My new boss is a zombie. I do not mean one of those overworked and sleep-deprived corporate types; I mean rotting flesh, back from the dead, eat-your-family-at-night sort of beings. Think Night of the Living Dead. See Re-Animator. She is, however, gifted with speech.
At our first staff meeting, she stood at the head of the conference table and said, “Listen up, pussies. I’ve read over your performance reports. It’s time to get your asses in gear. From now on, no more fondue Fridays and no more pajama-fucking-Mondays. Got that?” she said and slammed her fist on the table, whereupon it snapped off at the wrist and lay there limply.
Overhead, the lights flickered. Bonnie Bonnie shrieked.
“Why are you all still here?” Zombie said. “Get to work.”
As we scurried from the room, I was certain that not one of us in our entire lives had ever been so quiet. That day we worked straight through lunch and second lunch. And what about wasabi Wednesday, you ask? No, we did not dare. For the rest of the afternoon we worked in silence, disturbed only by the sound of Jimmy’s breathing.
* * *
We do not know where Zombie came from, nor where Kevin, our old boss, went. All we know is that one day there was Kevin, and the next day there was not Kevin. Instead there was Zombie … I am at my desk; looming over me is Zombie. She is saying, “So you’re at your desk, see? The phone rings—ringringring—the phone’s ringing, you shit. Answer it.” Zombie smells like a well-used porta-potty that’s been abandoned alongside a highway on a hot summer day. I am choking; nevertheless, I answer the phone: “1-2-3 Delivery and Storage. How can I help you?” I say and look to Zombie for approval. Her face is a paroxysm of anger; unless I am mistaken, it seems there is a creature living inside her mouth, and my body begins to feel as if it’s retreating into itself. “You’re supposed to tell them, ‘it’s a wonderful fucking day,’ you dumbass,” she says. “Again—ringringringring.” “1-2-3 Delivery,” I say. “It’s a wonderful fucking day. How can I help you?” There is a slight popping sound; something falls into my lap. I look down—there is Zombie’s eyeball, laying in the fold of my crotch. “That’s it!” she says. “All of you get out. We’re done for the day.”
… Bonnie Bonnie, Jimmy, and I … we are walking to the vehicle—the vehicle we share—to ride to the house—the house we share—on the other side of town. We walk past warehouses A, B, and C; 2A, 2B, 2C; 3A, 3B, 3C. It is a long walk, long enough to aggravate Jimmy’s asthma. “She made me redo (wheeze) the inventory report (wheeze) seven times!” he says. Poor Jimmy. He has been working so hard for so long. All he wants is a honeymoon for himself and Bonnie Bonnie, to somewhere nice, like Jersey Shore or Rome (NY). Unfortunately, as she told me last week in bed, Bonnie Bonnie has given up all hope in this, not to mention all hope in love, generally speaking. “When you think about it,” she said. “What is love, actually? Moreover, what is life?” But all she says now is, “Don’t push yourself, Jimmy,” as we overtake the last of the warehouses and our rusty, four-door Chevrolet swings into view across a sea of concrete.
* * *
As we pull into the driveway of our split-level home, I am filled with dread—further down the road, beneath a billboard that says Hoogland Realty – People You Can Trust, I spot my mother’s compact car, and instantly my mind goes to all the things left undone: the tower of dishes sitting in the sink, the laundry spread in disarray across the floor.
And for once—just this once—I don’t want Bonnie Bonnie and Jimmy to go quickly up the stairs into their apartment and leave me alone. But what could I say—I had nothing to offer, and they had nothing to (willingly) give.
So when I enter my apartment, there she is, on the couch—my mother. “I thought you were going to fix the lock on that door,” she says. She is like a violent force that laughs in the face of all your fortifications and promptly knocks you down. “Have you seen this?” she says, as she rises and advances towards the kitchen counter, atop which rests an old bowl of cereal and milk. She turns the bowl upside down, yet nothing comes out. “Is this how you want to live?” she says.
