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 There are as many Gods in this universe as there are beings. And the game we play is called “Touch.” It’s a form of spiritual hugging. Easy to begin, pretty much impossible to bring to a close.

 

How it came about: Before the beginning of the universe, before there even was a universe, we all held hands—well, figuratively speaking. We touched, I guess would describe it (hence the name of the game), and touching we synchronized, and synchronized we decided (on three, everyone: 1-2-3) to BE. So now we all WERE. Simplicity itself.

Then we decided to decide (on three, everyone) for the universe to BE. And so it WAS and still IS. Very much so. And, yes, I’m talking about this physical, Capital-U Universe, the one with galaxies, stars, planets, black holes, oceans, parking tickets, crazy politicians, and inane commercials. Yes, this one.

 

The rules of “Touch” are few and simple.

Rule number One says that once we’ve made the Big One—which is basically somewhere to play this game—anyone of us can, if synchronized with (i.e., touching) anyone else—either one or many as the case may be—decide on a new smaller (I guess that would be lower-case-u) universe, within the Big One. “Sub-universe” would be as good a word as any. And from then on they, those who co-decided, would share this thing, this co-created sub-universe, and it will remain real as anything, going forward.

Nazi Germany was/is a pretty blatant example of this, if deadly and in very bad taste. Rome was/is another. Soccer huddles, too.

Your marriage is probably one. Trysts often are. Most romances, for sure.

Now, according to rule number Two, to end one of these sub-universes (for they can all be brought to a close, i.e., ceased), all you have to do is re-synchronize and non-decide the thing. Non-decide might also be a word for it. You know, like dis-appear. First it appears then it disappears—first you decide then you non-decide. But non-decide is closer to the truth, so we’ll stick with that.

So, first you decide, then you non-decide. Really, it’s as easy as 1-2-3. Could not be simpler. And to end the Big One altogether (and this is rule number Three), all we have to do is re-synchronize and non-decide IT. I ask you, what could be simpler?

On paper.

For, oh yeah, there is a rule number Four (and why we agreed on this one I shall never know, but it’s on the books, I’m afraid, and still very much in force): In order to end the Big One, in order to un-BE (non-decide) the entire universe, each and every sub-universe, large and small, must first be non-decided. That’s right, before we can all touch and un-BE the lot, i.e., the Big One, we must clear out all the sub-ones.

I guess we decided this into the “Touch” rules to protect the Big One, to make it hard to vanish, i.e., make it last. And that has worked (and still works) like a charm for the Big One, as you know, is still very much in play.

Needless to say, this all happened a few unforeseen complications ago, for by last count there were 8,444,547,856,334 first generation sub-universes on this planet alone, and each of these have since sprouted many, many, many generations of subs who in turn, well you get the point.

And to make matters a little more harrowing (from the standpoint of climbing back out of this sizeable hole by ending the Big One), by now most of us have not only forgotten the name of the game, but that this is all, in fact, a game.

And, sad to say, the handful who do remember are mostly locked up (for their own protection, or so the story goes).

 

That said, let me tell you where I fit it. This whole “Touch” thing dawned on me the other day, clear as anything, on my way to buy some granola. It was as if some benevolent spirit had whispered it to me. I stopped, took a very deep breath, looked around and found it to be true. Yes, that’s what we’re doing, alright. And the reason I’m bringing this up at all at this pretty late stage of the game is that I want out, and I, well, I need your help.

For as I said, you cannot leave— i.e., non-decide the Big One—unless all the 8,444,547, etc. sub-universes and all of their many offspring have been non-decided first. And that, as I said, is on this one little planet alone. It’s a Big Universe (that’s why we call it the Big One), and the number of other life-populated globes must run into the trillions and trillions—all with seas of sub and sub-sub and sub-sub-sub et cetera universes. It is a daunting task, but you got to begin somewhere, and why not here.

Yes, this is what dawned on me the other day, on my way to replenish my granola, clear as anything. Well, I thought, the least I could do to at least begin the reversal and unraveling of this whole thing—this mess, actually (is what you’d conclude looking around you)—was to track down and non-decide the last few sub-universes I’m partly responsible for.

 

The first one of these (the last one chronologically), going from present to past was the little sub-universe my local grocer and I made wherein he acts as creditor and I as debtor. Something we had shook on (which qualifies as a touch, of course). So I went to see him.

He, bowing deeply to the mighty god “Dollar” (another pretty substantial sub-universe, by the way, the Dollar)—didn’t want to play, didn’t want to anything like synchronize and non-decide anything at all until I paid my tab in full.

