It's a bar with glossy oak floors and vintage soup cans full of shelled, salted peanuts punctuating a dark walnut counter top. It's Jackson, Tennessee, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" playing on the jukebox in the fifteen minutes before karaoke starts. Karaoke night was specified--I never begged for the privilege to know whether talentless drunk people shrieking into a mic were inherently any different in Tennessee or in New York City, though I suspected I would get to hear more country music than I would normally enjoy. This was the time and the place. Never question.
The man two seats down at the bar is tearing thin paper strips in spindles from his coaster with his right index fingernail while his left hand emphatically chops the bar towards the man to his right. His red and white, plaid, button-up shirt makes me somewhat dizzy watching it saw up and down with whatever it is that he's saying, fan blades above twisting shadows all around the room. He is nervous about something. When one of his thoughts ends, his wrist lamely dies with a thud on the counter top until the other man is finished speaking, but the fingertip scratches even harder, sending flakes of paper to the floor.
The bartender looks at him with a bit of disdain. Almost as much as he uses on me, the only black man in a bar filled with white people in Tennessee. I am trying to overlook that fact as I glance back at him, slowly nod my head, and drink from my beer. Yes, I am alone. See how calm I am? You can trust me as long as you keep serving me, I think at him. He blinks, straightens his back, and turns.
The woman to my left has shoulder length brown hair that curls at the end in an uneven roll. The necklace around her neck is fixed with a clasp that is little more than a hoop and a metal hook to slide through it. The metal is bronze coated, but it has flecks chipped off at the base of that hoop, as if someone needed to hammer it into place. She is wearing a black, red accented dress that dips low in the back, revealing a delicate pair of shoulder blades, smooth skin, and the smallest fibers that could yet be called hair. It strikes me as funny, then, that we would look at such a thing as disgusting. What, is she supposed to shave her back, when moving her arms to reach back there would change the shape of the thing she was shaving?
I think too much, Lucy tells me, although she's the one always knowing where to be, when, and who to hunt.
He sits in the empty chair to my right. His grey hat has a black and white striped ribbon around it and is shaped like a bowler hat, but flatter on top. Is he a regular? Does he know that I'm not? Lucy never tells me enough. I see the left side of his thin face, brown and grey tinged stubble creeping subtly across his chin, the steep curve of the jaw slanting upward and outward towards his ears. Crow's feet amiably crease in an upward slant at the corners of his eyes while he looks at the bartender, nodding without word. Just a smiling nod. He's a regular. As he slowly turns towards me, the whiteness in his teeth and the tightness of skin on his brow give him a predatory look--the same look I'm looking for.
The smiling eyes depart and return like a man remembering to hold the door for someone immediately behind him.
"Hello," he says, offering his hand.
I have to shake. "Hi."
"You're not from around here, are you?"
You're not either. No trace of the region on your tongue. "No, I'm visiting family. I'm from out of state."
"New York City."
"Really? Never been."
I'm glad, although that doesn't change what I need to do. "You don't sound like you come from here either. Where are you from?" I ask.
He takes a moment to straighten the vest he's wearing. I'm guessing that he normally sings swing or jazz music, given his hat and vest over a striped tie and a white, long-sleeved shirt. "I'm actually from California."
"Really? That's a long way to go to be here."
"So is New York City."
"That's true," I reply, signaling for another drink from the bartender as the silence stretches across the bar. "What brings you here, if you don't mind my asking?"
He leans back on his stool, stretching his arms behind his neck. He has muscles, but they leave much to the imagination as the cuffs on his shirt are stretched down below his wrists. "Work," he sighs. "I'm a nurse. California has far too many nurses, and no one can afford to live there. I came here, where people are more hopeful and more soulful. What about you? Is your family in Jackson?"
"Mostly in Jackson," I lie, shivering a little bit to know his occupation. "I have an aunt in Nashville that I'll visit as soon as I'm done here."
He stares at me for a moment, intently sipping from his drink, which is a red lager. I'm not much for the names. I never drink, I think, before realizing that my glass is almost empty.
"I'm not much for family reunions," I say, to finish up my previous statement. He is still staring when the karaoke DJ starts speaking about signing up for singing. Her voice is loud and cuts the air with overenthusiasm. His attention diverts to the stage, or rather, the area where tables and chairs are pushed aside to resemble a stage.
"Excuse me," he says. Well, at least I'll get to hear him sing before I do what I need to do. I signal for another drink while I look down the bar. The coaster is in pieces now, but the man is gone. Beneath the pieces, I can see scratches in bar top where the fingernail went when the coaster was done. Some of the coaster pieces are tinged red.
