When I finally visit Hugh Everett, it’s 1982.
We sit down and pahnah pours himself a glass of sherry and lights a cig before asking me about the purpose of my visit.
We’re in Hugh’s bedroom. He’s sitting on his bed, in full suit and tie, taking deep drags from his cigarette. I take a seat in a chair next to the window.
I tell him I want to hear about his theory. This isn’t true. I know his theory well.
“Well, not a theory,” he tells me. “Not proven.”
On the street outside the house, a car is stuck in time. A woman sings along with the car radio, her mouth open just slightly, frozen. In the back seat a little girl sleeps, her lungs in the midst of a lazy intake of air. They will both be stuck like this for as long as I’m here.
I smile. “Tell me about it anyway.”
• • • •
It’s 2008, and I’m on St. Thomas sitting under the big tree outside the auditorium at Charlotte Amalie High. One of my boys comes up to me and tells me that Cory’s gotten pantsed from some dude from Ghettos because he walked through their hall without permission. They have the whole of Building B looking at my little brother’s drawers and laughing.
When I get there, Cory’s running around in X-Men briefs he got in sixth grade. Don’t even ask me why he let Mom get him X-Men undies in sixth grade or why this pahnah is still wearing them. The Ghettos crew is throwing his pants around. They’re laughing as he runs to catch them. Real original shit.
I come up and immediately start taking these dudes down, and I mean hard. I clock a few before they really catch on, but when I turn to get the dude that’s actually holding Cory’s pants—Wham!
My legs turn to noodles under me, and I fall face-first to the ground. Later people tell me I looked like that dude from Punch-Out!!.
I wake up in a hospital bed with a massive headache and a fire in my ribs that keeps pulsing. Cory’s sitting next to the bed, just staring through me. Known him all his life, and that empty look he gets still trips me out.
“I’m sorry,” he says when he realizes that I’m awake and looking at him.
“What you doing wearing X-Men briefs in high school?”
“I like X-Men.”
I’m not joking. That’s what he tells me. “You can like X-Men,” I tell him, “but that don’t mean you have to cover your balls with them.”
“Campus security had to pull them off you.”
“They should’ve gotten their fat asses there when those dudes were messing with you. Who’s gonna pay for all of this?”
“Duh Mom’s pissed.” My jaw throbs through the words. My left eye is puffy and leaky. “Where she at?”
“Outside on the phone.” Cory stares off at God knows what.
“You got to man up, B.”
“Can’t let these dudes keep punking you like this. And as you can see, I can’t always save your ass.”
He starts crying.
“You can’t be serious, dread.”
He tries to stop, but that just makes his body shake harder. “I’m sorry,” he says, heaving through the words, drooling all over himself.
“That’s what I talking about right there. You can’t be doing that in front of people, mehson.”
He heaves. He drools.
“Hey,” I say. “Just promise me this ain’t gon’ happen again.”
He nods. “I promise.”
For a moment I swear the room looks different. I close my eyes and rub at my temples, disoriented. Inside my eyelids is a lightshow of colors.
Mom’s livid when she comes back in. Because of the concussion they have to keep me there overnight. “I’m tired of all these fights,” she tells me.
“Don’t look at me,” I say. “Tell Cory to stop being a little girl.” I feel like I have been rolled out by a rolling pin, my insides a flattened mush.
“Don’t say that,” Mom says. She gives me the don’t-test-me look, and I shut up real quick. I glance over at Cory, who’s quiet, his head lowered, staring into his lap.
“Remember your promise,” I say.
• • • •
In the late nineteenth century, J.J. Thomson does an experiment that proves to everyone that electrons are particles, and they give him a Nobel Prize for his work. Thirty years later, George Thomson, the dude’s son, does a similar experiment and proves that electrons are waves. They also give him a Nobel Prize.
“Ask some physicists and they’ll tell you that that sums up the great mystery right there,” Hugh says. “But there’s also the two slit experiment.”
How it works, Hugh tells me, is you shoot electrons at a slab with only one slit and a detector screen behind it. The screen ends up looking pretty much like what you’d expect; the electrons form a slit-like splatter on it.
But shoot at a slab with two slits and the electrons go fucking nuts.
“It’s as if the electron, faced with that extra slit, decides to explore all options,” Hugh says. “It superimposes. It becomes a wave of possibilities.”
If you attach a camera to try to record which slit the electron actually goes through, the electrons become particles again. Two slit-sized splatters show up on the screen.
“The act of observing electrons affects the outcome,” Hugh says. “That shouldn’t be possible.”
It’s not just electrons; other subatomic particles ignore Newtonian laws. They teleport, superimpose, and disappear. They run off cliffs and forget to fall.
Upon witnessing the complete lack of fucks given by the quantum world, physicists collectively lose their minds. How can they reconcile reality with what they are seeing? Many of them, in desperation, entertain solipsistic ideas. If the world of tiny objects can disregard Newtonian physics, then how can we tell for sure that reality isn’t just a product of our imagination?