Fair enough.

Which, since I was between them, started me looking for a job. That, in turn and immediately, ran me squarely into four parallel sub-universes I maintain with four ex-girlfriends which hold that I’m a good-for-nothing who cannot hold down a job for more than three days (Deborah), a perennially jobless loser who cannot hold down a job for more than three days (Jody), a never-likely-to-find-one-either but if by chance I would, could not hold it down for more than three days (Ingrid), a complete dreamer and unable to hold down a job for more than three days (Beth).

 

This three-day thing kept cropping up, and twice in a week I was fired by day two. There was nothing for it: were I to find and keep a job for long enough to settle my grocery tab (i.e., for more than three days), I would have to non-decide these four little darlings. But that, I realized, would take some doing since Deborah moved back to Duluth and began conceiving right away, Jody won’t talk to me no matter what, Ingrid (after Bergman I am to understand from her mother) moved to New York and became a dancer (good for her), and Beth, poor Beth, no idea.

Well, undaunted, I decided to track them all down, just had to, for by the rules you actually have physically to touch in order to synchronize and non-decide a sub- or any other universe. There’s no texting or Skyping them. No, sir. It has to be in person, touching, before anything will non-decide. In other words, no option, I simply had to track them down.

Long story short, I borrowed enough cash from my landlord (great lady that) to buy a one-way Greyhound ticket to Duluth. Yes, I did have an address for Deborah, she had written me a couple of times worrying about me, she said. So cute, real snail mail.

 

Getting to Duluth, Minnesota was a nightmare.

By that I mean that it took three days and four buses. This apparently tied a Greyhound record. Never have more than three buses broken down on any one route. The third replacement they sent was a brand new bus (this was Greyhound trying to avoid setting a new record, is what I think) and it finally brought us safely all the way to Duluth.

A three-day trip. Thank God I had Marilynne Robinson to read, for she can fill any amount of time with lovely words. We made some thought universes over those three days Marilynne and I, but luckily, according to the rules (I think it’s number Forty-Six, down there somewhere among the spiritual fine print) since no physical touch was involved (which makes it a thought-universe, such that authors and their readers often create) these universes do not have to be non-decided, they will simply evaporate over time (rule Forty-Seven), slower for some than others.

Anyway, so after three harrowing Greyhound days, Marilynne and I got off the bus in Duluth.

 

Deborah was pregnant again, for the third time in as many years. Twins to get things going, a bouncing baby boy made three, and now, here’s number four gestating, and you could tell. Belly like a beach ball, which she had to hold up with both hands, shifting from one foot to the other, and then back again, in the doorway, not letting me in, trying to make out what on earth I was talking about, universes.

“I don’t remember making any universe with you,” she said.

“Think back,” I urged. “Don’t you remember? You took my hands in yours and looked me straight in the eye and told me, you weren’t even angry, you just told me, stating a fact, that I was a good for nothing kinda guy that could not hold down a job, any job, for more than three days. In fact, you went on to say that if I could hold down a job for more than three days you would stay with me. If not, you would leave. And since you left, well, there you have it.”

“Kinda,” she said.

“You kinda remember?” I said.

“Yes, I remember.”

“And the thing,” I said, “that made this three-day thing universe, or sub-universe to be technical about it, was that I did see the wisdom in what you said and I agreed. We touched and I agreed that I could not hold down a job for more than three days. Technically speaking, we synchronized. We made a sub-universe where I cannot hold down a job for more than three days, and I’m still dragging it around. Can’t escape it.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Trust me, we did and I am. I’ve just been fired twice in four days. I cannot make it past day three to save my life. No matter what. We have to non-decide this.”

“Non-decide?”

“It’s like dis-appear. Dis-decide. Non-decide is more accurate, though.”

“I see. Dis-decide, huh?” She studied me. “So you’re still looking for work?”

“Long story.”

“I’ve got time,” she said, shifting her weight to the other foot.

So I told her about my grocer who would not non-decide our creditor-debtor sub-universe without me paying my tab in full first. She nodded, familiar story apparently.

“Poor Jake,” she said.

“But you can help,” I pointed out.

“By non-deciding.”

“Yes.”

“A universe?”

“Yeah. Sub-universe, technically speaking. According to rule number One, since we were touching and agreeing we were what’s known in the game as “synchronized,” and any joint decision made while synchronized creates a sub-universe.”

“Rule One?”

“Don’t ask.”

“I just did,” she said.

“No, I mean it.”

“Rule one?” she said again.

“It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time,” she said again, and shifting again.

