Tremble! Soon the world entire, bathed in its own blood, doomed by its own corruption and vile nature, will come to curse the heavens! There will be a gnashing of teeth and a boiling of flesh, and sinners will utter but one word in their throes of endless agony–Bob!
Christ. I still can’t believe my parents actually named me that.
“It’s a good name, a power name,” says Famine. I pull my tear-stained face from my hands and stare at his eyes, impossibly large in his gaunt face. He is so thin that skin drapes from his bones like cloth.
“What? Are you kidding me?” I scream, and the Horseman backs off. Eight months into our journey together, and all four of them have learned there are moments when you don’t mess with the Antichrist–moments when I won’t just turn the other cheek.
“No, seriously, it’s a good name. Kinda terrifying,” says Death.
Death! Now that is a name.
“God has three letters,” says War, “and Bob has three letters–”
“–there’s a cosmic balance,” says Pestilence, finishing off what War began. I open my mouth to reply but words escape me, and instead I return my face to the comforting embrace of my hands.
Kelly’s gone, the world’s going to shit, and I’m stuck in coach on a twelve-hour international flight to Israel to pick a fight with God. Nothing’s gone right so far, and I doubt my luck is going to change anytime soon.
And all I can think about is my crappy name.
I suppose I should start at the beginning, so all this makes sense. Not the “let there be light” beginning, but my beginning, about 22 years ago, when I was born. It happened almost exactly the same as everyone else’s, even yours. Only I was born at midnight, under a full moon the color of blood. And outside the hospital, framed in crimson light from that bloody moon, I’m told a raven battled a dove in the night sky. For a moment, when I crowned, lights flickered on and off all over the world. A wolf howled. Somewhere, a politician told the truth–you get the picture.
Anyway, my parents named me Bob–not Robert, but Bob–and I grew up in Palestine, Texas. The rest of my life was pretty normal: school, zits, puberty, zits, GED, slightly less zits, City College, and then full-time work at Super Burger.
The Horsemen tell me there will be a new Bible written by the Dark Lord after the End of Days. I doubt it will include my biography, so this is my one chance to get things out before whatever goes down goes down. So here it is: the story of how I lost my job, my girl, and my independence. The story of how I lost everything but my virginity.
It started on the sixth of June, my twenty-first birthday and the third beginning of the story so far, if you’re keeping track. A visitor showed up outside my crummy apartment, rat-a-tat-tatting away on the door. My roommate was so stoned he didn’t realize anyone was knocking, and the only reason I opened it was because I was expecting a delivery of tacos. It wasn’t the tacos.
It was this guy instead, who looked like he might have been a trucker. A refined trucker, and if that doesn’t make any sense then good. None of this makes sense to me, either. On his head was an old, withered baseball cap with the New Jersey Devils logo on its crest, and he wore a white, soiled wife-beater that had the Confederate flag blazoned across it with the words, “The South Shall Rise Again.” Shorts and sandals completed the ensemble. He had a large, meaty face, with a blue shiner under the right eye and a belly that looked to be in its seventh month of pregnancy. Maybe refined is the wrong word.
“Howdy,” he said, the black eye glinting almost as evilly as his smile.
“How you doing,” I said, pegging him immediately–bill collector. “I know we haven’t paid our rent in a couple months, sir, but I promise–”
“None of that,” he said, placing an arm around my shoulder and walking me into my apartment. “Son, there’s something you should know.”
Everything got all still.
“The time of reckoning approaches.”
“Sir,” I said, “I told you we’ll pay as soon as–”
“This is harder than I imagined it would be.” He scratched his balls. Then he sniffed his fingertips and nodded, all with the appreciation of a connoisseur. Those same fingers then bummed a cigarette from the pack lying open on the table. The tip flared, and I didn’t see him use a lighter.
“Your last name,” he said, “Rinot, once converted into Hebrew–”
“Will become Rinotstein?” I said. He chuckled and waved it off.
“Will have the numerological sum of six hundred and sixty six.” His eyes stared into mine for a moment, signifying the significance of that numerological sign. “I’m Satan,” he said, as if that cleared things up. It didn’t. “You know, Lucifer. The Devil.” He saw the look on my face but kept on talking. “And you’re my son. You know, my kid. The Anti-Christ.”
