-4-

The Contract

A silhouette was following us. Not lurching. Not twitching. Not groaning, mewling, or howling, but oddly composed, strolling behind us so casually you could almost imagine its hands tucked into its pockets, like a Don Draper[1], the defined shadow of a businessman that had just closed a deal with Mephistopheles and was coming for his quarry. Since he wasn’t running, there was no real reason for this mass of wounded humanity out in front of him to run from him and it seemed obvious we would eventually run ourselves ragged, become too exhausted to go on, or to fight back, but I had no choice, found myself swept forward in this movement of bodies knowing we were heading into a trap, but powerless to stop our own tide, and the silhouette continued his stroll, steadily, certainly, hands stuffed in pants pockets, no need to rush, no need to scuff its shoes, no need to muss its hair, no need to be terrifying in any conventional sense, no need to expose the monster inside, the ancient bloodlust that had always been raging just below the surface, because its mind was all formulas and ancient algorithms directing it toward such and such a place at such and such a time; yes, I could feel all this, and I knew it was herding us into a trap, that it was just moving all of us, steering us—yes, there it was now, a narrow canyon, so suddenly I was yelling, “Stop! stand our ground!” but no one was hearing me. My voice was swallowed up in the screams and shouts of panic as we poured into the canyon and that’s when I heard it: a deep, hollow buzz, followed by screams of abject terror, and the crunching of what sounded like bones. The grinding grew louder and louder and I fought backward against the heave of bodies but only got swept further along into the trap, swept down with this mass toward what I knew for the end, my own end, humanity’s own end, louder and louder, this terrible grinding-up of bones, blood gurgling up to fill throats and gaping, upturned mouths, the sudden drowning in blood of thousands of screams, until there I was, just on its precipice, the sound deafening. The ground sloping downward. Giving way to sandy soil. Slipping down into a pit and at the bottom of the pit an all-devouring metallic beast half submerged in the soil and churning up sand and blood and bones and scalps and all the last hopes and dreams of the people—and looking back over my shoulder I could see it coming, still pulling up the rear, the silhouette like our own shadow, indifferent about our sufferings as ever, hands stuffed deep in its pockets, jingling loose change, casually driving us toward the end of all things. 

***

Out of the darkness, my name rang out like a shot. I jolted upright and pulled my bag close, as if anything in it offered protection. Chucho was still lying on his back with his arms behind his head. He opened his eyes and it was like eyeballs had suddenly appeared in a skull’s long empty sockets, like the ancient dead rematerializing in an instant. 

“S’up?” he said. 

Men’s voices. The crinkling of tarps. 

“They’re coming for me.”

“Bout time.”

“How’d they finish my paperwork before yours?” 

“Seriously?” he asked, his very face answering my question. “Just go sign us up.”

 

The footsteps stopped outside our flap. 

 

“Which outfit?” I whispered.  

 

“Whatever. Same shit, different names.”

 

“Housekeeping,” the proprietor said before squatting and opening the flap.

Two men stood beside him. One knelt and peered inside, looked at the two of us, pointed at me, and said, “You’ve been cleared. Come with us.”

 

“You wouldn’t lie, would you?”

 

“You got a choice?” 

 

Good point. They were both wearing sidearms and my weapons were still in lockup, so I made the only choice I could, pulled my things together, followed them out, but at the last second looked back at Chucho.

“I’ll find us something … bueno!”           

 

Que?” he called after me. “No hablo.”

***

The guards led me to a kiosk next to the heavy-duty, full-height turnstile leading from the QZ into the main compound. A small bald bureaucrat wearing glasses over a white eye patch took my paperwork from one of the guards and started to check and then double check it. 

 

“Everything look all right?” I asked.

 

He didn’t answer, but only took out a wooden box, opened a brass clasp, withdrew a rubber stamp and an ink pad, opened the pad, pressed the stamp down into the red ink, then stamped the upper right hand corner of my papers in such an expert manner that there was no smudging or smearing of any kind—a real triumph of the stamping arts, if ever I saw one. He glanced up at me with his one good eye as if he wanted me to know just how terribly inconvenient all this was, then drew out a gold pen from his jacket pocket, filled out the date in neat little blocky letters, entered a series of digits, copied the same digits in a ledger, checked to make sure the numbers matched, twice, and finally signed the bottom line in a child’s careful cursive. 

