Waiting for the End of the World
"With his two-tone Bible and his funny cigarettes, his suntan lotion and his ca-ca-castanets, he was waiting for the end of the world."
-- Elvis Costello
Prelude: The beginning of the end of the world
March 26, 1997 -- Chauncey McGillicuddy woke up early as he always did, squinting as the neon-red digital numbers on his alarm clock clicked over to 6:00 a.m. Then, slipping out of bed quietly, don’t wanna wake the wife, he stumbled down the Mohawk Sandlewood Berber-covered stairs of his family’s two-level colonial, switched on the Sony 32-in. television -- tuned ever-so-specifically to CNN Headline News-- and learned that a goofy looking white-haired guy named Marshall Applewhite, the leader of a San Diego cult called Heaven’s Gate, had convinced about 30 of his followers to kill themselves.
McGillicuddy stared at the TV in disbelief. Apparently a UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet, which at that time was clearly visible in the night sky, was waiting to whisk the Heaven’s Gate contingent off of the doomed Earth and into some intergallactic Disneyland in a parallel dimension. That's what Applewhite said anyway, on one of the VCR tapes he left behind.
McGillicuddy shook his head, thinking “?”, then shrugged and went about his usual morning routine. As he stuffed a coffee filter into the white Mr. Coffee machine and filled the basket with Maxwell House dark roast, it struck him that there was something seriously amiss. The purple shrouds. The new running shoes. Dead bodies in bunks all over the suburban house. He didn’t know it at that time, but that day, that moment, was the start of something. It was as if there was a snowball perched at the top of a cosmic mountain, and it was about to begin its descent, rolling downhill, collecting more and more snow, perhaps a person or two, maybe a moose, getting bigger and bigger, enveloping everything in its path.
Chauncey McGillicuddy yawned, started the coffee machine, and went to look for the dog. He opened the front door and felt a cold March breeze hit him. Cars were beginning to back out of driveways already as the first light of morning began to emerge from the sky. Chauncey McGillicuddy scratched himself under his armpit, and listened to the sound of his stomach growl, as Downer, his manic-depressive bassett hound, wandered out the door to sniff and contemplate suicide. Yes, it was the start of something monumental. Right then and there, although he did not know it at the time, it was the beginning of the end of the world.
“The Advanced Psychics and Mediums Book of Past, Present and Future Predictions” has been around for sixty years, but no one really pays much attention to it except The National Inquirer, which consults it when doing its annual Predictions for the New Year special feature. While the book is a veritable storehouse of comments concerning how the future of the world will evolve, people stopped paying attention to it after not one of the supposedly-hot-wired psychic experts quoted in its pages had the foresight to predict two monumental events that changed civilization: World War II and the extermination of 6 millions Jews. It also failed to predict the coming of “smart” asteriod XW 223, which right at that moment was travelling 8 billion miles per hour on a direct collision course with earth, and due to arrive on or about December 31, 1999, depending on how many times it had to stop and go to the bathroom. The book did, however, contain many of the quatrains of Nostradamas, but since 10 different people sitting in 10 different countries reading the identical quatrain in their native language can interpret them 10 different ways, that can’t possibly count.
The time that passed between the moment when the Heaven’s Gate cult sacrificed themselves to the gods of the galaxy and July 4, 1999, the last Independence Day celebration of the century, was a foreboding period of time - a dark heavy leaden relentless overwhelming rush of weird days making up absurd weeks and bizarre months filled with insane revelations and inexplicable undertakings: the impeachment of President Clinton, the bombing of Kosovo, the Ramirez serial killer case, the conflict in India-Pakistan, killer tornadoes, North-South Korea tensions, more bombing in Iraq and world craziness at every turn. And all of it was broadcast live on television, dissected on radio talk shows, chronicled in umpteen Web sites, splashed in black inky headlines in the morning paper.
There was no escape from anything. The world was turning under a constant magnifying glass, with every national event blown out of proportion and every world event portrayed as evidence that we were indeed living in ominous times. Some people began to feel that life as we know it was on a chickie run with ultimate finality, while others saw life as a bad joke with a never-ending punchline, and still others went about their daily business more or less oblivious to anything other than the jingle jangle of change in their pocket.
On this, the last July 4th of the century, a party was just getting geared up in the back yard of Chauncy McGillicuddy’s suburban house. Just like every July 4th before it, the grill was waiting to receive the ground flesh of cows, the dismembered hind-leg quarters of chickens and the curiously congealed and compressed skin, flesh and bones of who-knows-what wound up tightly in the erect-penis-sized links known as hot dogs.
