The last few months of the millennium weren’t exactly a lucrative time to be a real estate agent. At least, not for me. Too many of my meager commissions ended up going to bar tabs and cab rides. Dave, my best friend and longtime drinking buddy, had his own unique way of putting things into perspective.
“Jeff, listen to me,” Dave said. He flagged down the bartender for another round. “You haven’t sold anything in weeks because all you do is mope over some chick that dumped you because you’re boring.”
“Are you trying to help? It’s kind of hard to tell.”
“All I’m saying is don’t waste the end of the 20th century depleting the remainder of that paltry bank account you call a social life. For Christ’s sake, make some goddamn investments.” Dave had been promoted from teller to shift manager at the new Bluecoast Bank & Trust and financial metaphors were unfortunately the new norm. “Ellen bailed. It’s time to move on. There are tons of front yards out there that need a Jeff Miller – Real Estate Renaissance Man sign.”
“I never liked that slogan. That was your idea.”
“Don’t get hung up on semantics,” he said. Once Dave cleared beer number two, the opinions flowed like a leaky tap. I knew it was coming when every other sentence started with the word look.
“Look, I didn’t want to tell you this when you guys were dating, but Ellen sucked. That’s no reflection on you. You’re a good dude.”
“Thanks for the support.” Sometimes, the most you can hope for when your self-esteem is smeared into the sole of your loafers and you stop on the side of the road to squeegee them onto the edge of the curb, is your best friend telling you how lame your ex-girlfriend was.
The remnants of a moist napkin stuck to my glass and I flicked them off onto the bar. “She said she couldn’t be with anyone who doesn’t plan for the future. What the hell does that even mean? I live in the now. What’s wrong with that?”
“Who knows? Don’t waste your time trying to figure it out. Besides, I heard her dog got run over or something, so take some comfort in that.”
“We bought that dog together.”
“Ooh, burn,” Dave said. “Hey, you know what’ll cheer you up? An over-the-top New Year’s party.”
“New Year’s is three months away. Who plans that far in advance?”
“Don’t be a dick.”
“Put it on the calendar. I already lined up a bubble machine, an ice luge, and a baby pool for the Jell-O.”
“Fine.” I choked down the last inch of my room-temperature lager mixed with backwash and left the glass on the bar. “But don’t try to set me up. I’m just going to get blackout drunk and forget about women for the night.”
Dave slapped me on the back. “Now you’re getting it,” he said. “Make ‘em think you don’t give a shit. They love it.”
Behind all that crassness, Dave had a point. I brooded over women all the time. It’s weird to be cognizant of your insecurities but still feel powerless to do anything about them.
The next morning, I vowed to get some new clients. Anything to distract myself. Coffee in hand, I flipped through my Rolodex with renewed determination. By the time I reached the letter M, it was clear that I had recruited half of my contacts from my parents’ sad little social circle of basket weavers and book clubs.
“It can’t be all that bad.”
Standing in the doorway was a brunette with dark brown eyes and a comforting smile. She had a face that you knew would still look amazing in the morning with a hangover and a smear of dried ketchup on the lip after a late-night burger gorge.
The front desk receptionist stuck her head out. “Hey, Jeff. This is Allyson Kenner. She’s looking to buy some property. Can you help her out?”
I stammered but caught myself without looking too stupid. “Of course, come on in. I’m Jeff Miller.” I shook her hand. It was soft but at the same time a little coarse like it was used to hard work. “How can I help? Thanks for the pep talk, by the way.”
“No problem. The way I see it is that tomorrow may never come, so why worry today?” Somehow, she made something creepy and cryptic sound almost inspirational. “I’m trying to buy the empty lot next door to my house. It’s for a pool.”
“A pool can add some good value to a home. And it’s great for a family.” A transparent move, but harmless.
“I’m single,” she offered up.
“Ah,” I responded with suppressed excitement. An opening. I took a shot. “Who has time for that, right?”
She looked disappointed. I tried to recover. “Of course, I could find time if the opportunity arose.” Sloppy, but effective. “Anyway, what kind of timeline are you looking at?”
“Has to be ready by New Year’s.”
“The pool has to be ready?”
“Well not the pool, per se. Who needs a pool in the dead of winter?” She forced a laugh from the bottom of her throat. Sounded more like a gag. “I want everything wrapped up by the end of the year. You know, tax purposes.”
“Right,” I said. There was something about this girl that intrigued me. She was a little shifty. Not scary like the guy standing outside of the convenience store mumbling to himself, but cute like a nervous teacher’s assistant taking over Biology class for the first time.
“Do you know any contractors? I need somebody who can handle biowaste recycling systems and self-contained air purifiers,” she said. “For the pool house.”
At the time, I was too distracted with how she kept adjusting her skirt over her knees to notice the unusual request. “Possibly?” I responded. “We have a guy that we refer to all the time. He does great work.”
We went over a few more details as she breezed through the contract. “Now, don’t you let me down,” she teased.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I tried my best to return the flirt. “Let’s set up a meeting soon and talk strategy.”
She relaxed as if a hurdle had been overcome. “What about now?”
“I’m ready when you are.” I pulled out a notepad and a pen.
“I saw a coffee shop on the corner,” she said.
I looked down at the bagel and latté on my desk with The Java Hut logo facing her direction. She noticed it and smiled. It didn’t matter to her that I had already had my morning coffee. I had no problem having another.
A few weeks later the deal was done. There were still plenty of excuses to see her after that. Opinions on tiles? Sure. I even helped her test some bulletproof glass for a skylight. A little odd, but whatever. I was just happy to spend time with her. Eventually, we started dating.
