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The Bromance

I turned to my right as a tanned, shirtless zombie in black basketball shorts collapsed headlong just outside the perimeter fence, skidding to a stop on its side not ten feet away, one hand still outstretched, eyes crossing inward as if it had tried to watch the bullet mushroom through its brain. Two others were just then emerging from the forest’s edge: a blocky older woman in green capris pants and a bowling pin of a man in denim shorts and a faded Bahamas shirt who may very well have been her husband. Neither was of the faster sort, but their much slower cousins who waddled out of the woods at the pace of rigor mortis. The sniper took his time here and fired two shots, dropping the pair in quick succession. For a few moments, the pastor and all the parishioners watched the lady continue to spasm and jerk on the ground before offering one final, shuddering gasp, and easing into the long oblivion. 

“Amen!” someone shouted with a laugh.

“Hallelujah!”

“Yabba-dabba-dooooo!”

Others snickered and started to wander off. 

“Gimmicky bullshit,” one man in a black beret muttered to no one in particular. “Fuckin smoke n’ mirrors.”

He wasn’t necessarily wrong to suspect the preacher had staged this—after all, the timing did seem a little too perfect, that Lazaruses should be loosed upon us just as he spoke of loosing Lazarus—and yet I wasn’t convinced our preacher had actually put anyone up to loosing any of these. First, he looked genuinely surprised, gaping like one who had just seen a pillar of fire. Second, as people filed away, another shot rang out, then another, and another. If he were going for effect, one sacrificial ghoul might have won a handful of converts, but six? Surely he was smart enough to know that would strain even the most gullible idiot’s credulity. That didn’t necessarily discount the possibility that he was planting miracles, since there was a very long tradition of clerics going too far and generally tarnishing the reputation of the faithful, but all these things hinted at the preacher’s genuine surprise or at least some top-notch acting skills.

So it was that I stood there by the fence for some time, picking the last of the little bone chips and blood clots out of my hair while carefully studying the preacher, who was kneeling, hands clasped so hard his knuckles were turning white, looking back and forth between the dispatched Lazaruses and a sinister-looking bank of gray clouds high up in the sky, muttering questions in one voice, grumbling answers in another, all the while hunkered behind his tincan bunker, his fortress of corn and olives, not even bothering to stanch the flow of blood from the deeper cuts on his forearm.

***

Soon enough I was making my way back past the gamblers and fighters and barterers, past the mad jabberers and the mutes, past a pair of headbangers in threadbare heavy metal t-shirts (Sepultura and Slayer) playing chess with a host of dead bugs and a couple of flattened mice as their kings, toward my stately appointment at The Crap $hack, where I threw open the flap and found Chucho hunching over in the dim light. 

 

He jerked his head quickly toward me. 

 

I held back for a moment. There was something about the curvature of his spine, an animal lecherousness, almost like a dog mounting pillow. Had I caught the poor bastard masturbating? No. Just as quickly I realized that wasn’t it at all, that he wasn’t holding a giant tattooed dick in his hand, but only lighting a novena candle. I could suddenly make out the small orange flame flickering through a likeness of the archangel Michael—or Gabriel or Conan the Barbarian or whoever it was—wielding a sword and standing with his foot on the back of some winged demon, its body covered in black fur, its red eyes terrified, its red tongue flickering like a viper’s. 

 

Here I was struck with a flash of clarity: of course he hadn’t attended the protestant revival! my tattooed friend was a Catholic! 

 

Can a skeleton blush? Yes. Or at least that’s exactly what he was doing as I crawled into the tent. He either held this to be a highly private matter, or else he just felt too weird to carry on in front of a total stranger, so he quickly set the candle aside, lay back on his side of the mattress pad, and took up a magazine. It didn’t have a cover so I couldn’t tell what it was right away, but I watched him flip through the pages and stare at something for a while and then look up like he was trying to figure something out and, soon enough, by stealing glances, I realized he was trying to make sense of a US Weekly or, if not that, one of a hundred other glossy magazines that used to take as their premise that celebrities were gods. 

A strange selection for such a man, I thought.

I pretended to be doing something of my own, but I didn’t have anything to do, other than wait for the camp to process me, so really I was only studying Chucho, trying to make sense of him. Those face tattoos were disturbing, no doubt about it. They reminded me of a movie I once saw about a Mexican cartel in which a ruthless cartel boss had sent a group of hitmen to kill some undercover narco agents and one of the assassins had his face covered with tattoos, not like Chucho’s, but disconcerting nonetheless; and yet I noticed, scary as my new roommate seemed at first glance, if you didn’t let yourself look away too quickly, if you kept trying to see beyond the tattoos, you couldn’t help but notice something like real sincerity lurking under all that ink and the kind of inner calmness a person could never fake. 

