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Jill Hand

The Last Day at Captain Billy’s

A funny thing about the impending end of the world is that people still want to eat. You’d think knowing that planet Earth was about to be smashed to smithereens by an enormous asteroid would make them lose their appetites, but such is not the case.

Here at Captain Billy’s Lobster Pound in Putnam Cove, Maine, nearly every seat is taken on the deck overlooking the water. Inside it’s standing room only, as a line of hungry people extends from the front door, past the revolving metal rack on which postcards depicting lighthouses and moose and loons are displayed, up to the linoleum-topped counter.

The tip jar next to the cash register is empty, as is the cash register itself, a hulking brass monster that resembles the love child of a one-armed bandit and one of those old-time penny arcade machines that plays a flickering, black-and-white film of grinning flappers doing the Charleston. The cash register is a relic of a defunct grocery store that was owned by three generations of Bob Maynard’s family, all of them gloomy and sour-tempered and completely unsuitable for being in a trade that required them to interact with the public.

Bob Maynard is the owner of Captain Billy’s and he’s every bit as grim as his forebears. He’s seventy, gaunt, grey-haired, grey-featured, wearing a black baseball cap on which is written in white letters: VIETNAM. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. Bob is making lobster rolls while taking swigs of Chivas Regal straight from the bottle.

Bob usually wears disposable gloves while preparing lobster rolls and fried clams and hotdogs and all the other food that’s sold at Captain Billy’s, but not today. Today his hands are bare and probably none too clean. (He used the restroom with a sign taped to the door saying EMPLOYEES ONLY a few minutes ago and there was no sound of water running in the sink after the toilet flushed.)

That’s another funny thing about the end of the world: all those things that you’re supposed to do for your own good or for the good of others or because the law requires it, like buckling your seat belt and wearing gloves when preparing meals in a restaurant go right out the window, the reasoning being why bother?

On the whole, the approaching end of the world has made people treat each other better. Bob is a case in point. He used to yell at the waitresses and insult the summer people when they made what he considered to be unreasonable demands, such as asking for sauerkraut on their hotdogs. When that happened, he’d inform them, smiling venomously, “This is Maine. We don’t put that shit on hotdogs here. If you want sauerkraut, go back to New York City.” Being an old-school native Mainer, he sneeringly pronounced it New Yak City.

The summer people, the bane of Bob’s existence as well as the source of most of his income, have all fled back home to Park Slope or Basking Ridge or Darien, jumping into their BMWs and their Mercedes-Benz SUVs and tearing out of town as soon as they heard the news that the asteroid was going to hit, taking with them their golden retrievers and their silly little hipster hats and their children with absurd names like Lennon and Orwell, names that no old-school native Mainer in his or her right mind would ever think of giving a child.

The new Bob, the about-to-be-killed-by-an-asteroid Bob, is almost saintly in his patience and his love for his fellow humans. When Kristen, the waitress with the nose ring, whom Bob formerly couldn’t stand, bumped into him as he stood at the deep-fryer, causing grease from the basket of fried clams he was making to splatter upwards with an alarming hisss, all he said was, “Careful, darlin’. ” Then he gave her such a melting look of sweet, fatherly affection that it was a beautiful thing to behold.

Bob greeted Natalie Dorr, the town’s librarian, by waving the Scotch bottle at her as she stepped up to the counter. “Hiya, Nat! Want a lobster roll? They’re free. Everything’s free. Why not give it all away, right?”

He took another pull from the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Then he added, defensively and completely unnecessarily, since the evidence was plain to see, “I’m having a little drink.”

Natalie knew Bob from AA meetings at the Congregational church and the grange hall and the first aid station over in Edgecomb. She’d been going to AA for almost a year now, and had heard Bob hold forth countless times about how he’d been sober since 1992. She made no comment, although she thought, Ha! Who has more sober time now, Mister Sit Down, Shut Up and Listen? Then she felt bad for having such a mean thought. She told Bob she’d have a lobster roll with mayonnaise on the side, and an unsweetened ice tea.

“You got it,” he said snappily. “Have a seat on the deck. Kristen will bring it out to you.”

Out on the deck, there was a stunning view of the cove, hemmed in on two sides by pine trees so dark green they were almost black. Natalie never got tired of that view. I’m going to miss this place, she thought, although since she didn’t believe in an afterlife she supposed it was unlikely that she’d have the ability to miss anything, once the asteroid hit.

The lobster boats were bobbing at anchor. None of them had gone out that morning. (Again, why bother?) Gulls, unaware that the world was about to end, flapped and squabbled on the rocky shoreline. The cloudless sky was a tender shade of blue. There was no sign yet of the asteroid. Natalie wondered if it would be visible before it hit, or whether it would be moving too fast to see before everything exploded.

