Sunday Stories: “Armageddon ’98”


Armageddon ’98
by Jesse Hassenger

Carlos doesn’t think it counts as Movie Club anymore, not since we walked across the stage. The trips to Boogie Nights and Wild Things and Godzilla and Can’t Hardly Wait and Dirty Work weren’t on the official books either, but all five of us plus a couple of the girls make up about eighty percent of the core Movie Club membership for the 1997-98 academic year. Other people showed up, of course, but did they really matter?

Like for example the Pistana twins, really just Bert Pistana but sometimes Mickey has to tag along if he wants a ride home, especially since they live way the fuck out there in the sticks. Like supposedly last time Mickey missed a late bus back in ninth grade, Mrs. Pistana said to just charge a motel room to the emergency credit card because she wasn’t about to make the trip into town. Bert was on a band trip, so Mickey did it, he walked down a busy road without proper sidewalks and checked into the North Glen Niner Motel for the night, which sounds fun until you come to school the next day looking like you never left. And/or looking like you slept in a room with a lot of spiders, which is what Mickey claimed he did at the Niner.

The Pistanas are juniors but they’re changing schools next year, which seems cruel, but that’s Mrs. Pistana for you. Turns out they might live a smidge closer to East Glen, so they’re redrawing the Pistana property lines and transferring. They won’t be a part of Movie Club next year any more than we will. So it doesn’t much matter what meetings they do and don’t attend.

In the car on the way to see Armageddon, Sean says maybe that’s not so bad.

“So we’re the last ones,” he says. “That’s almost as good as being the first ones.”

I say what about guys like us in the future and Sean says ask Aaron about the future, he claims to know so much about it.

This should sound rueful but Sean makes it sound like a cruel joke.

“I guess we could have branched out more,” I say.

“We brought in Eddie,” says Sean, which is a conspicuous thing to say in a car without Eddie, who is on vacation with his cousins, who are older and cooler. “And the girls.”

“And none of those people will be there in the fall,” I say.

“Sara,” says Carlos.

“She’s graduating,” I say.

“Sara no h,” says Carlos.

“She came to like three meetings,” I say.

“It’s the end of Movie Club,” says Sean, flicking on the turn signal in a way that makes him sound disdainful of both Movie Club and turns.

“It’s already ended,” says Carlos. “Nothing we do this summer is for North Glen credit. Including watching an asteroid lay to waste all the cities of the world.”

“We should have invited Huggins,” I say.

Jake Huggins, a sophomore, came to five or six meetings this spring. A weak prospect, I admit. But he knows a lot about Alfred Hitchcock. He even suggested that we show Rope, and we did, largely for the novelty of someone suggesting something that we didn’t immediately want to shout down. If I had it to do over again, I would have given us a subtitle. Movie Club: Not Showing Labyrinth. In this situation, I would also be president of Movie Club instead of Carlos, just for practical purposes.

“Do you really want have to call the Huggins household and talk to his fucking parents?” says Sean. “Do we even have his number still?”

“It’s in the files,” says Carlos, a champion recordkeeper, so maybe better-suited to a secretary position, I’m just saying.

Sean gestures to Carlos in shotgun that we’re pulling onto the highway. Carlos produces the tape. It was tracklisted collectively, even with some suggestions from Aaron via email from the facility. Sean produced it and the engineering was all Carlos, who pushes it into the deck with a satisfying clack. It whirs to life, blasting Oasis and spite (Aaron tried to veto Oasis during the tracklist phase and we shouted him down on email, which mostly means ALL CAPS and then some ignoring). Oasis has a way of ending arguments, despite the rancor involved when deciding to listen to them, and, apparently, being part of them.

As we sing our way to good theater with stadium seating, I think about the booklet with the club descriptions that circulates every September, and how it might look without an entry on Movie Club to draw in all the kids who aren’t so sure they want to join a club at all, not after the unpleasantness of the junior high Magic the Gathering Club (this sounds like a specific one-time thing but is actually close to clockwork: almost every year, a new Magic the Gathering Club begins and meets an early, contentious end in the junior high). I met Carlos through Movie Club, and it turned out to be the one club I had with Aaron – the one club that was kind of like what we pictured high school clubs would be like, back in middle school. The idea of the club not being there at all feels both intuitive and wrong. We have no real desire to miss its continued operations, for it to go on like we don’t even matter, yet the club ceasing to exist would be like all of our teachers deciding in tandem to commit suicide that fall. We might not ever see them again either way, but our experiences would instantly become finite and antiquated – something that would require explanation even to other people from our hometown. The idea of explaining ourselves to anyone from North Glen doesn’t sit right. You should be able to just say it and they’ll know. I went to North Glen; which club were you in; Movie Club. Easy shorthand.

