A Triptych Tale...

Shambling Phase

A Triptych Tale

 

It was the shambling, that was what clinched it; his shambling had finally convinced James Beachum that he'd become a zombie.

He’d been retired for four months now, after a long and excruciatingly boring career as an accountant at a large corporation—one whose mission statement, interpreted properly, had to do with making immense profits by foisting shoddy plastic goods on indiscriminate buyers. And at some point in the surreal period of post-work stasis that every retiree faces, he’d started to shamble.

James sat in his den, his skinny frame hunched over his computer monitor. He stared at the single sentence he had written there, many hours earlier: Lazy leisure ushers in a useless day.

It had turned into yet another unproductive writing day for him. He wondered where he had gotten the cockamamie notion that he could become a successful author after he retired. Why had he expected the Muse to suddenly take time out of her exciting, amorous life and pay him a visit? It just didn’t work that way, he realized. He’d lived a life filled with mundane thoughts, and it was becoming painfully clear to him that the legacy of those drab years would follow him forever—like some mangy, junkyard cur with an unshakable sense of loyalty, however unrequited.

James shambled into the living room, where his wife sat watching a soap opera. He studied the back of her head, festooned with bright-pink plastic curlers. The irritating thumping of an unbalanced load of wash came from the direction of the laundry room.

“I’m dead, Marcia,” he said.

“Then go take a nap,” she replied, not taking her eyes off the television.

“No, not tired. Dead. I’m totally dead. I died, probably weeks ago, and now my body is just shambling around on its own.”

Marcia hit the mute button on the TV remote and pivoted on the sofa cushion to face him.

“I’m dead, Marcia,” he said.

“I can’t dispute that part of you is dead, Jim. But the rest of you still seems to be living and breathing. Why don’t you get cleaned up and dressed and go out, find something to do? Why not make a trip to the barbershop? You haven’t shaved or gotten your hair cut in months, now. Anything, other than moping around here all the time, getting in the way.”

James considered this while he stood in a dusty beam of early afternoon sun that shone through the living room picture window. He was still dressed in his pyjamas, bathrobe and slippers. He closed the front of his robe and pulled at a strand of stringy, greasy gray hair dangling in front of his eyes, trying to remember the last shower he’d taken. Was it Tuesday? Or had it been Monday? Zombies never bathed, he thought. Yet another confirmatory data point.

“Fine. I’ll go out for a while. Maybe I can find some brains to eat,” he said.

#

Still clad in his pyjamas and bathrobe, James shambled along the cement sidewalk on his residential street. He was struck suddenly by the utter sameness of the houses that lined it. It was as if their basic structures had been cloned from an unseen prototype, ova extracted from some hulking, fecund motherhouse that lay immersed in a huge vat somewhere—then shipped here and plopped down in neat rows, still dripping, by large cranes. Subtle mutations had affected their facades, but not in so dramatic a way as to betray the fact of their inner identicalness. I can see you, James thought. I can see what you are. There was no character, no spirit in any them. They were just as bland and lifeless as he was.

He looked at the clone-house next door to his and saw his portly neighbor bent over her flower garden, her massive posterior the only part of her visible from his angle. He pulled his robe tight and crept up on her slowly: twenty feet, ten feet, five feet, two feet.

“I need your brains,” he said.

The woman let out a shriek, twisted and fell down in the dirt, her bottom making an earthy thud when it struck the ground.

“Mr. Beachum! Oh, how you startled me! Heavens, give me a minute to catch my breath.” She held her hand tightly against her broad bosom.

“I said I need your brains, Mizz Rodriguez. Badly.”

“Surely, Mr. Beachum. However they can be of help to you—although I can’t possibly imagine what knowledge I might have that would be of use to an intelligent man such as yourself. What do you need to know?” She seemed to study his rumpled bathrobe suspiciously.

“No, you misunderstand. I need to eat them. Now.”

