“Tidings of the Apocalypse” by Patrick Ryan
A well-placed flash forward in a story can open it up in surprising and wonderful ways. Using a second-person voice and the present tense, “Tidings of the Apocalypse,” originally published in The Chattahoochee Review, follows the protagonist Frankie in the spring of 1993. Waco is being shut down, AIDS has entered its second decade, and the events of the outside world conflate with those of Frankie’s life.
The first flash forward in the story appears at just about the halfway point of the story, and this flash forward only moves a few days into the future, but it’s a crucial few days. Allowing us to move through time in this way, though, and at this point in the story, Patrick Ryan establishes a pattern that shows us the way the present time is connected to and will lead into the future. It also serves to underscore the thematic importance of time. When the narrator flashes forward again at the end of the story, in a moment that’s surprising and heartbreaking and inevitable, the ending works because of the way in which Ryan plays with time and tense throughout.
You try not to get caught up in the prophesies of this world because they all stem from the idea that one omniscient God has decided to destroy what he’s created, while the more interesting prophecies come from other worlds and have to do with interplanetary observation, adjustment, and population exchange. In 1990, the leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant convinced 2,000 people to come to Montana and live in fallout shelters while God set off a string of nuclear weapons. In 1992, a reverend in Korea convinced 20,000 people that God was on His way to collect them before unleashing a decade of pestilence. And at the beginning of this year, 1993, a pastor in Pensacola has predicted that the Rapture is imminent, and that seven hundred days after it occurs God will come back and destroy all the homosexuals. To you, this sounds like the definition of overkill: abandoning a house you have no intention of living in again, and then returning two years later to fumigate.
Cooper doesn’t believe in any of this stuff—not the prophesies of this world nor the ones you’ve learned about through the work of certain visionary artists in contact with planets outside the purview of NASA. Ballyhoo, he calls it. Egotistical paranoia. But Cooper, whom you love because of his laugh and his smile and the wilt of blond hair that falls over his forehead, his erratic hand gestures and long-limbed clumsiness, his sharing a name with one of the Apollo astronauts, his fondness for Hitchcock films and his bad Jimmy Stewart impression, his unwillingness to step on a roach (much less eat an animal), the furrow in his brow when he reads anything from Faulkner to The Florida Flambeau, and the kind way he talks to you and to his colleagues and to your mutual friends—Cooper will not shut you down. Cooper will let you talk endlessly about these things.
“A girl went swimming in the ‘don’t swim’ area at the lake,” you tell him over breakfast one day in the student cafeteria. You like the cafeteria for its ever-ready scrambled eggs and sandwiches and pasta with meatballs. The prices are cheap and there’s a student discount besides, which is good because the two of you have almost no money. You’re the only two graduate students you know of who frequent the place (Cooper is studying comparative literature; you’re in the visual arts program though you’re thinking about quitting), and being in the cafeteria makes you feel simultaneously cool and like elder statesmen, though neither of you is considered cool and you’re both just twenty-six. Cooper’s tray is cotton candy blue; yours is the color of baby aspirin. “An alligator was eating her when one of those glass-bottom tourist boats rounded the bend. Everyone saw.”
“Through the bottom of the boat?” Cooper asks.
“On the bank, I guess.”
“Sounds gruesome. Do we know this actually happened?”
You heard the story from an artist who hangs out at the university track where you man the sprinklers and run the sweep machine four mornings a week. The artist calls you Finnigan, though your last name is Kerrigan, and his arms are flecked with paint and he sometimes smells like pot, but you trust what he has to say. “Pretty sure,” you tell Cooper. “What do you think it means? That one of the emissaries to the planet was trying to help compensate because we’ve crowded out the original Oligocenians?”
“I think it means the girl should have stayed in the ‘swim’ area,” Cooper says. “But, sure, the Oligocenians deserve a break. I mean, they were here first, right?”
He bites into his Danish. You want to kiss the icing from his lips.
April, 1993: In Waco, Texas, a man whose name used to be Vernon Howell but is now David Koresh has changed the name of his commune from the Mount Carmel Center to Ranch Apocalypse. He’s told his students, who now call themselves Branch Davidians, that the battle of Armageddon will start there in just two years, and he’s suspected of amassing a sizeable arsenal of illegal weapons. Federal agents have had the commune surrounded for weeks. Shots have been fired; four agents and six Branch Davidians have been killed. Koresh himself is said to be wounded but still talking, and the FBI site commander, having cut all the phone lines, has re opened a private line to Koresh and sent in a video camera.
