I Rode With a Zombie: An Undead Memoir
More zombies: Read GENDY ALIMURUNG's "This Zombie Moment: Hunting for What Lies Beneath the Zombie Zeitgeist," SCOTT FOUNDAS' "Birth of a Zombie Nation: The Undead at the Movies," and GENDY ALIMURUNG's web-exclusive interview with Zombie Research Blog founder, Andrew Morisson.
Also, view more zombie photos in the "What Lies Beneath: Zombies, Serial Killers & Suicide Girls" slideshow.
As a kid living in rural Long Island, I’d spend solitary afternoons playing on a dirt mound in back of the house we rented. One day I dug out a tiny bunker to fill with green plastic soldiers, the kind that looked like they were from World War II. Once they were in place I carefully sheltered them with a perimeter of plastic-log walls from a Fort Apache toy set handed down to me from a cousin in Oyster Bay. Satisfied with the mise en scène, I reached for some matches and my mother’s cigarette-lighter fluid to set the miniature Pork Chop Hill ablaze. Then there came a rustling sound about 50 feet behind me.
At first it sounded like a dog thrashing in the junglelike vacant lot that surrounded most of our backyard. But as it came closer I made out unsteady footsteps on the footpath. I froze and didn’t turn around because I knew what it was — a zombie making its way to the graveyard that lay just past my dirt mound. That graveyard happened to be the sad, neglected Swedenborgian Cemetery that was the final resting place of local followers of the 18th-century mystic. The graveyard bordered our yard, and its weatherworn tombstones dated from the late 1700s up to the early 1800s.
The thrasher in the brush was no monster, of course, but a living person. He was, in fact, one of our town’s drunks, who catatonically stumbled through the vacant lot and graveyard on a shortcut to a street with some run-down houses on it. I pictured the man, who was black, fitting one of two familiar models: either a middle-aged guy in a ragged sports coat and short-brimmed hat, or some do-ragged young dude wearing iridescent slacks. Both would be standing tall and gaunt, their hollow eyes staring straight ahead. In my mind I likened these sleepwalkers to the Caribbean creatures in I Walked With a Zombie or The Ghost Breakers.
Many of Riverhead’s blacks were very poor and lived in tarpaper shacks or weather-beaten cottages. Five hundred alone lived in former duck coops that had no plumbing and were prone to catching fire. It wasn’t hard to figure out why some of these forlorn men had shrugged off life and become booze zombies. Their smashed Thunderbird and rum bottles sparkled beside the road I walked every day to school.
I had one black friend who lived out past Polish Town, and some of the kids I met through him lived in the pitch-dark loft of an old barn, their bedding illuminated by a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. But none of the kids’ fathers were zombies. Those men were a different breed altogether from the walking dead I’d hear unseen at night, staggering just beyond our white-picket fence, or even through our rutted dirt yard before clambering over that fence into the graveyard.
“Whadda they think this is, Grand Central Station?” my father would always exclaim about the zombies. He’d dropped out of school on the Lower East Side 17 years before, but tended to reference everything in his life as though he were still living in the city. Perhaps this was because, as he put it, life in Riverhead was “like livin’ on the moon.” One afternoon, however, he came home from work and went straight to bed without mentioning Times Square, the Bowery or even the moon. My mother explained that Dad’d gotten sick from drinking too many “Zombies,” which she described as the most powerful cocktail in the world. A shudder ran down my spine. Zombies — would my father turn into one of them?
Our backyard zombies were a good fit for the neighborhood, which had an eerie personality all its own. A few blocks past the graveyard, next to the Ukrainian church, lay Merritts Pond, whose sinkholes, we kids were always being told, had claimed the lives of several children. And right next to the Swedenborgian graveyard was our own church’s cemetery, St. John’s Roman Catholic. Our street had a couple of melancholy, run-down Victorians, and I knew a boy who lived in one — a kid with curly red hair and a messed-up mind who, when you tried to talk to him, would laugh and laugh until you had to tell him to shut up. Next door to his faded gingerbread house was a rusty weathervane, perched on an iron tower, that would creak like mad when the wind blew.
Nor did the Episcopal church facing St. John’s offer much sunshine. Just past noon every day its bells chimed “For Those in Peril on the Sea.” This hymn was mournful enough, but every time it tolled I thought of the recent assassination, on account of it being played all through President Kennedy’s long, slow procession to Arlington.
Then, one winter night everything changed. My mother, younger brother and I got off the train at Riverhead Station after visiting relatives in the next county. It was hammering cold rain and the wind howled the way it did in horror films. We only lived half a mile away but my mother walked us over to an unheard of extravagance called a taxi. Its windows were steamed up, but muffled music and laughter could be heard from within. The driver rolled down his window and said, “Come in, there’s lots of room.” He opened the door to a car heavy with the warm perfume of rum, hair pomade and sweat, and whose back seat was crammed with three or four of the kind of guys who were always wandering through the lot or our yard. It was a zombie cab.
We, nevertheless, had the friendliest, unscariest ride home in that cab, which was not really a taxi but a nightclub on wheels. Any minute, it seemed, James Brown would pile in with us. The rain kept pounding, our singing driver could barely see through his fogged windshield and all of us laughed at being so crowded together. The men in the back seat were polite, asked about our train ride and even expressed an interest in Oyster Bay. Suddenly they were zombies no more, but instant neighbors in the night.
Long before that ride, about a week after my family had first driven into Riverhead from California, two infants had burned to death in one of the duck coops on the town’s outskirts — only two of a dozen child fire deaths there. Lying in bed at nights I’d think about things like that fire, the sinkholes at the pond, the kids who lived in the barn loft or the crazy boy across the street. And there were times when I thought of the president, alone in his coffin. These were all images that crashed together in the dark. There were sounds in the night, too — a weathervane screeching in the wind, the bony tapping of radiator pipes. But mostly the thing I listened for were zombies stumbling through the brush — or beneath my window, closer still. Where did they think they were — Grand Central Station?
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