End Times at Rock ’n’ Roll Joey’s
By Madison McSweeney
There were about eight of us left, after it was all over.
Me, Mallory, and Brent, and Fred and his three goons. And then there was Rock’n’Roll Joey.
Eight of us, then, plus the cooks – but they weren’t really…us, anymore, ya know?
The day we crawled out of the fallout shelter, the ground was still slick with a green goo. When we stumbled upon the last surviving strip mall, Fred took a crowbar to the door of the Dollarama, opening up an oasis of non-perishables and soaps. We had it pretty good.
It was Brent’s idea to scope out the diner next door. The Rock’n’Roll Joey’s was connected to the Dollarama, on the very edge of the strip mall; Brent figured they might have some edible food lying around, and with any luck, a working oven.
The front door was stuck tight, so we went around the back, and Fred once again forced the door open with that crowbar. As we crossed the threshold, I was surprised to hear the soft sounds of a jukebox playing Roy Orbison at low volume. For a second, I thought someone must be alive inside, singing; and that was when I first saw Rock’n’Roll Joey. And the cooks.
This is just to explain how we became regulars at Rock’n’Roll Joey’s. The real story starts on Friday, August 13th, an unbearably humid day six months after the apocalypse.
Around lunchtime, I walked through the doors and was immediately hit by chiming pianos and boogie-woogie guitars, the same fifties rock’n’roll soundtrack that’d been blaring since the place opened in the nineties. The counter facing the door was shaped like the front of a hot rod, a gleaming chrome bumper supporting a polished grill, dead headlights, and a cherry red hood. Blank records were strung from the ceiling, replica guitars were mounted in glass cases on the walls, and there were no less than four life-sized cardboard cut-outs of golden age Elvis displayed throughout the room. A flashing juke box held court by the windows, playing the biggest hits of the years 1952 to 1964 on a loop, forever.
Before I could absorb the time-shock, Rock’n’Roll Joey himself stepped out to greet me, his hip jutting out in a proto-pelvic thrust.
“What can I help this fine lady with today?” he said, smiling winningly with his rotted teeth.
“I’ll get the Special.”
“Comin’ right up.”
“The Special” was never particularly special – all the fresh food from the restaurant had long since been used up, so the menu was whatever Dollarama-pilfered can of baked beans or tuna fish happened to catch Joey’s eye.
The charade of Joey’s as a functioning diner was a fiction we had to put up with because Joey had the only stove for miles – and he was crazy.
His name wasn’t actually Rock’n’Roll Joey, of course; that was just the franchise. Back in the day, he had been Wyatt. He was the assistant manager of the Kanata location of Rock’n’Roll Joey’s, and he’d found the rockabilly vibe of the place insufferably corny. “My dream job is one where I never have to hear an Elvis song ever again,” he once told me.
After the air raid sirens had started to blare, Wyatt sealed himself inside the restaurant. And sometime during the lockdown, he lost his mind.
Maybe it was the junk that was floating around in the air, or the pollutants in the water. Or maybe, when the world burns, the only thing left to do is retreat into fantasy. And that’s an easy thing to do when you’re surrounded by an idealized fifties utopia. Now, the façade is all that’s real to him.
I don’t know exactly how a team of mutants ended up working as line cooks and busboys at the post-apocalyptic Rock’n’Roll Joey’s. As Joey tells it – and it’s very hard to get a straight story out of him, his mind’s so fractured – the horde just stumbled towards the restaurant one day, lured by the Chuck Berry tunes blasting from the jukebox.
I don’t know how much is going on in their minds, but they bought into Joey’s delusion, maybe even more than he did. At all hours of the day they could be seen puttering around the diner, delivering empty plates to invisible customers and wiping up non-existent spills. On their breaks, they would stand reverently at the foot of the Elvis cut outs, subtly swivelling their hips in tribute to the master.
As I ate my half can of baked beans off a plate shaped like a record, Joey regaled me with tales of some teen dance he’d attended in his mind, and the hallucination of a girl he’d been pursuing.
“Did you twist with her?” I asked, playing along.
“Not really,” he shrugged. “I mean, she was playin’ hard ta get, ya know?”
I paid with a handful of cash from the Dollarama register, worthless in all but Joey’s eyes. He grinned as he accepted it. “Thank you, thank you very much.”
As I was walking out, Fred walked in. He was shirtless, sweating like a pig, and carrying an emaciated, translucent-skinned doe over his shoulder - the full bounty of a three-day hunting trip. “Dinner tonight,” he announced, looking at me with a smirk. “Just the men though. We need our protein. Unless you make it worth my while.”
“No thanks,” I said, as I’d said every time he’d propositioned me.
“Whatever.” He ran his eyes over my body again and added cruelly: “You look like you get enough to eat, anyway.” I didn’t engage, so Fred turned towards Joey.
“Hey, Elvis!” he called, slamming a fistful of dimes onto the counter. Joey walked up to greet him stiffly. “What can I get for you, Sir?”