“Of course what becomes the official explanation,” Hugh tells me, “isn’t far from just that.”
Enter the infamous Niels Bohr.
Bohr won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. He modeled the atom. He is brilliant and highly respected, and when he tells a room full of people his theory, they listen. They listen so hard that Bohr’s ideas hold the field hostage for decades.
His idea is this: The world is separated into two, our physical macro world that we pretty much understand and the quantum world where shit just happens. When we are not looking at subatomic particles, they exist as waves of possibility: wave functions. When we observe them, the wave collapses, and they become particles. It is pointless to try to figure out what subatomic particles are doing when we are not looking at them and that is not our job as physicists.
“Another way of putting it is this,” Hugh says. He is animated now. He has put down his glass of sherry on the nightstand next to the bed. His cigarette is resting in an ashtray. “When we observe subatomic particles, we are changing their very nature.” He laughs.
It surprises me that Hugh curses.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics becomes dogma with a capital D. Dudes crazy enough to question it—or worse, come up with alternatives (ha!)—face the ridicule of the tribe.
“I didn’t stand a chance,” Hugh says. He closes his eyes for a moment, and the world is still like death. He’s a painting of himself, quiet and tortured. Then he opens his eyes and looks at me. “Who are you again?”
• • • •
It’s 2009, and I’m graduating from high school with a bruised body and a bruised ego. When I walk up on stage to get my diploma, someone yells out KO Cally and I have to pretend I don’t hear the entire auditorium/basketball court erupt in laughter.
After graduation, I work at K-mart to try to save up for UVI, and then I stay on in the fall, deciding that I haven’t saved enough, spending way too much money going clubbing and going to the office (me and my boys’ codename for the strip club).
In tenth grade, Cory starts taking boxing lessons down at UVI and before long he is running laps up and down Waterfront, punching the air like he’s Apollo Creed. I’m hating, but the boy is actually pretty good. Starts competing in some local matches and actually wins a few of them.
“Don’t think I still can’t kick your ass,” I tell him.
He just smiles at me, all cocky. “You mean like them dudes from Ghettos?”
What could I say? He had me mum there.
Around then Cory gets into girls, and I mean big time. Surprises the hell out of me. Dude trades in his Marvel undies for Calvin Kleins and girls seem to dig his weird mix of nerd and badass. I get jealous and start taking lessons too for a hot minute, but I don’t climb the ladder like he does. That stuff is for some people, you know? But I would have never guessed it would be little Cory messing up dudes.
That isn’t the only thing either. I come home one night after a hard day at K-mart (fucking K-mart, man! Jesus . . .) and I smell Cory burning cahn in his bedroom. The weed’s just wafting out into the hallway.
I knock on his door and pahnah tells me, “come in,” like he’s been expecting me or something. I open up and I see him spread out on the floor smoking and watching Sixteen and Pregnant on MTV.
First of all, Sixteen and Pregnant? The fuck?
Secondly, this is the first time I’ve ever seen Cory do anything he isn’t supposed to be doing, so imagine my surprise. I just stand there staring at him.
He looks up at me and says, “You gon’ just stand there? Come and take a hit.”
I close the door and sit next to him, and we pass the joint back and forth. We watch the show together and talk on breaks.
After a while, I turn to him and say, “So this is how you moving now?”
He smiles. “Yeah.” He passes the joint to me.
“I see you,” I say.
I soon decide that I’ve had enough of lounging around in my mom’s house with a dead-end job. I’ve finally saved up enough loot to really do something with myself, so I enroll at UVI and move out of my mom’s house, and I take up a second job at the school, filing and answering the phone in the financial aid department.
By then Cory is in eleventh grade and has made a minor name for himself. He’s still a mid-level boxer, but he is stacked and intimidating. He starts cutting class and taking girls up to the house during school hours. Mom comes home sick one day and finds him in the house with some girl, and he has to run out half naked as she chases him around the yard with a belt.
“What about the girl?” I ask him later.
“Mom almost beat her, too,” he says, and we laugh together.
A month later, Cory has a big fight set up with this dude named Antonio from Croix. Cory is feeling himself way too much, saying all kinds of shit about the boy. I couldn’t blame him. Up until that point, the Cruzan hadn’t been doing so well. It seemed obvious that Cory would be taking home the win. Cory tells people to come out and witness the carnage. Tells me I should see how it’s done.
Cory gets knocked out in the second round.
The haters descend quick. Cory becomes the butt of endless jokes. “Living up to the family name,” one of his friends says. Cory doesn’t take any of this well. He hides out in his room and lights up all day. He tells Mom to mind her business when she tries to intervene. He cuts class constantly. Spends most of his time running from hall monitors and hiding out in the back of the special education building smoking.
“Take it easy, baby bro,” I tell him.
“Don’t think I can’t handle you,” he warns.
“You mean like Antonio?”
