Apocalypse at the Barbecue
The cousins gather, the fat hisses, the conversation veers off in 13 directions. Bring the canned food and bottled water. Bring on Y2K.
When the sun gets so hot it feels like your hat might catch fire, you know that Uncle Marv is heaping coals on the barbecue and marinating the wild pig my brother Nick shot with a crossbow last winter. Aunt Lillian likes to stand beside him and watch the goings on. She keeps within earshot of him in order to better advise him on the basting and cooking. He doesn't want her advice. With flaming red cheeks they stand only inches away from the glowing inferno and contest each other on the smallest culinary detail, seeming always on the verge of a fight, but never reaching it thanks to thirty-four years worth of experience in marital psycho linguistics.
Marv and Lillian are not just my aunt and uncle, they’re the patriarch and matriarch of an enormous extended family that lives in the sun baked valley at the base of Mount Diablo. Their house is a sprawling ranch style structure on a manicured plot in a tidy middle class neighborhood. On the outside it looks like a typical family home, (gardenias, brick chimney, wooden mailbox) but inside it is the sanctuary of all family events, crises and celebrations: from pet euthenasias to marriage counseling sessions to anniversary parties to memorial services. But most importantly, Uncle Marv and Aunt Lillian's house is the place to be for the Sunday barbecue.
Last Sunday there was a sting to the sheen of sunlight that bathed the grassy hillside of my Berkeley neighborhood. By sunrise the sluggish air had ceased to move. By 11:00 flies were doing the fox trot at high speed in my kitchen. The heat was dry—so dry that the atmosphere imbibed two inches of water from the baby pool before I could undress the twins and put them in. Without question, there would be a barbecue at M & L’s.
There has been some excitement at the barbecues lately. The family convenes: Mom and Dad sipping on vodka martinis under the big umbrella, Aunt Flo and Uncle George lovingly mollycoddling their AKC registered Yorkshire Terrier, my unmarried brothers Lyle, Bernard and Charles (who work together in the family construction firm and wear matching t-shirts and matching 6 o'clock shadows), my unmarried sisters Jennifer, Mary, and Bernadette (all in various stages of romantic trauma and weight loss), my about-to-be divorced sister Terry and her hopelessly out-of-place boyfriend Jamal, and myself (including four year old son Daniel, one year old twins Cameron and Kyle, and husband John). The conversation is in full swing when I walk into the back yard. As my three kids head for the sprinkler on the sprawling lawn. I quickly scan the garden for signs of snail and slug bait.
"But what exactly do you mean by total devastation?" Uncle George is asking. Dad is shaking his head with a portentous frown.
"No one is saying it like it is, but I'm predicting full-scale global warfare."
"Move that piece to the outside," Lillian nudges Marv.
"They play it down, of course, they can't risk informing the public. It's always better to keep the public ignorant. They don't want us to arm ourselves or stop paying taxes. But it's no secret anymore that the whole system is out of control, and they can't keep it under wraps. The simple fact is, we were doomed from the start. Computers are just not a natural way to run a society. What ever happened to town hall? It's been replaced by computers and . . . and computer programmers. And now the programmers have only a year to fix the computers, but they need closer to ten. It's out of our hands. As far as I can see it we're in the hands of God now."
Everyone nods at this. I smile a hello to my mother, twist off a cap to a cold Lite beer and avoid John's eyes while I take a long drink.
"It's all been prophesied," Jennifer announces from the kitchen. "Nostradamus, Saint John Bosco. And who was that other saint? What was his name, Dad?"
The heat from the barbecue is intolerable within a ten foot radius so I sit under a strip of shade offered by the eves of the house and watch the scene in front of me. I've arrived late, but I know the play well. I know the players, the plot, the denouement. I know the curtain call, the handshakes and the critical review. I haven't missed a thing. As the conversation begins to simmer, Mom's friends from the street arrive, Mrs. Demuth wearing a house coat and plastic slippers with daisies over the big toes and Mrs. Struthers who appears to have forgotten to take out her curlers. They synchronically survey the seating arrangements and, smiling an all-inclusive hello, silently unfold two lawn chairs beside my mother.
"85 thousand dollars," Dad is telling Flo, articulating the numbers in slow sequence so as to allow her plenty of time to contemplate the figure. "That's like, if you calculate it, like, about, say, 50 bucks an acre. And I hear North Dakota is a great place to live. Perfect for raising kids. There are trees, and some mountains there, too. And the house. . . well, I think the real estate ad said it was near a well, or a lake or something."
Flo's eyebrows are propping up her hairline.
"If you sold your place, and bought that place, think of the money you'd have left over. Enough to run a really nice little farm."
"Self-sufficiency," nods Dad. "That's the plan."
"For God's sake Marv, move that fatty piece away from the flames. It's catching fire."
I glance at John without turning my head. He is already blowing his nose and looking miserable; the pollen in the valley always brings on his allergies. He sees my glance and his eyes tell me that he isn't sure he'll last the evening. Not if the conversation is about the millennium bug, total devastation, and an idyllic house in the country again.