You read about this in the newspaper while sitting in the vestibule of a downtown government building, waiting for the auburn-haired woman to call you into her office and tell you about the contents of your blood. It’s easy to read the story as being about just two characters: Koresh, who looks a little like Jim Morrison in his photo, and the FBI site commander, who isn’t pictured but who is, maybe, a Brian Dennehy-type. But the article tells you there are many people barricaded inside the compound (already, you notice, the word “commune” has been swapped out for “compound”): men, women, and children, each of whom, you suspect, are more than the sum total of these recent events. They are individuals with families, favorite foods, favorite colors. Cherished memories they’ve maybe stopped taking stock of for the time being, just as you, in this most contented stretch of your adult life so far, have stopped actively taking stock: of the mother in a different part of Florida who wants you to call home once a week just for the sake of staying in touch. Of the brother who lives in Chicago and who doesn’t need to talk to you that often. Of the other brother who’s moved to Las Vegas, and the sister who’s moved to Savannah (you only know about them from updates your mother gives you). Of David Bowie, Nikola Tesla, M.C. Escher. Of the smell of flea powder on your dog’s stomach when you were a child, and the boom of fireworks—any fireworks, whether from the 4th of July or the opening of a new car dealership—that seemed to come from inside your chest and sent a shudder through your ribs. And of this:
Pre-Cooper, late at night, you were lying alone in a park listening to Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues on your Walkman, staring up at a clear, dark sky when you saw a ship drift overhead. Not some massive saucer but a kind of parabolic superellipse constellated with lights that came in low, paused over you for almost a minute, and made one slow, silent rotation before moving away. During the stretch of time that the ship hovered, certain information was telegraphed into your brain. You’ve never told anyone about this—not even Cooper—because you’re still trying to decipher what that information is and, for all you know, mentioning it to someone else might alter it, might even erase it. And because you’ve been so happily preoccupied with Cooper for the past two years, there’ve been whole stretches of weeks wherein the event hasn’t even crossed your mind.
The newspaper article estimates that sixty to eighty individuals are barricaded inside Ranch Apocalypse. Koresh is using the video camera and the re-established phone line to claim that he’s the Second Coming of Christ. Outside, Combat Engineer Vehicles are rolling over cars belonging to the Branch Davidians. The FBI has mounted loudspeakers to helicopters and is blasting an endless series of recordings: human chanting, animal screams, the amplified roar of jet engines. That, and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.”
The office door opens and a young man steps out into the vestibule. His face is flushed, his gaze is cast down at the marble floor, and a slight, private smile is set into his mouth as he walks past your bench toward the elevator. A few moments later the door opens again and the auburn-haired woman emerges and spots you where you sit, holding the newspaper.
“L2573?” she asks.
You don’t know her, but you like her, and liking her counts for something in a situation like this. She’s maybe thirty and holds her eyes a fraction wider than normal, so that you can see the whole of her irises. Her nostrils and the tip of her nose are ruddy, as if she’s still suffering from the same cold she had when you first met her two weeks ago. She wears her hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her voice reminds you of your mother’s.
There was nothing to put your signature on during your first visit, no forms for you to fill out, no stubby pencils. She assigned you a secret code name and asked you a series of questions about your history, and you answered each one honestly. Sitting just inches away, hands folded over your belt buckle, you shared with this woman a bunker of personal information:
The number of sexual partners you’ve had, give or take a few. (Upwards of a hundred.)
The gender of the people involved in those encounters. (Male.)
Whether or not bodily fluids were exchanged. (Occasionally.)
Whether or not alcohol or other mood-altering drugs were a factor. “No judgments,” she was careful to add when you hesitated. “It’s just data.” And so you walked her through your first two years of college, owning up to the booze and the Quaaludes that sometimes pre-ambled sloppy sex, the bumps and lines of coke that sometimes pre-ambled frantic sex, the vials of amyl nitrate that were passed around, the capsules someone had nicknamed Atlanta Slugs that turned you into electric jelly for seventeen hours at a time. In a bedroom at a party once, while on an Atlanta Slug, you had sex with five consecutive guys and then—like the finale of a 70s variety show—brought them all back in for a group number.