“Not enough, you don’t,” I said. “Are you going to let me in?” I added.

“No,” she said.

“Wanna non-decide it here on the porch?”

“I’m not non-deciding anything with you, Jake.”

“Please.”

“No.”

“I’ll, I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” Curious. A little.

“I’ll,” I looked around for things to do, and then past her into the mess inside, “I’ll clean your house for you,” I said.

She thought that was funny. “Oh, really?”

“Really.”

“You? Clean?”

“Really.”

“That I’d like to see,” she said.

 

Which is how I came to spring clean 1233 W. Kent Road, Duluth, Minnesota, from top to bottom in four days. They fed me, Deborah and her husband, which was good, and they gave me a roll-out bed in the living room where I could lie and listen to three kids crying and a pregnant woman moaning for hours on end. But, bless her heart, she held up her end of the deal and once the house was spick and span she said, “So, how do we go about this disappearing sub-universe thing? Dis-deciding.”

“Non-deciding.”

“Yes, non-deciding.”

Okay. And this is rule number Five. In order to non-decide a sub-universe all parties to said sub-universe must, while synchronized (that is, by physically touching), re-live the decision sequence but without making the same decision again. Non-deciding, in other words. Harder than it sounds.

But to help things along, to let you know whether you’ve succeeded or not in non-deciding a sub-universe, here comes rule number Six to the rescue. It states that success in non-deciding a sub-universe will “pleasantly explode” said sub-universe. I was seriously wondering what “pleasantly explode” might entail.

Anyway, so I explained. “All we have to do is, while touching, is to close our eyes, go back to that time, you know when you held my hands and said I couldn’t hold down a job for more than three days and I saw the wisdom of that and agreed. We close our eyes and go back there and re-live that sequence in memory but without making a joint decision this time.”

“Non-deciding,” she said.

“Yes.”

“Interesting.”

“Very,” I said. Then, “Let’s do it.”

“Okay.” She took both of my hands and looked into my eyes with her big, blue ones, shifting back and forth to keep her balance. Then she closed them, “I’m ready.”

 I closed mine as well. “On the count of three,” I said.

“Okay.”

“One, two, three,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m there.”

“So am I. So let’s re-live the next minute or so, without deciding.”

“I can really see you,” she said. “Then.”

“That’s because we’re synchronized,” I said. “I can see you, too.”

“Cool,” she said.

“Let’s relive the next minute or two,” I said.”

“Okay.”

We did it. Spectacularly. I looked at her (then), she looked at me (then) but instead of telling me I could never hold down a job for more than three days (the decision), she said nothing. And instead of seeing the wisdom of and agreeing to what she didn’t say (the decision), I said nothing. Brilliant. We non-decided.

And at that, the sub-universe did indeed explode, and very pleasantly at that. Like a mental sneeze with fireworks. Like a really good mental sneeze. A little bit orgasmic to be honest. And now I knew I would be able to hold down a job for more than three days. Well, at least in Duluth. I kissed her on the cheek and put her hands back under her belly, where they, independently of Deborah, resumed lifting duty. She looked beautifully stunned.

“What happened?” she said.

“We undid a sub-universe,” I said. “We non-decided it.”

“Jesus,” she said and laughed.

She gave me the fare back to Los Angeles. For cleaning the house, she said. Great job.

Took only two buses, this time. Vast improvement.

Here I am ashamed to admit that I attempted the short cut of not tracking down Jody, Ingrid, and Beth for the same drill, but I was fired on the afternoon of day three. There was no way around it: I had to find them, too. All three of them.

 

Last I knew, Jody still lived in Los Angeles somewhere and two days later I did find her and her lawyer-looking boyfriend (soon to be fiancé, apparently) in an upscale condo in Manhattan Beach. Well, let me rephrase that: I found her lawyer-looking boyfriend (soon to be fiancée, apparently) in the doorway of an upscale condo in Manhattan Beach telling me that Jody was “out.”

“Out?”

Out is a very small word. It is short and doesn’t take long to say, but somehow his repeating it took quite a while. And when it finally arrived, it carried a lot of emphasis.

I gave some thought to putting an equally emphasized question mark after it and toss it right back at him but feared it might hurt my cause, and so refrained.

“Any idea when…?” I began.

A sentence he helped me complete, unkindly, “she’ll be back? No.”

“Can I wait?”

I may as well have asked him to give me a blow job. He near enough hurt me slamming the door shut. I sat down on the third step up from their second floor landing and decided to wait for Jody. To come in or, more likely (is what I thought), come out.

