by M. M. DeVoe
When people ask, I say that I’m a physicist who serves on the board of a nonprofit science research agency headquartered in New York. This is true, basically. My area of expertise is parallel universes. At any given moment, I know all the things that ever did or might happen in a given location. For example: I travel to a small town in Texas; College Station, say, which is one of those crazy towns that sprang up in the middle of nowhere surrounding a university and then turned into a cultural center for people who appreciate landscape watercolors and classical or country music. I sit there at the corner of Farm Road 2818 and Wellborne Road in a rental car, some six-cylinder piece of crap with lousy shocks, and instead of four lanes of asphalt, black as burnt bodies, stretching to each corner of the compass, I see two dirt roads intersecting with a flashing red light above them. I see a 1965 station wagon with wooden sides approaching this intersection at the same time as a 1968 black-top Chevelle with whitewall tires, and then, while the lady behind the wheel of the Acura waves to me that my light has turned green, I watch the Chevelle blow through the stop sign and hear the crunch of metal as it rams into the front of the station wagon. All six of the passengers involved—two in the Chevy and four in the station wagon, three kids and their harried mom—are instantly killed. The lady in the Acura honks her horn and finally passes me and yells something at me out the window, and the last thing I see of her is a bumper sticker that proclaims her standing on abortion.
I’ll give you another example: I’m awkwardly shopping at a sale in Tribeca, a swanky neighborhood in Manhattan, in a cute kids’ boutique crammed full of mommies and fancy strollers. They don’t like a man in their space, nor how clueless I am about these toys, but I’m finding items I’ve never seen anywhere else, really cool things that actually make me excited enough to want to buy them: soft androgynous dolls with curving smiles and mismatched eyes; racers from Japan powered by ghosts; sea monkey space stations. I reach for a bubble gun shaped like a lollypop and my eyes unfocus just enough to show an empty lot. I’m standing beside a drugged-out teenager who has fallen to her knees and is reaching up toward the sky, begging for forgiveness. It hits so fast I can’t tell if I’m seeing past or future, just this girl who’s high enough not to feel the broken glass embedding itself into her knees. She is screaming and someone from an upper tenement floor throws a flowerpot at her. It flies past and shatters with great force, and she breaks down sobbing, alternating between prayers of thanks that it missed her and admonitions that it should by rights have killed her. How can I shop? I have to leave the store, disappointing the single mom who owns it, depriving her daughter of the Wii game she was going to get that weekend. Making all the other women in the store sneer at me and sigh something about shopping being left to the female gender.
It’s depressing, being a demigod. It’s not just the places that waver in and out of existence; you can’t rely on the people either, and because I’m only half, these abilities come and go—but when they come, wow. I can see everything a person ever experienced, and multiple courses their lives might take. Last year, for example, in California, I shook hands with this lovely executive. Frizzy red hair, golden smile, a suit she’d bought while on holiday in Paris with her husband, and I knew in an instant that she was ten weeks pregnant, she’d lost her first baby at twenty-five weeks, and the one growing right now was either going to suffer crippling asthma her entire life or be shot in a convenience store robbery at age twenty. I also knew that the executive’s husband was having an affair and that she hadn’t yet found out. Her aging mother wasn’t telling her that she had cancer because she didn’t want her to worry. Her sister was making three times her salary. Her boss was going to offer her a fantastic raise, but she would turn it down to stay home with Olivia. If events went the way of the asthma, she would cut her hair short and gain forty-five pounds, but her marriage would recover from the affair and they would have a second child named Samuel, who would be a rather successful entrepreneur, selling his services as a YouTube film director. If events went the way of the convenience store, she would break it off with her husband, become a director of the PR firm that was hosting this event, leave, and form a wildly successful breakout business with her sister. And when her daughter was shot, she would take sleeping pills to join the girl.
I could alter all this, quite easily. I could drift over to the timeline where her husband had changed his mind about the affair. In that timeline, she hadn’t lost the first child.
