I dreamed about Minnesota last night. What kind of person dreams about Minnesota? On the map, Wisconsin has bit into Minnesota like a block of cheese. The winters are long and miserable. The landscape is barren. Open fields covered in snow, with yellow stalks of lifeless wheat poking through the white. At least that’s the way it is in my dreams.
I have to keep a tape recorder near the couch. I can’t write when I wake up. My hands are stiff, and I am immobile on the bed as if a giant hand is pressing down on me, but my mind is active, buzzing with a confluence of ideas waiting to be forgotten. I dreamed of a man and woman running across the snow, spatterings of blood on their clothes. “Bulls on Parade” is playing in the background, and with every third or fourth step, one of them plunges into the deep snow. It takes them several harrowing seconds to get their feet back to the surface and running again. And the zombies get a little closer.
My brain is reciting my next story. It’s a big one, a solid horror story that could easily translate into a movie deal. Zombie interest is cyclical. Same with vampires, but they have too much binary baggage. You have too much to decide with vampires – dirty or clean, tragic or evil, garlic or crosses. Zombies are a tableau rosa. Every few years there’s a new crop of movies where people get eaten, and the zombies are metaphors for communists or Exxon or the NSA. Once the fad hits, producers pilfer books and comics and ‘zines for source material. And they will find my story, maybe online or in a faux-pulp journal that uses nostalgic cover art from an imitation Boris or Frazetta.
But you do have to be careful deciding what causes zombification. Viruses seemed like a good choice, but interest is too erratic. It all depends on how people will die in the future. I wouldn’t want the movie to come out when no one’s worried about viruses or paranoid about the government. Maybe a terrorist cell releases a nerve agent. Maybe oil in the water. Maybe it’s something in the food, an anagram for high-fructose corn syrup.
I could leave it ambiguous. But is that too much like Night of the Living Dead? There’s your zombie baggage. Either you are writing toward that movie or away from it. First you’ve got to be ready for the comparisons. Then you start thinking too much about it. Then every story you write becomes Night of the Living Dead in the end. But my new zombie story is different. It is set in Minnesota. The landscape is all snow, so they could film in Canada, where it’s cheap, and red on white makes great visuals.
What would be a good title? Maybe Zombie Nice. Good, short title – and the zombies could live forever in Minnesota’s frozen lakes, eating gophers and emerging with each spring thaw for campy sequels. Springtime for Zombies. I could finish the trilogy with a musical. Mel Brooks is making money piles because of one movie he made decades ago. All it takes is one good idea. It can set you for life.
Having good ideas doesn’t help if you can’t remember them. My notes disappear. My tapes are blank. I had a dream where the hero and leading lady meet. They fight despite their mutual attraction. Then the zombies come. The couple flees across a barren landscape, with no place to hide, nothing but white, and it all culminates in one night of passionate grappling in a corn silo. Conflict is the essence of their relationship, but I don’t remember why they fought. I think she was headstrong and he was sarcastic. Or maybe the reverse. I had it all written down, including several clever rejoinders, but my wife is throwing out my notes. She doesn’t support me. Never has. I have to watch out for her when I am writing. She’ll sneak into my office, stand over my left shoulder, and won’t say a word till she’s read half a rough draft.
“You dream in third person?” she’ll say, so thick I can hear her sneer.
“It is the sign of the creative mind at work,” I say. I drop all my working windows to the desktop and spin around, arms crossed. “Besides, writing in first person is a sign of a lazy writer.”
I have found, people who do not live for art are unwonted to understand those who do. I could say more, but it would be useless. I spin back to my screen and start typing, as if her presence means nothing, as if I could continue despite the prickle of her stare on the back of my neck. But it is too late. My mind is blank with rage. My story is gone.
I bought a map of Minnesota. If I track the path of my protagonists, my mind will start to work on the scenes, the dialogue. I need a place name. Or do I? I don’t remember the name of the town in Night of the Living Dead. That could be my homage to Night. Our story starts in an unnamed town in Minnesota, just as Romero had an unnamed town in Pennsylvania. Acknowledge my debt to Night so then I can be free of it.
I do need character names. Or maybe not. I can think of at least two movies, big hits, where the main character remained nameless. People like that. They can project anything onto the hero, their own name, their own face. That’s the American dream, isn’t it? You’re not constrained by your family, your history, your genes, your mistakes. No reason left why you can’t be the hero.
It is a challenge to write without names. Since most of the story is the hero and the babysitter, pronouns are adequate – but a few action scenes with zombies are making things difficult. I am working on one encounter where he is cornered near a toll station.