Dude pounces on me, throwing punches. I can’t dodge them, so I run. “Calm down, dread,” I yell.
Cory doesn’t listen to me. He spends the rest of that year driving his grades into the dirt. When I ask him how he’s going to get into college, he tells me he’s joining the military. And he does. After he barely graduates, he goes to basic training and is off to Afghanistan within a few months. Mom gives him the silent treatment up until he leaves, but it doesn’t stop him. On his day of departure, she begs and begs.
“Don’t worry about me, Mom,” he says. “I’ll be all right.”
• • • •
It’s 1955, and young Hugh’s hanging with friends drinking and smoking at a cocktail party at Princeton. The room is thick with smoke and conversation. It’s late, and Hugh is drunk, so he’s talking loudly.
“You have to know what you’re saying,” Hugh says. “You must know how ridiculous this interpretation is.”
“It makes sense to me,” says Harvey.
“Me too,” says Charles.
Hugh thinks. It is hard because his head is swimming like he’s underwater. “What if the wave doesn’t collapse?”
“What?” Charles and Harvey say together.
“The wave of possibilities. What if it goes on forever, but we just can’t see it?”
“Sit down, friend,” says Charles. He looks at Hugh, concerned. “And put down your glass. It’s doing things to you.”
“What would that even look like?” Harvey asks.
“The other possibilities would have to go somewhere,” Hugh says.
“Where?” Harvey asks.
“Oh,” says Charles, “you definitely sound like a physicist now.”
They all laugh. I laugh, too, because the joke is corny as hell. None of them notice me.
Hugh steadies himself on his legs. He feels euphoric. “Schrödinger’s cat!” he yells. He looks to his friends for confirmation, but they just stare incredulously. “Look, I am made of atoms! If atoms can be in more than one place at once, why can’t I?”
“Please, Hugh,” Harvey says. “Are you saying one of you isn’t enough? Jesus, to even imagine a wave of you . . .”
They laugh again. I roll my eyes. They drink some more, and the conversation drifts on to other things.
The next morning Hugh wakes up with a hangover and the answer. He pulls out a notepad and begins scribbling furiously.
“That’s the night it first comes to me,” Hugh tells me in his bedroom back in 1982. “The universal wave function.”
I consider telling him that I know, that I was there, but it would only confuse him. He’s already forgotten asking me who I am.
So I just nod.
Hugh smiles; he sips sherry from a glass that will never run dry. Not as long as I’m here.
• • • •
Cory doesn’t seem that different when he comes back from overseas. He is quiet, but he has always been quiet when he’s not pelting you with sarcasm. Looking back, though, I find meaning in those silences; they seem dark and threatening.
For the first two weeks, he spends a lot of time in his room. I come by Mom’s house to visit, and we hang out and watch movies. We talk a little, but he doesn’t have much to say. I ask him what he did over there and he tells me that they mostly built infrastructure. I ask him if he killed anyone and he says no.
“It was boring. Can we watch this movie?”
After that, I stop asking.
During the next two weeks of his leave, he goes out every night. He meets a girl named Keren, and for that last week I see him out all the time with her. I catch them at the movies or over by Fat Turtle or at Starz Night Club on Friday and Saturday. He nods and I nod, and then I go about my business.
Then he is gone again. This time for a few months. When he returns, he tells me that he has been discharged.
“You sick?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. And before I can say another word, he says, “It don’t matter, anyway. Now I can be around for my baby girl.”
“No, my baby,” he says.
“When the fuck did that happen?”
Cory actually looks offended. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I tell him that babies are expensive and he should have been more careful. He tells me he is a grown man and that he can take care of his responsibilities and who the hell was I to tell him anything about his life. When I tell him I am his big brother, he laughs at me.
“You haven’t been that for a long time, biggest.”
That hurts my feelings. I’m thinking: After all the ass whoopings I gave on your behalf, you gon’ turn around and say something like that to me? I tell him, “Well I hope one of a’you have an actual place to stay, because Mom’s not gon’ have you raising no damn child in her house.”
I get up to leave, determined to wipe my hands of the matter. When I’m at the front door, I catch a glimpse of myself still sitting on Mom’s couch. “What?” I blink. When I open my eyes there’s no one there.
• • • •
In 1955, Hugh begins his paper: The Theory of the Universal Wave Function. The pages stack up. He shares the idea with his thesis advisor, John Wheeler, and he is both excited and apprehensive. On one hand, the logic is sound. On the other hand, it will be very unpopular.
Around this time, he meets Nancy, his future wife, at a physicists’ party. He is charming, and Nancy is fun-loving and passionate, and they hit it off. Nancy helps him type up the final draft of his dissertation and he submits it to Wheeler.
“Prepare to make waves,” Wheeler says with a chuckle.
“I hope,” Hugh says.
In the meantime, Hugh and Nancy get married. Soon after, Nancy’s belly begins to swell. She gives birth to a baby girl, and they name her Elizabeth.
