-10-

The Box

Days, what felt like months, passed, without incident. Plymouth had staged the stint’s first extraction, securing a tremendous amount of flesh, perhaps as many as 2,500. Here, the crew had erected a long, curved chute from the gap, through an industrial turnstile, into a shipping container or what the roughnecks uncreatively called “a box.” Once a sufficient number of zombies had flowed into said box, we locked them inside, and trucked them off to DeComp, opening the spot for another container to be moved into place so that the whole process started over again, and again, and again—the whole operation quite mesmerizing. 

The curved chute was something borrowed from the cattle business, curved because a brilliant woman, Temple Grandin, had realized that herding cows through straight chutes made them nervous, recalcitrant, and could grind an operation to a halt, but you could keep the flow going if you used curved chutes since they couldn’t see what lay ahead and because cows tended to circle back to wherever they’d come from. Our application worked nearly as smoothly with zombies, though with certain modifications. Zombies don’t get nervous or scared like cows, but they do tend to follow one another absent any specific stimuli and get extremely excitable whenever they sense prey ahead, so it wouldn’t do to let the ones in back see inside the box too soon, to see the “bait man” cowering at the back of the steel container in the wire-mesh cage, because they wouldn’t take turns trying to destroy him; instead, they would try to cram through all at once, bunch up and keep bunching up until the ones in front got smashed through the wire mesh like so much burger through a grinder and, even if it doesn’t bother you to see an eyeball bulging so far out of a socket that it pins the eyelids back, or a pouch of gray, maggot-ridden stomach hemorrhaging like the shoulder of a stillborn infant out of a small tear in the gut, or hearing a skull burst or intestines squishing under a dozen pairs of feet, or looking down and seeing them splashing about in a puddle of liquid the color of chicken broth glistening with milky mystery orbs, or finding cold globules of fat in your hair or even in your mouth from all the furious flinging, there is always the practical aspect to consider, which is this: let too many zombies get pulverized and it can really gum up the works. By contrast, if the crowd is well managed, and there at least seems to be a somewhat steady bit of forward movement, being in a queue seems to have a soothing, almost hypnotic effect on the zombic disposition, wherever the queue may lead, even if it happens to be DeComp.

Even more interesting were the turnstiles or, more precisely, the little flicker of satisfaction that seemed to pass across zombies’ faces as they stumbled through them. Many men thought they liked the clicking noise, but men not only tend to anthropomorphize everything under the sun but also to project themselves through their impressions of others, so it seems more probable that these men liked the clicking noise themselves and that the zombies, incapable of “liking” anything, were only responding in their simple way to the base sensation of pushing through something. Zombies are very tactile creatures and my impression is that it gave their skin a certain amount of dumb pleasure as they crossed through various thresholds, like when you’d be in a forest and hear a twig crack and look around in a panic and see a chubby bearded one in a blood-smeared lumberyard smock pass between two trees only feet apart, passing through intertwined branches, then turning ever so subtly to look at the space where he’d just been, as if he might go back for a second pass, just to feel the leaves tickle his bare arms and neck and face again—and I suspect this affinity for crossing thresholds related to how zombies had so recently breached that infinitely fine membrane separating life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, us and them.

The doors of such shipping containers were traditionally on hinges, but that wouldn’t have worked for this application. First, imagine a container full of zombies. Imagine they are all inside and turn to see you coming up behind them as you try to swing the squeaking door shut. Can you hold back a hundred bodies as they come for you, latch the door before they bully through? No. Of course not. It’s impossible. As I’m sure the first roughnecks quickly discovered. Second, imagine zombies filing through a chute, passing through a turnstile, walking a short distance through another chute and into the container. Where would the door go? If it were outside the chute, wouldn’t it close on the metal? and if it were inside, what kind of suicidal idiot would go into that confined space among the zombies? No, that’s why the containers had been retrofitted with guillotine gates, which could be dropped in an instant from above. Now, when I say guillotine, I do mean this in the purest, most literal sense of the word: there were almost always a couple zombies still halfway lingering outside, a corpse that had stopped at the last minute for some unknowable reason or unreason, that one zombie in a dozen who thought better of following his fellows, who heard a creak above him, and looked up just as the door dropped and a heavy steel blade affixed to the bottom of the door fell through his body, like a guillotine, trapping his better—that is, the profitable—half inside. 

