Kathleen S. McFall
“That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.”
Rainier Maria Rilke
“For every fact, there is an infinity of hypotheses.”
Robert M. Pirsig
Loretta Sparkman thinks she is becoming a zombie but not the type that eats brains because that is cover-your-eyes gross. Instead, Loretta is focused on the underlying metaphorical meaning of the zombie as a concept, which as she interprets it, is an instinctive, stripped-bare response to a world-gone-mad. Another way to put this, Loretta believes, is that the zombie is a symbol, or recognition, of the fact that meaning—in the existential sense—is a more a function of reaction and less of philosophical consideration.
Loretta suspects most people in her middle-aged orbit would delicately suggest she is experiencing a midlife crisis what with all her talk about zombies and meaning, or lack thereof. Inside the conversation in her head, Loretta says to an imaginary friend that while she appreciates the concern, the idea that her current state of being is consistent with a crisis-of-aging metaphor is invalid because the very concept itself is out of touch with the modern world, an artifact of different times, not to mention devoid of narrative creativity.
Still, even as she spurns the midlife crisis story, Loretta is not fully confident zombie captures her non-midlife crisis but after trying on and discarding a dozen or so other narratives (ranging from psychic vampire to ghost in the machine all the way to the classic empty-nester) and despite the fact that she is a professional storyteller—which is to say she works in public relations—Loretta cannot find a better proxy to describe what is happening to her.
So zombie it is.
“It’s like my identity, my sense of self, is disintegrating,” she says.
“I thought zombies eat other people’s brains, not their own,” Matthias says.
“Maybe we should call it pre-zombie,” Loretta says.
“I don’t think that’s a thing.”
“Well, it could be, I mean we can make up any story we want but okay let’s stick with full-on zombie,” Loretta says. “Because you’re right, pre-zombie makes it sound, I don’t know, weird.”
“That’s what you think makes this sound weird?”
“It’s not a perfect fit, I admit that,” she says.
“You say your self is disintegrating. What exactly does that mean?”
“It’s not that my ability to think and be smart and read and so on is gone, it’s just I’m not entirely sure who is doing that stuff anymore.” Loretta pauses, searching, but not finding the perfect words, stumbling ahead anyway. “Kind of like I’m sleepwalking through life. I’ve defaulted to auto-pilot, except with you, of course.”
“A sleep-walking zombie on auto-pilot,” he says.
“Okay, way too many metaphors, sorry,” Loretta says. “But words have their limits.”
He leans back in the worn-out red Lazy-boy armchair in their living room, laces his fingers together behind his head and lingers his gaze on Loretta’s face, his wife of more than twenty years.
“Are you depressed?” Matthias asks. He is treading carefully, keeping his voice even.
“The opposite,” she says.
“Really? Well, that’s good—”
“I feel utterly and completely neutral. It’s liberating.”
Matthias is, for an instant, deflated, anticipating that the opposite of depressed would be closer to joy.
“It’s not that I have zero feelings because that would make this a robot story, not a zombie story,” she says.
“Of course,” Matthias says.
A shaft of sunlight escapes the pull of a cloudbank and pulses through the window, striking Matthias on the left side of his face; he moves his head to avoid the golden sharpness.
“For the record, the only reason I’m bringing this up is because the last thing in the world I want is for you to worry and given I’ve been—”
“Distracted and distant? And looking at birds pretty much always.”
“Which has nothing to do with you, or us, I promise.”
“What if we do something totally out of the ordinary, like sky-diving or fly someplace exotic or buy you a flashy toy? Jump start you back into your self with some spontaneity,” he says.
“Like a car battery?”
“Matthias, honey, be realistic. We could never afford that, not now.”
“Better wine? Even more wine?”
Loretta pours herself a glass of chardonnay, her second of the afternoon. “You don’t seem to be taking me seriously and perhaps for good reason,” she says, her voice trailing off.
Through the window, she spots a pair of delicate finches, their heads frosted red, chattering at the feeder. She wonders what they might be saying to each other. As she watches, one flies away. The left-behind bird pulls out a seed, cracks it open, grabs the nutty sliver, eats and then drops the shell to the ground. That side of the yard below the birdfeeder is blanketed with cracked seeds. It used to bother her, all the chaos and messiness; Loretta swept and raked weekly but now she lets the seeds pile up. The second bird comes back in for a landing, trying to regain a foothold on the rim.
