August 3, 2019
Everyone’s preparing for the end, but no one really calls it that. My boss might be the most explicit about it, though she says it’s only the end for some. That’ll be true for a little while. I guess. We won’t all go at once.
I’m the assistant to the head of a small AI company. I don’t know anything about tech or consciousness. I have a BFA in studio art. I figured there’s no point in studying economics if the world’s ending. I got the job because I’m quiet, I’m polite, and I don’t draw strict boundaries around my free time.
I don’t have to do anything on the robotics end. I mostly take notes, answer calls, run errands, and collect data on the not-quite-secret pet project that’s absorbed my boss lately: Everlum. It’s essentially a server or cloud or something where rich people can pay to “upload” their personalities and biometrics to be downloaded into future androids or clones or smart speakers when they die or when the world ends. It’s pretty stupid. There’s a copy of all the data on a satellite in space so some astronaut or alien can download it in case of disaster on Earth. I’m not kidding. People really do this shit.
The office is tucked away forty-five minutes up the winding dirt roads in the mountains. It looks like a giant ski lodge with wood shingles and solar panels lined up all around it in a large clearing in the woods, but inside it’s as ridiculous as you’d expect: sterile white walls and floors in the workspaces, a rustic-themed cedar locker room for employees, a matching lounge with wood and plaid accents, a fireplace, a bar stocked with organic energy drinks and vegetable juices, and a small gym, complete with cardio center, yoga and meditation room, and an infinity pool.
My boss’s office is upstairs. It has no desk. She stands up there in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the pines, hands clasped behind her back, and somberly asks me to fetch her dry cleaning like she’s sending me on a suicide mission. I remind her that I’m taking a long weekend to clean out my boyfriend’s aunt’s house. She pouts and whines, “I wish you would have reminded me sooner.”
“I can pick it up now,” I say. “I’ll have it for you in an hour and a half.”
She waves her hand at me and turns to look out the window again. “Just bring it in with you Tuesday. Did you see the interview?”
“You were fantastic,” I say. Her face melts into a childish grin. I can’t tell if my boss likes me, but my opinion seems to matter to her. I try to use this to my advantage but I’m not a skilled manipulator. I’m mostly good at being quiet.
“Have a nice vacation,” she whines. It’s not really a vacation. Rob’s aunt died. We’re supposed to claim anything of his or his mother’s before the rest of the family ransacks the house. I don’t bother to clarify.
“Thanks,” I say flatly.
The best part of the job is all the driving. I spend hours every day in my car alone, listening to the radio, and I take my time, take the longer route as often as I can. I’ve always assumed I would die in my car, though, increasingly, I believe it’ll be in a fire, rather than being plowed into by someone driving south on the northbound interstate. I just hope it happens on company time so the rescuers arrive to find me melted into a nest of my boss’s dry-cleaned polyester, arms pointing towards the heavens, mouth open. When they find my body they’ll remember the mouth of a woman in song, the Königin der Nacht in the middle of an aria, and their thoughts will linger with her, not my arrested, fiery screaming.
Of course, my boss doesn’t need an assistant to do these things. She could have couriers fetch her things and robots could do all her data entry, but I think she likes to have me around. I’m a luxury; and a bit of human contact. Now that she’s backing up rich people onto an external hard drive, I get to drive out to meet them in person, measure their heads and hands, ask them some of the same questions they fill out in the online questionnaire: What is your earliest childhood memory? What is your worst fear? Are you a morning person or a night owl? What flavor of kombucha are you? The questions are predictable, and as revealing as some responses may seem, I think the respondents are usually lying or at least hiding something. It’s like confessing to a priest: they know they have to fess up to something, yet somehow they don’t understand what they’ve done. I remind them at the beginning of our sessions that if they want their personalities to upload accurately, they have to get everything right. Obviously, none of this really works—it’s what they don’t know about themselves that probably makes them what they are—but I get something out of it. They’re all sopping wet with opinions of themselves and I want to wring out every last drop. I record our sessions on a small camera that I set up on a tripod and I take notes on a legal pad. My part in all of this is unnecessary. It just makes the clients feel like we’re putting all our effort into documenting them, getting the full picture.