 

Then he took a yellow sheet from a stack on his counter and, as he stapled it to the top of the other papers, said, “Read carefully and abide by the rules outlined herein. The gist: you got 48 hours to secure a position. No more. No less. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes,” I said.

He looked his notations over one more time, then held up my completed sheaf and proceeded to read from a script taped to his counter: “During your stay in Progress  maintain these papers on your person at all times failure to present said papers to Camp Personnel herein referred to as Personnel immediately upon request will result in banishment and or other consequences deemed necessary at Personnel’s sole discretion up to and including death nothing in this agreement shall be taken to imply or otherwise confer rights of appeal there is no such process in place Progress is hereby indemnified of all liability subsequent and hitherto do you understand state yes or no.”

 

“Yes."

 

As he handed me the papers, he turned his head to the guard on the other side of the turnstile and bellowed, “Dead man walking!”

 

There was a loud clank as the guard yanked a lever. Now they waved me through. Neither man laughed nor even smiled, as if they’d repeated this “dead man walking” but so many times that their little joke had lost its luster, but then, a moment later, an alternate possibility occurred to me, just as I was passing through to the other side, just as I realized it was too late to change courses anyway: maybe “dead man walking” wasn’t a joke?

***

Two days wasn’t much time to get something going, so, as much as I wanted to get a cup of whatever all the roughnecks watching the axe-throwing contest were slugging back, I was all about business. I made my way to a large open pavilion made of peeled and varnished logs, its pitched roof covered over with bolts of thick hemp canvas. This was where much of the above-board trading happened and all its wooden signs and stalls full of loose goods and random wares reminded me of the mining camps of long ago, though the quarry that brought us all here was of a decidedly different kind: flesh and valuable gasses trapped within.  

I asked around which of the extraction outfits was most reputable and found many of the men not only willing to share their opinions on the outfits themselves but eager to talk and talk—and keep on talking in some instances until I just had to walk away—about the finer points of each of the extant corporate philosophies or, as a man with five iconic logos from the old world tattooed on each forearm put it, “tell ya how these fuckers roll.”

The learning curve was steep, as learning curves always seem to be whenever people speak of them, but here were the basics: 

There were seven outfits—that is, seven convoys. However, of these, only four were represented in camp that day. Two of these, Puget Sound Putrefaction (dba “Angel Dust”) and DiscoveryCorp (dba “CannibalCorpse”), were cut from the same cloth, both utilizing a highly aggressive extraction model. They took greater risks to ensure quick turnaround and generate higher yields, offered their subcontractors—i.e., roughnecks—greater proportional shares than other outfits, and, allegedly, kept these fast-and-furious operations buzzing along with synthetic stimulants; in other words, they filled more boxes of Zs than other convoys by giving their crews shitloads of crank. 

I could see some of these men off by their trucks and this meth rumor seemed true enough. The manic, explosive energy was unmistakable: they were tossing crates and running this way and that, rushing up and down ladders welded to the sides of vehicles so fast that, if someone had figured out how to harness their energy, we could have powered whole cities without all this nasty putrefaction business. The higher potential profitshare was obviously very enticing for many would-be roughnecks, but many others were wary of such operations because rudimentary logic told you nothing comes free in this world and, in keeping with that axiom, the larger share was inversely proportional to risk, which is to say it was actually quite a gamble to work for speed merchants because who was to say you’d actually live to claim that glimmering superior share? After all, people did dumb shit when they were all fucked up. I was with the skeptics on this one. Crank wasn’t my idea of sound business practice, but who was I to criticize? Lots of people didn’t really have much to live for anymore anyway. 

Now, on the far opposite end of the risk-to-reward spectrum was BioGen Northwest (dba “BioGen”). This was a popular outfit, to be sure. As if the sleepy moniker didn’t give it away, BioGen had a reputation around camp as the most conservative convoy where zombie-extraction was concerned. If “Fast and Furious” was the previous outfits’ motto, “Slow and Steady” was BioGen’s. Its captain reminded one of a youth pastor from before The Collapse, all smiles and outsized jubilation about the glory of a small beam of sunshine breaking through the clouds and shining on a patch of virgin ground just before a family picnic, and he was so altogether good-natured that he apparently even allowed his men to call him Captain Flanders, Ned Flanders being the name of a cheery Christian teetotaler on a long-running cartoon called The Simpsons. “Ole Captain Flanders,” they said, “might not get you rich, but he’ll get you home with a little something to show for the trouble.” This was an attractive ethos for someone looking for some brotherhood after so much time alone in the wastes, but, then, not every lonely soul is so lonely that he’s willing to suffer through a full-grown man using words like “ginormous” or “absotutely.” 

