Always Afraid, Always Alone: On Writing and the Zombie Inside Us

There are four species of fungus growing in the Brazilian rainforest that exhibit powers of mind control over ants. They hijack an ant’s brain and use the body for spore dispersal. Some fungi create “infection pegs” that stick out like poisonous horns. Others grow explosive spores. One fungus instructs the ant to bite down into whatever it’s standing on in order to remain stationery while the fungus matures. It’s easy to picture a forest floor covered in an army of infection-antlered ants as they mindlessly follow the bidding of their mycological masters.

This is how I imagine we all must have looked from someone taking a helicopter tour of Denver that October Saturday afternoon: a dark line of ants shuffling up and down the 16th Street Mall, thousands of us infected by a contagion that spreads by contact, by sight, by word of mouth, and by film, by graphic novel, by survival guide and oral history: the Z-Virus. The uninfected had little warning of the Fifth Annual Denver Zombiecrawl.

On the Mall, families had brought their children out to enjoy the warm sun of one of Colorado’s 300 clear days a year. Girls from a volleyball squad, in town for a tournament, whispered about the waiters at the Paramount Cafe. Weekending couples held hands with Banana Republic bags under their arms. The Tilted Kilt drew all the single men within a two-mile radius, like ants to sugar — only the sugar’s dressed in ultra-short plaid skirts and unbuttoned Oxfords. Tourists: a fungus that leeches life from the host but plays itself off as symbiotic.

I’d like to say the masses ran in fear. I’d like to say fear was still an important, insectoid reaction buried deep in their brainstems and not predominantly reliant on the faint buzz of a first-response text message: U Shld Worry, 4Rlz. I’d really like to say they took one look at our bite wounds before they all fled to high altitude ski resorts.

But that wasn’t what happened.

I’d really like to say they took one look at our bite wounds before they all fled to high altitude ski resorts.

The families, the teenage girls, the couples, the single and the innocent and the curious — they all gawked at us through camera phones. They tagged us in their Facebook albums on the spot, unphased, acting even less animate than us. Their diffusion of responsibility was a result of naïveté, cynicism, and denial — the way a bird might look on a single ant as a minor snack, ignoring the rest of the colony that could swarm it in seconds. The strangest thing was the way they watched us with an air of expectation, as if we thousands weren’t enough. No one said, “Maybe this is real.”

***

After a year of living in Boulder and working in Denver, I’d come to a fundamental yet still depressing realization: I was going to have a lot fewer friends here than I did during my MFA in Illinois. My teaching gigs, my commute, and my writing all worked against establishing any core crew. Moreover, I kept falling through the cracks when it came to meeting people and making it count. I considered eye contact with Safeway cashiers to be small victories. And when the Baseline Liquor Store clerk stopped asking to see my ID, at first I thought it great, then I reconsidered why it was he knew me so well. I’d come, I was afraid, to the wrong place.

I’d come to a fundamental yet still depressing realization: I was going to have a lot fewer friends here than I did during my MFA in Illinois.

But on the BX bus from Boulder to Denver the morning of the Crawl, I wasn’t alone. When I first got on, I exchanged eyes with three zombie girls. I myself wasn’t ghouled up yet. All I wore was a Salvation Army sports coat, white khakis, and a writers workshop t-shirt. My backpack held vials of fake blood, scissors, and apple chips.

I said to one, “Hey, you’re a zombie.”

In response, a deadeye stare.

I ended up at the back of the bus in an empty row.

From the highway, Denver’s skyline was both eye-catching and uncomfortably vulnerable. The Hyatt and the unfinished Spire with its guts exposed to the sun loomed over us. A brief vision came then: one of me, standing beneath the Spire as it collapses; I survive the debris, but I’m stuck under it forever, wanting to pass out, gasping for air, wishing I were dead.

Before the Crawl officially started, I had to undergo some changes.

I waited in line for forty-five minutes to get my makeup done by one of two amateur face-painters. Their jars asked for donations (money or brains). I ate my apple chips. With my scissors I cut openings in my white pants and tore them further. I did the same to my shirt and sports coat. Then out came the fake blood I’d had for years. I smeared it down my legs. I put a handprint on my shirtfront. In the reflection of an office window, I looked enough of the part.