Also, his head was very symmetrical. Some shaved heads look like lopsided gourds, but his was shaped just the way a head is supposed to be shaped—i.e., like a head—and yet it was more than the general head-shape that struck me. There was something about the particular way his forehead sloped that seemed somehow very familiar to me. It took me a little bit to realize what it reminded me of but eventually I realized that, in profile, he looked very much like George Washington’s on the quarter. And while I understand that this American icon, President George Washington, owned slaves and apparently thought it was okay to displace and kill the original inhabitants of this continent and therefore wasn’t as squeaky clean in the character department as they used to tell us in school, no one could ever deny that the first president of our godforsaken republic had a really notable head. Yes, that was it. Chucho was George Washington, thugishly developed.

As I was thinking all this, the magazine slid from his fingers onto his chest.  

 

“What did Kim Kardashian do?” he asked. 

Where to begin? 

First, I didn’t want to suggest it had been a problem for a woman to be beautiful or seek the male gaze or even to capitalize on homemade sex videos she made with rappers; second, I didn’t want to suggest it was her fault that she had lived at the crescendo of a culture that craved whatever she happened to be or, for that matter, that it should have somehow been her responsibility to change whatever she was, much less lead the cultural movement against herself; third, while I wanted Chucho to know all of that, I also wanted him to know that, while I had never hated Kardashian, I did at one time very passionately hate (a) the people who had made those magazines about celebrities like her and (b) the storeowners who had sold those magazines about people like her and (c) the people who had bought those magazines about people like her. [1] 

 

In fact, for a time I’d hated all of those people so much that I’d almost been glad America had fallen, because it meant that most of those vapid shitheads were dead or lurching about in various stages of decomposition. I wasn’t that succinct in the telling, of course, but rambled on and on in Chucho’s company the way so many people did when asked a question after so long alone on the road, unable to stop myself, going on any number of tangential rants, exploring any number of topics related to the slow but steady zombification of America—that is, zombification not in the new literal sense, but in the old cultural-critic sense—and how, to tell the truth, I’d actually gotten a vasectomy in November 2016 precisely because I’d read the tea leaves and decided I’d rather let my whole family line flicker out of existence than bring one more person into that ghastly pyrotechnic carnival of distraction, ostentation, willful ignorance, stupidity, and hatred; then I took a breath and started to say something else because, goddamn me, I’d already said a whole bunch of words, too many words, far too many words, but I still hadn’t managed to convey the essential—

 

“Dude, you need to fucking relax,” Chucho interrupted, extending a pipe and a white book of matches.

The pipe was one of those Sherlock Holmes numbers, long, wooden, polished, elegantly curved, pilfered from the home of a stereotype of a literature professor, circa 1978. I took it in hand and discovered a bright green and rather piquant bud nestled in the bowl. 

“Is it—?” I asked. 

He nodded. 

If I was still a little anxious about this tattooed Catholic, that friendly smoke de-anxiousified me down to the core and marked the beginning of what a lot of absolute morons back before The Collapse were calling “a bromance.” 

***

As the afternoon wore on, as we waited for the faceless powers-that-be to finish processing our various samples and determining our fates, we smoked for a while and talked for a while and then were quiet for a while and I reclined on my pack and drifted in and out of dreams. Every so often I would jolt awake when another gunshot rang out from the crow’s nest, but it was strange now, how little effect they were having, because even though the rifle fire had been increasing all day, my anxiety was slipping quite inversely into the background. I hadn’t felt this secure for a long time. When I awoke again, something occurred to me: I was trusting a complete stranger with my life—but not just any stranger.

There he sat, cross-legged in the ever-dimming light, and even though I couldn’t see his every detail, I was starting to see more clearly that this was exactly the kind of savage barbarian you could trust with your life. Before The Collapse, so many of the people railing endlessly against the evils of people like Chucho always had such clean haircuts and firm handshakes so that it seemed like clean haircuts and firm handshakes were our culture’s very definition of good character. A bloated white dude with a smarmy grin and the right folksy sayings could look you directly in the eye and even get a “thank you” as he gerrymandered your district or turned your neighborhood into a toxic waste dump or yanked all your fingernails out, one by one, with pliers, while we were supposed to look at people like Chucho and associate them with all the worst qualities of humanity. No, I’d had enough of loan officers and politicians and zombies. Maybe I’d give thug life a try. 