Me, for instance. 

At one point, when I was chatting with people and learning all this, a group of about a dozen men trotted by in formation, carrying rifles, making their way to the western side of the fence. I looked after them and saw, through the crowd, that any number of men were already up on a catwalk inside the completed portions of palisades, firing out into the open. The steady concussions of rifle fire filled the air and, while it seemed unlikely that we were under siege, I had become painfully aware of the uptick in activity, and it wasn’t only me. I passed by a guy with a thick scar that ran from his temple down to his scarf who was sitting on a rock whetting his hunting knife. Without looking up at his companion, he mumbled, “Shit’s about to turn Alamo.”

 

I had a keen sense that, even though I still had more than a day and a half before the camp’s administrators sent me packing, I was already running out of time, so I hastened soliciting random men’s opinions on the remaining outfits. 

 

This brought me to the fourth outfit, which offered, by some standards, the most optimal ratio of risk to reward, that all elusive though somewhat precarious median point. This company was called Seattle Biofuels Solutions, or SBS, like any number of corporate-style names from the old world intended to simultaneously represent anything and nothing at all. No one called it by either of these names, however, but by a very different and oddly comforting name: Plymouth. 

 

Like the rock: Plymouth.

 

Like the colony of pilgrims: Plymouth. 

 

Like the defunct car company: Plymouth.

 

They said Plymouth’s owners were neither overly reckless nor overly generous with shares, but neither did its captain take things so carefully and conservatively as to get outpaced by leg draggers, ankle biters, or those piles of flesh and splintered bone you’d sometimes see army-crawling down a hill; Plymouth settled somewhere in between, as a moderate outfit, in what some mustached dude with his left eye socket half caved-in called “the payday sweet spot,” which I took to mean that perfect ratio of risk-to-reward in which an average reward is particularly tempting because there’s a strong chance you might live long enough to receive it. 

 

Whether it owed to my mounting anxiety over all these new gunshots, or to the wisdom of all these crowdsourced opinions, or the simple churning of the fates, Plymouth’s ethos seemed to suit my temperament, so I made my way to hunt down its captain. I passed a number of booths. Trade on this side of the pavilion, it seemed, was heavy on pelts and multicolored strings of songbirds, a delicacy by some standards,  sad by mine. There were also those peddling brass casings and powder, random assortments of pistols and rifles and shotguns and even a whole table stacked with World War II-era M-1 Garands—from what collection, who knows? Against one wall was a booth protected with heavy-gauge wire mesh behind which a man bartered for these cups of what he advertised as “the finest vino this side of Napa” [2]—though this vino looked rather like expired grapefruit juice grown over with a skin of bacterial death.  

Past the guns-and-hooch booth were others for trading everything from screws and bolts to clothes to water, even an entire booth of water-purification systems. Iodine pills. Charcoal filters. Fancy ultraviolet wands like those I had seen advertised just before the fall. At the far end, just before the lot where all the trucks were lined up, was a cluster of informational booths; these were mostly manned by older, calmer dudes showing schematics for different kinds of lightweight tree stands or deer blinds or explaining various low-input agricultural methods, but one of them struck my eye immediately: here, a husky Korean-American man with a mustache of sparse black stubble oversaw a kind of guerrilla art gallery. The man smiled and nodded his head but didn’t try to talk to me or in any way influence what I was seeing and this I appreciated because it needed no explanation, no artist’s statement.

 

It was a sequence of nine black-and-white landscaped photos arranged in a square, that is, three evenly spaced rows of three, that started with the top-left photo, led the eye right across the top row, down the right-hand column, left across the bottom row, up the left-hand column, and concluding with the photograph in the center.

