The hunchback at the end of the bar was crying into his beer. I'd had a few myself, though, and instead of moving to a table in disgust I was just maudlin enough to ask the bartender, "What's his story?"
The bartender wasn't buying my sympathy, though.
"Mike's a regular customer, buddy," he said, polishing a glass. Then I saw his thumb and forefinger rub together in the international symbol for baksheesh.
A twenty underneath a bar napkin disappeared quickly.
"Mike's in here every night anymore," the bartender said, noticeably friendlier. "He's got a really shit job or something... his boss has him locked up in some kind of ironclad contract - says the guy watches his every move - and won't let him out of doing, umm, something. He's never said what, but it must be some kinda bad shit 'cause he don't stop drinking most nights until I gotta call him a cab.
"You'll have to ask him for anything else, though. Whyn'cha move on down?"
At this point I felt obliged to, if only to get my twenty's worth. The bartender hadn't done much for my money - serves me right for starting out with Jackson, I guess. So I sidled over and sat down on the stool next to the guy.
"Mike? Can I buy you a drink, Mike?"
He looked at me blearily, ignoring the tears running down his cheeks. He seemed unsurprised that I knew his name.
I couldn't look away. Deformed as he was, the back of his trenchcoat pushed up like a mountain range, I couldn't look away... his face was beautiful even in his misery.
Now, I ain't no queery boy or nothing but I could see how he needed, how he wanted me to be there for him, and I... I wanted to oblige.
He smiled crookedly.
"Yeah, a drink. Would be nice. Inna bar, after all. Wha's your name, brother? No, wait... Lou, right?"
"Yeah, you're right. Hey, how's about that drink?"
He waved expansively, obviously not needing another one, but I was committed now.
"Bartender! Bring us another of whatever we're having!" he shouted. He attracted a few dirty looks, but the band hadn't started yet so no one got really mad.
The bartender brought over a couple of drinks and set one in front of me. He wouldn't take my money, though, which seemed odd.
"Mike, he... does what he wants. If he asked for it, it's covered. Drink your drink. You can pick up the next round, if you want."
I wasn't sure there was going to BE a next round... Mike looked pretty drunk already. Drunk enough to start talking, in fact. Hell, I hate a yapping drunk... why had I done this? I cringed a little, before I started listening to what he was saying.
"My boss, my god, what an asshole... he wants me to-"
"Something. Never mind what, but it's wrong, something that'll hurt a lot of people. And I don't want to do it."
"Labor dispute, huh? Why don't you just quit?"
"It's not the kind of job you just quit. I've got to see it through... if I don't then he'll just get someone less qualified to go ahead and do it. There's plenty of... people... would kill for my spot."
"What's the job? C'mon, you can tell me. I bought you a drink, didn't I?" I figured, drunk as he was, he wouldn't know otherwise.
His cold blue eyes fixed on me, not nearly as drunkenly as I'd expected.
"No, you didn't. You can't lie to me, no matter how drunk I am." He sighed. "And I won't lie to you.
"The job is... engineering Armageddon."
I don't think I've ever been quite so witty.
He spread his coat a little and showed me the glint of his wings.
"I'm the archangel Michael, you dumb fuck, and my job is to wipe you and every other pissant nonbeliever off the face of the Earth."
I guess he could tell I believed him now from the look of stark terror on my face.
"Oh, relax. I'm not going to do it. That's why I'm here."
"You're not? But... He wants you to. The big guy. God! You can't-"
"I'm not the first one to piss Him off and get away with it... you think this is the first time He's tried something like this? So far, at least, every time He's tried to sweep up His marbles and go home someone like me has stopped Him. 'Swhy I'm here tonight. To stop Him."
"Hm. Anything I can do to help?" Now, ordinarily my rule in life is the same one that got me by in Service: never volunteer. But hey, he was an angel. And I was a - well, never mind.
"Know anything about the band tonight?"
Geez, witty repartee night.
"The band. Know anything about 'em?"
