As our first Albedo 2.0 Fiction Showcase of 2013, we are delighted to publish Alex Jennings’ superb horror, “Boudreaux and Thibodeaux”, as poignant and powerful as it comic.
Alex Jennings was born in Weisbaden (Germany) and raised in Gaborone (Botswana), Paramaribo (Suriname), and Tunis (Tunisia). His short fiction has appeared appeared in Albedo One, Electric Velocipede, Spicy Slipstream Stories, and in his collection, Here I Come and Other Stories. He lives and works in New Orleans, USA.
“Boudreaux and Thibodeaux”, by Alex Jennings
Before I get started, I want to set down a joke I heard. It’s a old one. It’s supposed to be funny, but when I heard it as a boy, it just scared me. Here it is:
So Boudreaux brought his friend Thibodeaux in to see the dentist because Thibodeaux’s tooth was giving him pure hell. One whole side of that poor boy’s face was swollen. The doc examined him for a while, hemming and hawing, and then he says, “Boy, that tooth just got to come out.”
Speaking for Thibodeaux, Boudreaux says, “All right, then, mais can you do it here and now?”
“Sure I can,” says the doc. “It’ll only take me ten minutes.”
“How much that gonna cost?” says Boudreaux.
“Now, that’s just too much goddamn money for ten minutes’ work,” says Boudreaux.
“That’s eight fifty a damn minute. Plain robbery.”
The doc winked. “Tell you what, Thibodeaux, my friend. Just for you, I’ll make it four and a quarter per minute, and when I get the pliers on that tooth, I’ll pull reaaal slow. Maybe I can stretch it to twenty minutes.”
Dale’s house was big, but it did not have what you would call curb appeal. Its grimy white paint had been flaking badly for years, and looking at it might put you in mind of a white dog with the mange. The yard was overgrown—palm trees fighting with live oaks for space—and the whole thing looked like instead of designing a home, whoever had been in charge of its making had begun building from the inside out: one room, then another, and at some point, he’d started building rooms on top of each other until the whole thing was two, maybe three stories, with no kind of uniform progression. Strings of Mardi Gras beads still lay strewn about the lawn, and I wondered how long they could sit there before they began to lose their color.
I also wondered whatinhell Kodaq was doing at the house, since on an average day it would take a court order to get him out of bed before eleven. His old El Camino, crusted with bottle caps painted in all kinds of colors, sat half on the curb out front of the house, but at least he knew enough to stay the hell out of my parking spot.
Inside, I found Dale and Kodaq sitting on the threadbare living room sofa watching a cartoon cat chase a bird across a bizarre pastel landscape. A smell like incense or spiced meat hung in the air, mixing with Kodaq’s cigarette smoke for an oddly exotic effect. Dale looked like pure hell. His skin was pale and blotchy, and his hair was awry. It wasn’t until I saw him sitting there that I realized I hadn’t seen him come out of his room at all the last time I’d come home from working on the rig.
“Kodaq,” I said. “What you doing outta bed so early? And you better not have brought that goddamn dog of yours in here. He shits on my carpet one more time, and I’ll mail his ass to North Korea.”
Kodaq took a minute to play with the rings on his right hand. He had one on each finger, and I’m no jeweler, but I was pretty sure they were fake. No way could somebody like him afford all the gold and stones he wore.
“Errol …,” Dale said. His voice sounded dry, like he needed to clear his throat.
“Good to see you up and around,” I said when he trailed off. “This mean you gonna get your shit together and find some work?”
“Trash truck didn’t come today,” he said, but I was distracted by that weird smell. It reminded me of the spices they use at Nirvana, but darker, with something else behind it.
Dale said my name again, but his voice still sounded brittle, as if speaking cost him a major effort.
“You sound upset, Hoss. Spit it out.”
It was Kodaq who spoke next. “Errol, Dale’s dead.”
I stopped short, standing in the block of sunlight that slanted through the east window. It was full day by then, and outside, I heard the chirping of birds and the chittering of squirrels as they ran through the live oak that towered in our backyard. My fingertips tingled as they hung at my sides. I’ve read about people who retreat into denial when they are given shocking news. I’d always pitied those poor bastards, but now I envied them. I understood perfectly what my friends were trying to tell me, and I knew that there could be no joke or mistake.
“… When?” I said without looking up. “How can you be sure? I mean, you’re up and around, moving and talking….”
“I ain’t eaten, slept, or been to the pisser in four days,” Dale said. “And I only breathe to talk.”
That last bit was what really did me in. “Goddamn,” I said. “Just … goddamn.” I backed into the old gray La-Z-boy and sat hard. “We gotta get you to a doctor.”
“Now, hold on a minute,” Kodaq said, showing me his hands for emphasis. He was a silver-haired half hippie, but he talked like a street hustler. “We gotta think this through, baby. We take Dale to a doctor now, the doctor pronounces him, and he is legally undead. Dale didn’t have no will. Everything he owns—this house—all that be tied up in courts and legal proceedings, and then maybe they let you live here while they sort it out, but then again, maybe they won’t.”
Kodaq sat back and lit a cigarette while all that sank in. He French-inhaled and sat forward again. “Dale may be dead, but he ain’t no zombie. He can think, he can talk, he can reason. Hell, he been dead four days, and he don’t even hardly smell. At the very least, we need to let him get his affairs in order before we contact anybody.”
Dale seemed to have stopped following the conversation to stare away at nothing. Looking at him, with his face completely in repose, I would have known his death to be reality even if I hadn’t before. Something gave way in my chest, and I had to fight like hell to keep from weeping. “So, uh, how do we—? That is, what do we do?”
“Well, you seen Weekend at Bernie’s, right?” Kodaq said. “We do something like that. Only it’ll be easier because Dale can actually help us fake like he still alive.”
“Charmaine gets off at five fifteen. I’ll call and have her bring over her Mary Kay.”