On the other hand, I had instigated the conversation to hit her up for a donation for nonprofit research, a donation she would willingly give—and in the timeline with the living child, she wasn’t rich enough to bother.
Meanwhile, I was holding a blue martini, expected to make small talk. I gestured toward the glossy heads of the glamorous group assembled in the Hollywood loft.
“Lovely party,” I said.
“I’m so glad you came,” she replied, her hand on her Pilates-flat belly.
I pointed to the gesture, raised an eyebrow. Half her mouth smiled while her eyes widened; the expression made me want to laugh because she’d first used it when she was six, caught by her mother drawing hearts on the floor with a crayon.
“Is it so obvious?” She giggled. “I’m not telling anyone yet. Shh!”
Okay and sometimes it’s fun: to enter a house and feel a father’s first few moments home, linger in the joy of his kids leaping on him in gratitude and happiness at his existence; to walk a beach, privy to dozens of sandy moonlit trysts and skinny-dipped wedding proposals. I can use my knowledge to eliminate the fear an old woman feels waiting for a flu shot by asking about her long-dead sister who used to hold her hand at the doctor; when the ability manifests most strongly, I can read what has and will happen, and I can use this knowledge for good—to guide, yes, but often just to distract and entertain.
Not enough credit is given to things that distract and entertain.
But as much as I love my immortal life, it isn’t easy to be a demigod—you have to practice all the time; it’s draining. Still, I suppose that’s better than the alternative. For me, being out of practice feels like being an ex–concert pianist whose fingers twitch whenever he hears a fifteen-year-old throw down Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto. Ever been late and had a train pull out of the station, almost as if it were mocking you? I was probably in the vicinity and off my game. Sorry. It’s a real calling, godhood, and unless you’re willing to devote yourself to your talents 100 percent, well, it’s best left to others who are more dedicated.
That’s what I tell myself when I’m down—then I pick up the pieces and forge ahead.
Even though I’m only a demigod, I take my responsibilities seriously.
Still, there comes a time in every artist’s life when he questions his path.
Mine began with an event—an overwhelming one. Which is saying a lot; by now, I have become rather used to having four or five alternate realities layer themselves upon the current time and place. I peel past and future like an onion, and just like an onion they can make me cry.
But now? I feel like an idiot—and no one likes to feel that way, least of all a god. Anyway, I’ve been gearing up to propose to my girlfriend. She isn’t immortal. In fact, she isn’t unusual in any way, really. I am desperately in love with her, perhaps because of her very ordinary and simple life. No tragedies have marred her psyche, other than the usual pet hamsters dying within days of each other, small high school heartbreaks including the usual betrayal by a best friend and one piece of nastiness involving a boyfriend who came weeping out of the closet during their prom date. In general, her life has been lovely. She’s from a small town in Texas (if you must know, it is, indeed, College Station). She attends church weekly, though she isn’t obsessed by missionary work or anything else a non-Christian could find offensive. She loves her aging parents and visits them for a monthly family game night—her sisters drive down too and all of them play Life or Monopoly or Boggle or whatever they all agree upon. They are happy.
She is happy.
Her name is Tracey, and she wants children. That was my first sign that things might eventually go awry. In every future possibility this world offers, none of my offspring are ever going to amount to anything much. Okay, maybe they won’t become axe-murderers, but the oldest son will be a plumber, the next one an accountant, the girl some sort of painter-slash-waitress—and this sort of everyday job isn’t something that I can get my brain around. I am a young demigod, after all. I have high expectations. How can I father a girl who will live in permanent credit card debt, tied to her mother’s occasional bailouts until Tracey dies from a rare blood infection and leaves her daughter a third of everything, and even then the girl will keep going out with ridiculous boyfriends who dump her and make her cry? I ask you. Would you doom your own offspring to a fate like that?
I want my kids to shape the world, and if they’re just going to be ordinary, then honestly, why even bother? Tracey and I can have a great time (this is another possibility I have seen) traveling the world, experiencing new foods, watching sunsets over various oceans. Why introduce children into such a blissful picture?