The waves do not come. Wheeler takes off to Copenhagen to get some buzz started on the idea. He comes back discouraged. He calls up Hugh and tells him the news. Hugh listens quietly.
“Sometimes it is like this in the beginning,” Wheeler says. “It’s not so bad.”
“Yes,” Hugh says. He cannot bring himself to say more.
A couple of years pass with nothing. Hugh begins work at the Pentagon, a big money job with the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group. He makes a name for himself analyzing the possible effects of nuclear fallout.
“I did things at that job I still can’t talk about,” Hugh tells me.
In ’59, Wheeler calls Hugh and tells him that he should go to Copenhagen himself.
“It’s a shot in the dark, Hugh,” says Wheeler. “But maybe if they hear it from you . . .”
Hugh smiles reluctantly. “Maybe.”
“Take the wife,” he says. “It’s a beautiful city.”
So they go. Hugh meets Bohr and they talk over the course of several afternoons. The conversations do not go as hoped. There is a lot of talk. Hugh explaining, Bohr listening. Bohr responds with mumbling half completed sentences before getting up sporadically to go relight his pipe.
“You see, uh, the particles all continue to exist equally in other universes,” Hugh says.
“Well, yes, yes, that makes some . . . I am sure that it could if these other . . . But again, this can’t be proven, Hugh. We would need . . . and there’s also space and time to consider, well, yes, if these universes are superimposed. You say the math is consistent, oh, give me one second while I light this. Terribly sorry. It’s a novel idea but—oh, why do these burn up so quickly. Just one moment. You’re very smart, but like I said before. Impossible to prove.”
“I was right,” Hugh says defensively. “I was right!”
“You were,” I say absently. And then I change the subject. “Tell me. Your wife and daughter. Do you love them?”
• • • •
Mom does end up kicking Cory out, but not for the reason I thought. It is 2011, my last semester at UVI, when he calls asking if he can live with me. He is breathing all hard like he’s in a panic.
“Mom finally kicked you out, huh?”
“You gon’ help me out or what?”
“Why she kick you out?”
I hear him take in a deep breath before answering. “She found something in my room.”
“Something like what?”
There’s a pause, a heavy quiet. “Weed.”
“Oh yeah, dummy. That’ll do it.”
“You gon’ help me?”
I want to say, “So now you calling your big brother, huh? See how you almost burn this bridge?” But I don’t say any of that. I say okay, and then the next day I help him move in his stuff. The semester before, I quit K-mart and started working at the university full time, moved out of the dorms and got a spot up Contantside. I’m taking night classes to finish up school. The apartment is a one-bedroom, but I’m thinking about getting a two when the lease is up, if Cory plays his cards right.
Cory takes the couch for a few weeks. I start seeing this girl named Mona I meet down by Frenchtown, an expat from L.A. I spend a lot of nights over by her house and tell Cory he can have the room when I’m not around.
When I come home for a few nights, I have to kick him out of the room. His girl Keren comes by with baby Gina and they lie around in the living room and watch TV. Sometimes I overhear them arguing, but those first months it seems like normal couple bullshit.
One day I am cleaning, and I find a little glass vial in the crevice of the couch. I stare at it bewildered. What is this?
I look at it a bit longer and then I walk into the kitchen and throw it in the trash.
In that moment, the room around me shifts and gleams like sun hitting glass. Then I see another me sitting on the couch, staring at the vial in his hand. He places it on the table.
Moments later, Cory walks in. “Hey,” he says, and it sounds like two of him is speaking at the same time.
I feel suddenly dizzy, so I lean against the kitchen counter. I close my eyes and behind my eyelids is a kaleidoscope of dancing colors. When I open my eyes again, the other me is gone, and Cory is staring at me.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
I wipe sweat from my forehead. “Nothing,” I say, but I can’t stop shaking.
• • • •
It’s 1974, and I’m watching Hugh’s seventeen-year-old daughter Liz push green peas around on her plate. She looks up at Hugh suddenly and says, “Would you fucking stop that already?”
“Elizabeth,” her mother says, and she looks to Hugh.
Hugh doesn’t look up.
“You,” says Liz, “Hugh Everett the Third.”
He looks up.
“Stop writing in that stupid fucking notepad.”
There is a flash of surprise in Hugh’s eyes. Is it interest? I can’t tell. His mind is completely blank. “You’re right,” he says after a moment, and he pushes the pad and his pen to the corner of the table and begins eating the now cold food in front of him.
“So my day was shitty,” Liz starts, looking at her father.
“Language,” Nancy says.
“Ms. Rita gave me an F for my paper. All I said was that I hated The Grapes of Wrath. I was just being honest.”
“Oh really,” says Nancy, suspicious. “What was it about?”
“Too boring to remember,” Liz says with a wave of her hand.
“Oh, Liz,” Nancy says, exasperated.