***

“Zombie” is originally from West African Voudou lore, where a wizard (a bokor) controlled someone in an entranced state. Pharmacological explanations claim that a mix of neurotoxins and dissociative drugs were given out. After falling into a state of death-like suspension, people then “rose from the dead” with little will power. Contemporary zombies are a combination of the supernatural and the scientific: usually the result of a rogue virus that turns the living into brain- and flesh-desirous ids of varying speeds and IQs, ranging from toddlerishly slow (Night of the Living Dead) to marathon-action Nazis (Dead Snow). Skyline Park’s crowd had grafted itself to every possible niche of zombiedom.

At first, the females in the crowd could be herded into two distinct camps: tenth-graders Goth-thin at ninety-eight pounds in one, and in the other thirty-something-year-old mothers. But the more I wandered the crowd, the more it diversified. Most women were some form of sallow urbanites with black hair, quarter-sized spacers, chest tats. They wore what they could get away with: halter tops in rags and fishnet, a once-immaculate wedding dress. One woman was the kind of pregnant best described by the ancient epithet “heavy with child”; she’d glued to her distended stomach the painted-red arms and legs of a doll in a new definition of the fetal position. Overall, I was forced to question my own argumentative position concerning necrophilia.

Overall, I was forced to question my own argumentative position concerning necrophilia.

The men all had deep-bruise-colored faces, their shoulders hunched or humpbacked. Their attire matched an impromptu prom with a black metal cover band: sports coats and leather, sweatshirts and shit-kickers. For the crawlers, anything in the closet was viable costume. It’s one of the details that makes zombies so appealing: they look exactly like us.

***

An ant’s brain contains about 250,000 brain cells. A human: 10,000 million. This means a colony of 40,000 ants has — collectively — the same size brain as a human. I’ve always wanted to describe my own theory of writing as trying to command a colony of ants. So a 40,000-word short novel manuscript = a self-sustaining colony = a functioning, creative, isolated human mind. But even this falls short. When I’ve been staring at the computer screen and my vision starts to blur because of the creeping anxiety that I haven’t typed a word in twenty minutes, the words smear into rows of small black bodies with tiny, jointed legs. Each ant, representing a single word, contributes some task to the greater whole. Some are carrying home Butterfinger shards. Others are digging tunnels. Despite the variety of tasks, this theory also implies that each word, like each ant, is visually the same, limited in scope and flexibility. This isn’t true of words. A more appropriate metaphor might be a hive of all insect species, interbreeding, ensuring the collective survival. But if the earth is indeed a beehive in which we all enter by the same door but live in different cells, then it is a very lonely planet to live on. And fiction seems to be one of the few endeavors where loneliness is confronted and relieved.

…if the earth is indeed a beehive in which we all enter by the same door but live in different cells, then it is a very lonely planet to live on.

***

My greatest fears are loneliness, stupidity, and being buried alive. I don’t chalk it up to coincidence that becoming a zombie would solve, or alleviate, all three of these.

I will always be afraid, too, of the opening scene of Joe Versus the Volcano. In it, a white-and-black suited Tom Hanks merges with a crowd of identical suits as they enter a factory while a soulful cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” croons in the background. Each employee files across the screen with his head low-slung, lifeless, marching to the refrain: “I owe my soul to the company store.” Give them some blood-soaked Oxfords and they’d be a perfect zombie horde: no awareness, no fantasy, no feelings in general. It’s why a zombie apocalypse always results in a total social breakdown, a leveling of the sub-/urban playing field. Everyone is reduced to the same decaying mouth with legs. There is nothing romanticize-able here, as opposed to, say, vampires or wizards. Instead, people flock to zombiedom because it symbolizes rebirth. It’s a chance to start over, even if it is a potentially finite reincarnation into a Kafkaesque role of a sleepless creature with deep-set memories of a previous life now dominated by the need to colonize by consuming the facets of said previous life. Only instead of a cockroach, you’re one ant among thousands.