The containers themselves have been discussed, but it’s important to consider them a little more carefully here. These were the standard type that were once shipped on barges across the wide seas, the sturdy steel containers you could stack like toy blocks ten high, carrying all the amazing goods in tidy rows across the oceans and back, the ones that made global capitalism possible. How did we import all those t-shirts stitched in Bangladesh? all those American flags made in China? These containers were the very same. They just carried a new kind of precious cargo. 

At the far end of these containers, there was another part I mentioned briefly before that is worth some small examination now, a little cage in which the bait man would stand and lure them, quite literally, as bait. Here he was trapped until the whole box was full, unable to let himself out lest he panic prematurely, relying entirely on a partner who was ever manning a small ingress-egress gate on the container’s exterior. So the monsters filed in, cramming themselves forward as they tried to annihilate the unlucky bait man, and there he stood, face to face with his fears. For some, this was almost therapeutic. But there were a number of men whose constitutions simply could not bear it. I was among them. Chucho, with whom I was always paired on these teams, always offered to face his demons—to prevent me from having to face mine. [1]  

There was an ongoing debate about how many bodies a container could hold. Obviously, our small individual shares were proportionally larger the more pounds of flesh we crammed inside. A difference of 10 bodies in one container may not have made a great impact on the overall share, but 10 extra squirmers per container multiplied out over 100 or 200 containers had the potential to really add up, so we all tried to be efficient meatpackers. Yet I can’t claim any absolutes here, or say that a particular number of them could be crammed into any one container. Logic told you that on a 40-foot container that was about 7 feet wide and about 7 feet tall, if all things were perfect and the zombies were all of a convenient, uniform size, and if all of them stood there still as plutonium rods, you should be able to pack as many as one per square foot (for a subtotal of 280 per container) and that you should even be able to smash a couple dozen or a pickup load of severed limbs and heads and offal into the headspace—so let’s peg the unattainable ideal at somewhere around 300. The problem, however, was that the walking dead were never of a size, but all over the spectrum from petite to morbidly obese, all of them always milling about, thrashing this way and that, so if you got competitive or greedy and tried to cram in too many, the ones up front would invariably start acting like slack-jawed detectives trying to figure out what was bumping into them from behind, so they’d be spinning around and starting back the other way, and then the others would notice this retrograde movement and so they’d all start lurching back the other way and you either had to slam down the guillotine or risk losing all of them and having to start the whole tedious process over again; neither could you use a bulldozer or any kind of industrial compactor, in part because convoys rolled too fast to wait for heavy machinery like that, but mainly because it was widely known that the Major Shareholders didn’t give top dollar for inanimate flesh, because, of course, inanimate flesh didn’t keep as well, had a tendency to putrefy too quickly, according to the whims of nature, rather than according to the incremental needs of steady power generation. Which is all to explain why I peg the average units per container rather somewhere between 100 and 120, that is, so long as the general proportion of walkers to berserkers was at least 4:1. The fewest zombies I ever saw loaded into one 40-foot box was under 50, because we had an unusually high proportion of berserkers, and the most I ever saw loaded was 164, but there was a lot of luck involved here as many of those were from a nearby elementary school. 

***

Yes, the box, not the body, was the measure of value we noobs came to understand over the ensuing days, as the reservoir of corpses flowed ever out in that steady, predictable stream. Of course there were times when one took a break up on the dam or climbed the mast and watched them shuffling single file through the chute and, watching the multitude pass by—faces of every description, bodies of every build—they slowly dulled your sense of apprehension. Most men found this kind of watching therapeutic, though I suppose it was therapy of a different sort from what you got inside a bait cage, like the difference between facing a great white shark while submerged in a shark cage versus standing on the prow of a sturdy boat, watching sharks circle below you in crystalline waters. It was impossible not to consider who they had been and how like yourself or how like those you knew before The Collapse.

