When you pass out beneath the pool table of Lou’s Last Chance Lounge, you don’t need to set an alarm clock.
Roger, our most regular of regulars, rattles the door every morning at exactly 6:45 am. And since we don’t open until seven, you get 15 minutes to pull yourself together. It’s a good system.
“You’re early!” I yelled at the door as I crawled from under the table. The rattling stopped. He would now stand there silently for 15 minutes, patient as a tumor. Micky, one of the few regulars I got along with, told me the bar used to open at 6:45, and Roger just couldn’t make the adjustment.
Once behind the bar, I dipped my work toothbrush into a shot of peppermint schnapps, brushed furiously for 15 seconds, downed the shot, then whipped up my famous Bloody Hot Mary, which is a Bloody Mary with Spicy V-8, extra Tabasco and two pickled jalapeno peppers. It was the big guns, and I needed the big guns because this was without a doubt the worst hangover of my life. Which is saying something, because I’ve been competing at a very high level for the last four years.
The door rattled, which meant it was exactly 7 am. I switched on the neons and jukebox, dimmed the house lights, threw the bolt and was back behind the bar cutting limes before Roger slid onto his usual stool midway down the bar.
I dropped a slice of lime into a well gin and tonic, set it in front of Roger, then went back to slicing. Neither of us said anything, we never did. I liked Roger for that. You didn’t have to start the day with a lot of useless small talk, you could do all your prep before the other regulars started grumbling in.
I finished slicing the limes, dumped them in the condiment tray, and as I finished putting out the spill mats I noticed the noise. An uneven rasping sound. Like someone slowly dragging a hunk of metal across cement.
“Got a cold?” I said, looking directly at Roger for the first time. He didn’t look so hot. He looked like some of our other regulars, the ones whose career path landed them at the day labor shop across the street. Usually, Roger was what you would call crisp. You imagined he’d spent his life in the military and now, cut loose, was slowly spiraling downward to a sparsely-attended funeral.
His shirt collar was askew, with one tab pointing toward the door he’d come in. His olive suit jacket was painted with dried mud and an ugly bruise rose from his right cheek. His hair, normally a precise iron-gray sweep-back beneath an old-school fedora, twisted toward the ceiling like a plant looking for light.
I started to crack up because I thought he was putting me on, then remembered Roger never put anyone on. He pulled in his G and T, trembled it to his lips and managed to get about half in his mouth.
Stroke, I thought. Roger had a stroke then, unable to break his routine, dragged himself to Lou’s.
I froze with indecision. He wasn’t having a stroke, mind you, it was obvious it had done its thing and moved on. Did I call 911 anyway? What was the protocol, post-stroke wise?
The door banged open and Fat Mike, my least favorite regular, lurched to the end of the bar wearing nothing but pajama bottoms.
“No, you don’t,” I said because no shirt, no shoes—no service.
Fat Mike leaned both hands against the bar next to the drawbridge and just stood there, staring straight ahead. He looked like he’d gotten up in the middle of the night and jumped into a rugby game—the six and a half feet of flab between the top of his bald head and his huge feet was bruised and caked with dirt.
“What’s the gag?” I said because there was always a gag. I’d bartended at Lou’s for ten long horrible months, which in the regulars’ eyes made me a fresh-faced recruit you could screw with.
He slowly turned his head to me and a low growl rose from the pit of his stomach. I’m not the kind of bartender you have to growl at twice. I put together his usual, a CC and soda with two straws, and slid it in front of him. He stopped growling and lowered his head to the straws like a horse ducking into a trough.
The door creaked, and to my huge relief, Micky drifted in. Micky was the lounge’s gofer, off-the-books bar back and semi-skilled handyman, willing to have a go at any small or medium-sized task, so long as it earned him drinks and maybe a little cash. Micky viewed the 9-to-5 workaday thing as a weird religion he didn’t want any part of it. He was the only regular I thought of as a friend.
Micky claimed the bar top nearest the door, per usual. He stood there, hair hanging in his face, staring right through me, wearing the same jeans, T-shirt and down vest he wore last night. He put his right hand on the bar, his fingers curled into the shape of a glass.
I could dig it. He’d helped me close last night and we’d stayed up a little later than usual, which was why I woke up under the pool table. What was the point of staggering home when you had back-to-back shifts? I poured a short pint of Hamm’s and topped it with tomato juice.
I fitted the bloody beer into his waiting hand and started to say, “You look like I feel,” when I saw the new tattoo on his right forearm, just above the wrist.
No, not a tattoo, I thought. That’s a bite mark. A very deep human bite mark.
He raised the pint and when he tipped his head back the light hit his face and I could see it was splashed with drying blood, particularly around the mouth. The crazy fucker bit himself, I thought as he drained half the pint, spilling only a little.
“What happened?” I asked and far, far back in the deepest corner of my mind, a strange little thought began frantically waving its hand.
I’ve watched a lot of zombie movies, and the only thing I don’t like about them is the characters almost always act like they’ve never watched a zombie movie. That somehow the entire zombie genre and subculture had gone right over their heads. They stand there dumbfounded, wondering, “What are these shambling cannibals? How do we kill them? Is there some name we can give them?” Finally you get so angry you want to throw your drink at the screen and yell, “Wake up, dumb fucks! They’re zombies!”
All it took for me to be 90% sure a zombie apocalypse was going down was a bite mark, what could well have been a bloody nose and some oddball behavior by three of my regulars.
