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The Sermon

I tossed my blanket over its head and tried to rush out of the tent, but a hand shot out and grabbed hold of my wrist; in the same instant, I jerked back and kicked it square in the ribs, but not hard enough to break its grip, so we tumbled sideways together, and I tried to get to my feet, but, just as quickly, it was straddling me, one hand clutching the collar of my shirt, the other raised—in a fist?

Just as the blows started to fall, the tent flap whipped back. 

The proprietor was suddenly flashing a blinding white light in our faces and shouting the maddest bunch of gibberish I'd ever heard: “No, Chucho! Esta bien! Esta compadre de … esta your hombre de … sleepo! Tu eres no killy sleepy muchacho! Not in my haciendo, leastwise. Hablo verde? Esta grande misunderstandamente, per favor?”

He kept going like that for some time, alternately shouting and giggling at our predicament, until my assailant, apparently as bewildered as I was, lowered his fist, and removed himself to the other side of the mattress pad. Now I could see him over there, muttering under his breath, squinting, holding his hands up to ward off the glare, just as, a moment ago, I’d been warding off his fist. Yes, in this light, I could see this wasn’t a zombie after all, just the most zombistically tattooed roommate ever beheld in the middle of the night; indeed, I wondered, what kind of deranged lunatic would ever think of going around with his face all tatted-up like that?

 

It was like all the flesh had rotted from his skull, like even the tiniest remnants of cranial tissue and mandibular sinew had been eaten away by microscopic bacteria. What the fuck kind of person thought that shit looked cool? And yet: all this tattooing also reminded me of something, something I had seen before, something lurking in the cemetery fog of my memory, slowly lurching into the light. But what? 

Día de los Muertos! 

Yes, the tattooing reminded me of those carnivalesque Day of the Dead parades that had been growing ever more popular in the years before The Collapse, the celebrations of the Hispanic dead that used to pass down the boulevards oblivious to the mundane goings-on in adjacent shops and cafes, like the very coming of zombies the processions foreshadowed. My mind raced back to the last one I had seen, which had been marred by a protest, where we onlookers and passersby watched a small horde of white Seattleites—so many hippies, yuppies, and yippies—parading through Queen Anne with their faces painted an even whiter shade of white so they looked like so many sun-bleached skulls varnished to a sheen, each disinterred soul happy as could be or at least, that is, until they started to realize that they were alone in the parade, just a bunch of white people flanked on either side by dozens and dozens of Latinos who had refused to walk that year and were standing along the sidewalks, watching silently behind their own painted faces, holding signs of protest: 

— Culture Not Cosplay —

The de@d can’t be colonized!!!

 

However, where the celebrants’ faces had been carefully painted a brilliant white with black eyesockets and nasal cavities and thin outlines for their mandibles and teeth, this Chucho fellow’s face wasn’t painted at all; the reddish-brown of his skin was permanently marked with faded blue-black ink that must have been several years old at least, and, looking more closely, I started to make out a number of smaller details as well, ornate borders around the ink of his eyesockets and nasal cavities, tiny, evenly spaced dots and flourishes and, on his forehead, another strange addition: at first, it looked like a thick line with an infinity symbol floating just above it, like some kind of third eye for peering into the future, and yet, when I cocked my head to one side, it revealed itself rather to be the number 18—which immediately made me think of 18th Street, an infamous street and prison gang from those final years of our doomed civilization. 

Yes, I was getting a clearer picture of my new roommate by the second, growing less and less scared of him and more and more furious at the proprietor. Surely he could have informed me: FYI, your roomie’s face looks like a skull; BTW, homeboy looks like a zombie in low light; NEWSFLASH, dude is some kind of hard-as-fuck gangster who looks like he might chew your face off and swallow it. What kind of game was he playing anyway? But, of course, that was my answer: he’d been having fun with me from the start. 

Others from before had gathered behind him in the hall of tarps, not even trying to contain their laughter. I looked to my roommate, this Chucho, who offered that universal shrug translating as Whatcha gonna do? Haters gonna hate.

“What the fucking shit?!” I shouted at the proprietor. 

“Just got busy! forgot to mention you were back here! but it’s all right now! See? Chucho’s bueno!” he said, flashing a double thumbs-up for emphasis. “Just a little—well, like I said—anyway, we understand each other all right on account of I took two years of Español back in high school.” 

