Naked legs. An aging sidewalk, dripping with lust and cash, dry as a bone in the hot autumn sun, but slick with a detached hatred and want thick enough to slick back the governor’s hair. Eye jelly pulses as hearts beat together. The line wraps around the corner of the small square building, spilling onto the street and snarling traffic in all directions. The cars have been abandoned, and next to them men, women, boys and girls sip toxically sweet lemonade. A small, dark Mexican in a Lakers cap and blue flannel shirt pushes an ice cream cart with a bad wheel past the front of the line, hunched over in the heat. Bells ring in my ears.
For the End of the World, I have returned to the city that raised me to find that it is one of those house guests who, while very polite and well-mannered until you leave to get milk, you will find masturbating to a family photo taken from your credenza upon your return. You can never come back, or so they say. I say you simply shouldn’t. Thirty days up north enjoying white wine, exotic women, and little pieces of bread smeared with avocado that remind me of the Toxic East is all it took for things to get weird. It’s Tuesday, noon, and the line is lengthening down the boulevard with sexual fervor. One block. Two. Three. Five. Lord knew when it would finally reach full arousal, release, and shrivel back up into a meaningless nothingness.
“Pretty Sales Girls: 35 Cents,” taunts a poster slapped onto the concrete wall with as much love and care as a drunk blowjob. “Dreams fulfilled. Provide exact change at the door.”
Across the street, I watch the herd file slowly through the door. I can’t say I feel sorry for them. Get what you pay for, I suppose. Shops have closed—tanning parlors, pawn shops. Even my ratbastard uncle Will’s bank is closed. (He repossessed his only brother’s house and then offered me a job the next day. I took it and never looked back.) “Closed,” of course, is a relative term these days, but there is seemingly nothing in anyone’s mind aside from getting a glimpse of the pretty sales girls.
The drugstore remains open but empty. Inside, cool, stale air blows from parts unknown, chilling sweat to fine beads, and cramming the faint smell of window cleaner far up into the sinuses, a gentle date raping of the memory, forcing back images of times best forgotten. I’d wanted these memories for my death bed, when I could relate them to family and half-drunk, half-senile friends in monotone with a flat, stroke paralyzed face. It’d make them cry, and I’d go out smiling, knowing I did my damnedest. But that’s an impossibility now, and so I savor each foul memory as if it were the sweetest peach.
A pretty girl tends the checkout lane, slouched on a low stool, reading a tabloid paper with an airbrushed picture of the Pope. She’s not selling anything. I avoid looking for her name tag.
“’I Was Probed By Aliens,’ Claims Pope,” I read out loud.
“Probably not,” says the girl. “But it’s a good article.”
The aisles, spotlessly clean and fully stocked, resemble the streets outside the way the dimly lit basement of a library reminds one of an insomniac walk two hours before dawn. My bowels tingle nervously. Each box of tea, lined up perfectly square to the shelf, stands proud and tall as if awaiting an invading army. The urge to steal for stealing’s sake is muffled into nonexistence, lacking the fear of prosecution. I stroll the aisles because it’s something to do on a lazy Tuesday.
For a while, I wonder where all the hopeless junkies have gone, all those low-living bastards who couldn’t possibly care to drool over some fantasy sales girl. The answer is behind the pharmacist’s counter. Or rather, it’s not—not anymore. Had the Bomb been dropped, it would have been the grocery shelves barren and smooth and white. But we’re crawling toward our doom, taking just long enough for one last fix. Uppers, downers, opiates and anything else that makes the End disappear—gone. Beyond the empty medicine shelf, beyond the shop glass and across the street, it’s “Pretty Sales Girls: 35 Cents.”
Assumption has led me astray. Assuming that the fiends, like squirrels, would have gone home and stashed the once-in-a-lifetime take for a rainy day might be the reasonable conclusion, given that the peddlers of dope, crank, and H are now mere identical units of the miles-long centipede outside. Standing in front of a glass door in the frozen food aisle, I admit my mistake as I stare down a pair of frozen eyes peering out from between the frozen waffles and the frozen peas. Brown eyes—or they used to be before they frosted over into glistening white marbles. A dainty frozen hand, loosely gripping a pill bottle, rests on a cylinder of frozen orange juice.
Still reading the junkie’s last moments from the pale portrait in the freezer door, I say, “You have some folks camped out in your freezer.”
“I know,” she says.
“They started to smell,” she said, still reading the tabloid paper. “Dumpster’s full.”
I grab the last cold bottled lemonade from in front of closed eyelids, pale skin, a droplet of blood making a scarlet snail trail toward chilled pink lips. Almost syrupy, the sickly sweet yellowness gnaws at my teeth. I swallow and cough.
“You gonna steal, too?” the pretty girl asks, strolling up the aisle.
“Does it really matter all that much at this point?”
“Would I have stayed here otherwise?”
I see her staring at the round little bead of blood through the fogged up glass. It’s screwed up, that little smile people make just before they start sobbing—the brain’s last ditch effort to make the best of the worst—which is why I’m surprised when, making that pained little smile and putting her hand to her mouth, she starts laughing. Not belly laughs, but little silent nose giggles.
“This is it, huh?”
Do I lie here? Can I lie? What would be a lie, a believable lie, in this place and time? What the hell do I know? I’m just a man like any of those aging, balding men in khaki shorts and polo shirts standing in line outside with their wives and sugar-high kids. Maybe without the khaki shorts. I hate khaki. Just a dumb beast who hates khaki.
“Sure,” I say. “Could be.”
“But if it’s not?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
She giggles again, this time a little more desperately. I see her glancing nervously up the aisle at the pair of frozen brown eyes behind the peas and waffles, the pre-sob smile creeping onto her face again, but the dam holds. Leaving her alone with the icy corpses, I stare out the front window at the line, pulsing and slithering into the little concrete building across the street. My knees shake and I lean tenderly on the thick glass as the rest of my life flashes in front of me. The pretty girl comes up and leans forward, her head resting on the window.
“Scary,” I say, “isn’t it?”
“What—that we’re actually gonna go stand in that line?”