She sat down at one of the knotty pine picnic tables where the varnish was peeling off in brittle yellow flakes. At the end of the table, one of the guys who worked at the town dump (Natalie thought it was Brad LaVerdie, although the LaVerdie brothers all looked alike, and they all worked at the dump) was pouring beer into a blue plastic sippy cup and giving it to a baby seated in a high chair. The baby was barefoot, wearing a disposable diaper and a Boston Red Sox t-shirt.

“Lookit him! He’s a brewsky man,” the man proudly announced as the baby grasped the cup with his little hands and chugged down the beer. No one intervened and threatened to call the police or child protective services. One of the summer people probably would have butted in, since they always seemed to have something to say about what children should or shouldn’t be allowed to do, but they were gone, and good riddance.

Brad (or whichever LaVerdie he was) grew mournful as he gazed at the baby. “Poor little guy,” he said. “He ain’t gonna live long enough to get laid.”

One of his companions, a burly man with a shaved head who wore a sleeveless white t-shirt, the kind sometimes referred to with gleeful political incorrectness as a “wife-beater,” loudly stated that he’d gotten laid last night. He went on to say that it has been a threesome, with his ex-wife and her sister, and they hadn’t made him wear no goddamn condom, neither.

That got the attention of Leigh Ann, Bob’s girlfriend. She was sitting nearby, pensively smoking a hollowed-out cigar filled with marijuana. Seated next to her were her two young daughters, busily coloring with crayons on the back of paper placemats. Leigh Ann’s candy-apple red lipstick was smeared, and her blonde hair, done up in a complicated chignon, was starting to break free of its buttress of bobby pins. Her eyes blazing with wrath, and smoke pouring from her mouth so that she resembled an enraged dragon, she told him to shut up.

“Watch your filthy fucking mouth. My kids can hear you,” she snarled.

The little girls didn’t look up from their coloring. The older one, who looked to be about eight, had drawn a rainbow, under which a terrifying creature that resembled a furious Gollum wearing a white wig was standing next to what might be a cow.

Leaning over to look, Natalie told her, “That’s nice. What is it?”

“Heaven,” the child absently replied, busily coloring. She pointed a chewed fingernail at the frightful, white-haired creature. “That’s Grandma.” Indicating the cow, she said, “That’s Goldie, our dog that got run over.”

Her sister stopped coloring and narrowed her eyes at her. “Goldie didn’t get run over. She went to live on a farm, where there’s lots of room for her to run around.”

“Uh-uh. She got run over. You were at Daddy’s. Mom didn’t tell you because she knew you’d cry like a big baby,” her sister told her smugly.

“Liar! I hate you!” the little girl screamed and went to punch her sister, who evaded her easily, and laughed.

From the road outside came the sound of an amplified male voice. It would have been nice if it were God, announcing that he’d had second thoughts and had called off the end of the world, but it wasn’t. It was Charles Bickford, pastor of the One True Holiness Tabernacle, making his opinions known about the cause for the planet’s impending doom through the public-address system mounted on top of his truck. The truck was a silver Ford F-150, on which Bible verses were painted in crazily staggering black letters, as if by someone whose zeal had overcome any impulse toward neatness.

“Abortion!” Bickford shouted ecstatically, the feedback from his microphone screeching and warbling. “Homosexuals getting married, sashaying through the streets and forcing their perverted agenda on our children! Taking prayer out of the schools! Women wearing pants! Vegetarians telling us we shouldn’t eat the animals that God created especially so we could eat ‘em! Sodom and Gomorrah! This is what you get! This is why the Lord God Almighty sent the asteroid to smite the sinful Earth! Come to the One True Holiness Tabernacle and repent! Get saved and be raptured up to Heaven along with us!”

“What an asshole,” muttered the guy in the wife-beater. A couple of his companions stuck out their middle fingers in the direction of the truck, which could be seen slowly making its way back toward Townsend Street, where the One True Holiness Tabernacle (formerly Sondra’s Better Curl hair salon) was located.

Natalie took a bite of lobster roll. It was delicious, filled with big chunks of sweet lobster meat. One thing you could say about Bob was that he made a good lobster roll.

“Hey, Mom,” said the elder of the two little girls, looking up from her coloring. “What if Grandma’s not in Heaven? What if she got sent to Hell? She called me a little shit one time, and she paid Uncle Douglas five hundred dollars to set her car on fire, so she could say it got stolen and get the insurance money.”

Her little sister’s eyes grew wide with excitement. Tugging at the hem of her too-small t-shirt that depicted the simpering members of an especially obnoxious boy band, she said, “Grandma’s in Hell?”