 

The subject was the same in each: a chubby and feverish young Korean woman lying on her back on a couch, or at least resting her head on a couch cushion, her hair plastered to her face with sweat, captured in the frame at a diagonal, each picture almost identical to the previous, as if they’d been copied, though, if they were identical, you immediately started to wonder, how was it that your eyes knew the progression? Indeed, that was something of the magic of the thing, because you had a sense immediately that they weren’t identical, that the photos represented not the same moment in time but nine separate shutter flashes that must have taken place almost in an instant, maybe only a couple seconds counted between numbers one and nine, and maybe that was all it was, just two seconds between, but the young woman’s world, the artist’s world, forever changed—there it all was, what your own eyes knew instinctively to follow, right there, the tiniest rectangle of light reflected back to you in her troubled black eyes, everything that was human about her captured right there in that light, then the subtlest shift, maybe just a relaxing of the iris, and a little more, then a wince, but not quite, more like a memory of a long-ago wince, a letting go, until you reached the final picture where the black of her eye reflected nothing, held nothing—her transformation complete. 

I looked to the man. 

“Are you the artist?”

He shook his head. 

“No. But she was my sister.”

“The photographer? or the woman in the pictures?”

“The artist. I don’t know who the woman was.”

Here there were several gunshots from the fences, some shouting, then relative silence. 

“What’s your sister’s name?” I asked. 

“Josie,” he said, looking down.

His shifting glance betrayed a lot. Josie may not have survived, but in life she’d made something beautiful out of the profane: the turn from human to beast.

Another man who had walked up beside me asked the man a question, and I slipped away, walked into the parking area, to find someone who spoke for Plymouth.

***

After walking among all the parked trucks for a few minutes I found a white canvas wall tent set up in the back of a big black military-style transport rig featuring a silver plaque with black block letters: PLYMOUTH. This was over against one of the palisade walls, near the gated tunnel that dipped underground and led out of the compound. It was just beneath a lamppost and crow’s nest and when I looked up at the sniper I saw him looking off into the distance through a spotting scope. He held up his radio and asked someone on the other end if they’d heard anything from the scouting party. He listened for a moment, shook his head.

“What the fuck?” he shouted into the air as he hooked the radio to his belt.

Then he placed the stock of his rifle against his shoulder, fired at something out in the distance, worked the bolt so that the ejected brass fell at my feet, and fired again. 

I went to the back of the rig and hopped up on the hitch to peek in the flap of the tent. A man, over 40, though I couldn’t say by how much, was sitting on a little old-fashioned wooden chair at a collapsible card table, writing notes in a ledger. He looked up when he felt the truck jostle. He was a tall man and wore a thick beard with more than a few flecks of gray in it, sported a blue flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and neon orange chainsaw chaps, had the look in his eyes of a man who had seen too much but hadn’t ever flinched, one of those abnormally solid types whose architectures seem to be hewn out of something more durable than bone. 

“Is that mink?”

I looked to my own coat and up again, ashamed.

“What do you want?” he asked. 

“I was hoping to sign with Plymouth.” 

“So you have good taste. Unfortunately, we’re all staffed-up.”

I wasn’t put off; there was a chance this was a method for driving down wages. 

“I’m a hard worker,” I said, handing him my papers. 

If he didn’t punt me out of the tent now, I figured it would all come down to his gut-evaluation of me as a person, so I tried to look the way a useful guy might. 

“All this says to me? You’re not brother Zebediah. And I can tell that by looking at you.” Here he paused and eyed me up and down. “Here’s the real question: have you done any roundups?”

“Well, one time I helped this guy trick a few into the back of a UPS truck and—”  

“UPS truck?!”

“We closed them in and set it on fire and—” 

“UPS! Ha! Well, I hope you delivered all those precious dildos! Tell me: did Mrs. Randolph get her Purple People Eater? No, dumbass! don’t answer that! just tell me quick: why you want to join?”

“To do my part rebuilding civilization,” I said, just the way I’d rehearsed. “Well, and to see this DeComp—this digester plant up close.”

“Darling! You wanna save America. Well, take a look at the captain’s pegleg and see what that kind of ambition gets you.”

“Wait. You’re not the captain?”

A captain, sure. Not the. You’re speaking to Captain Pennywise, SBS Field Manager and overall impressive son of a bitch. I’ve run a convoy, though. Run better than most, I’d say. But shifted over to the supply side. Safer. Better life expectancy. No, I was saying check out Captain Custer’s pegleg and—O, for Christ’s—what’s that look? his name?”