One day I showed up unannounced with a couple of tickets to a basketball game, but her car was gone. I was about to knock on the door when I noticed a large opaque tarp fence surrounding the empty lot adjacent to the house. Figuring it couldn’t hurt to see how the pool was coming along, I found a tear in the fabric and squeezed through.
Whatever construction was going on behind that fence was no pool. In the middle of the property there was a large hatch about the size of a picnic table surrounded by fresh earth where the ground had been excavated to the boundary lines. In the center of the hatch was a small round window next to a keypad access panel and a handle. I peered through the glass but could only see the top few rungs of a ladder that disappeared into the darkness below.
“Jeff!” Allyson shouted bursting through the side door of her home, barefoot and gripping a wet towel around her chest.
I jumped up, surprised. “Hey sorry, I didn’t think you were home.”
“What are you doing here?” Her eyes flicked back and forth from me to the giant metal door in the ground.
“Uh,” I said showing her the tickets. “I got a couple tickets to the game. Hey, what happened to your pool?” I pointed to the hatch in confusion.
“You should’ve called me.”
“Yeah, I just thought-ˮ
“It’s not cool to surprise me like this, Jeff. I have a life, you know.”
It was tough to hear her say that. “Sorry, I overstepped. I’ll just go.” And I walked away.
It was a few days before I broke down and left a message on her machine. The best I could come up with was an invitation to Dave’s New Year’s party. She never returned the call. Waiting by the phone was pointless, so I met my therapist at the bar. As expected, he offered the usual sage advice.
“Screw her, dude.”
“I’ve come to accept that in your own subtle way, this is you looking out for me.”
“Goddamn right.” Dave clinked the neck of his beer to mine. “Don’t worry about it. There’ll be plenty of girls at my party this weekend.”
Celebrating the New Year didn’t turn out as I had imagined. Through all the Jell-O shots and Vodka filled watermelons, I thought about Allyson. Where was she spending the last few hours of 1999? More importantly, with who? It was no use. I pulled Dave aside as he was about to slice the top off a champagne bottle with his dad’s replica civil war saber.
“I’m going to go see her,” I said.
He sheathed the sword into a scabbard at his waist and gave me a hug. “Do it, brother. Go cash that dividend. You’ve earned it.” A best friend knows when it’s time to let you go.
This time, her car was in the driveway, but the lights were off in the house. I heard a noise coming from the empty lot. The tarp had been replaced by a barrier wall built out of iron bars. Ignoring the strong possibility of a repeat disaster, I let myself in through an open side gate.
Light streamed out from the open hatch. Someone was below. I climbed down to investigate. At the bottom of the ladder was a room about the size of a garage. Inside the space was a small galley kitchen with a breakfast table for two, an old loveseat and television, and a trundle bed. Everything that you might find in a studio apartment, except for the endless shelves of canned goods and supplies lining the walls.
Whoever it was that was making the noise emerged dressed in a hazmat suit and gas mask covering the face. We both froze.
“Uh, sorry,” I said. “I’m looking for Allyson?”
The person in the bright yellow gear hesitated, then removed the mask. It was Allyson, looking lonely and defeated as she peeled off her rubber gloves. “What are you doing here, Jeff?”
“I was going to see how your New Year’s was going.” It was hard not to look too freaked out.
“This is it. Testing out some equipment.” She stripped off the rest of her outfit and dropped it into a footlocker. “I guess there’s not much point keeping up the charade anymore. I lied about the pool, obviously. The property was for this bunker.”
“It’s kind of cozy.” It was all I could do to make her feel better. “What’s it for?”
“Y2K.” She straightened a couple cans of Spaghetti-O’s on the shelf, avoiding eye contact.
“Ah.” Dave and I had spent many nights mocking the idea that an IT issue could bring about the end of civilization. Now, it didn’t seem so funny. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was worried you would think I’m nuts. I mean, look at this place.”
“It is a little nuts, but I like the bidet. It’s a nice touch,” I said. “Hey, if this is your thing, I’m cool with it. I never put too much thought into the future, but I can’t give you a hard time about it.”
“Thanks for being kind. I know I wasn’t to you.”
“To be honest, all I could do was think about you tonight. I was hoping we could celebrate the New Year together. Or, the end of the world, whichever.”
She smiled. “Sorry for freaking out. You caught me off guard.”
“Want to watch the ball drop?”
Sometimes, the best New Years are the ones you spend with your girl on the couch. We toasted a couple of tiny bottles of champagne while Times Square lit up for the last time in the 20th century. It was close to midnight before Allyson fell asleep on my chest. The last thing I remember before closing my eyes was Dick Clark freezing his ass off in front of a massive crowd of revelers.
As it turns out, she was right about everything. If we had stayed up to see the countdown, we might have noticed the cable signal cut out at the stroke of midnight. And we might have climbed out of that bunker to a neighborhood in a total brown-out. All it took was a simple computer glitch to send the world back to the Stone Age. Economies collapsed, nations fell and there we were, fifteen feet underground with a solar powered refrigerator and enough Ramen noodles to last five years.
“I’m not going to say I told you so,” Allyson said with a smirk as we peeked our heads out the hatch.
I gave her a kiss.
I probably wouldn’t have survived those first few months of the year 2000 without Allyson. Her agricultural knowledge was invaluable, not to mention her skills with a blade. No more trips to the A&P for sugar and eggs. If we couldn’t grow it or kill it, we weren’t eating it. We trade potatoes with the local death gangs, so they pretty much leave us alone. I saw Dave the other day, he seized control of the bank and started some sort of sex cult. It works for him, I guess.
Now, my life is about moving forward and embracing change. Too much time dwelling on the past kept me from looking to the future. Whether it was a job slump, a failed relationship, or a test for survival in a toxic wasteland of the apocalypse, I had to find my way somehow.
With Allyson, I think I did just that.