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short story

End of the World

“Miles, right?” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. “What can I get for you today?”

Miles, a slender fellow with short gray hair, today his sixty-third birthday, gives Justin a dazed look and says, “I’ve only been here once before, about three months ago. You and I spoke for less than a minute. Yet you remember my name. I’m amazed.”

“You’re a memorable guy,” says Justin, who is forty-five, six-feet-six, with carrot red hair and a Cheshire Cat smile – his ability to remember faces and the names that go with those faces phenomenal. “Was it beer or wine I served you? This I don’t remember.”

“A local porter,” says Miles, feeling a slight lifting of the gloom that has gripped him for as long as he can remember. “Delicious. And fish & chips, the fish broiled. Also delicious. I’d love a half-pint of that same porter and fish & chips again.”

“For future reference,” says Justin, filling a glass with dark Mercy Porter and placing the brew before Miles, “I take food orders along with booze requests until five. Thereafter our wait staff will take your food order once you’re seated. And by golly, it’s only 4:49, so you’re in luck.”

“Great,” says Miles, getting out his wallet.

“We’ll settle up when you’re all done,” says Justin, waving to the waitress and pointing to Miles as she returns from a foray among the tables. “Conchita will cater to your every whim. Within reason.”

Conchita, a lovely Latina in her early thirties, six months pregnant, steps up to the bar and rattles off orders for beer and wine and mixed drinks before she turns to Miles and says, “Miles, right? Have a seat and I’ll find you.”

*

Miles chooses a small table with a view of the bar, sips the delicious porter, and feels he might cry – the friendliness of Justin and Conchita breaching the dam around his heart.

“Oh well,” he says, allowing himself to shed a few tears. “It is my birthday, after all.”

Somewhat relieved by his little cry, his glass empty, he looks up as Conchita arrives with a big platter of fish & chips and coleslaw and a half-pint of porter.

“Justin thought you might want another to go with your food,” says Conchita, setting the porter down and picking up the empty. “This one’s on the house.”

“Thank you,” says Miles, his tears on the rise again. “When is your baby due?”

“November seventh,” she says, placing a hand on her belly. “Three more months. You have kids?”

“A daughter,” says Miles, unable to quell his tears. “And a grandson. They live in Portugal.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” asks Conchita, scanning the room to gauge how long she might linger with him. “We’re having a girl and collecting possible names. My mother wants me to name her Luisa after my grandmother, and my grandmother Luisa wants me to name her Felicia after her mother. And my husband’s mother says she’d love it if we named her Doris after her mother.”

“Eliana,” says Miles, his jaw trembling.

“Ooh,” says Conchita, winking at Miles as she moves away. “I love that. Enjoy.”

Now Miles really cries and ceases to care if anyone sees him blubbering, and when his tears abate, he has a long drink of the porter, eats a few of the scrumptious chips, and digs into the tender fish, the deliciousness of everything momentarily easing his sorrow.

*

Walking home from town at dusk on a trail through the woods that allows him to avoid walking on a road save for the last quarter mile – his house a mile inland from Mercy – Miles is pleasantly drunk and lost in thoughts of Justin and Conchita and the gaiety of the pub, when an enormous mountain lion steps onto the trail just twenty feet ahead and gives Miles a searching look before vanishing into the dark forest.

*

His heart still pounding from the encounter with the giant puma, Miles arrives at his house at the dead end of Auden Street, a lane intruding into the vast redwood forest, and he is filled with a longing to not be alone, a longing he has kept at bay for the seven months he’s lived here.

He starts a fire in the woodstove in the living room and clicks on the electric kettle in the kitchen to boil water for tea – his house fully electric, the electricity supplied by a large array of solar panels standing to the south of the house where he also has a big vegetable and flower garden, his two acres deer-fenced to keep out the many ravenous deer.

Squatting by the woodstove to feed the fire, Miles longs to have a friendly dog to go on walks with, a cat or two sprawled on the sofa, and someone making tea in the kitchen, someone he can tell about meeting the mountain lion – none of which he thought he would ever long for again.

Sure of the fire’s continuance, Miles goes into his office, notes the light blinking on his answering machine, a rare occurrence, and taps the space bar on his keyboard to awaken his computer, the screen revealing a dozen emails yet to be opened, most of them with the subject heading Happy Birthday – none of which he cares to read.

He returns to the kitchen and is about to make a cup of tea, when a vehicle pulls into his driveway and headlights penetrate into the house for a moment before the driver turns the headlights off.

