Calling All Erins
by Erin Fuller
If anybody looked in my office, I appeared busy. If anyone looked hard, they would notice that I wasn’t working. My legs jittered. I was mumbling to myself. I was writing down all my questions. Then I thought about the questions, and I thought about the answers to those questions. Why would I control all the people whose name is exactly the same as mine? Why did this one have that answer? Why did this one think that? Why? Why? Why? Until I couldn’t answer anymore. I had to cut to the true question of my made-up world: who are all these people?
Tickled, I googled my own name. There seems to be at least thirty Erins out there, a good crowd, and they do everything from mountain climbing to studying Polynesian languages.
After work, I asked my friends, “If you could control everyone who shared your name, what would you do?” I thought it was a great way to get to know someone. According to my friends, though, I’m a weirdo; I’m the only one who would take advantage of control. It says something about me that I think I would control them rather than share something else with them, like telepathy. I liked that idea, telepathy, so I added it to my daydream. I could cast my mind out like a psychic fishing net, ensnare them and speak in the voice of the devil on their shoulder: “Yoo hoo, asshole. You’re in my world now.”
Why control them? I had shit I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to do it alone. My friends all lived hundreds of miles away, and none of them were named Erin. It’s not pragmatic to depend on people who prioritize things like rent and school and health insurance over plane tickets.
Now I had to think about the parameters of controlling other people. Could I order people named Aaron? I decided I could control them too, out of revenge for all the years of misspellings. I would be a reverse genie. Whatever I say would come true, but I would have to word it correctly.
We would all meet at Waffle House and get to know each other, because while I would have telepathy, I wouldn’t be able to read their memories and personality. They’d be scared of me at first. I imagine they would think, who is this Erin who nods quietly at the head of the table? Why am I compelled to hand over the butter? For what reason has she brought me here? I would wear a bright blue pencil skirt, a grey cardigan, and a rayon blouse with flats. Teacher clothing. Authoritative, but nurturing.
I would say, “I am the One True Erin.”
I like where this is going.
I would interview each Erin about what they want out of life (besides getting away from me). I would be excited to get to know them. I love learning about people. The ability to ask them whatever I want, no matter how embarrassing or private, is heady. I would print the New York Times’ thirty-six questions that lead to love, that famous questionnaire that is supposed to make people become closer.
Me and Physicist Erin would settle on the cream-colored chaise lounge. (Physicist Erin looks like me, but in a lab coat.)
I would ask her question number seven: “Do you have a secret hunch on how you will die?”
“Do you?” she would shoot back.
“Why, yes, actually. When I was in middle school, my history teacher told the class that empires rise and fall on a three-hundred-year cycle. America was founded in 1776, so I thought that I’d probably die in the fall of America, hopefully when I’m seventy or something. You?”
My answer would be too intense for a side character who’s only existed for a few lines. She would mumble something about her peanut allergy.
Anarchist Aaron would be next. He’d be punked out in a leather jacket with safety pins stuck through it, scarred knuckles, buffalo-shouldered with his legs planted on the carpet.
“If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?”
He would spit, “That’s a fucking stupid question.”
“I know you are, but what am I?”
He would throw the chair at my head, but I would backflip to safety with Olympian agility and escape the room.
But what about his answer? It’s hard getting information from invented characters. By naming them Anarchist, Physicist, was I putting words in their mouths? Also, these characters aren’t fleshed out, they’re stereotypes. They are mass-produced costumes I fished out of the clearance bin of the theater supply store that is my subconscious. I needed to get under those disguises and discover who they are.
I conduct hundreds of these interviews and assume a priori individuality. To make my characters alive and self-propelling, I must deliberately think about how other people think and feel, otherwise characters remain grafts, taken from the One True Erin tree. It’s impossible to delineate myself from my creations. Yet, I hope to come closer to other people by thieving bits of personality, character, virtues, and vices from real-life people, claying them to cuttings of me, and thus making myself a stranger. But that’s the problem: am I only able to imagine myself as someone else if there is something of me in them? Empathy might be projected narcissism if it’s limited to imaginary people. It’s odd that fiction writers try to understand humanity by creating characters. Some talk to real people, allegedly. Freaks.
All Erins will take jobs close to me and live in apartments close to each other. Once everyone’s settled, we’ll decide on a uniform. Probably jeans with a screen-printed shirt: “Erin to the thirtieth power.” We’ll visit the haunted mansion together, because I’ve always wanted to go, and hauntedness goes down by 10% per person. We will take a bus tour up to the SPAM Museum (“14,000 square feet of square meat”) and explore its eclectic history. Anarchist Aaron will snap, yank the fire alarm so he can’t hear my voice, and make a break for the exit. But I will have a bullhorn, and my voice will blast through the fire alarm.
Some will try to rebel by deliberately misconstruing my orders, in which case I will simply order them to feel happy only when they follow my orders or succeed at following an order, so they will take no pleasure in being apart from me and will lurk around. They’ll learn to love me without needing to take orders because they have a purpose and stability in their lives. I can order them to exercise, to eat strictly healthy meals, to study, or to do any number of personally enriching activities so they will not have to worry about relying on their faulty willpower to change. Some will be interested to know why this is happening, and, having nothing better to do, will stick around to find out why this is so. Most Erins will be against the idea of working for me. They will want to go back to their careers, their families. I will order them to make the most of their situation.
I’m nice; I want them to be happy. What is the wording I would use to make them be happy? Would it be enough to simply tell them to be happy— verbatim, “be happy”—or would that lead to the same teeth-grinding smiliness I’d expect from Macy’s Christmas elves? I’d murder them. I read on NPR once that leaders make the same decisions for others that they would make for themselves, so I made a list of what makes me happy. And what makes me happy is brainstorming complicated plans with clear milestones and watching other people carry out my ideas. We could start a business selling Christmas sweatshirts with quirky patterns on them, or run a food truck that sells falafel pressed in waffle makers and served with lots of toppings, combining the geometric perfection of waffles with the savory perfection of falafels: falaffle.
