We couldn’t find any clean water. South, after the quiet, dark rowhouses and the tall, dark churches, there was a liquor store. They sold water, but the bottle was covered in dust and we had to laugh as the asian store owners stared at us with straight faces, as though it were adequate. We scoffed at the thought of wasting one more of the world’s last minutes in there and stomped out across the linoleum with thundering footsteps. Solid, enduring, and familiar reality absorbed our indignation with the jingle of a doorbell.
We hadn’t, couldn’t have made it all the way to the harbor because of the fireworks. All of the nice families who had come in from the suburbs were crowded around the planned spectacle. For once, I was glad not to be rich. Each patriarch and matriarch would be offering their kingdom for a small yacht before the night was out. The book said the world wouldn’t be ending until seven o’clock the following morning but once we crested the last hill before the harbor we saw the masses were already running. Firecrackers, mortar rounds and bouts of mass hysteria were exploding in succession. Every glance I threw into the crowd seemed to land in a dramatic instant. A round-eyed man who looked like Jesse Jackson opened up his mouth and yelled. Cars made their way slowly along the streets, filled with pedestrians who had taken over. They all knew what the nice families down at the harbor were too smart to figure out. The money didn’t matter anymore.
Like the private autonomy that develops among those still awake for the wee hours of a good party, the finals hours of the world’s existence became a universe unto themselves. Where we found ourselves at every second revealed the bit parts we played in the last pantheon, the gods of which were foreclosing on civilization with haughty, ironic chuckles. We were a part of the story, watching from the corner of two downhill streets at a scene that looked like it would inspire an imitation of itself on a soundstage in California.
I had never seen Cain sweat before. We’d always said we were brothers. Now was his chance to believe it. He was a dangerously intelligent person who knew how to throw his feet up on the principal’s desk in high school, and run a raver-drug enterprise after graduation. He learned his art alone. Tonight he had developed the tic of looking from side to side and throwing twenty dollar bills at people who kept staring at him, like the lady from whom he’d finally managed to get a bottle of clean water.
We saw a guy coming up the street and he had the same freaked out look on his face I knew we had. He saw me, too.
“Tongi” I heard him say and I felt the name vibrating from somewhere far away. “Tony!” he corrected. I had just seen his ancestor in a jungle heading toward the heart of the Congo, so maddened and overwhelmed by a world of such multitudinous stimuli that he was reduced to outright divination with broken kola nuts. I know it made more sense to be assured one’s decisions were effectively arbitrary than to go on wondering about the integrity of our influences. Tongi was with his uncle, whose wizened eyes gazed compassionately from within concentric circles of age. He bore a mole or some sort of mark on his face that looked like a spot of paint, and wore a slight and constant smile that belied his nationality. He seemed to bob a bit as he walked, like the animated silhouette of a man riding a dromedary across the horizon, a shrewd Arab trader. He would be happy to trade with us.
We were agreed. Banding together determinedly against a great power had probably been inculcated through prolonged television-saturation. I felt as though we had accomplished something by finding these men. Reaching the end of an uphill block or choosing a direction was a democratic effort. Over a longer period of seconds I touched back to earth when the uncle suggested we go to the lighthouse. At that moment I may have started to sweat, squinting into my memory for the light. I had seen a sign, earlier in the day among the cards. The Hermit, the old man holding a lantern, wandering the darkness within the delicate gold bind of the St. Petersburg Tarot. What did it mean. Walking with our two new friends was beginning to feel like an adventure dictated by divination. We might be going somewhere or nowhere, and there was no time if we were going to survive until the final moments. Only now had I calmed down enough to understand that merely to survive until the end would be a legendary feat. Uncle suggested we stop by the liquor store.
Cain was uncomfortable, quiet. He understood going to the liquor store, it gave him some focus so he could know where he was for a moment. His writhing threads of thought were temporarily brought into sync by the physiological anticipation of malt liquor. We all filed in and the effect worked. It seemed like a pretty normal Saturday night under the white lights. Maybe a TV was playing or maybe it was just everyone’s head buzzing. I leaned up against the plexiglass and watched Cain, going up to the window to throw more money at somebody. I wonder if I was pissed off for some reason. Maybe the sight of him, so dutifully buying forty-ouncers for everyone irritated me, or, more likely, the thought of being intercepted on our sacred path by a couple of clowns irritated me. Maybe anger had been feeling left out and had percolated up to the surface of my mind because when the man to my back knocked into me it was only hard enough to make me lose my balance because I wasn’t really standing on both feet. As though I’d had a real bad day I whirled around like I was ready to fight. He was older and looked like he came around to this place a lot more often than I did and he started barking. I can recall some sort of satisfaction at being so ready to bark back. That memory resides more in my body than my mind. I was ready to fight, and the first curse word to ripple out across the TV signal was uttered by me.
Where that moment split the end of the world spilled into the ghetto liquor store. A huge man who had been sitting unnoticed in the corner on our side of the bullet-proof glass had rumbled over to me and was yelling, unintelligibly, words that threatened to ball up my mind like tinfoil. Every reflex went into operation like a factory line. I apologized, I conceded, I uttered the words of diplomacy, I raised the white flag; even a herd of horses would have been more receptive. He was an avalanche. All present stood silently watching as the cap fell off the water bottle. A young asian guy kindly picked it up and handed it to me. I looked up into the dark face of the mountain as it dawned on me that he was somehow mentally challenged and was not going to listen. The though of the uncle danced around back and touched off the right thought. Letting go of the last of my whining, verbal protests I shut my mouth, swung my left arm out wide and bowed, deeply.
By the time I stood back up straight the dark mountain was smiling and shaking my hand. He said his name was Bouncer, that he was the bouncer and everything was okay. We all walked out, together, including the guy I was about to fight. I saw the asian guy through the window and he waved goodbye. I thought we were all walking off together.