The first time I met Dale was at City Price Baptist Church back in Port Sulphur. He was a scrawny little thing, maybe seven years old, but he looked like he was five. I know I musta seen him at school or around town before then, but I didn’t remember him.
That day, he was standing on the concrete porch outside the Sunday school room just bawling his eyes out. I went over and tried to figure out what the problem was. I must have asked him four, five times, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t even seem to hear me or know that I was there. He just went on crying away like he couldn’t see or hear me. I guess that got under my skin a little bit—the rudeness of it, when I was trying to help—so I shoved him.
He never did hardly weigh anything. He fell back almost before I could even register that I’d touched him. He went down hard against the church door and just lay there in a heap, his arms and legs all flopped over each other and just kept boo-hooing like his heart had broke.
“Well, there,” I said. “Now you got something to cry about, baby.”
But I felt awful about it. I felt so bad about it, I wound up telling my mama what I’d done when she put me to bed that night.
“What you done to that poor boy was a sin, Errol,” she said. “He didn’t deserve to be treated like that when he was already hurting. The Lord has stirred your conscience because you are meant to be a comfort and a protector to that boy. So you apologize and you look out for him.”
So I did.
Charmaine sighed and slapped a brush down on the kitchen table. “Do you have to stand there gawping while I work?”
The weird girl-smell of makeup filled the air, mixing with Charmaine’s perfume so that if I had closed my eyes, I would have imagined myself inside my gran’s heart-shaped jewelry box.
Dale sat stiffly to Charmaine’s left, his shoulders drawn up to his ears, his lips peeled back to show gray gums and yellow teeth. Two bright red spots of color stood out on his waxy-pink cheeks.
Kodaq and I stood just inside the kitchen doorway, watching while Kodaq chain-smoked his gawdawful GPCs.
“Well, Christ, Mainie,” Kodaq said. “You’re freaking him out. He looks like a cat on a fuckin’ Ferris wheel.”
“And that is an awful lot of color you put on his face,” I said. “I mean, he looks like one of them dolls they used to sell that crap themselves when you give ’em water.”
“God damn it, you two,” Charmaine said. “You call me over without telling me nothing, and I gotta improvise. Excuse me all to hell if he don’t look like the goddamn Mona Lisa!”
“Woman, why you gotta talk like that all the time?” Kodaq said. He sounded genuinely offended. “You got a dirty mouth!”
From the look on Charmaine’s face, you’d have thought he’d waved a filthy diaper under her nose. “Why I gotta—?” she began, and bit the sentence off. “Emory Kodaq Morrison, you get your meddling ass the hell out of this kitchen fuckin’ immediately before I kick your shriveled-ass balls out the top of your fuckin’ head!”
It didn’t seem possible, but now Dale went even more rigid. His corpse-grin widened, his shoulders drew up even farther, and his hollow eyes bugged out even more than before. His teeth began to chatter, and he pitched over to his left, falling full out of his chair.
“Damn it, Mainie!” Kodaq barked.
Charmaine stood up so fast that her own chair clattered over backwards onto the green-and-white checkered floor. Her finger stabbed the air as she thrust it toward the kitchen door. “Ouuuuuuuut!” she bellowed. She had no trouble making herself heard over the noise of falling furniture and the clacking of Dale’s teeth.
Both me and Kodaq turned tail.
“Not you, Cousin Errol!” She only called me that when she was well and truly pissed. “You pick Dale up and calm him down.”
I wavered for a moment, then swung into action. Dale still lay on his side, staring pop-eyed, chattering away like a typewriter. It wasn’t easy for me to reach out to him. I’d never touched a corpse before, let alone a undead.
It’s just Dale, you asshole, I thought fiercely. Your best friend in the goddamn world. That got me going again.
His arm felt like a tent pole in a canvas bag—light like that, but easier to break. For a split second, I was afraid he’d come apart in my hands, and I thought of that mummy exhibit my daddy took me to on our vacation to New York City.
As Charmaine looked on, I lifted Dale, being careful—extra careful—and set him back in his chair. He kept chattering, and I grasped his skinny thighs and looked him square in the face. “Dale,” I said. “Dale, ole buddy, ole friend. You look at me now.”
He kept chattering for a beat, but his eyes lost that vacant look. He fixed his gaze on mine and groaned high in his throat to show me he was listening.
“We been through some tough times, you and me, ain’t we?”
“Uh-huuuuuuuh,” he groaned, still chattering.
“Well, I ain’t gonna lie,” I said. “We done stepped in it now. But you are the same damn Dale Guidry you always been, and I’m the same damn Errol Hebert. So we gonna get through this thing like we always done. You with me, podnah?”
“… Uh-huuuuuuh …”
“Good,” I said. “Then you gotta calm down and let Mainie make you up.”
Dale shut his eyes, showing the bruised darkness of their lids. He drew his lips together and chattered silently for a moment. Then, slowly, his mouth stopped working, and his shoulders relaxed.
“Well, all right!” Charmaine said. “Errol, you miracle-worker, you.”
“Thuh-thanks, Errol,” Dale said, eyes still closed. He hadn’t stuttered since we were kids. “Just don’t guh-give up on me.”
Boudreaux is watching Thibodeaux through the kitchen window. Or is Thibodeaux watching Boudreaux? Doesn’t matter. Anyway, Boudreaux is watching Thibodeaux through the kitchen window. Thib is just sitting on the dock, staring at the bayou, and Boudreaux can tell from the way Thibodeaux is hanging his head that the weight of the world is on his friend’s shoulders. So he goes out back to see what’s what.
“What’s da matter wit you, Thib? You been mopin’ around for days now.”
“Sit down, Boud, I got some bad news for you,” says Thibodeaux. So Boudreaux takes a seat next to his friend on the dock.