"Seen 'em a couple times before. Heard they got a new trumpet player, though."
A tiny light bulb, no more than refrigerator strength, comes on.
"If you're Mike, then Gabe's gotta be..."
He grinned an angelic grin.
"Yeah. Gabriel's the man. He's the one who's bound to set it off. All he has to do is blow his horn."
"Blow his horn?"
Michael smiled crookedly.
"Yaas, just one little toot..." he took a sip of his drink "...and BOOM!" He slapped the flat of his hand down on the bar for emphasis, and glasses down at the far end tinkled nervously.
"But... if he's in the band... he must have played at an audition or something, right?"
"Would you turn down an angel come to play? Nah, he hasn't shown 'em his chops yet. I'd know it if he had. You'd know it if he had. Now hush. The band's coming on."
Guitar, drums, bass viol. Every one ugly enough to be human, 'cept the drummer, and I didn't think angels would have tattoos like hers. Then the trumpet player came out. I could see Mike tensing up beside me.
Gabriel didn't wear a trenchcoat. He had a cape, instead, and instead of looking hunchbacked he looked like he had the mantle of Elvis on his shoulders. But I could tell now that what he really wore were wings. He carried a silver trumpet loosely at his side, ready to draw on the world.
The band tuned up as we sat there, mesmerized. Gabriel didn't seem to see any of us; he fiddled with the spit valve on his trumpet (although of course it was dry) and leaned back on a conveniently-placed stool on stage.
Then the band hit an A, and began. They played for four, eight, sixteen bars, and still Gabriel made no move. Coming up on a full thirty-two, and he raises his trumpet.
Michael stood up and let the coat fall to the floor. His wings spread out in their glory, nearly knocking me off my stool, and he pointed his finger at the stage.
"No!" he boomed. Lightning flashed from his fingertip and the ground trembled. A couple of people looked around but most of 'em didn't even pay us that much mind. Michael looked around in consternation.
"Thou shalt NOT!"
But the band didn't stop - didn't even seem to hear him. Gabriel raised his horn and blew one clear note, in tune, of course, and perfectly mixed even though he wasn't miked.
"NO!" Michael screamed, but it seemed that I was the only one who heard him this time. The music had everybody else.
Then Gabriel blew another note, and another, arpeggios rippling from his trumpet like silver fireflies. He played, and nothing happened - nothing except the fact that the whole bar was hypnotized by his playing. None of us could move.
At the end of the set, Michael slumped back on his stool.
"I don't know. I don't know how he did it. That was supposed to be it. The end of everything. Not just... not just that."
The band finished the last song and sat to stunned applause. Gabriel hopped off the low stage and strode over to Michael, clapping him on the back.
"Glad to see ya, Mickey. Like the act?"
An angel of few words, Michael.
"He fired me, Mick. He doesn't need me. Isn't that wonderful? I don't have to go through with it... He says the whole flock's running off the cliff without any signal from us, anyway."
"But that means..."
"Yeah, you're out too, if you want to be. You play anything?"
Michael looked down, embarrassed.
"I never... never thought I had time to learn. Can you teach me?"
"Sure. Even a big dumb guy like you ought to be able to manage a steady beat onna tambourine or something."
Gabriel held out his hand and Michael took it. They didn't look like a couple of guys who had just squeaked out of Armageddon. They looked like two losers, getting ready to bore the socks off another half-empty bar.
I sighed in relief, and turned back to my drink.
Sure, I know, God thinks the human race is bringing it on itself, engineering its own Armageddon.
But He's been wrong before. I know. I know, just like I know that He's not the only one with labor problems. I debated telling my own old boss the good news, then decided not to.
The Hell with him. He'll figure it out himself.
"The evaporation of four million people who believe in this crap would leave the world a better place."
--Andrei Codrescu on the "Rapture"
You can see more of these characters in Downsized!, a loose sequel.
Original content on this page ©1996, 1997, 1998 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
This document was last updated September 23, 1998.