As a matter of fact, the name had struck me, like the snap of a snare drum. Indeed, history’s General George Armstrong Custer had hardly been a man at all, more like the strutting embodiment of the 19th-century American id, just the sort of arrogant saber-rattler who underestimated enemies and got slaughtered, as he and all his men were, at Little Big Horn.

“Yes! Custer!” he snapped as though long weary of this particular topic. “Now, can we focus for a second? You listening, superstar? Good. Gold star for you, buckaroo. Now, you said something about saving civilization. It’s a high-minded pursuit, that. But if you’re thinking high-minded, noble thoughts, you’ll want to climb up to the top of that boom truck over there and stick your nose up, take a whiff, really get a sense of that distinct zombic bouquet. Go on. Yes, I’m serious. Shimmy, shitheel!”

He was going to hire me; I could already tell. He was just one of those alpha types with a decent sense of humor about things even after things have come apart, a good leader, probably, the kind who’d talk all kinds of shit one minute, then risk his life for you the next. So, though I never fancied myself a shimmier, I shimmied—and how! Up to the top of the rig where I stuck my nose in the air and took a deep breath just as he said and honestly I couldn’t smell anything but diesel and the normal everyday background aroma of death, but I made a big show of nosing the air anyway and here I looked out beyond the outpost’s perimeter, beyond the QZ, where a concerning number of corpses littered the valley and were already being stripped of their finer morsels by bald eagles and ravens and dozens more were just then emerging from the treeline near where the preacher had held his Lazarus revival, and they were coming, bumbling toward various pits and traps plain enough for my eyes to see but not for theirs. One had impaled himself on a pike and was just standing there, run-through, unable to move, seemingly resigned to his immobility, as if he’d been born to it, compelled just enough by the faint hum of the camp to lean into it, even though he could have taken a step back and freed himself. But there was nothing behind him, nothing that interested him quite like the sounds of life ahead. So there he stood, content to spend the rest of his meager existence run-through, pinned to a single spot on the globe. His head turned a little to one side as if he were taking in the scenery, then slowly back the other way as another of his kind passed by him, and redoubled his futile efforts, when suddenly his head burst like a pumpkin and a shot rang out.

I went back down the boom and stood before Pennywise. He looked at me wryly. 

“So? get DeComp out of your system?”

“I’ve been hearing something about a … putrefaction pit? I was really hoping to get a whiff of that.”

“Ha! you say so! but I promise you: it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched…. and yet … and yet it’s marvelous! But all that in due time, all in due time. There’s a lot of ground to cover between thither and yon. A three-month stint between hither and yonder. A shitload of corpses between today and thence. Yep: that’s the job, not saving civilization, not fighting some noble holy war against the damned, just signing up for ninety days of stupid gut herding. That’s sure a nice coat—quite fancy. You sure such a fancy boy’s got what it takes to be a herder of guts? that you can hack it when we get this party started and the brainchunks fly? that you can slime a truck top to bottom? that you can take whatever comes and not bitch about the grub?”

“Sounds like you’re just talking about life.”

“Clever, clever. I like it. But heed me well, dickweed. There is no getting out of this shit once you set out. This is Plymouth. With us, breach of contract means death. Or worse.”

I started to say something and he cut me off.

“Breach of contract,” he repeated slowly, “means death. Or worse.”

I told him I was many things but no breacher of contracts, that, in fact, I was still making dutiful payments on my student loans every month. With that, he agreed to sign me, insisting we go ahead and sign the papers right away before he changed his over-caffeinated mind. We hopped down from the back of the rig and walked around the commons area where a number of men were arguing about whether to take their chances on the road. Pennywise brushed past them and led me around the building toward the front of the outpost, constantly scanning the crowd as if for a particular face. A second later, he found who he was looking for, and called out, “Bollywood! hold up! slow down, fucker!”

A man up ahead stopped and turned. He was younger that Pennywise, late twenties, early thirties, appeared to be Indian—that is, East Indian—with a very dark complexion and an ostentatious curlicue mustache with a short pointy beard and sporting a blood-stained red cap at a jaunty angle, emblazoned with the words Make America Exist Again, Exist replacing Great, which had been struckthrough with a marker. He waited, but impatiently, while we approached. 

Pennywise introduced Bollywood as a fellow captain-turned-manager. 

“We need to draw up some papers for this noob,” Pennywise said. 

“Don’t we have enough?” Bollywood asked with what can only be described as the most California accent ever. 

