Bourbon Penn 6

Zombie Song

by Derek Owens

Oh, my god, my father. Could he be, like, any more gay. He goes on the front porch in his bathrobe and those, those slippers to get the Sunday paper. And he stands there, like, puffing on his pipe where the whole neighborhood can see him. He wears these lame pajamas, Mom calls them his shortie pajamas. They're shorts, pajama shorts. He won't even wear underwear under them. It is Dis Gust Ing. Sometimes he walks out onto the lawn to move the sprinkler. Like that! In his pajamas! He comes in and I'm like, Dad! And he looks at me like, who are you? and I'm like, Dad!

Today he comes in sucking on that pipe. He goes, Looks like we've got company. Me, I won't even look at him. Mom goes, You mean the Walker house? I saw the moving van. He goes, Not the Walker house any longer. I wonder what the moniker for this clan shall be.

That's how he talks. He thinks it's clever. He does this act like he's always in a 1950's TV show. I don't know how my mom tolerates it. I lied, I know how she tolerates it, but let's not get into that. He looks at my little brother. What do you think, sport? He calls him that, sport. If not sport then champ, tiger, rascal. No one ever laughs at him, but he thinks he's the funniest human on the planet. He says, Maybe they're the...hmm, the Staplemans perhaps? Or how about the Fields? Maybe the Rosenbaums? Rosenbaum, I like the sound of that.

My god, you are so anti-semitic, what is wrong with you.

Pumpkin, he says, I merely mentioned a Jewish name. That hardly counts as anti-semitism.

That's what he calls me. Pumpkin. That, or sugarplum or honey doodle or best girl. I hate him so much.

He turns back to my brother. How bout it, slugger? Want to take a guess as to the names of our new neighbors? Maybe a little wager?

But The Hump doesn't even know he's there, his nose pressed right up against his phone playing Monkey Dumbass Jerkoff or whatever the hell game he plays 24/7.

Mom pulls back the curtains so she can peer out the bay window. I think they're zombies, dear.

Dad gets up to look out the window and after a minute says, Why I do believe you're right, old gal. Then, over his shoulder: How bout that, champ? There's a zombie boy your age moving in across the street.

The Hump doesn't move. His little slug body might as well be frozen, except for his thumbs that twitch like they're being electrocuted.

Mom says, Sweetheart look, there's a boy your age, too. And then she says in a low voice, like she's sharing a secret with me, Hey, he's kind of cute.

Dad goes, Well, he is at that. How bout that, kitten. Prom material, perhaps?

Oh. My. God, I say. I'll be in my room vomiting. I run upstairs and lock my door.

I look outside my window. You can tell by the way they walk they're zombies. The dad has on Dockers and a polo shirt and his wife fusses with hanging planters on their porch. There's a younger boy and an older one. They go back and forth carrying boxes from the U-Haul to their front door. They've got a dog, a little zombie dog that lies comatose on the sidewalk so they have to keep stepping over him to get into the house.

• • •

My dad wastes no time asking them to dinner! I try for days to get out of it, but my mother insists I stay home. So I text Brittany and Ashley and Summer and tell them to come over unannounced. They'll do it because they want to see the older zombie boy. They've seen him in the hallway and think he's all that.

Turns out their name is Cartwright. My father wasn't even close. He fancies himself a conversationalist, so he keeps pumping them with questions all through dinner. I roll my eyes so much I think they'll, like, fall out of their sockets. Dad says, So Doug, you're a real estate man, eh? My mom joins in too because the Cartwrights are shy and don't talk much. Mom says, How interesting that must be! But a hard line of work too I'll bet, and especially in this economy. Dad says, Not for old Doug here though, honey. Isn't that right, Doug? This man's got the knack. The magic touch. To snag the Walker house for that price, that's no small accomplishment.

Here's to Doug and Susan, he says, and their boys Larry and Ken.

And Pickles, Ken gurgles. Ken is the younger one. His voice sounds like it comes from the bottom of his spine, not his vocal chords.

Pickles? says Dad. And who might Pickles be?

Larry, the older boy, the one in my grade, slowly lifts his head and stares right through my dad. Dog, he says. His voice sounds like torn sandpaper.

My mom says, The house you bought is such a nice house. The Walkers spent a fortune renovating it. Those marble countertops, that kitchen, the little wine cellar. All that was done just in the last two years.

Dad says, Don Walker and I put in that deck two summers ago. Or was it three? Honey, was it two summers or three? I know it wasn't four. Three, I'm sure of it. One thing about Don, he built things to last, yes he did. I mean, he sunk those posts in deep. When the apocalypse comes, that deck will be the last thing standing, long after all our homes get blown away. Dad laughs at this and mom goes Oh Tom, like he's said something risque. I text Brittany: omg where r u im going to puke in my mouth

It goes on like that for, like, forever. The Hump keeps staring like a retard at Larry, at the sores on his cheek, and Ken, whose collar bone is poking out a little bit. I keep kicking The Hump under the table and clenching my jaw at him but when I do he just goes real loud, Ow. I so want to die.

The doorbell rings as my mom brings out the tiramisu. It's from D'Angelo's, she says, on Maple Ave, you have absolutely got to go there. Their cheesecake is just sinful. I run to the door and it's Brittany and Ashley. As planned. Summer couldn't make it. I turn to everyone, Hey, look, Brittany and Ashley are here. Mom gives me the stink eye but Dad is clueless and stands up and says, Hola ladies! Come meet the Cartwrights! Before I can say anything Brittany looks at Larry and says to me in her best little whore voice, Aren't you going to introduce us, and I look at her like, keep your pants on you skank, and I say, this is Larry and his little brother Ken. These are my friends, Brittany and Ashley. Brittany goes, Hi Larry. Ashley goes, Hi Larry.