Believe me, I’d had worse trips. And worse people claiming my paternity than the Dark Lord. I congratulated him on becoming a father and tried to usher him out the door, but he held up a hand and wouldn’t budge. “Son,” he said. “I’ll prove it to you.” He pointed to Jake, sleeping off the drugs on the sofa. “I’ll take your roommate’s soul.”
I never liked Jake much, and besides I still thought I was tripping on shrooms, so I invited him to go ahead and try. In my demented, hallucinogenic mind, I expected everything from demons with blood-soaked wings to a skinny guy in a cloak with a sickle to nothing at all. So it surprised me when Dad slid a crowbar out of his shorts and went to it. I winced, I screamed something, I wiped off some of the blood with a sleeve. In the end, Jake’s brains were splattered all over the carpet and the wall.
“Lo and behold,” Dad said, panting. “The mortal is no more!” He opened the fridge and grabbed a beer.
“You think? Maybe he’s just sleeping.” I flicked a piece of brain off my boot and watched it slide down the wall.
“Son, the End of Days is nearing. All the signs are there. Jews have returned to the Holy Land, and G.W. has returned to the White House. The Seven Seals are weakening, and PETA can’t protect them for much longer!” The whole house trembled with the force of his declarations. That, or the 11:05 train was early that day.
“Mister, get the hell out of my home.”
“Son, I’m serious. Your training must begin.”
He explained I must become tougher, more evil. Even eviler than evil. He wanted me to go around kicking puppies, taking change from blind beggars, smacking waitresses’ asses–that kind of thing. He even wanted me to vote Republican. Idolatry, adultery, murder, the works. After saying all that he left, promising to check up on me soon.
The moment he was gone, I packed up what I could and got the hell out of the apartment. Besides not wanting to deal with the cops, I also never wanted to see that particular psycho ever again. Fortunately, I wasn’t on the lease and had never seen the landlord because we never paid the rent. I was able to make a clean break by moving to an adjacent town and going to work at another branch of Super Burger.
For a while, life continued on in its usual, miserable way: with me standing for hours every day, watching oil jump out of deep-fry vats and perform amazing acrobatics in the air before vanishing back into the brownish goo from whence it came. My eyes hurt from the heat, and the stench made me want to retch. But that’s life, right?
Ever worked fast food?
Your job is to smile and offer high teenagers and smelly bag ladies special meals. Soon, the smile becomes almost permanent. All day, every day, it’s just, “Number 3, super-sized,” or “Number two with no onions, extra mayo and pickles”–life passes by in an insane world where numbers are sandwiches, served with deep-fried potatoes and condiments shot out of stainless steel guns. The only things that change from one day to the next are the shitty plastic toys, and the slogans plastered on the windows. Supersize your joy! Burger to the rescue! Dear God, someone put a bullet in me!
I’ll have a number twenty one, extra underpaid, dripping in the thick sauce of a wasted life. Joint on the side, please.
And that was my life, until one day, they showed up and things changed. At the time, I was busy reacquainting myself with the Heimlich maneuver informational poster that hung on the sidewall. I greeted the four of them without even looking.
“Welcome to Super Burger,” I said. “Where you are the hero.” With the words came the corporate smile, even more plastic than our toys. I couldn’t have repressed it even if I had tried. Pavlov’s dogs had nothing on me. The Heimlich maneuver could wait. “How would you like to vanquish your hunger today?”
“You are the Beast!” said the largest of the group. He looked like a pro-wrestler.
“Would you like to supersize that?” I said, before I realized he hadn’t given me a number. Instead of answering they bowed, in unison. I looked at them and scratched my head under my paper hat.
“We are your faithful servants,” said the sickly one. “We are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” His voice started off impressive, but he fouled it up by going into a wheezing cough tantrum at the end.
“Are you gonna order something or not?” shouted some lady from behind them. The palest turned and squinted.
“I could kill you where you stand, mortal cow,” he said. The woman paled, and he smiled, her reaction satiating him, for the moment. “But I will leave the task to Super Burger’s saturated fat-filled and cholesterol-rich sandwiches.”
