Custer was talking to his lieutenants, not looking at them, but staring down the valley, just as I was, arms crossed, stroking his chin whiskers with the ends of his fingers. I’ve heard it said that men tugging and twisting their chin whiskers are signaling that they are men and not boys and maybe that’s the case with most men but there didn’t seem to be anything left of the boy in this one; he looked nothing like Custer of old, the general I’d seen in history books, the weak-chinned and weasel-faced manchild, but was rather steely-eyed and creased across his forehead like someone who had spent the better part of his life uneasy with something inside that he never could quite name.
His only Custerish feature, in fact, was a sweeping sort of mustache, notably longer than his beard, which flared out provocatively at either end. Some might also have pointed to his long hair—no doubt remembering the old daguerreotypes of Custer in the years before his infamous death, the ones where he sported a kind of foppish officer’s mullet—but to my mind there were no real similarities: our Custer’s hair was dark brown with a small silver wing on either side just above his ear and he wore it long, not just in the back, but all around, though currently drawn back into a braid wrapped with greasy strips of leather or sinew. Where historical Custer had been fair-skinned and Hessian, our Custer was more dark-featured, with a trace of the gypsy. In drawing comparisons, my mind seized on a uniquely powerful dramatic actor named Daniel Day Lewis who, though the actor had been British, always seemed to find his ways into roles that were somehow prototypically American. If this comparison leaves nothing but a gaping void in your mind’s eye where I’m trying to conjure our captain, if the comparison only creates a kind of outline filled-in with blackness and stars, just know, for now, that he was one of those rare men you could look at once and know he was more than a mere sum of particles and molecules: all of American history seemed to be contained within his form; when he walked, history seemed almost to rise from the dead and walk again.
I couldn’t quite make out what the officers were saying, and could only try to interpret their gestures: here Neo, the second lieutenant, drew a circle in the air with his finger, as if telling the rest of us to prepare to roll out. Custer waved him away—summarily shutting him down. There was still some final deliberation and they talked it over for a moment before Starbucks furrowed his brow, leaned in to Custer to counsel against whatever it was he was saying. Custer shook his head, turned away from his lieutenants to stare off down the valley, as if trying to reckon all the unseen contingencies of our future. Starbucks looked to Neo, who looked to Buttplug, who looked down the line of trucks and back again to his fellow lieutenants, and the three talked amongst themselves for a moment more before Starbucks, who kept rubbing at his temple and shaking his head, approached Custer again. This time, Custer opened his mouth and started to reject his subordinates’ idea, but stopped short, and seemed to think it over.
Whatever Starbucks said had obviously interested him and it seemed like we were getting somewhere, but just as quickly something else stirred inside the captain, or maybe it just wafted by on the breeze; yes, it must have been the latter, because here Custer actually closed his eyes, seemed almost to smell after something, something hiding deep down in the general ripeness of decomposing flesh that ever hung in the air—the way a sommelier might have noted a far-off hint of orange blossom buried somewhere deep inside the wine’s body.
This was my first impression of the man and it struck me immediately that he was very physical, of that rare breed of rugged sensualists who enjoyed the feeling of small things pricking up the hairs on their arms, who didn’t so much luxuriate as exist in a world of sights and smells and sounds and the raw feels of worldly sensations, all those galaxies of particles drawn in toward him by what must have been a very real kind of gravity. Custer lolled his head around slowly, once, twice, like a man with all the time in the world, a man in the midst of his morning yoga, and then he called out, “Gather the men, Starbucks!”
The lieutenants looked at one another.
“Sir?” Starbucks said. “Aren’t we set to—?”
“Front of the convoy! five minutes!”
As the men arrived, all was silent. Custer was already there, pacing out front of the dumptruck plow at the topmost point of a rise in the road, so that we all had to walk up a slight grade toward him, and standing there, at the top of the rise in the road, he appeared to be poised at the topmost edge of all things. The rain had died down, but the sky behind him was a mottled field of uninterrupted grayness the mind couldn’t help but compare to the deoxygenated pallid flesh of a cadaver and against this background Custer began to pace back and forth, brow furrowed like he was trying to reduce some irreducible algorithm in his head. When all the movement had stopped and the men stood still and waited, Custer stopped too, and looked down at them, not like he was inspecting the crew of Plymouth as a unit, but taking stock of each man individually—his eyebrows curling up in small horns, nose crooked as any bareknuckle boxer.