Hugh has lost interest in the proceedings. He has returned to a well-worn path in his brain. It’s the most logical option. How could they not see it? Idiots. All of them.
Liz takes a deep breath and leaves the table, not even bothering to pick up her plate. “Maybe tonight,” she says as she heads down the hall.
Nancy’s eyes look down to Liz’s plate. The macaroni has barely been touched. The meatloaf forms a depressing pile next to a scattered bunch of peas. Liz could have at least eaten the meatloaf.
She could leave tomorrow, Nancy thinks. She could leave this loveless marriage.
All the while, Hugh’s still thinking: It’s perfectly logical. The fuckers. The fuckers.
A few weeks later, Nancy finds Liz hunched up in a ball next to the toilet. She turns her over and sees an empty bottle of sleeping pills. I’m there, standing at the doorway unseen, tears in my eyes. I think of that glass vial, think of myself not saying anything.
Nancy calls the ambulance.
When Nancy returns home from the hospital, she sits in the car, her fist cupped under her chin, staring at the purple sky. For a long time she just replays the scene of Liz lying on the floor. Then she notices the living room light is on.
Nancy goes inside to find Hugh in his chair reading Newsweek.
“Where were you?”
“Work,” he says, and there is no hint that this is a shitty answer. “Is she okay?” he asks, a slight tremble in his voice that Nancy doesn’t notice.
“They had to pump her stomach,” Nancy says. She stares at Hugh. He isn’t looking at her. His eyes are still buried in his Newsweek. She doesn’t notice his trembling hands.
“I’m going upstairs,” she says.
“Upstairs,” he repeats.
Nancy walks to the stairs.
“Did you know?” he asks, stopping her.
“That she was depressed.”
Nancy is thinking, yes, but she doesn’t answer.
“I didn’t know,” Hugh says.
There is a universe where a bolder Nancy walks over and grabs Hugh by the shirt and tells him that he is worthless, and a liar, and of course he knew, of course he did, if he was fucking paying attention at all. But in this one, Nancy stares at Hugh until he returns to his Newsweek, and then she climbs the stairs.
• • • •
Mom must be happy we are both out of the house, because she starts seeing this corny dude named Daryl from Dominica. She ends up pregnant with twins. Twins in her mid-forties! But I’m happy for her because she didn’t have much of a love life since our dad exed out when we were kids. You get your happiness where you can find it, even if it’s with a corny dude named Daryl.
Me and Cory end up getting that two-bedroom. Cory’s having a hard time holding down a job, but after graduation I’m able to get a cushy one on Main Street, selling jewelry, so I’m not giving him a hard time anyway. Every few months, though, he gives me a big wad of cash.
“What I owe you,” he says.
And for the next couple of weeks I watch him sideways.
Keren comes over a lot, and before long, it is like she is living there. I wake up in the middle of the night to the baby crying and Keren in the bathroom sitting on the toilet with the door wide open. She looks up at me with sleepy eyes, and I back up and wait for her to finish.
I go over by my girl Mona most weekends and leave Cory and Keren with the apartment. I carry work clothes for Mondays with me and then go home Monday nights.
One of those Monday nights, I come home and I hear yelling from Cory’s room. He has some rock music playing, Metallica or some crazy shit, but I can hear Keren yelling and baby Gina crying. There is a loud crash, muffled in the music, and then Keren sobbing. I knock on the door and Keren and Cory get really quiet inside. The door opens, and the music stretches itself loud and menacing into the hallway. Keren, in a shirt and panties, brushes past me, tears in her eyes, and goes into the bathroom and slams the door. Cory’s sitting on the bed with baby Gina, his eyes bloodshot, drenched in sweat.
“Everything all right?” I ask.
He looks up at me as if just noticing me. “Yeah, we cool.” And then he goes back to zoning out. Gina is still crying, but he doesn’t seem to notice that either. He just keeps rocking her.
• • • •
“Parallel universes are troubling,” Liz tells Hugh. “If any universe can exist, then what is the value of this one?”
It’s 1976, two years after Liz’s overdose.
Hugh smiles at Liz, suddenly attentive. It is the middle of the night, and they are both having trouble sleeping. They are sharing one of Nancy’s apple pies. Liz clinks her fork against her empty plate, unsettling bits of piecrust. She waits for Hugh’s reply.
He loves to talk about his idea. She knows this. In these moments, she can be his daughter.
“All universes are valuable to the people living in them,” he says. “They have to find meaning in the choices they’ve made.”
“But how does choice matter if you can literally make all of them?”
He thinks for a moment. “Only the possible ones. Only the ones you would make in the universe you are in. Universal laws and human behavior still apply.”
“Still,” she counters. “What decides the choices I will make in one and not the other?”
Hugh cuts himself another slice of pie. He should stop—it’s his third piece—but he cannot help himself. “Different things. Some outside factors. Some bits of knowledge you have in one universe and not another. Whims. Crises. Luck. All sorts of things.” He siphons off a piece of pie with his fork and brings it to his mouth and chews.