“Right,” I said, realizing then that I had to do something or they would keep standing there, backing up the line for hours and harassing customers. “All four of you, out back. Johnny, take over for a few.”
Outside, the five of us huddled behind the dumpsters. I lit up a cigarette and surveyed the Horsemen. The one that looked like he never got his TB shot started coughing from the smoke. The pale one said, “Bob Rinot, smoking may lead to emphysema, heart disease and lung cancer. All of which may result in death.” I waited for the punch line, but there wasn’t one. No one said anything else for a while.
“Who are you people?” I almost screamed.
They answered by saying they were my messengers, banner bearers, instruments of destruction, and bodyguards. They said that “from this fateful day on,” they would never leave my side. You can tell I was ecstatic. They went through the roll call: the smart one was Death, the dumb one was War, the one that coughed a lot was Pestilence, and the skinny one was Famine. I shrugged and returned to work. They waited for me, and that night, they followed me home like four stray, deformed, demented psycho-puppies.
What else could I do? I kept them.
I was never the brightest kid, or the strongest or the most popular. My life revolved around mediocrity and crushed dreams. My aspirations were a beauty pageant of disappointments and disillusionment, where even the smallest glimmers of hope had long-past decayed into disproportionately painful letdowns. And yet somehow, I had always kept hope for the future. Drugs helped.
Through the years at Super Burger, I had even managed to scrap up a small amount of savings. It was all I had, and for some reason, I blew all of it taking care of those four squatters. I was broke again within a few weeks. A little later than I should have, I realized the only way the five of us were going to survive together was if the Horsemen started pulling their own weight. So I got them jobs.
“A number seven. Extra lettuce, extra tomatoes.”
“Would you like your soul with that?” Rumbled War as he slowly–very slowly–keyed in the order.
“I’ll have some fries and an extra large coke.”
“No,” said Famine. “You will eat nothing. Get out.”
Sales always went down when he was at the counter, but the worst was Pestilence–he kept sneezing and coughing on everything. Apparently he was allergic to… well, everything.
We were getting along well enough, though, until one day a girl walked in and stirred everything up like the femme fatale of some third-rate detective story. She wore the pleated skirt and white blouse of the nearby Catholic school, with a little gold cross at the collar. It may have been my imagination, but I could’ve sworn I saw eighteen years of repressed sexual fantasies swimming in her eyes.
Can I get a number 36, extra-large cups with toasted-hot buns?
After getting past the embarrassing, but corporate-ordained, “Does the princess desire anything else to eat?” I asked her out. To my surprise, she said yes. That was the first time I really thought that maybe Dad was right, and the End of Days was upon us.
For a while, things were good. My psycho father didn’t show up and kill anyone else. The Horsemen started earning some money. I had more free time to spend with Kelly. Pestilence killed off most of the annoying customers, and best of all? I was this close to getting some.
Things were good. For a while.
“Wake up, sleepy head,” whispered Death into my ear. It tickled. Lying there, with Death spooning me from behind, I realized that Death’s embrace wasn’t cold or clammy. It was actually pretty comforting, and not in a necrophiliac-homosexual way. We just didn’t have enough beds to go around so I had to allow Death into mine. How this differed from marriage, I don’t know.
“I know, I know,” I said. “We’re late for work.” I got up and struggled over to the bathroom. It was taken, of course. I danced around the door in my underwear, banging for Pestilence to hurry up. Once he came out, I took a quick dip in the shower then lit the first cigarette of the day. As smoke permeated the apartment, I got another personal warning on the fatal effects of tobacco from Death, followed by a few handy facts about caffeine when War handed me a fresh cup of coffee. For a minute, we were all one big, happy family. Dysfunctional, perhaps, but still, there was structure and discipline–maybe even love. Like a pack of dogs, I was the Alpha male. Only it was not because I showed strength. We lived in a democracy is all. I was elected.
