The news crews mostly filmed from the ground, in the midst of the disorder and disarray, occasionally offering viewers a glimpse of the war-torn and blackened skies. Beautiful, androgynous Angels and horned devil beasts, grotesque and misshapen with tentacles, boils, and other unimaginable vexes, fell from above, their freshly slain bodies landing viciously amongst the debaucherous mobs of people. The greediest of them charge towards these strange, surreal creatures, groping and clawing for feathers and horns like some sort of apocalyptic souvenirs, only to be struck down by a stray lightning bolt, or worse, another human being. They panic like fire ants; the Vatican is a stick, shoved into their hill by a cruel and twisted child, and no one knows another way to get home but to fight their way through it. The news anchor plays her role well, seemingly oblivious to the madness and death and fear that surrounds her, and brings her viewers up to speed, calmly and matter-of-factly like the news always does: everything foretold in the Biblical “Book of Revelations” had come true, and in case a glance out the window wasn’t obvious enough, today was Armageddon, the Eschaton, the end of the world, at least according to the prophecies.
John mutes the television; he knows what’s happening, and doesn’t need an overpaid television narrator to spell it out for him. He stands and makes his way towards the stereo receiver unit that rests below the television. He thumbs through his dad’s old record collection, stops at “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and removes the album from its sleeve. The turntable is somehow free of dust after all these years; at least my mother’s compulsive cleaning habits are good for something, he thinks as he drops the needle to the vinyl and starts the record. He walks back to the couch and lets his body turn to deadweight; his fragile frame free falls through the air for a moment before the white leather cushions engulf him entirely.
Without the screams and voiceovers and white noise that normally accompany on-location news broadcasts, the footage seems almost comedic as lips synch to lyrics; “What would you think if I sang out of tune?” the reporter begs the audience, mascara oozing down her face from the Hellish heat-induced sweat that overcomes her. Of course, it reads more like a low budget Japanese movie rental, but John still finds some comfort in the awkward humor of it all. The ambient, drug-induced waltz of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” makes the angels and demons above dance in awkward masculine embrace, surreal and unsettling like a Salvador Dali film. The tumultuous flock of devotees that fill the Vatican streets roar, “It’s getting better all the time!” as they tussle for the Pope’s affections. This mystifying incongruity consumes John with a rush of feeling that is as disagreeable as it is comforting. He shifts in his seat and disrupts the supple pillows that surround him and tries to re-adjust himself, but is far too enchanted by his fragmented video fantasy soundtrack to notice his mother’s long, thin, broccoli silhouette run over him from behind. John had always hated broccoli.
“Turn it off,” his mother, Catherine, states sternly, gripping the crucifix that hangs from her necklace. “I don’t want to hear or see anything, and I don’t want to upset the baby. Turn it off now.”
John’s lips tighten into a line, his lower jaw grinding hard against the top. “I’d like to know what’s going on,” he responds. He turns his head to find his mother standing behind him, holding his baby brother, Patrick, in her right arm. She is dressed in her Sunday best, though it is Thursday.
“What time did you get home last night, John?” she asks him, beginning the interrogation.
“Late. Please, mom, I’m watching TV. I want to know what’s going on out there.”
“You don’t need to watch that; you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on just by looking outside. Now, answer me. Where were you last night? Did you have anyone in the car with you? You know you’re not allowed to have any passengers for the first six months…”
“Out, mom. I was out with some friends. In case you haven’t caught on, it was probably the last time I’m ever going to see them.” John smirks with righteousness and turns his attention back to the television.
“I was up all night, waiting for you, young man! I was worried to…you could have been killed out there! What were you thinking?”
“That I’d rather go out with a bang than spend my last day on Earth rotting in this house, waiting for death to come and sweep me off my feet,” he retorts.
Caroline’s face changes instantly from anger to solemnity. “John. That was out of line. I’m a mother, and I was concerned for my son. That was out of line.”
John shrugs his shoulders, as if signaling the end of the conversation, but Patrick’s wail suddenly interrupts the moment and pierces through the silence. Caroline thrusts her left hand down towards John, and pries the remote control from his grip; she shuts the television off before he has a chance to react.
“That is a slap in the face, John William Miller! Now your poor brother is scared and crying and screaming and…and you’re too selfish to even realize it, or help, or offer him any kind of respect at all! You just ignore everything I’ve ever said to you, and…God, as if it isn’t scary enough outside, you have to subject poor Patrick to all these footage of death and destruction and…He’s family—I am family—and we are all you have, young man,, and all you do is insult and disrespect us with this…unmitigated defiance!” She stops a moment to catch her breath. Her checks flush red as her chest expands, and when she exhales for the third time, the wind that leaves her mouth is followed by a nervous laugh, building slowly and slowly in volume and scope until it drowns out the song on the stereo. John’s grey-green eyes get wider and throat gets dry; his mother finally has his undivided attention.