I backed to the bar phone and lifted the handset. It shrieked out a panicked, dual-tone, shit-is-totally-fucked-up emergency noise. The needle flinched to 92% sure.
“They should play something soothing,” I said to no one. “Like the Carpenters.”
Just then the jukebox came on with a random selection. It wasn’t The Carpenters or anything apropos like Johnny Cash doing “When the Man Comes Around.” That kind of cheesy coincidence wouldn’t be part of my zombie movie. It was Adam Ant singing “Goody Two Shoes,” which in no way pertains to a zombie apocalypse.
I hung up and fished my pockets for my cell phone. I came up with my keys, a pack of crushed Marlboros and my Zippo. Which meant it had probably slipped out of my pocket and was laying under the pool table.
Let’s not panic, my mind screamed.
And at this point you’re probably thinking, “Turn on the TV, dumb fuck!” to which I reply, “Fuuuuuuuuck you!” Lou’s Lounge doesn’t have a TV, it never has, not since the bar opened back in the 1950s. Which really sucked, because my favorite part of zombie movies was the ever-more- hysterical TV reports. The familiar talking heads gripped by confusion then disbelief and finally terror. The live shots of shambling hordes moving past recognizable landmarks, perhaps even a well-known newsman getting swarmed and devoured while his cameraman dutifully taped, until he too was dragged down. I felt cheated.
I looked past Micky to the Lounge’s only window, a 1 x 12-foot horizontal eye-level slit to the right of the front door. It was choked with neon beer signs and band stickers, so aside from the occasional glimpse of the top of someone’s head bobbing by, I had no idea what was going on outside.
All in all, I felt I was doing pretty well. I had the huge advantage of making that gigantic leap of logic and recognizing the situation for what it was. I wouldn’t make the usual dumb mistakes movie characters inevitably did. Furthermore, I had actually built a level of rapport with three of the zombie swarm.
“I know you’re all zombies,” I told the trio. “Let’s be clear about that.”
And knowing that, I should do— what?
Kill them and bolt the door. Or bolt the door and kill them.
The only weapon behind the bar was a Phillips-head screwdriver. And while The Walking Dead series postulated the human skull was as soft and penetrable as a taco shell, I had my doubts. There was a tool box in the back office that I was pretty sure contained a claw hammer. But getting to it wouldn’t be easy.
Lou’s Last Chance has a classic dive-bar layout: You walk in the front door and on your right the bar runs the length of the wall. To your left, a row of six booths is divided by a pool table. The doors to the restrooms and office share the back wall. To get to the office, I’d have to lift the drawbridge at the deep end of the bar and squeeze past Fat Mike. If I decided to bolt the door first, I’d have to walk past all three zombies. Or I could jump the bar at the end nearest to the door, but that’s where Micky was standing and I didn’t know if I could trust Zombie Micky. I mean, he’d obviously already feasted on someone and our friendship might not enter into it.
I leaned back against the register, my customary day-shift position, and finished my Bloody Hot Mary. This was when movie characters did stupid, risky things and got themselves eaten. These particular zombies didn’t seem aggressive, they seemed perfectly content doing the same thing they’d done before they turned into zombies. I felt safe behind the bar. I knew they could crawl over the top or save themselves the trouble and just lift or duck under the drawbridge, but for now they seemed unwilling to break the ultimate dive taboo: no customers behind the bar.
I imagined a camera shot, a high, wide-angle from near the door, slowly closing in on my troubled expression. I imagined the audience, in a theater about half full, starting to squirm with impatience. Was he going to do something, anything?
I lit a cigarette.
“That’s my Matt,” my ex-wife said from the back row. “Always ready and willing to do not a goddamn thing.” There were titters of laughter.
She had a point. The movie so far was relying almost entirely on internal dialog, and audiences hated that like poison. But who the fuck was I supposed to have a conversation with? Was the protagonist supposed to resort to the cheap narrative gimmick of talking to mindless zombies? I wasn’t exactly a sparkling conversationalist when I had a willing partner—how was I supposed to carry the whole load by myself?
Let me be honest—I’d been disengaged as of late. For the last four years, after everything went to shit, I’ve felt like I was living outside my body, outside the moment. In the movie of my life, I’d gone from the title role to supporting actor to bit player to extra and finally coming to rest as a bored gaffer standing off-camera, looking at his cell phone and thinking about lunch. Everything that happened to me was like reading a week-old newspaper. My most recurring fantasy was living on a deserted island surrounded by azure seas, completely lost to the world.
And now, suddenly, I was not only back in front of the camera, I was the leading man in the middle of a key scene. I was in the moment and I have to say, it was exhilarating. And to think all it took was the end of the goddamn world.
“Well, it’s just the End of the Age of Man, but let’s not get wrapped up in technicalities,” I said with a weak laugh that would have to be dubbed. “Now, let’s get down to business.”
I reached up with a bar rag, wiped the weekly specials off the chalkboard above the register, then selected a piece of white chalk. Stretching, at the very top I wrote, ZOMBIES ARE CREATURES OF HABIT.
That was plain. It was why I had customers. Dawn of the Dead used this premise to explain the zombies massing at the mall, and it seemed to be true.
“Hey, Roger,” I said.
“Need a refill, Roger?”
His rasping became more pronounced and he pushed his nearly empty glass toward me. I freshened his drink and pushed it back. He did his herky-jerky thing, drinking some, spilling some.
I wrote: ZOMBIES UNDERSTAND BASIC CONCEPTS.
