Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and lives in Manchester.
The “news” that an American preacher had predicted the end of the world last weekend reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago, presumably after reading a previous “end of days” prediction. Luckily we survived Saturday’s “rapture” so I thought I’d share it with you
Decca reckons that we are living in the days of Revelations and even if I don’t see it or don’t want to see or think it’s not going to happen, not now, not ever, then that don’t matter any, because plenty of others do. That just because the roads to the hills aren’t yet full with pack-wagons and pick-ups don’t mean a thing, for the coming of the beast and the living in the days of Revelations begin not on the roads or in a return to some backwoods pastorale, but here, in the minds of the people remaining in the cities and the suburbs and the towns, and in the many things they are doing in preparation for what comes after.
She says that in our inner cities whole sectors are now desolate wastelands, unlikely ever to be reclaimed. She says that these grey derelict buildings are the signs that we have already emotionally and spiritually packed up, and though we may have only got as far as the suburbs – with a wood framed stilt house an imitation of what our forefathers would have built in the empty promise of the prairie space – we have already gone far enough in our state of mind. And even if we don’t go to church Sundays it is of less import than our acquiescence in the religious rituals of the town – vis-à-vis our children’s partaking of scripture class, and our subscription to the local paper with its editorial focus on Christian values and classifieds for confirmations, weddings and funerals. The coming of the days of Revelations is not to be found in the few wild-haired old hippies, seeing God and the devil in the bottom of a bottle and storing up canned goods and firearms for their imminent retreat into the wilderness, but in the small yet fundamental habits that we good citizens follow each day.
I shake my head at her cold analysis, and say ‘All of what you are saying could mean anything, what’s it to got to do with the end of the world?’ and she taps her nose and says ‘I’m right, just wait and see.’
The streets are never busy on a week day evening. The folks round here choose to keep to their homes and to their neighbours’ homes. There’s the occasional truck carrying deliveries to the Safeway, and infrequent cars with out of state plates, lost most likely since this is not the sort of town where you pass through to or from somewhere. It is a nice neighbourhood and the kids you see sitting outside the diners and the milk bars are more likely to turn and say ‘How you doing, Mr. Casey?’ than cause trouble. I have been known to walk round to Decca’s and back and not see another soul.
Tonight though I have a different assignation. I am meeting a man from the east. He has come to bring me some papers to sign and although he is staying at the local Best Western he asked me if there was a bar and grill I would prefer, since he’s sick to death of working for a firm who’s only on account with one chain of motels. ‘Every place the goddam same,’ he tells me over a bad line, ‘show me some local colour, Mike.’
And the local colour is never more local or more colourful than Stacey Jack’s Bar and Grill. Stacey used to play a bartender in a short-running network variety show. Get this, the show was filmed in a bar, and each week the contestants would order a drink from Stacey Jack, set him up to tell a joke, and then, when they realised they’d left their wallet at home or had picked up their wife’s purse by mistake or one of a dozen other poor excuses, Stacey Jack would pull out his old shotgun, and say ‘a song or the buckshot?’ and then they’d do their turn. As I say, short-running, but when it ended, Stacey Jack missed the excitement and so returned to his home town to open the Bar and Grill. Funny thing was, anyone trying to pay for a meal with a song nowadays would get offered no choice, other than between buckshot and butt kicking. ‘We do not give credit’ read the sign over the bar, and such a tenet of faith was it, that Stacey had it done out in ever-flashing neon.
The man’s name was Leonard, he told me to call him that. ‘None of that Mr. Liebowitz.’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘call me Mike.’ The amount of money I was shelling out I didn’t care shoot what we called each other, this was business, not friendship, but I was happy to play along; it never cost a cent to be civil to a feller.
He had the papers all in order and I found a booth at the back and ordered a couple of beers. He had faxed the papers through earlier and I was just checking they were a fair copy. I signed where he indicated and we shook on the deal. I made a call to my bank, and they transferred the money right over. Then he made a call, nodded confirmation that the money was in place and on putting the ‘phone down unlocked the chain holding the small attaché case to his wrist and handed it to me, along with two keys, one for the chain and one for the case.
I undid the case, with a certain excitement. It contained a buff envelope with a single sheet of paper inside of it. I took out the paper and read it carefully.