I leave work a little late and head to my boyfriend’s place. I know Rob will be annoyed. He’ll say, “She doesn’t own your time.”
“Fine, Rob,” I’ll stop myself from saying. “Then you pay me.”
This is what I like about listening to the radio: I hear people talk for hours and hours but never to me. And I never have to answer to a single thing. The client interviews are like that too. I’m just there to listen. On the radio: a man’s curdled voice interrupts a chef to say it would be better to pair her tagliatelle with a Sangiovese. Another voice reports traffic conditions in the city. Two women spiritedly discuss trendy tips for stylishly capturing and purifying rainwater and recipes for bread without yeast. “And now time for the news: fires continue to rage across the countryside in the worst fire season we’ve seen to date. A new study links amphetamine use to increased risk of brain cancer. Residents of Greenfield are uniting to help neighbors affected by the storms that recently rocked the coast. And fans of Brandy the polar bear welcome her new baby cub into the world.” Next an interview with a local knitter. I pull into Rob’s driveway. He’s waiting on the porch with his bags.
“Had to stay late again, huh?” He sighs. I’m only twenty minutes late. I shrug. He opens the hatch and grumbles that there’s no room for his bag. The back is full of my projects.
“There’s room in the backseat,” I say.
“You’re bringing your artifacts?” Rob groans.
“I figured the ocean would be a great place to plant some.”
“The ocean’s got enough shit in it.”
You wouldn’t believe how well a degree in fine arts prepares you for these times. While all the other fools are building bomb shelters, sending plastic-eating robot sharks out to trash island, blasting cars and time capsules and sacrificial lambs into space, debasing themselves to try to eke out some grant money or legislation from the powers that be, developing sexy space masks and space diapers, and making documentary after documentary about the problem and about hope and accountability and being the change, I’m fulfilling my role as artificer like never before.
“If you’re so sure the world is ending, why make art at all?” asks Rob. “Don’t you need an audience?”
I do have an audience. Some day some archaeologists will get a real hard-on from this stuff. “This isn’t my art,” I tell him. “It’s someone else’s. And anyway, it’s not even art.”
Rob doesn’t look up from his book.
“You know that famous marble Laocoön? Michelangelo made it and faked that it was this ancient Greek sculpture. Did you know that? He let people dig it up and think it was real and write books about it as this example of Greek sculpture.”
“I’m pretty sure they disproved that,” says Rob.
He notices I’m pouting. “So you’re Michelangelo in this situation?” he asks.
I make artifacts: absurd objects, reliquaries of fake saints, meaningless tools, statues of imaginary political figures with octopus heads and rats for hands. I type out hundreds of pages of random letter combinations and photocopy them at work. It might be stupid, but I have a cause.
It’s a four-hour drive to Rob’s aunt’s house. In the car we listen to the radio. They’re replaying the cooking show with the Sangiovese man and the chef. The man lists all the ingredients he’d put in his beef bourguignon, while the woman moans occasionally in erotic agreement. It feels like I’m eavesdropping on their dirty talk. I can smell the brisket cooking. It’s nauseating.
“Aren’t they disgusting?” I say to Rob, who looks deep in thought.
“The guy’s voice. Doesn’t he sound like a pervert?”
“He sounds pretentious.”
“I bet he’s got a gravy fetish. Something like that.”
I change the station. Rob reads. I drive. We finish the trip listening to the droning and beeping of a college radio show.