“Would you believe me,” I say, “if I told you that was part of a magic trick?” and I laugh. My poor mother. Has anyone ever stood beside me as long and as diligently as she? Was it not she that paid off my hospital bills and dragged me through my senior year of high school? And yet, not once has she thrown this in my face. She is, like, a fucking mother of grace. So I cannot look her in the eyes now and say, “I’m coming up short on this month’s rent, nor do I have enough to make my car payment.” Because she will say, “How much do you need?” and I will tell her; and she will say, “You don’t have even that much?” and I will proceed to bury myself with shame.
I am thinking, “How will I salvage this?” when through the ceiling comes the sounds of Bonnie Bonnie and Jimmy moaning, prompting my mother to say, “I’ve had all I can handle today,” and leave.
* * *
Not two weeks ago, I met Kevin in an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of town. It was already dark when he arrived in a black Escalade. “How does it gleam like that in the night?” I wondered. I have dreams about cars like that.
After parking the car, he comes to me, bounding over tufts of grass peeking out through cracks in the asphalt. “Here’s the plan,” he says, and begins speaking very quickly. “You give me the money. Tomorrow, when the shipment comes—it belongs in warehouse A. Instead, we put it in 3A. When the guys come to pick up at the end of the week, they’s all ‘Where’s our shipment?’ We’s go, ‘What shipment? We ain’t got no shipment.’ Ensue scandal. I vamoose with the money. That’s when you step in. You’s say, ‘Hey, we’s check 3A?’ And there ‘is. You’s the hero; you’s the new boss. Bam—got yourself a new future; sky’s the limit. But first step—you give me the money.”
Kevin is out of breath. Behind us menaces the boarded-up storefront of a defunct K-Mart.
“Okay,” I say, and give him the money—all of the money; my meager savings; my poor savings. And at the time, I so badly wanted to believe that by the end of the week I would be a manager, maybe even a district manager, because to that point, my life had been so full of failures it only made sense that, by some cosmic rule, I was due for something good.
As he drove off in his Escalade, I remember thinking to myself, “One day I’ll have a set of wheels like that,” and that was the last time I saw Kevin. He did not come to work the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. The shipments came and went without the slightest hitch. To this day, what I remember most clearly about that night are the clouds—how they hung low and immobile, as if to say, “This is how things are.”
* * *
If I had a backup plan, now would be the time for it. Alas, I am not the sort of man who, jumping into action, thinks: What if this? What if that? I saw an opportunity, and I moved to seize it; for that, I cannot be faulted. That will be the epitaph on my tombstone.
If I had a backup plan, now would be the time for it. Alas, I am not the sort of man who, jumping into action, thinks: What if this? What if that? I saw an opportunity, and I moved to seize it; for that, I cannot be faulted. That will be the epitaph on my tombstone.As I pace about my living room, I think of all the things I will not do. For instance, I will not hold out for the return of Kevin, unbidden and miraculous, who will not show up at my desk and say, “You know, you are a solid and hardworking man. Here is your money.” Such fantasies are for lesser men, and I, for one, do not seek redemption where there is none to be had—that is what I am thinking when there is a knock at my door.
It is Jimmy—Jimmy! He is out of ketchup. Of course he can have ketchup! I have always thought of Jimmy as a sort of father figure in my life. I tell him as much, and that it is only natural for a son to come to his father in times of need. He will help me! But at a cost.
“I’m worried about Bonnie Bonnie,” he says. “Lately, she’s been so lethargic.”
I follow Jimmy up to his apartment. The living room is dark; the shades are drawn. There is a singular piece of furniture—a bed, covered in thick purple blankets—positioned in the center of the room. Atop it rests a scantily clad Bonnie Bonnie, laid out like a wife of a Turkish sultan.
“Good news,” Jimmy says. “He had ketchup.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” Bonnie Bonnie coos.
