t get into that sort of thing on a sales call. Wanda gives me a hard time for saying things like that, but she doesn’t know what it’s like.
I visit Wanda on Sundays, the only day I’m not at the call center. It’s a relief, not having to read that script, even though it would mean inflicting a Sabbath Day nuisance on the housewives of Wake County. The gamma ray burst of horning in. They wouldn’t talk to me about Jesus if I called, though. It is a documented fact that the foulest mouths in the area are in Cary, where well-to-do young mothers will call you a cunt for interrupting their kid’s birthday party.
My coworkers track all that verbal abuse on a dry erase board in the call room. You get one point for crook, two for bitch, three if there are genitals in the cuss. Anything sick or original, like snatchmaggot humpweasel, gets ten. If you piss enough people off, or you piss a few people off bad enough, you win lunch at Chili’s. Wanda likes hearing who’s in the lead, the best insults of the week and such. She says I should participate, give things like that a chance. She thinks I’m down on myself.
“You a professor of temporal motherfuckin’ physics, Sherry. Don’t you forget it,” she says. She’s talking about the woman on the phone, who I told everything to, who’s threatened to get me fired.
She looks run down and queasy under the yellow fluorescent lights. When I was on her side of the glass, I thought visitors always had a look of contentment, as if they didn’t have problems, other than someone in here they had to visit. They came in all tan, wearing white shorts and baseball caps like they were headed to picnics after. It seemed cruel. My parents always looked like they’d gotten lost on the way to church.
“I am a physicist, Wanda,” I say. “I am not, for the moment, teaching anything.”
“That’s a load,” she says.
If my ex-husband, the thermodynamicist, were here, he’d say she was making a lot of sense. He always accused me of exaggerating, seeing plots where none existed. Why would the chair be out to get you, Sherilyn? Where’s the logic in that? The difference is he thought I was making things up, but Wanda can see I’m right. I imagine them in a room together, how that would go. Him, with those Buddy Holly glasses you want to knock off his face, fretting about the rug she’s flicked cigarette ash on. Had he mentioned it was handwoven by a Tibetan artisan? Her, knowing it came from Costco.
“It’s time to quit feeling sorry for yourself, baby,” she says, leaning across the table. She scratches her scalp through her Richard Simmons hairdo, which the bad yellow light is making into a halo. “Fuck fate, you know what I mean?”
I have wisdom on my side now, she means, I can avoid certain patterns. Not get in cars with Eva. She must know that’s not true, where she is. Prison is a temporal loop like everything else.
When we were kids, my parents were always cramming me and Eva together, hoping we’d learn to get along. They crammed us into the same bedroom and clogging troupe. On prom night, the night we could have died, they crammed us into Kyle McManus’s Trans Am. I guess you could say they only had themselves to blame. We tried to get out of it, being an embarrassment to each other, but the parental drive to have children who like each other is strong, so we lined up with our dates in front of the fireplace. I frowned and Eva looked out of it and Mother said, “Smile, for crying out loud,” as Dad took the picture.
On the way to the dance, Kyle kept putting Eva’s hand on the steering wheel while he lit up cigarettes, for the show of it. He’d take a couple of drags and throw it out the window, a waste of a perfectly good smoke. As they smoked and drove, they discussed a party they wanted to go to after the dance, someone’s parents rumored to be in the Caribbean. An improbability, but Kyle was certain there’d be beer. For a moment it was like Craig Snelgrove and I were watching one of those safety films from Driver’s Ed, the in-love joyriders driving fast in the rain, crossing medians, overcorrecting like it was going out of style.
“Kip and Muffin are about to learn a hard lesson…about responsibility behind the wheel,” Craig said, importantly. He smiled at me and patted the rectangle in his coat pocket, offering me another nip of peppermint schnapps. I took it, hoping he didn’t read this as a sign of movement in my thinking. There was another question hanging between us, whether I would live with him in the fall when we started at the state university.
I was running this experiment where I slept with him, just to see what happened. There was a lot of lying on my back afterwards, waiting for feelings to come, making careful logs of whether they did or not in my diary. Craig figured this meant things were official. He was trying to be accommodating and fun in the meantime. I laughed at the thing about responsibility, forgetting my plan to gut him.
Eva turned around in her seat. I could see her mind turning over and over for a way to eject us from the car. “We should drop them at the 7-Eleven,” she said.
“Yeah,” Kyle said, settling it. “How’d you like that?”
“Compared to dying of a head injury, pretty well,” Craig said.
When the car went off the road, it punched a hole in the chopstick factory’s fence. Eva and I sat in the grass, watching the boys silently panic, unable to disentangle the grill of the car. I wanted to tell her out of meanness that our dresses, hers turquoise taffeta, mine silver, were the only way Kyle could tell us apart.