Chucho seemed to tolerate my quirks as naturally as I appreciated his and, after another smoke, he surprised me by reaching over and grabbing my hand to shake. This was taboo, of course. No one touched hands this way anymore. Too much could be transmitted. It should have struck me down to my core, the strange vulnerability of the thing, two men’s palms pressed one against the other, but all my thoughts, all my fears, all my paranoias were obliterated as soon as he initiated his elaborate handshake—thumb-grab, finger-clasp, fist-bump—a handshake that would have seemed like a total affectation if it had come from a fellow white man, rather than my new main man, this enigmatic Chucho. 

***

After that evening’s bowl of soup (porcupine and wild onions?) and a cup of coffee, then another smoke out by the perimeter fence—where we watched one of the snipers in the westernmost crow’s nest pick off three more berserkers and a foot-dragger storming the fence—we retired again to our tent. We’d been talking all evening about the things we wanted to find out on a stint and, being very stoned, I’d said I needed some sunblock because, fuck, I was so white, dude, so white, too white, but then we had walked around for a long time and I’d pretty much forgotten all about it but now, as soon as crawled into the tent, Chucho rifled through his bag, pulled out a trucker’s cap, and handed it to me. It featured a totem from a local, coastal tribe, the winged poll rendered in brown, turquoise, and a few accents the color of a blood orange. 

I told him I couldn’t take it, that he might need it. 

“Just take the fucking hat, motherfucker.” 

I took the hat.  

***

All that evening and into the night, we hung out talking in the tent, opening up in a way no one opened up anymore until, eventually, I got around to asking some things that had been weighing on my mind. 

“What’s a Chucho?” I asked. 

“You ever heard of Mexicans named Chuy?”

There was another gunshot out on the perimeter, some yelling back and forth, another shot.

“Just a nickname.”

“For?”

“Jesús.”

“You’re a Jesús?!”

“Yeah, but no one’s called me that forever.”

“Why not Chuy?” 

He said he didn’t have a choice, because Chucho was what his mom called him when he was a kid, something her grandfather had called her father, but it had grown on him, too, ever since he’d heard about a Mexican bandit dude named Chucho el Roto, a Robin Hoodish character from Tlaxcala. 

He’d been born in San Diego and moved to L.A. and then up the coast to Washington because of his dad’s work. Yeah, he’d been in a gang. He wouldn’t say which, though he didn’t have to; the 18 tattooed on his forehead spoke volumes. I didn’t push the issue because he didn’t seem interested in talking about it. But Chucho told me he had done time for what he called his “activities.” Hard time. Supermax prison time. There, he’d done more “stuff” he wasn’t proud of, too much “stuff,” “stuff” that really bothered his conscience now when he allowed himself to think about it, “stuff” that made him feel like he was living at the bottom of a pit he could never get out of and probably didn’t deserve to get out of even though sometimes he felt like maybe he was slowly making his way out of it because that’s one thing the apocalypse allowed you to do: become who you’d rather be. 

“So what’s the deal with … your face?” I finally asked. 

“Think it’s a good idea to fuck with a dude looks like this?” 

Here I thought of a quote I only half-remembered from Ernest Decker’s book Denial of Death, which I had read years before, but I couldn’t remember enough to throw it into the mix [2], so I just said, “No.”

“Most people don’t,” he said. “Anyway, I didn’t have shit to lose. No offices were gonna hire a homeboy anyway. But some businesses? They work different. They got other priorities. If you want a soldier, you want some pendejo in a sweater vest or the fourth vato of the apocalypse?”

He didn’t know what had happened to his associates since, but he said he was glad he hadn’t been with them on that first night when chaos began, because he would probably still be stuck with them, trapped, turned, or dead. They wouldn’t have let him slip away, not even to go check on his mom and sister. There would have been too much work to do. Shit to secure. Rivals to kill. Maybe even a whole empire to build on the ruins.

I surmised that the worst had happened to his mother and sister, but he wouldn’t talk about it, not yet, and just skipped over months, as if those months hadn’t even existed, until the story resumed with him roaming the hills, just as I had, just as most of us had, scavenging what he could, sleeping in attics and trees, avoiding hordes and people as if they were one in the same thing. For him, they pretty much were. I started to see that, where I had been able occasionally to approach a small group of seemingly trustworthy people, hands up, saying I only wanted to get info or trade goods, Chucho didn’t have that luxury. Something inside them wanted to believe me even if I was covered in blood and I knew this to be true from experience; nothing inside those same people wanted to believe this man, no matter how clean his tattoos were. He sympathized with all the people wandering the hills who looked up one day and saw him, the face of death itself, coming. He didn’t blame them for shooting or running; how could they have known that, during their siege, he’d been picking off zombies for them around the fringes? that they maybe owed their little boy’s life to this peace-sign-flashing cholo they chased off? That face, which had elevated his status in certain circles, meant exile from almost every other.