Loretta isn’t sure why she watches birds so much these days, or how to fit that fact in with her zombie story. Maybe, she thinks, an empty mind allows her to fall more completely into their idiosyncratic beauty of birds.
“I always take you seriously but I don’t understand why you’ve picked now, a few minutes before Pinky gets here to confess to zombiness.”
The birds flutter away together; the momentum of their departure leaves the feeder twirling.
“Is that a word, zombiness?” she asks, still looking through the window.
“Sure, why not,” he says.
“It’s a good word, zombiness should absolutely be a word,” Loretta says.
They startle at the doorbell; a drawn-out ring, like the sound coaxed from an old battered flute, the finer notes weathered by time into a single, flat noise.
“Did she say why she is visiting?”
“No, and in fact, she was oddly vague about it,” Loretta says.
“This zombie conversation isn’t over,” Matthias says.
The doorbell rings again; three short bursts this time.
“You ready?” Matthias asks.
“Zombies are always ready,” she says, finishing the glass of wine. “That’s the upside. No need to plan, no thought, just pure reaction.”
Loretta stands, stretches her arms out in front of her, groans and stumbles into the hallway. Matthias laughs. To Loretta, his laugh sounds like the swell of a mourning dove. She stops her zombie play-acting before she reaches the door.
Seconds later, Pinky explodes into the house, heaving a dusty backpack almost as big as she is onto the floor. Matthias says hello but hangs back, as Pinky and Loretta hug and share news at a hyper clip—what have you been up to, are you seeing anyone, how’s your health, how is Sally-Anne, my God has it really been five years, yes, yes, I amstarving, how did you know!
Pinky and Loretta buzz into the backyard, a temporary tornado of small joys, and plop down in side-by-side deck chairs, painted yellow and chipped from age, backed up against a wooden fence overtaken by English ivy and missing one panel. The chairs face a stately old cherry tree. The blossoms were lit up like fireworks a few weeks back but now the once-delicate petals are matted around the base of the trunk like brown gruel.
“So good to have you here, Pinky,” Loretta says. “It’s been way too long.”
“I’m relieved to be here,” Pinky says.
Relieved is an unexpected word, Loretta thinks, but she doesn’t press on it. “You look beautiful,” Loretta says. “So healthy, and youthful. I like your short hair.” Pinky’s hair is shorn nearly to the scalp, like a military buzz cut.
“I might grow it back, but when I cut it all off, in that moment, I absolutely needed the freedom. I feel so much lighter.”
“I’m not sure how you can get much lighter without floating away, you are so tiny, but it does suit you. You look, I don’t know, luminous, I guess is the word,” Loretta says.
Pinky doesn’t respond. Loretta cracks her knuckles, recognizing the awkward moment in friendships of women of a certain age when the other person feels obliged to say something like oh, you look great too, but Pinky has never been one for false flattery and Loretta’s appearance is about as far from luminous as one can be on the spectrum of luminosity; she is frumpily emanating something close to the color of washed-out gray. Zombie-bland.
“How about a glass of wine?” Loretta says, breaking the silence.
“I’m not drinking these days. Lolo,” Pinky says, lapsing into Loretta’s childhood name, “and honestly, you look exhausted and like you’re not taking care of yourself. What’s going on?”
“Nothing more pronounced than boredom. Work, home, eat, drink, sleep, work some more, repeat, take care of stuff, drink again,” Loretta says, with a little laugh, but it’s not an easy sound, or natural. She doesn’t want to confess her zombiness to Pinky, not yet at least. “Now come on, I want to hear about you. You’re the world traveler. Tell me about your adventures.”
Pinky chews on her lower lip, as if she is deciding something. “Well, there is one thing,” she says.
“Go on, tell me.”
“Brace yourself, because this is kind of big,” Pinky says. She takes a deep breath and then continues. “Have you ever had a near death experience?”
“You mean, like going into the tunnel, life review and stuff like that?”
“No,” Loretta says. “Have you?”
“Twenty-two of them,” Pinky says.