She skootched close to me, her face right in mine. Beam was on her breath. “You have to help me. You have to tell them it wasn’t my fault,” she said. She had Kyle’s tuxedo coat around her shoulders, trying to look martyred, knowing the sky was falling. I was pretty sure my wrist was broken. She had a gash under her mouth, a smear of blood in the shape of an isoceles triangle on her cheek from when she’d wiped her chin with the back of her hand.
A few days later, Eva came out of the bathroom dressed in black, with one of those home permanents that make your hair look like you stuck your finger in a socket. The house stunk with chemicals. The whole thing was a protest of our parents’ ban on Kyle McManus, and of his bomber jacket having appeared on Laura Moseley that day. Eva seemed to fragment after that. We blamed Kyle for the frizzy perm and the fingernails bitten to the quick and Phil Collins played so loudly Dad took her tape deck away.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I glued sticks of balsa wood together into a tower for my AP physics project. Because of the cast, I could only use the fingers of my right hand, so I couldn’t get the force distribution right. The tower would violate a number of building codes. I’d blame Eva for any carnage that occurred.
She came in on a cloud of hair stink and opened the refrigerator. “What a mess,” she said into its open mouth. She emptied the fridge slowly, grouping each piece of food together by category on the floor: dairy, fruit, condiments, beverages, Tupperwared side items, each inside a separate square of linoleum.
“What are you doing that for?” I asked.
“It’s for you,” she said, “for after I’m gone, so you won’t ever have to wonder where anything is.” She looked up at me from underneath that hair cloud, her chin looking infected with black train track stitches across it.
“You haven’t been using that gunk the doctor gave you to put on your cut,” I said. “Your face is going to rot off.”
She said she hoped I would look at all of this and understand what she’d been trying to do for me my whole life. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the schnapps flask, laying it in the middle of the food. When I saw Craig getting into his father’s truck, I’d noticed that the rectangle in his coat pocket was gone. I thought he’d thrown the flask over the fence.
She circled the mess on the floor, like it wasn’t arranged quite how she wanted it. After a while, she threw up her hands in a surrender motion and walked out. I heard her on the phone a minute later, talking about her life being over, about Laura Moseley. I believe this was about the time the sane and insane branches of Eva’s personality finally had the guts to fork off each other. It has been a slow process, in action our whole lives. Sometimes I think she knew that after the accident things seemed to be speeding up.
A few years later, Eva dropped out of college to marry Donald Tucker. His father was our family’s dentist, and he was going into the business, too. I told him the story of the accident during the Christmas holidays, when she brought him home to show off her ring. I stopped at the part where the car hit the fence. In those days Donald was a sanguine orthodontistry student with a full head of hair, who used words that were older than him, like flabbergasted. He shook his head. Kids. So rash and unflossed.
“I bet that guy’s kicking himself for ever letting her go,” he said.
Our mother says we fought in the womb, like Jacob and Esau.
“Fighting over what?” I’ll say, not quite remembering the story. Something about goat stew.
“Who got the better spot. Who got to come out first. Whatever babies fight over,” she’ll say.
Twenty years after Kyle McManus’s car went through that fence, the cut on Eva’s chin was a white half moon scar. Her eyes were dinner plates. It had rained that day, so my wrist hurt. I thought, I wonder what happened to Craig Snelgrove? Did he ever find anyone else? Is he out in California, working at the volcano observatory, naming craters after me? I thought how funny he was compared to my husband, how he asked what I felt about things. I’d logged this in my diary, too.
Eva whiteknuckled the steering wheel, both feet on the brake. “I mixed them up. I mixed up the pedals,” she said.
“You did not,” I said.
The Piggly Wiggly checkout woman sat up on the pavement, waving the receipt for our mother’s birthday cake. A hummingbird cake, store bought because I don’t cook and Eva wasn’t supposed to use the stove. When we got out of the car, I told everyone that the woman ran out in front of us, I’d panicked and mixed the pedals up.
“My fault, my fault,” the woman apologized, as blood squirted into her brain. That night, she passed out in her driveway. Corn muffins flew out of a restaurant to-go box and went rolling around her like little UFOs. Her husband crouched beside her and whimpered, Oh, Lord, Kathleen, while a neighbor, who was certified in resuscitation, tried to revive her. For the moment, though, she was just waving that receipt. “We aren’t supposed to let people leave without their receipts. In case there’s a problem.” A man who resembled a young Michael Dukakis helped her up.
Eva stood beside me, patting her hairdo, looking at the scene like she’d just wandered into it. “I told you we should of got ice cream to go with the cake,” she said, too low for anyone but me to hear. She was going through a stage where she only whispered. “If we’d of got ice cream, this never would of happened.”
“Be quiet, Eva,” I said. I took the receipt from the checkout woman and told her to take care. As I headed toward the driver’s side of the car, I heard her ask if anybody had an aspirin, but no one did.