“But that was in my crazy days, you know? I was”— you didn’t know how else to put it—“different.”
“It’s just data,” she reminded you. And then continued:
How many people are you currently having sex with? (One.) Do you consider yourself in a monogamous relationship? (Yes.) How long have you been in this relationship? (Two years.) Do you practice safe sex? Use condoms?
“Cooper and I always have,” you told her. “For everything. And they taste gross.”
She was on the verge of handing you a pamphlet, but then brought it up to her mouth in a half-hearted attempt to hide her grin. “You’re right, they do taste gross.”
She moved on to the symptoms: which ones you’ve had, which ones you think you might have had, which ones you’ve seen no indication of whatsoever. You’ve seen no indication of any of them, and you told her this, and she recorded it via a long series of checkmarks on her clipboard. Then she laid the clipboard across her lap and used it as an elbow rest as she peered at you and asked a question that was somehow more personal than all the others: “How do you feel?”
“Great,” you said. “Should I be freaked out?”
“I can’t answer that for you, but speaking strictly from a medical point of view, whatever you do in bed doesn’t cause the virus. The virus already has to be present in order for it to be passed from one person to another. Okay?”
Everything about her countenance told you this was enough reassurance to stay calm. You nodded.
“So let’s get some of the red stuff,” she said.
You’ve come here for peace of mind—not for yourself so much as for Cooper, who’s had only three sexual partners prior to you (astounding, given how seductive you find him), and who isn’t worried, and who hasn’t asked you to get tested. He doesn’t even know you’re here. But you’ve been thinking about it for a while, and keeping your status from yourself has begun to feel like keeping from Cooper and the rest of the world the appearance of the ship that hovered over you all those years ago. In fact, the two events have started to conflate: was the information telegraphed into your brain that night—about this? Was keeping such information trapped in your body worse than letting it out? Many people over the years, some of them well-meaning (your siblings, for example), have accused you of crazy thinking, and you find them crazy for thinking so, but even you feel this particular merging of thoughts may be outside reasonable conjecture. Yes, there are other worlds watching this world. Yes, there are smaller worlds within this world, forming factions and alliances, amassing arsenals, predicting doom. But the matter at hand is quite simple. Speaking strictly from a medical point of view, the virus was either present at some point along the way, or it wasn’t—and isn’t it a reasonable idea to want to find out the coast is clear so that you can put the matter to rest?
“To our partnership in crime,” Cooper sometimes says, raising a mug or a glass in mock-formality, and the two of you have made this toast with everything from coffee to orange juice to Lime Rickeys to the occasional beer. Partnership: an arrangement wherein parties agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests. Crime: to hell with the country, the state. You’re political, but by accident. You’re in love, and that also feels by accident. You’re scared, but only just now, and only because it occurs to you as you stand and fold the newspaper and drop it onto the bench that the auburn-haired woman with the ponytail has given you enough reassurance to stay calm for the moment, and that moment was during your original visit, two weeks ago.
Today, you notice after stepping into her office, she looks not just burdened by her cold but tired. Before sitting down, she touches your shoulder and pats the back of the chair next to her desk, as if you haven’t been here once before and might have no idea where to sit. As if she’s projecting her own tired state of mind. Suffice to say, there is something different about her.
Which means there is something different about you.
Cooper knows languages. He can translate a Verlaine poem from French into Russian, then from Russian into English, English into Italian, Italian back into French, and compare the results against the original just for fun—the way other people do crossword puzzles. He can quote whole passages of Chaucer, and when you ask him how he’s able to speak Middle English when he doesn’t even understand the language, he tells you he just runs the lines through his Tennessee Williams filter. “Whatever it is, you just imagine it coming out the mouth of Stanley or Brick or the Princess Kosmonopolis,” he says, and to demonstrate, he filters “And bathed every veyne in swich licour” into “He bothered every one of my veins and switched my liquor.”