Everyone has his or her duty on the new family property. My brothers will build fences, barns and do general upkeep. The older members of the family will plant fruit trees and learn the art of canning. The rest of us will concentrate on harvesting the wheat and taking care of the animals. We will all learn from the ground up what it takes to be good farmers. Even though we've always lived in the suburbs and shopped for everything we needed, we won't need stores where we're going. We'll use our God-given talents to make our own clothes from something and be almost completely self-reliant.
"And I'll be responsible for keeping track of the end of the world on the internet," John murmurs wearily.
Dad's voice is wavering with anticipation. He is animated. And his rapture is contagious. How can you resist the euphoria? I twist open another Lite and crunch on some Cheetos and join into the theater of the Armageddon. John gets disgusted and goes around to the front of the house to read Business Week in the shade of a maple tree—not far enough away from the theater for his taste.
In the meantime, as Dad takes on shallow depression well systems, the conversation branches off into home schooling, hydroponics, and solar energy.
If I watch my toddlers freely soaking themselves in the spray I can enjoy myself, eavesdropping on whichever of the four discussions maintains the highest volume. I have learned after attending many of these family gatherings that it doesn't matter which act you follow. Our exodus is always timely, our lives on the farm a certifiable pastoral. There are never any obstacles to overcome, hypothetical or real, because God always mitigates the hardships for those who move out of the suburbs in his name. Besides, it has all been foretold in Revelations. "And the millennium bug screwed up the military, the federal reserve, international telecommunications and all of the public utilities companies in including Pacific Gas and Electric, causing many to flee Contra Costa County. And God remembered great Babylon, to make her drain the cup of the fury of this wrath."
And so I listen. I can't help but be entranced. I may be tainted by John's cynicism, but without a doubt their words have a certain magic to them. They weave a world that is attractive to me—a world of familial harmony, homespun simplicity and the warmth of freshly tilled soil. It's an impenetrable bubble of organic peace in a world of economic and nuclear chaos. It's a place where college degrees are useless and only the muscular survive. Their words stir a restlessness in me, and I enjoy the feeling. But even while I listen and allow myself to be swept up in their vision, I am the annoying academic of the family, the quiet skeptic who can't blot out the sneaky, undermining voice of Truth that slithers in between the words like quicksilver.
Truth: If civilization did come crashing down, the truth is Dad would be able to leave the mess in the garage that he's been promising to clean for 10 years and apply himself to the exciting task of animal survival. The car would not need to be replaced because cars would be obsolete. The house would not need to be refinanced because we'd all be free of the whole silly illusion of money, and all debts and credit loans would be automatically forgiven. No need to re-plumb the kitchen sink—the water will be no better than raw sewage coming out of the tap. And the mindless inanity on television will be unplugged forever—to be replaced by the honest hoe and the seraphic scythe. The feeling of such freedom is dizzying, like running full speed with your eyes closed. And that’s precisely why the end of civilization is so attractive.
Y 2k. Even the sound of it augurs a strange marriage of cyber-spatial chaos and biblical retribution. The idea that two electronic digits can, in a fraction of a second, leave us as naked and new as Adam and Eve is as nightmarish as it is intriguing. It is a plot that is ironically consistent with the Christian message of paying for your sins with the most appropriate penance—the renunciation of all things worldly, and the unconditional return to grass roots living.
Tucked away in Dad’s garage are 100 gallons of drinking water stored in tightly-capped Clorox bleach bottles. There is a gas burning cooker, an ax, a battery powered short wave radio, and an elaborate first aid kit. He has a wooden crate filled with canned goods and a year's supply of toilet paper. He has 100 pounds of salt and a charcoal fired smoker for preserving meats. And locked away in a fireproof safe in his house he has a fearsome collection of firearms to ward off human predators and protect his prodigious stash. Everyone wants Dad to come on the exodus. He would be handy to have around.
John and I, on the other hand, have little to contribute besides a box of storm matches. If things are as bad as Dad says, John and I and the kids won't last a week.
A few straggling cousins arrive with their children, Grandpa Lyle wakes up from his nap and comes out of the house scratching his Albert Einstein hair and the buzz becomes a euphonic symphony of anticipation for the end of the world, as everyone divides their concentration between the end of the world and the steak, pork and beans and corn on the cob. Handing out plates, Jennifer is quietly disappointed because she is missing out on three of the four discussions, and will have to wait for the next barbecue to hear more. Eventually John peeks around the corner of the house and is cheered by the sounds of clinking plates and silverware. He joins me in tying bibs onto the twins and laughs when they soak his lap with hose water.
When Uncle Marv closes the barbecue lid, the temperature drops by five degrees and the atmosphere is actually pleasant. My brothers resume their previous discussion of joists. My sisters mimic a Merchant Ivory film they recently saw and Mom prematurely starts cleaning up. And left to himself now, Dad pours himself a fresh martini and happily visualizes his healthy vegetable crop amidst full-scale nuclear warfare and global famine.
It's just another barbecue at Marv's and Lillian's. Chances are we'll do it again next Sunday. And the Sunday after that. And there's a sneaky suspicion creeping over me that, despite Armageddon itself, we'll be doing it after Y 2k has come and gone.
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party