Liz watches him intently.
“We’re all blind,” he says when he is finished chewing. “Take solace in that. Choice comes first. Meaning comes later.”
• • • •
In 1982, Hugh is glaring at me. “What?”
“Do you love your wife and daughter?” I repeat.
“Of course I love them,” he tells me. “Why would you ask me something like that?”
“Because we are alike,” I say. “Men like us,”—I stare directly into his eyes—“we are oblivious to our fuck-ups. With you, it is your obsession. With me—” I don’t finish the sentence. I get up and walk around the room. The light coming in from the window illuminates the bits of dust in the air, frozen, like us, in time.
“I didn’t come here to hear about your theory,” I continue. “Not really. I thought it would help me understand what’s happening to me. But it won’t.” I walk over to him. Hugh looks uneasy now. I’m close, so close he could reach out and touch me if he wanted to. “I’m here to tell you about things you won’t get to see. I’m here to tell you how it ends.”
• • • •
It isn’t the shakes or the strong chemical scent that clings to him or the skipping of the showers. It isn’t the smell of something burning that I catch a whiff of when I come in the apartment. It isn’t his insomnia or the sight of him pacing in the middle of the night. It isn’t the bloodshot eyes or the weight loss. It isn’t his inability to keep a job.
I think he’s smoking. I think he’s drinking. I think he’s depressed and isn’t taking care of himself, dealing with shit from over there he has never told me about.
But one night I’m sitting in the living room, watching Fresh Prince, when Keren comes in with Cory. Baby Gina isn’t with them. Keren has a split lip and fresh tears on her face. She keeps her head down, her body convulsing softly. That’s when I know. All the signs coalesce in my mind as something solid and certain.
“What the hell,” I say. “Where you get that?”
It is the smallest glance over at my brother. He glares at her with wide eyes. I’ve known my brother since he was shitting his diaper and I’ve never seen him look like that. Didn’t know he could even make a face like that.
“Baby bro,” I say, “where she get that?”
“Don’t know. Bitches be clumsy.”
He grabs Keren by the arms and pushes past me.
“Are you on drugs?” I ask. Any other time in our lives and this question would be a joke.
Cory takes Keren into the room and shuts the door. No words. No answer to my question. Only the soft voices on the TV set and the darkness. Will cracks a joke. The audience laughs.
I stay outside in the living room and wait for someone to leave the room. It is a long wait. The lights of the TV make long shadows on the walls. And then I hear the door creak open and someone slip into the dark hallway. Keren comes out and sits right next to me, as if she knew I was waiting for her.
“How long?” I ask her.
We sit and stare ahead at the screen. It’s one of those silly infomercials they play in the middle of the night. A woman in black and white struggling with her large oven juxtaposed with another woman in color, smiling with perfect teeth, using one of those tiny rotisserie ovens with some person’s fancy signature on it.
“You should leave him,” I tell her.
“What if he doesn’t let me?”
“Then you do what you have to do.”
After that, I see Keren one more time in the apartment, and then I stop seeing her. Cory spends a lot of time pacing around the house, muttering to himself.
“It’s for the best,” I say. “Take it easy.”
He ignores me. He listens to Rush so loud the neighbors come by. He cries a lot. He has shouting matches with Keren’s mother on the phone. A cop comes by the house to talk some sense into him.
“If you go by her apartment again, we will have to arrest you,” says the cop, Keren’s cousin.
More pacing. More muttering.
And then, out of nowhere, Cory takes a shower, irons some clothes, and goes out for the first time in forever. Gets himself a haircut, thank fucking God. Even starts looking for a real job instead of whatever the hell he was doing with his time.
He comes back one afternoon with one. Guess where? K-mart.
It’s looking good, though. Cory starts helping with the rent regularly. He keeps his hair trimmed. He puts back on a little weight. I feel confident enough to leave him alone in the house. I go over by Mona on weekends again. I come back and the house is clean. Pahnah even starts cooking, elaborate dishes he’s seen on the Cooking Channel.
It’s a beautiful couple of months. We sit and watch movies. We talk like the old days. He still keeps the whole military business to himself, but I’m fine with that. I feel like I have my brother back. He reads books again and goes on and on about society, the nature of humanity and the concept of the soul. Every few days I hear him in his room muttering, but I’m hopeful. He looks like he wants something better for himself and I want that, too.
• • • •
Three months after the whole Keren thing, I come home and there’s Cory, on the couch, eyes bloodshot, a glass crack pipe on the table, burnt on one end. I know what it is now.
When I come in, he immediately starts yelling. That Keren is seeing some guy. That she has him around his daughter, and he doesn’t want some random pahnah around his daughter, etc. I throw the crack pipe in the trash and then sit with him, letting him rant and rave for a half hour.
