The season of sweaters, that crisp in the air, a crunch beneath your bicycle tires, and the potpourri finish on your twilit horizon. October brings with it a sort of existential recognition quite unlike its preceding brothers and sisters of time. Passersby in the street carry with them a unique energy that morphs into a synergy as their auras bump and collide through the busy sunlit crosspaths. Nuts and grains, your favorite winter squash, pumpkin-flavored everything, bold new recipes, and others failed (okay, maybe you can’t actually sneak pumpkin into everything.)
For the younger crowd, it’s all about candies and chocolates, orange and black felt, brown paper bags, ghosts, ghouls, devil’s attire and houses; late night shivers, black cats, and cob-webbed haunted houses. Neon orange and black billboards taunt down with their ghoulish grins and over-sized bubble font; coupons shuffle their ways to the floor through unsuspecting mail slots; and today, I’m willing to bet that the ads on FaceBook side bars flash and gleam, teasing. “The Black Box,” “Dracula’s Tomb,” “Double Danger,” the names are endless, and every year, I clipped as many coupons as the next kid, waving them in my mom’s face the second she walked through the door. Home from a long day at the office doing the work of, well, the entire office, I always felt like she wasn’t quite as thrilled about my stack of clipped horrors as I’d hoped she might be. Looking back, I see that it wasn’t a lack of excitement that hindered her; rather, she felt trapped inside her own empty dwelling, and hardly needed the pocket-book emptying trailers deemed “houses” filled with manufactured frights. She had no need for costumes or trickery, because her own boyfriend was a walking zombie. And he lived right around the corner, practically in our backyard.
Some things you might want to know about zombies: their flesh is not rotting, but actually quite firm. They don’t rattle and scratch at your doorstep past midnight, shuffling about and sucking the oxygen from your lungs. They pound on your door after midnight, at two, three, or four in the morning, and if you’re not crouched behind your linens and drawers, you’re probably out throwing the punches, panting with your eyes screwed up so hard you think for a second they might actually pop out of their sockets and morph into your very own personalized grueling zombie eye. That’s another story entirely, though. What I mean to say is, zombies don’t live in graveyards. They live in palaces. Okay, maybe not palaces, but affluent neighborhoods for sure. They walk on sidewalks sketched with roller blade tracks. Their backyards echo with giggles once shared on midnight trampoline campouts.
Since Johnny lived around the corner, I was often subjected to visiting his camp. We’d pull up in Mom’s old beat up Buick on any given day of the week. “Stay in the car, I’ll be right out,” she’d always tell us. His pearly white Beamer would be parked in the driveway, and the garage door always hung open at waist height. Sometimes, his shiny red Harley stood its ground over the pools of oil tainting the concrete slope. Sometimes, it was just barely visible in that two-foot tall crack between concrete and plaster. It was always with a sigh that I answered these visits. “I’ll be right out.” As if. More like, “I hope you remembered to grab some water, because you’re going to be here for a while.”
Even in October, the thirst would get to me. I’d sit in the car, watching the dust hover in a (not very) dazzling dance, fidgeting with the edges of my fingernails and gouging out bits of my own flesh. I’d open the car door and peer over, around Johnny’s Beamer, peeling my eyes for some sign of movement. Sometimes, I’d see Johnny’s levi-clad legs putzing around on his gadget-cluttered counter. Other times, I’d see nothing but dusty stillness. Either way, out I’d step, hiking up the slight incline and ducking under the door. Johnny’s Groucho Marx glasses would peer over at me, and he’d maybe utter some inaudible insult as the swamp cooler blasted away, clouding my ear drums. That swamp cooler never stopped roaring. At this point, I’d stopped believing in monsters, but there was something quite monstrous about an ear-grading blast of cold air biting away at your already-frosty neck, when all you really wanted was a glass of water, or some hot cocoa, maybe. At least the door wasn’t too far off. Wires everywhere, I shuffled my way through the labyrinth of dismantled electronics, serpent-tongue wires hanging here and Mario Bros terrace-esque platforms resting there. I’d march past Johnny, holding my breath to his lung-tissue tearing cloud of cigarette smoke. I’d grit my teeth as he swigged from the fizzing Miller Light 40oz that seemed perpetually attached to his left hand. I’d turn the chipped golden door knob and step into the house.
The empty, dusted stairwell met my eyes at first glance and just beyond that, the planter with no plants. The planter with no plants. It was a chalky white ravine and almost extraterrestrial in that it seemed utterly deprived of any living sustenance. I always got the idea that if I stepped beyond its threshold, I’d poof into smithereens like the Moon Men in that old Melies film, “A Trip To The Moon.” I imagined finding myself trapped in some alternate realm, where beings had no shape, just hazy, translucent energies, and everyone was too afraid to even bother saying, “Hi.” Anyway, adjacent to the planter with no plants was the couch. At least there was a couch. A white couch, and zebra-striped with cigarette ashes, scuffs of paint, and chunky smudges of lipstick.