He turned to my roommate. “Ain't that right? Tu understandamente?”

Understandamente,” Chucho grunted, and turned to me with a look in his eye that seemed to suggest it was time to get the proprietor the fuck out of here—pronto. “Tu? Understandamente?”

Was that irony I detected?

Yes! his dark eyes flickered with the light! 

Of course, I knew it was possible I was reading him wrong, that my midnight-intercultural-nonverbal-fiasco communication skills were probably a little rusty after so much time on my own, but something in me said He’s cool. Sure, he had the tattoos; yes, they were a little off-putting; okay, they made me a little nauseous, caused me to question everything about the man’s good sense and judgment; but it also occurred to me that whatever led a dude to permanently replace his face with a Día de los Muertos skull also made him at least interesting and worth trying to understand. Indeed, what kind of self-loathing maniac would actually go through with such a thing? 

Si,” I lied. “Understandamente perfecto.”  

The proprietor shooed the onlookers away and turned back to us. 

 

“You guys bueno?” he asked, his thumbs up.

For a man who’d damn near pitted us against each other in a death match, he seemed suddenly very concerned about our wellbeing. Maybe he was realizing he had gone too far with his little joke? that he may have just increased his quota of insane enemies in this world? 

“We’re fine,” I groaned.

“You sure? I don’t want no hard—” 

Chucho feinted an attack, fists clenched, muscles flexing, and the proprietor flinched, backed quickly out of the tent, so that the flap fell closed and the white light disappeared. 

We listened to the crinkling of tarps as our host returned to the lobby and then Chucho and I finally looked at each other for a moment, shook our heads in bewilderment, and settled back into our respective portions of the mattress pad. 

I pulled the blanket up to my chin and lay back, staring up into the darkness that was the tent’s dome; I was exhausted and more than a little uncomfortable about everything that had just happened and didn’t really want to try to drag this out any longer, but realized I needed to say something, some little thing, just to make a better second impression than I had a first. 

Lo siento,” I finally said. Sorry.

A couple long seconds later, he grunted, “De nada.”

I was asleep almost before closing my eyes. 

***

I woke from a black void as a shadow eclipsed us, passing overhead with a loud mechanical rush. I bolted up and looked to my side. My new roomie was sitting up as well, his tattooing the very embodiment of all the crazy shit I was feeling coming out of the first deep sleep I’d had in what felt like years, which is to say Chucho looked exactly as I felt: unmasked, opened up, skeletal. 

“The fuck?” I gasped.

 

He grunted something. 

 

“Plane?” I said. “Supplies?”

 

Chucho shrugged.   

 

I made my hand into an airplane, or more like a flying carpet with wings, and flew it through the air; he looked at me as if I were King of the Morons. 

 

As my heart slowly stopped thudding away inside me and, I sat there, orienting myself to my morning surroundings and trying to get a better sense of who my tattooed roommate was, what he made of all that he’d seen, just a little background to put me more at ease, even if there wasn’t much of a chance I’d understand what he said. I asked a few simple questions, immediately exhausting all my pequeño Spanish, but he wasn’t interested in talking, only gathering up his things, getting ready for some daytime excursion or sortie.

 

He crawled over to his backpack and pulled out a white t-shirt and, before he could pull it over his head, in that morning light, I was able to see that he had a dozen or more tattoos besides those on his face, all in that same faded blue-black ink: what looked like a name in an atavistic cursive script across the top of his chest just below his clavicle (Selena), a full crucifixion scene on his stomach with rays of light fanning out in all directions, praying hands holding a rosary on his ribs, a portrait of a veiled woman’s face on one shoulder, a portrait of a Rottweiler on the other, a big CHUCHO spanning his shoulders in a medieval script, and another, smaller 18, this one in a kind of elegant cursive, on the side of his neck. Several others I couldn’t make out. But I got the general idea: these weren’t tats white kids from the suburbs got. These were tattoos gangsters with cartel connections got, tattoos people got when they had given up on every other possibility of life just so everyone knew and feared all the mysterious accumulated experiences that must have torpedoed their hopes of ever getting a day job or, for that matter, just going to the store like a normal person. Unable to live on the plane of mundane existence, he must have turned his eyes toward something in the pale beyond, his body a kind of sacrifice, the tattoos ornate mortifications of the flesh. 

