#444: War, "The World is a Ghetto" (1972)

Kept alive only by his alternately strengthening and unraveling adrenaline, Armand has barricaded himself inside the bar. Like a couple of last-call drunks too gone to make it home on their own, two vinyl booths thankfully unbolstered to begin with now lean against the windowless wooden front door. Armand has seen enough movies: he’s made sure the door opens inward, and he’s stacked every box of backstock liquor on the booths until they’ve made a tower he prays is strong enough to last. Daylight struggles through the old tinted windows, enough that he doesn’t need the lights on, enough to sit motionless beneath a table but for the crying and the heaving that every now and then overtakes him.

It’s mostly quiet outside. No: it’s entirely quiet. Eerily quiet. Like, sure, yes, wind, if you listen hard enough, but even that could all be in your head. Armand is past the point of hearing anything at all. Or, conversely, all he hears is wind, constant gusting against his eardrums. He can’t be sure. He tries not to think too much about it. The floor is sticky and his neck is numb from its turtled positioning. His legs are drawn up into an awkward pretzel and after thirty fruitless minutes of hunting for the shotgun he assumed the owner of this bar must have somewhere, anywhere, he is now hugging tightly the aluminum bat he settled for instead. He is too afraid to move, not even to shut off the music. Besides, by now it’s become just another part of his psyche, the soundtrack to his unlikely, hysterical demise.

Either in the process of the end or sometime before the end began, the bar’s CD player was placed on single-song repeat. Who even uses CD players anymore? And who even uses the single-song repeat function? Whose maximum enjoyment can only be achieved with the assistance of a hands-free reliving of one song over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again? These are questionsand there are a hundred more just like themwhich Armand stopped pondering hours ago. By now, this song simply is. It no longer angers him, or tires him out, or has him wondering if all of thisif any of itis real. He does not know what the song is called, but “Where Was You At” seems like the best guess: the line’s repeated at the end of each verse and several times again during the chorus. The drums are a 1-2 kick-snare devotion to generic beat-keeping. It’s a drum part that would hypnotize you if you weren’t careful; Armand is aware of this possibility because several times since last night it became a reality. There’s a harmonica solo that reminds him of Sesame Street, a memory to which at one point he latched on in a desperate bid to find some semblance of meaning in his situation. It’s kind of a funk song, and kind of a slice of white bread. Somewhere in between.

Armand is very cognizant of the fact that the song is the least of his problems. But again, no: problems have solutions, or are meant to. This is not that. The world outside the bar no longer resembles any sort of world Armand once knew. To say hellspawn now inhabit its terrain is maybe only partially correct. To say everything logical, safe, expected has ended is entirely the case. Armand watched the ground split and watched unspeakable acts occur and watched himself react thanks only to his sometimes strengthening, sometimes unraveling adrenaline.

So he found the bar, made it in, and in the bar he sits. Waits. Clutches the bat. Listens to the maybe-wind behind the song that will never quit recycling.

He must have fallen asleep, exhaustion the only possible explanation, because a sound like a car wreck awakens him. He moves too quickly, slams his head on the underside of the table, stifles a yelp. “Where was you at?” the song keeps asking. “Where was you at?” Armand has no clue for a moment, then remembers. There it is again: the sound, echoey, metal on metal, near the front of the bar, everything much darker now as the day mutates into night. He whimpers and leans forward just enough to catch in his sight the edges of the booths keeping at bay whatever lies beyond the door. Then the bang again, and yes, he confirms it: the booths rattle, shift from their places just a little. The harmonica solo is ending. The drums are not drums, but his heart starting to seize. He can’t tell if his pants are wet or his legs asleep; he isn’t really thinking about it.

The bang, the booths shift, the two false starts to signify the song has begun anew. Where was you at? If Armand were a bolder man, a person with gumption, he’d shake himself loose from under the table, take the bat firmly in both hands, and await the inevitable on his feet. He could run, toothe levels of valor are flexible, and survival would seem to mean just about everything in situations like this. If he were bolder, better, unstricken.

No. Armand is not prepared for this. The world has already ended. He is too late. Where was you at? Where was you at? Where was you at? Where was you at? The door finally comes apart to one last deafening crash and our hero still hasn’t quite figured out the answer.

—Brad Efford