“We’re gonna party like it’s nine-teen-nine-tee-nine,” dum dum, dum-dum-dum – the music from the stereo filtered out over the McGillicuddy’s back yard. About a dozen people stood or sat around as the clock passed noon on a hot humid Pleaseant-Valley-Sunday-style holiday afternoon.
The McGillicuddy house was not unlike every other house on the street. The two-story colonial had a well-landscaped interior, with verigated ivy flowing from half-barrels, and hedges of hornbream, beech and blackthorn. Several spectacularly placed rock gardens were surrounded by marigold patches and two-tone petunias, and then there was the silver oak planted several years ago and growing fast.
“We’re gonna party like it’s nine-teen-nine-tee-nine, dum dum, dum-dum-dum.”
The grass was trimmed low, and looked every bit like Shaw Outdoor Duty Astroturf. The grass was a particular source of pride for McGillicuddy, even if he did get help fertilizing it from the local Chem-Lawn man and assistance cutting it from Ronnie Rybak, the nerdy kid two houses down the road.
“We’re gonna party like it’s nine-teen-nine-tee-nine, dum dum, dum-dum-dum.”
The McGillicuddy back yard was filled with the essential acoutrements of suburban nirvanahood: a hanging swing, lawn chairs scattered about in no particular order, a croquet game, a set of highly illegal Lawn Jarts purchased at a garage sale, several tables carefully covered with red paper tableclothes, and topped with bowls filled with sourdough pretzels, ridged potato chips, Cheese Doritos and Bar-Be-Cue flavor Fritos.
“We’re gonna party like it’s nine-teen-nine-tee-nine, dum dum, dum-dum-dum.”
McGillicuddy opened the valve on the propane tank attached to his grill, and punched the automatic lighter. With a bluish burst of high-octane flame, the grill exploded to life, and McGillicuddy closed the lid. “I’m getting very tired of this song,” he said to his buddy Cam Craemer.
Craemer took a drink from his bottle of Amstel Lite, and considered the comment. “I sort-of like it,” he said. “It’s from Prince’s Purple Period, which is strange considering he also wrote Little Red Corvette during that time period. I wonder why no one ever brings up the comparisions between him and James Brown?”
“Since when did you become and expert on Prince, or The Artist, or whatever he calls himself.”
“No, I’m not an expert, but think about the business sense this guy has. He writes a song called 1999, no doubt realizing that when 1999 actually comes, the song will have a second shelf life. That is just plain brilliant.”
“Whatever,” McGillicuddy said, placing round hamburger patties in strategically straight rows on the grill. Craemer took another pull on his beer and rubbed his stomach, over which he was wearing the most garish blue-sailboated Hawaiian shirt known to mankind.
The one and only Mrs. Chauncy McGillicuddy hurried by carrying a plate of cream-cheese filled celery stalks and yellow-yolk-with-paprika-on-top-filled deviled eggs. “Burgers look good honey, have you seen Taft?”
Samantha McGillicuddy lived her life sweetly oblivious to much of what went on around her. While her red hair denied her dizzy blond status, she let almost nothing bother her, conducting her life like water rolling off a duck’s back, which was easy since she was permanently medicated against adult attention deficit disporder. She believed in a life of service to her job, her family and her friends, and she honestly believed that very few of society’s problems couldn’t be solved by sitting down with a good cup of coffee and a plate of chocolate-and-walnut brownies with gooey icing, and finding a bit of common ground.
Chauncy McGillicuddy saw the basic difference between himself and his wife as, she chooses not to think too much about things, and thus is not effected by them, while he chooses to think way too much about things, then after deciding he can do nothing about them, resigns himself to be effected by them as little as possible.
In any case, he and his wife had a complete and total working relationship, with the possible exception of the systemic breakdowns caused by their delinquent 14-year-old son Taft, and the constant amazements and amusements caused by their 7-year-old “little adult” Kennedy, who at that moment, was in the house perched in front of her Apple Macintosh G3 playing Myst and deciding on the next installment of her ongoing picture-and-story book, “Waiting for the End of the World with Kennedy McGillicuddy.”
As he watched his wife disappear into the house, not really waiting for an answer to her question, McGillicuddy called “No, I haven’t,” in the general direction of her back.
Craemer stared at the reddish meat that was beginning to sizzle on the grill. “Do you know Ohio is one of the cloudiest states in the country?,” he said. “I read that in USA. Today.” Right at that moment his cell phone began ringing. He plucked it off of the belt of his tan bermuda shorts, and said “hul-lo?” He walked away talking to someone about something.
With a serious sun overhead, music playing and people laughing and talking, it was a perfect time for neighborly commotion. All of a sudden the sound of a large diesel engine kicking to life could be heard over the redwood-stained wooden fence that separated the McGillicuddy’s house from the one next door. A spurting burst of black sooty smoke rose up into the air as the engine turned over, rumbling and revving in determined cacophony.