This is light years away from anything Loretta is expecting. “Have you died twenty-two times?” she asks, simultaneously registering the absurdity of her question.
“No, no, I wasn’t dead during any of them,” Pinky says, lightly brushing a mosquito from her sun-freckled shoulder. She wears a flowered halter-top tied in a bow behind her neck; the round outline of a nipple ring pushes out beneath a sunflower’s feathered edge.
“I’m speechless,” Loretta says.
Pinky takes a sip of water, pops an ice cube into her mouth and chews. It cracks apart and she swallows the pieces, grins, and then blurts out her story, her voice coursing with a flash flood of urgency.
“I know it sounds nuts, Lolo, but I have seen into the abyss of existence, which contains everybody and everything, and nothing also, all of this during the twenty-two times I traveled to the other side, it’s not traveling exactly but that’s the closest word I can come up with. More like flying—”
“Flying?” Loretta asks. “Pinky, what are you saying?”
“Not like on a plane, maybe more like I’m a bird, but not even that, words fail me on this. But the important part is that once I get through that tunnel everything is indivisible, everything is one.”
“Wow,” Loretta says, bewildered.
“It’s beautiful, and I feel special and loved really, so much love is there, I am whole and at one with something bigger, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m complaining, I’m blessed to be seeing into this realm, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted, like my entire life’s journey has been worth it, but at the same time, I don’t know what’s happening to me and I’m a little worried that—”
“You might be crazy,” Loretta says. “Like you need help crazy.”
“You always know what I’m thinking,” Pinky says.
“Are you frightened?” Loretta asks.
“Not exactly,” Pinky says, nervously picking at the cuticle around her thumb. “Maybe a little.”
“Have you told anyone else about this? Or seen a doctor?”
“No doctor but I told my mother.”
“She’s not well these days, her mind’s kind of gone, Alzheimer’s.”
“I’m so sorry, Pinky, I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay, or at least as okay as possible. She’s well cared for.”
“I told her about all this last week before flying out here to your place, when I visited her in the old folk’s home, or assisted-living, whatever I’m supposed to call it, and during a lunch of something too awful to eat, I admitted everything, which given her illness, I’m not sure why I did.”
“It’s understandable,” Loretta says.
“She didn’t seem to hear me, didn’t answer or acknowledge what I was saying, just kept gumming that mushy food but then a few hours later when we were watching an old rerun of Lawrence Welk, Mom turned to me and said God was sending me a message about the meaning of life and my job was to figure out how to translate it for the world. Then she went blank again.”
The wail of an ambulance pierces their conversation. As they wait for it to pass, Loretta looks up. A bird flies low across of the early night sky; its distant body creates an exacting line of punctuation against the deepening blue. Pinky follows Loretta’s gaze. The siren sound collapses into almost-nothingness.
“Could be a hawk,” Loretta says. “Or even a vulture.”
“You’re working at the University now,” Pinky says, looking back at Loretta. “What’s your job?”
The change of subject surprises Loretta. “Pinky, let’s stick to your news. Seeing into the abyss of existence and translating messages from God are far more pressing than talking points and alumni newsletters.”
“Really, I want to know about your job,” Pinky insists.
Pinky shrugs. “I just do.”
Loretta’s relatively benign title—Assistant Vice President of Public Relations—cloaks the truth of what she does; she manages crisis communications. Some people, especially the faculty, call Loretta a spin-doctor, a term she hates, but if she is honest, doesn’t feel too far off the mark. The job title she prefers, her own made-up one, which she uses privately, is narrative architect, responsible for creating the message platforms that will contain and, if she’s having a very good day, redirect the chaos of infinite human fallibility.
“I make up stories, basically,” Loretta says.
“Is it satisfying?”
“Every now and again.”
“Food’s here,” Matthias calls from inside.
“Let’s get you fed and then keep talking about your twenty-two near deaths,” Loretta says, standing and pulling Pinky up by her child-like hands with their bitten down fingernails.
“You smell like home,” Pinky whispers, nuzzling beneath Loretta’s chin. “I feel safe with you.”