Once he knew we were his, he rocked back, shifting his weight onto his good leg, and called out, “What do you do when you see a horde, men?”
“Spread the word?”
“Quietly spread the word,” Neo corrected.
“Sure, to spread—for what purpose?” the captain all but yelled.
“To round em up?”
“And why round—to what end?”
“Energy for what?”
“The people who own us?” someone half-joked.
“The future?!” someone else offered.
“Maybe, maybe,” Custer scoffed. “But do you see this future? can you hold this future?”
Men looked to one another, not sure what the right answer was, and unwilling to guess incorrectly again.
“Don’t get sullen,” Custer said, seeming now to soften, even grinning. “Let me put it another way: what future do you expect for yourself?”
“Prolly eagle food!” one man called from the back.
A couple men laughed at this while others looked about uncomfortably, not sure how the captain would take glib talk or laughter or anything else for that matter, but Custer only grinned and said the man was right, because today was the future of yesterday, and yesterday the future of a year ago, and a year ago five years before that, and he paused to let them ponder his ellipsis for a moment and then he continued: “Our scout says there’s a horde trapped up-valley a way. Bottlenecking in a dry lakebed. Do you smell it? A swarming mess ripe for the taking. I believe they’d call it a bonanza, gentlemen!”
Several of the men hooted reflexively, but Custer held his hand up to settle them.
“You’re right to be excited, but let’s pause a second and consider a thing. How many of them do you think, five years ago, thought they’d be alive today? how many would have counted it a certainty?” He didn’t pause to give them a chance to answer, but only mounded up words upon words, which, as I soon found, was his way: “If you’d held up a calendar in front of them and asked what they’d be like today, how many do you suppose would have imagined themselves standing in the middle of a crowd of insatiable ghouls in an empty lake this way, slowly rotting down into a heaping pile of shit? Would any of them have imagined anything other than living just as they’d been living or, knowing how optimistic people seemed to be, maybe even a little better?”
“What?!” he shouted, feigning distress. “O, men! men! but tell me you’re planning your golden years! O, to plan! I myself, I can still see my plan: it’s floating right here, right in front of my eyes, behind a kind of haze, little nodes, sunspots. I always imagined a little house on the edge of the woods. My mortgage paid down. Nothing owed to anyone but myself. Long stretches of time with nothing on the calendar. I was going to sit down and read everything it ever occurred to me to read—everything there is. I was going to learn until my old brain couldn’t learn no more. I was finally going to learn to meditate. None of this alone, mind you. No, not alone, but with my wife. She was going to come out and sit on the bench beside me and talk and talk in that voice familiar to me as the voice inside my own head and we’d hold hands and breathe and look over a grassy field into the dark spaces between the trees at the front of a dense and comforting wood. Sitting there like that? That’s how we’d come to know our deepest, truest peace.”
The men were shuffling where they stood; they didn’t know what to make of this strange man and his stranger speech; they just wanted him to say some shit about killing a shitload of zombies and promise that none of our men would get killed, or worse, not on his watch. What did his lost retirement plans have to do with rounding up gigawatts of flesh? But Custer sensed that he was losing them and so he shook his head like he was shaking off a couple too many whiskeys, seemed to come out of a dangerous memory floating a couple feet before his eyes, and look at the men again, one by one.