“I only got forty-eight more days to live,” Thibodeaux says. “I just can’t get my head around it.”
“Is that what that damn-fool Dr. Robicheaux done tole you?” Boudreaux wants to know.
“Not like that, he ain’t,” Thibodeaux says. “But look here.” He pulls a small medicine bottle out of his pocket and shows it to his friend. “He said I gotta take one of these every day for the rest of my life.”
“So count ’em!” Thibodeaux says. “There’s only forty-eight of them things left!”
I laughed the first time I heard it. I did, but something about it bothered me.
By the time we were ten, Dale and I practically lived at each other’s houses. My parents approved, but Dale’s mama didn’t seem to think much of me. She had a permanently sour expression, a lit cigarette always hanging from the corner of her mouth, and instead of looking at people—myself included—she looked through them.
Dale’s daddy was out of the picture. Well, mostly. There was this one time when school was about to let out, and Dale and I were pulling our jackets on, making ready to walk over to my house. Dale had finished with his jacket and shrugged his backpack on when Mrs. Dansker motioned him over to her desk with a crook of her finger. She leaned over and touched Dale’s right shoulder as she spoke to him seriously, telling him something I couldn’t hear over the noise of gabbling classmates. I just watched them, feeling unsettled.
Finally, Dale crossed back to me, his big gray eyes wet and worried.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“I cuh-can’t go,” he said. “M-m-my d-d-duh—my father’s here to puh-pick me up.”
My mouth fell open, and the bottom fell out of my stomach. “Is he here to take you away?”
“He better not try,” Dale said, without a trace of his stutter. “I ain’t leaving you here alone. We— I won’t leave you alone.”
The day after Dale and Kodaq gave me the news, I looked through the cupboards and saw it was time to make groceries. I went all the way out to Dorignac’s, mostly because I just had to get out of the house. It had already dawned on me that I probably wasn’t going back offshore when it was time, so I needed to get my head on straight and figure out how to get through this. As I drove down O. C. Haley, trying to ignore the zombies that stood on the neutral ground and in the street , the color seemed to have seeped out of the world.
New Orleans’s zombie problem dates back at least to colonial times. I don’t know whether the Indians tried to warn them, but it didn’t take the settlers long to realize that about every twentieth person they buried clawed himself out of the ground or was washed out by the rain or floods to just hang around good for nothing and dumber than hell. That’s why the French were willing to sell the territory to the United States for such a paltry sum, and that is why, in Louisiana, the dead aren’t buried, but locked away in soundproof vaults. That way, the ones who wake up think the world has gone away and they just lay inert, waiting for nothing to keep happening.
Once in a while, though, a dead person wakes up before his burial and wanders out of the morgue or the funeral home or his undiscovered deathbed, and that’s how you get packs of the damn things standing around blocking traffic or groaning at tourists. I mean, it could be worse. I’m not sure how, but I bet it could be worse.
So one time, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux went to visit New Orleans. They was walking down Carrollton Avenue when Boudreaux saw something got him real excited. “Thib!” he says. “See dat sign? It say suits five dollars each, shirts two dollars each, trousers two fiddy a pair! We could buy ’em out and make a mint when we go back to da Bayou!”
“Sounds good,” Thibodeaux said. “Let’s do it.”
“Now when we go in there, you be quiet and let me do all the talkin’. If they think we country, they gone jack up the price.”
Inside, Boudreaux stands at the counter, rings the bell, and takes a deep breath to stand as tall as he can. “Good afternoon, my good man,” he says. “We’d like to place an order.”
“What’ll it be?”
“We should like to haves fifty suits, a hundred shirts, and two hundred pairs of trousers, sir.”
The man behind the counter looks at him sideways for a minute and says, “You two are in town from the Bayou, aren’t you?”
Boudreaux don’t know what to say for a minute. “… Mais, yeah,” he says finally. “How you know dat, anyhow?”
“Because this here is a dry cleaners.”
The meeting with the estate lawyer could have gone worse, I guess. Dale and I practiced his walk, trying to see if he could maybe keep from lurching or shuffling like a undead. He had no problem with that, but his quick and jerky bird-walk looked so strange and off-putting that we decided I should carry him like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The shrinkage and wizening he’d undergone since his death, Charmaine’s improvised Mary Kay application, and my carrying Dale and pretending nothing at all was wrong with him made us quite a sight, to say the least, as I ported him from my parking space on Carondelet Street into the Stone Pigman offices.
The place was real fancy—marble floors, a grand staircase stretching up from the foyer, dark wood paneling, and the waiting room furniture looked both comfortable and old. It reminded me of one of them gentlemen’s clubs from the old adventure stories I love to read. I kept expecting the aroma of cigar smoke to mix with the scent of orange oil that pervaded the place.
The woman at the front desk was a heavyset, owlish brunette. She actually did a double-take when she saw us. I guess we were lucky she wasn’t sipping coffee or nothing.
“God,” she said. “Can I—? Um. Sweet—! Can I help you, sir?”
I started to answer her, but Dale cut me off, speaking—God only knows why—with a British accent. “We here to see Chaw-chaw. Ruh—Ricky Chaw-chaw. Chaw-buddy, hey. Do it to it!” With that last, his voice had risen to a full-on scream.
Silence descended as both the receptionist and I shared a shocked look.
“What, ah, what my associate is trying to say, miss,” I said as soon as my voice started working again, “is that we here to see Clotile Kemp.”
The receptionist goggled at us for another beat, then, with visible effort, tore her gaze away from Dale. “Of course,” she said. Her smile was almost as tight as Dale’s. “Dale Guidry?”
This time, I cut him off. “That’s right.”
The lawyer handled Dale’s appearance better than the receptionist had. She was a rail-thin bottle blonde in her mid-thirties with a sharp chin and a sarcastic set to her mouth.
“Mr. Guidry?” she said, offering me her hand as she met us at the elevator.