That morning proceeded with the same monotony as all the others. In measured, well rehearsed minutes, we went about our daily tasks. Death labeled everything that could be harmful and did his best to protect me from them. Even the knife I used to spread peanut butter with was painfully dull. Pestilence spent the morning reading from his Physician’s Desk Reference, which I had bought him for Christmas though we didn’t really celebrate. He called it part of his ‘creative process.’ Famine was in the other room, doing our laundry. We had learned to keep him as far from the kitchen as possible. In War’s cauldron, the fourth Horseman was busy making the most delicious chili I ever tasted. It was a beautiful day, and best of all, I was supposed to meet Kelly soon. I almost felt like making boxed lunches and kissing the boys good bye.
Then the toaster went off, the sound of the bell filling the house. War shot out of the kitchen, a .45 in one hand and a not-dull-at-all butcher’s clever in the other. Pestilence came out of nowhere, waving a pair of smoking vials at phantom threats even as Death attempted to label them. In the confusion, Famine made it to the fridge and started emptying everything into the trash.
I screamed, as I did every morning I made toast, and prayed to God, or Dad, or anybody, really, for all this to be over soon. Who was I kidding–one big happy family? These guys were a nuke this close to critical mass. I kicked Famine out of the kitchen, then turned to calm down the raging War.
“Hold your horses. It’s just the toast, guys, just the toast. It’s not the Apocalypse yet,” I soothed.
“You sure? ‘Cause there was this sound–”
“Yes, War. I’m sure. Just the toast. Like every other morning.” I took a deep breath and forced myself to think of something other than grabbing War’s gun and shooting the whole damn lot of them. Could I have even killed them? I didn’t know, but right then I was willing to try.
I’ll have a number four, ruined daydream on the side. Hold the murder.
My mind swam in oil grease for the rest of the day. The same numbers kept flying over the counter, one through eight–everything from triple patties with secret sauce to deep-fried vegetarian burgers with cheese. And I thought to myself: If you added up all those daily digits, what would be the outcome? Would they add up to 666? Would I?
I wondered what 666 was, anyway. Something invented by Hollywood? Or was it really in the Bible? Because no matter what Revelations said, no matter what Dad or the Horsemen insisted on, I knew I wasn’t evil. I never had the proclivity to rip off legs from bugs when I was a kid, and I never fried ants with a magnifying glass. So maybe I did throw a stone or two at the neighbor’s cats, but so what. Who didn’t? I didn’t have delusions of grandeur or schemes for world domination, and I mean that. It’s not that I was confused or a misunderstood proponent for the Apocalypse–there was no hanging chad. I simply was not evil.
I didn’t want the end of the world. All I wanted was a ten-minute long fellatio.
Have you heard this one? A priest walks into Super Burger only to be served by the Antichrist. Not much of a punch line: I said hello, and he squinted at the menu and ordered a number five with so many alterations that it began to look like a mutant hybrid of a number three and a number eight, with number five almost entirely MIA.
I really went out of my way to get his order right, more from professional courtesy than anything else. In many ways, I felt like we did exactly the same thing: I sat by a drive-through window and so did he. Only he called his a confessional. He listened to the indecipherable ramblings of the masses, and so did I. I mean, the Church is just one giant corporation, isn’t it? It sets up franchises all over the world, just like Super Burger, and it even comes up with flashy phrases to insure brand loyalty. Things like, “Jesus loves you,” and, “Repent or burn.” Hell, they should join forces with Super Burger. The marketing guys would go nuts–”Supersize your Salvation.” It’d be great.
Can I get eight Our-Fathers, with an extra packet of barbeque sauce?
Maybe I was just bitter. It wasn’t that I disliked the clergy, but Kelly, thanks to the Church’s teachings, was still holding out on me. Can I get a number eighteen, no… anything?
I came home one day to find the boys watching the news. Only their news wasn’t what normal folk watched. No, to get their “up to the minute” updates, they watched the evangelical channels, laboriously cataloguing Jesus’ appearances. Surprisingly, he rarely stepped foot outside of Utah. Every time some crippled old lady tossed aside her crutches and called out “Halleluiah,” War would call the show, decline making a contribution, and inquire as to where exactly on the stage the lady saw Jesus.