“You know what happened to your plans,” he said. “They took them. Took it away and none of it is ever coming back. That! right there!” Here he placed his large hand over his chest. “The pangs! Do you feel them, men? like a hand slowly squeezing your heart? You’d do well to hold onto that feeling. It’s not going away anyway, and we’ve got no time for illusions. If you’re alive, you know there’s no future anymore and hasn’t been for some time. Each of you saw Progress fall! Tell me: if that’s not an omen, what is? And yet here we stand. Same plan as always. Same plan as before The Collapse and before The Rise and before that on back to the first hominid who dug for a root or sucked the marrow from a bone. Accumulate fuel for tomorrow, accumulate fuel for tomorrow, and accumulate fuel for tomorrow—and on and on and on. But can accumulation be it? Tell me that can’t be it. The meaning of life? Is its passing what we mourn? No! Why are you nodding, shitheel? I just said there’s no tomorrow and you were nodding like you agreed with me! Remember? I do. I saw it: you agreed in words but, even if you didn’t mean those words, I saw it in your eyes, in all your eyes—in the way all your eyes fell. You know what I know. We’re all brothers of the void now. There’s nothing to see ahead but more of this and more of this and more of this and the haze has grown too thick and what was once a lacy bridal veil is now a shroud. But don’t lay me down to rest. There’s no time to rest. Not out here. No moment of peace at the end of your story. No something to get to. No something to reach. So I ask again: what is it then? why do we do it? why do we carry on? why are we out here, men? why are you out here with me?”
“To … pay em back?” one man tried.
“Ah,” he sighed. “Now there’s a fine thing.”
“Something a hand can almost grasp!”
His point may have been opaque, but men were growing giddy over it. Something was coming over them, and, to be honest, something over me as well, an otherworldly logic or illogic that I couldn’t ignore; or maybe it wasn’t that something was coming over us, but that something in the captain’s words was slipping inside, latching onto the very spirit, like so many hookworms or tiny lampreys.
“To get medieval on their asses!” a man shouted from the back with a laugh.
“I do like the sound of that!” Custer shouted with a laugh.
“Strike down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger!”
“Not very original, but hey! whatever floats your boat!”
The roughnecks were abuzz with energy as Custer pivoted on his peg leg and reached out his hand toward them, or more like he was grabbing the throat of a zombie, as if to restrain some putrid ghoul trying to tear him open, pull the inside to the outside, and as he spoke it seemed like maybe he really thought this invisible antagonist was coming at him and wouldn’t relent: “All you watchmen in rotation know to radio down if you see a horde or even a hint. Of course you know that! but listen carefully to what I say! snap out of whatever dark thoughts! stop pining over lost friends or families! or daydreaming about delusional dawns after the dead! Train your focus! look! look here! right here! Do you see what I’ve got here, gentlemen?”
As he was saying this last part, he pulled a gold coin from his pocket.
“Tell me: can you all see it?”
“Gold!” a young black man called out.
“An assayer in the making! yes, that’s a 24-karat gold buffalo! minted in 2016! in the sweet departed years before The Collapse! I can’t even begin to guess what all you could trade it for these days! food! weapons! armor! the love of your life! the loves of your life! Do you all see it, gentlemen, how it glistens?”
Custer held the coin up to a sun that wasn’t even shining, rotated it as if he were trying to make it catch a light that was not there. It didn’t glimmer, but everyone knew it for gold.
“Mr. Starbucks!” the captain called out. “A rivet gun, please!”
There was some commotion as Starbucks and some of the mechanics ran off to get the rivet gun from a tool crate. While they were away, Custer peg-legged among the men, showing each the coin so they could see up close the polished gold, which he turned over and over as he walked, flashing first the buffalo, then the Indian’s profile, buffalo, Indian, buffalo, Indian. Behind us, a generator fired up, and soon Starbucks came walking back, holding the rivet gun in one hand and letting down loops of an extension cord with the other. Receiving the rivet gun in his right hand, Custer strode toward the front truck, one of the MK29 plow trucks, hoisted himself up between the great steel prow and the radiator grill where he balanced with his foot on the bumper and the end of his peg on the plow’s bracing, and held the Indian head up as high as he could with his left hand.
“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard rumors of how I lost my leg! and it’s true! all too true! Yes, it was a white zombie that did it! but not any old white! white as snow! an albino! though his right side is peppered now, mottled black with lead shot from Custer’s own right hand! and he’ll bear those marks as long as he walks! not long now, men! I swear this to you! just as I swear now that whichever one of you spies the ivory idiot, whoever first lays eyes on that preternaturally pasty dork standing out like a beacon among these, our multiracial hordes—that man will earn this coin!”