I wrote: ZOMBIES ARE NOT OVERLY AGGRESSIVE
I stepped back and admired the board. It calmed me. I was making strides, I was handling the situation, I was making a list. I was giving the audience something to look at and think about.
“Because what’s more dramatic and exciting than a man writing on a chalkboard?” my ex sneered, and a terrible noise made me drop my chalk. Fat Mike snarled and growled like an amateur werewolf, slapping the bar with his meaty arms and generally acting like he was getting ready to climb over. I grabbed the screwdriver, deciding that once the fat bastard beached himself halfway across, I’d stab him in the back of the head.
Then Micky starting growling softly, almost apologetically. Micky was much more nimble than Fat Mike and I knew he could vault the bar in a single motion. I’d seen him do it. I automatically started pouring a Hamm’s. Pure muscle memory. Without waiting for the foam to set, I fast-stepped it to Micky. He immediately stopped growling and started drinking. I assembled a CC and soda with two straws and from five feet away I slid it down the bar top to where Fat Mike was hamming it up. He spat out a few I’m still very angry snarls then settled down to drink.
I found the chalk and added: SO LONG AS THEY GET WHAT THEY WANT.
Zombies liked prompt service. That was fair. Let’s face it—they were having the worst morning of their lives, so I could cut them some slack.
I imagined the audience glancing at each other with mild disgust. What is this guy, some kind of Quisling? A zombie-sympathizer?
“He’d serve Hitler if he tipped right,” my ex said, which was not true at all. And let’s be clear—my ex-wife’s voice piping up like a sneery conscience wasn’t a new development. It didn’t take a zombie uprising to bring that on. All it took was an ugly divorce four years ago.
“I’m the voice of your conscience because before you met me you didn’t have a conscience,” she said, which was a gross exaggeration.
The door creaked dramatically open and I hustled down the bar to get a look outside. Phil on Wheels rolled in and over his head I got a big, fat look at Colfax Avenue. An unusually large number of pedestrians shambled down the sidewalks. About a third were ready for bedtime, another third were completely or partially dressed in street clothes, and the rest were stark naked. It was the middle of morning rush hour and I couldn’t see or hear a single moving vehicle. Alarms sang in the near and far distance.
My Zombie Apocalypse meter pegged out at 100%.
The hydraulic arm drew the door closed and all was dim and quiet again. I reached over the bar to hand down Phil’s bottle of MGD and thought it through. There was something missing besides traffic. I snapped my fingers. Sirens. The alarms I’d heard were just machines screaming about broken windows. But sirens would mean real people—cops and paramedics and firemen—trying to fix shit. And there was nothing.
I wrote: THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT IS GONE.
And: ZOMBIES CAN’T DO COMPLEX TASKS, LIKE DRIVING.
The door swung open and three morning regulars filed in, namely Henry the Smug Hippie, Jack the Jerk and Hard Luck Larry.
Before you get the idea I’m some kind of misanthrope who can’t get along with anyone, you should know that it’s called Lou’s Last Chance Lounge because if you were a professional asshole who liked to drink, Lou’s was your last stop. Once all the other bars on Colfax 86’d you, you could still get a drink at Lou’s. Not because Lou was a swell, forgiving kind of guy, but because he only came in once a month to do the books and inventory. Then he’d stand at the bar for 15 minutes with a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue, everyone would kiss his ass, then he’d flit away like a butterfly to his big house in Cherry Creek. He didn’t have to deal with the toxic concentration of assholes that had built up over the years. He thought it was good economics, catering to outcasts with nowhere else to spend their money. What he failed to realize was their thick vibe of hostile territoriality drove off every decent customer who had the option of going somewhere else. They also drove off a lot of decent bartenders, which was why I was working six, sometimes seven shifts a week.
The three newcomers were in various stages of dress and distress. Henry’s head was stuck through the left arm hole of a Grateful Dead shirt, which I hoped the audience wouldn’t notice because I hated that kind of winking irony. His red swimming trunks were inside out, but his customary flip-flops were in order. Jack the Jerk had managed sweatpants and a T-shirt offering Free Mustache Rides but hadn’t bothered with footwear. Hard Luck Larry, consistent with his moniker, was completely naked.
I poured three Hamm’s. Henry took a bar stool between Roger and Fat Mike, Jack and Larry took their pints to separate booths.
My hangover started leaning on its horn, so I tipped a glass under the Hamm’s tap then figured, what the hell, and upgraded to New Castle. I was a leading man now, and Hamm’s wasn’t going to cut it.
I drank my pint and studied the new arrivals. They were banged up, but no bites that I could see. This was shaping up as a classic alien spores/space radiation/cosmic dust scenario. There hadn’t been enough time for it to spread from person to person, everyone had flipped at roughly the same time. And probably in the wee hours, judging by the current state of zombie fashion.
I wrote: THE BIG FLIP HAPPENED QUICKLY.
Then: WHY AM I NOT A ZOMBIE?
As I replenished drinks—the regulars were drinking at a much faster pace than usual, probably because everything was now on the cuff—I considered the possible reasons for my survival. If it was spores, I could have a natural immunity. If it was radiation—my eyes drifted to the pool table —the slate slab I’d slept under could have some special property that deflected the brain-scrambling cosmic rays. It would explain why, so far, I was the sole survivor. Who slept under pool tables besides me?