We arrive at the house and I realize how strange it must be for Rob to come here for the first time since his aunt died. They’d been close when he was young, but he hadn’t seen her in almost five years. She was odd, a recluse with money, the source of which was unclear. I expected the house to be creepy, but Rob opens the door, turns on the lights and I see a perfectly normal living room and kitchen, white walls, marble countertops, a tan leather couch in the living room. It doesn’t smell like death or old lady or anything at all, really. Shelves full of dubbed VHS tapes line a wall in the living room. Maybe a thousand movies taped from TV, labeled and alphabetized. The rest of the walls are decorated with cartoonish paintings depicting biblical scenes.
“Your boss texted you,” says Rob, holding up my phone. I shrug and gesture for him to put it down. He nods and makes a face to show he’s impressed.
Rob hates my boss. He loves to talk about how stupid Everlum is, and he’s right, but he seems to think that makes me stupid for showing up to work. Everdumb, he calls it.
“It’s pronounced Ever-loom,” I tell him.
“The whole thing just doesn’t seem very well thought out,” he says.
“I know, but she’s a smart lady.”
“Well it seems really desperate.”
“Doing anything these days seems pretty desperate.” It sounds like I’m trying to defend her. I’m not.
Rob doesn’t believe the world is going to end so soon. He says, of course there’s a problem, but we’re not heading full-bore into catastrophe. He says when the time comes we’ll probably just colonize the moon or Mars. Things are going to keep getting worse for the people who’ve got it bad, and we might have to make some adjustments, but I won’t get the satisfaction of things just zapping to a close. Once we begin migrating to other planets, he says, we’re going to regret having jettisoned so much shit into space. He says we’ve thrown enough shit into space to fill two hundred football stadiums and a collision with even a tiny bit of space junk can rip straight through spacecraft. I tell him it sounds like they should design the spacecraft better.
“I would never move to space,” I say. “I’d rather die on Earth.”
“I think you’d change your mind if you were really faced with the choice,” he says.
I shrug, bored with the conversation. I don’t know how to defend this position and I don’t care. When the world is ending, you don’t need to prove any points.
We take a walk by the water. I watch Rob’s face in the moonlight. The moon is nearly full and I can’t stop thinking about how clean it looks here. At home, through the smog, the moon looks dirty, like a dusty rag or smokers’ teeth. For a moment, I lose myself in thoughts about Rob’s space junk. I imagine him, serious, virtuous Rob floating through space in a spacesuit with one of those trash grabbers juvenile delinquents use on the roadsides. I like to watch him when he’s deep in thought, silent and brooding. Sometimes, watching the storm form behind the muscles of his face, I wonder, Is he mad at me? The brow furrows, the eyes darken, lips turn almost to a sneer.
Finally, he speaks, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” I say, shifting my gaze back to the moon.
“Do you think something is good because it feels good? Or do you think something feels good because it’s good?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Is that what you were reading about today?”
I’ve never particularly wanted to get married, but I hate that he doesn’t want to marry me. “I know it’s not very romantic,” he told me one time. “I just always thought I’d get a job first.” I put my hands in my pockets and nodded.
“If we got married,” I said. “Someone might give us a KitchenAid mixer.”
“Yeah, those things are cool,” he said.
Obviously, marriage makes no difference at the end of the world. But it wouldn’t hurt to know I’d have someone with me when we all make our big exit. It’s like when you’re seated on a plane and think to yourself, if this plane goes down, I’m glad I’m sitting next to the nice young boy who makes the sign of the cross at take-off and watches Love, Actually once we reach the appropriate altitude and not next to the creep behind me who keeps hitting on the “lady pilot” next to him. Wouldn’t you rather die next to a sweetheart? Isn’t that marriage?
We walk a little further down the beach before we head back to his aunt’s house. Rob explains his thoughts on essentialism and empiricism to me. I assume he’s using it as a way to segue into telling me some bad news. The bad news never comes.