He likes watching syndicated television comedies from the 1950s as much as he likes watching Masterpiece Theatre. He dives into Agatha Christie and Elmore Leonard novels in between Cervantes, Shikibu, and Joyce. (When you aren’t reading books on nebulas and wormholes, you tend to stick to the Roberts—Heinlein, Jordan). He calls you hyper-focused, which you aren’t, and he calls himself a scatterbrain, which he isn’t. He absorbs information like a sponge, retains every fact, puts it to use. As easy as it is for him to toss a book aside, grab you by the waist and bring his mouth against your ear, he can roll away moments after sex, move his finger through the sweat on your chest and be tracing a word he learned that morning.
“If you were a TV show, you’d be I, Claudius,” you once told him as the two of you lay spent, side by side.
“You don’t stutter, but your hands kind of do, and you look worried when you’re just being serious.”
You were trying to pay him a compliment but realized it was coming out clunky. “What show would I be?” you asked, thinking he might choose The X-Files, or Quantum Leap.
He contemplated this for a moment and said, “My Favorite Martian.”
The auburn-haired woman asks if you understand everything she’s just explained (though she hasn’t explained a lot). You tell her you do. She makes a call while you’re sitting there and sets up an appointment with a doctor in the Health Department—someone who will take more blood so that they can measure your various levels and discuss strategies. “Is early next week good?” she asks, holding the receiver away from her chin. Sure, you tell her. But this pending appointment will haunt you until, a few days from now, you’ll decide not to go and, glancing over your shoulder as if you’re being followed, you’ll let the card with the doctor’s name and the appointment information slip out of your hand and into a waste basket on the fourth floor of the campus library.
She asks how you’re doing and you tell her you’re fine. You stand and, because you aren’t sure how else to end such a meeting, you shake her hand. She tells you to keep your spirits up, and for an instant you feel an unusual flash of rage. Why don’t you keep your own spirits up, you think, and fuck off. But you don’t say this because she looks a little sad, and because you know you’re conflating again, smashing the blue of your test results against the pink of her good wishes and making a sick, Eastery purple.
Along with his classes and his duties as a T.A., Cooper works three days a week at a sandwich shop not far from the Capitol. He slices croissants for government employees and attorneys and commercial realtors, drops mini-marshmallows into the bottoms of waffle cones to keep the frozen yogurt from leaking out (“my greatest accomplishment,” he jokes). He’s there now, has three hours left in his shift, and you’re tempted to walk to the shop and tell him. But even for as upset and frightened as you are, you know this is a bad idea. You’ll go home instead, wait for him, tell him there.
Or maybe you won’t tell him. After all, it’s not as if there’s anything productive to be done with the data. It’s not as if Cooper can begin, right there on the spot, to help you or help himself get through this.
And so, after deciding only that you won’t decide what or when to tell him, you pick up the receiver of a payphone six blocks away from the sandwich shop and dial his number just to hear his voice.
“What’s up?” he asks.
The words funnel upward, spew out. They run something like this: You’re just taking a walk. You’re just having the kind of thoughts someone has when taking a walk, running things through your mind that might never occur to you if you weren’t walking. Like there was a time when you were eight or nine and you were sitting on a sea wall on Merritt Island with your legs hanging over the edge, your bare feet grazing the water, and a manatee surfaced so that your toes were actually touching its snout—just for a second—and you could feel its whiskers, and it scared you until you started laughing. And another time, you were playing with this kid down the street and you showed him your Mexican jumping beans and he took one from you and before you could stop him he smashed it open with the heel of his shoe. There was something wet inside, a little ball-shaped worm, and it was awful to see it broken apart and dying, but part of you was glad to know, finally, what made the beans move. And just a few years before you and Cooper met, you had this encounter with a spaceship that hovered over you and beamed stuff into your brain, but you never bothered to tell anyone.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Cooper asks, sounding somewhat amused but distracted, as well. Work sounds clutter the air behind his voice. “What spaceship?”
“It was just this thing that happened that I never told you.”
“You sound kind of out of it,” he says. “Where are you?”
“At a pay phone.” And then your voice breaks, and your teeth start to chatter, though the sun is beating down on the back of your neck and you’re sweating inside your t-shirt. “I got some blood work done, and the news isn’t so great. Have you seen what’s going on with those people in Waco? The Army’s flattening their cars with tanks and blasting music from helicopters.”
“The guy’s claiming to be the next Jesus.”
“Frankie, wait,” Cooper says. “What are you telling me?”