I am not sure how they did this, but exactly fourteen minutes and thirty seconds later (to the second, that’s the weird part—and yes, I timed it) they both stepped out of their condo like a pair of beached synchronized swimmers, very in unison, and precisely fourteen and a half seconds later (that’s what makes this fourteen and a half thing so weird), after not believing her eyes for most of that spell, Jody said, “Fuck. He’s still here.”

“Fuck,” I said. “I’m still here.”

“Samuel,” she said turning to her swimming partner, “I thought you said you had gotten rid of him.”

Samuel, poor bastard (seeing Jody again brought everything about her back in living, vivid, and painful color and I truly felt for the guy), didn’t answer.

“Moot,” she said, dismissively. Then to me, “What are you doing here, Jake?”

“Waiting for you,” I said.

She looked back at Samuel. “Do something,” she said.

“I can’t well throw him out,” he answered. “He might sue. See what he wants.” Then added, “Want me to leave?”

“No!” It was a shriek. Not unlike her stock response to my amorous advances in the weeks leading up to our inevitable separation.

“No,” she shrieked again, toned down just a tad.

He stayed put. Well trained, apparently.

“Jody,” I said. “You and I have a sub-universe that needs non-deciding.”

It’s strange how weird utterly uncomprehending people look, Jody no exception. I believe she was on the brink of drooling when Samuel came to his senses and made his move. “I don’t need this shit,” he said and was gone down the stairs. Yup, she had been on the brink of drooling, for here it came.

She was still breathing though, which was a good sign. I kept repeating to myself: There are as many Gods in this universe as there are beings. There are as many Gods in this universe as there are beings. There are as many Gods in this universe as there are beings. Or I would have left her on the landing to fight her demons by herself.

“Jody,” I said. “You all right?”

I am one of those people who actually carry a clean handkerchief for occasions just like these, and up it came. I unfolded it, and held it out towards her. She smacked it out of my hand with the palm of hers.

I picked it up from step two and shook off the dust, handed it to her again. This time she took it, wiped her mouth and cheeks and said, “Thanks.” Quite un-Jody-like, actually.

 

She let me in. Samuel, I figured, would not be back anytime soon. Coffee. She was good at that. I declined though. Sandwich? No, thanks. Sure? Yes.

Then I explained about non-deciding.

And again.

And again.

She got it.

She agreed.

We did it.

“What on earth happened?” she said. “That was beautiful.”

“I know,” I said. “We just blew up a sub-universe.”

“Jesus. Amazing. We, like, undid history.”

One way of putting it.

 

As far as I knew, Ingrid was still in New York—three thousand expensive miles away—and Beth had vanished. So, just in case Deborah and Jody had done the trick, I tried another job but was literally thrown out on the morning of the third day. The remaining two sub-universes very much alive and kicking. I had to find them.

As it happened, Jody (who was now talking to me again), for some unfathomable reason, had Ingrid’s current New York number. Was there a secret ex-Jake’s-girlfriends club? Didn’t matter. You never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially not one with as pretty a mouth as Jody when she’s not furious with me or drooling.

Number in hand, I called. Would she come out to LA anytime soon? No. Okay. I needed to see her, I was coming to New York. Why? Tell you then. Nothing bad, I promise.

She gave me her address, though not willingly. It took me pleading.

Jody, bless her heart (she must have loved the non-deciding blow-up sensation—as specified by rule number Six—a lot), gave me, or had Samuel give me, the money for a return flight to New York. That, and cab fares and food. I could have kissed them both.

 

I found Ingrid. She let me in.

We did it.

“Oh, gosh,” she said. “That was wonderful. What was that light?”

“We just blew up a sub-universe,” I said.

“Spooky,” she said. “Really amazing, though.”

“I know.”

I thanked her from the bottom of my heart. She wished me well with the job thing.

 

On the flight back to Los Angeles I wondered about Beth, and about Jody and Deborah and Ingrid keeping track of each other. Perhaps?

So, I called Ingrid the moment I got home. And scored. Beth, too, I learned, had wanted to dance (no surprise to me, not with those legs). And for her it had to be Broadway all the way. She had called Ingrid a day or two after arriving in New York, and Ingrid had then helped her land a few auditions. Didn’t make the cut though, and so—at Ingrid’s suggestion—had gone to Las Vegas instead, as a warm-up stint, is how Ingrid put it.

I hitch-hiked.

I found her.

We did it.

“Man,” said Beth. “That was amazing.”

“I know,” I said.

“What was that light?”

“That was the sub-universe blowing up,” I said.

