Songs for the End of the World - Saleema Nawaz


Calamity began, as usual, on an ordinary day. The city roiled with the amplified impatience of a million insomniacs, sleeping children breathed polluted air, low-level exploitation crept across neighbourhoods with insectile persistence, and a thousand everyday kindnesses failed to rise to the surface of consciousness. People were being born and people were dying, and joy and grief were handed out with a logic as blind as the human heart. But as far as Elliot was concerned, the first sign of the coming disaster was just a call buzzing in over the radio at four a.m. on a Thursday morning: a Molotov cocktail lobbed through the window of a restaurant on the Lower East Side. The fire department had already put out the blaze, but some uniforms needed to pass by to make a report.

Elliot and his partner Bryce dashed out of the convenience store, but by the time they reached their patrol car, Dispatch had assigned another unit a few streets closer.

“Damn it.” Bryce fumbled with his seatbelt.

“Let’s go anyways,” said Elliot. It was the crawling middle of a dead night-shift, and none of the usual hotspots on their beat were turning up trouble. “I just want something to happen.” He knew his partner shared his impatience for action on slow nights. Bryce steered them along Clinton Street to East Broadway and across to Seward Park, then, after a decent lap patrolling for the usual drug dealers, north on Orchard past all the tenement buildings and discount shops shuttered until morning.

At the restaurant, the wide front window had been smashed, and a fluttering cordon now established an extravagant perimeter that extended halfway into the street. Bryce stepped under the tape and held it up for Elliot. “Pretty sure the wife wanted to come here for date night,” Bryce said. The tempered glass door was intact and lettered in goldenrod with the name cipolla. He pushed inside with a grin. “Guess that’s off.”

“Why cancel?” said Elliot. “Looks like you could finally afford it.” Bryce punched him in the arm.

Elliot thought the restaurant seemed familiar, but so many of these hip eateries looked the same that he couldn’t be sure. Though this one was finally unique now, with its soaked and blackened chaos inside, tipped chairs everywhere.

The owner had already turned up, pulling at his hair and weeping openly. “I knew it. I knew if our name got out it would be the end of everything.” The man was shouting and coughing in the acrid air. “Why do they want to destroy us?” Witnessing his despair up close took some of the enjoyment out of their casual stop.

“Shouldn’t have pissed off the wrong people,” said Bryce under his breath, toeing a bit of charred wallpaper. He nodded to their colleagues before ducking towards the exit.

“What do you figure?” said Elliot, following him out. He paused on the curb, grateful for a deep breath of the cool night air.

“Mafia, obviously,” said Bryce. His dad had been a cop, and his grandfather before him. He was full of New York City lore from the old days, when the streets were still a hard place and the police were merely foot soldiers in an unwinnable war. “Or insurance fraud, I guess.” He tossed Elliot the car keys. “Poor schmuck. He really was crying like a little girl, wasn’t he?”

“What, you never cry?” said Elliot. But he had to agree the tears had seemed genuine.

The rest of their shift passed quietly, and at eight in the morning Elliot bid Bryce goodbye in the precinct garage after they parked the squad car. The first day off after working three weeks on nights was always a strange beast: half dream, half disappointment. It was important to switch gears, to massage your circadian rhythms, to keep your expectations low. Over the years, Elliot had developed a routine for the transition, but sometimes the drag of having to stick to a schedule was worse than how bad he knew he’d feel if he didn’t. Last fall his sister, Sarah, had sent him a study that said people who worked the night shift had years taken off their lives, suffered depression, and were more likely to develop cancer.

“Get a desk job,” she told him at reliable intervals. “Something permanent, on day shift.”

“Forget it,” he’d reply. “Desk is death.” Standing still was not something he enjoyed.

Elliot drove to a diner for breakfast; then, wired from the previous night’s coffee breaks, decided to swing by the kung fu gym instead of going straight