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Chaos and Conclusion

June 26, 2009

Crash! It was the word in bold letters on the cover of every magazine, and spilling from the lips of every too-perfect-looking news reporter. The only flawed feature was their eyes. They stared, slightly glazed over as the news was spoken to the camera. The eyes shone with an uncertain fear.

It reminded James of the Great Depression. Not that he had been there, but he had studied it in school, and remembered that the newspapers printed in that time had similar headlines. The black and grey print had spoken of the stock market crash, and the doom of the American economy. But instead of 1929, it was now 2027. And this was a different type of crash.

It had all begun in 1950, when the Diner’s Club introduced the first credit card. It was the beginning of revolution that we were hardly aware of. From the Diner’s Club to American Express, as time went on, paper money became more and more obsolete. The swiping sound that results from the marriage of a card and a cash register resounded more loudly each year, until five years ago, when the green paper that had once been so familiar disappeared altogether.

Just then, the barman walked by to refill James’ rapidly emptying glass. Leaning on the counter, he noted, “While the whole world is losing its head, you end up in my bar once again, Mr. Barton.”

A corner of James’ lips curled into a hint of a smile, “As usual. Doesn’t faze me much. I didn’t have much to begin with anyways.”

At that, the barman chuckled, “True, true,” before attending to a less than sober guest at a table across the room.

The people had voted and the world, or at least a nation, was changed. Everything we earned and spent was put on a card and transferred via plastic, with a single central computer system controlling every pixilated cent of it. That is, until yesterday, James thought.

Yesterday, technology failed mankind. Yesterday, the system that controlled the peoples’ credit simply shut down. Yesterday, the country was thrown into pandemonium. So today, James sat with his elbows on the bar, drinking scotch along with the dark-eyed people who were in a state of shock that could only be cured with alcohol. He had always been a skeptic, questioning everything worth discussing, like religion and déjà vu, and also everything that is not worth discussing, such as politics and reality TV. While the majority of the nation had rushed into the opportunity to save a few trees and eradicate money, James had never trusted the idea of it. And he had been right, hadn’t he? Since the system had crashed yesterday, every bank statement of every single person in the United States of America read the same number in bold, red type: Zero.

Zero dollars, no dinero, no bacon to bring home; it all meant the same thing. All the theoretical, computerized cash that the richest country in the world had once been in charge of had simply disappeared. James lifted his pale eyes, glancing out from the bar’s dirty windows, into the dirty streets, where dirty people either walked hurriedly with downcast faces and pocketed hands, or ran about with cardboard signs proclaiming the fast approach of the apocalypse. They called it chaos. He called it irony. No one knew how it had happened. He ran his hands through his dark, disheveled hair, thinking. Was it fate? Karma? God? How could anyone really know?, he sighed to himself.

The bell above the door jingled in an unfittingly happy way as a young woman walked into the bar. For a brief moment, the sound of running feet and loud voices could be heard, until the door closed behind the woman, shutting out the world. Besides the fact that she had just walked into a bar on the eve of the so-called apocalypse, she seemed to be a typical material girl, though the lights were dim and it was hard to make out the details of the room. She settled herself into the unoccupied barstool two seats from James, close enough to avoid seeming rude and far enough to evade human contact. Luckily for her and the other denizens of Portland, the barman had decided that the end of the world called for acts of kindness, which in his case meant free drinks for all.
“What can I get for you?” He offered.

The woman blinked once or twice before answering, which was an over-dramatic occurrence due to the amount of mascara heaped upon her lashes. “I…I can’t pay for it,” she flustered.

James couldn’t help but lightly smile to himself. We’re all so dependant.

The barman lifted his hand and smiled weakly, “Don’t worry. It’s on me today. What can I get for you?”

She nodded in gratitude, and said softly, “I don’t care. Just bring me something. Anything, please.”