Tracey is a preschool teacher. Dark hair falls down her back like a magician’s curtain hiding something soft and living that you want to touch. She has brown eyes with little emerald flecks that brighten when she laughs or cries. Cute glasses that change with the seasons. A smile that flashes in and out of existence like the Don’t Walk signals that make everyone in New York City step up their pace. The kids in her class love her and throw their arms around her the second their mothers turn their backs. Tracey loves them too and treats each one like a miniature adult, asking about their day and listening with genuine interest to the contents of their lunch boxes.
I am, for a fact, in love. Not easy for a god—but as you’ve probably guessed, my mother was human. It was one of those blah-blah-blah mythic events, you know. The swan? The bull? That sort of thing. My dad, she said, was a beautiful truck driver she never saw again. I’ve spoken to him—he dropped in on my twelfth birthday to meet me, and he really was beautiful. I could see the ever-present sparkly shimmer that to mortals just seems like charisma. As with all meetings like this, I probably learned more about him than he did about me. Not the least was that he’d seduced my mortal mother only because she’d reminded him of a certain star of the silver screen.
On the other hand, he, being a full-on god, likely knew everything about me the second we sat down across from each other at the diner that had once belonged to a Greek immigrant whose wife was killed in a political skirmish in the old country. That diner would be destroyed three years from the date of our lunch to make room for a boutique hotel, but the economy would not recover enough to fill it, so the lot would grow over in weeds, and a family of rabbits would take up residence, prompting a local schoolteacher to campaign to turn the space into a public garden … you see how hard it can be to concentrate on anything when you’ve got these abilities. Meeting my dad was an event that blended in with the rest of the events that had or would happen in that diner, neither more important nor less. When our meeting was over, all I really knew about him was what the human side of me could infer. I could tell he had never truly loved my mother. I could tell he was vaguely proud of me but equally ashamed that I even existed. I could tell he hoped I wouldn’t want to see him again.
You can’t live simply when you’re part god. You just can’t.
Getting back to the story: as part of gearing up to propose to Tracey, I had to, of course, buy an engagement ring. Where else to do this but the Diamond District in New York? I was going to be there anyway: my annual board meeting was coming up (in addition to the science nonprofit, I’m also on the board of directors for one of the big firms responsible for that city “going green”—sorry I can’t disclose which one, but if you Google my name and “Treasurer” it comes right up). Anyway, I was in New York, messing around with minor events as I often did, just for kicks—I’d gotten the plane there early, chose a timeline that made the taxi sail through traffic from JFK, checked in to the hotel and got my room upgraded by remarking on the desk matron’s past as a model and complimenting her luscious eyes—and I found myself with a three-hour cushion of time before the appointment I’d made with the jeweler on Forty-Seventh Street.
So I did what lots of people do to kill time—I went to a movie. There’s a big Cineplex on Forty-Second Street, several stories high, with twenty-some movies to choose from. I like movies because they are created and finished—no parallel timelines to dive into; those are all on the cutting room floor of some studio back in Hollywood.
So in I went, ready to be distracted and entertained.
The theater my movie was playing in, theater six, held visions too dreadful to bear. It was a bad place: another god controlled it. If the movie hadn’t been the only one worth the price of admission, I would have changed theaters rather than spend time in that place, but instead, I blocked out the violence as best as I could and focused my entire attention on the screen.
The movie I’d selected was a painful, mind-blowing art film, and when the lights rose after 124 minutes plus trailers, I was rubbing the hope out of my eyes, wishing that genius were rewarded, wishing that beauty were better appreciated, that sort of thing. I stood up and felt dozens of spiderwebs tear. I ignored the strippers who would (or wouldn’t) have sex with clients to feed their heroin habits, though they gyrated wherever the folded theater seats allowed. I ignored the layers and layers of men whose lives had been ruined by a desire for the perfect fantasy in the sex club that had been at this spot before Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to Disney-fy the city by transforming Forty-Second Street into a family-friendly tourist center, and I tried to concentrate on the empty theater seats. Even in Manhattan, few people go to the movies in the morning. Any humans I saw were likely to be ghosts or glimpses of things yet to come.
