Billie Jay Radio never thought the End of the World would look like this. His grandmother, a member of a weird cult, had gloomily foretold something far more impressive: horned beasts rising from the sea, raging locust hoards, falling stars, cosmic torrents of blood, spectacular angelic – demonic air battles. Great scenarios for a new disaster flick, but the reality of the actual apocalypse, as it unfolded, was quite different. First, there was the breakdown of shopping mall culture.
Shoppers could no longer browse freely through malls without being obstructed by merchandise–computers, TVs, furniture, stacks of Nike running shoes–dumped into the commons areas by clerks with vacant eyes and odd mouths that seemed to both snarl and smile. Rampant looting appeared to be in progress. Billie Jay thought of those old newsreels of the 60s urban riots he had seen in his history class. However, here the store employees were stripping their own shelves. Even the manager of the local Salvation Army outlet was seen cleaning out his used clothing bins and hurling green polyester pants into growing piles of designer suits and dresses. When confronted by a mall security guard, the disheveled man only mumbled incoherently about “the end being near.”
Billie Jay, however, knew there was a real problem when Ashley Baker, the normally very efficient waitress at his favorite upscale mall café, refused to take his order for a double latté, instead calling him a “fuck head who is wasting my time.” Then unleashing a stream of obscenities against Billie Jay—sparked by nothing in particular— she finished with a roaring insult: “And no body is going to tell you to ‘have a nice day’ for the end of days is at hand!” Again, there was the same weird look that he had seen on the faces of other mall employees, a bizarre mask of cruelty and cheerfulness.
Day after day, week after week a race of (otherwise normal looking) weirdos was emerging, dangerous, unpredictable, no longer knowing how to wish customers a nice day or caring about the expensive products they marketed to the well-heeled consumers.
Soon there was an even more alarming trend. Customers, Billie Jay observed, no longer rushed frantically through the malls looking for bargains. While they could have in fact easily carted away looted state-of-the-art electronic hardware or designer suits, these ex- consumers merely shoved the items aside. Entire mall areas were thus cleared of abandoned merchandise to make room for wrestling matches, Frisbee throwing, dice games, kickboxing, and skateboarding (an extreme version that sought to run down women pushing baby strollers). The security guard, who had confronted the Salvation Army outlet manager for dumping old trousers, was now acting just as strangely, first warmly embracing random passersby, and then violently grappling them to the floor. Others leaped into the fray, until bodies were writhing in heaps like rugby scrums or mass orgies. The old scripts guaranteeing the stability and predictability of life were being lost to rampant social amnesia. This trend was even surfacing in Billie Jay’s professional life. As a seller of gentrified properties, Billie Jay once could count on at least greed as an absolute. Yet even that was slipping away. One couple insisted on negotiating a higher price, and then excused themselves right in the middle of the open house viewing to use the bathroom together. Disgusted by the flushing, giggling, and grunting sounds, Billie Jay waited outside. At least they immediately signed the contract for twice the list price (though he barely shook their damp hands).
Then one day (to make matters worse) the circus came to town. Curiously, though the performers never really seemed to perform, they were instead aimlessly wandering through streets causing traffic jams. Men and women in tights, with the stereotypical appearance of graceful high wire trapeze artists, made obscene gestures at the furious, swearing motorists. Jugglers, aggressively accosting pedestrians, deliberately scattered their balls on street corners causing a hazard. Yet the performers still angrily demanded what they called “entertainment user fees.” Puzzled, Billie Jay searched the internet–even read the newspapers and called the local arts center—for performance information but could find no evidence of any scheduled performance dates. Apparently, the circus was no longer really the circus but had changed into something else. What that was Billie Jay Radio would soon find out.
One afternoon while shopping cross-town at another mall not yet stricken by the strange anti-consumer madness, he observed a gang of clowns roaming through the parking lot. Some thin (indeed borderline anorexic), a few portly, others almost dwarfish, the clowns, their makeup streaming profusely like sweat, and baggy costumes hanging in dirty tatters, bellowed, shook their fists and scattered flyers. Billie Jay picked one up one and read it: The End of Days is upon us. Forget your old scripts and narratives. Everything is changing including the End of Days itself.
Cautiously, at a discreet distance, Billie Jay followed them into the mall (avoiding the slippery, buttery trail of their red and white grease paint). Squatting behind a large pot plant in the atrium, he watched one of the clowns–nasty scowl, bloodshot eyes and stained, pointed teeth emerging from behind his thinning makeup–enter the administrative offices. Loud scuffling sounds, shouts, and then the clown burst out, waving a pistol at the neck of a scrawny, trembling man–farting uncontrollably from fear. His nametag read, Harold Sorrow, Customer Care Specialist.
With military-like precision, the clowns then marched their hostage through the parting crowds of oddly silent shoppers to the mall’s central commons where a platform, microphone, podium, and chairs had been set up amid the piles of consumer goods. While the lead clown still aimed his pistol at the now crying, still farting, customer care representative, his clownish cohorts mingled casually, as if networking at a cocktail party, among the onlookers, distributing the same ominous flyers. Cranking an erect arm up like a Nazi’s salute, the lead clown strutted, prodding his hostage, followed by his colleagues, up onto the stage. From one baggy, ragged pocket, he pulled a sheaf of paper while carefully still aiming the gun at the whimpering hostage who had curled up in the fetal position on the stage. The clown read in a thunderous voice:
“We are the Clowns from another dimension of reality here to announce that the human race has entered into a new stage: no longer can you count on even the most ordinary desire, hunger or need. Nor can you predict–or hope—that people will behave in any ‘normal human manner.’ In fact, your lives, all societies, the entire globe, as I speak, are lapsing into a series of unscripted pratfalls, thoughtless stunts, clownish blunders, random absurd acts–a ‘circus’ of sorts but one that is funny and dangerous, comical and brutal. In other words, once you paid admission to laugh at me and my ilk… (The clown paused, and waved at the other clowns who clumsily danced, made silly faces, then bowed to the mildly tittering audience) …. however, you will now rage at me for what I am about to do, ‘unexpected behavior’ (clown flashes a smirking smile) from a person normally paid a low wage to amuse the jaded public.” (The clown shoots the customer care representative who squeezes into an even tighter fetal ball, then unfurls limply, blood trickling from the back of his neck. The clown’s red eyes blazed even more fiercely. He bares pointed teeth. Growls escape from his foaming, wrinkled lips).
Very theatrical manner, Billie Jay noted mentally, smiling to himself, again still watching from behind a nearby pot plant. In case the Seven O’ Clock news would interview him later, he mulled over possible sound bites.
As if on cue, there were shouts and sounds of people scrambling and running. CNN camera operators were rushing toward the stage, but gathering even more speed galloped by it, ignoring the bleeding customer service rep’s body and the mad clowns, who were now singing obscene songs at the top of their lungs while the crazed, laughing audience clapped along. Curious as well as bored with the meaningless scenes before him, Billie Jay dashed after the CNN crew, who by now were filming scantily clad models in front of the mall’s Victoria’s Secret outlet. Perhaps if he could tell the film crew what he had witnessed, he could cleverly work in some references to his real estate business. Finding more deranged customers who insisted on paying above market prices would be super. Maybe this new weird, apocalyptic world would not be so bad after all.
Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.