“End of the world.”
How long I had been staring at the pulsing blue light on the DVD player, I don’t know. End of the world. The words spoken with the immediacy of someone acknowledging a light drizzle. The scarred top of the bar comes into focus. My drink has a wet ring of condensation at the base.
A man sits three stools over, his shoulders pointed toward a Bloody Mary in a tall glass, a limp green stalk of celery poking out the top. He’s not looking at me but there’s no one else close by that he could be talking to. The bar is nearly empty, save a couple cuddled at the back of a booth in the far corner. The bartender is cleaning glasses by the kitchen, staring at a baseball game on a small television propped on a storage shelf. It sounds like baseball. From eight stools away, it looks like gray shadows on white snow.
The man who spoke to me could be forty or sixty. His hair is off-white like old paint. He’s the kind of sloppy that could be mistaken for homelessness, but probably just means he’s tired. He doesn’t turn, and with his face in profile I can’t see his eyes.
I ask, “Sorry?”
Both hands stay clasped around the glass, but he sticks his right index finger into the air, pointing to a space above his head. “End of the world. That’s what that is. What else could it be?”
Hanging from the wall, above the glittering rainbow of dusty bottles lined against the back of the bar, is a clock. Long and narrow, encased in black plastic. Red digital numbers count down from 513:47:22:12.
The man says, “That clock is counting down to the end of the world.”
The words are blank coming out of his mouth. They need someone to assign meaning to them. He wants that someone to be me.
I take a sip of whiskey, let the sting of it settle, wondering how to play it. Ignore or engage. Years ago, back before the hangovers hurt so bad, this kind of thing could be fun. Talk to a stranger in a bar, see where it goes. I once met a man in a bar and he convinced me to drive to Atlantic City for sandwiches.
But it’s late and I have to work tomorrow, and anyway, I’ve grown enough to know these things don’t always end in sandwiches. A lot of the time, it ends in the opposite of sandwiches.
Still. I’m bored. And there’s something in this man’s voice that has me curious.
I nod toward the clock, say, “How is it that a broken down bar on the Staten Island waterfront has the inside track on the apocalypse?”
The man leans toward me, too quick, excited that I’ve engaged. That suddenly he’s not sitting here by himself. Sensing that he’s coming on strong, he retreats away from me a little, and still he doesn’t turn his face to me. He asks, “Do you read the news?”
“When I can.”
“Even a glance.” His voice builds momentum, like a locomotive that’s found the center of its weight. “We’ve gone and pissed off nearly every other country on earth. We’re destroying the planet and it’s revolting against us. We’re fighting over things that don’t matter while the things that do spiral out of control.”
I hoist my glass and hold it in front of my face, but I don’t drink from it. “That sounds an awful lot like politics.”
“What about it?”
“Money, politics, religion. Those are the things I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about in a bar.”
The man picks up his glass. Doesn’t drink from it either, just stares into it, like the right words are written on the celery stalk. After a few moments he shrugs. “Desperate times.”
We both sip, place our glasses down. He shifts over to the next stool closer to me, leaving one empty stool between us, and puts his hand in the air for the bartender. He does all this quick, maybe so I won’t have time to tell him not to.
The bartender comes over, watching the game more than he watches us. The gray shadows on white snow. The Yankees are playing home tonight, I think. I’m vaguely curious to know the score, who they’re playing, but not enough to ask.
It takes a little time to pour the drinks. Mine is easy. The Bloody Mary requires a few steps. There’s a pre-made mix and the celery and Tabasco. Very heavy on the vodka, so it’s less bloody, more like the color of a fresh scar.
I reach for my wallet and my new friend puts his hand up. “I got it.”
The bartender picks up some of the money the man has left sitting on the bar, makes change, puts some singles back atop the pile. We pick up our glasses, clink them.
“Sláinte,” I say.
“Cheers,” he says.
The bartender retreats to his spot by the television, wiping down glasses that are already clean. We place our drinks on the bar. I lean forward to stretch the knot in my lower back, the pain sharp but pleasant.
The man says, “I didn’t mean to offend. I know politics and religion can be touchy subjects.”