“Amazing,” she said.

 

I found a job when I returned to LA and two weeks later I was still gainfully employed. All four three-days only sub-universes good and gone forever.

 

My grocer’s name is Abdul. Most grocers in my neighborhood are Armenian. Abdul thinks Abdul is an Armenian name. Abdul is not his real name, and Abdul is not Armenian. I don’t know his real name, but he’s from Malaysia, that I know.

Abdul did not agree to holding hands. That was a gay thing, he said, and he was not a homosexual, not in the least, he said. In fact, he didn’t like touching, period.

Well, we had touched that once, when we shook hands while I promised to pay as agreed, which he agreed to. That’s how we gave birth to our creditor-debtor sub-universe.

So, here I was, money in hand, asking that he stick to his part of the deal. He had promised, I reminded him, once I paid my tab in full.

“I promise no such thing,” said Abdul.

“Perhaps not in so many words,” I admitted. “But you said you would help me once I paid in full.”

“You pay late,” he said.

“I know, I’m sorry. Do you want interest?”

“How much?” he said, interested.

“Five percent,” I said.

“Ten,” he said.

“Seven,” I said.

“Eight,” he said.

“Done,” said I. And then we figured out that I owned this non-Armenian man from Malaysia another forty-two dollars and eighty-six cents, which I counted out, slowly, to make sure we were all square now.

“Okay?” I said.

“Yes, okay,” he said.

“Now we have to un-make our agreement,” I said.

“What agreement?”

“Our creditor-debtor agreement.”

“I see. You pay when you buy now?” he said.

“I will pay when I buy now,” I agreed.

“Okay, then,” he said. “How does it work?”

I explained, and he understood what I meant, and what to do, surprisingly well.

We did it.

“What was that light?” he said. “I felt like sneezing.”

“It happens,” I said.

“Nice,” he said in what he must have assumed was an Armenian accent.

 

Now, here’s my problem. In the several weeks of travel and work it took me to non-decide five sub-universes, billions, trillions of new ones must have been spawned within the Big One. A fresh look at this rather sobering fact threatened to overwhelm with futility.

Especially when I also began to wonder whether animals, insects, and plants were part of the game. They were all alive, too, no? And there sure was no shortage of them. 300,000 species of beetles alone. Millions of each? Billions? Did they do a lot of touching? I wondered.

160,000 species (again) of moth. And millions of each? Billions? And moths seem kinda touchy-feely.

And plants. I read somewhere that worldwide there are some 40,000 varieties of rice alone. Rice. Really. I would have guessed four: long-grained brown, short-grained brown, long-grained white, short-grained white. And yes, five, basmati. Did rice touch? Decide on things like rice sub-universes?

This added up. On Earth alone. Way to fast, and way too much. And there are a lot more Earths around.

Cells? Do cells touch? Are they, individually, playing the game, too? Trillions of those in this one body of mine alone.

And lives. I mean reincarnation. Do you continue to play the game from life to life? How many lives has a rice plant lived? A fish? A mosquito?

The odds of eventually dis-deciding the Big One did not seem so much in my favor.

Truth be told, by now I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Too much, too many, too big. I’d never get out of this place.

 

Then one morning, just after exercising (which I had taken up again, on Jody’s suggestion) and shaving, and looking out across the city from the little Hollywood Hills bungalow that I sublet a corner of, an odd memory sneaked up on me. From very far away, but no less vivid for that. It was the memory of deciding to BE. The original Touch.

One observable fact about this decision: there were not so many of us then. More than I could easily count, to be sure, but not the un-countable, un-countable, un-countable hordes of beings large and small that now populated the Universe, nowhere near. Nowhere near.

Best I could figure was that many, many, many of the little sub-universes must have entailed splitting into more beings. They must have. Or where did they all come from? The 300,000 species of beetles, the 160,00 species of moth, et cetera. Must have.

Compared to here and now, there had only been a handful of us at the original Touch. A thimble-full. A small thimble.

And at this very moment another memory sneaked up on me, one just as vivid: this was the memory of deciding to become more than one in the first place. And in this memory there is only the one: Me. Deciding. Unable to do anything but touching while.

This was me deciding to become the handful of more of me that then decided to BE (each one of me different) and that then decided the Big One into existence.

Perhaps, it occurred to me, I could non-decide the splitting-into-more-than-one decision.

So, I returned to that moment. Lived through the moment where I decided to split myself into many but this time not making any such decision: non-deciding it.

Poof!

The mother of all mental sneezes.

Well, that wasn’t so hard.

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