While the parents drink coffee, Brittany and Ashley and I sit on the couch and Larry sits in the chair. The Hump takes Ken into his cave of squalor to play Xbox.

Brittany doesn't waste any time. She keeps crossing and uncrossing her legs and chewing on her hair. Ashley just smiles and sits forward and blinks. Ashley likes to blink at boys, she thinks it highlights her features or something but all it does is make her look like she's got Tourettes.

Brittany says, So Larry, what do you think of Yoda? Ashley goes, That's what we call Mrs. Skoda, your homeroom teacher. We call her Yoda. And Brittany goes, Yeah we call her Yoda. She kind of looks like Yoda, don't you think? And Ashley goes, Uh, yeah, if Yoda weighed half a ton and had a moustache and a club foot. She does not have a club foot, I say. She might as well, Brittany says, have you seen those shoes.

Brittany and Ashley do almost all the talking, as they always do. I sit there waiting for the night to be over. And looking at how Larry's hair curls behind his ear, the good one.

After they leave my dad goes, Nice people. Nice, nice people, then retreats into the bathroom for the next seven hours with his pipe and his magazines.

• • •

The first time Larry and I kiss, his lips are, like, extra hot. I mean temperature hot. His whole body is on fire. Like he's got a fever. I'm not sure how much I like it, but it's different from kissing Billy and Simon who are the only other boys I've kissed. Billy tasted like onion bagels. Simon kept trying to lick my lip like a puppy. I'm the only one who only calls him Simon, everyone else calls him Corndog.

When Brittany and Ashley and Summer find out over lunch, Brittany says, You little slut, and Ashley wants to know every stupid little detail, and Summer, who suddenly gets all serious like, because this is supposedly Her Area of Expertise just because she's done it, she says, Now Angie, you've got to be careful with zombie boys. I know on the outside they're all like laid back and cool, but when they get you alone watch out. I mean, grabby is not the word. Then she tells us how at Jesus Camp the summer before she hooked up with a zombie boy. We all go, Like hell you did, and she goes No I did really, and we say How come you never told us, and she goes, Like I tell you bitches everything? She's all nonchalant about it, like grinding on zombie boys is a regular thing for her. She goes, Best thing about it is it's totally safe because their sperms are all dead, and all three of us go, Ew, Summer! Then Summer goes, But you've got to be real careful his thing doesn't fall off inside you, and we all go, Ew! again.

After I called it off Larry started leaving notes for me. In the mailbox, on the front porch. Rolled up pieces of paper tied with string. Sometimes with a twig or a bandaid or a piece of dried meat attached. I could never make out more than a few of the words. Just my name, flower, and teeth. He had these little symbols and shapes I couldn't make out, all connected with wiggly lines. It was kind of cute at first, but then it got weird when we found one on the front seat of the car. Then one night, Mom took out the garbage and nearly crapped her pants when she saw him lurking in the shadows smoking. I don't know which freaked her out more, the stalking or the cigarette. Dad had to go over and talk to his Dad. It stopped after that, the messages, I mean.

A couple nights later I walked by their house. I heard their dog howling this weird howl, high pitched and wheezy and moany-like. But then I saw their dog lying splayed out on the front lawn like it always is, mouth hanging open with the tongue flopped out on the sidewalk. So it wasn't their dog making the noise. I snuck around to the side of their house. I figured if Larry could spy on me, well, then so could I. Spy on him, I mean. I followed the sound to their dining room window and when I looked in there they were, all four of them, standing in a ring holding hands. Like they were praying. And all of them singing. Though it wasn't any English I ever heard.

That's when I realized those weren't letters Larry had been leaving for me but songs he'd written. Later when I told mom she said, Isn't that just adorable, it's just too bad he smokes. She told Dad and Dad said, Songs, eh? Let's give them a look-see, shall we Princess, and he and mom sat down at the piano even though I begged them not to and they tried to sing the songs but they couldn't. What came out of their mouths and the piano was so awful that even The Hump looked up for a second from his spot on the couch. They got tired of trying to sing zombie and opened up their sheet music to Oklahoma! and went at it, which is when The Hump locked himself in his room and I ran upstairs.

I woke up in the middle of the night. Somebody was crying or breathing hard or something. I came downstairs and Dad was sitting at the piano in the dark in those creepy pajamas. He was trying to play one of Larry's songs. He was staring straight ahead with his mouth hanging open. With a little bit of drool coming off his lip! I said, Jesus Christ, Dad. He slowly turned his head to look at me. His eyes were like fogged-up glass and he made a sound in the bottom of his throat that sounded like when The Hump was constipated on the toilet. It sounded like a bird that flew in our kitchen window once and kept smashing itself into the oven door. It sounded like what an old person would sound like if they fell down a well and whispered for somebody to come get them. Like a wild animal maybe that had got itself stuck in a trap and had just realized it was going to have to chew off its own leg.

I said, Goddamit, Daddy, why do you have to ruin my life like this. Then I went to get Mom.

Derek Owens is a professor of English and Vice Provost at St. John's University. His book Memory's Wake was recently published by Spuyten Duyvil Press.