I jerked my chin to indicate Dale, and she reached for his hand without hesitating.
Dale stabbed a finger in her direction. “Do it to it!” he crowed.
A hush fell over the office. A legal secretary had been walking toward us when we came out of the elevator. As soon as she saw and heard Dale, she turned around and headed the other way.
“Yes,” Kemp said. “Absolutely.” She led us into her corner office and sat us on a comfortable leather couch while she pulled up a chair. I felt like a fool, but I figured I’d have more control of the situation if I kept Dale on my lap.
“So I understand you’re looking to have a will drawn up, Mr. Guidry.”
“Yuh—Do it! Yes,” Dale said. He seemed to have dropped the British accent, at least. “I got … I got muh-money. Money and a d-d-d-do—! A house. I inherited from my d-d-d-daddy. I need Errol huh—here to have it. All of it. And power of attorney while you’re at it.”
“Now, wait a minute,” I said. “I thought that was going to your mama.”
Dale shook his head hard. “My m-m-muh-mama ain’t d-done a goddamn thing for me suh-since I was born,” he said. “You my only fuh-family.”
I looked up at the lawer. I wasn’t sure whether I should let what I was feeling show on my face or keep it to myself. “Could you, uh, give us a minute, ma’am?”
“Certainly,” she said, and withdrew from the room.
Honestly, I felt like I’d done something wrong. I wanted to take care of Dale, make sure he didn’t wind up shuffling around naked on Felicity Street, but it hadn’t crossed my mind that the only way to do that was for him to will me his entire estate.
“Dale. Dale, I ain’t so sure about this.”
“You my c—c—cuh—caregiver, Erroll,” he said. “You do everything f—for me since I died.”
I opened my mouth, but couldn’t quite respond. It felt like I stood in a pitch-dark room somewhere deep inside a pitch-dark house and that someone was slowly closing the door to the room I was standing in.
“You call her back in here, and I’ma h—have her duh—draw up that will. You get everything.”
I shouldn’t of done it, but I did.
“Stuh-stop,” Dale stammered. “I need gas.”
“Gas?” I said. We’d just passed the Shell station on Tchoupitoulas heading toward the Walmart. It was slower going heading home this way, especially because of the construction on Julia, but there were fewer undead, and for some reason, it seemed a good idea to keep Dale away from zombies. Other zombies. Damn it.
“F—f—fer Christ’s sake, Errol, just get me some.”
He sat on my pickup’s passenger seat, his little gray hands folded in his lap. He looked like a little old man on his way to Sunday services. He still smelled of foreign spices.
“What kind?” I said as I looked for a chance to turn us around.
“Don’t care,” he said. “Juh—just gasoline.”
“What in hell was all that at the lawyer’s office, you don’t mind my asking?” I said.
“That weird gibberish you was spouting?”
“Duh-dunno,” he said. “I ain’t … I ain’t exactly in muh-my body no more. I guh-gotta work it from a, from a kind of remove. You know: Like a puh-puppet. But I feel like if I can just get some gas, that’ll huh—help.”
I did as Dale had asked and got him his gas, but as I was coming out the little convenience store there, I saw a couple of undead standing in the exit to the street. One of them was mostly naked—she was a old one, and it looked like her nightgown had rotted right off her body. Most of her hair was gone, and what was left stuck up in weird little shocks that reminded me of baby’s hair. The other was a squat little black fella, his skin gone gray and sagging. He wore a hospital gown, and his mouth hung open, working, like he was trying to ask a question. I knew I should just go up and push them out of the way, but I was no more prepared to touch either one of them than I was to swim to the goddamn moon.
I got back in the car and handed Dale the gas can. He stared at it for a moment, then upended it and took a healthy swig. I just kind of stared at him. Before long, he was off in his own world again, staring up and to his left, his eyes rolling around in their sockets. I didn’t want to start him spouting gibberish again, so I put the truck in gear and eased forward, ready to bump the corpses out of our way.
“What you doing, Errol?” Dale asked.
“They’re in the way.”
“They in the—? Goddamn it, Errol,” he said. “Don’t you run them over!”
“All right, I’ll get out and fuckin’—”
Dale didn’t answer. Instead, he rolled his window down and pulled himself up to lean outside. “Yibbudy hey!” he said. “Frossum dangum lammun hammow!”
I swear to God, them zombies stopped what they was doing and looked his way. Not like you or I would, but slowly, painfully, still swaying aimless on their feet. It was an effort for them to listen to him, but they did.
The female’s mouth sorta fell open, and she made a noise kinda like a backed-up toilet.
“Rrrrruh?” the other one said.
“Shrun hicka goddamn do it rannum smow,” Dale said, and motioned with his right hand for them to move aside.
They seemed to get what he was saying, and slowly drifted out of our way.
I just watched Dale for a minute, openmouthed. “That’s their language?” I said eventually. “That gibberish you talk?”
But Dale was in no mood to answer questions. “You don’t just treat them any kind of way,” Dale said. “You don’t. They somebody’s kin.”
The gasoline did help—or it seemed to, anyhow. Dale gulped from the can several more times as I drove us home. By the time we made it back to Josephine Street, my truck reeked, but Dale opened his door and bounded lightly to the sidewalk, walking almost like a man.
“You sure you want to hand over all your affairs to me?” I asked as I followed him up the porch steps.
“Hell motherfuckin’ yeah,” he said. “You think my mama would keep her nose out my bidness and let me stay up in here now that I’m dead? ’Sides: my daddy hated her goddamn guts. If he’d a wanted her to have anything when he died, he’d of cut her into his own will.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
Dale never saw his daddy again after that one time. He said his daddy was a short, stocky sumbitch with rockabilly hair and the most beautiful car Dale had ever seen—an old Dodge Charger with red racing stripes, trim, and hubcaps. He took Dale on his first trip to New Orleans, tear-assing it along the highway so fast that Dale, even though he’d tried to steel his heart against the man, felt like he was flying.