 

Moms. Dads. Brothers. Sisters. Cousins. Neighbors. But also the street urchin who used to sit on the curb by the convenient store eating a lonely ice cream bar. The barista from up the street, the one with the long black hair and the sharp streak of magenta, both of her slender arms tattooed shoulder to wrist with tableaus of ponds, reeds, cranes, her neck bulging on one side now, her head bent to an untenable degree. The Sikh with the glasses from the record shop. The sad old white lady from the checkout line in jeans and a pink sweatshirt featuring a collar like a doily, not an obvious mark anywhere on her, as if she’d gone peacefully in her chair and rose again to this. They could have been anyone, people you’d known and seen. Of course they were dangerous, but it was easy to imagine otherwise, to blur your eyes a certain way and conjure a busy city street, the occasional clank of machinery or a sudden, deafening boom—sure, these were gunshots, but how easy it was to tell yourself it was only an old truck backfiring. None of the targets flinched, so why should you?

 

Thus we passed day after day, filling box after box, each full of moaning ghouls, each with a story we didn’t know and yet simultaneously did know, not in any fine-grain sense of knowing but at least in the coarse: each starting at a particular moment in time, accumulating hopes and memories and experiences, accumulating secrets and heartaches and longings, then everything taking an unexpected turn one day, negating all that had come before, filling the rest of their existence with our torment—all of this matter into our boxes and on toward oblivion.

 

What they had been before, what they had known, what they had believed, didn’t matter anymore, and that was a sadness but also promised a kind of peace,  anonymized by the multitude. They had been idiots, scientists, professors, artists, murderers, politicians, prostitutes, monotheists, polytheists, atheists, sober, stoned, or black-out drunk, white, yellow, red, brown, able-bodied or disabled or differently abled, or gay, or straight, or bi, or pan, or without any desire at all, happy, depressed, funny, boring, emotional, stoic, famous, infamous, obscure, somebody, nobody, or anything in between: now all were reduced to fleshy, self-containing packets of gas—walking BTUs. 

***

So it was with all the work that days stretched into a week, the profits stacking up in our minds, exciting the lieutenants, who kept tally for the captain. Custer only wandered around the camp, flanked by his mercenaries. As our stay stretched out, you’d see him looking forlornly at the road, or peg-legging across the top of the damn, inspecting the remaining revenants below for any sign of a more conspicuous whiteness, this Dork that had galled him, or walking along the chute, among the men, who were growing tired of this tedious operation themselves, terrified by the thought of all the terrible things that weren’t happening. But they’d put on brave work facades just as they must have in the days before. Here, they’d force a smile, brag about how we’d loaded 10 boxes, 20 boxes, 30….

This might have pleased another captain, but not ours. Sure, he’d offer up some attaboys but these were halfhearted; already he’d be gazing out over their shoulders, turning his ear toward a sound the rest of us couldn’t quite hear. 

“Still no trace of him?” he’d ask in the morning. 

“Any albino stowaways?” he’d ask at night. 

“No sir,” Neo replied one dreary evening as beads of rain burst on the hood of his yellow slicker and trickled down. “But we saw one earlier that looked just like David Hasselhoff!” [2]

“Very white,” Custer sighed, patting his second lieutenant on the back. “But not white enough.”

 

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[1] But, of course, roughnecks were a practical lot, and not always so dutiful when shit got ugly. So, to prevent men on the outside, such as myself, from abandoning post and leaving the inside men, or bait men, to rot in such a horrible place, they quickly devised a system by which to force the outside man to do his duty. They bound his life to the life of the inside man. In other words, if the inside man died in the box, they’d kill whoever let him die there. It didn’t matter if you were under attack, if zombies stormed your extraction point, if marauders suddenly fired a hundred rockets on that position: to be “outside man” meant standing fast against whatever came. So consider now Chucho inside the box in our first days, worried on the other side of that guillotine in our shipping containers of doom, zombies pressing in, oozing gore, splintering their teeth against the wire as they tried to bite him, standing there inside the steel box, not knowing with any real certainty if I was still out there or not. Yes, in our attempt to extract profit from those zombic bodies, our lives were bound together by the strongest but curiously most ethereal tether: Chucho’s fate was my fate and my fate his, and there he went, down in that fuming, sweltering cage. If, at any moment, one of them on the other side had reached out and plucked the far, frazzled end of our shared tether, there might have been no stopping the pull of humanity down into oblivion.  

 

[2] David Hasselhoff was an American actor best known in the 1990s for playing the attractive head crime-fighting lifeguard on a team of attractive crime-fighting lifeguards, and, before that, in the 1980s, for playing a cool detective who fought crime with the aid of a talking Pontiac.