 

He slipped the shirt over his head, noticed me looking his way. 

 

“Just checking out the artwork,” I explained, pointing to his tattoos. 

 

He tipped his chin up toward me. 

 

“You?”

 

Si,” I said. “Uno.” 

 

I pulled my shirt up around my neck, showed him my back, the black symbol between my shoulder blades. 

 

“Chinese. Means revolucion,” I translated. “Or so I was told.” 

 

The tattoo was a memento of my punk phase in my first years of college, back when I was young and apparently thought a vaguely edgy tattoo in another language might reconstitute the power dynamics of the entire world. He furrowed his brow and the way the ink moved over the contours of his face gave me a sinking feeling in my gut, as if a zombie had just looked over and realized how tender my meat was. I kept explaining out of pure nervousness: “I got it when I was a kid, so it probably means ‘retard.’ Sorry. I’m not sure how to translate any of that.”

 

I put my fingers to my temple like a pistol and fired.

 

Chucho looked at me for a long few seconds, I assumed because he was trying to make sense of what I’d said; to fill this interminable void, I started trying to say something else, to explain, but he cut me off: “You don’t gotta translate for me,” he said. “But do me a favor?”

 

I was stunned, less by the fact that this man could speak English than by my own grandiose ignorance. Unable even to mutter and okay, I was reduced to nodding. 

 

“Try not to say ‘retard,’” he said. “That shit undermines humanity.”            

 

With that, he crawled out the tent flap. 

 

“Wait!” I called out, regaining myself. “Where are you going?”

 

He stuck his head back in and grabbed his backpack, smiled big so that, for the first time, I noticed several gold crowns on his teeth.

 

“It’s Sunday,” he said with a shrug. “Sinful motherfuckers gotta pray.”

***

I got my things together as quickly as possible and crawled out to the main part of the hostel, hoping to follow. Everyone else already seemed to be up and gone for the day, except the proprietor, who was sitting by the stove, watching a pot steam, smoking a crooked stub of a cigar and reading a severely dog-eared, and possibly dog-pissed-upon, Louis L’Amour novel. I thought I might scoot past without any controversy but he saw me and rested the open book on his broad lap. 

“Continental breakfast?” he said with a smirk.

I told him I’d take a raincheck and was about to ask what kind of worship shack or church tarp they had here in camp, but he interrupted and asked how I’d slept, and I said fine, and then he said last night had all been in good fun—just a laugh, no ill intent. I didn’t really want to talk about it, so I stuck to my original line of questioning: “Where do people go to pray around here?”

He seemed taken aback.

“I wouldn’t’a pegged you for a religious man.”

“I’m not. I just want to know where—”

“Well,” he scoffed, “maybe one of them Scientologists or maybe a—?”

“Great! Which way?”

The proprietor sat there looking at me for some time, squinting like he was trying to cast a hex on me. 

“On the west side,” he finally said. “By the latrine. There’s a preacher. Does a kinda revival. Yep, that’s the right play for a man of … your attitude.”

“This another one of your games?”

He glared openly, spat on the floor by his foot. 

“No, but a baptism’d do you some good, my friend. Did I mention it’s by the latrine?”

***

As advertised, on the west side of the QZ, there was an open trench several men were currently pissing into—one was grinning like an idiot and arching his back deeply to see if he could shoot it all the way to the other side—and maybe thirty yards away I saw a kind of lay preacher drawing a small crowd. I looked around and saw a man with tattoos on his face, but he only had lightning bolts on either cheekbone. O, well. There wasn’t much chance I’d find Chucho now anyway, so I gave up, at least for now, and, having nothing better to do, gave into the moment, found myself trying to figure out this strange preacher character, who was now struggling to draw a narrow footbridge (a gray and cracked 2x10) back across a little ditch he’d dug in a circle around himself.

 

The ditch wasn’t filled with water, of course, not literal water anyway, but it was supposed to remind one of a moat all the same, a moat being a strong symbol for people in those days, a simple, elegant buffer between you and the hordes; thus the man worked for a minute isolating himself on that little island, not only retracting his drawbridge, but taking his spot behind a barricade he’d built out of the standard supplies of our terrorized itinerant class: a plastic jug of water, a gas can, a backpack, a tarp, a nylon rope, a shovel, an axe, and stacks of dented cans—all of this symbolizing, I suppose, how he was all fortified-up in the Lord. 