I am still in the doorway when Bonnie Bonnie waves, and I register, in some corner of my mind, that I’m to come closer. Mortified, I sit on the edge of the bed.
“I should get my inhaler, just in case,” Jimmy says and leaves the room.
While he is gone, Bonnie Bonnie leans in. “I’m so excited,” she says. “I’ve read about things like this, you know, in books and stuff.” She takes part of the blanket in her fist and rubs it in my face. “It’s aubergine,” she breathes.
And in that moment I find it so impossible to say, “Bonnie, wait. Before—I was lonely and afraid. It didn’t mean anything to me.” She is already unbuckling my belt when Jimmy returns, naked, with his inhaler in one hand and the bottle of ketchup in the other; and immediately I am flooded with disgust and regret. I am thinking, “Not one shred of my dignity will survive this,” and the entire time Bonnie Bonnie is squealing: This is the life. This is how to live.
* * *
The next day I am ready for a fight. As I charge into Zombie’s office, I am prepared to offer her two hundred pigeons (dead or alive) or my cousin’s youngest son, who nobody likes, if she will graciously step down and promote me. For just such an occasion, I have been saving up all my powers of persuasion; I am about to unleash them, when I find Zombie hunched over her desk. I believe she is crying—yes, she is crying. Little green tears streak her pocked cheeks.
She does not get up, but says, “What do you want?”
I thought I’d come prepared for every possible scenario—in my back pocket is a flask of holy water; a silver-tipped shank is tucked inside my shoe—but never had I imagined this, and all I can manage to say is, “What is wrong with you?”
Sobbing, Zombie rises and says, “I can’t find my arm,” and it’s true. Where her right arm should be there is only a stump. “It was there this morning…”
And at this point it is so unclear to me what the best course of action would be. I hesitate and say, “Well, I guess you’ll live without it.”
She looks at me. “Is this a joke to you?” She gesticulates towards her stump with her remaining limb. “Do you think this is funny?” She moves out from behind her desk and advances towards me. “I do not have a single moment of peace. My mind is an opera of fiscal confrontations: revenue versus overhead; services versus salaries; inflation versus profits. My home is a veritable collage of P&L statements. Do you think I was born this way? I wanted to raise horses!”
As her stench closes in, my body is torn between the forces of fight or flight; phrases like “moment of truth” and “point of no return” crystallize and take on new meaning right before my eyes; the weight of impending action is bearing down on me, when suddenly Zombie’s leg breaks off at the knee, and she falls to the floor.
I feel deflated and robbed. I say, “Listen, Zombie—”
“Not Zombie—Sharon!” Zombie wails.
And looking down at Zombie, I cannot help but feel there is some deeper meaning to all this, but the only thing I can understand is that life can be cruel and rarely works out the way we want it to; and I catch myself thinking, “If only I could reach a younger version of myself.” I would know exactly where to find me—leaning against a chain-link fence behind the gas station downtown, listening to Jeff Hoogland, my very best friend, say, “I’m gonna to be an astrophysicist when I grow up,” to which my young-self replies, “Shit. You don’t even know what that means.”
I want to push that kid down and say, “Shut the fuck up. Get your shit together; you’re going to college one day.” And when my young-self says, “You’re not the boss of me.” I’ll say, “Yeah? Well, you should know… there are things in this world that you never get back. And Jeff,” I’ll point to Jeff, “Jeff is going to go into real estate. He’s going to be able to afford a house with a door that locks and a car of his own without a spot of rust on it.”
That’s when I notice something smacking my shin, and I am pulled back into Zombie’s office. She has retrieved her leg and is using it to strike me repeatedly from her position on the floor. “Saddlebred, Standardbred, Thoroughbred, Clydesdale, Warmblood, Mustang, Jutland, Gypsy!” she says, her teeth popping out of her mouth, skittering across the floor. “Where do we stand on the next shipment? We need to be ready!”
Thomas Cardamone is currently earning his MFA at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. His fiction has previously appeared in Necessary Fiction and decomP.