“The guy inside the compound. The head guy. He’s claiming to be Jesus II,” you say, struggling for volume against your diminishing voice, “and they’re making them all listen to Nancy Sinatra, like that’s some kind of punishment, like it wouldn’t just be cool to have Nancy Sinatra playing from helicopters. I’ve been thinking about dropping out of school, and I got tested two weeks ago and they told me today I’m positive.”
There’s a storm of exhaled breath on the other end of the line. The skittering of a cash register.
How you wish you hadn’t dialed the number. How you wish you’d done nothing more than observe him reading from across the student union that afternoon two years ago, had never felt bold enough to approach him and say hello, had never felt bold enough to approach anyone, had never gotten it into your head that there was any need to leave your hometown or grow past the age of— seven. The air is rank with the smell of dogwood.
“I can’t believe you’re telling me this right now,” Cooper says. “Is it even true, or did you hear it from some pothead or—or just dream it?”
You can easily imagine the conflicted look on his face: concern and worry and a desire to hide it all from the people around him. You can hear the clench in his throat. You hadn’t realized you were crying, but there are tears tracing the bottom of your jaw. “Well, the stuff in the paper sounds true, they’re trying to get those people out, but everybody inside is waiting for the end of the world, I guess. The manatee and the jumping bean and the space ship are true because I was there for all that—”
“Okay, can you do me a favor? Can you shut up about everything but the test results?”
Shut up. A first.
“You got tested.”
“And—and they said—Jesus, I’m at work.”
“I know,” you say. “I’m really sorry.”
“I don’t want you to apologize. I just want you to go home. I’ll meet you there as soon as I’m done with my shift and we’ll talk about this, all right?”
I love you, you think to say, and you know he wants to say it back, since you’ve been saying it to each other several times a day for over a year now. But without deciding to do it, you’ve already hung up the phone.
Cooper has a close circle of friends, of course, and they all know you and like you, and because of that, in the immediate wake of your call, the notion of his sharing your news with any of them feels like an indiscretion, almost a kind of betrayal. He has a mentor in the English Department, a professor who treats him like her son and who will advise him on any topic he brings her, but she’s currently on sabbatical. He has a small, fairly close-knit family in Dade City, but they’re devout Catholics and he isn’t out to them yet. And so, by default, when he hangs up the phone in the sandwich shop, he has his co-workers (two undergraduate girls who get on his nerves), and he has George.
Cooper has told you some things about George. He respects George, admires him. George is an FSU alumnus, has the same comparative literature degree Cooper is working on, and likes telling mildly scandalous anecdotes about many of Cooper’s professors. George is thirty-five, has a van dyke beard and just a slight paunch, drives a CRX, and owns the sandwich shop. His sense of humor is as dry as a loofa, Cooper has said. He’s gay but prefers the term “chipper.” He used to have a boyfriend though he preferred the term “better half” (until the better half left him; now he prefers the term “asshole”). He’s seen you come into the shop several times and has met you just once, when he smiled and shook your hand and remarked that you and Cooper make “an adorable pair of bookends.”
He’s sitting in the corner booth he uses for an office, adding up receipts on a calculator, when Cooper approaches him. And here is a conversation you aren’t privy to but that Cooper tells you about, to some degree, further down the line, a mostly one-sided conversation you’d like to erase from your imagination.
Someone’s eating the profits again, and I think it’s me, George says without looking up.
Since Cooper doesn’t often smoke and rarely bums one, this is understood as a request for George to join him out back, where they can talk in private. Behind the sandwich shop, next to the dumpster, Cooper tells George your news and breaks down sobbing. George shushes him, hugs him—a firm, avuncular hug—and tells him this is not the end of the world. When Cooper snaps back, Meaning what?, George shushes him again. Deep breath, he instructs. In. Out. Once Cooper has collected himself, George steps back, leans against the wall, drags on his cigarette and announces through the smoke that he’s about to sound mean. He’s about to sound selfish, but he doesn’t care. When the asshole left him, it was by far the worst thing George had ever experienced. But then, within the span of six months, three of his best friends lost their boyfriends to you-know-what (or so you imagine he phrased it; according to Cooper, George wouldn’t name the actual virus, the same way some people won’t say “cancer” as if the word were contagious). Watching what those guys went through was heartbreaking, of course, and they were beyond brave, they were troopers, but it was also just one big lose-lose. They came out of it wasted, shell-shocked, and single. (It takes Cooper a moment to realize George is talking about the widowers and not the dead boyfriends.)