“What did I order?” he says, assuming this is a delivery truck, UPS or Fed Ex, and thinking Must be more birthday nonsense.

He turns on the outside lights to illuminate the parking area and the path to the house, and a moment later someone opens the gate. Hearing footsteps on the gravel path, Miles waits for the delivery person to leave the package on the porch and depart, but now someone knocks on the front door and Miles thinks I must have to sign for something.

He turns on the porch light, opens his door, and is startled to see Conchita standing next to a man holding a little black dog.

“Hello,” says Miles, his heart pounding.

“You left your wallet at the pub,” says Conchita, handing Miles his wallet. “We got your address from your driver’s license. My shift just ended and you’re on our way home, so… we just live another mile inland.” She turns to the man, a sturdy fellow with curly black hair. “This is my husband Zeke. Zeke this is Miles.”

“Hey,” says Zeke, lifting one of the little dog’s paws to wave at Miles.

“Thank you so much,” says Miles, blushing. “Must have been the porter. I’m a cheap date. Usually stop at half a pint.”

“Zeke’s the same way,” says Conchita, laughing. “And by the way, happy birthday. I saw your DOB on your license.”

“Oh thanks,” says Miles, on the verge of tears again. “Would you like to come in? Have a cup of tea?”

Conchita and Zeke exchange looks and Conchita says, “We don’t want to bother you.”

“No bother. Please,” says Miles, gesturing for them to enter.

“This is Eso,” says Zeke, nuzzling the little dog. “He’s house trained and his paws are clean.”

“Fine,” says Miles, petting the friendly dog. “I love dogs.”

*

They sit by the woodstove, Eso sprawled on the hearth, and Conchita and Zeke tell Miles a little about themselves – Zeke born in Mercy, does garden maintenance for a living, his parents retired to Hawaii some years ago, Conchita born in Mercy, too, her parents and grandparents and most of their descendants still living in and around Mercy, the baby she’s carrying her first.

“What about you, Miles?” asks Zeke, his voice full of kindness. “How do spend your time?”

“I mostly garden now,” says Miles, not wanting to talk about his past but feeling he must a little. “Take long walks. Eat. Sleep. Read. That’s about it. I was a professor at UC Berkeley for thirty-five years. Ecology.”

Zeke frowns. “Are you Miles Cain?”

“I am,” says Miles, nodding. “Have you… how do you know of me?”

“I read your last three books,” says Zeke, looking at Conchita. “And recounted much of what they say to my patient wife.”

“Oh,” says Conchita, awareness dawning. “You’re the end-of-the-world guy.”

Miles feels her words as a knife in his heart. “Yeah. That’s me.”

“Great books,” says Zeke, looking at Miles with deep respect. “Brave and honest and what everybody needs to know. Thank you for writing them.”

“Fat lot of good they did,” says Miles, wanting more than anything for Conchita to know him as someone other than the end-of-the-world guy. “I often regret writing them.”

“No, no,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “They’re incredibly important. In this world of climate-change deniers and…”

“Too late,” says Miles, shaking his head. “We’ve gone beyond all the crucial tipping points. No way back.”

“Too late for what?” asks Conchita, gazing at Miles and sensing how deeply sad and lonely he is. “We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families. Whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right? I could die in childbirth. Zeke could die tomorrow in a car accident or fall off a ladder. But we’re alive now and we’ll be alive until we die.”

“And as you said in your books,” says Zeke, who often thinks about how life may be when their daughter is ten and much of the world is in chaos from climate disasters and the breakdown of society, “the earth has seen a thousand tipping points that make the current trends seem fairly insignificant.”

“But you will suffer,” says Miles, bowing his head and weeping. “Everyone will suffer so terribly, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

“Maybe it did,” says Conchita, getting up and going to Miles and resting a hand on his shoulder. “In the meantime, welcome to the neighborhood. We’re having a barbecue on Saturday and we’d love for you to come.”

In between sobs, Miles manages to ask, “What can I bring?”

*

Miles hasn’t spoken to his daughter Eliana in two years. She stopped communicating with Miles when he published his last and most successful book If We Don’t Change NOW and refused to express any hope of humanity averting a climate crisis that will render the earth uninhabitable by humans and most other living things. Eliana’s mother Sharon divorced Miles twenty years ago when he refused to add a note of hope to his first bestseller about climate change Avoidable Disasters. And his subsequent marriage to Jane, a fellow ecologist, ended because Jane couldn’t bear his relentless anger and pessimism.