The men cheered as Custer drove a rivet through the coin into the truck with a loud, ringing pop, making a very valuable hood ornament of it—no mere Mercedes symbol, this.
“Yes, we’re seeking the white zombie!” he called out again, tossing the rivet gun down in the dirt with a clunk. “Flesh so white it gives a little shudder! O, and ungainly, boys! to your eyes, he may be a single pearly minnow passing through a sea of gray flesh—but call out! even if it only turns out to be a sheet of paper! or a plastic bag blowing in the wind! if it’s white and trips over its own feet, sing out!”
Here I noticed Chucho lean over and say something to the other security men in a hushed tone.
“What is it, men?” the captain asked. “Keen for the hunt?”
“Sorry, Captain,” Jason said. “Is this white zombie the one called Moby-Dork?”
Custer’s eyes flashed: “Yes! some call him that though I’d call him Manifest-Destiny! tell me, do you know of the white zombie?!”
Chief held his hand up to indicate a height of someone maybe six feet tall, then drew his hands close together to suggest someone very thin.
“Muy blanco?” Chucho asked, spiking his English words with such a heavy accent. “Con … zits?”
“Yes! yes! white as a clown! pocked with acne and gunpowder! Tell me you’ve seen him, men! tell me you’ve seen Manifest-Destiny in the flesh! tell me now!”
“Captain,” Starbucks put in. “I don’t know about Manifest-Destiny business but I’ve heard of Moby-Dork. Still, was it really him who took your leg? Surely there are other albinos—”
“Who told you that?” Custer cried. “Yes, Starbucks! yes, everyone! whatever you want to call him, it was the same M-D that severed me! the very same alabaster doofus gave me this stump I’m gimping around on now! look at this thing! Do you really think I’d mistake whatever thing did this to me? Of course it’s the same that split me! tore me tibia from fibula! and I’ll chase him round the Sound, round the continent, round Jupiter and back before I rest again!” Custer was now raising both hands in the air like he was planning to choke the clouds to death: “That’s our play here, men! that’s our play! chase this Dork over every hill and mountain and cavern and cave till he oozes brain pudding! What do you say? all of you standing there, looking so brave?! Death? do you say death?”
“Death!” someone called out.
“Death!” a man in a blue flannel shirt shouted.
“Death to Moby-Dork!”
The cheers went up, as did a fair amount of nervous laughter.
“Haha!” Custer called out gleefully. “A sharp eye for the white zombie! and a sharper pike!”
Here his eyes passed over Starbucks, and he paused, and seemed troubled.
“What, Starbucks?” he asked a little dolefully. “Aren’t you with us?”
“I’m all for flaying the zombie down to his bones, Captain,” he said, toeing the earth thoughtfully. “I’ll even hogtie him to a tree so you can do whatever you want with him … if we come upon him fairly hunting a horde. I mean, what’s this man’s profitshare of your revenge? or this man’s or this man’s? I don’t think the Majority Shareholders pay much for filling boxes with—”
“Shareholders! Ha! Come here, Starbucks. Closer. Listen here. Yes, here.” He thumped his hand hollowly on his own chest three times. “That’s the only box to fill! the only container worth filling! so we fill it full, Starbucks! to the brim and over! and to think: all it takes is one zombie! not a thousand! not ten thousand! just one! and that one already marked!”
“But revenge?” said Starbucks. “On a mindless sack of guts? We’re supposed to toss our job aside because a dumb ghoul did what dumb ghouls do? With all due respect, sir, that sounds a little like … crazy talk.”
