Updated: May 7, 2019
There were three bullets. 9mm. They lay at the bottom of a stainless-steel soup ladle. It was lowered into a large, black cauldron containing what appeared to be too little water for such an ample container. But it was enough liquid to submerge the ammo. His hand left the ladle, and a mumbled prayer escaped his taut lips.
The benediction, and rite, of a novice.
A Catholic, a Jew, a Hindu, and an atheist walked into a bar.
Not at the exact same time, but in they walked as they had every Thursday evening for nearly four years. They had been coming since the night of the four visions, or dreams. Call them what you like.
On each of the fifth sunsets, be gathered within the out door, apart the cashless society, where the silver becomes the gold.
Curtis Massey, the Catholic, was the first to arrive this evening. He entered to the stink of smoke, but it wasn’t the usual cigarette choke. A white man in a whiter hat sat at the bar burning a piece of notebook paper.
Bartender Grant accepted payment from a rosy-cheeked regular with a thick leather wallet as he spotted Massey heading for his usual table. It was round, wooden, and aged. It wasn’t far from the old jukebox—a machine filled not with computer files or even compact discs but 45-rpm vinyl records. A prostitute leaned against it and dropped in some change. A portly old black fellow known as Knuckles halted the ragtime tune he’d been pounding out on the dusty upright piano. He played when the jukebox wasn’t. He’d then resume his job of tidying up the bar. But he never dusted that piano. It was a lot like Knuckles: slightly out of tune but loaded with character. He nodded at Massey as he picked up a chair, toppled by a drunk who’d been cut off and shown the door. Knuckles never showed much affection, but he had a bond with Massey because they were frequently the only African Americans in the place.
There were two other ladies present, seated at opposite ends of the bar. One was a call girl, from the same stable as the woman at the jukebox. The other had been twice mistaken for a hooker today. Quite irksome. She had come alone after a dispute with her boyfriend and was drowning her troubles. Not much different from the fellow burning the note, but nobody had offered him money for sex.
“A change is gonna come.”
That’s what Sam Cooke assured from the jukebox speakers. The hookers hated that there was no current music on there, but they’d grown fond of Cooke’s soothing voice. They found it sexy, and they were sure he was delivering a positive message.
The sun was almost gone, and it was time for Knuckles to plug in the longstanding neon sign atop the establishment, which stood alone by a stretch of road just off Interstate 15. Surrounded by desert and mountains, this was a place that was mainly supported by locals but also welcomed the many driving between California and Las Vegas. It was just minutes from the border, on the Golden State side. The sign hummed as it flickered to life: The Out Door Inn.
When each of them awoke, their first thoughts were that they’d had a dream. The most lucid and comprehensible dream imaginable, but just a dream. They had been spoken to and given detailed instructions by something that appeared to be the sun.
Befriend the law. Though not rife with belief, rife with purity of heart.
That was part of it, along with the stuff about the cashless society and the fifth sunset. It was very real yet still confusing. But then, very quickly, things became quite clear. The four men who had had this vision did not know each other and were miles apart when it came over them.
Each of them awoke with a blistering rash that had overtaken them as they slept, even Massey, whose ebony shell had never been torched this way. Each of them got into their respective vehicles and drove instinctively, without map or GPS, toward the desert. They arrived within minutes of each other, standing in the shade of a mountain, dust at their feet. That was the day they first met. Brought together that morning in the middle of nowhere by something they could not understand. They talked about their visions. Each one identical. They learned about each other. None of them shared the same religious beliefs. Each lived alone. All in their mid-thirties. To the east stood a lone structure, small, ringed by cactus, brushed by tumbleweed, and touched by the shadow of a Yucca palm, or, as many say, a Joshua tree.
The Out Door Inn.
They knew that was where it was to be. Whatever and whenever it was. They reasoned that “where the silver becomes the gold” must refer to the nearby border between the Silver and Golden states. They discussed more of this riddle—this mission, perhaps—for which they had been chosen. The four men got in their cars and drove to the inn. Naturally, it was closed this early in the day. A lizard scattered as Massey read a sign in the window. Cash Only.
That took care of the “apart the cashless society” puzzle. In time they determined the “fifth sunsets” to mean Thursday nights. Simple math.
They bitched to each other about why this divine vision couldn’t just cut the crap and be straightforward. Why the theatrical conundrum?
Then they stopped laughing, got in their cars, and drove to a CVS for some skin cream.