The woman laughed, an unrestrained paroxysm coming from somewhere deep inside her. “Really, Mr. Beachum! You’re such a card! To be honest with you, my brains aren’t as good now as they used to be. No longer very nourishing, I’m afraid. I used to read a lot, years ago. In fact, I used to fancy myself well versed in a lot of subjects.” She looked down at the ground beside her. “You’ve shamed me, though. I realize now that I’ve been lazy on that score. Lately, it seems I just spend all day out here, digging in my garden . . .”

Ms. Rodriguez shook her head slowly back and forth before continuing. “No, my brains have definitely degenerated much too much. They’re no good to you, to me, to anyone. I need to improve them—starting today!”

“Bah,” James said. “No cooperation anywhere. No understanding. How’s a zombie supposed to survive?”

He shambled off while Ms. Rodriguez rose and went into her house, presumably to find some invigorating reading material.

#

James shambled across to the other side of the street. He spotted another neighbor there, cleaning his golf clubs inside his open garage. He shambled into it.

“Jim! How you be?” the man said.

“I’m dead, Harry. Died sometime in the last few weeks. Just going through the motions now. Through simple habit, I guess.”

Harry lifted a free hand and rubbed his chin, eyeing James and moving his head up and down slowly. “I know it’s tough, old buddy. This retirement thing can be a real pisser. I had a tough time dealing with it myself, last year.”

“And how did you keep from becoming a zombie?”

“Easy answer: Golf! How’s the writing coming along, by the way? You’ve been holed up inside your house so much, I haven’t had a chance to chat with you lately.”

“This retirement thing can be a real pisser.”

“Zombies can’t write, Harry. They’re dead to the world. All they can think about is boring, dull stuff like shambling around and eating brains. It’s been a complete bust so far.”

Harry tucked the last golf club into his bag and propped the set next to the doorway into the house. “Well, to be completely honest with you, this golf thing has gotten pretty boring and dull for me, too.”

The man paused, looking at the garage’s concrete floor. “But for some reason, I’m flashing back to when the wife and I used to go ballroom dancing. Gosh, it’s been a long time, now—much too long.” He looked back up at James, his face suddenly bright. “And it was a lot of fun! Hey, here’s a thought: What say you bring Marcia and come dancing with us this Friday evening? It’ll be good for all of us!”

Jim started to snort, but realized that zombies didn’t do that. “I’ll let you know.” He shambled out of the garage, stopped in the driveway and turned around. “By the way, Harry, any chance you’d let me eat some of your brains right now?”

His neighbor burst into laughter and hit his automatic garage door switch. His guffaws echoed inside the garage as the door descended. James shambled on down the street toward the local shopping district.

Ballroom dancing with Marcia. Heavenly saints, preserve me!

#

James shambled into Ben Brown’s barber shop.

“Jim! How you doing? Long time, no see! Nice PJ’s,” the barber said, glancing up briefly but not pausing in any noticeable way in his tonsorial tasks.

“Hey, Ben. And you too, Amos,” James said, nodding to the barber and the man sitting in the chair. “I hardly know what to tell you fellows. I’ve just been moping around the house since I retired. I do believe I died a few weeks ago and turned into a zombie. Regardless, Marcia said I needed a shave and a haircut. Said it quite vehemently, in fact.”

“I sort of doubt that you’re dead, Jim—but you do look like you’re a few months overdue for a trim and a shave,” Ben said. “She’s on target about that, for sure.”

Amos, in the chair, looked James over then twisted his head around toward the barber at his side. “Well now, wait just a minute, Ben. I heard somewhere that hair continues to grow on a dead body for a good long time. Hair and fingernails are ’bout the last things to expirate, they say. They just sorta peter themselves out on a corpse, y’know? Not sayin’ I think old Jim here is really dead—but his hair might still be livin’ and growin’ if he was, right?”

“Aw, that’s bullhockey, Amos,” the barber replied. “Once the embalming fluid—the formaldehyde—runs into the capillaries around the hair follicles, it’s Dead City all the way. That stuff you’re spouting is just an old wives’ tale. Take it from me, pard. I spent a couple of years in pre-med school.”