There’s a painting hanging above the bed in the guest room. It’s a crude—Rob says naiïve—depiction of the ark, rounded in simple browns and yellows in the center of the frame and surrounded by dozens of people dressed in colorful purples, reds, and greens; they’re clambering at the hull, brown hands and faces thrown up in the air or banging against the wood. Scattered about the scene, several poor wretches float belly-up in the orange water. Out of a single window at the top of the boat a gray-bearded man watches, his arms extended in some kind of condescending glory.
“Where are the animals?” I ask.
“They’re in there,” Rob points behind the bearded man. “Oh, no. I guess those are people.” Two blank faces peek out from behind the glorious man.
“That’s what I need,” says Rob. “A life raft.”
I know what he means. He wants a job. A sense of purpose.
I tell him a raft won’t save him. “You need a party boat.”
“A yacht,” he laughs and falls onto the bed next to me. We both laugh hopelessly on the stiff, old bed under God’s forsaken children.
In the morning I make coffee I find in his aunt’s freezer and Rob toasts the bagels he brought. We spend most of the day running down a list his mother gave him of things of hers to look for, piling them on the living room couch. They’re not particularly expensive items, mostly old photos and things of sentimental value. When Rob takes my car into town to get us some sandwiches for lunch, I walk down to the beach with a skunky Heineken I found in the fridge and watch the crabs skitter around the rocks. I don’t know what they could possibly be doing, but they look busy. Every so often a wave pops up over the rocks, slaps down on top of them and recedes, and the crabs reappear, still skittering.
After lunch, we finish our mission. Rob finds an old plush bunny rabbit, his favorite toy when he was a little boy. He almost hugs it but stops himself, throws it on the sofa with his mother’s things. In the evening we walk along the beach again and watch the sunset, a blood orange bobbing in the dark gray water.
We wake up on Sunday and repeat the breakfast routine. Rob wants to go for a swim, but the ocean is too cold for me. I spend a few hours rifling through his aunt’s things hoping to find something scandalous. I’m disappointed to find she was the most boring recluse in the world. It occurs to me that she might have done her dirty living elsewhere, somewhere secret, and kept the house immaculate. I look for clues to where her hiding place could be and come up empty handed. On the beach, I dig a hole as deep as I can in the sand and plant several useless copper tools and a gibberish message in a bottle.
Rob orders a pizza for dinner. I try to convince him he should take the painting of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but he’s not interested. He shows me a picture he found of his mother and his aunt together as teenagers. His mother is beautiful, his aunt is plain. They’re dressed like flower children. His mother stands a little ahead of his aunt. She’s yelling something and smiling. His aunt looks down at the ground in front of her.
“Have you heard back from any jobs?” I ask him.
He shakes his head and looks down at the pizza ringed in grease on his paper plate.
I put my hand on his shoulder absently and he shrugs it off.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask.
“Can I just be upset, please?” He asks.
“Fine,” I say, getting up from the table to sulk around his dead aunt’s house.
My boss has left three voicemails on my phone. Two calls to let me know of new client interviews that need to be scheduled for next week. One call to repeat, “I hope you’re having a nice vacation.” It’s not a vacation. Ordinarily I wouldn’t care so much about being understood at the end of the world, but it feels important to me that I not be perceived as having a good time.
What kind of time was Rob’s aunt having? Why is nothing out of place? When I was a child my mother used to say, “Don’t wear dirty underwear. You might die and someone would find out.” I didn’t know your bowels release when you die and I thought of all my things: my toys, my diaries, my thoughts made visible in objects on the shelves or swept under the bed, how exposed I was in those objects. How could I stand to let those objects speak for me in my absence? Especially to an audience who would happily misread them? Had Rob’s aunt felt that way? Had she kept her house so artificially untouched for a reason? Who was that meek young woman in the photograph? How could I know anything about her from these random bible paintings and a wall full of VHS tapes? She was a liar. Just like the clients in their interviews. It was all a facade and the rest is unavailable.
At night I curl up next to Rob in the guest bed and listen to the waves pull at the shore.