They went to the zoo, to that one toy store down on Magazine, and bowling at Mid-City Lanes. Dale’s father even let Dale have a beer as they sat in the parking lot. Dale didn’t say so, but I knew he assumed that visits like that one would become a regular thing now that he and his daddy had broken the ice. When days, and then weeks, crept by with no further word from the man, Dale was crestfallen. It was as if he’d auditioned for the role of son and failed to land the part.
The disappointment didn’t turn him mean—Dale never had a mean bone in his body—but after that, he didn’t seem to give a shit about much of anything. His comic books, his grades, even girls, he could take ’em or leave ’em. While the rest of us were running around chasing poon, Dale had whoever he wanted. He started smoking cigarettes, drinking—his mama didn’t have much to say about it—and he just kind of drifted along, letting life happen.
But then, when we were sixteen, Dale’s daddy smashed up that beautiful car on I-10, just outside of Meridian. It turned out he’d been smart enough to plan for his early death and that he’d left Dale not just the house, but also enough money that, if he didn’t care to, Dale would never have to work a day in his life.
“I’m a motherfuckin’ millionaire,” Dale said, wide-eyed, as we sat smoking in my parents’ garage. “I got a fuckin’ stock portfolio, Errol. Stocks.”
“So what you gonna do?”
“Not me,” he said, grinning like a shark. “We. We gonna move to New Orleans and live like fuckin’ kings.”
I shivered as I handed him the bong. “Come on, man. They got zombies there.”
“You come on,” he said. “So what they got zombies there? They got potholes, too. You give me till you finish high school to change your mind, because I’m telling you: I seen the future, and it’s the goddamn Dale and Errol Show.”
Four months ago, I was sitting on the front porch with a bottle of gin, just sort of watching the city settle down into evening. To tell the truth, I was already half in the bag by the time I saw Dale cross Carondelet on his way home. His car had broke down a couple weeks back, so he’d been taking the trolley to work.
He was a deckhand on the Algiers ferry. It was nothing work—tying and untying ropes, hauling chains, and operating doors as the ferry crossed the Mississippi back and forth all day long, but it got him out of the house. He was still wearing his uniform shirt, but he’d yanked it out of his pants, and his collar had flapped open—completely unbuttoned. His glasses glinted, throwing streetlight back through the gathering gloom. He jerked his elbows a little as he walked, and the movement was light and birdlike. His soft, fuzzy hair caught the streetlight, making him look like a pissed-off duckling. And he was clearly pissed. He had the look he gets where you can tell he’s fighting for calm, but he is losing the fight.
“You want me to get you a glass?” I said as he mounted the half-rotten porch steps.
“How much more of that you got?” he said, as if he hadn’t heard.
“Another bottle. Should be—”
“We gonna need more’n that,” he said.
“You want me to get you a—”
“Don’t need no glass,” he said. “Hand it here.”
I gave him the bottle, and he planted his feet, bending his knees slightly as he upended it into his mouth. He’d already been drinking, and was more than half in the bag himself.
He took another gulp then swung the bottle down to hang at his side. “Sonsabitches fuckin’ fired me’s what happened. Didn’t even let me finish my fuckin’ lunch.”
“What the hell for?”
“They don’t need a reason,” he said, then shrugged bitterly. “This is an At Will state. But fuck ’em. I don’t need that goddamn job. I got better things to do.”
“Listen,” I said, and he paused as he lifted the bottle. “You all right?”
“I’m …” His expression softened then. “Yeah, I’m fine. I already talked to Sonny over at the Erin Rose, and they need another bartender.”
“Well, I’m sorry this happened,” I said. “I s’pose I’ll go get us that other bottle, and you can tell me all about it.”
Dale still had that look on his face like he was shocked that anyone cared enough to ask if he was all right. “Errol,” he said, and halfway reached out with his bottle-holding hand.
“We, uh— We got anything besides gin?”
Boudreaux went to see Dr. Benoit for a checkup. He asked the doctor, “Doc, you think I live to be a hunnerd years old?”
“Mr. Boudreaux,” says the doc, “do you smoke or drink?”
“Mais, non,” Boudreaux says, “I don’t do that none.”
“Do ya gamble? Drive fast pickup trucks? Fool around with loose women?”
“Mais, non, Doc. I ain’t never done none o’ that.”
“Well, then,” said the doc. “Whyinhell you wanna live to be a hunnerd, anyhow?”
Sleeping became a chore. Every night I lay down to just awful fucking dreams, full of blood and death and shadowed figures standing over me. It got so waking up to check on Dale became a relief. After a few days of that crap, though, I lay down to sleep and entered into a state of unconsciousness so perfect that it was like being unborn. I knew nothing of this world or any other, and it refreshed me like nothing else. I woke from it with a sense of loss like you have after you dream a life better than waking. I stared at the ceiling, just thinking. The house was pretty quiet. I didn’t hear Dale marching around or nothing. I could have pulled one of my Allan Quatermain volumes off the shelf and read for a while, but instead, I just lay there doing nothing, staring at the ceiling, at home in my own body. For the past several days, I’d been Dale’s best friend, Dale’s caretaker, but right now, I was only myself.
That perfect and blissful peace was broken by a hellacious clattering and an unhinged screaming coming from somewhere downstairs. I waited a beat or two, and then rose, shaking my head as I did. I pulled on my bathrobe and went to make sure Dale hadn’t hurt himself none.
I found him in the smoke-filled kitchen, standing with his legs planted shoulder-width apart, his little shoulders hunched as he stood angrily over the mess he’d made. A blackened skillet lay on the floor, its contents unidentifiable, acrid smoke rising from the mess. The stink of gasoline combined with whateverthehell Dale had burned, and the smell brought tears to my eyes.