Then again, it would be a short distance between leaving Movie Club in someone else’s hands and having it turn into Labyrinth Club.

We pull into the good mall and burst through the movie theater entrance and find that the 7PM Armageddon is sold out. They only have it in two auditoriums and we want to see it on Screen Six so we buy tickets to the 10PM even though Carlos has been up since 6:30AM for his engineering internship at the plant, and we go kill some time at the toy store. It’s emptying out, being close to dinner or tantrum time for the kid clientele, but it won’t close until 8. Sean goes to the Nerf section, looking for refill missiles maybe some high-tech Nerf weaponry to put Aaron’s set of two-shooters to shame if he gets out of the mental health facility place before we all go away to college, if that’s even something he can really do anymore. He probably will is the baseless assumption we all make in silence.

Carlos and I head over to the action figure aisle, where Godzilla toys are already into the markdown process. It seems like a statement, because the Lost in Space toys are still full price, or maybe no one in the store remembers that they have Lost in Space toys to get rid of, which is sort of like our memory of the movie.

We’re looking at the Small Soldiers figures and lamenting the lack of Dark City toys when I catch Jake Huggins in the corner of my eye. He’s easy to miss because he’s short. His face usually looks a little anxious, like he’s waiting for a growth spurt and starting to suspect that, in tenth grade, he might have missed it entirely, maybe mistook the whole thing for phase one. There are traces of that nervousness even now, hiding behind his obvious concentration on Shadows of the Empire action figures, which are mixed in with the Special Edition toys.

I elbow Carlos and point my head at Huggins.

“Huggins,” Carlos says, then looks almost surprised when he looks up at us, like Carlos didn’t realize he could hear us six feet away.

“Hey guys,” says Jake Huggins.

“Huggins,” Carlos says. “What are you doing at the good mall?

“You guys going to Armageddon?” he says and I wonder if Jake Huggins in fact goes to movies in exact parallel with us. We have only been to the movies with Huggins intentionally a handful of times. We got the entire active membership of Movie Club to see Titanic before Christmas break last year, and Huggins is so into Chow Yun-Fat that not inviting him to The Replacement Killers with us would have counted as cruelty, so we did that. Also, I saw Congo with him in June 1995, when he was only a middle-schooler, because he was at the birthday party that Aaron volunteered to bring to see Congo with us on little brother’s birthday. I remember his parents acted like it was such a big fucking deal, too – there was real negotiation just for him to do them the favor of bringing his kid brother and his kid brother’s friends out to a movie.

His parents tend to overreact in general. Like this summer: It’s not like he tried to off himself or anything. He just wasn’t acting like himself is what they said, and while in this case I agree I’m not always so sure Aaron’s parents even know which Aaronself they’re dealing with at any given time. Do they know the one who dances in the car when he has room? They’d probably send that one away for counseling and monitoring too. It’s not that much weirder than what he’s been doing: talking about the future nonstop, like he’s seen things that no one else can see, like he’s seen things coming for us. We’re still pretty convinced he’s long-conning all of us, and sometimes, just a tiny bit convinced he’s actually Future Aaron, but he’s not crazy in either of those options. Or at least not crazy-crazy.

I tell Jake the Armageddon situation. He nods. It’s pretty much his Armageddon situation; he knows about Screen Six. Carlos gives me a quizzical look when I bring Huggins aboard our plans, but I don’t have much choice. My brain cannot assume, cannot even pretend to assume, that he is here with other people, though I do wonder how he got here in the first place.

We bring him over to Sean like we’re presenting a lost child to the police department, like it’s the right thing to do. Sean looks at me like he’s not so sure it is. But Huggins goes with us over to the food court for soft serve and then takes the long walk back to the theater. I can tell that while we’re debating the merits of ice cream toppings, he’s getting antsy about wasted time, that we might not be first in line by the time we get back there. But he doesn’t ditch us; he lets us hold him hostage via Carlos and Sean’s years-long, unresolvable feud over the merits of rainbow sprinkles versus chocolate sprinkles. It must be said: the girls in our life aren’t always so patient as this – or else they’ll stay for the sprinkle debate but split for the movie, exhausted by the time they get to the main event.

Later, when we are first on line for the 10PM Armageddon while everyone else is in the bathroom, I say this to Carlos and he says: Great, trading girls for the loyalty of Jake Huggins.

