By Mitchell Waldman
That’s what the sign says: END OF THE WORLD SALE. Right on the front door of this little variety shop called “Nick’s and Knacks,” squeezed between a laundromat and a pharmacy on the strip at the edge of the continent, in Cocoa Beach.
Jack and Dana walk in, thinking it’s a joke. But in here, at least, it’s cool, a reprieve from the sweltering Florida heat. The man behind the counter (Nick?) doesn’t acknowledge them as the little bell rings when they open the door, but continues staring down at the National Enquirer atop the glass display case counter in front of him.
He has a buzz cut. His short sleeve shirt has a large profile of Elvis’s on it. The fingers of his right hand holding the newspaper have the letters M, I, M, I just below the knuckles. There’s a little black and white portable radio behind the man on a shelf, playing oldies – right now an old Yes song – and a big green parrot in a cage, hopping from fake branch to branch, clucking, and saying “Owner of the lonely heart…krok.”
Around the shop are hung all kinds of items — porcelain angels are the most abundant, hanging down from the ceiling on wires, some of which you can barely see. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.. And there are the usual beachy things lying around, too — shell collages, clocks, wall hangings, photos of the beach, the water, the waves, surfers, bikini-clad women, ocean sunrises, all on the walls or laid out on long white tables.
Jack picks up a large brown and white conch shell. It would look good on a shelf back home, he thinks. He brings it to the counter.
“How much is this one?” he asks. “No price on it.”
“Gimme a buck. We’ll call it even.”
“Yeah.” The man doesn’t move. Jack doesn’t either.
“Is there something else?” The man has these wide brown deadpan eyes.
“Yeah. The end of the world.”
The man doesn’t bat a lash.
“What about it?”
“It’s a joke, right?” Jack tries to work up what he feels is a little smile to encourage the guy. The guy doesn’t smile back.
“Joke? No, no joke.” Then he smiles, without further explanation.
“Come on,” Jack offers.
“What? Come on, what?”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
He just stares back with those owl eyes. Jack’s waiting for his head to turn all the way around.
“Is this about that Mayan calendar thing?” Jack just then sees the silver chain under the man’s shirt. He sees the top of a cross hanging on it, setting on his black chest hair.
“No, nothing like that.”
Jack just stares at the guy, then says, “Astrology, star positions….” (no response)…”the Bible…End Times.” The man still doesn’t respond.
“Come on, here, you’re killing me. If the world’s gonna end, why keep it a secret? A guy would need to know, to prepare.”
Dana comes up to the counter with a shell clock, trimmed in pink.
“I like it,” Jack says.
“Me, too. Nice shell.” She smiles at Jack. He puts his hand on her face.
The man behind the counter clears his throat. They both look at him.
“Three bucks for the clock. I’ll throw in the shell and a couple postcards.”
Dana stares at the man, then says, “So what’s the deal?”
He shakes his head.
“Come on. The end of the world stuff. Is it because of…”
“I already asked him.”
Dana throws Jack a look for a moment, then turns back to the man behind the counter.
“The Mayan thing, the stars…what gives?”
The man smiles at Dana, his eyes trailing off of her eyes and moving down towards her T-shirt, her chest.
“Up here, big guy.”
He shakes his head, looking sheepish and gives a feeble, “Sorry.”
“So?” she says.
He shakes his head again, smiling.
“So you’re thinking the world’s gonna end so buy my crap, you’re not gonna need it where you’re going anyway?”
“Something like that.”
“You know something, but you’re not telling us. You know it’s coming.”
He nods and, after a pause sighs and lets out a long “Yesssss.”
“Is that your wife?” she asks, pointing to a faded black and white frame behind the counter.
“Yes, my Mimi. Died fifteen years ago.”
For a moment no one says a word. The silence thickens. Then Dana says “She was beautiful.”
The man turns, studies the picture. “Yes,” he says, “yes she was.”
“You miss her,” Dana says.
The man’s smile fades, his eyes turning watery. “You don’t even know.”
Dana looks at Jack, rubs his arm. “I can’t even imagine….” she says.
“It’s never been the same since then. Never will be again. It’s like part of you dies, too.”
Dana reaches across the counter and squeezes the man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she says, and then “But…the end of the world?”
He shrugs, and turns toward the bird, who, almost on cue, says, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, end of the world as we know it.”
Jack lets out a laugh and then sighs, looking at Dana. “R.E.M.,” he says quietly, raising his eyebrows. Dana smiles back at Jack and then both of them look at the man behind the counter with smaller subdued smiles.
Just then they hear the sound from outside — a steady, deep, whirring, then sputtering, of an engine — and when they look toward the door a small plane is wobbling, smoke pouring out of the wings, the plane coming fast, headed straight for them.
They stare at it, suspended, paralyzed for a moment, as, behind them, the bird squawks: “And I feel fine.”