And then I tell him, “Come on, baby bro. Get some sleep. We will deal with this in the morning when you calm down.” I tell him that the worst thing he can do is go over there angry and get himself arrested. I remind him about the cop. I tell him that the only way he will get all this straightened out is if he focuses on himself right now, getting clean.
He nods. “It’s hard,” he says.
“I want my family,” he says.
I look at him long and hard. “Then get your shit together.”
I sit with him until he goes to sleep, and then I get up to go to my room. On my way out of the living room, I look back at my little brother. Cory is lying on the couch, but there’s someone in the chair where I was sitting. I feel dizzy. I lean against the wall. I rub at my eyes, fractals of color dancing behind my eyelids. When I open my eyes, the person is gone. I take a deep breath, wait for my nausea to pass, and then I go to my room.
When I get up in the middle of the night, Cory is gone.
Later I hear that Cory went down to Keren’s house. He was high and angry and delirious. He called out her name several times, yelling this and that, hitting the doors and windows with a metal pipe he’d found, breaking a few. After about a half hour, the guy Keren has been seeing opened the door and shot Cory in the chest. When the ambulance arrived, he was already dead.
So it fucking goes.
Mom calls me up and I listen to her cry for an hour, and then I go over by the house, sit in the kitchen with her and Daryl and the twins, and I eat day-old johnnycakes and saltfish. Every few minutes, Mom looks up to the ceiling and says, “Lord, give me strength,” her face filmed with tears.
We bury him next to our grandparents on my mother’s side. The service is long. Mom cries hysterically. I hold her back from lunging at the casket. “Oh Lord,” she screams. “Oh Lord.”
Keren doesn’t come to the burial. Mom tells her to stay away. I wait a few months, and then I go see Keren and Gina. I hold my niece for what feels like the first time, kissing her forehead. Before, I saw her as something separate from myself, not my business, but now she feels like something to keep close. She seems impossibly happy. She smiles and blushes at my kisses. After a while she gets squirmish and I let her go. She runs off down the hall to her room.
The entire time Keren is sitting by the door, head lowered and quiet.
“I am not judging you,” I say.
This frees a well inside her, and she cries openly. After she’s done, she looks up at me. I can hear Gina watching cartoons in her bedroom, the sound of cheery music and voices with smiles in them.
“How could this happen?” she says. She recoils as if she has said something wrong.
“I don’t know,” I lie. “These things just do.”
• • • •
It’s July 18, 1982; Liz is doing dishes, and her father is at the kitchen table. It is late afternoon. Liz is wearing a long-sleeved shirt to cover the needle tracks. It’s been a few months since her last relapse. Her skin burns for it. Doing chores helps.
Liz looks up from the sink and tells Hugh she is thinking of getting a band together to record some music.
“You should,” Hugh says, and it seems genuine. There is a smile on his face, his cheeks rosy from the sherry.
“Did you ever want to be a musician?” she asks him.
“Oh no,” he says, smiling. “That is not how I was made.”
They laugh. It’s just the three of us in the house. Nancy is out shopping.
“You should do it,” Hugh says encouragingly.
That night Liz and Nancy go to the movies. Before she leaves, Liz looks back for a moment to see her father lying with his back to the TV. The volume is all the way up and blaring at the back of Hugh’s head.
A universe exists where Liz walks back in and checks on her father, and a whole set of different quantum moments ensue. But in this one, Liz and Nancy leave because they don’t want to miss the movie.
When they come home later, Nancy finds Hugh lying on the bed, in full clothes, one shoe on. His other foot is naked and hanging off the edge of the mattress. Hugh looks like wax, his cheeks absent of color. Nancy tries to wake him. She slams her fist down on his chest. She yells. But there’s no life there. This Hugh is dead. Soon his atoms will displace, find new homes, and he will be lost to the other Hughs, irretrievable.
The paramedics come and cart Hugh away in a body bag. Nancy stands in the doorway, shaking.
Liz doesn’t watch this part. She sits at the table in her father’s chair, and she idly flips through an issue of Newsweek. In another universe, Liz can think back and see many instances where she has touched her father, and the past, though painful to look at now, is filled with warmth. But you’ve sensed the pattern by now. In this universe, Liz can’t remember a single moment in her life where they ever touched.
They cremate Hugh’s remains and Nancy keeps his ashes for a while before emptying them in the trash as Hugh wished. In the following years, Nancy dies of lung cancer, likely caused by secondhand smoke from Hugh’s cigarettes.
Liz continues to struggle with depression and addiction. On July 11, 1996, she tries to kill herself again. This time she succeeds. She leaves a note saying she wants no religious nonsense. She wants her body burned, her ashes sprinkled into a nice ocean or lake somewhere. Or the trash.
Maybe that way I’ll find the right universe to be with daddy.
Only after Hugh is dead does he finally become famous. People excavate his life like a ruined cave. But they do not find him there. Only his absence.