‘Of course! That’s it!’ I said, reading what was on the paper.
He smiled back at me.
‘And I don’t suppose I’ll ever know, will I?’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t suppose you ever will.’ I placed the paper back in the envelope and closed the attaché case, fastening the lock, then attaching the chain to my wrist.
As we ate our dinner we talked of other matters. He was a lively conversationalist, was Leonard, glad to be out of the sterile coup of the Best Western, and ‘seeing a bit of the country.’
We ordered pitcher on pitcher of beer, and I was surprised to find a small, city man like himself able to put so much away.
At one point, with the Charlie Daniels’ Band playing on the Bar and Grill’s jukebox and half a dozen hard-drinking woodsmen dancing in the small linoleum space between the bar and the seating area, I told him of my friend Decca and her crazy ideas about the end of the world.
‘She says we are living in the days of Revelations, she can give you chapter on verse on the whole thing. She’s not one to worry about it unduly, or even to go looking for portents in the sky, rather, she thinks that these things just are, and it’s better to know the truth than ignore what is happening,’ I said. ‘I bet you’re a religious man, Leonard, what’d you say to that?’
He jerked back in his seat, like I’d somehow blown him away with Stacey Jack’s shotgun.
Finally, he spoke, slowly, measured, the words of a man who knows he has to keep his over-excitability in check. ‘They said I might find you here,’ he said, ‘that there were signs that pointed to it. I kept an open mind, but I didn’t really believe them. There have been so many false dawns.’
‘Hey! Of course you’d find me here, that’s what this whole deal’s about. You come to me or I come to you, sign the papers, pass over the merchandise…’
He slammed his hand down on the table, on top of mine – the one without the chain attached. His fingers were suddenly like claws. He had a surprisingly strong grip for such a small man.
His head and upper body lunged forward towards me.
‘Who are you? You must tell me that at least. Why have you come? Why here? Why me?’ he asked.
‘You know who I am. Mike. It’s Mike.’
There was something fierce in those eyes, and he leant right over me, so that I could smell the onions on his breath.
Stacey Jack was never slow to react to any potential disturbances in his bar, in fact it gave him great pleasure. He rumbled like a tank through the forest of dancers, a large presence dwarfing the both of us.
‘You okay, Mike?’ he growled..
Leonard backed down, looking his true size and demeanour again, which was small and worried.
‘A misunderstanding, that’s all, Stacey. We’re friends again now, aint that so, Leonard?’
I tapped him hard on the shoulder, but I was displeased, and I made sure I tapped him hard enough for him to realise it.
He declined another beer, declined to say a word more, in fact, but I still had to show him the way back to the Best Western, for it was on my way, and therefore easier to do it than not.
And there, as I left him at the door, he had one last try to get an answer from me. He pulled me close to, in the shadow, and asked of me: ‘Are you the one?’ I shook him off with a curt laugh and a bit of advice, ‘Go to bed, Leonard.’
What is it I do to attract them? These days of Revelations weirdoes that Decca goes on about.
‘American history starts at the frontiers,’ said Decca, ‘but once we’d conquered nature, we consolidated, moving into the new cities, making them in the image of our prosperity. The great European cities of the 19th century came out of the idea of the nation state, with large, planned plazas and boulevards through which armies could parade their might. But American cities are different. Our public spaces are for gathering in, to celebrate the victory of the local team, to rain ticker tape down from soaring skyscrapers.’
‘And now? What of now?’ I asked, sipping languorously on the beer she’d handed me the moment I came through the door.
‘Now we’re turning our backs on the cities, moving out. Leaving them behind. Perhaps you still don’t believe me, Mike, but as I’ve told you, your belief is as of nothing compared to the mass migration.’
It was then that I told her about Leonard Liebowitz.
‘Well, well,’ she said, ‘who’d have had you down as a false messiah?’
‘Not so fast,’ I said, ‘how do you know I’m a false one?’
She laughed. ‘It matters not, fake or for real, and who can tell the difference anyway? If Jesus hadn’t died for us, there would have been another, the world demanded it. So why couldn’t it be you? I like how you’re so optimistic about the future. You don’t believe the world’s going to end, you don’t believe they won’t find a cure for AIDS or peace in Sudan. But you’re living against the spirit of the age, Mike.’