Better to have had his ex leave than to have to watch him die one gasp at a time, George has since decided. Cooper has been with Frankie how long? Not long enough to take this on, and certainly not long enough for Cooper to put himself at risk. He’s too young. He’s too handsome. He has too much ahead of him.
And it’s not like he’s painted into a corner, George reminds him. It’s not like he has to go home right now and break things off, which would only make him feel guilty for the rest of his life. He has options. George’s best advice—and he means this from the heart—is to be safe, first and foremost, and give it a few months, and then just . . . stop getting along so well. Have a few good old-fashioned fights about nothing. Become a grouch. That way, when the time comes to break the news that he’s leaving, it won’t be because Frankie’s a ticking time bomb but because the magic has faded, the harmony’s gone, and the relationship clearly isn’t working.
Cooper has long-since thrown his unfinished cigarette down and stepped on it. He can’t think much past the moment he’s in, but what he knows more than anything is that he wants to be away from this exchange with George. Thank you (he probably says, knowing Cooper). He tells George he’s going to knock off a little early, if that’s okay.
Of course, George says. Please know how sorry I am. And, according to Cooper, he adds, Come here, and pulls him in for another hug. George, whom Cooper admires and respects. George who, if there is any justice in the universe, should aliens ever descend upon the Earth and announce that they’ve come with open arms to ferry everyone off to a healthier, more peaceful planet, will not have the good fortune to have seen the news that day.
May he spend at least one lonely, rotten month thinking he missed the boat.
Cooper doesn’t come straight home like he said he would. Instead, he goes for a drive to clear George’s advice out of his head. This, he believes, is crucial: put some time, some miles, some moving air between his panicked state of mind and George’s words. Only the words won’t clear.
Driving north on Thomasville Road—a road that connects downtown Tallahassee to a busy, outlying stretch of housing developments, movie theaters, and steak houses, a road that becomes U.S. 319 and eventually, should one choose to follow it that far, connects to I-75 and the rest of the world—his panic begins to feel more like irritation. He’s disproportionately irritated with the traffic, with the heat, with the blatting, oil-burning engine of his VW Bug—a car he bought from his uncle, who warned him with a grin that it was a “light-blue lemon.” He’s irritated with George and with himself. He’s irritated with you (and the proportion of that cannot yet be determined). One of the things about Cooper you’ve always admired: he isn’t good at being out of sorts because he’s almost never out of sorts. He is, under most circumstances, a model of calmness and level-headedness.
But not today.
He wants to keep driving until the car falls apart.
He wants to take you by the shoulders and scream into your face.
He wants to hold you.
One of the thoughts that refuses to dislodge itself from his mind is that George, for all his crassness and possibly even ulterior motives, may be right. The situation can easily be seen as a lose-lose. A Kobayashi Maru, you would say. For a few moments, nothing seems feasible. For a few, more difficult moments, everything seems feasible. He could be a dozen different versions of himself and do a dozen different things, and there would be no way of knowing if any of them was right.
And then a moment arrives—call it clarity, call it surrender—when there is only one thing to do.
He’s almost never bought anything new in his life. Certainly nothing he didn’t consider practical, utilitarian. He’s embraced the poverty that comes with being a graduate student lucky enough to have avoided student loans, and he prides himself at having made it to twenty-six without a credit card. But now he drives to the mall and finds a jewelry store. The prices—even for the low-end stuff—are staggering. There’s a layaway plan, they explain it to him in detail, but that projects itself months into the future and he—suddenly the kind of consumer he’s always hated—wants what he wants, now. The department stores in the mall have jewelry counters, and at each one he asks if there’s a card he might apply for that will allow him to make a purchase on the spot, but, as he learns, that isn’t possible without a credit card, a person has to have at least a little credit to get more credit. This may as well be a koan designed to sink him into a stupor that might one day blossom into wisdom, but there isn’t time. He wants to raise his voice, plead with the sales clerks, translate his language and theirs into one that’s more communal, more expedient. On his way out of the mall, he glances at his watch and sees that, even though he’s left work early, he should already be home by now.
And there, on his wrist, is a possible solution.
