Ray Bradbury

Almost the End of the World

Sighting Rock Junction, Arizona, at noon on 22 August 1961, Willy Bersinger let his miner's boot rest easy on the jalopy's' accelerator and talked quietly to his partner, Samuel Fitts.

«Yes, sir, Samuel, it's great hitting town. After a couple of months out at the mine, a juke-box looks like a stained-glass window to me. We need the town; without it, we might wake some morning and find ourselves all jerked beef and petrified rock. And then, of course, the town needs us, too.»

«How's that?» asked Samuel Fitts.

«Well, we bring things into the town that it hasn't got -mountains, creeks, desert night, stars, things like that...»

And it was true, thought Willy, driving along. Set a man way out in the strange lands and he fills with wellsprings of silence. Silence of sagebrush, or a mountain lion purring like a warm beehive at noon. Silence of the river shallows deep in the canyons. All this a man takes in. Opening his mouth, in town, he breathes it out.

«Oh, how I love to climb in that old barber-shop chair,» Willy admitted. «And see all those city men lined up under the naked-lady calendars staring back at me, waiting while I chew over my philosophy of rocks and mirages and the kind of Time that just sits out there in the hills waiting for Man to go away. I exhale - and that wilderness settles in a fine dust on the customers. Oh, it's nice, me talking, soft and easy, up and down, on and on...»

In his mind he saw the customers' eyes strike fire. Some day they would yell and rabbit for the hills, leaving families and time-clock civilization behind.

«It's good to feel wanted,» said Willy. «You and me, Samuel, are basic necessities for those city-dwelling folks. Gangway, Rock Junction!»

And with a tremulous tin whistling they steamed across city limits into awe and wonder.

They had driven perhaps a hundred feet through town when Willy kicked the brakes. A great shower of rust flakes sifted from the jalopy fenders. The car stood cowering in the road.

«Something's wrong,» said Willy. He squinted his lynx eyes this way and that. He snuffed his huge nose. «You feel it? You smell it?»

«Sure,» said Samuel, uneasily, «but, what...?»

Willy scowled. «You ever see a sky-blue cigar-store?»

«Never did.»

«There's one over there. Ever see a pink dog-kennel, an orange out-house, a lilac-coloured bird-bath? There, there, and over there!»

Both men had risen slowly now to stand on the creaking floorboards.

«Samuel,» whispered Willy. «Every kindling pile, porch-rail, gewgaw gingerbread, fence, fireplug, garbage truck, the whole blasted town, look at it! It was painted just an hour ago!»

«No!» said Samuel Fitts.

But there stood the band pavilion, the Baptist church, the firehouse, the orphanage, the railroad depot, the country jail, the cat hospital and the bungalows, cottages, greenhouses, shop-signs, mailboxes, telephone poles, and trash-bins, around and in between, and they all blazed with corn yellow, crab-apple greens, circus reds. From water-tank to tabernacle, each building looked as if God had jig-sawed it, coloured it, and set it out to dry a moment ago.

Not only that, but where weeds had always been, now cabbages, green onions, and lettuce crammed every yard, crowds of curious sunflowers clocked the noon sky, and pansies lay under unnumbered trees cool as summer puppies, their great damp eyes peering over rolled lawns mint-green as Irish travel posters. To top it all, ten boys, faces scrubbed, hair brilliantined, shirts, pants, and tennis shoes clean s chunks of snow, raced by.

«The town,» said Willy, watching them run, «has gone mad. Mystery. Mystery everywhere. Samuel, what kind of tyrant's come to power? What law was passed that keeps boys clean, drives people to paint every toothpick, every geranium pot? Smell that smell? There's fresh wallpaper in all those houses! Doom in some horrible shape has tried arid tested these people. Human nature doesn't just get this picky perfect overnight. I'll bet all the gold I panned last month those attics, those cellars are cleaned out, all shipshape. I'll bet you a real Thing fell on this town.»

«Why, I can almost hear the cherubim singing in the Garden,» Samuel protested. «How you figure Doom? Shake my hand. I'll bet and take your money!»

The jalopy swerved around a corner through a wind that smelled of turpentine and whitewash. Samuel threw out a gum wrapper, snorting. He was somewhat surprised at what happened next. An old man in new overalls, with mirror-bright shoes, ran out in the street, grabbed the crumpled gum wrapper and shook his fist after the departing jalopy.

«Doom...» Samuel Fitts looked back, his voice fading. «Well.., the bet still stands.»

They opened the door upon a barber-shop teeming with customers whose hair had already been cut and oiled, whose faces were shaved close and pink, yet who sat waiting to vault back into the chairs where three barbers flourished their shears and combs. A stock-market uproar filled the room as customers and barbers all talked at once.

When Willy and Samuel entered, the uproar ceased instantly. It was as if they had fired a shot-gun blast through the door.

«Sam...Willy...»

In the silence some of the sitting men stood up and some of the standing men sat down, slowly, staring.

«Samuel,» said Willy out of the corner of his mouth, «I feel like the Death standing here.» Aloud he said, «Howdy! Here I am to finish my lecture on the “Interesting Flora and Fauna of the Great American Desert”, and?»

«No!»

Antonelli, the head barber, rushed frantically at Willy, seized his arm, clapped his hand over Willy's mouth like a snuffer on a candle. «Willy,» he whispered, looking apprehensively over his shoulder at his customers. «Promise me one thing: buy a needle and thread, sew up your lips. Silence, man, if you value your life!»

Willy and Samuel felt themselves hurried forward. Two already neat customers leapt out of the barber chairs without being asked. As they stepped into the chairs, the two miners glimpsed their own images in the flyspecked mirror.

«Samuel, there we are! Look! Compare!»

«Why,» said Samuel, blinking, «we're the only men in Rock Junction who really need a shave and a haircut.»

«Strangers!» Antonelli laid them out in the chairs as if anaesthetize them quickly. «You don't know what strangers you are!»

«Why, we've only been gone a couple of months...» A steaming towel inundated Willy's face; he subsided with muffled cries. In steaming darkness he heard Antonelli's and urgent voice.

«We'll fix you to look like everyone else. Not that the you look is dangerous, no, but the kind of talk you miners talk might upset folks at a time like this...»

«Time like this, hell!» Willy lifted the seething towel. bleary eye fixed Antonelli. «What's wrong with Rock Junction?»

«Not just Rock Junction.» Antonelli gazed off at some incredible mirage beyond the horizon. «Phoenix, Tucson, Denver. All the cities in America! My wife and I are going as tourists to Chicago next week. Imagine Chicago all paint-and clean and new. The Pearl of the Orient they call it! Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo, the same! All because... well… get up now, walk over, and switch on that television set against the wall.»

Willy handed Antonelli the steaming towel, walked over, on the television set, listened to it hum, fiddled with the dials, and waited. White snow drifted down the screen

«Try the radio now,» said Antonelli.

Willy felt everyone watch as he twisted the radio dial station to station.

«Hell,» he said at last, «both your television and radio are?»

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