Loretta wraps her arms around Pinky, falling effortlessly into the familiarity of her small body, and she pictures the long-ago agile and carefree girls they were, the children who, like most children, at least the lucky ones, had no questions about the meaning of life, never noticing its absence, reacting only to the freshness of each instant and the endlessness of time. Loretta wonders, as she takes in Pinky’s scent, if perhaps her zombiness simply means she has now come full-circle.
A few minutes later, Matthias, Loretta and Pinky eat at the round dining room table covered with the invisible and messy memories of two decades of a mostly happy family life, a space infrequently used since Sally-Anne left for college two years ago, when Matthias and Loretta retreated to dinner trays in front of the television to watch old westerns, true-crime shows and history documentaries.
Tonight, the three friends slide into an easy banter, trading Chinese food take-out cartons, talking about this and that but mostly Pinky fills them in on where she’s been living the last five years (Turkey, Thailand and Taiwan, and no, it wasn’t intentional that they all started with the same letter, but what fun, she says, that it turned out that way). Pinky then asks Mathias about his health because Matthias is bald and skeletally thin, newly angular when she remembers he had once been bearish.
Loretta would love more than anything to not talk about Matthias’s health but he can’t be stopped and launches into his diagnosis and the months of treatment, saying it in a way that manages to take the edge of the hard news, making them laugh when he goes into detail about his “vomit diaries,” as they finish up the tofu noodles and veggie stir-fry.
“He’s fine now,” Loretta says. “Totally fine.”
“The baldness makes you look distinguished,” Pinky says.
“Liar,” Matthias says, grinning lopsidedly.
Loretta flashes on an image of Matthias from last year, him saying (in a high-pitched made-up voice to mimic an imaginary museum director or art critic) he would shave his head pre-chemo as a symbol of intentional deconstruction, a form of performance art, rather than be turned into a passive recipient of medical deconstructionism. Loretta lathered his head with the stinky shaving cream, laughing at his silliness, but really pantomiming courage.
She shakes away the memory. “Let’s get back to what we were talking about earlier, the near death experiences,” Loretta says, grateful for a topic big enough to sideline cancer.
“Near death experiences?” Matthias says.
“Pinky is having them. A lot of them.”
Pinky looks at Matthias, shyly. In response, he widens his eyes and his vanquished brows and lashes push up the ridges folding across his forehead until he resembles the sculpted bust of an ancient Greek philosopher.
“Start at the beginning,” Loretta says.
“Loretta, you of all people should know that finding the beginning to a story is hard. Where does anything begin? How far back? I mean, the beginning could be anywhere before I had the first one, I can’t see from the future into the past where maybe there was a trigger—”
“Start with the first one you remember,” Loretta says, bringing her voice down low and spreading the spaces out between words evenly, hoping to steady Pinky.
Pinky places her hands palms-up on the table, takes a breath and says, “Itwas early last year. At the beach, you know, Lolo, the one we went to as kids.”
Loretta smells suntan lotion and vinegary French fries and hears the drawn out cry of seagulls.
“It was dusk. Off-season. I was alone. Sitting at the surf, a ways from the boardwalk. I felt a super strong sense of peace and beauty, one of those exquisite moments that come sometimes out of nowhere. I was happy, so happy. I sat there, watching the slow change of day into night. And then right then, when I felt like I couldn’t be any happier, at the peak of this blissful event, when the sky was a slight shade of dark pink, the first one came.”
She pauses; Loretta takes her hand, and feels a tremble there.
“For a split second, I thought I was falling, like the world was literally dropping out from under me, and then I thought, oh my God, I’m having a stroke and I cursed myself for being so careless with my health. But then, the fear passed and it was something else, something amazing. There was, and is each time, a tunnel, a beautiful golden light, pieces of my life shuttle through my mind but not my mind as you might think of it, I’m spread out like a layer of fine sand, I’m the grain and also the whole. I can relive it anytime, drop into it, feel it but the words, it’s super hard to put into words.”
“Words have their limits,” Loretta says.
Matthias looks askance at Loretta, reminding her with his eyes she used this exact phrase earlier describing her zombiness.
“Well, they dohave their limits,” Loretta says, shrugging. “Moving on…”
“How many times has this happened?” Matthias asks, taking her cue.
“Twenty-two,” Loretta and Pinky say simultaneously.