Her mother took another hit from her blunt and closed her eyes wearily. Releasing a cloud of pungent smoke, she replied, “No, honey, Grandma’s not in Hell. Only really bad people get sent to Hell, like Hitler, and murderers.”

“And Mister Harris? He’s going to Hell, right? For trying to get us evicted?” the child persisted.

That was their downstairs neighbor. He and Leigh Ann had a long-running feud over the late Goldie’s barking and Leigh Ann’s parties, which generally began around mid-afternoon on Fridays with the ominous thud thud thud of rap music and continued, gradually rising in volume, punctuated with drunken shouts and hysterical laughter, until early Monday mornings.

Leigh Ann said probably not, although you never knew; it was God who got to make the final call. Changing the subject, she asked Natalie if she’d heard what had happened to Doc Mosher, the town’s ancient general practitioner.

Doc had delivered many of the citizens of Putnam Cove, including Natalie, who had been born forty-eight years previously in the backseat of her parents’ Plymouth Belvedere, which had broken down on the way to the hospital. Mosher had happened to come along on his motorcycle and Natalie’s father had flagged him down.

“The eighth of August, it was, and hot as blazes. I never heard a newborn scream as loud as you did when I pulled you out in the backseat of that Plymouth,” Mosher used to reminisce when Natalie was a little girl. Her father, if he happened to be there, would always cut in at that point and remark how he never should have traded in the Plymouth for a Dodge Dart that burned oil.

Natalie’s parents were dead by now, both having succumbed to cancer. Natalie had suspected that she’d probably get cancer too someday, but thanks to the asteroid, that was no longer a concern.

Doc Mosher, Leigh Ann told her, was dead as of that morning, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. He’d left the drug cabinet unlocked in his office, and posted a note on the front door inviting people to help themselves.

“He was a wonderful man,” Leigh Ann said. Natalie agreed. Leigh Ann proffered the blunt to her and raised her plucked eyebrows in invitation. Natalie declined, shaking her head no. It wouldn’t make her feel any better and might make her feel worse.

The sun reflecting off the rippling gray-green water of the cove hurt her eyes. She’d left the house without her sunglasses and had forgotten to put on sunscreen. Her arms were starting to burn. It didn’t matter. It would all be over soon.

The men seated at the end of the table were whispering among themselves, furtively glancing at Natalie and guffawing like trolls. One of them spoke up, “Hey, Nat, I got three books overdue at the library. Are you gonna make me pay a fine?”

It was the man who’d given the baby beer. Natalie was certain by now that it was Brad LaVerdie. The baby, meanwhile, had slid bonelessly down in the high chair until his head was just visible above the tray. He sat there slumped, blinking owlishly, drool dripping from his chin.

Natalie thought (not for the first time) that she was glad she’d never had children. She replied that all fines were waived on account of the asteroid, adding, “Besides, I’ve never seen you in the library yet, Brad LaVerdie.”

There was laughter at that, followed by sudden, shocked silence as the sound of three gunshots rang out in rapid succession from somewhere nearby, followed about thirty seconds later by a fourth.

Bob came out from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. Looking in the direction from which the shots had come, he said, “That’ll be Frank Osgood, putting his dogs down.”

Margaret Spaulding, who came from a moneyed family in Boston and ran the Putnam House Bed and Breakfast Inn, asked how many dogs Frank had.

“Three,” Bob replied. He turned and went back inside.

Mrs. Spaulding, who was considered to be hoity-toity by the year-round residents of Putnam Cove, began to cry softly. She blotted her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief, being careful not to smear her eye makeup. Then she got up from where she’d been sitting in a corner of the deck, under the blue-and-white-striped canvas awning.

Pulling two large diamond rings from her fingers, she handed one to Leigh Ann and one to Natalie. “Here,” she said, “I want you to have these.” Without another word, she turned and went down the steps that led to the parking lot, carefully holding onto the wooden railing, as her high heels made descending stairs perilous. The roar of the engine of her Lexus starting could be heard coming from the parking lot out front, followed by the splattering sound of gravel being tossed up as she drove rapidly away.

Carbon, thought Natalie, watching the diamond flash and sparkle as she turned the ring over in her hand. It was still warm from Mrs. Spaulding’s finger. She found it hard to believe that she’d soon be dead, reduced to her essential elements, of which carbon figured most prominently.

Marie Thibodeaux, who’d been silent up to that point, asked what time it was. Somebody told her it was 1:15. An hour and thirty minutes until the asteroid was expected to strike.

“Oh, my poor fur babies!” Marie moaned, referring to the horde of feral cats that she fed discount-brand cat food from battered aluminum pie tins placed on the frost-upheaved slates of the front walk of her ramshackle house, where she’d lived alone since the death of her mother.