“Kuckafuckarabba!” he screamed.
“What’s the trouble, podnah?” I said, trying to keep my voice light.
Dale whirled, and his expression was one of betrayal. “Errol, I was tryna make you breakfast in bed,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “but this motherfuckin’ skillet burned your eggs, and—” He stabbed his finger in the direction of the stove. “—and that sumbitch helped!”
“You fuckin’ heard me. I want—I demand fuckin’ satisfaction. These goddamn appliances is in cahoots.”
I couldn’t help but grin. “You fuckin’ with me now. I know you are.”
Now Dale looked confused. We stared at each other for a moment before a look of understanding dawned across his face. “… Because the skillet and the stove, they can’t conspire,” he said slowly. “They ain’t alive.”
“Well, yeah,” I said.
“But we ain’t alive, and we can conspire,” he said.
“The Day is Coming,” he said.
“Nothing,” he said. “Leave me be.”
When I was maybe eleven, my gran started forgetting things. You know how it is with the old folks. She’d leave her keys in the wrong place, or she’d go to the store and forget why she was there. It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me, but I could tell from the way my parents talked together that they was worried.
One day, Dale and I went over to Gran’s house like we had a thousand times before. She gave us candy, we played Monopoly, she sang a song or two—one of her old favorites from when she was a girl.
When we got ready to leave, she called me Georgie and told me to be home by dinnertime. She’d mistaken me for my daddy.
I felt like telling my parents was the right thing to do, but I didn’t want to worry them. I wrestled with the decision for a couple days. I asked Dale what I should do, and he didn’t know. Finally, I told. From the conversations I’d overheard, Mama and Daddy seemed to worry that Gran was sick, and how would she get any better if they never knew for sure to take her to the doctor?
Long story short, they wound up putting Gran in a home, and over time, the Alzheimer’s took her away from us completely. I took it hard. Harder than I should have, maybe. I ain’t stupid. Looking back at the whole thing, I know it wasn’t my fault. I know I didn’t do nothing wrong. The thing is, up till then, I thought that if I brought a problem to my parents, they’d fix it, you know, or they’d tell me how. I thought there’d be a solution. A cure. I know now that there isn’t a cure. There won’t be for quite a while. But there should be. There goddamn should be.
It’s not right that people can get sick in such a way as to where all you can do is put them away.
I dunno how he did it, or when, but about ten days after our visit to the lawyer, I came home from making groceries and was putting the food away when I glanced out the window above the kitchen sink and saw that Dale—or someone—had dug a pit in the backyard. I mean, the gasoline seemed to steady him, but he was still so frail and light that I had a hard time with the idea of him working a shovel well enough to accomplish what I saw before me. It looked like he was trying to put in a swimming pool.
I went outside to stand at the edge of the pit and just stared down into it for a while. I tried not to feel as if, when I wasn’t looking, my life had become unrecognizable.
“Errol!” Dale called down from an upstairs window. “How’s every little thing!” He still had his makeup on, but it had faded some and smeared around his mouth. The way the daylight hit him made him look lit from inside like a awful jack-o’-lantern.
“What’s this hole for?” I called back.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he said. “Hold yo hosses, podnah. The Day is coming!”
That night, I dreamed myself standing at the checkout in Breauxmart, but instead of the cash register and its conveyor belt, a casket stood beside me, and Kodaq’s body lay inside.
I lifted my groceries from my cart and set them on Kodaq’s belly. They were toys I’d had as a boy: green plastic Army Men, a little tin drum, an Etch A Sketch.
“Do it to it,” Kodaq said, speaking softly in my gran’s voice.
“Man, I don’t think I’m up for this,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Georgie,” he said. “The Day is coming.”
I woke up standing naked in the upstairs hallway, clutching a can of Raid, tears streaming down my face.
The house was silent. I stood there breathing hard, straining to hear even the normal creaks and complaints. I didn’t wonder where Dale was or what he was doing. I didn’t think about my life or whether I had made the right decision sticking around to care for my friend. All the little habits and movements I used on a daily basis to separate myself from the world had melted away in my sleep and had not come back yet. I was my barest animal self, and my only company was a bitter-cold physical terror that made me want to pull the air around me like a blanket and disappear.
One time, Dale and I rented this documentary movie about these crazy old over-the-hill society broads. After an hour or so, I made some excuse and left Dale to watch by himself because it was just the scariest fucking movie I ever seen. Those old women—they had the same name, but damn if I can remember it now—they lived in this rotten old falling-down mansion together and just chattered at each other like magpies for hours on end. One of them was so crazy, she only wore shirts. She wrapped shirts around her head and wore them like hats, she wore them as proper shirts, and she tied them around her lower half and wore them like skirts. She seemed like the crazier of the two at first because she was mobile, but if you listened to them talk at each other, you could tell that her mother was at least as crazy as she was. It was—it was scarier than any haunted house movie. There were no bogeymen to jump out at you, but their house was haunted all right. It was haunted as hell, but they were the ones haunting it. They were shades of themselves, having dissipated to practically nothing.
I ain’t stupid. I know it’s weird that Dale and I are thirty years old and neither one of us has ever had a serious romantic relationship. From time to time, I used to wonder if we were queer for each other without knowing it, but I had to discount that idea because, you know, the whole plumbing issue is just an insurmountable obstacle for me, and I was pretty sure Dale felt the same way.
Anyway, after a while, I had recovered myself enough that I was able to go back into my room for some clothes. Even after I put them on, I kept the Raid with me, but I could not tell you why. Something told me I should just lay back down and go to sleep, that was just out of the question.
Outside the bedroom, the acrid stench of gasoline hung in the air, letting me know that Dale had been by recently. By now, the house seemed a little less menacing. The trees sighed in the yard, disturbed by the wind, overhead, the attic beams creaked, and at the edge of my hearing, there was something else, a barking or a shouting coming from the backyard. I wavered a bit before heading downstairs.