“Is this your father’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s album?’” she asks between breaths.
John nods, slowly and cautiously, so as not to upset her anymore.
“He used to sing ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ to me when we first started dating. Too bad we never got that far…” Her beautiful, sullen laughter subsides as she shakes her head. She calms herself down before she begins to speak again. “I thought I had told you not to touch your father’s things, John…you know you’re not supposed to touch his things, and, and once again, you just…disrespect me. Patrick, he never even got to met him, and…oh God, he has William’s eyes, and…” she says, disappointment pouring from lips; she looks down at the child in her arms.
“We’re gonna see him real soon, mom,” John says, trying to console her from a distance. His mother doesn’t hear it.
“William would be so proud,” she continues. “From the day he was born, I knew he was going to be just like his father, but Patrick, baby, you’ll never get a chance to know him…” She shifts her attention to the child, as “Fixing a Hole” comes to a close on the record player. Patrick’s cries slow into a childish coo, and Catherine cradles him in her arms. “Your father would be so proud of you if he was here today, if hadn’t closed his eyes that night on the road…”
John falls back into the couch, facing away from his mother’s romantic projections, and snaps. “Mom, Patrick’s not even two years old. You can’t even tell what he’s going to look like in ten years, let alone thirty. And, besides, I thought you didn’t want us to talk about dad, so why are you bringing it up?” As the words leave his mouth, John knows that he shouldn’t have let them escape from this thoughts.
“Your father was a great man,” she replies.
“I know, mom. And I never said he wasn’t. I just think you put a lot of pressure on Patrick is all. He’s just a kid.”
“Well, maybe I just wanted a son that I could be proud of,” she says, her words cutting through John’s thin, tender skin like razor blades.
The room goes still; side one of the record comes to a halt with an audible squeal, and even Patrick’s subtle cooing is suddenly hushed. For the first time in his life, John looks his mother straight in the eye and stares her down.
“Go to hell,” he says, before shifting his vision to the abysmal dark and chaos that await them outside. He reflects for a moment on the words that passed his lips—he didn’t mean them. He doesn’t mean them. A bolt of lightning, visible from the window, burns a hole in the back yard, and John returns his gaze to match his mother’s. “No. Fuck you,” he says. “Dad killed himself, whether you’ll admit it or not, and it had nothing—nothing—to do with me. How dare you.” John turns his back to his mother, and marches to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
John looks to the swimsuit calendar that hangs above his desk and feels nauseous. It is December; the first through twentieth had already been crossed out, and John had blacked out every day from the twenty-second to the thirty-first himself. The box marked for December 21st is circled in yellow-green hi-liter. John notices “Tina,” in all her airbrushed and fake-tanned glory, looking back at him, taunting him. He scowls as he tears the calendar down the wall and rips it down the center. The shredded halves of glossy pages float to the ground.
John takes a breath and brings the air deep into the center of his gut in order to prevent another outburst. His chest inflates like a bass drum, his heart pounding like a snare, and as the rhythm section slows, he is drawn to the dusty book that rests on his desk: Finnegans Wake. It was his father’s favorite book, and John remembers when he received his own copy as a gift about three years ago. Though he’s hardly even touched it before, John opens the book for the first time and turns, as he always did, to the last page. He skims to the bottom, and reads the last sentence to himself: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” without so much as a period to end it. Confused, he turns to the first page, and begins the book proper: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation…”
John puts the book down when he hears three sharp raps that come through his wooden door. Cautious and confused, he opens the door to find his mother standing in her apron. “Supper’s ready, sweetheart,” Catherine says. It takes her a moment to get the words out, and she turns back towards the kitchen as soon as she is done speaking. John hesitates for a moment—he cannot recall the last time that his mother did more than yell to announce dinner, nor does he remember her ever referring to it as “supper.”
John enters the kitchen to find Patrick and his mother already seated at the table, arms extended in anticipation of his arrival; eyes closed, they are waiting to pray before the meal begins. John opens the cabinet and takes out a wine glass. He looks beneath the counter, finds a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and fills his glass before sitting down. He is reluctant to take his mother’s hand at first, but he does, and she begins to pray as soon as she feels his hand in hers.