My greatest fears are loneliness, stupidity, and being buried alive. I don’t chalk it up to coincidence that becoming a zombie would solve, or alleviate, all three of these.

The Crawl’s stream had a kind of shitty choreography to it. Some never fell out of character with their feet dragging and arms out-stretched like they’re preparing for a physical. Others broke a smile, laughed the laugh of people who actually sound like they’re in a great deal of pain. A dozen disco undead rollerskated by in afros and bloodied bellbottoms. A seven-foot Mickey Mouse with crazed yellow eyes and fangs cast a striking profile; his gaze reduced children to tears of spiritual crisis and lifelong fears of Orlando. When the crosswalks said go, traffic cops formed a human-chain across the road with signs that read “Warning. Zombie Crossing Today.” Everyone belted out the hallmark hello: Mwooararuur Rumm-Marrrbruuum.

On one corner you could even, for a steep price, take a picture beside a semi-replica of Ecto-1 with red corn syrup splattered across its hood. It appeared the Ghostbusters had expanded their public services — and their private ones. Accompanying you in the picture were four female Ghostbusters with skin-tight uniforms, low-cut tops, and proton packs more than vaguely phallic. I couldn’t decide if it took a tremendous ration of self-assurance to play these voluptuous knockoffs or a definite echo in their skull cavity. I declined to pay for a photo.

***

The undead and the uninfected were two sides of a populace — two sides of a very large communal brain, with only about 10% of it really being used and the rest just gray matter conduction — and here in Denver, each side was addressing the other head-on for possibly the first time. The Mall acted as corpus callosum, negotiating information between the hemispheres. On the right, we had the intuitive instincts that processed visual wholes, holistically and subjectively: the zombies. On the left, we had the logical, rational side that focused on language and individual parts through an objective lens: the uninfected. The zombie was all craving without the analysis, the human all analysis without the craving.

Often, there are times when thinking crosses these two hemispheres, only to fall through the sizeable crack between them. In Boulder, I’d particularly exhausted all reasoning as to why I was lonelier in a beautiful state in the happiest city in the country than I was in rural Illinois where I’d ritually go bike riding through this one cemetery north of my attic apartment and drink spiced tequila from the bottle against a blank headstone. The two roommates I’d moved to Colorado with were in the first stages of splitting apart over a girl who wasn’t worth the six-year friendship; I came home every evening from teaching, expecting to find my apartment sunken into the ground from the growing rift between Hayden and Kyle. My larger problem, however, was that I didn’t know who or what relief I was searching for — I only knew it was out there.

Loneliness is a grown-into perception.

Loneliness is a grown-into perception. A reflected impression that in every direction you look everyone in the world has his back turned to you. They form a wall. They block out the sun’s warmth. They don’t hear you asking for help or even acknowledge you are there to begin with. Yet, the most damning part is that we the lonely usually build this wall with our own hands, sometimes unknowingly, all before it comes falling back down on top of us.

***

On October 13th of that year, a few weeks before the Crawl, I watched on television the first of thirty-three men pulled out of a two-foot-diameter hole. Each man was greeted with the ecstatic Spanish cries of a crowd thankful for real miracles. I remembered the first announcement of the Chilean copper mine’s collapse. How my lungs felt immediately smaller, my body electric with an airy, unseen pressure. I could both imagine and never imagine the sensations of those buried 700 feet down. I wondered if they could hear anything beyond their own heartbeats. Did the earth’s molten core hum for them? Did it drive them wild with claustrophobia? The first contacts with the miners were notes. Then came videos of thin, bare-chested men who waved to the camera, ashen and clammy. I found myself obsessed with the footage. I researched drilling equipment. I listened repeatedly to Luke Kelly’s “Springhill Mining Disaster”:

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia
Down in the dark of the Cumberland Mine
There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun nor sky.

[…]

Eight days passed and some were rescued
Leaving the dead to lie alone
Through all their lives they dug their grave
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.