I’d also had a very large amount of alcohol in my system when the Big Flip went down. Perhaps alcohol was a counter-agent to the spores. And hadn’t I once read about a Cold War study that revealed ingesting alcohol helped lab rats resist the effects of atomic radiation?
I looked at Micky. He was at least as drunk as I was last night. He’d probably had a few more when he got home, then passed out fully clothed. So why wasn’t he standing beside me in a sidekick role, giving the movie some much-needed dialog?
Because he got bit! He did survive, then, at some point after the Big Flip, he got bit. Maybe even on his way to the Lounge. And biting—this meant it was some kind of living spore, not radiation—gave you a mainline dose the booze couldn’t beat off.
So, all the alcohol in my bloodstream had immunized me to the flip, or—
Or at least was delaying the flip. Suddenly my hangover took on a much more sinister role. In my mind’s eye I cast the alien spores as a zombie army on the attack, swarming out of their trenches, driving back my heroic but heavily outnumbered white blood cells. Soon the zombies would be loose in the defenseless brain tissue, massacring and burning and—
I stepped to the speed rack and in one fluid motion poured and knocked back a shot of well whiskey. A slow, fiery explosion spread through me and I imagined a brutal air strike on the zombie horde, blasting holes in the wave, slowing the onslaught. The zombies shook their fists and snarled at the sky and boom! I sent a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue down the pipe, and a splendidly-dressed battalion of top-hatted Scottish paratroopers filled the sky, spraying the zombies with Sten guns before hitting the ground and going hand-to-hand with the brutes. Then came a wild war cry and from the left flank a howling tribe of Aztec warriors, improbably led by a gringo rocker, boiled over the horizon, bludgeoning the panicked zombies with war clubs.
I sank a second shot of Cabo Wabo and sensed the zombie army in full retreat. I felt clean, pure, protected, cheery. I decided I’d have a drink every half hour. I wasn’t 100 percent positive I’d turn into a zombie if I stopped drinking, but hey—why take the chance?
“Any excuse for a drink,” I heard my ex-wife mutter. “The pool table theory made a lot more sense.”
She’s a zombie now, I thought, brightening. I’d proved her wrong, I’d proved all of them wrong. “Why oh why must you drink so?” they had sung, and now the answer was as plain as the dumb look on their zombie faces.
“This whole movie thing is just your way of dealing with a situation too big for your brain,” she said. “You’re cowering in a fantasy world.”
“I know that!” I said, loud enough to stir the zombies. “It’s a very surreal situation. How did we know the Big Flip was coming? Was the whole zombie meme a preaction, like when animals get agitated just before an earthquake? Had humanity’s mass consciousness detected its imminent doom and tried to prepare for it, or at least sound the alarm? Something this massively cataclysmic—how could it not have been sensed?”
“He’s drunk,” she said in that dismissive voice she always used whenever I came up with great ideas while drunk.
I noticed all the zombies had pointed their heads in my direction. Roger seemed to be staring right at me. It also seemed that Roger was getting better at lifting his glass and drinking. Was the booze restoring at least a portion of his humanity? Could I bring him back from—what? Death? Since I hadn’t seen any zombies walking around with fatal wounds, and I didn’t have the nerve to check anyone’s pulse, I had to assume, for the moment, these were not the risen dead as much as the altered living.
I recalled a show about zombie ants on the National Geographic or Discovery channel. A fungus took over an infected ant’s brain and enslaved it, making it do things that advanced the fungus’ life cycle. And if I remembered correctly, none of the zombie ants ever came back to the colony and took up their old lives. They all died as fungal slaves.
But maybe this was different. Maybe they could be brought back with chemicals, like the junkie demi-zombies in The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. And if that were the case, if they could be cured, however temporarily, was it ethical for me to bash their heads in with a claw hammer? Wouldn’t that be like killing a sick person for being sick? Did pre-flip ethics even pertain, since I might well be the sole arbitrator of what was or wasn’t ethical?
“Oh my God, it’s turning into a courtroom drama!” my ex wailed.
“Let’s do a little experiment,” I said in a firm action-hero voice. I walked a lowball glass and Lou’s bottle of Johnny Blue to where Micky stared into his pint of Hamm’s. I set the glass in front of him and poured a fat double. To my surprise, he hesitated.
“Good job!” I said. “You earned it.”
He picked up the shot and knocked it back.
I poured a triple. “Good job!” I said. “You earned it.”
He knocked it back. We repeated the ritual until the bottle was empty. I watched him closely. He went back to staring at his beer.
I turned to the growing chorus of growls behind me. All the regulars were lined up at the bar, looking my way.
I poured six shots of well tequila and served them up. Why not? If most of a bottle of Johnny wouldn’t flip Micky back into a human being, there was no reason to believe a shot of tequila would turn these zombies back into mouthy assholes.
Over the next two hours, a dozen regulars drifted in, including Drugs Bunny, my first female zombie. Like most dive bars, Lou’s is a round-the-clock sausage party. I’d imagined that seeing a female zombie would have a meaner effect on me, but Zombie Bunny actually seemed to have a little more on the ball than Drugs Bunny.
Because I’d skipped breakfast, I opted for an early lunch of three large jalapeno peppers, half a lime, a can of Spicy Hot V8, two Screwdrivers and a Marlboro. It was probably for the best that I wasn’t eating a lot of solids because while I could get away with peeing in the sink, I could see no toilet breaks in my foreseeable future.