The barber paused and looked at James. “Matter of fact,” he continued, “if it weren’t for me getting married and having to take care of Rosie and our little one, I might’ve gone on to be what I set out to be: a real medical doctor.”

James shuffled his feet. “I am dead, I feel it. All I can think about is eating brains.”

Ben finished up on Amos’ hair and dusted him off with a soft brush primed with talcum, then loosened the bib from his collar and swept the apron free in a grand flourish. “Come to think on it more, hell, I’m not that old. We did luck upon a tidy chunk of money from Rosie’s dad when he died last year. You know, I ought to just close up this dingy old shop and see if I could get back into medical school. I bet I could. I bet I could!”

Amos rose out of the chair and walked over to the register, pulling out his wallet from a pocket of his denim overalls. “And I’m gonna be checkin’ out that business ’bout dead people’s hair. I always did have a hankerin’ to learn more about the undertaker’s trade. Since I was a young ’un. That’s a fact, too.”

“While you’re at it,” James said, “see if you can find out why zombies like to eat brains.”

Amos leafed through his wallet and pulled out a worn business card. “Lookey here—been carryin’ this around with me for ages. Harvey Atwood’s card, runs the funeral home over on State Street. I’m gonna head over there right now and ask him. Maybe even see about gettin’ me a job there. I could help out a bit, learn the trade. Heck, I might even work my way up to bein’ a real mortician!”

Ben rang up Amos’ haircut on his cash register and handed over his change. He turned and said, “Okay, Jim—”

But James was disappearing out the front door of the shop.

#

“Mr. Beachum! Not be seeing you for a long time!”

“Hello, Mr. Chen. I’ve been . . . just dead, lately.”

The small, elderly Asian man behind the meat market’s counter looked at James with a concerned expression on his wrinkled face.

“Mr. Beachum, you, ah . . . you feeling okay? You confused, maybe forget to dress this morning? You lost, maybe? Want me to call the missus, come and take you home?”

James scanned the shop and saw a couple of well-dressed ladies near the cash register looking at him. One turned back to face her companion and shrugged her shoulders. The other woman made a small gesture with her finger near her temple. They grabbed their packages and hustled out of the store.

“No, no, Mr. Chen. I’m okay. I just need some brains today.”

“Ah, you are in luck. I got some fresh head cheese here, very good price. I could slice you up some.”

Actually, I was thinking of something fresher. Something . . .” Jim raised his finger, leaned over the counter, and pointed toward the butcher’s skull. “Something less processed.”

The aged man squinted at James while his hand, seemingly on its own, crept along the counter, searching for the long boning knife that rested there. “I got raw sheep, calf, pig brains back in the refrigerator. Which do you prefer?” By this time, the butcher’s fingers had found and encircled the knife’s wooden handle.

“I’m afraid animal brains just won’t do, Mr. Chen. Only human ones. Perhaps some of yours?”

By this time, the butcher’s fingers had found and encircled the knife’s wooden handle.

“Okay, you get outa here right now, Mr. Beachum. I’m not joking around with you. Get outa here or I’m gonna call up the cops.”

“Come on, Mr. Chen. I don’t need all of them,” James said, climbing halfway onto the counter and extending his arm full-out toward the shopkeeper in a supplicating, grasping fashion. “Just a few. After all, how many brains do you need to run a butcher shop?”

Chen had backed up as far as he could, bumping into the edge of the carving table behind him. The veins in his forehead bulged and he scowled. “I got more inside my head than you think, Mr. Beachum. I gotta BA degree in economics from Taiwan University!” He whipped the knife across the air in front of James’ outstretched hand to ward it off.

Unfortunately, James had leaned further toward the butcher at that same instant. The knife sliced into the fleshy part of James’ thumb, and a gout of blood splattered onto the shopkeeper’s already bloodstained apron.

