Tor.com: Divided By Infinity

When I read ‘Divided By Infinity’ eight years ago, I was in the ‘singularity’ stage of my sci-fi reading.

Authors such as Greg Bear, David Brin, Greg Benford, Ian MacDonald, Iain Banks and even Michael Crichton and Stephen Coonts filled my bookcase during the late ’90s, early ’00s. The more technology it had, the better.

But when I came across ‘Divided By Infinity’ in the Best Science Fiction of 1998 edited by Gardner Dozois in 2002, the metaphysical side of me was piqued and I never looked back since.

To me, the quantum world described by Hugh Everett III is forever linked to the philosophical Universe thanks to this little tale of self exploration.

Enjoy.

___

Divided by Infinity

BY ROBERT CHARLES WILSON

We hope you enjoy this reprint, originally published in Starlight 2,edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books, 1998.

I

In the year after Lorraine’s death I contemplated suicide six times. Contemplated it seriously, I mean: six times sat with the fat bottle of Clonazepam within reaching distance, six times failed to reach for it, betrayed by some instinct for life or disgusted by my own weakness.

I can’t say I wish I had succeeded, because in all likelihood I did succeed, on each and every occasion. Six deaths. No, not just six. An infinite number.

Times six.

There are greater and lesser infinities.

But I didn’t know that then.

* * *

I was only sixty years old.

I had lived all my life in the city of Toronto. I worked thirty-five years as a senior accountant for a Great Lakes cargo brokerage called Steamships Forwarding, Ltd., and took an early retirement in 1997, not long before Lorraine was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that killed her the following year. Back then she worked part-time in a Harbord Street used-book shop called Finders, a short walk from the university district, in a part of the city we both loved.

I still loved it, even without Lorraine, though the gloss had dimmed considerably. I lived there still, in a utility apartment over an antique store, and I often walked the neighborhood—down Spadina into the candy-bright intricacies of Chinatown, or west to Kensington, foreign as a Bengali marketplace, where the smell of spices and ground coffee mingled with the stink of sun-ripened fish.

Usually I avoided Harbord Street. My grief was raw enough without the provocation of the bookstore and its awkward memories. Today, however, the sky was a radiant blue, and the smell of spring blossoms and cut grass made the city seem threatless. I walked east from Kensington with a mesh bag filled with onions and Havarti cheese, and soon enough found myself on Harbord Street, which had moved another notch upscale since the old days, more restaurants now, fewer macrobiotic shops, the palm readers and bead shops banished for good and all.

But Finders was still there. It was a tar-shingled Victorian house converted for retail, its hanging sign faded to illegibility. A three-legged cat slumbered on the cracked concrete stoop.

I went in impulsively, but also because the owner, an old man by the name of Oscar Ziegler, had put in an appearance at Lorraine’s funeral the previous year, and I felt I owed him some acknowledgment. According to Lorraine, he lived upstairs and seldom left the building.

The bookstore hadn’t changed on the inside, either, since the last I had seen it. I didn’t know it well (the store was Lorraine’s turf and as a rule I had left her to it), but there was no obvious evidence that more than a year had passed since my last visit. It was the kind of shop with so much musty stock and so few customers that it could have survived only under the most generous circumstances—no doubt Ziegler owned the building and had found a way to finesse his property taxes. The store was not a labor of love, I suspected, so much as an excuse for Ziegler to indulge his pack-rat tendencies.

It was a full nest of books. The walls were pineboard shelves, floor to ceiling. Free-standing shelves divided the small interior into box canyons and dimly-lit hedgerows. The stock was old and, not that I’m any judge, largely trivial, forgotten jazz-age novels and belles-lettres, literary flotsam.

I stepped past cardboard boxes from which more books overflowed, to the rear of the store, where a cash desk had been wedged against the wall. This was where, for much of the last five years of her life, Lorraine had spent her weekday afternoons. I wondered whether the book dust was carcinogenic. Maybe she had been poisoned by the turgid air, by the floating fragments of ivoried Frank Yerby novels, vagrant molecules of Peyton Place and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Someone else sat behind the desk now, a different woman, younger than Lorraine, though not what anyone would call young. A baby-boomer in denim overalls and a pair of eyeglasses that might have better suited the Hubble Space Telescope. Shoulder-length hair, gone gray, and an ingratiating smile, though there was something faintly haunted about the woman.

“Hi,” she said amiably. “Anything I can help you find?”

“Is Oscar Ziegler around?”

Her eyes widened. “Uh, Mr. Ziegler? He’s upstairs, but he doesn’t usually like to be disturbed. Is he expecting you?”