“No offense taken. It’s a generational thing. More common for people my age to talk about stuff like that. I just thought it was one of those sacred things for the… older set. Like not wearing white after Labor Day, or hand-writing thank you notes.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“Older than me.”
We drink. Nina Simone’s voice drifts from a speaker behind the bar. I don’t know the title of the song. I can’t name the title of any of her songs. I just know her voice because it’s the sound of the bottom of the ocean.
The man turns toward me a little. I catch a sliver of his eye. It’s red, like he hasn’t slept, or he’s been crying. That, or it could be the lighting. He turns and it’s gone. He asks, “Aren’t you afraid?”
His voice is small, like it’s trying to hide from him.
I think over another sip. Less about the question, more about what could have spurred this exchange. The words are practiced. He wanted to say them to someone and didn’t have the chance.
Maybe someone walked out the door and he’s waiting for them to come back. His wife, his kids. There’s something missing out of the middle of him and he came here to fill it.
I tell him, “There’s so much to be afraid of, how could I even choose? It’s all a little overwhelming. I figure I’ll have another drink and carry on.”
“Kids,” he says. “Can’t take anything seriously.”
“I take things seriously. You can only take things so seriously.”
The front door creaks. Footsteps behind us, and another guy, around my age, slides up to the bar, two stools over on the right. There’s a smell coming off him. Aftershave, maybe, but floral.
He flags the bartender and orders a Coors Light. My new friend laughs in the back of his throat, tries to stifle it. I want to laugh with him, but we’re back to being strangers now that there’s been an incursion on our space.
We sit there, three men at a bar, staring forward.
The man with the Coors Light retreats to a booth along the far wall. The man next to me says, “That guy may as well drink what I piss out in ten minutes. It’ll have a higher alcohol content, and it’ll probably taste better.”
I raise my glass to my lips, pause. “Did you catch a whiff of him?”
“You think he was wearing perfume?”
“Some guys like to smell pretty, I guess. Who am I to judge?”
Nina Simone’s voice fades, replaced by Dinah Washington. I know the song. Manhattan. A good one, though the tone is a bit to the left of where our conversation is headed. The man doesn’t let the interruption throw him off course. He asks, “How do you think it’s going to end?”
I shrug. “Hadn’t thought about it. You seem to have an idea though.”
“It’s going to be simple,” he says. His voice back to stating the facts, like a movie detective. “It’s going to be something stupid. Someone will hit a button. The wrong button. The whole thing’ll go up. I don’t know if it’ll be a Cold War situation, we launch at them and they launch at us, or if it’ll just be some dumb kid hacking the wrong computer. But it’s going to be something stupid.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Our reputation precedes us in all things.”
“Do you really think that little of the human race?”
“What have we done to prove otherwise?”
I open my mouth, can’t settle on an answer, so I take another sip.
No, he’s not waiting for someone to come back. He wants someone to verify that the world is going to stop spinning. So that it won’t have been for nothing. I imagine a doctor with a stern face using words like ‘metastasized’ and ‘late stage’.
My glass is empty. So is his. Drinks go quick when you use them to fill the space between your words. We order two more. He waves me off again when I try to pay. The bartender pours the drinks and we contemplate them.
The music shifts again. This one I didn’t know, even though it’s familiar. A slow, instrumental song. The kind of song that should be playing out of a phonograph while people dance in black-and-white. I can’t think of it. Maybe it’ll come to me.
The man says, “You didn’t answer.”
He jerks his chin up. “What happens when we get to the end of the clock? What else it could be.”
“It’ll stop. Who knows? Maybe we should meet back here in…” I try to calculate what month exactly it will hit zero, but the booze gets in the way. “Maybe we should meet back here at the end, see what happens.”
“All things end,” he says. “All things end.”
There it is. The way the words echo off a black abyss inside him.
On instinct, my hand slides across the smooth lacquered surface of the bar, toward him. I stop, because we’re two strange men in a bar, and touching is not a thing that’s supposed to happen. But part of me thinks he needs to feel my hand. Another human being.
