Dear friends of the unreal —
My friend R and I were talking about zombies over the summer this past year.
“What’s with that whole obsession?” I asked him. He said something about places in the world that were already unlivable, and so the zombie thing connected with that.
But I think it has more to do with what it’s like to be alive now.
A student in my class this fall said that she thought professors took students’ souls. That sounded like a zombie sort of activity, and the fact that she thought this haunts me.
But the fact is we seem to live in institutions and structures that are literally dehumanizing. We walk through them, get educated by them, and feel and perhaps are less human.
Like shopping at Walmart.
My husband and I were on a far away island and we had to buy alot of household things fast and there were only 2 stores, and we had never been to Walmart. So we went there.
The first thing that strikes you – I mean literally hits you in the face and eyes – is the lighting. The Light At Walmart streams from some mysterious source, it’s above you and around you and there’s no shadow anywhere, it’s just this horrible bright light and everyone looks a bit blue-green underneath it, and all the merchandise looks garish and sickly, like you’re in some post-nuclear fallout movie where everyone is scrambling for the cereal and the spam. It’s relentless.
The second thing you notice is that the air is weird. There’s air, but it’s at once cold and hot – it’s suffocating and yet you’re in this huge place with a Subway (at least I think there was a subway) and endless aisles of stuff that you don’t want. Bright white sewing machines that look like skeletons, and guns, and TV’s and rows and rows of copies of the HUNGER GAMES.
The third thing you notice is that you don’t know where anything is, and you don’t know where to look for it. It’s just miles and miles and miles of shampoo and Nyquil, and Barbies, and sweatshirts.
Then there are the conversations. Strange, stunted telegraphs. Like the one I heard when I got stumped at the shampoos. They were in huge bottles and the section I wanted to get to was blocked by a large group of white people having a very intense conversation.
“Don’t be a man about this,” one woman said to a man (I think it was a man — I was trying not to look at them).
“Don’t get all brave and think you can handle it.”
I ran away from that conversation, and went and looked at the coffees. There was no tea.
“You’re going to hit your face with that mop!” someone said to someone next to me. I ducked under a display of Christmas ornaments (I think, it was something green), and tried to find some kitchen towels.
They were all ugly. So many ugly things.
“Are you finding everything?” said a gruff man with a beard and a Santa hat.
I babbled. He moved on.
My husband found me after looking for hats. There were only hats in the shapes of animals from Loony Toons. There were these half-headed skulls of cartoon characters hanging decapitated from hooks.
My husband said “This place. Is. Horrible.”
We took our cart filled with ugly large things and went to check out.
The last conversation was the weirdest. The cashier who helped us was a woman in a Santa hat. She had covered herself in ornaments that she’d made into earrings and necklaces.
I put the ugly things on the conveyer belt and she said, “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas because I have my own private sleigh.”
Not knowing how to respond to that, I took out my money, and asked if she got an employee’s discount.
“Oh they’re real good to us here, ‘she said. “They give us our bonuses just in time so we can use them to buy all our gifts at the store with our special discount.”
“Yup,” I said. “That’s nice all right.”
We came out into the darkness, and there were people pouring into the store. “Daddy Daddy, “ said someone. “My back is killing me,” said someone else. “The Christmas trees are gone,” someone told a man standing – just barely – holding on to his walker.
We went home and I thought about the cashier and the man who was maybe dying near the shampoo, and the mops almost hitting our faces.
And I thought, yes, I know now. I know who the zombies are.
And I thought of myself pushing the cart looking for bargains amidst the wreckage of lives – all to save a buck.
And I vow I’ll never shop at Walmart again.
Because becoming a zombie is scarily easy.