“What the hell?” McGillicuddy said. He left his burgers frying on the grill, and walked past Downer, who was sleeping in the grass, engrossed in disturbing dreams, and not in the least inclined to wake up and investigate the noises in the neighbor’s yard. McGillicuddy peeked around the edge of the fence and was met with a monsterous sight. His neighbor, Frank Alexander Xavier, or FAX as he was known to both friends and other amazed people, was sitting on top of a roaring Caterpiller XXXX backhoe loader, ripping back the earth, beginning to create a gaping hole in the ground next to the house.
McGillicuddy began waving his arms frantically, screaming "FAX, FAX, hey, Fax!" His neighbor looked up from work and saw McGillicuddy jumping around like he had crabs in his crotch. He cupped a hand to his ear.
"What?" he yelled.
McGillicuddy waved ever more frantically. FAX shrugged his shoulders and gestured that he couldn't make out what McGillicuddy wanted. Finally he throttled the machine down and climbed off, his round hairy belly sticking out from under his undersized white undershirt.
FAX spit on the grass and approached McGillicuddy. "I can't hear you!" he said.
"Of course you can't hear me. That thing is as loud as a DC-10. What the hell are you doing?"
FAX looked mystified. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm digging out for the foundation for my Y2K shelter."
"Do you have to do that tod-- your what kinda shelter?"
"My Y2K shelter, neighbor," FAX said. He spit on the grass, and wiped his unshaven face with his hairy forearm. "You know, for when the lights go out on January one."
"You're not serious are you?"
"Of course I'm serious," FAX said. He tugged on the brim of his cap. "You think I'm taking any chances? This whole town might go to hell in a handbasket, but Francis Albert Xavier is going to be ready." He rubbed his belly.
McGillicuddy considered this, and finding no words with which to respond, simply raised his eyebrows and scratched his head. "Well, could you at least wait until later today to start this? I have guests and we'd like to enjoy the holiday without that, that racket."
"While I got the machine on rent from the Cat store I can dig you out a foundation too, you know," FAX offered.
"Uh, no thanks, really, but I appreciate the offer."
Fax shrugged. "Suit yourself. Yeah, I'll hold off 'till later. But don't take this Y2K shit lightly. I heard on Rick Ratchett's midnight show on WDUM that we could be without power for weeks -- even months."
McGillicuddy shook his head and waved at his neighbor as he returned to the party. It was hard to take FAX seriously. This was a man with three sons, all of which were named Francis Albert Xavier. He called them One, Two, and Three for short. This was a man who cut down a 150-year-old beech tree in his yard because he didn't like to pick up the nuts in the fall. This was a man who, when VCR's came out, swore by the Beta format, because the tapes were smaller, and told everyone who would listen that they were fools to buy a VHS player.
Craemer was just hanging up from his cell phone call as McGillicuddy came around the fence and back into his own yard. "That was my buddy at work," he said. "Just updating me on the progress of the Y2K conversion."
"You mean he's working on a holiday?" McGillicuddy said as he returned to his frying slabs of meat.
"Oh yeah," Craemer said. "We're working round-the-clock until we're sure the vendors accounts are safe and our own firewalls are shored up."
"Honey! Can you bring me a beer!" McGillicuddy yelled as he brushed away smoke from his eyes. "Are you still having problems with Krissy?" he asked Craemer.
"She's still seeing that lowlife, scumbucket, drop-out, drug-addict loser Star Wars freak kid, if that's what you mean," Craemer said, his blood pressure inching up a notch or two."
"I think I told you he's one of Taft's buddies, right?"
"Yeah, you told me. That kid is bad news."
"Speaking of Taft, I wonder where he got off to."
The sounds of Bob Seger wafted out over the backyard. That Old music ain't got the same soul. I want that old time rock and roll.
Inside the house, Samantha McGillicuddy was pulling a pyrex dish of scalloped potatoes out of the oven. The kitchen was painted a cool aqua color, and the mood that color inspired followed Samantha around like the pleasant aroma of the Spring Garden room fresheners she kept all aover the house. "I don't know what all this Y2K fuss is," she said to her sister-in-law, Heather McGillicuddy. "I'm sure someone is looking after this and there will be no problems at all."
"That's what I'm thinking. Can I let you in on a little secret?" Her sister-in-law said
"Sure,"Samantha said. She set sown the dish of potatoes and pulled the foil off of it. Steam rose up enveloping her face.
Heather leaned in closely, looking back and forth, as if she was about to reveal the top-secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken or something. "Jonathan and I are planning on getting married on New Years Eve."
Samantha's eyes got big. She wiped her hands on her apron. "You are? I, I think that's just wonderful," she gushed.