Matthias does the math in his head. “That’s like one every two weeks.”
“They’re not so regular. Sometimes I go for a month, or it’s an hour apart. Each one is a little different but also the same.”
“Do you float above your body? I’ve heard that sometimes happens,” Matthias asks. Loretta wonders how Matthias knows this.
“Yes, but not always. The first time I left my body, I was in this pizza place and I totally freaked out the waitress, I felt so bad, she was frightened. She thought I had epilepsy because I sometimes jerk around when it happens. I could see her panicked reaction while I was floating above.”
Matthias picks up a bottle of Jameson from the counter and pours two fingers into a coffee mug. He looks at Loretta. She nods. Pinky shakes her head no.
“Will you help me?” Pinky asks. “Please, Lolo, I need you.”
“Help you how?” The whiskey burns going down.
“Ask around at your University, all those experts. You’re important. I see your name all over the Internet. Loretta Sparkman, University spokeswoman. They’ll listen when you ask about near death experiences. Me, they’ll think I’m crazy. Maybe commit me. Use me as a research guinea pig,” Pinky says.
“That’swhy you came here, out of the blue like this? Because I work at a University?”
“Partly,” Pinky says. “I mean, it was a factor, but mostly I came because it’s you. I can’t trust anyone else.”
Loretta finishes the whiskey; she is tired now and a little drunk. Ever since her descent into zombiness, she gets drunk more quickly.
“Pinky, you know you can always depend on me but give me the night to think about all this, okay?”
Pinky jumps up from the chair. Her napkin falls from her lap to the floor, along with an uneaten fortune cookie, and she feels the crushed shards beneath her bare foot. Matthias looks down, curious about the fortune peeking out from the crumbles.
Pinky hugs Loretta. “I knew I could count on you.”
Matthias picks up the slip of paper and reads. The answer is right in front of you.
“I’m not making any promises, Pinky, let me think about all this,” Loretta says.
Later, after Loretta hauls out clean sheets and a quilt for Pinky, and tucks her in for the night in Sally-Anne’s old bedroom, Loretta and Matthias talk quietly in their own bed before sleep, a habit forged during the worst days of the chemotherapy when whispered pillow-top assurances and limbs blindly intertwined were all that steadied them. Eventually, as the cancer receded, joy and relief flowed into the ragged space that fear and pain had carved open, and now, a year later, the rough edges are smoothed over like polished marble and the same nighttime moments have been transformed into the happiest and most intimate of their present lives.
“That’s incredible stuff. Do you believe her?” Matthias asks.
“It’s hard to know if this is real or her imagination. Or something worse.”
“Does it make a difference?” he asks.
“She’s been a wanderer her whole life, she calls herself a seeker, whatever that means. Living off an inheritance from her uncle. But she’s getting old, like all of us. Maybe she’s desperate to find meaning when the end is in sight. Or depressed because she figured out there is no meaning. Or, God forbid, maybe she is sick, like her mother is sick.”
The pillow moves and the blanket drifts off Loretta’s feet as Matthias shifts position in the darkness. “Will you help her?” he asks.
“I’ll help her find a doctor, for sure.”
He rolls on to his side and pulls her in close, wrapping his arms around her waist.
“Loretta, listen to me, this is it, this is your chance, don’t ignore it.”
“Chance for what?”
“Do what she’s asking. Use all that knowledge at your fingertips at the University for something other than your lobotomies of public relations cocktails,” Matthias says.
“I don’t know how I would do that but even if I could, why should I? We haven’t seen each other in years.”
“She’s your best friend.”
“You’re my best friend,” Loretta says.
“Well, before I came on the scene, and before Sally-Anne,” Matthias says.
“What if she’s lying?”
“Why would she lie? And what if she’s not? Besides, you can kill two birds with one stone.”
“I hate that saying,” Loretta says. “Why would anyone want to kill two birds at the same time and how would that be possible with one stone? Birds are too nimble. Unless it’s a really big stone, like a boulder, but that’s ridiculous.”
He laughs, “I won’t say it again, but to the point, and in tribute to two injured birds, you can help Pinky and also help weather your own midlife crisis.”
“I’m not having a midlife crisis,” she says.
“Sorry. I meant to say your zombiness.”