There was one patron, however. Near the exit. An old woman dressed in a suit that had seen better days. She carried a thick leather bag that seemed a bit too heavy for her. She too was wiping tears from her eyes.
“Good movie,” I said.
She laughed as if I’d been wearing a clown nose. I thought I’d just keep walking, but she reached out and grabbed my arm.
“I want to tell you,” she said. “I have to tell someone, and you seem like the right sort of person. I’ll buy you a coffee if you just sit and talk with me.”
But I, of course, already knew. I had known from the moment I walked into that theater. Before even meeting her.
“I’ll buy the coffee,” I told her. What could I do? Gods can just walk away, but it does tarnish the reputation, and after a while you’re evil, plain and simple. Doing nothing is as bad as doing the wrong thing, sometimes. “We’ll go to the coffee shop upstairs. I think it opened at eleven.”
“That’s right,” she said, and from her expression I wondered if she knew my history as well as I could see hers. I didn’t offer to carry her bag, and she seemed grateful for that kindness. I followed her as she shuffled up the slowly ramping aisle. I reached over her snowy head to help her with the door, and her breath caught as if she could see the little sparkles that my movements always cast for those with the right eyesight.
“Ladies first,” I said. She shrugged, and for a second she was still the beautiful actress she’d been in the 1950s.
We took the elevator to two. She ordered a latte with skim milk; I got my usual double espresso. I spent some time rubbing the rim of my cup with the lemon rind before I dropped the sliver of peel into the demitasse. She stared at me through the steam rising from her bowl. A stripper screamed in the background, but the bouncer was quick and pulled the guy with the knife out of the room. The city kids holding hands with their guardians squealed over a shipment of carrot seed. The old lady didn’t flinch. She closed her eyes to better smell the coffee.
“Not often I get to indulge,” she murmured.
Her daily routine sent the espresso straight to my blood. She lived here, she told me in a whisper. In the Cineplex. She went to the ATM, withdrew twenty dollars, bought a nine-dollar senior ticket, and slept through one movie after another until well after dark; then she’d change into the ridiculous silver sequined dress in her bag, throw on huge dark sunglasses, and head for the clubs.
The bouncers always let her in; Miss Maisy was a fixture. She’d been a starlet in the 1950s, had slumped in the ’60s and ’70s, had emerged from an ugly prescription drug habit completely clean and shockingly healthy, had blown out sixty-five candles to become an official senior citizen, and the less makeup she wore, the more beautiful people thought she was. Suddenly her love of big hats, sparkles, and large gaudy jewelry was charming and quaint, rather than pathetic and creepy. The more she aged, the cuter the club kids thought she was—and as they themselves aged out, she aged back in. Now she was known at all the velvet ropes and was eagerly welcomed as a local character, the only Truman Capote left in the city. But the starlet had never been on the books long enough to receive Social Security, and she was too proud to apply for general assistance. Even in the glory days, her penthouse had always been far beyond her means, and eventually she’d received one eviction notice too many.
Despite her cine-motel lifestyle, she watched her six-digit savings drop slowly to five and now four. She kept a tiny storage facility in upper Harlem, where she went every day at 8:00 a.m. to change clothes, soak her dentures, and pack a change of clothes into her leather bag. Winters were harsh, but the Cineplex was warm. She ate what people gave her, an early morning dinner of popcorn and nachos when she could find them abandoned in the seats before nodding off. Nights she ate better: most of the clubs had free appetizers, and in a pinch, the bartenders always let her eat their olives and oranges. Sometimes the olives were stuffed with almonds or little pearl onions. Some of the fancier places had lychees and wasabi peas. She had been living like this for almost ten years.