But one of those birthday phone messages Miles got yesterday was from Eliana and her husband Goncalo and their ten-year-old son Hugo calling from Portugal and singing Happy Birthday, so Miles feels emboldened to call Eliana and ask for her apple cake recipe, apple cake to be his contribution to the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s.

“Papa?” says Eliana, surprised to hear her father’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“I will be if you can remind me how to make your fabulous apple cake,” says Miles, thrilled to hear his daughter’s voice. “I never can remember all the ingredients.”

“I’ll email the recipe to you,” she says, doubting the recipe is why he called. “How are you?”

“Sixty-three,” says Miles, laughing.

“Not how old are you,” says Eliana, laughing, too. “How are you?”

“Oh I don’t know,” he says, carrying his old landline phone out onto his deck, the morning sun just now ascendant over the redwoods to the east. “I had a bleak birthday until I went to the pub for an early supper and had a delicious dark beer and glorious fish & chips and met two very nice people, and then on my way home I encountered an enormous mountain lion and…”

“You were walking?” she gasps.

“Yes, at dusk. And when that giant puma decided not to eat me, something changed in me and when I got home I wanted a dog and a cat and friends for the first time in eons. But enough about me. How are you doing? How’s your handsome husband and your splendid son?”

“Hugo…” she begins, and Miles can hear she’s crying, and he thinks of Conchita saying We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families, whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right?

“Hugo said he would never eat again until we called and sang Happy Birthday to you,” says Eliana, crying some more. “He’s incredibly stubborn. I can’t imagine who he got that from.”

 “I’m so glad to hear from you,” says Miles, feeling as if he just escaped from a terrible prison composed of a maze without end, a small break in the wall allowing him to get out right before the break was repaired. “You sound good and strong.”

“I’m okay. Are you… do you have a garden?”

“I do. Just learning how to grow things here. Very different climate than Berkeley. Never gets very warm here even in the summer.” He knows this will change soon and even here life will become untenable. “Lettuce and chard and peas grow wonderfully well here, and potatoes. But my zucchini are pathetic, and tomatoes and eggplants will require a greenhouse, which I have yet to build.”

“Are you writing anything?” she asks tersely.

“No,” he says, looking up as a raven glides by. “How about you? What are you working on these days?”

“Short stories. As always.”

“I loved your last collection,” he says, remembering when Eliana was six and announced she was going to be a writer of stories like the ones in Winnie the Pooh, and that is what she became. “Did you get my letter about that?”

“I don’t read your letters. I need to go.”

“I love you, dear.”

“You do?” she asks, sounding like a little girl.

“Always and forever.”

*

Forty gregarious people attend the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s, and Miles’s apple cake is a big hit.

As the party is winding down, Conchita introduces Miles to her cousin Sylvia, a beautiful woman in her fifties who wants the apple cake recipe.

“I know you,” says Sylvia, giving Miles a dazzling smile. “I’m a checker at Walker’s Groceries. I check you out all the time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Miles, who is hanging out with Justin and his wife Helen. “I didn’t recognize you out of uniform and with your hair down and without your glasses on. You’re a whole other person.”

“That’s a delicious apple cake you made,” says Sylvia, who hasn’t been involved with anyone, and hasn’t wanted to be, since her husband died when she was thirty. “Can I get the recipe from you?”

“Of course,” says Miles, getting lost in Sylvia’s big brown eyes. “I… I’ll… where do you live? I’ll make you a copy and drop it by.”

“In town,” she says, astonished to feel so attracted to him. “Or… you could come for supper tomorrow and bring it then.”

“Oh jump on that one, Miles,” says Justin, nodding emphatically. “Best Mexican food in the world. And that’s not hyperbole.”

“You come, too,” says Sylvia to Justin and Helen, blushing to have been so forward with Miles.

“Que hora?” says Justin, bouncing his eyebrows. “We’ll bring the booze.”

*

A year later, on his sixty-fourth birthday, Miles wakes in his new queen bed to the sweet sounds of Sylvia making coffee in the kitchen, their pups Camino and Flora skittering around on the tile floor at Sylvia’s feet hoping for treats.

Now he hears Sylvia speaking in Spanish on the phone, and though his Spanish is not great yet, Miles recognizes the words for birthday and party and tomorrow afternoon and cake and enchiladas and tamales and watermelon mingling with the names of his friends who will come to sing for him: Pedro and Maria and Carlos and Justin and Helen and Zeke and Conchita and their darling baby girl Eliana.

fin

La Entrada a piano solo