I confess: my typos give me great ideas.
We’ll start that food truck. The first week will go well. We’ll rotate on a weekly schedule to cook, clear, schedule appointments, and work on the side to invest in the food truck. After three months, Erins will be able to bring their families to live with them.
I know that’s a recipe for bad news. But what does it matter what I do to my characters? They aren’t real. They’re stand-ins for real people. Right?
So it is a horrid self-discovery, one of incestuous vainglory, when I think that which should not be thought.
One of my Erins falls in love with me.
I would find out when I go to the grocery store with Vegetarian Erin, and she would tell me in the pasta aisle that “I love you, but we can’t let the other Erins know, because they’ll kill me.” It’s always a surprise to learn that someone likes me, even when I default to indignation when they don’t. I would probably feel flattered, suspicious, judgmental, and accepting— in that order. I’m not into dating, but I even find myself wondering what our couple mashup name would be. I settle on Erin2.
But our illicit relationship would never be more steamy than handholding because, God, it’s weird. I couldn’t help imagining sneaking kisses in the candy aisle between the Hershey bars and Twizzlers; I was turning red. I re-surfaced from the story to think about this. In the wan yellow desk light, I lowered my red pen and sliced through some lines. Vegetarian Erin respectfully winked out of existence to spare me trying to write my way out of a solipsistic relationship.
When a character does something that surprises you, where does that surprise come from?
Surprise is usually preceded by certain, sudden, inexplicable knowledge. Especially this one: one of me will die. I don’t know why my brain traveled down this dark path, but I had the feeling that one of me will die.
One of me will stagger into my office, disheveled and distraught.
“Police Erin was hit by a car!” she will gasp.
We will all rush to the hospital in time to catch a nurse slipping out of the ER. She will apologize, and I will go numb. Police Erin was giving a young lady a ticket when a truck passed too close to them and clipped her, knocking her into the concrete median. But the driver swore that Police Erin had taken a quick step back into the path of the truck.
The nurses will move Police Erin into a private room so that we can grieve. I never imagined that I would need to call her family and explain to them that their daughter was gone. I imagine my lips will be numb and heavy when I tell them. I have never heard the sound of pure grief. I don’t want to imagine it. I’ve lived a good life without tragedies. (Maybe ONE, but I’m not going to talk about it here. To recreate a tragedy here feels false.) I have to research. I cried at my computer reading memoirs for this story. I watched a car crash on YouTube, with a side of fried people, for this story. But a version of me stepping backwards into death— why? I ordered all Erins to be happy. Months later, the Erins had settled in and were thriving in their careers and private lives in ways they hadn’t before. Technician Erin had a girlfriend, Judge Erin completed a marathon, and Gardner Erin cross-bred a black tulip. Monk Erin completed a pilgrimage to Genoa.
“Are you happy?” I will ask them all.
“Well, yeah, sure,” They all say, in some form or another. No ringing positivity here. I just don’t have it in me (or mes— the plural of I). That’s just not the Erin way.
I will relax my hold on Erins so that they may have some semblance of life outside of me. The falaffle business will continue, but I can’t see it earning out. I’ve been rewriting the end over and over, trying to imagine something hopeful. Disastrous endings signal too much realism, and I’d like to think that I could imagine my way out.
But I’m not smart enough. I need another tragedy. Let’s say fire. Perhaps a fire in the wastepaper basket. Perhaps a cigarette dropped on the carpet. Perhaps a frayed wire uncaught, or a candle left alight from an office.
I and the other Erins assemble on the lawn, watching water arc from fire truck hoses and smother flame. And we will return home, instinctively going to the community room. I will go before them. They will expect me to give a speech, an order, and say that they will find another apartment to live in next week.
Instead I say, “Be honest. Who wants to go home?”
Most will raise their hands. Over the course of the month they will take buses, planes, cars, or trains to their old lives like sparks from a dwindling fire, winking out as I relinquish my grip. Will they be able to return to their normal lives, after I’ve ordered them to the ideals I imagine for the story? Will they dream of returning? Maybe we were never identical in the way I wished we would be, so compassion would come easy, but more like flowers in a bouquet, whose unique qualities compose a beautiful, harmonious whole—if I had been wise enough to empower them to flourish.
We will fall apart, like a dried flower. There will be five Erins left. Ten arms, ten eyes, five minds, wheeling through space. We will live together, frugally. We will go out and return as one. Eventually we will hit a point where I am no longer in the center. We will orbit a black space where we imagine the truest form of us.
Who am ‘I’? A grafter? A liar? A weirdo? A puppet master? What is my character?
I was researching the name of the bodhisattva with the thousand hands of mercy, and I accidentally typed into the search engine, “Goddess with Thousand Ands.” I imagined an all-powerful creator whose story never ends. In the search for wisdom, I made a mistake. Rather than correct myself, I thought, “But what if?”
Maybe I’m only lionizing my moral shortcomings for entertainment rather than writing a story. Is this a story? It was a thought that spun into a scenario, which budded another, and another…Though, it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy myself. Achieving what I set out to do might destroy a joyful plunge. A splat does not negate a dope double somersault.
My stories are me talking to myself, hoping somebody will overhear. I’ve always felt like I spy on life rather than being a part of it. It’s odd. My work can’t be meaningful all on its own; other people have to find it meaningful. I have to know what other people find meaningful to make meaning for them. But if I were good with people, I wouldn’t be turning inward to entertain myself. I probably wouldn’t be a writer.
And so that’s why I imagined you.