The worst part was the kitchen. Las Vegas is known for its obnoxious, practically taunting blue skies. No matter what time of day it was, that kitchen was always in shadow. Straight out of a strange Hitchcockian/David Lynchian-like brain child, if such a thing would ever have existed, that kitchen was squared away in shades of dull gray. I’d reach up on my tippy-toes to open one of the disintegrating wooden cupboards, knowing what to expect. More often than not, I’d find myself staring into a brownish-black void, saw-dusty, empty. On the rare occasion, I’d actually find a glass outlining a portion of the space. A smudged and scratched glass of questionable sanitary degree, but a glass nonetheless. Still up on my tippy-toes, I’d gingerly remove it, tilting my face downward and peering into its depths. Reflexively, I’d frown at the inevitable smudges of gook. And if it wasn’t gook, then it was a micro-nest of ashes accumulating at the bottom. Nasty.
After a short trip over to the sink, during which I’d practically hop up and down in my efforts to shake the citrus yellow soap free from their dwindled pools at the bottom of the container, I’d scrub the gunk away and voila! A clean glass for me. Well, mostly. I fear I’m digressing. Honestly, Johnny’s place tends to do that to you. It’s been years since I’ve even thought about the guy. I’ve done such a good job at repressing it all. You’d think my deeming him “zombie” was an invention of my eleven-year old mind, but no. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to see him as he is, as all persons of his variety are. Zombies. I still can’t quite figure it out. Perhaps it was his upbringing. Born to a Grecian import at the height of the New Frontier, Papa Pappas had either an eye for business or a lucky streak fit to make even Malachai Constant cringe. What I mean to say is, his son who became the man JP never worked a day in his life.
I can’t speak for the twenty-something year old Johnny, or even the thirty-something year old Johnny, but the forty-something year old Johnny I knew liked to fiddle. I swear I spent my entire pre-teenhood sitting in cars. Parking lots, specifically, at the Las Vegas Home Depot. He’d spend hours in that place. Yes, hours. Doing what, I couldn’t tell you, but he’d stay there till closing, to be sure, just about every night. I remember starving, yearning for food, and thinking that the McDonald’s Spicy McChicken I knew to be floating at the end of this dark, dusty rainbow sounded like the best damned meal of my life. I’m lucky I’m still alive, and well. I swear I ate more McChickens while my mother was dating JP than the Super-Size Me guy has ever consumed in French Fries.
I’m digressing again. Johnny was a zombie, because Johnny was a drug fiend. Drug fiends can’t be humans because they sacrifice their humanity to chemicals. Humanity is lost the second the stuff hits their bloodstream. Take it from me, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in her and I’ve seen it in him. Well, I guess I never really saw it in him because I never saw him with his lights on. I’m touching on more stories I don’t care to delve into but my main point here is, human beings feel. And yes, feeling sometimes means pain. More often than not, this is actually the case. It isn’t that drug fiends stop feeling the pain, they do. Perhaps, they feel it the worst of us all. But they can’t allow themselves to feel it. They can’t bear it. So they mask it, drown it, numb it, bury it. Or so they try. Drug fiends are zombies because the drugs themselves are demons. You’ve heard the names. Chrystal. White Lady. Aunt Nora. Lucy. Even Mary Jane can slowly eat away at the soul. These names create forces, and these forces feed off souls. Off the souls of human beings.
Looking back on cases like Johnny, the dirty glass I’d always find in the cupboard feels almost like a relief, because in those short, fleeting moments dedicated to washing a glass in order that I might hydrate my body, I felt alive. Nothing about Johnny’s place feels, or felt, alive. Things never even felt freshly dead. Dead things decompose. Dead things rot. They smell. They decay. They take on all kinds of forms that capitalists and artists and irony-obsessed college folk try to imitate at October’s annual arrival. Open a cabinet at Johnny’s house, and you’ll find a pasty and faded bag of Flaming Hot Cheetoh’s, if you’re lucky. They’ll be stale, and radioactive red. Maybe you’ll shuffle out of the kitchen and into the “dining room” where no one dines. You’ll sit down in those stiff throne-style chairs, once white but now gray beneath a silty layer of dust. You’ll brush off your thighs and you’ll wait, listening. And you’ll wonder why so many Americans make their livings off of manufacturing scares, when the scariest folk around live just around the corner.