Two years before that miraculous October, I’d found myself at closing time in a tiny pub in Cork, Ireland. Before the barmen shut off the taps, an older, pock-faced man in a Gatsby cap stood up in the corner of the room and sang that very song a cappella to a small, drunken crowd that stayed as quiet as the dead. I didn’t know for a long time why that song never let go of me. For many nights after that, I cocooned my pillows and blankets around my head. It felt safe. But it was also hot and small. And so always I left a thin gap to the cooler air of my bedroom. Then I’d sing some lines of Kelly’s, always surprised, when I threw off the cocoon, by the neon stars affixed to my ceiling by the one who’d lived before me in this underground Colorado apartment.

When some of these tombs were later reopened, they found clawmarks inside the coffins’ lids.

In the late eighteenth century, during epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, sometimes a person would fall into such an ill state as to seem already deceased. Tradition mandated that the dead be buried by sunset. When some of these tombs were later reopened, they found clawmarks inside the coffins’ lids. Safety coffins were invented, most notably with a tube through which one could view the corpse as well as a string attached to an aboveground bell. However, pop phrases such as “graveyard shift” and “dead ringer” are falsely attributed to these devices.

I’d seen such graves in Charleston during my undergraduate years of stalking the numerous cemeteries, particularly the Circular Church’s, where, over time, the ground had risen ten feet because the church kept burying new bodies on top of the old ones. What was a lonelier experience than being interred in total dark only a few feet below those still free to walk around, with your final deathbed attendants only ants and fungi? I believe now I spent so much time in necropolises because I was waiting for something to happen, for someone to arrive and join me.

***

The zombie is both the embodiment of and the cure for isolation. On the one hand, the undead know no feelings of love or friendship or respect for roommates’ ex-friends-with-benefits; consequently, one can function entirely on its own, yet it always seeks to create more of itself. It calls to mind a line from the late Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine: “Each person was to himself one alone. One oneness, a unit in a society, but always afraid, always alone.”

The zombie is both the embodiment of and the cure for isolation.

On the other hand, one undead is no different from the next. Everyone wants the same thing. In some cases, they even work together to achieve it. In Max Brooks’s novel World War Z, a U.S. soldier describes the zombie horde’s communication abilities: “One G sees you, comes after you, and moans. A click away, another G hears that moan, comes after it, and moans himself, then another one another click away, then another. Dude, if the area’s thick enough, if the chain’s unbroken, who knows how far you can pull them in from.” Ants exhibit the same behaviors. Much like the undead, they rely on smell, or pheromones. The Argentine ant has been found in super-colonies covering the west coast of Japan, 560 miles in California, and a 3,700-mile stretch along the Mediterranean coast. Billions of Argentine ants, including these three super-colonies, all belong to one mega-colony that rivals humanity in scale of world habitation. Yet, humanity created this mega-colony by introducing ants to every continent except Antarctica.

***

Night came on in Denver after the neon sunset set the blood on everyone’s lips ashimmer. Somewhere near the Capitol Building a DJ set had started. Elsewhere were private parties I wasn’t invited to or concerts I didn’t have tickets for. It grew cold as I wandered the Mall with my makeup cracking and growing sticky. I’d be hitting the BX soon, back to Boulder.

In the glare of the Tilted Kilt’s sign and the flashing blue of Ecto-1’s beacon, it became difficult to tell just who was who. Some of the crawlers had taken to walking at a normal speed. Some had changed into slightly wrinkled designer clothes, prepared for a night on singles’ prowl. The woman in the wedding dress continued to parade around with her ghoulish groom. They passed a bottle of something orange back and forth. I’d have taken his place in a heartbeat.

The spectators had changed, too. Toddlers moaned for food or sleep. The older kids chased siblings around the Hard Rock Café. Parents grew sleepy from the time change. And those without kids stumbled drunkenly between kitschy bars and local breweries. Their words slurred and their legs didn’t work as well as before. Night does this. It inspires iniquity because the morning promises rebirth. Tourists act like locals and locals like tourists.

I swore I could hear something breathing out there in the dark, hear it pumping blood, hear it thinking two sides of the same thought.