By the time I reached the kitchen, I could hear Dale much more clearly. I pictured him out back, standing at the edge of his pit, flailing as he bellowed up at the idiot moon. I shuddered to think of him that way, but it turned out the reality was much worse.
It wasn’t until I heard him scream, “Can I get a amen!” that I realized he wasn’t alone.
An awful groan split the air, intertwined by a snuffling and a chittering, and other sounds I couldn’t quite identify.
Don’t you do it, I thought as my hand fell on the backdoor’s knob. In that moment, I became twins. One brother stood by and watched as the other twisted the knob and pulled open the door.
The stench hit me square in the face. It choked me. I could taste it on my tongue. Sickly sweet and musty, it was like a living thing standing there with me ready to wrestle with my terror for the right to choke me out.
And there were hundreds of— There were hundreds of them. Zombies, some deader than others, filled the pit and spilled into the backyard. Some of them still wore grave clothes while others stood naked, and others, more naked still—bones showed through their rotten flesh—a thighbone here, a shoulder blade there. What did me in, what really got me, was the animals. Run-over dogs, incomplete cats, partly skeletal birds, torn-open squirrels. Undead people was one thing. I saw them every day all over town, but I’d had no idea that the poisoned ground turned back animals, even. I might be wrong, but I think I even saw a pig standing on the far side of the pit.
Dale looked more alive than he had in days and days. He wore a suit and tie, and he’d washed Charmaine’s makeup job away. He’d slicked his hair back into a sort of old-fashioned flip that made him look like a frontier banker.
“Ducka frabble jingle yaw,” he said. “Subble gammit sammerjaw. De-whump? Diddy skum? Ye brow. Yebrow de haw!”
And the crowd answered him, moaning, like he was talking perfect sense.
“The rabbits are glasses, unum fraw,” he said. “Iffen ya rundle gasp, ittul beeble sumeener how. Yibbudy. Yibbudy saww.”
“Rang on dem latmun sookles!” he shrieked. “The rabbits are glasses! The Day ain’t coming! The Day is here!”
I turned and ran so fast, it wasn’t even like running at all. It was like standing in a Radio Flyer as someone unseen pulled me along. Through the kitchen and into the dining room. Through the dining room into the foyer. Out the front door and into the front yard. Other zombies were still drifting in, heading for the backyard. They looked smarter than they had, and that was the worst part. They looked like they knew what the fuck they was doing.
It was hot out. The heat had kind of crept up all of the sudden—it had been pretty mild for the past couple weeks, but now it was steamy, like dog breath, but without the smell. Instead, the night air held an aroma of flowers and motor oil and expectation, kind of like you get just before a real bad storm. I dunno how I made it off our street without hitting any of the cars parked there. I used to make fun of Dale for driving like he was in a movie, but that’s what I was doing now. It was like I thought I was Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I know I went the wrong way up that stretch of Josephine just before it intersects with Saint Charles. I wasn’t thinking I had to warn anybody. I wasn’t thinking much of anything.
The drive to Kodaq and Charmaine’s isn’t a blur. It isn’t anything because it just ain’t there in my memory. One minute, I’m doing maybe seventy up Saint Charles, and the next, I’m standing on Kodaq’s front porch, banging on the door and shouting his name. I’m not sure what time it was. Three in the morning, maybe five. I’m banging hard, not just with my fist, but with my forearms, like I’m trying to knock the door off its hinges.
When Kodaq opened the door, he had his silvery-gray ponytail tucked up into a shower cap, and a shotgun in his hands. He just kind of gaped at me.
“That won’t do no good,” I said. “They already dead.”
“The fuck you talking about, Errol?”
“He’s round the bend. He’s whipping ’em up, and goddammit, they’re listening. They—they know what they’re doing, and they’re listening to him!”
“Who’s listening to what?” Kodaq said.
“Kodie?” Charmaine called from somewhere out of sight. “Kodie, what’s going on?”
“Don’t worry,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s just Errol… . He been drinking pretty hard.”
“I ain’t had a fuckin’ drop, and you—!”
Kodaq pushed me backwards, and I had a hard enough time keeping my feet that by the time I righted myself, he’d stepped onto the porch and shut the front door behind him. “You got to calm down, baby,” he said. “You ain’t making much sense right now, babbling.”
“The zombies,” I said. “Dale’s preaching at ’em.”
“Yes! He—” Taking as much care as I could to sound sane, I told him what I’d seen back at the house.
When I’d finished, Kodaq sagged with relief. “Jesus,” he said. “Is that all?”
“Is that—? Did you hear a goddamn word I said?”
“Relax, baby,” he said. Now he was talking like he was trying to sell me something. “You been under tremendous stress since Dale died. It don’t surprise me you’d have a nightmare like this, and I’m honest-to-god glad you came to me before doing anything crazy. Think about your position from the other side, and you’ll see it ain’t so bad as all that. I mean, look at you: Your best friend died, but you get to keep him close, and on top of that, you got millions of dollars in your back pocket.”
His smile was kind and held just a trace of pity. If I hadn’t been so stunned, I’d have knocked that expression right off his head. “Look, I know the zombies took some getting used to when you moved to town,” he said. “Everybody feels that way. But it’s just one of them things. If you want to live here, you gotta be able to stand the heat, the corruption, and the zombies.”
“Listen to me,” I said. “This is it. I ain’t going back to that house. I can’t. I’m fixin’ ta get back in my truck, and I’m gonna drive until I stop feeling like my skin don’t fit. And anyone who doesn’t … I don’t know what’s gonna happen to you.”
“I hear you talking,” he said, and smiled that goddamn smile again. “But you can’t leave Dale. You never could. Get some rest, get it out of your system, then get at me. I’ll bring you some booze.”
