I don’t know how I missed it. They say that it had been there for a few weeks, this land mass the size of Nebraska, slowly inching its way toward earth through a vast expanse of nothing. Of course, this suggests an epic drama that the truth in the matter fails to afford. The people on the news used words like imminent and apocalyptic and stay tuned, but based on what I know about Nebraska and the speed of land masses, we weren’t missing anything. It would still be there tomorrow.
I first noticed it when I went outside to check the mail. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. When I looked around, though, the only person I saw outside of a moving car was the old man whose name I can never remember that lives across the street. He was getting the newspaper, still wearing his bathrobe, and for some reason, he had stopped to look up. Curiosity drew my eyes to the focal point of his stare.
With only the sky in my periphery, the world stood still, and when the significance of this vision settled to a sobering clarity, it felt at that moment like I was looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. There was nothing but empty air between me and the asshole end of everything. Frankly, humbling as it was, it didn’t look like much - just a piece of rock that had attached itself to the morning sky. Without even realizing it, I had already wadded up my bills and opened a credit card offer for which I was supposedly pre-approved.
This wasn’t the apocalypse that I was expecting. No burning cars. Nobody running naked through the streets. No Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. For the most part, it had all the markings of an ordinary day. People drove to work, impatient as usual, drinking coffee, talking on cell phones and listening to the idiots on morning radio. It was as if the world had no intention of changing just because of some planetoidal mass that had wandered aimlessly into the earth’s gravitational field. It was only Wednesday.
When I got inside, I called in to work and told the manager on duty that I wouldn’t be coming in. He seemed genuinely surprised and lectured me about my work ethic and why I won’t be able to use him for a reference when I go to look for another job. Somewhere in the middle of this bold exercise in denial, I hung up and turned the television back on. Everything was on sale. A mattress store was offering apocalyptic savings on all bedroom sets. A used car dealership had abandoned their no payments for ninety days promotion in favor of a cash only policy. Everything else was a rerun. A few of the religious channels had already gone to static, probably as a result of some kind of rapture clause in their contracts. On other channels, though, it seemed like religion was all that anybody wanted to talk about. God this and Jesus H. that. We had never been formally introduced. Now, all I had to do was look up and there was God, up in the sky, as a solid piece of the universe coming down, indifferent to all of our plans, rendered meaningless by circumstance. Simplicity may never have been so complicated.
It wasn’t the first time that I had ever consciously asked myself what I wanted to do that day, but it was the first time that the options seemed almost without limit. People had already started looting and Detroit had been reduced to ashes after the last Pistons game. Meanwhile, travel agencies were reporting record sales and the airlines were making unprecedented profits. The price of gas had also gone up considerably, at least in the places that were still selling it. Just in the past two weeks, most of the country had reverted to a barter system where goods and services were exchanged without having a dead president to serve as the middleman. The rest of the planet was already on board, and oddly, the wealth of the world was more evenly distributed than it had ever been in the past. Farmers were once again treated as a valuable part of society and international trade was at an all time high.
The numbered days offered by the collective media began at fifty-nine and counted down from there. It was already forty-seven, and I had barely left the couch. The only significant change in my lifestyle was that I had once again taken up smoking. I traded a six pack of beer and five cans of Spaghetti-O’s for a carton of cigarettes. This offered me a relative semblance of control over my impending mortality.
As the days passed, though, I started thinking about everything that I had ever accomplished in my life, the places I’ve been and the people I’ve loved. I wondered what was next and what I may miss the most. I thought about last words, and how I’d like to have something profound to say, even if nobody hears it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want the last thing that I ever say to include the words “Spring break,” or “What the hell is that thing?”
I also started attempting to play the guitar that had been reduced to furniture by years of neglect. The strings were like barbed wire, but I finally got the hang of a G major and was able keep it in tune despite a missing string. I had a goal of learning at least one song before the end of the world. I heard that they were having a grand finale downtown, where thousands of people were set to hold hands in the final moments of humanity. It cost five bucks, but they give you a free drink ticket.
By the time the countdown reached seven days, though, the panic had become a pandemic. The thing in the sky was bigger than the moon and hotter than the sun, and ready to punch the earth square in the face. Various nations had taken attempts at shooting it out the sky with their stockpiled nuclear arsenals. One of the missiles misfired and rumor has it that most of Central America now suffers from radiation poisoning. World leaders were surprised to learn that Nicaragua even had nuclear capabilities, albeit in an adolescent state of development.
The leaders themselves were now miles underground in bunkers designed to maintain and perpetuate the human race. Other important people, like talk show hosts and basketball players joined them in their secret locations. Apparently if there’s one thing that humanity needs in the years that follow, it’s somebody who can throw a ball through a hoop really well. I don’t mean to be cynical, though. Most people are predicting that even the underground bunkers won’t survive the impact. In fact, just the other night, Letterman said that all that will be left is cockroaches and Velveeta.
It’s amazing that all these thousands of years of evolution and intellectual progress brought us here to this moment, with nothing to do but wait. I’m twenty-three and I’ll never be twenty-four. I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated by that. Just like everyone else, life has led me here, with nothing to do but solemnly look up, into the unblinking eye of God. For the first time, I think I know what it means to love my fellow man, and it comes from a place of sympathy. We all share the same fate, and these last days are all we have. This is life, in all of its beauty and horror, and that thing up in the sky is the finish line of the human race. There are no winners and all we really did was run around in a big circle; but when time is limited, there are better things to do than regret. Perhaps there always has been.
As the numbered days were reduced to hours and the hours were reduced to minutes, the radiated heat began to raise the temperature in the stratosphere and everything grew still and silent. Animals seemed to disappear, and then everything around me was steadily consumed by this immense shadow. From a lawn chair on an empty street in the midst of quiet chaos, I watched the tops of trees catch fire while I held my guitar with a broken string and played the one song I knew how to play. In that moment, which was both a blink of an eye and a lifetime, I finally understood what it means to be alive. As for the last words that I ever said, that I struggled for weeks to come up with, to speak for myself and for the rest of us, it turned out that it wasn’t words that escaped my mouth.
It was laughter.