So he’d steered clear until resources became harder and harder to find, that is, until he’d started seeing the billboards, the ones posting the DeComp jobs. Then he’d come. He’d already done a three-month stint. Out there extracting zombies from the wastelands, he’d found it was best to simply accept everyone else’s assumptions and prejudices about him, to pretend he spoke only broken English or, better yet, no English at all, to embody everyone else’s notions of the fearless Mexican zombie killer, mysterious in his ways, certainly, never one to fully trust or turn your back on, sure, but someone the crew bosses had to admit had a clear facility for violence. 

***

As the night and our discussions had worn on and the latest volley of gunshots slowed to a few sporadic pops and hoots like a small victory had been won, Chucho lit his novena candle again so that now our conversation was bathed in a flickering orange light shining upward from the blanket between us so that he took on the backwards-shadowed aspect of the creature from an old Boris Carlov horror film, something a movie buff of my generation knows was once supposed to be very scary but no longer could be, not even compared to the movies of our own generation and certainly not when compared to the real horrors we had all seen. Maybe my old fanboy status was what made me a qualified judge. Or maybe it was the weed. Either way, it seemed clear that this “monster” was a good man, draped in his own horrors, sure, but good to his core. 

“I see through that,” I finally said, gesturing toward his face.

“Oh yeah?” he said. “What do you see?”

“Not hard like a skeleton. More like a….”

Now that I had started, I thought better of saying what I was thinking. 

“Like what?” he asked. 

“A … koala?”

He furrowed his brow and didn’t respond, and I got paranoid for a moment that he was going to take offense, because a koala isn’t exactly a wolf or a jaguar, and I was about to explain the dark and deep soulfulness of the koala’s eyes, its quiet dignity, but he spared me.

“Ever do a Hail Mary?” 

I should have felt relieved, but the second he asked, I started to sweat. Could my agnosticism tolerate such blasphemy? I mean, I didn’t believe Mary was anything special, no more than Muhammad, or Joseph Smith, or Krishna, or Lakshmi, or Zoroaster, or Papa Legba, or Nzambi, or Cthulu—just a bunch of names for mush heads to utter against the dark. Indeed, if there was a god, it was better called The Universe, and yet, I had to ask myself in the moment, did anything in that knowledge require me to turn my back on my new friend? to put my doubt ahead of our friendship? to shit all over his welcoming gesture? 

In the end, I only told him our beliefs were just a bit different, that I didn’t so much believe in deities per se as the organic, endless, manifold nature of the universe, an endless cycle of galactic expansion and contraction, but, whatever, I’d give him a hand with his prayer anyway, and he said no, it was cool, I didn’t have to, that he had his own doubts sometimes, plenty of doubts, because God didn’t always make himself easy to love, and, anyway, he didn’t expect anyone to say shit they didn’t believe.

“Nonsense,” I said.  “I say shit I don’t believe all the time. But rarely among friends.”

 

***

Which is how my new friend Chucho and I came to be kneeling there in our flickering, tently darkness, muttering our way through a somber Hail Mary while, with his thumb, he worried the little ebony Christ hanging on a cross at the end of his rosary.

The cracks of rifle fire had started anew and so all the while Chucho’s voice was rising higher and higher, like he was trying to drown out fear and doubt. As I look back on that night after so many years, his prayers seem themselves hallowed, prophetic, as if something inside him already knew this for the eve of a most tragic adventure decreed by the fates. 

As the last volley tapered off, the voices of two far-off men interrupted Chucho’s prayer. 

“Where the shit’re these new ones comin from?” one called out.

“Hell’f I know. But didja see that fuckin girlscout’s head come apart?”

Chucho winced, the blue-black ink on his eyelids bunching up in the corners. 

“Pray for us sinners,” he concluded. “Now and at the hour of our death.”

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[1] Indeed, before The Collapse, there were those in my own set who mocked Kardashian’s dead-eyed gaze, who suggested it belied the interior emptiness of a zombie. However, it isn’t dead eyes or vacant looks that most remind me now of zombies. The people of yore who remind me most of zombies were those trapped in grocery-store checkout lines, the ones who couldn’t bear to stand there for a minute and face the potential rush of their own thoughts—disappointments, regrets, forgotten dreams, etc.—and so either stared into their phones for Facebook posts about celebrities like Kardashian or else picked up the nearest celebrity magazine and quietly released their innermost cannibals in an almost ritualistic consumption of whoever appeared in those pages. They’d never finish this meal before reaching the checker, so they’d invariably toss it on the counter. Leftovers.  

[2] I have since looked it up and realized I wasn’t even trying to quote Decker but William James, who Decker quoted in explaining how we all fear death even when we are distracting ourselves to forget it. At any rate, I still feel this quote reminds me of Chucho: “Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.”