Fred looked up and pretended to study the irrelevant menu above Joey’s head. “Uh, yeah, I’ll get the chocolate milkshake, bacon and eggs, and, uh, a cheeseburger, hold the cheese.”
“Anything you say, sir,” Joey replied, drily and barely in character.
As he walked away, Fred called back: “Is that lip I’m hearin’?”
“Come back here, boy.” Joey reluctantly returned. When he was within arm’s length, Fred slapped him upside the head, sending his paper jerk cap tumbling to the floor. Joey bent down to pick it up, his greased hair knocked slightly out of place by the blow.
“You best pick that up,” Fred taunted. “If I see one o’ your oily hairs in my food, I’ll be complaining to your manager. By the way, what’d I tell you about not wearing a hairnet?” And with that, he delivered a solid kick landing directly into Johnny’s stomach.
I yelped. Fred turned towards me, a sadistic gleam in his eye. “Don’t worry, Hot Stuff, I’ll be gentle with your boyfriend here. Just gotta teach ‘im some discipline.” With this, another kick, this time in Joey’s ribs. “After all, he don’t wanna be slinging burgers his whole life, now do he?”
I spared a glance at Joey, crumpled in a fetal position, then looked up towards the kitchen. The cooks were cowering in the doorframe, quivering with terror as their boss was beaten before their eyes. A few of them had shut their eyes up tight and were gently swaying to the music, as if willing themselves into another place.
“Stop it, Fred.”
He twisted his head toward me and met my eyes with a subdued rage that frightened me. But he left, pausing only to bark: "And turn that fucking music down!"
“We should just off that freak,” Fred was ranting. “The only working kitchen for miles right next door, and if we wanna use it we gotta play along with this weirdo’s mind games.”
We were sitting around the fire pit on the floor of the Dollarama, Fred and his goons cooking chunks of slimy mutant venison over the flames. Mallory, who put out, got a slice too, as did ex-Boy Scout Brent, who didn’t hunt but was the only one who knew how to build a fire from scratch. I made due with a can of fake ham from the warehouse. I had no interest in Fred’s meat. Those deer drink from chemical streams and eat poisoned grass – no, thank you.
“It’s not a game,” I said. “It’s real in his head.”
“Even more reason to take him out. Guy’s unstable. Wouldn’t wanna see what he’d do if he ever got a hold o’ one of you ladies.” He shared a glance with his cronies, chuckling smugly. “Him and his merry band of mutants.”
“I hate that shit they play,” mumbled one of the goons. “That five-o-clock-seven-o-clock-rock-the-schoolhouse jumbo.”
“You’d think they’d get sick of it,” added Mallory.
“You know, those people could have been any of us,” I snapped. “We could have ended up like them if we hadn’t found shelter before the bombs fell.”
“Bullshit,” Fred said. “No way. Also, who says they were ever like us? They don’t look all that human to me. Maybe they’re the ones who dropped the bomb in the first place.”
Fred was convinced that aliens were responsible for the attack that had destroyed the world. It wasn’t the most outlandish theory.
“They’re lucky they’re probably sterile,” Fred rambled. “If I found out those monsters were breeding, it’d be a whole different story.”
That sent something off in me; a feeling that something in my stomach was trying to force its way up my esophagus and through my windpipe and out my mouth. I staggered to my feet and darted towards the bathroom; I was halfway down aisle six before I doubled over and started puking up greenish baked bean mush and undigested hunks of SPAM.
“Hey!” yelled one of the goons. “Yer wasting food!”
He wasn’t in the wrong there; in a post-apocalyptic situation with a rapidly dwindling food supply, vomiting isn’t a best practice.
Fred jumped on this and started berating me, claiming I’d gained weight and accusing me of stealing food, even though I had the same ration as everyone else, which was significantly less than his. I was on the verge of tears when Mallory cut in. “She’s been hurling a lot lately.”
My now-empty stomach dropped.
Fred cocked his head towards her. She laughed and made this obnoxious clicking noise with her tongue. Then, unsubtly, she added: “Maybe she’s preggers.”
Within a second, Fred went from fallout shelter pale to beet red, his lips curling into this animal snarl. I feared he was going to hit me; instead, he stood up erect, spun around stiffly, and stomped into the next aisle. From the other side of the shelf I heard him rifling around, knocking shit down, until he finally grasped what he was looking for. He returned, no less red, holding a light blue cardboard box. He ripped it open and handed me a stick wrapped in plastic.
“Piss on this.”
I looked up at him pleadingly. “I can’t be pregnant,” I insisted. “Who would I - ?”
He slapped me across the face, cutting me off. “Get into the fucking bathroom, bitch.”
After getting my bladder to cooperate, I emerged and presented the pregnancy test to Fred with a trembling hand.
“We can’t afford a kid! Who the fuck did this?” he shouted, stabbing an accusing finger towards the group. Silence. Truth is, the source of the pregnancy could have been one of several people in attendance, none of whom would ever admit that to Fred.
He kicked one of the metal shelves with enough force to send a ceramic pot careening over the edge. “’Fess up!”