And yet night also incites an uncommonly alert wistfulness and an insectoid desire for something elusive. Down Arapahoe Street, I could see far enough west to the campus where I taught English. Beyond it, the Rockies had disappeared. The moon was up but dim. I swore I could hear something breathing out there in the dark, hear it pumping blood, hear it thinking two sides of the same thought. I was avoiding the bus to Boulder because it meant returning to stacks of hastily written student work. And I was avoiding the oppressive silence between my roommates. Most of all, I was avoiding crawling into bed alone under a barrel vault of pillows.

On that street corner, between a parking lot and a high rise, I felt stuck. But for one of the first times in my life, I took comfort in it, for, as Poe writes, “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague,” and thereby easily crossable, via corpus callosum or pheromone trail or zombiecrawl. Yes, I was alone out here, but that’s because I was waiting desperately to hear that singular moan which would send me in the direction of fellow, lack-minded company and give me a reason to be where I was.

Toward the climax of Compendium I of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel The Walking Dead, there are two pivotal pages devoted solely to one frame. The protagonist Rick Grimes descends into madness as he and his fellow survivors take refuge in a prison. Throughout the book, there is always the question of how to maintain humanity in the face of overwhelming anti-humanity. The prison gates physically separate the living from the undead. What becomes clear is that little else does. After an argument, Rick proclaims, “We are the walking dead!” He doesn’t mean we’re already dead. Rick is expressing the novel’s thesis: because the gap between us is so slim, we should take extra care that we don’t cross that gap without realizing it. Naïveté, cynicism, and denial are the slippery slopes that hide such clouded crossings.

***

I missed the bus by five minutes. The next one would leave in an hour. I found myself in one of those bars I’d crawled by earlier. No one else in there wore any makeup or jackets with elbow holes. Once again, I felt like I was in the wrong place.

The bartender was a little older than me. She had long dark hair, deep-set eyes, and a profound confidence that only survival of the fittest brings. She would have made a stunning undead bride. As she finished washing a glass, she asked, without looking, “A drink?”

I said yeah, and when she did look, she stopped. I knew I couldn’t have been the first undead to walk in that night. But she looked at me like no one else had the entire day.

She said, “You’re one of those zombies.”

Instead of giving her the deadeye stare, I said, “You’re right. I am.”

“For a second there, I thought about what I’d done if you really were a zombie.

I said, “Hopefully it’s not ‘stop and take a picture.’”

We both laughed.

She brought me a PBR. I watched the Rockies lose again. In the mirror behind the bar, my eyes looked like old pieces of coal. My matted hair shone coppery.

After I paid, she came over. “Do you all, like, just happen to love zombies that much?”

“Maybe a little too much.”

“Of course Denver would host something like this.”

I agreed. I left to catch the bus. But I tipped her very well.

If I were smarter and smoother, I would have kept talking to her. She would have told me how she’d always wanted to be a professional horseback rider. After a few more beers, I would have told her how I’d always wanted to be an entomologist. How I’d once owned an ant farm. This inch-wind gap filled with sand between two pieces of glass set in a plastic green stand. My parents bought it for me at the age when you’re either incredibly into bugs or incredibly not.

I couldn’t think of a more interesting thing to look at. This was the place they were in. I wondered how they knew what to do and where and when.

Once introduced into the farm, the ants immediately started digging. After only a few days, their tunnels formed dark, looping roads. The ants built rooms far underground. I fed them ant food. It was like watching snow on TV, but better. I looked for patterns. I didn’t name them or recognize them. They worked tirelessly. I slept and the ants didn’t. A tunnel would collapse and they’d repair it. I couldn’t think of a more interesting thing to look at. This was the place they were in. I wondered how they knew what to do and where and when.

I don’t remember if the ants died or if I finally released them. But I hold this memory close, like an ant does a leaf when the fungus commands it to bite down. By itself, this means very little. But with some investigation, it matures to cast a much larger shadow, a foundation that finally leads up to the building’s spired top where I can see things more clearly. I’d like to think that, were I to catch the Z-virus, I’d retain some shred of this memory without the baggage of whatever it must represent in my life. I’d contract the plague in exchange for some company and peace of mind. Among many, I would gladly be a single marching word.

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