He shifts, retreating from me, like he’s shown me too much and it’s time to close up. The feeling stays. Sadness in the air. It coats both of us now like a fine mist.
The light on the front of the DVD player pulses blue. Slow, until it’s a brilliant blue, fading into nothing, and then again. A slow cycle of on-and-off, like breathing. I point to it. “See that?”
He nods, his jaw locked.
“See the way that it pulses? It doesn’t go right on or right off? Warms up, cools off. Get what I mean?”
He nods again, still not turning to me.
I take a sip of whiskey, then a deep breath. “In a billion years the sun will have used up all its hydrogen. Then a couple of things are going to happen. First, radiation will wipe out all the life on Earth. The sun will get bigger and brighter, but that’ll be its dying breath. It’s going to explode, and turn this planet into a lump of coal. And then one day the sun will be like an ember at the bottom of a campfire. Fading to dust. This is the way the world ends.”
His eyes are closed. A tear cuts a path down his cheek, glinting in the reflected light from the gray shadows on white snow.
“The universe used to be a very dense, very hot point in space. And so small. Then there was the Big Bang, and the universe grew exponentially, doubling in size, over and over. As it expanded, it grew cooler and less dense. Over time, matter formed. Planets knitted together from dust floating through the void. Then life. We developed communities. We created religion, to join us together and then drive us apart. Technology, to join us together and then drive us apart. All that time the universe was expanding. It’s still expanding, even right now. Reaching out to the edge of space.”
Another deep breath.
I tell him, “This is what I believe. One day the universe will reach its outer limit and then it will fall back into itself. The reverse of the Big Bang. Like that light. A pulse. As bright as it can be, fading away, then bright again. The universe is reborn. And the cycle repeats.”
He chokes a little, his eyes closed. More tears. The sight of him, of his frail body, and the weight that’s pushing him down, all of it together blurs in my vision, and my voice gets thick, but I fight through that hot feeling.
I tell him, “There’ll be another Big Bang and we’ll get a chance to start again. Maybe we’ll relive our lives, but with the wisdom to do them better the next time around. Maybe there’ll be something else. It doesn’t even matter, because there will be something. Nothing ends.”
He’s crying now. Pressure builds behind my eyes, in my throat. I don’t know the path that brought him here, or why it was this bar and that seat, but I know that the things I’m saying to him are the things he needs to hear, and maybe that means they’re things I need to hear, too.
I reach my hand across to him and touch his shoulder. Light at first, but then I dig my fingers in. He doesn’t resist, doesn’t move. Words spring forth from a place I didn’t know existed.
I tell him, “The light will always come back on.”
He jumps off the barstool and throws himself into my midsection, wrapping his arms around me. His cheek is pressed up against mine and I can feel his warm skin, the stubble on his cheeks, the wetness of his tears. A cigarette smell. I still can’t see his eyes. He whispers into my ear, “Thank you. Thank you.”
His breath is hot. I try and twist away, to see his face. I want to look into his eyes. In that moment it’s more important than anything that I see his eyes. To see what’s in there, and what’s reflected. But as I move away he grabs me tighter.
The bartender is staring. The couple in the corner, the man with the Coors Light, they’re staring too. Two strange men in a bar touching, like you’re not supposed to do.
The man holds me until I think he’ll fall into me, then turns and leaves the bar. He’s there and then he’s gone, like smoke caught on a breeze. The door swings closed and then stops swinging and the street outside is empty and I can still feel the warmth of him on my skin.
A moment passes. I climb back onto my stool and pull my shirt up to dry my face because I’m crying too. I touch the surface of the bar, look at the glittering rainbow of dusty bottles.
The bartender comes over, not asking what happened, still curious. He picks up the bottle of whiskey and tilts it over my glass, says, “On me.”
“Do you know who that was?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Never seen him.”
The bartender takes the half-finished Blood Mary and dumps it into a slop sink, sticks the remaining bills the man left behind into the coffee can that serves as the tip jar. I hold my glass up to my face, stare into it. Then I point up at the clock. “What’s that counting down to?”
He shrugs. “Fuck if I know. Clock was here when I got here.”
He goes back to his game. I go back to my glass. Stare at the clock.