It would be hard to find a less attractive assortment of felines anywhere. Many of them were missing an eye or an ear, and had oozing sores on their flanks. They slunk through the weeds in Marie’s untended yard, having tremendous, yowling fights and producing litter after litter of sickly looking kittens. Marie loved them dearly.

“This is the president’s fault,” she said. “If he’d spent less money handing out welfare checks to illegal aliens and more on figuring out how to stop asteroids from hitting us, we wouldn’t be in this fix.”

That sounded completely ridiculous to Natalie, but there was muttered agreement from Brad LaVerdie and his companions.

The president had been on television that morning. He read a brief statement saying there was no question that the asteroid was going to strike, and that nothing could be done to prevent it. He said he and his wife and his cabinet members were all getting together right after the broadcast.

“We’ll be praying for each and every one of you, and we hope you’ll keep us in your prayers,” he earnestly told the television audience. There was a long pause as he stared into the camera, at a loss as to what to say next, finally concluding, “May God have mercy on us all.”

The president’s address was followed by a panel of scientists who somberly discussed such things as what, exactly, was an asteroid, and what were the chances of anyone surviving the impact. (The consensus was that they were practically nil.) Next up were two perky newscasters, who debated the issue of whether or not the president was dying his hair. They agreed that it appeared he was.

There had been looting and rioting in some of the larger cities when word got out that the asteroid was coming, but not as much as might have been expected. Reports of human sacrifices being made by members of a voodoo cult in Haiti in an attempt to ward off the impending apocalypse turned out to be untrue, as was the rumor that there was no asteroid, that it was a hoax perpetrated by a group of internet pranksters who had hacked into NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid-Tracking system.

People mainly reacted with shock to the news that the world was about to end. Then came the stampede to houses of worship. Members of the clergy, looking out over their packed audiences, ruefully thought, so this is what it took to bring people in here.

In Putnam Cove, there had been exactly two acts of violence brought about by the approaching asteroid. Lynette Card, upon hearing it wasn’t going to be a near-miss, as had originally been reported, but a direct impact, marched over to her mother-in-law’s house and rang the doorbell. When the old lady opened the door, Lynette punched her smartly in the face, blackening her eye.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for thirty years,” Lynette told her, to which her mother-in-law replied that she’d never liked Lynette one bit, even though she’d always professed to love her like a daughter. Truth be told, she thought she was a terrible housekeeper, a bad mother, and it was disgusting the way she’d let herself go. Her son, she concluded, smiling savagely, could have done much better for himself.

That settled things. The two of them went their separate ways, both of them feeling satisfied at having gotten their licks in.

The second act of violence was committed by Herb Michaud, one of the town’s selectmen and a pillar of the Congregational church. Herb took a sledgehammer to the front window of a gift shop on Main Street called Downeast Treasures. He’d always wanted to smash a plate-glass window and he figured that if he was ever going to do it, now was the time. He chose the window of Downeast Treasures because he hated the wares that they sold.

“Bunch of overpriced junk, like those filthy dream-catchers with feathers and beads hanging off them, and those little plastic lighthouses made in China. If I had to walk past there and look at that garbage one more time, I would have gone insane,” Herb said, when he turned himself in at the police station. The chief of police told him to go home and try to relax.

Natalie finished her lobster roll and sipped her ice tea. It was a beautiful July day, warm and sunny, with a fresh breeze blowing in off the ocean. She thought it was odd that she wasn’t feeling more upset. Perhaps that would change as the time grew closer.

One of the men sitting with Brad LaVerdie spoke. He’d been quiet up to that point, but now he said, “You know what I think? I think everything’s gonna turn out okay. I think the space brothers are on their way right now. They’re gonna blow the asteroid up with their lasers, or whatever kind of advanced weaponry they’re got.”

“No kidding?” said Brad, looking interested.

Maybe he was right. It wasn’t impossible that space aliens could have been keeping a watchful eye on Earth for a long time, and now, at the eleventh hour, they’d finally make themselves known.

The man who’d advanced the theory took a pull from his bottle of Narragansett beer, belched loudly, and continued. “They’ll blow up the asteroid, and then they’ll land their spaceship in front of the White House, or maybe even right here, on the town common. Then they’ll come out and talk to us. They’ll tell us that things are gonna be different from now on. We’re gonna stop having wars, and being so materialistic, and start getting along better. Wouldn’t that be great?”

There was an excited murmur of conversation. Maybe there’d be a last-minute reprieve. It wasn’t out of the question, the universe being such a big place, that help might be coming from somewhere. Please, thought Natalie, please.

The funny thing was, she couldn’t have said whether she was pleading for rescue, or for the world to hurry up and end. She looked up at the sky and waited.

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