“Maybe,” said Pennywise, “but I think this one might be college educated.”

“Custer’s ready to jet. Haven’t you heard the shooting? The fucks are coming in thick.”

“It’ll only take a second.”

There were three more gunshots off on the other side of camp. 

“Whatever,” said Bollywood. “What share we talking? a 500th?” 

“500th? this dude looks stupid as fuck, but he ain’t a chump!”

So began the “good cop, bad cop” contract negotiations. Which was unnecessary; I'd never been what you might call “a wise money manager," so what, really, was the difference between a 1/500th and 1/400th of a number you didn’t know or particularly care about to begin with? 

“Bullshit, Bollywood! I’m putting him down for a 400th!”

“A 400th! Get brainfucked much?”

“Look at his arms, his shoulders! he’s not one of these scrawny fuckers!”

“Damn, Pennyloafer. You must really wanna bone this dude. Is it the fur coat?”

“You know I only bone your mom.”

“What the fuck? My mom’s dead, dude. You know that shit.”

“Not quite. Her lower half was walking around soliciting customers just last night." 

“Fuck you, white devil!”

“Gentlemen,” I interrupted. “What about a 450th?”

“475th?” Bollywood said. 

“Deal.”

Bollywood reached into his backpack, whipped out a boilerplate contract, wrote in 1/475th on the respective line. I signed on all the lines, including the one that said my share would be distributed to “the Majority Shareholders heretofore called the Shareholders” [3] if I died before receiving it and the other one that said I wouldn’t hold the Shareholders liable—you know, should I not die but only get my face ripped off.

When we were done, they said my new convoy was about to roll out so I better hurry up and get whatever I needed. That wouldn’t be a problem. All I really had left to get were my weapons and Chucho. 

“Hey, guys, one more thing.”

“What? Spit it out. We gotta get gone.”

I extolled the many virtues of Chucho as quickly as I could. 

They turned off to one side and tried to talk in private, and even though they were trying to whisper, they kept raising their voices so they could hear one another over the sounds of gunfire and shouting. The gist: Captain Custer might need a man such as this Cujo. (I didn’t try to correct them.) Captain Custer, apparently, wasn’t quite himself since he lost the leg. Maybe this Cujo was just the kind Custer needed—especially with a stint already under his belt. Also, let’s get real, they said, they could probably score this Cujo at a good price this close to the rollout. 

 

“Top-quality Latino at cut-rate prices?” Pennywise said.

“What’s not to love?” Bollywood concluded. 

They told me they’d pull some strings and get it done, then told me to meet here in two hours for the rollout and dismissed me so I could go claim my weapons from the guard post. I’d taken a few steps when I stopped in my tracks. There was just something I had to ask, something I simply couldn’t not ask. I turned around and ran after them, calling.

They stopped and turned.

“What?!” Bollywood snapped.

“I just got to thinking: maybe I ought to meet the captain?”

“You’re signed-up, dude. Breach of contract’s death.”

“Or worse,” Pennywise added.

“I know,” I said. “I’m just thinking: isn’t it a little concerning that he calls himself Custer?” 

“He didn't choose it,” Pennywise said. "Family name."

“Well….” Bollywood equivocated. “You sure? I heard—”

“Either way,” Pennywise said, turning to me, “you’re in contract now, roughneck. All your sorry ass needs to know is that Custer is captain. But if it’ll put your pussy at ease, I was his first lieutenant for a stint. I testify: Custer is sane as a tank.”

I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was more focused on something else anyway.

“I’m not even sure which is worse,” I pondered aloud: “If it’s his family name, or if he chose it?”

“You always talk to yourself or are we looking at some kind of contractual dispute?” Bollywood asked, fingering the haft of a well-used K-Bar. 

It was obvious that this man’s dark eyes had been very soft once, almost fragile, dangerously expressive. It was easy to imagine that deep down this was once a boy who loved to giggle—which actually had the effect of making this sudden threat of violent coldness all the more disturbing. Lightheartedness died hard out here. 

“Nope,” I said. “Nothing means shit anymore.”

“That’s the spirit!”

***

 

Once the wheels started to turn, everything happened very quickly and, before I knew it, I was running around with men I didn’t trust, who didn’t trust me, loading crate after crate into the back of one of Plymouth’s repurposed military transport trucks rigged out on all sides with heavy-gauge wire, all of us impelled by a force, an internal mechanism not a one of us could see.