“On the cross?” War wrinkled his brow even as he panted excitedly into the receiver like a pervert dialing a nine-hundred number. But that was nothing. A few minutes later, he got an operator who told him, “Jesus was in her heart.” He got really pissed when he heard that.
“They’re speaking metaphysically,” Death explained.
“I don’t care if they’re Quakers, Mormons, Methodists or Metaphysicals, I want to know where the Hell he is! The time is approaching!” War raved, clicking the safety of his .45 on and off, on and off.
“It’s not a church, moron.” That was Pestilence. Never before had I seen someone cough blood in condescension.
I couldn’t decide whether the TV or the horsemen was more irritating. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stay and listen to either of them. That night, I had a date.
While on our date, Kelly and I wound up discussing everything from the Argentinean oil crisis to the War on Terror. Of course, I was trying to hit all the right notes, send out all the right subliminals–”They need to clean their pipes,” I said. “Badly.” And, “They really stuck it to Bush.” You get the idea.
It was getting hot in the back of my pickup as the night went on, and in the end, when every other line had failed, I panicked said something utterly fatalistic: “I love you, Kelly.” And even as the bird flew its cage, I wondered if maybe I would have said the same thing even if I hadn’t been somewhat sure the world was on the brink of destruction.
And you know what? It worked. Right there, on a dirty tarp in the back of my Dodge, I laid her down and started undressing her, planting kisses everywhere clothing was removed. Above us were stars, the wind, the moon–it was magic. And that’s when the fucker upstairs made his move.
Half an hour later, I burst through the front door, wild-eyed and anxious. The TV was off, and I found myself eye to eye with the unblinking pupil of a .45. The guys all looked solemn. Pestilence was even suppressing his coughs. On their faces I saw pageantry, dignity, purpose. Scars of self-importance.
“What happened to my girl?” I demanded, pushing the gun away from my face.
“Girl went to Heaven,” War explained.
“Rapture,” Death chimed in. “All the righteous people get bodily transported from earth by God.” He tapped his chest. “Beam me up, Scotty.” He shrugged. “What’s left is our playground.”
“What?” I said. “Are you kidding me? You mean this whole thing is for real?”
“Well… what did you think it was?” Famine looked at me funny.
“I thought you guys were hippies stuck in an LSD flashback or something. Escaped mental patients, maybe.”
“Oh, no. It’s all too real, Bob,” said Pestilence. He coughed and spit out phlegm the color of Super Burger’s secret sauce. It sat on my carpet, quivering, and we all stared at it.
Crumbling into my recliner, I covered my face with my hands. If only I had been a second faster, Kelly would have lost her virginity, committed a sin, and stayed here… with me. If only I had been a second faster, I wouldn’t have banged my erect genitalia in to the good old American steel of my pickup truck’s bed. If only.
Death tried to console me. In painful detail, he outlined the dangers of having sex. He started with heart attacks and ended with an endless list of STDs. The others gathered around, and when I looked up, they had evidently decided it was time.
“We ride!” they screamed in unison. Fury, bloodlust and power flashed through their eyes. And the ceremony with which they said those words made me believe something grand was about to happen.
I expected horses–red, black, white and green–to burst through the far wall. I expected boats made of bones drifting amidst lakes of molten lava. I expected everything but what I got.
“We ride,” I mimicked them nasally, as our taxi sat stuck in traffic.
“We ride,” I mimicked them once more, as I pulled out my credit card to pay for five coach seats on an international twelve-hour El Al flight to Israel.
We rode. I accepted the coming Apocalypse, and I was even trying to come to terms with my role in it, but I hadn’t known I was going to sponsor the whole thing. Right around then was when I started thinking about my shitty name, but I won’t bore you by going over that again. The flight’s almost over.
And eventually, the plane lands.
“Oh boy, do we ride!” I have to scream to be heard above the children on the Israeli tour bus that is taking us from Tel Aviv to Megiddo.
Hours later, our bags and our feet are back on the ground. In front of us is the place the Jews call Har Megiddo–Mountain of Megiddo. What came to us in Greek as Armageddon: the place of the Final Battle, just before the Last Judgment.