“I want to tell someone what I saw,” she said. “I’ve been afraid they’d find out how I live if I went to the police.”
As if to give her time to reconsider, the server broke in to ask if we wanted food. I ordered raisin scones for both of us. Miss Maisy beamed at me.
“My favorite,” she cooed. “You certainly are a gentleman. Your mother raised you right.”
Again I wondered if she knew more than she let on, but nothing in her past or future seemed to suggest she was anything but what she appeared to be: an old lady down on her luck, using her wits to get by, suffering under the guilt of an unreported crime. My mother had struggled with me—I was a chore, as you can imagine: always knowing what the teachers were going to say, knowing just what would drive them to screaming fits, or worse, to tears. I didn’t see the point of making friends with people who were going to die in forty years, or worse, in five. My mother stood by me through it all. She knew what she had done in bringing me into the world. Lucky for me, I looked like her—I couldn’t have had such an ordinary life if I’d inherited my father’s jet-black eyes, his white shock of hair, or his massive arms. It was bad enough I was this tall, but some people are. Even some people who aren’t demigods. Look at the Lakers.
“I should have brought him to justice, but, well, I didn’t know what I had seen. That is, I knew I’d seen a horrible event, but I wasn’t sure they’d ever catch the man, and the girl, she was already dead.”
He’d twisted his girlfriend’s neck. I had seen it as I sank into my seat ready for the movie to begin. I heard the snap again as she remembered it, saw the man’s eyes grow horrified, then cold. Felt the trickle of Miss Maisy’s sweat as she ducked her head back down behind the seats.
“I’d fallen asleep, see. I was watching this movie and just, well, when you get old, sleep comes when it wants.” Her eyes searched me for doubt. I kept my face neutral and attentive. “I woke up when he started yelling at her. He thought they were alone, see. Kept asking her to have sex with him. Said that no one ran the projectors anymore, just computers. She said no. Felt someone was watching. Jesus or someone. He slapped her for bringing Jesus into it. Said it was blasphemy. They were a wreck, those two. But when the fighting just got worse, I finally poked my head up, thinking if he saw me, he’d stop it with the slaps. She was crying, sure, but she was also calling him unbelievably foul names, calling his entire life into question.”
She looked into her coffee cup. “There’s no good way for a woman to defend herself, is there? Not if she loves the guy.”
Because of course she too had allowed her producer to smack her around; she’d hoped she could change him, hoped he wasn’t as serious about the other girls, hoped the promises he kept feeding her were truth. She’d had no choice but to believe in him: by then her entire image was tied up in her films.
People never think they have a choice.
“I saw him grab her face and I thought he was going to kiss her; it was so gentle the way he laid his hands on her, and then …” She shuddered, and like her I had to endure the memory of that snap, like a rake handle breaking in two. “I ducked and he ran. I knew from the way she was slumped over two seats that she was dead. I never even checked. He ran, and I ran too. Five minutes after he left, I went to the bathroom, was sick there if you really want to know. Sick because I didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if I should stay to talk with the police or sneak into yet another theater and hide. They wouldn’t find her body for an hour yet; the movie they’d been watching wasn’t half done. I could even leave the theater altogether, that’s what I realized. And in the end, that’s what I did. Walked right out into the snow.”
Her eyes welled up and she wiped her tears away with a much-used tissue she’d pulled from a sleeve. “I can’t believe I still come here. So many ghosts.”
“Which theater was it?” I asked, though I knew, because I had seen it. Six. That end of the Cineplex shook with violence. Not just the murder Miss Maisy had witnessed, but the call girl years before, and the heroin overdoses, and the child who years later would be taken there by the ghastly sex offender who’d be caught trying to abduct the boy and would kill them both in public rather than be brought in for questioning.
“You were there. Didn’t you feel it?”
“I read about that murder in the papers,” I lied. “I followed it. Did you?”
“No,” she admitted. “I saw the headlines but I couldn’t bring myself to look any farther. I was too afraid the police would make a public appeal for witnesses. I couldn’t have stayed away then.”