Chen dropped the boning knife; it clattered to the floor, and a horrified look washed over his face. “Look at what you made me do! You get outa here now! I’m not fooling around with you no more! Sheesh, I gotta get outa this crazy business. Maybe get a teaching job over at the community college, like I always wanted to do. No more dealing with crazy meat consumers for me! Whatever was I thinking?”

James straightened up, retracted his bleeding hand and stared at it. His vision fogged and he no longer could see the blood, only the gash itself and the exposed raw meat on either side of it.

“You see, Mr. Chen? No blood! I knew I was a zombie. This proves it!”

James held up his dripping hand to show the terrified butcher-soon-to-be-college-professor, then turned and shambled out of the shop. As he left, he heard Chen frantically calling the police.

#

James shambled through the shopping district, thinking about how badly he was botching his newfound zombie career. It was not at all what it was cracked up to be, and he’d certainly gotten off to a bad start at it. And when he began to think about it more, it made less and less sense.

For one thing, the wound in his hand began to throb painfully. Zombies weren’t supposed to have physical sensations. Hell, he thought, you could hack their limbs right off, and they’d still squirm around, unfazed, single-mindedly searching for brains. He wrapped his bathrobe tie around his hand, squeezed his eyes shut and made the pain go away. Or at least to become a distant thing, like all the other miscellaneous aches and pains that came with aging. A person learned to live with them. He knew that from experience.

And another thing: How was it that all the zombies he’d seen in movies could eat through a person’s skull to get at their brains? It didn’t wash; there was no way that anyone could chew through a skull. It wasn’t a question of physical strength, it had to do the shape of human teeth and the size of the mouth. You could gnaw through the thin skin covering a person’s pate easily enough, but you couldn’t gnaw through a thick, bony skull. Well, maybe if you had a week or so to work at it.

But then he thought: brains? Who in their right mind, living or dead, would want to eat raw brains anyway? Cooked liver maybe. Haggis, maybe—in a pinch. But brains? No, this whole thing was turning out to be just another bust.

James halted in the midst of his shambling and looked to his right, at the cemetery next to the Lutheran church. He’d been an infrequent visitor to that church at one time, but he hadn’t attended services now in a couple of decades. A freshly dug grave beckoned to him. Arching over it was a portable green awning, set up in preparation for an imminent interment. James wondered if it was someone he knew. He shambled over to the burial site.

The late afternoon sun sliced between the leaves of the large oak trees surrounding the tiny church cemetery. Its rays illuminated part of one side of the freshly dug grave, but the pit’s bottom was lost in shadow. James stared into its inky depths and—despite knowing that zombies couldn’t cry—he felt tears welling up in his eyes. He figured there was only one place that failed zombies could go: back into the earth from whence they came. This is where I belong.

He got down on his hands and knees and, facing away from the grave, tentatively extended his legs over the yawning hole, trying to ease himself into it gracefully. But there was no graceful way to do it; it was much too deep. He lost his grasp on the lip of the grave and tumbled into it, landing flat on his back, hard. It knocked the wind out of him, and he struggled to get it back—until he remembered that dead people don’t breathe. His head hurt from its forceful contact with the hard earth, and a sharp pang from one of his ankles told him that he’d twisted it badly. He pushed all that away, back into the same place that the balance of his physical pains lurked, just below the surface of his conscious apprehension.

He got down on his hands and knees and, facing away from the grave, tentatively extended his legs over the yawning hole...

James stared up at the green awning overhanging the grave, mesmerized by the rippling interplay of afternoon light and shadow across its surface. It seemed to recede slowly, as if the pit he lay in was getting deeper and deeper. He thought: If this keeps up, eventually I’ll come out on the opposite side of the Earth; perhaps some of Mr. Chen’s relatives will receive me there. Or, he reflected further, perhaps I’ll be reincarnated in the tiny, squalling body of an Asian infant. The idea of starting a brand new life in an exotic land gave him a momentary thrill.