Curtis Massey hadn’t waited more than a few minutes before the rest of them arrived. First came Stephen, the Jewish businessman who owned three inexpensive but successful shops in the lower- end casinos in Vegas. Right behind him was Vir, an Indian doctor with Hindu beliefs. The last to enter the bar was McKenna, a small-town deputy from thirty miles deeper into California. He was still in uniform, as always, with a Stetson atop his curly blond mat. He wore a vintage California Angels baseball jacket over his police duds. Deputy McKenna didn’t believe in God.
Here they were again on another Thursday evening at the Out Door Inn. It was the 204th consecutive Thursday. Even Thanksgivings were spent at the bar. Despite the fierce protestations of the others, McKenna had missed three of the gatherings, but the others had been to every one, through weather, sickness, or family tragedy. They couldn’t tell you why, but they knew they had to be there. The time and the reason would come.
...and that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast...
There had been a number of times when doubt would arise in one or another of them.
“Why do we keep coming here when nothing ever happens?”
One time McKenna drank too much and was puking in the men’s room. Massy spent those same moments in the face of a doubtful Stephen, telling him in no uncertain terms that it was all a test. If they could come every week for years on end with nothing to show for it, they’d prove themselves worthy. Another time it was Stephen who had to bring Massey to his senses. It was one of the nights without McKenna. He’d been stuck on a police matter. Massey was sure that “mark of the beast” referred to a tattoo that a group of rowdy bikers had on their foreheads. They came roaring into the bar, loud and strong, taking command of the jukebox and dartboard. Some took to the men’s room with prostitutes. Massey tried to convince his friends that the time was at hand. He was sure this was the night of their calling, and McKenna wasn’t even there. Stephen literally had to smack his bigger, stronger friend across the face while Vir got between them. It was all captured on Bartender Grant’s rudimentary security camera, which was hooked into a rather primitive backroom VCR. He had viewed the tape and reminded them the following week that he wouldn’t stand for violent behavior.
“When it is our time, we will all know!” Stephen shouted at Massey during the incident.
Massey came to his senses when he saw one of the bikers helping Knuckles repair a faulty piano key, right about the same time the leader of the gang bought drinks for everyone to apologize for their commotion. He personally carried a pitcher of beer to their table and asked them to tell him if they had any complaints about any member of his crew. Massey and Stephen had some of the beer, and Vir had a few sips. None of them drank much. Never had.
This night was no different. They’d ordered a pitcher; they had to or else risk blowing their cover. They’d mix in a few colas as well. Besides not wanting to cloud their minds, they just weren’t drinkers. It was one of the traits that seemed to bind them. None of them had ever been married or had children. They were all far away from any real family. While McKenna had long thought nothing of religion, the others believed in a higher power but had never been extremely religious. In fact, they had each been almost shunned by their families for not practicing their religions with vigor.
But they were all good people.
Massey knew men who would never miss church on Sunday, only to beat their wives later that evening. Though he wasn’t at the altar every weekend, Curtis Massey dedicated his time—both at work as a high school physical-education instructor and in his spare time working with orphaned children—to getting this generation off the computer and onto the playground. It saddened him to see today’s children sitting on couches with French fries on their laps and greasy game controllers in their hands.
Stephen bucked the trend of tourist gouging, choosing to sell reasonably priced goods, and he shared his modest profits with numerous charities. Nearly half of Vir’s patients paid what they could or were seen for free.
McKenna drank more than the others and had no fear of God, but he treated everyone with dignity—even those he arrested. It said something for Deputy McKenna that he led a genuine life while believing that death held the same in store for both Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler.
He considered his behavior a tribute to his late mother.
Thank God for Thursday Night Football. Massey, McKenna, and Stephen loved the games, and Vir had become a fan of late. They’d happily watch any contest on that small television that hung over the bar. The sound was always muted in deference to the jukebox or piano, but that was fine. A game would usually help the night pass quickly. They’d always leave at midnight, figuring that was the appropriate time to go as Thursday—or the fifth sunset— was officially over. They’d been given no specific instruction on when to leave.
The game would be a refreshing diversion from what had blanketed the airwaves of late. The presidential election was a week away, and between the ads, debates, and general mudslinging, most Americans were ready to just get it over with. The pregame show was just wrapping up with the logos of the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints carved into glowing pumpkins, because tonight was also Halloween.
“Come on!” grunted McKenna.
The network temporarily cut away from football coverage to present a talking head musing on the results of an election poll. Dead heat. The sound was down, but the graphic showed it all. Too close to call.
“Not interested in the election, Deputy?” said Stephen, smiling.
“Pick your poison,” said McKenna as he removed the gun that had been strapped to his side all day. He discreetly ejected the magazine and the chambered bullet, then p