• • • •
After Cory dies, the episodes get worse. Throughout my day, I’m plagued with mirages of other worlds, cars appearing out of nowhere, buildings bursting into existence and vanishing again. Strange people in my kitchen, walking down the halls, shitting in my toilet. And Cory, lying on the couch, holding his daughter, watching TV with Keren, cooking gourmet meals in the kitchen, filling dishes with food I’ll never eat again. And others me’s, walking the halls at night, opening the fridge, crawling into bed next to me, crying in the dark.
I get all dizzy, and when I close my eyes, behind my eyelids are spots of color, spinning and blurring together, and I have to sit down so that I don’t fall over.
In my dreams, I’m falling through an endless void, filled with distant whispers and splintering constellations of rainbowed light.
It takes months to figure out what I’m looking at and even longer to navigate it, to turn the pages, to descend into color streams and follow their currents, to run off cliffs and forget to fall.
I beat myself up for not figuring it out sooner, when it would have mattered. The regret is bottomless.
I learn the rules. I can visit people. I can stop time. I can listen to people’s thoughts. I can ask questions and people can’t lie about the answers. People can only see me when I want them to. I am like the shadow dislodging from the wall, an absence. I’m not meant to be a thing that makes sense.
What I can’t do is change anything. I can’t change the course of history. I can’t make it so that things work out. Every universe exists complete from the start. It’s all already happened.
When I tell Hugh what will happen to his family, he cannot speak. He murmurs. He sobs. He tries to put on his other shoe, but can’t. It is impossible for him to put on his other shoe. He is dressed to take himself to the hospital, but he won’t make it.
In my universe, Hugh has two sons, but I can’t visit them. I can only visit other worlds. Yet these parallel universes feel more real than the one I wake up to each morning. My waking life feels like short breaths alternated by vastness. The spaces between breaths are where I live now.
As Hugh reaches again for his shoe, I observe him with an expression of pity. For him and me and the ruin we are helpless to change. “You won’t remember me,” I tell him. “It is probably for the best.”
And then I disappear. I become the thing between things again. I watch time start again and I see him, confused for only a moment, return to where he was when time stopped, back to standing over his left shoe, the tears gone from his eyes. He stumbles for his shoe, but a pain catches him and he sits on the bed. And then his heart explodes.
• • • •
There are universes where Hugh lives.
In one, he is in his house remembering the night when his chest felt like it was going to burn up inside him. Liz finds him and gets him to the hospital in time. The doctor tells him his arteries are clogged and that he has to make some changes. It is hard at first and he is stubborn, but he reminds himself about how it felt to be so close to death and he climbs that hill.
He sits on the old couch with his granddaughter. Liz finally settles down with a guy too boring and too stupid for Hugh to really like, but he has a steady job and that’s enough, Hugh thinks. So much better than what she was up to before.
Liz stops in and shares her music. Hugh thinks it’s awful and melancholy, but it’s his daughter, and he’s proud that people call her E and show up to hear her play. Nancy had a cancer scare a few years back, but she pulled through. There’s not a lot of time left for either of them. They’re old and sickly from the years of bad decisions. But they’re here for now. He looks down at his granddaughter Helen. She’s four, and she’s staring at the TV with sleepy eyes that remind him of his mother’s.
There’s also a world where Cory doesn’t die. Where I come home to him high on crack in the living room and I don’t go to bed. A world where I don’t wake up to hear that he went to his baby mama’s house banging on the windows and threatening murder, where her new beau doesn’t come outside and shoot him through the chest.
“I want my family,” he tells me.
“Then get your shit together,” I say.
I stay out in the living room with him. We talk. He’s angry but he’s also tired and before long we’re both mumbling in the dark, him on the couch, me on the armchair, and sleep hits us hard. We wake up. He makes breakfast, some delicious ass pancakes and scrambled eggs with the right amount of cheddar, and we hang out all day and play Smash Brothers and I utterly destroy him.
That night we go out to the club and he meets a girl and he dances all night. I look across the dance floor and I see her tongue in his mouth. They leave together.
“You gon’ be all right, baby bro?” I ask as he’s heading out.
He just gives me that smile like, come on, B, of course, and I let him go.
It doesn’t last for them, but it is enough. His mind is off homegirl long enough to realize that he doesn’t need her to be the one and only. Tons of fish in the sea. He spends time with his daughter. He focuses on becoming a father. On her tenth birthday, he buys her an iPhone and he fights with her mom, but it is civil, like a dance they do once in a while to reconnect.
He doesn’t pick up that shit again. Every once in a while he wakes up and he can feel lightning crackling under his skin, but he calls up his little girl, just to hear her voice.
“Daddy, it’s early,” she says, annoyed and half-asleep.
“Just calling my girl to give her a kiss,” he says, smiling. “You too old for my kisses now?”
“I’m sorry,” me and Gina say together, her voice bright and cheery, mine tinged with sadness.
He never hears me, though I’ve been here many times.
This is where I return to: my piece of heaven and hell, my always-open wound, my little snatch of infinity.
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