She seemed astonished at the possibility that Ziegler would be expecting anyone, or that anyone would want to see Ziegler. Maybe it was a bad idea. “No,” I said. “I just dropped by on the chance . . . you know, my wife used to work here.”

“I see.”

“Please don’t bother him. I’ll just browse for a while.”

“Are you a book collector, or—?”

“Hardly. These days I read the newspaper. The only books I’ve kept are old paperbacks. Not the sort of thing Mr. Ziegler would stock.”

“You’d be surprised. Mysteries? Chandler, Hammett, John Dickson Carr? Because we have some firsts over by the stairs. . . .”

“I used to read some mysteries. Mostly, though, it was science fiction I liked.”

“Really? You look more like a mystery reader.”

“There’s a look?”

She laughed. “Tell you what. Science fiction? We got a box of paperbacks in last week. Right over there, under the ladder. Check it out, and I’ll tell Mr. Ziegler you’re here. Uh—“

“My name is Keller. Bill Keller. My wife was Lorraine.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Deirdre. Just have a look; I’ll be back in a jiff.”

I wanted to stop her but didn’t know how. She went through a bead curtain and up a dim flight of stairs while I pulled a leathery cardboard box onto a chair and prepared for some dutiful time-killing. Certainly I didn’t expect to find anything I wanted, though I would probably have to buy something as the price of a courtesy call, especially if Ziegler was coaxed out of his lair to greet me. But what I told Deirdre was true; though I had been an eager reader in my youth, I hadn’t bought more than an occasional softcover since 1970. Fiction is a young man’s pastime. I had ceased to be curious about other people’s lives, much less other worlds.

Still, the box was full of forty-year-old softcover books, Ace and Ballantine paperbacks mainly, and it was nice to see the covers again, the Richard Powers abstracts, translucent, bubbles on infinite plains, or Jack Gaughan sketches, angular and insectile. Titles rich with key words: Time, Space, Worlds, Infinity. Once I had loved this sort of thing.

And then, amongst these faded jewels, I found something I did notexpect—

And another. And another.

* * *

The bead curtain parted and Ziegler entered the room.

He was a bulky man, but he moved with the exaggerated caution of the frail. A plastic tube emerged from his nose, was taped to his cheek with a dirty bandaid and connected to an oxygen canister slung from his shoulder. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. He wore what looked like a velveteen frock coat draped over a t-shirt and a pair pinstriped pajama-bottoms. His hair, what remained of it, was feathery and white. His skin was the color of thrift-shop Tupperware.

Despite his appearance, he gave me a wide grin.

“Mr. Ziegler,” I said. “I’m Bill Keller. I don’t know if you remember—”

He thrust his pudgy hand forward. “Of course! No need to explain. Terrible about Lorraine. I think of her often.” He turned to Deirdre, who emerged from the curtain behind him. “Mr. Keller’s wife . . .” He drew a labored breath. “Died last year.”

“I’m sorry,” Deirdre said.

“She was . . . a wonderful woman. Friendly by nature. A joy. Of course, death isn’t final . . . we all go on, I believe, each in his own way. . . .”

There was more of this—enough that I regretted stopping by—but I couldn’t doubt Ziegler’s sincerity. Despite his intimidating appearance there was something almost willfully childlike about him, a kind of embalmed innocence, if that makes any sense.

He asked how I had been and what I had been doing. I answered as cheerfully as I could and refrained from asking after his own health. His cheeks reddened as he stood, and I wondered if he shouldn’t be sitting down. But he seemed to be enjoying himself. He eyed the five slender books I’d brought to the cash desk.

“Science fiction!” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken you for a science fiction reader, Mr. Keller.”

(Deirdre glanced at me: Told you so!)

“I haven’t been a steady reader for a long time,” I said. “But I found some interesting items.”

“The good old stuff,” Ziegler gushed. “The pure quill. Does it strike you, Mr. Keller, that we live every day in the science fiction of our youth?”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“There was a time when science seemed so sterile. It didn’t yield up the wonders we had been led to expect. Only a bleak, lifeless solar system. . . a half-dozen desert worlds, baked or frozen, take your pick, and the gas giants. . . great roaring seas of methane and ammonia. . . .”

I nodded politely.

“But now!” Ziegler exclaimed. “Life on Mars! Oceans under Europa! Comets plunging into Jupiter—!”

“I see what you mean.”

“And here on Earth—the human genome, cloned animals, mind-altering drugs! Computer networks! Computer viruses!” He slapped his thigh. “I have a Teflon hip, if you can imagine such a thing!”

“Pretty amazing,” I agreed, though I hadn’t thought much about any of this.