Things began to get lively just before noon. Some ugly scenes broke out over the ownership of particular bar stools because the lunchtime regulars were arriving and the morning drinkers weren’t leaving. Adding to the chaos, a fair number of the after-work and weekend crowd were drifting in early. It looked like everyone was taking the day off, and by two I had a very decent crowd.
I had to admit: the Big Flip was good for business, except no one was paying.
I stayed busy, pouring drinks and drinking drinks, which was why I never had a chance to do that big emotional scene every character in every zombie movie ends up doing. The one when they’re suddenly overwhelmed with the grim knowledge that all their loved ones were zombified and the Age of Man was over, and then they’d vomit their guts out, weep hysterically or scream at the ceiling. Believe you me, I really wanted to do that scene. I just never got the chance. I was running around pouring drinks as fast I could, and just like in the pre-flip days, the more they drank, the faster they drank. I could have put aside 30 seconds for a quick scene, but then I’d have to get right back to work, and that would have looked phony as hell.
“Before you can show feelings, you have to actually have some,” my ex-wife’s voice explained.
“When you’re the last man on Earth,” I said to Roger while furiously wiping the bar in front of him, “what’s the point of feeling anything? I mean, who’s watching? Who are you trying to impress?”
There was a little panic around four when I remembered that Lonnie, the grand old dame of the Lounge, 20 years behind the wood and beloved by all, was due to start her shift in 15 minutes. She’d want to get behind the bar because that’s where she belonged. And because she outweighed me by about 50 pounds, I wasn’t sure I could stop her. Then what would happen?
Four-thirty came and went, and I calmed down. By five I was laughing. She lived way the fuck out in Littleton and unless she was a special kind of zombie that could drive a car, she had a very long walk ahead of her. I imagined her fat ass bumbling across town and laughed. She’d never make it, at least not today.
Lou, however, rolled in at six. He must have hiked all the way from Cherry Creek. He wore a white slacks/yarn vest combo, a big departure from his usual gray suit.
He wasn’t the original Lou. His real name was Leo, but everyone started calling him Lou after he bought the bar five years ago.
It usually went like this: Lou would walk in, wave breezily toward the bar, then lock himself in the office where he presumably did the books and checked inventory. Then, about an hour later, he would creep out of the office with a wretched, haunted look on his face, like he’d just been stricken by some horrific news. He’d slump against the bar and wave a hand toward the top shelf, from which would descend his bottle of Johnnie Blue.
If you happened to be behind the bar, and I always seemed to end up with that goddamn shift, you had to endure what felt like an hour of guttural mutterings that crescendoed with shouts of “Stealing me blind!” and “Thieving fucks!” He wouldn’t look in your direction when you poured his drink or stood nearby, but once you turned slightly away he gave you the sort of dour glare that you imagined saw every mis-pour, every comped drink, every unauthorized shift shot, and—sweet Jesus!—all those top-shelf after-hours shots and cocktails, until finally you knew he was going to fire you right then and there and for all the right reasons.
And all the while, whatever regulars on hand would tiptoe around and try to make nice with him. They treated him like a long-errant father who had come home for Xmas and might stick around this time if the kids were sweet and quiet and didn’t get on his nerves.
Then, suddenly, Lou would make a little speech about how times were tough and we had to make sacrifices, then walk out with another breezy wave.
“Sorry the bar is a mess,” I told him as he tried the office door. He pawed at his pockets, looking for keys, then gave up. He turned around and I was just a little surprised to see two regulars part to make room for him at the bar.
“Everything has gone to shit, Lou,” I said, lighting a cigarette. “Business has been great, but no one is paying their tabs. The thieving fucks are stealing us blind!”
He hung his head and shook it slowly, laboriously.
“I’d pour you a Johnnie Blue but I gave it all to Micky,” I said, rolling well gin into a dirty glass. “Times are tough. We have to make sacrifices.”
He snuffled up the gin, and I swear I could detect some resentment in the sound.
“Don’t worry about doing the books,” I said, pausing to load up my highball with ice and Jameson 18 Year Old. “I can tell you right now how much we took in today. Negative five-thousand dollars, that’s my estimate.”
He seemed to be trembling with—what? Anger? Pain? Frustration? Did he understand me on some level? Was I getting through?
“I just don’t get the customers these days,” I said, blowing smoke in Lou’s face. “I mean, I’ve been literally giving away the bar—everything is strictly on the house, that’s how I operate—and these bastards aren’t tipping worth shit. These zombies strut around like a bunch of self-absorbed celebrities who think they can just breeze through death without paying for a goddamn thing!”
Was Lou crying? He looked like he was trying to, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
“Am I getting through, Lou?” I yelled in his ear. “We’re hemorrhaging cash and booze! You’ll be bankrupt in a week! You’ll have to sell your house!”
Lou put down his glass, took a step backward, then walked right out the door. No wave, no tip, no nothing. He was the first zombie I’d seen leave since we opened.
I felt fantastic after that, totally revived, which was good because by the end of happy hour I had a packed house. I poured drinks like an inspired madman, like an artful machine. It normally would have took three bartenders and a barback to do what I was doing. Of course, I was helped along by the fact that no one seemed too particular about what they got, so I just poured whatever was at hand. I just walked up and down the bar with a bottle in each hand, pouring drinks and drinking drinks and buying shots and shooting shots and shouting and laughing and then I woke up to a rattle at the door.
I looked up at the bottom of the pool table, my brain on fire. It’s a terrible thing to wake up from a truly horrifying nightmare only to realize you’re trapped in a reality that’s many times worse.