‘You’ve got to believe in something,’ I said,
‘Sure you do. But other people believe what they see with their own eyes, they don’t just ignore it all and think things are going to be fine. They see the way the world is going and they do not like it. They see the rating on Internet stocks and fear the Dow is close to meltdown. They see the murder stats for Baltimore, and reckon they’re next. They see all these Japanese cars at the local mall and the nearby jeans factory relocating to Mexico, and know the time has come to load up the pick-up and head for the hills.’
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘but I prefer to think that we’ll pull through. We always have done in the past, I don’t see why we can’t again.’
Decca laughed and went to fetch another couple of beers. I was surprised at how much the meeting with Leonard had unsettled me, but I felt much calmer now.
‘Are you going to tell me?’ she asked.
‘Tell you what?’
‘This new business idea of yours. You and Leonard Liebowitz, meeting in Stacey Jack’s, come on, Mike, what’s it all about?’
I had unlocked the attaché case from my wrist and it lay on the table across from us.
‘I paid a whole lot of money for what’s in that case,’ I told her.
‘What is it?’ she asked, intrigued, ‘Gold? Cocaine? Silicon? Come on Mike, put me out of my misery.’
‘Sure, I’ll tell you. But first a bit of the background.’
I made sure I was comfortable, my legs curved under me on the cushion.
‘I found out about this small firm out Boston way, a family concern. They had been trading since before the first world war, beginning with just the old man hawking his wares around county fairs, then the business had been passed on to his son. It’s the story of the age really. Their business grew in size, and they built a factory and expanded the workforce, only to lose everything in the depression. But, no matter, the son just went back to what his father had done, selling their product from door to door. He did okay, but after World War II, the big companies took over, with their powerful backers and flashy advertising. The time when a business like this could thrive had gone. So the son packed up his wares and went to work for an insurer, happy enough, I guess.’
‘So where do you come into it, Mike?’
‘I came across some advertisements for this product while doing some unconnected research, and I thought, that’s just the sort of thing I could make something of.’
‘It’s always the way, you stumble on something you never knew you were looking for till you find it.’
‘Yes, that’s how it was. I began to dig a bit deeper, not just checking old newspapers on microfiche, but hunting round junk stores, going over old directories. It took a while for me to find the son, as you can imagine, but he’s still alive. He’s down in Florida now, in a retirement village. He had never had kids, so was just living off his dwindling estate. I got the feeling the day the money ran out, he’d just close his eyes and not bother opening them again. But after what I’ve paid him, it’s going to be a pretty long time till his money runs out.’
Decca pummelled my shoulder, her impatience growing.
‘Okay, okay,’ I said. ‘That product they began selling before the first world war was a special lotion, to which the father, then the son, held the secret formula. The son told me his father had been given the recipe by an old Sioux medicine man, which is as likely true as not. You should read the glowing testimonials that people gave it. He’s got this file of letters he showed me, this thick, all genuine. The son told me that the big pharmaceutical companies had tried to buy the rights in the thirties and forties, but he always rebuffed them. It was his pension, he told them then. So though I guess he was surprised when I turned up, he still had the formula locked in his head and there was no way he was going to let it go cheaply. Leonard Liebowitz is a well-established rights lawyer, and he drew up the contract between us. I am now the sole owner.’
‘But what is it?’
I went over to the attaché case, and unlocked it.
I took out the envelope.
‘You understand I can’t show you it, Decca? That’s in the terms of the agreement, but I can read you the first bit.’
Like I was reciting Robert Frost in front of my high school, I cleared my throat and began.
‘CORN-EAZE. A patent remedy for corns, carbuncles, warts and other foot ailments.’
‘Is that it?’ she said, incredulous.
‘You’re mad,’ she said.
‘No, Decca, not at all. I’m shocked you would think that, after all it was something you said that made my mind up.’
‘That I said?’ she asked, incredulous.
‘You’re right to say I’m an optimist, Decca, I do think things are going to be all right, or as right as things ever are in life, with some ups, some downs. But as you say, it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s what others think. And there are a whole load of crazy people out there, looking for something to believe in. The way I figure it, if you’re right, and we are indeed living through the days of Revelations, then one way or another these people are going to be abandoning their cars and starting walking. They’re gonna need a good foot balm.’