“Bless, O Lord, this food for thy use, and make us ever mindful of the wants and needs of others. Amen,” Catherine says. Patrick joins her in this chorus with a childish exuberance. John, too, punctuates the prayer, though he mumbles his response. Still, a slight smile grows outward towards his left cheek from the center of the mouth. John takes the wine glass in his right hand, and carefully extends his pinky like he has seen on television and in movies. As he begins to raise the glass from the table to his lips, his mother awakens from her moment of prayer and opens her eyes.
“And…what do you think you’re doing, exactly?” she says, with eyebrows raised.
“C’mon mom,” he responds. “It’s my last supper; let me enjoy it.” John brings the glass to rest on his lower lip, and takes a gulp of the red wine like child drinking milk; immediately, he spits it out. “Ugh! That was disgusting…I think your wine’s gone bad, mom. You should’ve probably refrigerated it,” he says, salivating heavily to wash away the taste that lingers in his mouth. Catherine smiles and laughs, and passes the plate of lamb chops to him. He serves himself, and takes a drink of water to wash the taste of wine away. The family begins to eat their last meal together.
Several more minutes pass in comfortable, familial silence. Catherine’s lips are the first to break the air, and she takes a pause from eating. “It’s funny,” she says. “The Republicans have been in the White House for twelve years in a row, and they finally elect a Democrat—a black man, no less— for president, and he’ll never even get to serve.” She looks to John for his response, but all he does is nod and make an affirmative sound as he chews his food. Catherine takes another forkful of food into her mouth, and tries again. “Did you ever get a chance to say goodbye to Judith?” she asks him.
John swallows a mass of tender meat that has not been chewed enough, and forces it down his throat. “Yeah, that’s what I was doing last night, Mom” he responds.
“I see,” she says, a wave of understanding finally starting to overcome her. “You know, I always thought that there was something going on between the two of you. And if there wasn’t, there really should have been—I mean, she’s beautiful, John, she really is, and you two always got along so well.”
“Yeah…” he says, nervously. John swallows again, as if forcing another wad of food down his throat without chewing. He takes another bite.
“So, was there anything ever going on with you two? Or, is there?” Catherine asserts.
John puts his fork down, allowing it scrape against his dinner plate. He closes his eyes, folds his hands together below his chin, and then places them on the table, just past his plate. He swallows once more, and pauses between his breath and the words that follow. “Mom?” he finally speaks, “I wanted to tell you…” John crafts his words in silence for a moment.
“Yes, dear?” his mother asks, more anxious than concerned.
“I think…” Another pause. “Mom…I’m gay. I mean, I don’t know, like, I’ve never done…anything, uh, gay. I just…I thought you should know. You know, before…” John chokes and begins to clench his fists again, pulling them under the table to muffle the crack and pop of his knuckles. He bites his lower lip, and looks to his mother, waiting for some kind of response.
Catherine looks down at her plate and moves her food around a bit. There is silence for several minutes. When she finally speaks, the only thing that comes out is, “Can you pass the applesauce?” She doesn’t know what to say, but she knows that wasn’t it. John hands the bowl to her, and storms away, leaving his plate and the glass of wine on the table. Before he is even out of the kitchen, however, the sharp, raucous sound of shattering glass and crunching steel roars through the home, shaking the windows and knocking every framed picture off center, if not to the ground. It startles Catherine enough to snap her out of the shock that concerned her only moments earlier, and sends Patrick into a frenzy of tears and screams; John, on the other hand, hurries to the source.
He throws the front door open just in time to see the last of the shrapnel from his mother’s car fall to the ground; his eyes catch the shimmer of the moon as it bounces off the glass splinters. He looks towards the car, incorrigible and accordioned, and is dumbstruck by the awesome beauty of the winged Aryan man that stands triumphantly on the roof. Though his features seem feminine, his poise and stance is very purely masculine, and it reminds John of the Greek and Roman marble statues he had seen in art history. He keeps a demon pinned between the roof of the car and his left foot: its skin is a nauseating shade of mahogany with deep green undertones, and yellowed teeth and eyes. Catherine joins John in the doorway, and flips the switch on for the outdoor floodlights. The angel flinches and soon flies away, but not without smiling at John and Catherine first; it is perhaps the most compassionate smile that either of them has ever seen.
“It was beautiful…” John whispers to himself, allowing the final syllable to resonate in the winter air before it sublimates.
“God dammit,” Catherine says. She does not hear her son, perhaps by choice, and she screams in frustration, “God Dammit! That was my car! How dare you! Now how am I supposed to get to church tonight?” Catherine lets out one last exasperated, “Fuck!” before exiling herself to the bedroom, leaving John alone and cold on the doorstep. He stands there for a minute longer, before heading back towards the kitchen, where he can hear the pulsation of Patrick’s cacophonous cries.