The movie starts and it is loud. Much louder than Deep Impact, which we saw on a schoolnight practically out of obligation – we were too wiped to pick the next Movie Club selection the week before, so at the next meeting so we adjourned to the close mall. In that movie, an asteroid threatens all of humanity but it feels like a passing inconvenience and then, at its point of maximum tension, a moment or two of medium worry. Then a bunch of people run up a hill away from a tidal wave and we were like, come on – although in retrospect probably more people died in that one than in Godzilla.

Body count is important to us.

Armageddon, though, lives up to its name, even while failing to deliver an actual Armageddon. It is loud and destructive and whole cities get leveled. It also sometimes looks like the backroom rave Eddie dragged us to a week ago: strobes and gray and blue and chaos, enough that I think of Eddie during the movie with a sad fondness for the way we disappointed him, only staying at the party for forty minutes.

I’m sitting next to Jake Huggins because he’s considered my guest, my responsibility, and he behaves himself. Sometimes at Movie Club, he can’t hold in his disgust, releasing it in slow but audible exhales. Or he’ll let out a bark of derisive laughter about nothing anyone could ascertain, inspiring curiosity but no follow-up questions from the rest of us. During this movie, though, he doesn’t seem like such an oddly-shaped island, or maybe I’m just on the island with him, where derisive snorts at Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler playing with animal crackers make all sorts of sense. If he makes any noises I don’t agree with, the movie drowns him out.

On the car ride home, we don’t talk much about the movie. I’ve noticed this happening more and more often: as we go out to more movies, we talk about them more beforehand than after. No one needs to point out that the stuff we hoped and foolishly predicted would happen didn’t happen. A space shuttle did not crash into a building. The asteroid was not rerouted into the run. A race of hyper-evolved apes did not emerge from any of the wreckage.

So we don’t mention any of that; it is gone, somewhere between a dream and a fad. Instead, we talk about orientation weekends and getting the girls to play us in laser tag one more time and which guy – it’s always a guy – from our graduating class will wash out of higher education the fastest. Sean opens the moon roof and Carlos doesn’t swat his hand away from the controls, even though the AC is on, even though bugs are swooping in. In the distance, towards Spa Circle, a little podunk nothing town even by Glen County standards, flashes of illegal fireworks light up 1AM sky, dimly, through a thin cloud of fog. That’s the only time anyone really mentions Armageddon: Here it comes, Sean says. Here comes the asteroid. To wipe us all out.

We agree that it will be hilarious when our buddy Aaron walks out of the mental hospital or whatever it is and finds out that we were all flattened by an asteroid while he was away.

We agree for a few minutes, anyway, until I think about how lonely this makes me feel, somehow, even though in this story I’m one of the flattened ones.

It gets quiet in the Carlosmobile for the last ten minutes of the drive. Jake Huggins says so little, sitting by himself in the way-back of the minivan like it’s the polite place for him to sit, that I almost forget we agreed to give him a ride home, that he’s in the car at all, until it’s just me and Carlos and him, each taking up a whole row of the minivan, making Carlos look like our bus driver.

“Where to?” he says to Jake, who has only specified the west side of downtown North Glen.

“I’m near the school,” says Jake. “Off Friar Tuck Way.”

“No kidding,” says Carlos. “That’s close.”

“Sometimes uncomfortably,” says Jake.

“At least you never had to take the bus,” I say, flashing to the seventh grade girl who successfully bullied me on the bus my freshman year. Mention the bus, and I feel the thunk of her nail-polish bottle on the back of my head. I swear it left a mark but everyone else says no way.

“It sounds absurd,” says Jake, “but I’d rather live out by the mall. I can’t rely on my brother or the city buses to get me to the movies any more. I know the mall isn’t exactly… I mean, it doesn’t have stadium seating. But it’s not a bad place to go see a movie in peace, if you go in the early afternoon.” His voice often sounds like it is doing math.

“Hey Jake,” says Carlos. “Don’t necessarily tell Sean, or even necessarily talk to Sean, but it’s going to be up to you next year, to run Movie Club.”

Jake just nods, and starts talking about the changes he’d make to the programming direction. I think Carlos was expecting some surprise or gratitude. If he’s anything like he, he expected at least a cursory baton-passing that would not be but could be depicted in a drawing sketched on a scroll or etched in a cave man’s wall. Something simple and crude.  A mark.

We expected the world to keep turning. But we would not have been completely surprised if it had ground to a calamitous halt.

Jesse Hassenger was born and raised in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York. His fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, The Toast, Southern California Review, Threepenny Review, and Your Impossible Voice, among others. His film criticism appears in The Onion’s A.V. Club, Brooklyn Magazine, and The Week. He lives in Greenpoint with his wife and daughter. If you’d like to know more about what kind of cake he might be eating, follow @rockmarooned on Twitter.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.