There was nothing else to say. I left him smiling after me and headed back down the steps to my car.
Somewhere in there, I lost a little time. I don’t know if I fell asleep or what, but by the time I got onto I-10, light had begun to spread across the sky. It bothered me that I wasn’t sure when I’d done what, but something about the dawn filled me with a sense of relief. Living your life, you get used to the idea that the sun will come up tomorrow just like it did this morning, but I guess what with everything that had happened, I stopped being so sure.
Zombies were still out, still walking, even along the highway. There were more of them than ever before, and they were all walking in the same direction, walking with purpose. By chance, when I’d dressed, I’d pulled on the pair of jeans that still had my cell phone in the pocket. It startled me when it began vibrating, but I reached for it and checked the caller ID. All it said was HOME.
I flipped it open, put the phone to my ear, but I didn’t say nothing.
His voice sounded stronger than it had for weeks now. It sounded almost as strong as it had when he was yelling out his gibberish sermon.
“What … what day is coming?” I said. “What day is here?”
“Come on back. It’s safe. You think I’d let anything happen to you after all you done for me? After all the time you spent sticking by me closer’n my own family? I wouldn’t never. I wouldn’t never let nobody hurt you.”
“That ain’t what I’m afraid of.”
“You know it ain’t right how this city treats its dead,” he said, and that preacher’s authority bloomed back into his voice. “You know it ain’t. At first, I had no idea why this happened to me, but I understand now: God has made me this way so that I could muster my brethren and show this sinful city right from wrong! They push the dead aside, they ignore us, they leave us walled up in tombs, just waiting for nothing and nobody! Somebody’s got to show them that enough is enough!”
“You’re talking with words again, but I swear, Dale, you ain’t making no sense.”
“I am more alive as a fucking corpse than I ever was as a man,” he said. He sounded like himself again. “I signed you over everything I own, so the least you can do is st—stuh—stay with me.”
“I don’t want it,” I said. “None of it. I wish I could convince you not to hurt nobody.”
I clicked the END button and stared at the lightening horizon for a beat. Then I rolled the passenger side window down and chucked the phone right out.
I know right from wrong. Right is when people die and lay the hell down like they’re supposed to. I didn’t know for sure what Dale intended to do. He was changed by death into something awful. Something with power in its voice that could stir emotions where none should exist. He could command an army of the dead—but how much had he changed exactly? So much that he was capable not just of violence, but of leading an army against the living? I wasn’t sure. One thing that had helped me keep my sanity as much as I had as Dale got crazier and crazier was that he was still Dale through it all. And Dale hadn’t ever hurt nobody—and certainly not me. He’d been telling the truth when he said he wouldn’t let nobody do me harm.
What bothered me was this: Dale and I had grown to need each other. I’d imagined that sooner or later, we’d grow apart. That I’d get a girl, or he’d get a girl, or I’d move out of the house and just go on my way. When he died and refused to lay down, I began to fear that that would never happen. If not even death could split us up, then I had to act, didn’t I? And what if I did go back? What if New Orleans stayed where it was and there was no zombie holocaust or whateverthehell, and I just went back to living with Dale? What if, when I died, I kept on kicking around just like he had? Then what?
Look, I stuck by Dale, looked out for him, for the better part of thirty years. I may even have been willing to stick by him for life. “For life” is easy. It’s a hell of a lot easier than forever. I just couldn’t do forever.
When I was maybe eight, my daddy, my mama, and I went to Birmingham to see our cousins there. We cut through New Orleans and drove over Lake Ponchartrain, headed north. Living in Port Sulphur, I was no stranger to big water, but there was something about the glassy expanse of the lake that made my heart swell. After a while, when you’re on that bridge, there’s no land in sight, and all you can see for miles and miles is the lake, shining silver blue beneath a sky where the clouds lay piled on top of one another, and everything seems possible. Everything seems infinite.
I guess, ever since I started driving out of the city, I thought that if I could just make it to the lake, if I could have that feeling again, I’d be okay—even if I had no idea where the hell I was going.
It didn’t quite compute to me, what I was seeing, as I guided the pickup out onto the causeway bridge. At first, I thought it was a trick of the light, but it wasn’t. Seeing it gave me a feeling like bony hands reaching into my chest and just squeezing my heart with cold, dead fingers.
The water was black. It looked like somebody had drained the lake out and replaced all the water with cola.
I had to drive. I had to keep my head. But seeing that told me all I needed to know.
This is the last one, I swear:
Boudreaux, Thibodeaux, and Robicheaux all died and went up to heaven. They’s standing at the Pearly Gates, light shining all around them, and Saint Peter appears to greet them. He says, “Welcome, y’all. Before you go in, I just want to ask one question: What would you like to hear your relatives and friends say about you at your funeral?”
Robicheaux thinks about it a minute, then he says, “Well, you know, I was a heart surgeon in life. I’d love to hear somebody say how I operate on dem and fix dey heart and give dem a second chance.”
Thibodeaux nods sagely, then he says, “Well, you know, I was a schoolteacher, me. I sure would like to hear someone say how I was a inspiration in dey life and taught dem to be a success.”
Everybody turns to look at Boudreaux. Boudreaux shrugs. He says, “Listen, y’all are both great men, and those are some great things y’all said y’all wanted to hear. But I tell you what: More’n anything else, at my own funeral, I’d rather hear my family say, ‘Look! He movin’!”
You see what I’m getting at? Do you? I said before it didn’t matter which one was Boudreaux and which one was Thibodeaux, but I guess that’s just not really the case. Every time I hear one of them jokes, I think of me and Dale, and to tell you the truth, I think of myself as Boudreaux, and him as Thibodeaux. Every single time. And I guess, after a while, it just came time for Boud and Thib to part ways.
I’m sorry. I mean it. Truly, I am.