He nodded back, understanding, then turned to his stock of bottles and glasses, creating a clinking cacophony as he dug through them. James glanced at the woman as she sighed and stared off into nothing. She was younger than him, and clearly not accustomed to the bar scene. Nightclubs maybe, but not places like this. When the bartender turned back to them, he was holding a glass full of some bright concoction, which he placed in front of the woman. She stared at it blankly.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure it doesn’t bite,” James interrupted her thought process.

Seeming to notice him for the first time, though James knew she had been aware of his presence, her eyes darted up and down his body. She acted surprised that another human had bothered to interact with her. James introduced himself. The world was burning down anyway, so why not?

“Hey, I’m James.”

A slight hesitation, then, “Gina.” They shook hands.

As Gina cautiously sipped her newly acquired drink, James could not hold back his curiosity. “You don’t seem to be from around here…” although he had no real reason to think so.

“I traveled up here from California,” her girlish voice cut him off.

She looked away, toward the corner of the room, where economists and politicians took turns flapping their jaws and waving their arms on the room’s muted TV. Comfort or condemnation had been pouring from the mouths of every imaginable person with real or fictitious power for the past 24 hours. Clips showing mobs of looters in cities across the country occasionally interrupted the ranting. Broken windows, stolen goods, worn faces. It’s tiring, James thought, to hear their speculations and opinions, but no answers. No help. No hope. “What’s a girl like you doing, wandering around alone at a time like this? They have the news in California, right?”

That won him a blue-eyed glare. “I can take care of myself,” a pause, “But to answer your question, San Francisco wasn’t the greatest place to be, with everything going on. People were going insane. Everything they had just disappeared. The financial district was ready to burn down again when I left, and I saw a man jump off the bridge. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like watching a terrible movie, but I was a part of it. Luckily, I had almost a full tank of gas. I drove all night. The traffic was pretty crazy…but everything is, really. I had to hitch hike the last stretch here. An almost-full tank of gas can only take you so far.”

“San Francisco?” He whistled the way people do when they are impressed by something, “And where are you headed? I hope you didn’t expect things to be any better up here than they are in sunny California.”

“Well…I’m not…I don’t really know,” she replied, the sentence moving more quickly with each word. She took a long sip from her glass.

Disbelieving, James said, “You don’t know? You drove more than 500 miles, and you don’t know where—“

“Well, what’s you’re grand plan?” Gina pounded her glass on the bar, sloshing some of its contents onto the aged counter, “To sit here and get drunk until Bat Man comes to save the day? Or some politician or Pope or Jesus miraculously fixes all our problems?” She sighed again, “Get real, James, this isn’t getting any better any time soon.”

“I know,” he mumbled. After finishing off his scotch, he continued, “But if you’re gonna run away, I would suggest you at least know where you’re going. My plan? I was thinking about finding my way to Canada, and waiting it out. I heard they were going to try to close up the borders, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. At least there will be some kind of order up there.”

“Canada?” She sounded skeptical.

“I know,” was his reply. And we always thought we were better than them…times change, was his thought.

There was an awkward silence then, where the pair stared blankly at their empty glasses. The bartender had begun chatting quietly with a corpulent man on the other side of the room, whose number of chins waxed and waned as he spoke in a hushed tone, and nodded occasionally. The floor was scuffed, the glasses cracked, and the air musty. But the bar was a haven compared to the bedlam that waited outdoors, like a lion crouching, ready to strike its prey.

The silence, though awkward, was not resented. Gina was the first to break it. “What was your life like, before all this?”

“Before yesterday morning? I’m a musician. I’ve played guitar as long as I can remember. I came here right after high school, struck out on my own. I’ve always wanted to get paid to do something I love. But it’s not quite as easy as I thought. I have to pick up odd jobs wherever I can to support myself,” James scoffed, “I have a Masters in music, and here I am, answering phones, cleaning toilets, strumming away in parks,” Now it was his turn to sigh, “What about you? Judging by those acrylic nails, you haven’t exactly been doing your building’s plumbing.”

