Toward the End of Time - By John Updike

i. The Deer

FIRST SNOW: it came this year late in November. Gloria and I awoke to see a fragile white inch on the oak branches outside the bathroom windows, and on the curving driveway below, and on the circle of lawn the driveway encloses—the leaves still unraked, the grass still green. I looked into myself for a trace of childhood exhilaration at the sight and found none, just a quickened awareness of being behind in my chores and an unfocused dread of time itself, time that churns the seasons and that had brought me this new offering, this heavy new radiant day like a fresh meal brightly served in a hospital to a patient with a dwindling appetite.

And yet does the appetite for new days ever really cease? An hour later, I was exhilarated, clearing my porch and its single long granite step with my new orange plastic shovel, bought cheap and shaped like a scoop and much more silkily serviceable than the cumbersome metal snow shovels of my childhood, with their sticky surfaces and noisy bent edges. Plastic shovels are an improvement—can you believe it? The world does not only get worse. Lightweight, the shovel hurled flakes sparkling into the still air, onto the bobbing leucothoë in the border bed. There had been bloated yews there, planted by the previous owner beneath the windowsills and over the years grown to eclipse the windows and darken the living room. My wife, the dynamic Gloria, commanded men to come and tear them out and plant little bushes that in turn are getting increasingly shaggy. Nature refuses to rest.

The transient sparkles seemed for a microsecond engraved upon the air. The weathervane on the garage, a copper mallard in the act of landing—wings lifted, webbed feet spread—pointed west, into a wind too faint to be felt. The snow was too early and light to summon the plowing service (our garden-and-lawn service in its winter guise), and I hadn’t even planted the reflector stakes around the driveway; but that inch evidently intimidated the FedEx truck driver, for at some point in the quiet morning a stiff purple, orange, and white FedEx envelope appeared between the storm door and the front door without the truck’s making its way up the driveway. How did the envelope—containing some bond slips I was in no hurry for—get there? By the time I walked, in mid-afternoon, down to the mailbox, a number of trucks and cars, including one cautiously driven by my wife, had passed up and down. It was only when walking back up the hill that I was struck by—between the two broad grooves worn by tire treads—the footprints.

They were not mine. My boots have a distinctive sole, a mix of arcs and horizontals like the longitude and latitude lines on a globe. Nor could I match my stride to the other footprints—they were too far apart, though I am not short-legged, or unvigorous. But, stretch my legs as I would, I could not place my boots in the oblongs left by this other’s passing. Had a giant invaded my terrain? An angel dropped down from Heaven? The solution eventually came to me: the FedEx driver this morning, not wishing to trust his (or her; a number are women, in their policelike uniforms of gray-blue) wide truck to the upward twists of our driveway, had dismounted and raced up and back. He—no woman could have run uphill with such a stride—had cruelly felt the pressure of time.

Yet, though I had solved the mystery, the idea of a visitation by a supernatural being stayed with me, as I clumped into the house and spread the mail, the main spiritual meal of my day, upon the kitchen table. Perhaps the word is not “spiritual” but “social” or “contactual”—since my retirement from the Boston financial world I go for days without talking to anyone but my wife. I have kept a few old clients, and transactions for them and my own portfolio are frequently handled by FedEx. I once enjoyed the resources of faxing and e-mail, but when I retired I cut the wires, so to speak. I wanted to get back to nature and my own human basics before saying goodbye to everything.

My premonition of the FedEx driver as a supernatural creature was not merely an aging man’s mirage: creatures other than ourselves do exist, some of them quite large. Whales, elephants, rhinoceri, Bengal tigers, not quite extinct, though the last Siberian tigers perished in the recent war. Giraffes and