by Robert L. Jones III
On Wednesdays I clean the bathroom. Such is the routine nature of this task that it compresses my awareness of time. Whenever I begin, I feel as if I just finished, and if life is a grammatical sentence, mine seems to lack punctuation. My name is Norman Brinster. It’s Wednesday, so I’m cleaning the bathroom. I’m cleaning the bathroom, so it must be Wednesday.
I pour the cleanser into the toilet and begin brushing. I must have used too much, because the surface of the water foams excessively as I brush. The foam is fascinating, a microcosm of unknown significance. I’m intrigued by how the bubbles form, converge, and pop. It’s all so ephemeral. I glance at my watch.
The brush is no longer in my hand, and I’m no longer in the bathroom. This strikes me as odd once I realize it. I’m somewhere unfamiliar, but where I am paradoxically has a familiar feel to it. Somehow, I know this environment is not a physical structure or place. I’ve been here all the time, but now I can see it.
I’m inside what looks like a sphere whose boundary is a bit out of focus. It’s dark in here, but I can see the boundary in all directions. I drift toward it. Where is the light coming from? As I approach the boundary, I can see that it’s made up of smaller spheres. I’m in a sphere of spheres. They seemed out of focus from farther away because they’re pulsating, which leaves them slightly out of round at any point in time. I just said “time” again. I wonder if time matters in here.
My watch is not around my wrist, and the spheres appear unstable. Their surfaces are opaque in some areas and translucent in others. Small spots become transparent, and the patterns are constantly shifting. What are these spheres? I examine one more closely, and I’m inside it.
I have ideals. People are honest because they should be honest. Karla Farmington is going to be my girlfriend, but she doesn’t know that yet. We’ll get married, take long road trips, and sleep in motels. We’ll visit scenic wonders like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Redwoods, and Crater Lake. I have the ability to be a great athlete, and I’ll win a gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. Hard work pays off.
This sphere is mine, or it was. Suddenly, I’m back outside, back at the center, and looking at the curved, poorly focused boundary. Along with the sphere I’ve just examined, I see the other spheres. They’re all mine, and this is my sphere of spheres. That’s right: mine. Relaxed and curious, I drift back and try another.
People aren’t always honest. I’m not fast enough to be a world class sprinter. I’m going to be a great musician instead. Mary Richardson will be my wife, and we’ll be in a band together. We’ll tour the country in a van and play gigs to appreciative audiences. Our home will be a cabin in the woods, and we’ll own lots of land.
I’m back at the center, and this is a bit disorienting. It looks like I’d better try another sphere.
Life can be difficult. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, but everything works out in the end. Everyone is at least a little dishonest whether they know it or not. I’m brilliant. I’m going to be an elite scientist, and I’ll cure cancer. I’ll win the Nobel Prize. My name and my picture will be all over the world. I don’t know who my wife will be, but she’ll look like an actress or a supermodel. Money won’t be a problem. With her career and mine, we’ll have plenty of that, and our home will have a great view of the mountains.
Here I am, at the center again, and this is frustrating. People can’t be trusted until they prove themselves trustworthy. Things don’t always work out, at least not the way I planned. I’ve lost a few jobs for unjust reasons, but the job I have is a pretty good one. Very few people know or care who I am. Sometimes, the game is rigged. It takes discretion and tact to play it. I’m married to Naomi Brinster, and she has to work, too. We live in an apartment. I may not be able to provide her with everything I’d like to, but she’ll never have to clean the bathroom. Should I try one more sphere?
No, that’s enough. I need to see more, but I don’t need to see more of this. I’ve spent too much of my life scheming on the fickle, shifting crust of reality. What I thought I knew turned out to be shine and tarnish. The underlying substance is here, somewhere in the substratum. My name is Norman Brinster, and on Wednesdays I clean the bathroom. There must be more. Tired of putting off the inevitable, I feel a sense of outward acceleration, and the boundary rushes past me.
Going out was coming in, for I’ve moved into a much larger metaphysical space. I’m in a greater sphere of spheres. I’ve deduced this from the curvature of its margin, but this margin extends in all directions until I can no longer see it. As one can’t see the opposite shore of an ocean, I can’t see the opposite side of the sphere. I’m near its periphery.
Examining the constituent spheres, I recognize mine even though I’ve never seen it from this perspective. The rest are not mine. They remind me of the bubbles in my toilet, and new ones form as others pop. There are so many. They are too numerous, and I can’t begin to count them all. Within this context, I’m overwhelmed.
Who am I? My name is Norman Brinster, but what does that mean? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does. I continue to relax and drift. I still don’t know where the light is coming from, and I’m drifting away from the spheres. Is it Wednesday in here?
The ephemeral shore is no longer visible. I turn to look in the other direction, and there it is. This sphere is larger than the others. I believe it’s at the center of the great sphere of spheres. It’s all I can see in the void through which I drift. It doesn’t pulsate. It’s completely transparent, but I can’t see inside because of the intensity of its light.
Now I know the interpretation of the spheres.
The central sphere is perfect and stable. This is reality regardless of how accurately anyone perceives it. I suspect this perspective encompasses those of all the other spheres, so it must see and understand everything.
The lesser sphere of spheres is my personal sub-reality. This is the lens through which I perceive the universe, and it was formed from perception, desire, experience, and limited understanding. It includes the various sub-realities I’ve inhabited throughout my life. The sub-realities of my past inform my sub-reality in the present.
The greater sphere of spheres is composed of the sub-realities of everyone living on this planet. The ones I saw forming were those of people being born while the ones that popped were those of people who were dying. That the sub-realities are distinct and separate means they aren’t the same. Everyone sees things differently to one degree or another.
We are destroying the planet. The planet is going through cycles as it always has. One political solution is best, but so is a different political solution. You can’t legislate morality. Yes, you can. In fact, you must. Life is good. Life is miserable. Things are getting better. No, they’re getting worse. We were created for a reason, and we go on living after we die. We are the products of random evolution. We die and rot, and that’s the end of it.
Our sub-realities aren’t the same, but there must be at least some overlap. Otherwise, we would be unable to communicate. Everyone has his or her sub-reality. I left mine back in the bathroom, speaking of which. . .
I glance at my watch. The brush is in my hand, and no time has elapsed. I flush the toilet. Life runs its course until the bubble pops.
I took a philosophy course when I was in college, and we argued about determinism and free will. Some of us came down on the side of free will because we liked the idea that it’s entirely up to us. Others who thought they understood quantum physics and variational principles favored the deterministic nature of time, and they said what’s going to happen has already happened. Then we quibbled about randomness and teleology. Looking back, I think both sides were right, which made both sides wrong — or partly right and partly wrong.
How many events in anyone’s life seem random in real time and contrived in retrospect? All of this could make logical sense if there’s a personality outside of time, some intelligence that bends every decision, every action, toward a mysterious, inexorable conclusion. Okay, I’ll go with that.
If this is true, the script has been written, but that’s okay with me as long as it’s a good script. We follow it by the choices we make. That leaves us free to fulfill what’s going to happen, and that’s a horrifying relief.
Now I can finish cleaning the bathroom.
Robert holds a Ph. D. in Molecular Biology, and is currently Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College in southwestern Missouri, USA. Since his teenage years, he has had an interest in science fiction, especially stories with high concepts and metaphysical themes. His influences include G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Jack Finney, and Ted Chiang.