“Me? I haven’t…my family…had money. So I really haven’t had an actual ‘job’ per se…”

“Haven’t had a job? You haven’t worked a day in your life? You have to be kidding!”

She bristled, seemed to snarl, and looked almost like an angered cat to James, as she spat out, “I didn’t choose to be born into my family! Don’t blame me!”

At that, James laughed out loud, “You make it sound like being a rich girl is burdening you! Do you really expect people to feel sorry for you? Look around; your problems are no bigger than anyone else’s.”

“Stop! Please, just stop,” her voice tapered and tears were now flooding her eyes, threatening to cascade like a thousand falling stars, “I have nothing! No. Even worse, I am nothing. I have nothing to give, no mark to leave behind when I finally leave this hellhole life. One computer glitched and I went from the top of the world into chaos and emptiness. Yesterday, I realized that I had been living a stupid, useless life.”

Drumming his fingers on his blue-jean clad leg, James thought, Great, it seems I’ve opened a can of worms. What’s this girl been through, that she’s this defensive? The worms were wriggling their way into his sympathy.

Unexpectedly, Gina continued, “I always wanted to be an artist. When I was little, I was fascinated by everything from Picasso in museums to the graffiti on the streets. But that was never good enough, never refined enough for my parents. They were going to send me to law school once I had finished college. But then all this happened. It was the best time to run away…” Her words trailed off as she was overcome with a wave of thought.

James’ sympathy was finally breached. He understood that feeling, when your dreams are rejected by those you love most. That was why he himself had come to Portland, how long ago? Ten years? He had been so young, younger than she was. There, even in that remote bar, in that confused city, in that chaotic time they shared something. It was a modicum of comfort for him, and he wanted to share the feeling.

Gina finished her monologue, “You’re right. I need to figure out where I’m going. Who do I even know outside California?”

“I hear Canada’s nice this time of year. There’s room for one more in my rust bucket of a car.”

Looking up, Gina seemed to see him–to really see him–for the first time. “What…are you saying I should go with you?” She hesitated just slightly.

“Why not? You have nothing to do, nowhere to go. I have some family in Vancouver, so maybe the Mounties will let us in. I’ve been there once; there are lots of artists. And anyways, what do you have to lose?”

He could see in her eyes that she was in serious thought about the entire situation. She had already run away from home, but adding a mysterious man into the equation would make it more dangerous for her. Not that he would hurt her. He was not, and never would be, that type of man. But still, she had a lot to consider. James inwardly hoped she would say yes. He found her strangely interesting, and he would appreciate the company anyways.

Slowly, but gaining confidence, Gina began nodding, “Okay…yeah. Yes, I would like that. You look like you’d need some of my sense anyways.”

James laughed. She suddenly reminded him of his little sister back home. It had been so long since he had been there. The prospect of seeing family once again uplifted him. “So, when are we leaving for this grand adventure?”

“Well, you have nothing to lose, too, right?” She asked.

His answer did not require much thought, “Right.”

“So let’s go now!” The hesitation in her voice was gone now, and her eyes sparkled, “How far away is it?”

“A little more than five hours, not including end-of-the-world traffic,” he stated, but could not hide his slight surprise, “So, you’re really up for this?”

Gina slid off her barstool and stood tall, “Yes. I’m more sure than I’ve been in a long time.”

Following suit, James stood. Gina scribbled “Thank you” on a napkin and left it on the counter for the bartender, feeling guilty that she had nothing more to give. They strode confidently out the double doors, into the bleak streets, where terrified people roamed and buildings blocked out the sky. They found James’ ancient car in a parking lot a few blocks down the road, behind a Thai restaurant. They had no assurance that the amount of gasoline in the car would get them more than 300 miles north, but they were not worried. With not much more than themselves, James’ guitar, Gina’s over-sized purse, and the car, they loaded themselves into the vehicle and left. Around the lot, sparrows flew through the air and small yellow flowers sprouted from a patch of dirt, in complete disregard of the troublesome world surrounding them.

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