After the initial wave of panic washed over me, I laid perfectly still, trying to listen around the blood pounding in my ears. What were my current circumstances? How did the night end? Did I have company? I could not recall.
The thing about blackouts is, you don’t really blackout. And by that, I mean that during the blackout you are as conscious and maybe as lucid as the moment before, that moment you last remembered. You don’t turn into a bag of jelly and a broken robot. It’s just that your recorder gets fucked up and your memories don’t get stored properly. Over the years, I’d learned that if you can grab a thread of a memory, no matter how thin, you can drag large chunks out of the black and into the light.
I remembered roasting Lou. I remembered the end of happy hour. I remembered the bar being bathed in a thick golden light with every surface shiny and bright. I remembered laughing uproariously, shouting at the top of my lungs, shaking up shots and pouring them out in endless rows. I remembered singing hellos to zombies staggering through the door and, after some initial snarling, winning them over with drinks and more drinks. And it seemed like the regulars were laughing too, or at least not growling, and we were all in it together. I remembered sticking cigarettes in zombie mouths and lighting them. I remembered grabbing hands and shoulders and saying, Welcome to the apocalypse, asshole, sorry you flipped, but hey, you seem to be making out okay, oh sure, you’ll land on your feet because that’s just the kind of guy you are.
I crawled out from under the table and peered around the dark room. I appeared to be alone.
The bar was a wreck. The bar top was a broad forest of dirty glasses and empty bottles. The floor was littered with debris—broken glass, beer bottles, shoes, clothing, random personal effects.
I leaned against the bar and noted that the booth tables were clear and wiped down. I remembered picking up glasses from the booths, slapping backs and high-fiving as I went along.
An icy finger traced a line down my spine. Was the memory true? Had I got so hammered I’d walked among them?
That was very dumb, I thought. Strictly amateur hour. I couldn’t remember any protagonist doing something as stupid as that.
And yet, if those memories were true—maybe large doses of alcohol did bring them back, or at least far enough back to not want to bite the friendly and generous bartender.
I crept behind the bar. The mats were sticky under my feet, and the liquor shelves were nearly empty. It isn’t easy to drink down a stocked bar, but we’d almost managed. The sinks and the counter beneath the bar were amok with empty cans of orange and pineapple juice. I remembered making garbled attempts at Zombies and Corpse Revivers. I remembered thinking, Why not? The whole thing was a huge cosmic joke, so maybe these were the cure.
I groaned. It would take hours to get the bar restocked and back in shape. I’d have to delay opening until—
I checked myself. Was I insane? Why the hell was I going to open at all? Why would I invite zombies into my home so they could guzzle my fast-disappearing supply of booze, the one thing that kept me from turning into one of them?
All the awful weight of responsibility slid off my back. I even croaked out a little laugh. I was now and forever free from those needy bastards.
I turned up the house lights and a long low moan carried from outside. I remembered turning up the lights and shouting last call. I remembered most of them dutifully trooping out, except for a few malingerers, which is how it always was.
I checked the taps. Only the New Castle was pouring. I’d have to change out the kegs in the back later. I drank down a pint, then fixed up a root beer -flavored vodka and soda with a dash of banana liqueur. It was as good a breakfast as I was going to get.
The door rattled angrily.
“Fuck you, Roger,” I yelled toward the door, and that’s when I noticed the vandalism. Someone had carved weird symbols into the bar top. No, not symbols, I was just looking at it upside down. Cocking my head, I read: I’M STILL HERE. It was carved into the bar top where Micky had stood from morning to close.
Elation seized my heart. My experiment had worked! It took a helluva lot of booze, but I had brought him back. Suddenly there was a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise black world.
All and all, it wasn’t a bad night. I’d survived, despite some dumb moves, I’d shown the zombies a good time, maybe earned a few favors down the road, and most of all, I’d learned a lot of important things. Today I’d spend drinking civilized cocktails, taking it easy and thinking about my next move. I finished drinking my breakfast and looked up at the board.
After my last soberish entry, WHY AM I NOT A ZOMBIE? I had scrawled, ZOMBIES DON’T TIP WORTH SHIT.
Which was true.
Below that, in a somewhat drunker hand, it read: THE ONLY GOOD ZOMBIE IS A DRUNK ZOMBIE.
Also observably true.
Below that, I was just able to make out: IT’S HAMMER TIME.
My heart jumped. Suddenly and vaguely I remembered something not good had happened at the end of the night, but the thin thread slipped between my fingers.
At the very bottom of the board was a jumble of angry slashes of chalk that took me two minutes to decipher.
THE BODIES ARE IN THE BACK. DON’T LET THEM IN.
An ice-cold wave washed over me. I looked behind the bar for the hammer. I couldn’t find it or the screwdriver.
“This is bad,” I said.
“You mean doling out the main action scenes as hazy flashbacks?” my ex said, her voice finally cutting through the raw white noise of my hangover. She sat alone in an empty theater. “They only do that in art films and this sure as shit ain’t no art film.”
“Or is it?” I said. An art film would give me all sorts of leeway. I could stop worrying about having plot points or a dramatic arc. I could do things way out of character, for no good reason at all, then explain I was just trying to take the audience out of their comfort zone and—
“What audience?” she sneered.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Three hard kicks to the bottom of the front door. It was very unlike Roger, getting that angry. But then, I’d never refused to open before.