“Back when we read these books, Mr. Keller, when we read Heinlein or Simak or Edmond Hamilton, we longed to immerse ourselves in the strange . . . the outré. And now—well—here we are!” He smiled breathlessly and summed up his thesis. “Immersed in the strange. All it takes is time. Just . . . time. Shall I put these in a bag for you?”

He bagged the books without looking at them. When I fumbled out my wallet, he raised his hand.

“No charge. This is for Lorraine. And to thank you for stopping by.”

I couldn’t argue . . . and I admit I didn’t want to draw his attention to the paperbacks, in the petty fear that he might notice how unusual they were and refuse to part with them. I took the paper bag from his parchment hand, feeling faintly guilty.

“Perhaps you’ll come back,” he said.

“I’d like to.”

“Anytime,” Ziegler said, inching towards his bead curtain and the musty stairway behind it, back into the cloying dark. “Anything you’re looking for, I can help you find it.”

* * *

Crossing College Street, freighted with groceries, I stepped into the path of a car, a yellow Hyundai racing a red light. The driver swerved around me, but it was a near thing. The wheel wells brushed my trouser legs. My heart stuttered a beat.

. . . and I died, perhaps, a small infinity of times.

Probabilities collapse. I become increasingly unlikely.

“Immersed in the strange,” Ziegler had said.

But had I ever wanted that? Really wanted that?

* * *

“Be careful,” Lorraine told me one evening in the long month before she died. Amazingly, she had seemed to think of it as my tragedy, not hers. “Don’t despise life.”

Difficult advice.

Did I “despise life”? I think I did not; that is, there were times when the world seemed a pleasant enough place, times when a cup of coffee and a morning in the sun seemed a good enough reason to continue to draw breath. I remained capable of smiling at babies. I was even able to look at an attractive young woman and feel a response more immediate than nostalgia.

But I missed Lorraine terribly, and we had never had children, neither of us had any close living relations or much in the way of friends; I was unemployed and unemployable, confined forevermore within the contracting walls of my pension and our modest savings . . . all the joy and much of the simple structure of my life had been leeched away, and the future looked like more of the same, a protracted fumble toward the grave.

If anything postponed the act of suicide it wasn’t courage or principle but the daily trivia. I would kill myself (I decided more than once), but not until after the news . . . not until I paid the electric bill . . . not until I had taken my walk.

Not until I solved the mystery I’d brought home from Finders.

I won’t describe the books in detail. They looked more or less like others of their kind. What was strange about them was that I didn’t recognize them, although this was a genre (paperback science fiction of the 1950s and ’60s) I had once known in intimate detail.

The shock was not just unfamiliarity, since I might have missed any number of minor works by minor writers; but these were major novels by well-known names, not retitled works or variant editions. A single example: I sat down that night with a book called The Stone Pillow, by a writer whose identity any science fiction follower would instantly recognize. It was a Signet paperback circa 1957, with a cover by the artist Paul Lehr in the period style. According to the credit slug, the story had been serialized in Astounding in 1946. The pages were browned at the margins; the glued spine was brittle as bone china. I handled the book carefully, but I couldn’t resist reading it, and insofar as I was able to judge, it was a plausible example of the late author’s well-known style and habits of thought. I enjoyed it a great deal and went to bed convinced of its authenticity. Either I had missed it, somehow—in the days when not missing such things meant a great deal to me—or it had slipped out of memory. No other explanation presented itself.

One such item wouldn’t have worried me. But I had brought home four more volumes equally inexplicable.

Chalk it up to age, I thought. Or worse. Senility. Alzheimer’s. Either way, a bad omen.

Sleep was elusive.

The next logical step might have been to see a doctor. Instead, the next morning I thumbed through the yellow pages for a used-book dealer who specialized in period science fiction. After a couple of calls I reached a young man named Niemand who offered to evaluate the books if I brought them to him that afternoon.

I told him I’d be there by one.

If nothing else, it was an excuse to prolong my life one more interminable day.

* * *

Divided By Infinity

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4 responses

  1. You really are a romantic old jarhead, aren’t ya?

    😉

    1. At times I are *sniff* ;’)

  2. Fond memories explain a lot.
    I really should hunt up a copy of Algys Budrys “The Star Dummy.” I think of it as a pilot ” E.T. ” which included a paraphrased ” Lord’s Prayer ” which made an interesting diversion for one of dad’s Sunday sermons. The kids recognized it. The adults didn’t do nearly as well.
    There’s something to be said for ” a little child shall lead them.”

    1. This story does have some religious overtones and is similar to the ‘Biocentric’ theory put forth by Dr. Robert Lanza; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biocentrism_(cosmology)

      Is consciousness everything? We generally don’t know until the ‘end.’

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