Our parson could have been a fiddle-fit 75 or a haggard 45. His crow’s feet were deeply etched, his face dark and leathery and splotched with liver spots or carcinomas or melanomas where this inveterate speaker of truth must have rejected the blasphemous “public health announcements” of the so-called “American Medical Association” and the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” entrusting his fair skin to the Lord’s own sunblock, with its SPF rating of Jesus. 

He wore no beard or mustache, only a couple of sideburns gray and tangled as defoliated blackberry bushes. He was bald on top, but the thin hair hung down on the sides, gray and greasy, in a kind of long-neglected monk’s tonsure. He was eyeing us all suspiciously, almost with contempt, as if we were the ones who’d stranded him on this weird little hermit pulpit, as if we were so many zombies arrived just this morning to tear him limb from limb, and the intended effect of his personal stranding was clear: anywhere you went, if you stopped for long, pretty soon you’d be surrounded just this way, counting your provisions, and counting down the days before you died of thirst or starvation or that particular kind of madness so dreaded by us all in which you walked out into the surrounding hordes thinking crazy shit like Let me talk some sense into these troglodytes—and here the preacher raised a long, bony finger and pointed it at all of us accusingly, like he saw a troubling zombieness in our souls or lack of souls that we were simply incapable of perceiving on our own.

“If I thought even one of you walking corpses carried a Bible,” he said, taking a dramatic pause, “I’d tell you turn to the 43rd verse, John 11….” [1]

Dramatic pause. 

“‘And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.’”

 

Of course: Lazarus. 

Preachers were getting lots of traction with Lazarus sermons at the time; indeed, just as the Lazaruses had multiplied, so too had the sermons evoking them, the parallels of exponential multiplication so clear that it was kind of hard to tell if zombies were responsible for the sermons or the other way around. 

“But let’s rewind a bit,” the preacher said. “Yes, rewind to how He came to be in this place, speaking to a corpse. Because, before He bid Lazarus to come forth, He and His disciples had made the walk back unto Judaea, suspecting something bad would come of it. Remember: last time He was here, He’d almost been stoned to death. But Him and His disciples arrived in the Bethany and He was immediately accosted by Mary and Martha—a.k.a., Lazarus’s spinster sisters. And what did they want to know? Why Jesus had taken so long. And I ain’t even kidding. They said unto Jesus: ‘You coulda saved Lazarus. But you took your sweet time. And now our brother stinketh.’”

My attention was already flagging, so I started looking about and happened to look up and spy one of the snipers in his crow’s nest, inspecting the heads of our congregation, through his scope, one by one. This had a somewhat unsettling effect, knowing that, only a moment before, the crosshairs had probably been trained on the back of your own head. Imagine any man, much less someone who signed up to be a sniper, much less someone who signed up to be a sniper above a refugee camp, trying to gauge from afar what was taking place inside another person’s skull. How could another man perceive, through a scope, the inner workings of your mind? Had your ego and superego slipped away, leaving nothing but your perambulating zombic id? or was it just that you had simply just finished reading a particularly perplexing passage from Foucault? or did you just sneak a fart? Were my secret inner truths something I trusted to a sniper’s interpretation? Not particularly. Which is why I scooted as close to the edge as I could, right up against the chainlink fence, shielding my own head behind an even taller guy’s head. A sniper might still shoot me, of course, but at least I wouldn’t be first, and maybe I could take shelter beneath a corpse or two. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all.

“Say what you will,” the parson was just then shouting at some freckled heckler up the front, “but God was a vengeful God and Jesus His father’s son! So what do you make of it when the Bible says He groaned in his spirit: ‘And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.’ Loose him, and let him go? Now, that’s about as interesting a choice of words as you’ll ever see written anywhere. Tell me. Why do you think the disciples were restraining a dead man?

“Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not doubting the power of Jesus. No one’ll disagree it’s a miracle to make a dead man walk again no matter how bad he walks. But you’d assume John knew everyone woulda been keen to know what condition ole Lazarus was in! don’t go telling me it was some kinda oversight! John knew the Pharisees woulda been eager to get to the bottom of all this miracle talk. Anyone who had any question or doubt would be trying to hunt down this Lazarus fella and ask him a couple questions. Make sure he actually could answer. Make sure he wasn’t some ghoul off on some bloodthirsty rampage in Judaea. Because think about it! If he was a monster, then Pontius Pilate had his answer to this whole Jesus problem: You guys really wanna worship the guy who loosed a zombie on your kinfolk? Have fun with that! And that woulda been a pretty good point, don’t you think? But John, in his wisdom, left out anything and everything that might have told you what Lazarus was like after the resurrection. An oversight! Ha! Don’t be an idiot! John didn’t write more about Lazarus because he didn’t want you to know more! That way, Lazarus became something else. Not quite a person. Not just a body. But a story about a body!”

As he was saying all of this, he was rolling up the sleeve of his shirt, exposing a forearm covered in a complex web of scar tissue, no accidental wounds, but careful, healed-over hashmarks. This promised to be interesting. 

“What is the body anyway?” he continued, drawing a filet knife with a wood handle and letting the blade hover over the scars. “What is this thing we value so much? You sir! I see it in your eyes. You’re thinking It’s everything, pastor! But is it? is it really? Why not direct that question to our Lord? ask he whose body was savaged on the cross? No, this fragile thing isn’t everything. It’s nothing. But some of you tormented souls: I see it in your faces. You ran from them, didn’t you? fled your beloved to save your own precious skin?! The thing about skin: it’s nothing. Not compared to what comes. Why, look at this flesh here, for instance.”

He pointed the tip of the knife at the network of scars. 

“This flesh is only a container. And a leaky container at that. Look at that! See the blood seep along this cut? see it beading and beading until—oop! there she goes!—until it spills out. And what if I press a little harder? Yes, see how much more leaks from container onto soil?

“The blood inside me may be diminishing, but can I be said to diminish? No. Even if I cut too deep like—yes, is that one too deep? Could be. Probably not. But maybe a little deeper—or if I turned the knife this way along the vein—yes, how easily I could bleed out…. But what does it matter? I could turn pale as a ghost and disappear from this world but for as long as you live, you might remember this moment as if I lived on and on inside you! Go ahead! look away! close your eyes! but you can still see me there! slicing away behind your eyelids!”

Blood was steadily dripping off the ends of his fingers but as he spoke he continued slicing his forearm, making small cuts maybe an inch or two long, opening up his own scars, each cut a kind of punctuation for what came next.

“And that’s what our Lord knew, sinner! Lazarus was less a body and more a story to be told! and how much more a story! the story of a risen corpse so we can decide for ourselves whether the messiah was the messiah! But, lo, sinners! we disregard stories at our peril! behold how many chose wrong! and how many times multiplied! the world an endless horde of Lazaruses! millions upon billions! stinking of our blasphemies! our iniquities!”

Blood poured down his forearms and dripped from his fingers onto the soil and here he turned his eyes skyward and howled at the heavens: “O, Lord! though we be sinners, heed these pitiful wails! We beg for your judgment! and judgment’s name be Lazarus! righteous, holy, and pure! though we understand not, Lord, loose him upon us! release the beast! let him go!”

He let these last words hang in the air for effect, but I remained unmoved. 

Ever a skeptic, I had my doubts that anyone else around me was taking this zombie-as-retribution stuff very seriously either, and yet, when I took stock of my fellowmen, it became clear that many of them were mesmerized by this strange preacher’s sanguine cries and bloodletting. Then again, I thought, I remember grown men being just as mesmerized on the Fourth of July, drawing cocks n’ balls over and over with sparklers on the black canvas of night, and, frankly, all this business about Lazarus as paterfamilias of zombie-kind is a bit too cliché for—

Just then, my reveries were cut short: something cold and wet had splattered my cheek, as the first shot rang out.

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[1] Religious texts have long struck me as zombie-like, not so much in their particulars, but in the way each appears to be entirely unique when you are trapped in some space looking very closely at it, even as, if you step back, it becomes clear that they are all clearly of a kind, each wearing different clothing, each with different wrinkles and scars, but each deriving its ambulatory power from the same mysterious force.