“Reality calling!” she said, and that reminded me of something. I hurried to the pool table, took a knee then a look. Sure enough, there was my phone. I snatched it up, hit the screen key. Nothing. I held down the power button and it began going through its power-up routine, screeching an awful techno noise that was answered by a horrific scream. A long, human wail from the front door. I hunched across the room and took a peek out the window.
It wasn’t just Roger. It was Roger and at least 500 of his zombie friends. I say at least 500 because the sea of faces filled the street as far as I could see in either direction. For all I knew, all of zombie Denver was out there.
I was a little surprised to see Roger sporting his fedora. He wore it on the back of his head, making him seem jaunty and carefree. Then he saw me in the window and screamed. An awful, drawn-out, horrifying shriek that informed me his lungs were still working. Was he going through withdrawals? Hungover? Had the booze re-humanized him to the degree he could now scream like a real human suffering incredible pain?
I decided it didn’t matter. I backed away from the window and they attacked the door with fists and feet, a jackhammer cacophony of blows that made the metal hinges squeak and creak. My phone made a sad sound. I looked at it and the screen said: 0% charged. Please connect charger. Powering down.
As I ran to the office, I winged the phone at the wall above the booths. It shattered with a satisfying crunch. I wasted five seconds fooling with my keys, only to discover the office door was unlocked.
Inside was a real horror show. Three bodies lay face-up on the floor. Their arms were stretched over their heads like they were doing a wave, and their mouths gaped open, which is the worst because you can’t pretend they’re just sleeping. Their faces were smashed in, but I recognized them. Fat Mike, Lonnie and Micky.
Fat Mike didn’t need an explanation. Lonnie must have finally shown up for her shift and tried to get behind the bar. As for Micky, well, people killed their best friends all the time, didn’t they? Isn’t that what the ID channel had taught us?
“Maybe you’re a psychopath,” my ex said, which would have been an interesting character arc, but I didn’t think so. He probably didn’t want to leave at the end of the night and things escalated.
There was a crash of glass. I stepped over Lonnie, picked up the hammer from Lou’s desk and went back to the front door.
Someone had punched a hole through the window and gotten his fist stuck. Dozens of other fists took up the cause and in less than 30 seconds all but a few jagged remainders of the double-paned glass was on the floor with the wreckage of three neon beer signs.
For a moment, nothing happened. A nice breeze, fresh with the smell of rain, drifted in, and through the empty frame I could see the tops of hundreds and hundreds of zombie heads, undulating like a gentle sea.
“Here’s that deserted island you always wanted,” my ex whispered. “Enjoy!”
A pair, then another, then a half dozen pairs of hands reached through the window, trying to get purchase. They eventually pulled up a half dozen faces, none of them regulars. They saw me and got very excited. If they had any sense of cooperation, they could have boosted each other up and in, but they didn’t so it was a clumsy, painfully slow affair.
It would be easy to smash them in the head as they crawled through. They would be completely vulnerable. But what if they kept coming? What if three or four came through at the same time? How would I find time to make my half-hourly drinks? It sounded like a very dangerous game of whack-a-mole that might go on for hours, days, weeks.
I stuck the hammer in my belt and scuttled back to the office. I stared at the back door for a long five seconds. It opened onto an alley that connected Colfax with 14th Avenue, but as far as I was concerned it was a water slide into the Zombie Sea. It would be my last resort, the final option.
I unlocked the inventory cage, pinchered a double armful of bottles from the top shelf and carried them to the bar top. I checked the window on the return trip. Two zombies, one fat, one not so fat, had squeezed their head and shoulders through the slit, cutting their faces and arms badly. They really wanted their morning drink.
I transferred another double armful of bottles to the bar, then moved to the front door. The fat zombie was stuck on a protruding shard of glass that was gutting him like a fish, but the not-so-fat guy, a redhead with a sinister beard, toppled through the window and came down hard on his head. The door vibrated and creaked with each new blow and I knew it was only a matter of time.
I threw the bolt and ran. Swinging around the end of the bar, I dropped the drawbridge and started putting away the bottles spilled across the bar top. The mob boiled in, loud and looking for trouble. I drug the last bottles into the sink, started all four taps, then remembered I hadn’t swapped the kegs out. I got the New Castle pouring into a pint glass, and the swarm hit the bar like an angry wave, moaning and hissing and growling and trying to grab me. Within 30 seconds the bar was packed shoulder to shoulder with more trying to squeeze their way in. It struck me that roughly half the crowd were women, which was a huge precedent for Lou’s.
The redheaded window climber, his face and arms shredded by glass and his head bent at a grotesque 90-degree angle, pulled himself atop the bar.
That’s one for the board, I thought, he has a broken neck and he’s climbing bar tops.
I drew the hammer and swung it at his right knee. He collapsed, and I hit him twice more in the temple, then one final blow to the bridge of the nose, the sweet spot, then shoved him into the arms of his hysterical comrades.
Instead of learning a lesson, every zombie at the bar acted like they wanted to climb over. They were having a hard time of it because the overeager mob behind them was pinning them tight against the bar. So they thrashed their arms, smashing glasses and trying to grab the beer taps so they could pull themselves over.