The pawnshop is freestanding and cinderblock, a white knuckle of a building rising up from a stretch of asphalt between an appliance store and a furniture liquidation warehouse. In the front window, next to a drum set, is a mannequin dressed as an infantry soldier from World War II, a rifle balanced across his arms. The walls inside are lined with more guns than Cooper has ever seen, along with dozens of guitars, a violin, a saxophone, a shelf of Cuisinarts and, hanging in one corner as if it’s been lynched, a Charlie McCarthy doll. There are bracelets and necklaces under dusty glass, but no other jewelry in sight. Cooper asks the man sitting behind the counter if he has any rings.
“What kind of rings?”
“Wedding bands, I guess. Something simple.”
“You’re getting married and you want to keep it simple?”
“Yes,” Cooper says.
“Good luck,” the man replies, pushing up from his chair. He steps through a pair of curtains, and when he returns he’s holding a small, glass case framed in wood. He sets it on the counter and wipes his hand across its top.
The rings are set into a grooved, felt backing. Most of them have stones, but at the end of the bottom row is a pair of silver bands plain enough to be plumbing washers. “Those,” Cooper says, tapping on the glass. The man opens the case, takes the rings out, squints at them, blows on them. Cooper has already slipped the watch off his wrist. It’s the only watch he’s ever owned, given by his parents at his high school graduation. Made in Germany, inscribed to him on the back. At that time, his plan was to one day give this watch to his son, who would then give it to his son. With that off the table, it might have gone to an as-yet-unborn niece or nephew. But to hell with it. Certain that the watch will more than cover the cost of the rings, and that the two of you can do something crazy like spend the extra money on a nice dinner out, some place that isn’t that fucking cafeteria, a place with waiters and tablecloths, Cooper asks what the difference will be if they make the exchange.
The man takes the watch, inspects it with his lower lip pushed forward. “Twenty.”
“Twenty dollars? That’s it?”
As if Cooper might be a recent arrival to the English language, the man slows down his speech a little. “You’d owe me twenty dollars. This is a knockoff, for one thing. And it’s inscribed. Unless it’s inscribed to a President or a movie star, that brings down the value.”
“And what about the rings?”
The man clears his throat and says, “Those rings are from Andorra.”
The real question that hovers between them is, how much of a chump is Cooper willing to be? Or, put more simply, how desperate is he? He tries to give the man the look of disgust he wasn’t brave enough to give George behind the sandwich shop. He drops a ten and two fives onto the counter, forgets about the watch, and when the man tells him he has no “fancy ring boxes,” Cooper says it doesn’t matter and holds out his hand.
By the time he gets home, smoke will be billowing over Ranch Apocalypse. The fabled battle of Armageddon will seem to have started early—and will seem, already, to be over. Seventy-six people will have died. But these aren’t end times; they are just times of strange endings, and strange news. Your late afternoon will have dragged itself into dusk, and Cooper, an hour later than he said he’d be, will find you perched on the couch with your knees up against your chest, the television full of mayhem but the sound turned off. He will sit down next to you, and you will ask him how he is. Looking you in the eye, he will reach into his pocket and show you his purchase.
You will have to get these rings resized—one of them must have been made for a child, the other for a fat man—but once you do, the two of you will wear them for a full, good year, and then for seven uncertain months after that, and then for another two weeks of living moment to moment until you, in unreasonably good health, will come to understand that nothing can be accurately predicted, and that if you don’t slip Cooper’s ring from his desiccated finger, it might fall off and get lost in the damp tangle of sheets. You’ll whisper into his ear that you love him, and he’ll swallow air and work his lips around the words, Don’t lose that.
“Tidings of the Apocalypse” was originally published in The Chattahoochee Review, Volume XXXII, Number 1, Spring 2013.
PATRICK RYAN is the author of The Dream Life of Astronauts (long-listed for The Story Prize and named one the Best Books of the Year by the St. Louis Times-Dispatch, LitHub, Refinery 29, and Electric Literature) and Send Me (a finalist for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize). He is also the author of several novels for young adults. His fiction has appeared in many places over the years, including The Best American Short Stories. His nonfiction has been published by Granta and has been included in Tales of Two Cities and other anthologies. The former associate editor of Granta and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, Patrick is the editor-in-chief of One Story. He lives in New York City.