“The creature advanced on him. This abomination had a blood-stained bib, bright orange, what was once part of an attendant outfit. That’s one road no one will be traveling any more, the protagonist thought, as the undead monster raised up his hands, his broken fingernails now jagged weapons like fleshy forks for the feast. The horror took another step forward, and our hero could smell the carrion dripping from the monster’s breath.”
How many synonyms for “monster”? I need this scene because too many of my zombies were female. I thought that might be an angle – the zombie virus affects only women – but that was too much like Y: The Last Man. There’s another bastard set for life. When you hear about the premise – an apocalypse that wipes out one gender – it’s an idea that should not have been floating free, open for anyone to take and make a million dollars. But there it is, like a catchy song or a great guitar riff that pops up just when you think everything good has been written. That’s the kind of hook that gets attention from Hollywood.
Maybe I could use the “it” pronoun? Has that been done before? Zombie as an “it.” No social roles, completely without the constraints of cultural norms. The mask of their existence has been stripped away to something raw and genderless. That’s symbolic. Has it been done before? I can do a quick find-and-replace with my word processor and have an “it” draft ready for the next meeting of my writers’ group.
It is cruel to hold a writers’ group in a bookstore. We walk past piles of cheap and discounted books, then stacks of new releases, to the coffee shop and scatterings of tables where my latest group meets every third Thursday. Each person imagines a day when he walks down an aisle and passes his name printed sideways—and he continues on, casually, because it is just another normal day.
It is Gady’s turn to present, but I bring my “it” copy of Zombie Nice, in case she’s sick or dead. But it’s no use. I smell Gady before I see her, the thick throat-lump of cheap cigarettes, a permanent smell in her clothes, her gray hair, her gray teeth, and if she’s at group, she has a story to read. She is the editor for a local paper, the one plagued with typos and bad grammar. She sits in her editor’s office all day, smokes, and writes short stories about farms and trailer parks and other settings of bucolic splendor from a youth she claims forty or fifty years ago. If I had that kind of job, a quiet office with a closed door, I would have five zombie novels done by now.
The sad reality is, even if she cleaned up the grammar and gave a little life to her style, she still would have no chance to publish. She’s old, and her writing is too. Writing demands prodigies. This world wants you only if you write older when you’re young or write younger when you are old. A fifteen-year-old who can write a touching scene between two women as they lean on a parapet, one sharing her struggles with her father’s dementia, while the other idly recalls a meeting at this exact spot, twenty years ago, her final tryst with her lover, her secret from the world. Or a ninety-year-old who writes chaste cyberpunk.
I tried to impart this to Gady, that she’s too old to write nostalgia. In softer terms than that, of course. But no good. She accepts criticism only if it is leavened with effusium (a new word for excessive praise I am trying out…) and even then it can be only the most superficial and grammatical criticisms or she will flick it away.
So I am considering ways to get Gady out of the group. Problem is, she has bonded with Jesse, almost a mother-son connection that means you can’t have one without the other. And we can’t lose him. Not yet. He’s a skinny kid with spiky hair and the only one in the group with a physically published book. He wrote a John Waters trivia book after he had a background part in a local Hairspray production. It’s not Harry Potter, but still, he had a release party at the bookstore complete with his theater friends dressed in long skirts and bouffant wigs. Gady brought a photographer from the newspaper to document the event, and that’s how my picture got on the front page of her raggy newspaper, in the background, taking a bite of a baby carrot, while Jesse and Gady beamed at the camera as if it were shooting hundred-dollar bills at them.
The person who wasn’t there, the one who mattered, was Jesse’s agent. The only reason I attended was to meet this wonderful person, but Jesse waited a full hour into the party to mention his agent’s flight from New York was canceled. The disconsolate faces on Laura and Kyle, the other two in our group, told me they felt equally betrayed. We had come with the anticipation of talking to a genuine New York literary agent, and we were left staring through the bookshelves in the self-help section, bumping each other as we plucked at the cheap vegetable platter and tried to find that right time to leave.
I don’t know what Laura and Kyle would have said, had the agent arrived. I would have had the easiest pitch. Horror can be quick and dirty, but it sells.
Laura writes stories about youthful innocence, the joys of childhood and fishing and swings, typical for a skinny housewife, now born-again writer who occasionally uses words like “malentendu.” She would be tedious, but her stories are short, easy to praise, and they might be getting more interesting. Last week she had a boy and a girl showing their privates in a basement.