When he enters the kitchen, John does not only find Patrick left unattended in his chair at the table, but he also notices that the evening’s dirty dishes had been left lying around as well. John calls his mother’s name once, twice, three times, but there is no response. He shakes his head, and continues to the bedroom in search of her: Patrick’s wailing drives John insane, and he knows that he himself is incapable of silencing the banshee toddler.
John finds the door to his mother’s room left slightly ajar, so he pushes it open just enough to fit his head in the gap. Although he does not notice her at first, John finally finds his mother kneeling beside the far end of the bed. He sees that she is holding a picture frame against her chest, squeezing it tight like an anaconda squeezes its victims. She looks towards the ceiling, though her eyelids are clearly closed tight; her cheeks are red and slick with tears, as she mumbles a prayer to herself: “…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…” she recites. John continues to watch her through another cycle of the prayer, though he himself remains silent. She finishes the prayer, and collapses in on herself, at which point, John decides to check up on his baby brother.
Patrick’s crying has greatly subsided by the time John leaves his mother’s bedroom, so on the way back to the kitchen, John stops in the living room and turns his father’s “Sgt. Pepper’s” album over to side two. He places the turntable needle back on the record to start it up, and then proceeds to the kitchen to attend to his brother.
John finds a bottle of milk in the refrigerator and gives it to Patrick to occupy and comfort him. He picks Patrick up, first with both arms, then with one, and shifts the small boy to rest against his chest and upper arm, while his forearm supports the boy’s head and neck. Patrick continues to drink from his bottle, and John starts to gather dishes from the table with his free hand. One by one, he drops the dishes in the sink while the water runs hot from the faucet. His arm eventually gets too tired to carry Patrick anymore, so John puts the boy down in his chair and continues cleaning all the spices, serving dishes, and silverware off of the table. After he moves everything into the dishwasher, he finds the Dish Washing Liquid Soap on the next to the sink, fills the detergent trap in the dishwasher, and begins the cycle. He realizes just how foolish it is to clean the dishes when the end of the world is nigh, but he just laughs it off.
As the dishwasher starts to whir, John thinks of his father’s book that was left on his desk, and the puzzling lines that he had read earlier that day. With Patrick under control, John runs to his room and picks up the book one last time. He reads again the final sentence, hoping to figure out the rest of the story, but he does not understand; the absence of punctuation in this final sentence resonates in his thoughts, as “A Day in the Life” reaches its bittersweet finale and the music fades away into the abyss of this final night.
He then hears his mother scream from the kitchen.
John follows the scream, and finds his mother standing in a pool of soapsuds that had spilled out of the dishwasher and on to the floor, with a giggling Patrick in her arms. Though she smirks when she looks at him, he can clearly see the tears that she holds back, and all those that have already dried on her face. “Let me guess—you used the Dishwashing Hand Soap on the sink?” she asks, her annoyance clearly overpowered by the humor of the situation. John tries to speak, but she cuts him off: “That was rhetorical. At least I won’t have to clean the kitchen floor this week. Do you see what time it is?”
John looks to the clock on the stove: 11:57. Three minutes until the end of the world. He looks to his mother, and she motions towards the back porch. They smile at each other, and Catherine leads them outside.
As John walks through the sliding screen door to exit his home, his eyes are immediately drawn to the glowing mass that has begun to fill the sky, a sky so black that it supersedes the color spectrum. John’s gaze is fixed tightly on this growing light, and it reminds him of a solar eclipse that his father made him watch when he was younger. He remembers the way that the sunlight clawed over the edges of the moon that had fought so hard for the attention and affection of the people during daytime. He remembers the sun’s brilliant light and its triumphant escape from the dark, and he remembers the hope that this instilled in him, as he steps up to meet his family.
John stands still for a moment at his mother’s side before he takes her hand in his. “I love you,” he says, squeezing her hand. Silence. She does not squeeze back. John sees her take Patrick’s hand in hers, and for the last time, he lets go.
Instead, Catherine stretches her arm out, across John’s back, and with her hand gripped firmly on his right shoulder, she pulls him in to her chest and kisses him on the forehead as she holds him. John stands up straight to face the incoming sky, and his mother’s arm stays fast and steadily with him. Two more minutes pass, and the incoming ball of light from above continues to grow in size and intensity, but the heat does not burn. John checks his watch: 11:59, it reads, glowing in a digital red. John looks to his mother, and she matches his gaze; she sends it to Patrick beside her, who returns it to John.
“Are you ready to see dad again?” he asks.
“He won’t be waiting,” Catherine responds with a sad smile. “But I think I’m okay with that.” She lets these tears fall for the first and last time.