Inside her bag was her sparkly silver dress with flapper fringe in size 2. Silver shoes with two-inch heels. A top hat with three bedraggled ostrich feathers on a sequined band. She was an icon on the club scene, an inspiration to the pretty and empty heads who couldn’t conceive of her years of hardship. Who couldn’t imagine that she was there only because she had nowhere else to go. To them, she was a role model. To them, she was a hero. When-I-grow-up-I-hope-to-be-Miss-Maisy. Surrogate grandma. Glamorous great-aunt.
A lie tingled on the tip of my tongue. All I had to do was utter it. I could make it true. It would be easy.
They caught the guy, was all I had to say. The police found him because the girl had left a journal. He went to jail for life. Died there, in fact.
I could make it true.
In that universe, Miss Maisy’s scone would stop halfway to her lips, forgotten. Her forehead would relax. Lips quiver.
Of course, no act is without consequence. Her bag would no longer be leather, but instead a collection of plastic shopping bags; her dress and shoes would turn to worn-out sweaters; and she’d stink. It’s all I can do to keep my face from wrinkling.
I bury my nose in my empty espresso cup, buying time, wondering if I should sign her death warrant. It’s what she wants; she is so tired, so tired of the game, of the endless pain of watching the numbers dwindle. Soon she will be homeless anyway.
The image is fatter now, and her ankles are red and cracked above the tennis shoes. She’ll lose her dentures and smile a grin spotted with lost teeth. The scone will vanish into a pocket and she will lick her finger to pick the crumbs from the table. Her BO is making me dizzy.
I push back my chair. I stand. I haven’t said the words. I haven’t said them yet, but someone is screaming and someone is laughing or crying and it all sounds very far away, might be sound bleeding through the walls of the various theaters.
“What were we talking about, sugar?” Miss Maisy asks, purely baffled. She is thin, she is fat. She wants me to relieve her pain. I have the power to change everything. This moment can change the world.
My world. I hold the edge of the table, reeling from the visions. My knuckles turn white as I see another past.
My father never slept with my mother. She didn’t remind him of a movie star. Miss Maisy had never made it to the wide screen, so my mother had never reminded him of her at all. Another truck driver met my mother at a bar. He’d slept with her because she was willing. Or at the very least, gullible. In this possible universe, Miss Maisy is a happy nobody, and so am I. What were we talking about?
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing at all.”
I edge away from the crazy, weirdly glamorous homeless lady. I can make it go away. I can make all of this go away. I can become just another guy in New York who can barely afford an engagement ring and isn’t even sure he wants to be married. My kids can be sovereign to their own futures; I will be no more able to protect them than any other dad. Miss Maisy is the key. Should I do it? Doom Miss Maisy to a peaceful, happy, stinking death? And myself to an ordinary life, with love and despair and all of it ephemeral? Twenty words, and all places will fall mute to me, both echoes and forecasts permanently silenced. People will be as they wish to appear, without a visible past or future to betray them. I will have entered a universe in which I am not a demigod.
In which I am a fairly ordinary man.
My life would be simple as a barn.
That is: life would brim with ordinary mysteries, but I, like all mortals, would rarely appreciate them because of the constant threat of my own impending death. Mortal lives are a fulcrum between terror and boredom.
Is that a better way to live?
Is there any better way to live?
Miss Maisy’s bag is leather and looks too heavy for a senior citizen to carry. She sits primly, eyes cast down. Her pinky remains curled, ladylike, though her latte no longer steams. Pain and fear radiate from her snailed body until she is bright as a sun. I can see why the club kids worship her. She has owned her life in a way that few mortals ever do.
In one universe, I will walk away godlike, but one step closer to evil. In another, I will be late for an appointment, and if I get to the shop and the ring guy isn’t waiting for me, I will no longer know the consequences.
Miss Maisy looks up from her latte, and her beautiful eyes plead.
©M. M. DeVoe