For a too-long moment, you could have heard a pin drop. Then, very faintly, something else intruded on the silence. Someone had cranked up the jukebox in the Rock’n’Roll Joey’s, and the twangy guitar chords of “All Shook Up” were filtering in.
Something came over Fred. His face went pale, and he screamed: “Your freak boyfriend over there!”
My eyes widened. “No, it’s not -”
But it was too late. Fred darted across the store and out the door, stopping only to grab the crowbar that he stored at the cash. Without thinking, I ran after him.
The door chimed cheerfully as Fred barged into the diner. Joey, hair slicked back, face already bruising from the afternoon’s beating, barely had enough time to blurt out a boilerplate greeting before Fred punched him in the face.
Joey staggered backwards, massaging his chin with his hand. For a moment, he remained astonishingly cool. “Whoa, man, I don’t want any trouble here-“
“You brought trouble when you started messing around with our women!” Joey stared back blankly. “This is a new world, freak,” Fred continued. “Only real men get the girl. Not braindead geeks and mutants.”
“Now hold on man,” he protested, his Elvis Presley Mississippi accent coming in thicker and thicker. “You know I ain’t been messing around with your girl. I got enough women in my life already, ya know what I mean?”
This joking reference to other flings, delusional as it was, was enough to send Fred over the edge. Before I could shout out a warning, Fred raised his crowbar and sent it swinging towards Joey’s head.
He missed by a foot, and Joey scuttled out of the way, waving his hands defensively. Fred chased him right across the restaurant, taking wild swings at him every few feet. Whenever Joey wasn’t within arm’s reach, Fred turned his rage towards whatever else was, knocking cutlery and napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers off the tables. He put a dent in the bumper of the hot rod at the front counter and smashed the guitar cases on the walls, sending the fake instruments crashing to the floor, necks snapping and strings breaking as they hit the linoleum.
Halfway through the chase, the song on the jukebox switched over, and raucous Elvis gave way to moody Orbison, the ghostly crooning casting an aura of doom over the diner. The cooks, watching, were beside themselves; several made mad dashes from the kitchen to cower behind the Elvis cut-outs, gripping his cardboard legs with their six-fingered hands.
At last, there was nowhere else to go; Joey’s back was to the jukebox, and the crowbar sailed towards his head. Joey took a dive and ended up face-down on the floor. The crowbar sailed into the jukebox instead. The music stopped.
From their hiding places around the room, the cooks started to growl.
The sound surprised even Fred, who lowered his crowbar. Eerily quiet, the cooks emerged and started to stagger towards him. They didn’t move quickly, limping and stumbling on overgrown feet and elongated limbs, but there were many of them, and they surrounded him. Fred brandished the crowbar menacingly, but failed to dissuade them.
Finally, one got too close, and Fred bashed it in the head with lethal force. The pointed end of the tool lodged itself into the cook’s tumorous forehead, which popped like an overgrown zit, leaking blood and pus. The cook slumped on two legs, not so much standing as dangling from the crowbar in Fred’s hand.
The other cooks barely noticed as they continued to close in on him.
Fred yanked on the crowbar to free it from the cook’s skull, but it wouldn’t budge. I could see panic overtake him then - subtly, in the slickness of his eyes and the almost imperceptible trembling of his knees. As Fred jerked on the tool, one of the cooks grabbed his arm and bit into it.
Fred yowled, and with his free hand, threw a punch that landed squarely on the cook’s cauliflower-like jaw. As he did so, two more of the mutants crawled towards him and grabbed him by the legs, knocking him ever-so-slightly off balance. Fred struggled to kick them off as a fourth came up from behind and wrapped its arms around his neck, experimentally sinking its teeth into the skin at the back of Fred’s skull.
And Fred was on the floor. The few cooks who had been too timid to participate in the initial assault now swarmed him, grabbing onto whatever limbs they could get a hold of, and began tearing the skin from his bones.
Fred screamed, at first in rage, then in fear, as his body was stripped and thick wires of muscle were revealed. He lived long enough to see the smallest of the cooks swallow a chunk of his flesh and come back for seconds. Then, he passed out.
The jukebox was easy enough to fix.
One of the goons was a mechanic, and got the box singing again within thirty minutes – a sort of apology for the disturbance. He spared a nervous look at the cooks before high-tailing it out the door.
I hung around and helped Joey pick up the broken glass. He poured me sodas for free, and when dawn arrived on the horizon, cooked us all breakfast: a chilli, cobbled together with whatever ingredients were lying around. Three cans beans, one can chickpeas, a few jars of tomato sauce, a bag of frozen carrots found buried in the back of the freezer, etc.
The Dollarama crew filled two booths at Joey’s, eating and laughing and listening to vintage rock’n’roll on the repaired jukebox, slightly scratchier but no less joyous. It seemed no one missed Fred at all; even the goons were in fine spirits. No one complained about the Chuck Berry, and everyone asked for a second helping.
It was a pretty decent meal, so long as you didn’t think about where Joey got the meat.
See more of Madison McSweeney's work here: https://madisonmcsweeney.com/