Kyle is a big guy with intimidating facial hair. His devilishly thin beard traces his jawline and thickens into a goatee-like cluster on his chin. He writes sports stories. The last game before the stadium is torn down. A concussed football player lost in a shopping mall. His last story was one long stream-of-consciousness in a driver’s head as his racecar flips through the air, flying over a twenty-car pileup, his reflections on his life, his mistakes, the women he never bedded, a weightless twelve seconds that lasts for three-thousand words before he crashes to earth. It made me think about astronauts. I wrote a story that night about a driver flipping over a crash and he sees an alien on the hood of his car. I’m not sure if the alien is the scout for an invasion, with deadly tentacles that puff poisonous gas, or an envoy that tells our driver the deep secrets of the universe prior to his crash and untimely death. I wrote both versions. I would bring them to the group, to gauge the better ending, but I worry Kyle would be upset that I had upstaged him. Unfortunate. I have two really good alien stories on the shelf because I am too sensitive.
Actually, I had forgotten about those stories. I’m focused on Zombie Nice now, but I’ll have to wait another three weeks, maybe more, before I can present it. Today we have to hear Gady’s story about a gay man who meets his soul mate on the interstate after hitting a raccoon. He stops to see if the animal is alive – it isn’t, and she describes in gruesome detail why not – and his future husband hits his parked car. Jesse’s eyes get a little misty while she’s reading. Both Laura and Kyle look sleepy. All three of us wish Jesse’s agent had been at his party.
When Gady finishes, she has to break the stupor with a question. “What did you think of the raccoon? Was it too much?”
“No,” Jesse says, with a heavy breath. “The gore juxtaposes perfectly with the lovely end.”
“It made me a little uncomfortable,” Laura says. “The raccoon. There was a lot of detail.”
“Jesse knows exactly what I was doing,” Gady says.
“The Silver Fox strikes again.” That’s Jesse’s nickname for Gady. Yes, it will be a hard alliance to break.
Laura stops me after the group. “Will you have a story next meeting?” she says. It is such an unnecessary question that I have to analyze it. Maybe she is bored with her marriage. Who wouldn’t be? She’s thin and a little too pale, but isn’t everyone pale in Minnesota? That could be the zombie strategy – to live among the pale people, where zombies are less conspicuous. If her advance leads to an extended affair, she could be my zombie muse.
“I’m working on something about Minnesota,” I say.
“What? Like a Gady story?”
“No. Not like that at all.”
“Good,” she says. Then she corrects herself, “I mean, it’s good we have such a diverse group. Everyone’s got their own perspective.”
What a wonderful slip. I am not alone. Laura is on my side, even if she doesn’t know it. It might be easier than I thought to get Gady out of the group. But how do you move people from boredom into action? Writers do it by writing. I am on the schedule to read next meeting. If I can hone my skills into a sharp point and stab at the heart of this problem, I can incite action in the group. That is the writer’s gift. Make people laugh. Make them cry. Make them revolt. One hundred years ago people thought writing, if done right, could inspire madness. Like a tell-tale heart.
“I have a special story planned for next meeting,” I tell Laura and leave it at that. No need to pursue her now. I can wait a week and let my writing do the work for me.
In my first draft, the hero owned a furniture store. That was a good setting for a chase scene. He would jump over gilded tables and dodge between ottomans and armoires to escape the oncoming zombies. I change it to a bookstore, which is next door to a furniture store so I can save the chase scene for the sequel. But Zombie Nice needs to be more focused, if I am going to move Laura and Kyle and hopefully Jesse to my side.
It is an old-time bookstore in a future dominated by digital devices and synthetic drugs. At the end of every day, the hero has to go through the aisles to clear out the “clingers,” as he calls them, the old people who go to the back corners to read his books for free. They crease spines, bend pages, litter with dirty cups and broken pencils, and they are always back the next morning, right after their daily dose of Xankhex, an antiaging medication distributed through the state-run medical system.
“Most are old people, clinging to life,” he says to the pale but attractive young woman who delivers the books to his store. “They got nowhere else to go, so they come here. It’s something about the smell or the feel of the paper. They like it.”
Then one night he goes to the back corners of his dark store to find the books torn, tables flipped, pages shredded and dripping with blood and spit. The clingers are gone. The store is empty. He sees Clyde, an old man who has been in the bookstore every day for the last year. He has never bought anything, never dropped so much as a dime, but he’s ruined many books with his dirty hands and trembling fingers. Now Clyde is panting, glowering, pacing on the other side of the home improvement section, his hands shaking, dripping juicy bits of skin and paper.
Our hero says, “Clyde, I hope you didn’t stink up the bathroom again.”