The awning snapped back into sharp focus. James lay quietly, feeling the cool dampness of the earth below him, and mused about the upcoming burial. He imagined the consternation the bereaved family would feel upon discovering him, lurking darkly inside their loved one’s final home, the plot that they’d bought and paid for—and for which James hadn’t contributed any rent. But maybe they won’t notice me freeloading down here, he thought. Maybe they’ll simply lower the casket right on top of me, and bury me along with it.

He scraped a few handfuls of loose dirt from the walls of the excavation and sprinkled them over his prostrate body, then crossed his hands over his chest, closed his eyes, and tried not to think any more living thoughts.

#

“Hey! Old dude! Whatcha doin’ down there? You okay?”

James opened his eyes and saw a teenager bending over the open grave. Only a few minutes had passed, hardly enough time for him to get settled properly into his eternal resting place. The youngster wore a ball cap with its visor turned backwards, and a faded black, silk-screened T-shirt. He looked to be carrying a beat-up skateboard in one hand.

Cripes, James thought. Young people have no respect for the dead. None at all.

“You stay right there, man,” the boy said. “I’ll go find some help to get you out.”

James wondered idly if there was someplace else he could’ve gone. After a few minutes, the youngster reappeared at the edge of the excavation, this time with a police officer at his side.

“Care to explain yourself, sir?” the officer asked.

“I’m dead. Isn’t this where dead people belong?”

The cop straightened up and turned to the teenager. “Kee-rist. Another one for the State Hospital. I might as well just go to work there. Pay’s probably no worse, and I wouldn’t have to dodge bullets for a living.”

With the help of the youngster and his removed leather belt, the policeman lowered himself into the grave, got James onto his feet and pushed him up and out of the hole. Then he hauled himself back out.

“Hey,” the kid said. “This was way cool, helpin’ that old dude out like that. How do you get to be a cop, anyway?”

The officer ignored the boy. “All right, dead guy,” he said to James, brushing dirt off his uniform. “Time for us to go get you some happy pills.”

#

“Well, you certainly seem to have had yourself an interesting afternoon,” Marcia said.

She maneuvered their SUV out of the hospital’s parking exit onto the main road. James fiddled with the bandage on his hand, his suddenly live body slumped in the passenger seat, aching from its recent travails.

His bathrobe and pyjamas were torn, muddy, bloodstained—fit for no better fate than to be thrown into a 55-gallon drum and set aflame. He’d lost both of his slippers somewhere, and his ankle still shot out spikes of pain at regular intervals, as if to scold him for how he’d mistreated it.

“Sorry, Marcia. I don’t know what got into me.”

Marcia snorted. “Nor do I. You know, Jim, you can’t keep doing stuff like this. It’s too . . . too emotionally wrenching for me. I mean, just last month you convinced yourself that you were some sort of flying superhero, and you nearly killed yourself falling off the roof. And the month before that—well, I’d better not go there again.”

James turned to look at her. “Yes, my love. I know. I’ll be good from now on, I promise. It’s just another odd phase I’m going through. I’ll settle down now. I won’t cause any more mayhem, and I swear I’ll not embarrass you anymore.”

Marcia glanced over at him, sympathy in her eyes. “Maybe I’ve not been as supportive of you as I could’ve been.”

A moment of silence passed between them, while Jim watched the world hurtling by outside the passenger-side window. He found his mind wandering, imagining flowers blooming on the disturbed earth of newly empty gravesites and elegant ballrooms filled with dapper zombies in tuxedos, all doing the tango with beautiful women.

Marcia’s right, he thought. My exploits today were interesting, indeed—and they would make for a good story. I never really needed a Muse, after all. My Muse is myself. I’ll get it all down as soon as we get home after I clean myself up.

“Marcia,” he said softly, “what would you think about us going dancing this Friday?”

Gary Cuba’s short fiction has appeared in more than eighty magazines and anthologies, including Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Daily SF, Penumbra and Nature Futures. He lives in a rural area of South Carolina USA with his wife and a horde of freeloading critters. You can find Gary and links to his other published fiction at thefoggiestnotion.com