A year or so ago, I looked Craig Snelgrove up on one of the computers in the correctional facility’s Media and Technology Center. It was fancy for a jail library, with a circulation desk like starship bridge, an honest-to-God card catalog, all kinds of outdated books and periodicals to help the cons reverse their course in life. According to the internet, Craig was teaching earth science at a high school in Rochester, New York. His faculty picture on the school website showed him about sixty pounds heavier than he was when I knew him. He was smiling flatly, like the flash had gone off too soon, like things weren’t going okay at home and the photographer had coaxed him into marginal joviality. I preferred the volcano scenario. It was worth thinking about after Eva hit the breaks.
The thermodynamicist lectured me for getting in the car with Eva. It was December. He’d spent the morning inside my mother’s Christmas village, a rife urban sprawl of little ceramic buildings all over the house: general stores, churches, ice cream parlors set up on gold-flecked blankets of artificial snow. He didn’t understand the logic of that either.
“Where was the sense in that? The woman could have been killed,” he said. “What’s your takeaway from all this?”
“I should have learned to bake?”
When he didn’t laugh, I told him about Eva parking behind me in the driveway, how I’d offered to move the car for her but she insisted. He said I was making that up to lessen my feeling of culpability. We argued about that for a few minutes, and then I cut him a big slice of hummingbird cake to make him stop talking.
We’re still married, in the legal sense. A woman I know named Silvie, who writes grants for the university’s School of Natural Sciences, says that he has moved to Durham, where he lives in a loft with one of his graduate students. Silvie is my friend, so she doesn’t tell me the girl’s name, just that his application to fund a new heat exchanger was turned down.
It’s winter. I imagine the girl, longish chocolate-colored hair, capped with a crocheted beret. She has on those stretchy pants the twentysomethings wear now but is not quite slim enough for them. Her legs look meaty and soft beneath her pea coat. She wears no makeup because he prefers women that way. She needs some, though. Her face is a blank no-face, with eyes and a mouth that don’t stand out, the kind of face you forget instantly. She’s drinking out of a paper coffee cup. I imagine something silly in the cup, like a pumpkin latte, though for all I know she’s taking it black.
She’s just come out of one of the tobacco lofts downtown. He’s upstairs, gathering papers and books for a morning lecture, running late because they’ve taken the time to make love. He is good at sex. This is why she looks content and dreamy, sipping her drink. She knows nothing about me, the wife with the record. I decide her name is Karen or Andrea, something weak but not ditzy, so I can’t roll my eyes when he tells it to me.
When I call, she answers the phone. She sounds annoyed and congested, as if the call has woken her up, but my asking to speak to him dries her head fluids up.
“Who is this?” she asks.
“Sherry Cole,” I say, deciding just this moment to start using my maiden name again.
There are some passing-the-phone sounds, squeaks and bumps and a rubber cordstretching noise. She whispers “Who is that?” and he asks her in his normal voice to give him a moment. I wonder if this exchange will bring the age difference between them into relief, if this relationship can survive the news of me.
“Sherilyn.” I dislike being called Sherilyn, and he knows this. He told me once that Sherry is an aperitif, not a name. “We have some things to discuss,” I say. “Indeed,” he says.
The last time I saw him, he was sitting on a courtroom bench, looking disappointed. Not in the justice system, in me. He doesn’t believe in sacrificing oneself for others, in lying down on the tracks unnecessarily. He believes that equal and opposite reactions to fool choices are the natural order of the universe. What did you think you were saving her from?
“I hope you’re well,” he says. It seems like a cheap shot.
“I can come and go as I please, I guess.”
“You can or you guess you can?”
“Don’t split verbal hairs,” I say. “It’s an ugly quality.”
“I just wish you’d speak plainly. You’re always leaving these gray areas when you talk. It creates uncertainty for a listener.”
“That assumes you ever listen to people.”
I hear him swallow and then his breathing tapers off, and I fancy that he has turned to look toward the door, toward her. It’s another swallow before he speaks again. “Look, Sherilyn, I don’t have a lot of time here,” he says. “We’re going to this orchard, see.”
“Some orchard or other, what difference does it make? Kelsey enjoys that sort of thing.”
“That’s idiotic,” I say, meaning the orchard, but also the girl’s name.
“That is neither here nor there,” he says.
“You hate that kind of thing. You say it’s like paying someone to perform migrant labor for them.”
“I’ve never said anything like that, Sherilyn. It’s racist. Just stop.”
He wasn’t a bad husband. He didn’t cheat. He organized our finances on a special computer program, which enabled a savings plan and bills paid before they were due. About a year into our marriage, when we talked about children, I said I didn’t think I wanted any, and he said, Whatever you prefer. It’s your body. I was disappointed that he hadn’t fought for offspring with me but had to concede that this made him a decent man.