 

You couldn’t place this energy. It wasn’t just the excitement of getting someplace new, but more like we were all just trying to bide time until all this new structure collapsed around us, just as our old lives had collapsed around us, drawing us down into the void, as if whatever crate we’d stacked would only fall again in a few minutes and crush us so that our lungs filled with blood and our eyes bulged out of the sockets, like they were trying to see into the future and heaved out for the forbidden knowledge; because, whether we would have admitted it or not, we all knew this sense of  order couldn’t last, because, as we’d all learned over the last couple years, if anything like order appeared on the horizon, they were not far behind.  

It wasn’t just the latest round of gunshots. The increase had been steady for two days, but you didn’t need rumors because you could just feel them coming, like a disruption in the electromagnetic field, like little shockwaves vibrating every fiber of your being. 

 

Here, a short Tonka truck of a man, one of the lower lieutenants, who for some artful reason had cut the sleeves off his hooded flannel shirt, hefted a heavy steel locker by himself while two smaller men struggled to carry one exactly the same size to the exact same place; here a guy in a garbage-bag poncho ran around checking and topping-off fluids under each of the hoods in that neat line of black vehicles while another in a yellow rain jacket pumped the tires with an electric compressor itself toted by another man shouldering a small diesel generator; men ran this way and that, some with the most austere, thousand-yard stares, while others looked like they were on the verge of whistling a tune. While some of them seemed almost as confused about what to do as I was, just as many seemed like old hands at this, as if their whole lives they had been roughnecks, working 80 hours a week, rounding up gasbags for a company, as if this had always been a featured job on Monster.com [4]: Zamboni Driver, Zombie Wrangler, Zookeeper…. 

This whole time I kept looking around for Chucho. I was starting to get worried. It was almost time to roll out and not a sign of my new friend. Pennywise called me over to help him run through a final inventory check, so I took my opportunity to ask. 

“Chucho? the Hispanic guy? face tattooed like a skull?” 

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

We counted the AR-15s and any number of crates of .223 ammo.

“The one you guys said you’d get out of Quarantine?”

“O, Cujo. Yeah, Bollywood’s over there now.” He was counting the cases of shotgun shells. “Looks like—”

Just then, a terrible loud wailing drowned out the shouting and banging and clanging—like the air-raid sirens I remembered from movies. Something terrible was happening. Pennywise stuck his head out of the truck and looked out beyond me, beyond the row of vehicles. 

“Unbelievable timing!” he shouted as the siren winded down. “Un-fucking-believable!”

“What’s going on?” I asked as the siren started cycling again.

“What the fuck do you think is going on, shithead?”

<< >>

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[1] Don Draper was a character on a popular television show in the 2010s called Mad Men, about advertising agents on New York’s Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. An alcoholic womanizer and self-deluding liar who wasted a big chunk of his life squandering his innate creative talents by selling shit to people that they didn’t need, Draper embodied the dawning of the kind of deep core materialism in American culture that, ultimately, rendered most people reliant on consumer goods no longer available in the age of zombies.  

[2] Napa Valley, California was widely known in earlier times as a destination for pretentious alcoholics. Intoxication, no matter its form, reminds me always of zombism, and not because it made us stagger and reel, no, because it allowed us to escape the oppression of our own consciousness, which, though we loved it and usually chose it in the end, could be oppressive at times. 

[3] I thought this was interesting, that they were the Shareholders. Wasn’t I signing up to be a shareholder myself? Yes. However, that point was clear and explicitly defined: they were “Shareholders,” while we laborers were mere “shareholders.” Contract language has always fascinated me. What elegance, what poetry, in the distinction between S or s. I also realize now how boilerplate contracts were inherently zombistic, empty forms until the lines were filled in with names and birthdates and signatures—the trappings of that more precious human element. 

[4] Monster.com was the name of a website for employers to post job ads. Odd, that it was called Monster, as if its creators understood some fundamental truth of the relationship between employer and employee. We used to say we “hunted for” jobs. But therein lay the monstrosity, in the way we always felt we were the ones hunting, but the truth was we were always being hunted. Indeed, people responsible for recruiting new employees were long referred to as “headhunters.” Wasn’t there something a little monstrous about this? the way the prey could be made to believe it was the predator? even as it was being stalked?