I glance at the bartender. His eyes are different now, dejected and older. He is looking at the floor while holding a dripping rag in his hand. What is he staring at? He is barely responsive, moving like mud when I signal him for a drink. He stops just before setting the frothing beer on the counter. He is confused. I already have a beer, although it is half gone. My head feels warm as I reach up and take the beer from his hand. Did I accidently order twice? Is this my third or my fourth?
He doesn't return right away. Two country songs about, as near as I can tell, whiskey and soap, crackle and twang to the bleating of a she-goat and the reasonably on-key singing of the woman who was sitting to my left. When did she move? For her size, she has impressive vocals. Her face is young and enthusiastic while she's singing, but when she hands the mic to the man in the grey hat for the third song, for a brief moment her jaw falls slack, her eyes flash white as if the pupils suddenly vanish, and all color vanishes from her cheeks. As soon as the mic leaves her hand, her face returns almost to normal, but the youth is gone. This is why I'm here, I think.
I fail to realize that I'm probably already affected. Another beer is in front of me. Aspects of the room are beginning to swing with the beat of Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" as performed by the man I am pursuing. I think I'm losing him, Lucy, I think as another beer appears in front of me. The fan blades are now below the light source and every spin of the blades puts a new quarter of the room in darkness. He's a good singer: even the shiny slats of wood undulate to the rhythm of his song. I realize that I'm half off my stool and pull myself up with my right elbow and forearm, but gravity is so powerful now. The bartender is trying to remove the cork from a bottle--do they serve wine here? If not, what else comes with a cork?-- He's not having a good time with it, his hands slip, and the bottle neck breaks off. He could clean up the glass shards, but he just stares at the severed neck, the blood on his hand, the neck.
I focus again. The upbeat DJ is slouched back in her seat, smoking a cigarette or a blunt, I can't tell. Her hands cross her eyes again and again, the mascara smearing with her tears. The mood is greasy now, like you can't hold it or predict which way it will slide, but it's careening towards the floor, and there is nothing you can do except throw your body and life at it as it falls. Everyone is twisting under the weight of trying to be happy and alive. Everyone is trying to be loved but not succeeding. No one is speaking, and I'm starting to think that this man is not a regular at all. His song slows while he struts left and right, his fingers wrapped around the microphone. He is so happy to be heard. The metal poles supporting the stools become jagged with his cheer and no longer support me as I tumble to the floor. I think I'm losing myself, Lucy.
The thud awakens me a bit, so I crawl to the bathroom to clear my stomach of all of my drinks as quickly as I can. His song is over, and I know that he sees me, and he's coming, and I'm crawling as fast as I can, and I'm through the door and the stall door and to the toilet and throwing up more than I have ever in my life. With my heel, I nudge the stall door shut, but it doesn't latch. In a moment, his shadow towers over me.
"You know me," he says. He's still smiling. "You're here for me. Tell me everything you need to know about me."
I cannot. Even if I wasn't losing my stomach right now, I couldn't speak and jeopardize everything.
"I can tell you this. You're on the floor right now. You don't know me well enough," he laughs, before kneeling down beside me, pressed grey slacks brushing through the dirt around the toilet.
He leans forward so that his eyes are on mine. The gleam in them: the smile is fearsome. His right hand walks up my hunched over back and begins to rub my hair. "I'll do you a favor, man from New York. I'm going to show you the future. The far off future, long after you and I are gone. You decide if that's something you want, and then you tell me why you're looking for me after you decide."
His right hand spreads across the back of my head and then clenches. I see it.
An endless sea of hairless bodies writhing against each other, eating, contorting, copulating. Swimming in blood, from one horizon to the next, like a rock overturned to see only worms looping together, mammals lost in a multitude of screams in millions of different pitches and tones. This is how it ends. No character, no consequence, just a feast of skin until the world is no more than blood and bone, and it's already begun, Jonas, it's already started.
When he removes the hand from the back of my head, I tell him everything. How it's our goal to track down unique individuals and detain them, if at all possible. How our organization is run by a magnificent young girl named Lucy, and how we came to work together. I tell him how we found him. I tell him my name and my entire history. I tell him what we thought he was capable of, and he stops me and laughs, because we've already reached the hotel I'm staying at, and he's already tucking me into bed, cinching the sheets around my shoulders when I can only vaguely recall the fires in the bar, the smoke, and the ambulance pulling up as we walked away. He laughs.
"I'm Suicide, Jonas. I make people want to die. I'm the fear of living another day or the sensation of seeing someone else slip away."
I can speak no more.
"You'll never catch me, though I welcome you to try again," he says, before leaning in closer and dropping his voice to a whisper. "I lied about how the world will end. That is why you are still alive." He exhales softly into my ear.
"Chase me, if you dare."
He's gone. I still don't know his name, but he knows mine.