The weekend of the accident, we spent the three-hour drive to my parents’ house talking about the separation, how it should go into effect after the holidays were over. He did small annoying things the whole trip. He drifted onto the rumble strip as he talked about my research assistant, let the sunflower seeds he was eating fall onto the seat. He insisted on keeping the radio on smooth jazz, even though it meant changing stations each time we drove out of range. I let him because I felt bad.
We agreed on the terms of the separation. He said that he wasn’t stupid, that he didn’t deserve any of this. I said he was right, he didn’t, but that didn’t change where we were.
“I just hope that all of this has taught you something about how the world works, about your role in it,” he says. I can hear the girl’s voice in the background, saying something about lateness, I think.
“Are we still talking about the orchard?”
“Sherilyn, be serious, for Christ’s sake. You didn’t even stand up for yourself. Not once.”
I don’t say what I’m thinking, which is that Eva would not have survived any of the things that might have happened to her after she hit the brakes outside the Piggly Wiggly, when I was wondering about Craig Snelgrove’s marital status. Since Kyle McManus, I’d known that if anything truly bad ever happened she would collapse inward and explode, and we’d all be annihilated.
On the day of my manumission, Wanda helped me put my things into the vanilla pudding box the guard brought from the kitchen. As we packed, I reminded her what she said to me my first night. You look like you just shit a moon rock. You some kind of scientist? She didn’t like me, and told me so. I reminded her of this, too.
“I still don’t like you,” she said, wrapping the picture frame in one of my shirts.
The photo was of some of my undergraduates, from our trip to the particle accelerator right before I switched places with Eva. The kids went nuts, all those infinitesimal futures being created and fizzling out in front of us. Baby universes, the tour guide said. I searched for a metaphor, some kind of landscape to put it in for them—seizing opportunity, not being daunted by failure—but the moment passed when some of the girls became so moved that they cried and held onto each other. Girls these days always cry in groups.
As I snapped the photo, I thought, I should have the guide take one with me in it, but we were behind schedule. Our bus was about to leave without us. I settled for the shot with a Sherilyn-shaped void in the center.
Wanda lay the frame on top of the other things in the box. It was her way of saying goodbye. She wouldn’t let me put my arms around her because we could do that when she got out.
A few weeks before I got into the taxi with the pudding box, Donald sent me a letter, offering me a room with them on Nag’s Head. I know he feels guilty, but I also know he wants some help with Eva. My mother said I should have taken them up on it. Nag’s Head is nice all year, the least they could do.
I never answered his letter. Around that time, I was also getting a lot of letters from Eva, at least three a week. She said she had acquired a special kind of vision that let her see into the core of people. Donald was keeping a log of her movements in his head where she couldn’t read it, with the help of a cleaning woman who was reporting on her and missing her appendix.
On Easter Sunday, I tell Wanda I can’t see her, and Donald drives his yellow Jaguar all the way from the Outer Banks to the Bojangles on MLK. He sits down with his plastic tray and a paper sleeve of French fries that he doesn’t eat. I have a chicken biscuit that I don’t eat.
Every time I see Donald, he looks more like an orthodontist. His hair is thinning in half lives, the hair of someone who is good with needles and gas. I wonder if people with bad teeth see him in line at the bank and feel sudden, unexplained courage to improve their smiles.
He hands me an envelope with a check in it, a lot of money. I wasn’t expecting it, but I take it. He understands what I have done for them. This is not the last time it will come up. Six years from now, we’ll be at my mother’s funeral and he’ll say something about what the poor woman went through and Eva will look out of it, her white scalp visible because she has started pulling her hair out. Trichotillomania, the doctor will call it, on top of everything else. My new husband, the high school orchestra teacher who I met on one of my calls—we just got to talking, that living room/dining room special an unexpected segue into the cost of things these days, into life and the Republican party and the falling salaries of teachers in the public school system—he will nod like he understands but be thinking about Vivaldi.
“She’s been digging holes on the beach,” Donald says. “Deep ones. A kid named Austin fell in one of them and almost broke his neck. The mother’s threatening to take us to the cleaners. That’s all I need, it’s all I need.”
“What is she digging holes for?”
“Everything,” he says. “She said eventually everything there is is going to rush into one of them and collapse down to a single point and none of this will exist anymore.” He waves his hand in front of him, as if to indicate that this Bojangles would not escape the pull. “I told her that isn’t going to happen, but you know how she is.”
“It is going to happen, just at the end of time. And not on the beach,” I say.
Donald looks at me the way he looks at Eva. I tell him about the call center and Wanda and Craig Snelgrove and how since the moment our egg split, which the thermodynamicist always called The Big Bang, Eva and I have been moving away from each other at something close to the speed of light. When my students asked me how everything began, this was always what I thought about.