“Nice Galils,” says War to a few soldiers patrolling nearby, complimenting them on their assault rifles. “Bang-up job in the Six Day War.”
The soldiers pass and together, we begin climbing up the shallow hill of Megiddo, towards a plateau filled with jagged ruins. My own personal paranoia machine tells me to watch my step and wear a baseball cap, to avoid sunstroke. He also tells me to drink a lot of liquid. “Hydrate, hydrate,” whispers Death from behind. He looks paler than usual under an inch of sun-block.
“You are the Beast. You are the Beast,” Famine rasps into my other ear. The other two are quiet–Pestilence is winded from the long walk, and War is too excited to speak. He grunts, though, and froths at the mouth. And then we enter the ring.
On one side, the Prince of Darkness. Wearing ripped jeans and an off-white Guns n’ Roses t-shirt. Weighing in at one hundred and fifty pounds. Standing at a height of five-eight. With no prior wins, draws, or losses–except maybe Kelly.
Booooooby “The Beeeeeast” Reinot!
And in the other corner, the Light of the World. Prophesied two thousand years ago. Wearing ripped jeans and a black Nirvana t-shirt. Weighing in at one hundred and forty five pounds. Standing at a height of five-nine. With no prior wins, draws, or loses–except maybe the Crucifixion.
Jooooooosh “The Saaaaaavior” Finklestein.
We get ready to rumble.
As I size up my opponent, I realize he has just about the same amount of desire to be here as I do. The sadness in his eyes tells makes it clear that he’s funding the operation from his side of the fence as well. Reserved as he may be, the two guys at his side look a little more rough-and-tumble.
“The one with the war paint on is Gabriel,” Death whispers, pointing to the blond hunk on the left. He has a flaming commando dagger shoved in his boot. “The other’s Mike.” Death nods towards the stocky fellow on the right. He has a thick black beard. “But it’s the Savior you’re really after. Leave those two to us.”
“Rip him a new one” is the last thing War says before shoving me into the center of the field of the Final Battle. Gabe prods Josh forward, and I think I actually hear Gabriel say something like, “Bless him until he bleeds.” From the corner of my eye, I see Dad for the first time in forever. He looks the same, only this time he’s got an “Uzi does it!” t-shirt on. The Jersey Devil’s hat is still there.
I look my opponent up and down, and he reciprocates. There’s nothing remarkable about him. He’s no better than any other fellow you might bump into on the street. He doesn’t belong here, I realize. He belongs behind the counter of Super Burger, with me.
Can I have a number two, losers spread all over? Extra reluctance on the side.
And I realize that in the end, pardon the pun, Armageddon is no different from any other event of your life: utterly disappointing.
Hollywood projects a silver lining over everything. Look at romance in movies–there’s always that one special girl for the hero, right? Only life doesn’t work that way. Some people think humans evolved from savagery to civilization, but not if evolution means progress. We used to believe in demons and witches, in the Tooth-Fairy and Santa Claus, but we just traded in all that junk for something even more ridiculous. A “soulmate?” Give me a break. My inner child may need a hug, but what it wants is a ten-minute-long fellatio.
But Hollywood isn’t the first to give you false hopes–the Bible’s been doing it for centuries.
What a crock of shit that is. There’s going to be this magical Messiah who’s going to make everything all better again? And an evil Antichrist who will drown the world in darkness? Please. I can’t even drown my own sorrows in a bottle of vodka.
So here is your life, and here is the story of a world that is almost over. Please prepare to be disappointed. There are no storylines in real life, there is no arc. No “ups” and “downs.” No fascinating villains with clumsy jokes and European accents. No plot. No excitement. Anticlimactic, isn’t it?
I think all this even as I stare this poor man in the eyes, and it hits me that Messiah-hood isn’t all its cracked up to be either. Whoever wins the fight right now, nothing’s really going to change. People just aren’t going to accept it. Hollywood and the Bible have already instilled in everyone an image of what to expect, and we don’t quite fit it. No one could. We’re just too normal. Too human. Too real.
He understands the same thing. No good, no evil, just a handshake and we go our separate ways.
Welcome to the real Apocalypse–the absence of one.