It was Y2K, the night to end all nights, for no more nights lie ahead (possibly), and me and my dad were riding to town to pick up a grill he’d let the volunteer fire department borrow for their barbecue chicken fundraiser. Dad said if the world was ending he wanted his grill under the maple in our backyard. “And when the sky lights up,” he said, “we’ll have a little flame of our own under these chickens, and we’ll watch it all go to hell—me, you, and your mom.” I think dad thought Y2K was gonna be like a firework display or the Fourth of July.
“The guys,” I started to tell him about the Y2K party I was missing.
“…yep, me, you, and your mom,” he said more emphatically.
We took the “country” way to town. Well, in fact, all ways are “country” ways to our small town, but the town is large enough for a volunteer fire department. So anyway, it’s the “countrier”way to town, and all the neighbors for some inexplicable reason had thought to rake their leaves from their yards into the ditches by the road. This is only noteworthy because everyone had also decided to burn their leaves; so there we were with Y2K on our minds, driving down a darkened lonesome road, fire and brimstone filling our lungs, and billows of smoke unfurling on both sides—it was kind of like when Charlton Heston was leading the Jews from Egypt through the raised walls of the Red Sea. In this analogy, I guess my dad is Charlton Heston, I’m probably just some reluctant Hebrew slave, and Yul 2K’s got us on the run.
When we got to town, the main street was ghostly quiet, kind of like how you’d picture it before a storm: our one stoplight creaking in the breeze, no trucks or people anywhere, lights off in all the buildings, and a yellow tinge to everything under the few streetlamps. Dad pulled up behind the fire department and backed the truck up to the grill. I took the trailer pin, hopped out, hooked her up, and we were headed back home.
On the way, back between the walls of smoke, I thought of a phone conversation I’d had earlier. “Adam said if the world ends tonight, it’ll be the most predictable and disappointing thing that ever happened.”
“That sounds about like something Adam’d say.”
“But I mean, how can the world end when everyone’s sitting around waiting for it? I mean, it takes all the surprise, all the power out of the end of the world.”
“Hey, listen to this,” dad said, and he cut the radio up. “99.9’s been playing this non-stop since Halloween.”
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s “1999.” It was the kind of thing you can’t make up or attempt to explain. Never even a station identification, just the Artist’s millennial party song over and over and over again like it was some kind of apocalyptic emergency transmission warning everybody to get in their last licks, go screw your neighbor, then flee to your bomb shelters, and my dad hated every music that wasn’t country music, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t listen to it on loop the whole way home.
Dad pulled the grill under the maple like he said. It was a cloudy night, but occasionally there’d be a hole in the overcast and just when you could see a few stars, the blanket would shroud back over again.
Dad was in the carport rooting around for the lighter fluid and charcoal. I could see mom inside the house vacuuming. Last day of the world, and she’s vacuuming. Mom was the type of lady who’d fix everyone’s hotel beds before we checked out and left. Leave no loose ends.
I looked out across the field to the woods behind our house. I could hear something moving, a deer, maybe a fox. Foxes liked to come eat our scraps most every night. They’d wiped out most of the rabbits around our home. We still hunted them, but mostly just to train the beagles. Lately it seemed like everything was raccoons, possums, and foxes. No more rabbits, I thought, staring into the black—just prowling, snarling, and gnashing of teeth.
“Whatever makes her happy,” dad said, and I jumped like the devil was behind me.
“What the hell, boy?”
“Scared me,” I said.
He lifted the lid of the grill and then the grate; then he poured in the charcoal. “What you thinking about?” he asked.
He started squeezing lighter fluid on the black mound. I couldn’t help thinking how vulgar it looked, like a great big piss on some sacred pyre. I was seventeen. I was still a virgin. My friends were out somewhere partying with girls, and here I was, where I always was, where I’ve always been every New Year’s night of my life. No confetti, no underage drinking, no makeout session with a cleavage-bearing beauty. Me, mom, dad, Dick Clark, and the end of the world.
Dad slammed the grate back down with a hollow boom that echoed like thunder. He lit a match and lifted it to his cigar. He hardly ever smoked anymore. Then he reached beneath the grate and the charcoal gasped in blue flame. He took a drag.
It was nine o’clock. Three hours left.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said.
We stood watching the flame until the motion sensor security light flicked off, and then, in the still darkness, the colors of the fire grew brighter, blue and yellow and orange. I looked at my dad, yellow flickers illuminating his face, an orange lightning bug glow from his cigar burning off and on, the sweet tobacco smell thick in the air.
We watched the smoldering coals. Across the field we could hear the foxes moving, bearing their teeth, smacking their lips, salivating, waiting. Tonight there would be charred chicken bones.