Captain Custer jumped down from his perch, landing almost gracefully on his good foot, and took Starbucks’ sleeve in his hand in that deepest act of one-on-one reasoning, the kind we’ve all seen where two men who see things very differently and find themselves at a breaking point: there is this last chance at words before the only answer left is violence. If it came to blows, Starbucks was the younger and probably stronger and quicker man, whereas Custer was showing signs of his age and the past hard years of slogging through the wastelands, not to mention the whole peg-leg thing, or the reckless abandon in his eyes, but for all of this the captain was still a large man, tall and strong, and his every move seemed to anticipate every fluctuation of pressure around him, so that there was a sense no one could ever get the drop on him, either because he was too smart, or because he made a habit of knowing the men around him better than he knew himself, so that it wasn’t so hard to imagine that anything Starbucks could think to do, Custer could anticipate, and counter with a ferocity a good and intelligent man like Starbucks might never expect. So tell me: which way would such a fight go? None of us knew. None wanted to know.
“Dive deeper into the question,” Custer was saying, “deeper still, young man.
Everything you see: it’s just a mask. If you’re going to strike, you have to strike through the mask! and I glimpsed it! and it’s that ambivalence I chiefly hate. Whether the white zombie is agent or the white zombie principle, it doesn’t matter. You think it’s foolish to hate a mindless thing, but, Starbucks, if you only knew! I’d shoot the sun if it offended me!”
Starbucks was halfheartedly trying to pull his arm away as Custer clutched it tighter and tighter, until he seemed to suddenly relax, and smoothed the cloth of his first lieutenant’s plaid green shirt, more like a father than a captain.
“You almost said something! I saw! Speak up, Starbucks. Say what you want. Give voice to your disgust.”
“How beautiful that was!” Custer cried out, wheeling around. “Did you see that, men? There it was, and there it went, flying, fluttering away! a white dove inside this man’s eyes! Yes, Starbucks doesn’t want to admit he knows but he does—O, we’re all grown-ups now!”
But Custer wasn’t done here; he was too jubilant to stop so he raised his hands, called for someone to bring him the jug by the door of his cabin and Buttplug ran off and a few seconds later came back struggling with a five-gallon jug sloshing with every step.
Custer spun on his peg, drew his shotgun from his back, and fired a round out over the valley so that everyone flinched at once. Then he inspected the ground until he found the empty shell, picked it up between his fingers, blew out the dirt with a little hollow whistle.
“Help me,” he said to his lieutenants, “help me pour.”
Buttplug and Neo tipped up the jug and filled the little shell with its contents. Custer held the makeshift chalice up high above his head like he was going to give a toast.
“Headhunters,” he said: “Step forward!”
Most didn’t seem to know who he meant by “headhunters,” judging by the curious glances, but someone must have understood, because Chucho, Chief, and Jason all three stepped forward and stood in a short line before him, an informal, almost mystical alliance of what Custer must have deemed our trueest security force.
“Cross the barrels of your rifles here,” he commanded.
This was all very unorthodox, but the three men complied, held out the barrels of their rifles, and Custer stepped forward and drizzled the contents of the shotgun shell on them slowly. Then he poured three shells full and made each of them drink one down and, as they did, patted each on the back. Then he made Chucho pour three shells full so that each of the lieutenants could drink. Buttplug went, then Neo.
Then it was Starbucks’ turn. Custer handed the shell to Starbucks himself and eyed the man for what seemed a very long time, directly in his eye, or even beyond his eye.
Finally, Starbucks took the shell.
“It’s not half bad,” Buttplug said, face bright red.
“A mighty grog!” Neo croaked, throat burned.
Starbucks shook his head in disapproval, then upended its contents into his mouth and almost choked. With a satisfied look, Custer patted him on the back, then hefted the jug onto his arm and took a long drink directly from the bottle, and brought it down again, not even bothering to wipe his arm with his sleeve.
“Pass it around!” he called out as the jug passed hand to hand, that queer mixture of what tasted like grain alcohol with a couple blackberries mixed in for depth.
“Each man must take a swig!” Custer shouted: “We all quench our thirst from the same spring! what binds me to you, binds you to me! that’s right! drink up! that’s the spirit! prepare for the hunt! to the trucks! man the guns! Death to Manifest-Destiny! death to Moby-Dork! let a black hole smash Plymouth to atoms if we don’t hunt the white zombie to death!”
"To death!" the men sang out.