I darted up and down the bar, hammering hands and the occasional face, trying to reestablish order, but a lot of them looked like tourists and suburbanites and it was plain they did not give a damn about any sacred dive-bar taboos. The front door was jammed open by zombies fighting to get in, and over their heads, as far as I could see, were more zombies. I could tell by the rich timbre and depth of the crowd’s combined moaning voice that it stretched for blocks and blocks.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at the turnout. I was most likely the only game in town. The only working bartender in the only open bar in all of Zombietropolis, and it looked like word had got around. I didn’t know how it got around but it plainly had. I shuddered with the thought of how incredibly alone I was, then felt a sudden flash of anger. I should have been holed up in a fortified mansion, enjoying all the luxuries the world had to offer, and instead I was a vastly-overworked slave to the zombie horde. I was stuck in literally the shittiest job in the whole goddamned world.
Then the lights went out.
Barely one day into the zombie apocalypse and the grid goes down. Again I felt cheated because in the movies it usually took a week. To my benefit, the sudden dimness—there was too much light coming through the smashed window and open door to call it darkness—seemed to calm the zombies.
I took quick advantage of the lull, spinning off bottle caps and dumping liquor into whatever unbroken glasses I could find. I put them on the bar and the zombies slapped them off.
“On the house!” I told them. “Drink up!”
I lined up six glasses and loaded them with Fruit-Loop flavored vodka. Everybody liked that shit. Before I could dole them out, a bovine blonde in a ski sweater casually reached over and backhanded the whole lot of them down the bar top.
That’s when it hit me. All these new zombies weren’t here to feast upon my complimentary cocktails. They were here to feast on me. The only zombies who wanted a drink were the habit-trapped regulars, and they were mostly lost in the back of the crowd, cowed by the more aggressive newcomers.
Which gave me a brilliant idea.
I put together a gin and tonic—it was really a Bacardi 151 neat as I couldn’t find any gin in the jumble of bottles—and held it high over my head. I spotted Roger standing in the back. In the general fracas, his shirt had been ripped off but his fedora remained because it was pulled down so low the brim touched his ears. He looked ridiculous.
“Roger!” I yelled. “Here’s your gin and tonic!”
Roger let loose of one of his long, horrific screams. My brilliant plan was to lure all the regulars to their bar stools, thus building a levee of territorial assholes who still wanted liquor and respected the fine old taboos that held civilization together.
Infuriatingly, the teetotal zombies wouldn’t let Roger advance, and I could tell he really wanted that drink. I finally just threw it at him in frustration, hitting him square in the face. He screamed horribly, clawing at his eyes, and this gave me yet another brilliant idea.
I poured a generous stream of 151 across six feet of bar top, took out my Zippo and lit it up.
Don’t believe the movies—liquor doesn’t burn with the explosiveness of gasoline. Moonshine or pure grain alcohol might, but your average high-proof liquor burns with a calm blue flame.
But it seemed to be enough. The zombies directly in front of the fire drew back, they seemed to recall that fire was bad, and the rest along the bar turned to stare with real interest at the pretty blue light in the middle of the gloom.
“I have one bottle of Bacardi 151,” I gravely said, “and my life depends on what I do with it.”
“Who are you talking to?” my ex wondered. “The audience?”
“And what an audience,” I said, and it was true. The theater was nearly as packed as the bar.
“They’re here to watch you die.”
I took a pull of 151, for courage, for fortitude, because that’s what tough protagonists did before they did something completely daring and outrageous. After I stopped choking, I poured a thin stream of rum from the dying fire to the far end of the bar. The blue flame eagerly followed me, and the zombies watched with fascination. When I got to the drawbridge, I violently shook and whipped out the remaining rum onto the heads and shoulders of the zombies gathered nearby.
The effect was immediate and spectacular. As any experienced bartender can tell you, 151 burns with much more effect when combined with flammable materials, like clothing and human hair. The flaming zombies tried to run back into the crowd, and the crowd tried to run away from the flaming zombies, and just like that the way to the back office was clear except for one canny zombie in a priest’s collar who was rolling around on the tiles, trying to put himself out.
I ducked under the drawbridge, high-stepped over the holy roller, opened the office door just enough for me to slip through, closed it behind me and turned the lock. It was just that easy. No finding that the door was inexplicably locked, no fumbling and dropping of keys, no hands squeezing the back of my neck, none of those horror-movie clichés.
The room was pitch black. I leaned my back against the door and listened. The clamor outside was dying down. Had they even seen me duck out?
A single, almost tentative fist hit the door. Five loud heartbeats passed. Another thud. Then another, finally growing into an angry flurry of fists. I had to give it to them, they were pretty intuitive, these zombies. They had a sort of group-think thing going.
The door was made of wood and wouldn’t last long. Using my Zippo to light the way, I checked the remaining inventory for high-proof liquor. Disappointed, I pulled a bottle of George Dickel rye from the shelf, stepped over the bodies, lay my hand on the dead bolt of the back door and pocketed my Zippo. I badly wished I could set the bar on fire and trap all those poor zombies in a fiery inferno, but there just wasn’t enough time.
Holding the Dickel like a club, I threw the dead bolt and stepped into the alley. The asphalt was shiny with rain and the air smelled clean and pure, despite all the black fingers of smoke clawing the horizon. Behind me, I heard the wooden door crash to the floor.
I started to the right, then remembered that was the way to Colfax. A milling horde of zombies, the overflow from the Lounge, filled the mouth of the alley. A lot of them were looking at me.
I turned around and started walking toward 14th Avenue, my back muscles tight. No fast movements, I told myself. Stay calm and cool. Don’t give yourself away. You’ll walk among them like that lady in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, right up until she got ratted out by Donald Sutherland.
The small shuffling sound behind me grew and grew until it was a vast thundering of footsteps. Fast-moving footsteps.
I started to run.