Clyde lunges at him, quick and agile for a man his age, swinging his long, gnarled fingernails. His eyes are blood red, his teeth broken into jagged incisors. Our hero dodges the first lunge and retreats to the science and technology section. Clyde follows, and there is a dramatic chase around the shelves until our hero is caught at the end of the literature section. He avoids being zombie food by crushing Clyde’s skull with a giant hardcover edition of Look Homeward, Angel.
So the story begins. He unites with the delivery girl, whose husband was torn to shreds while eating his morning oatmeal, and together they deduce the drug companies have pushed their antideath drugs to the point that people are living almost forever. At least no one taking Xankhex has died yet – they just get older and older. Finally people get so old that they become zombies. Zombies in thought. Zombies in action. Zombies in appetite. And these are the creatures that chase our hero and his delivery girl across the barren Minnesota landscape.
“It’s like they don’t know when to move on,” our hero says. “They hang around on Earth long past their usefulness. They need to leave and let the next generation take over.”
He discovers his delivery girl is pregnant, but in the end, they decide to abort because these aged zombies have ruined the world.
I enter the bookstore, clutching the sweaty pages of my loaded story, and Laura is waiting in the vestibule, where the staff stores the double-cheap books, last chance to buy before they dump them in the sewers. She’s acting furtive, but there’s no one around and no one in the store even for the first few rows. The store, it is only a few years old, but its aging is accelerating, with more and more books showing bent covers and sales stickers and a musty smell that sometimes squeezes through the brewing coffee. It must be worse in Minnesota. I heard they had all Borders bookstores in the North, so now Minnesotans won’t have a place to buy and read my book about their state. They’ll have to wait for the movie.
“Did you bring a story this week?” Laura says.
“Will it take the whole hour to read?”
“Maybe. And there will be lots of discussion afterward.”
She fingers a folder pressed under her arm.
“I have a story,” she says. “It’s short. If we have time, maybe I could read it. After yours. I think it’s good but…” Her sentence dwindles.
“You could read it to me afterward,” I say. “If we don’t have time in the group.”
We walk back to the tables. I hear the phlegmatic grind of Gady’s voice. She and Jesse are whispering, and he covers his mouth as I sit. Kyle is reading a book he pulled from the shelf, something about ancient Egypt. I nod, sit, and start to read Zombie Nice. I don’t have the best reading voice. I’m prone to verbal stumbles. Gerunds in particular trip my tongue. I considered handing the story to someone else to read – or hiring someone to read for me – so as not to lessen the story’s impact. But I did not have time to get that arranged, especially with a harping wife hovering over me.
I peer at Gady after I read out Clyde’s death. She is holding her neutral expression, but Jesse winces. He pales, more so, when our hero knee-crushes the head of the next zombie, a gray-headed woman swinging the pointed metal tubes of her broken walker. So he can abide raccoon torture but gets squeamish when it’s closer to home.
At the end, I don’t ask for comments. I let that last line – Who would bring a baby into this world? – expand under its own power until my story cocoons the group, muffling the idle rustle of shoppers, the burble of the coffee bar. It has transported us out of the bookstore, off this earth.
“It was funny,” Kyle says.
“I thought it was disturbing,” Laura says.
“The title made no sense,” Jesse says. “And it was gross.”
“Had to be done,” Gady says. “Generational conflict is about violence, one group attacking the other, for resources, space, relevance.” She smiles, then winks at me.
“What was the name of the main dude?” Kyle says. “Did I miss it?”
“Were there too many similes? Maybe it was just me,” Jesse says.
Gady says, “Society keeps people alive for too long but marginalizes them, ignores them, until they are zombies. It’s symbolic, like the other monsters. Vampires are sex. Werewolves are duality.”
“I thought zombies were commies,” Jesse says.
“Zombies can be anything,” I say.
She nods, encouraged and encouraging. “And for once, they are sympathetic,” Gady says. “I liked it. Don’t change a thing.”
Gady has never offer such keen insight before. I might have been trying to get the wrong person out of the group.
“It would make a good movie,” Kyle says. “If you changed the ending.”
“Yeah, I didn’t like the ending,” Laura says.
“But it’s the perfect strike against the zombies,” Gady says. “No more kids, no more zombies. If one generation breaks the link, rejects its responsibility, it all falls apart. Eventually. You gotta keep the ending creepy.” Gady turns to Jesse. “Don’t you have a friend, at the theater, who makes commercials?”
“Stan? He’s been in a commercial.” Jesse crunches his face, puts his hands on his back, groans like an old lady. “Oh, oh, I was in a car wreck, and Larry Worthy got me a million billion dollars.”
Everyone laughs. I laugh.
“If we can find the studio, or just the director, we could pitch a movie,” Gady says. She looks at me. “What do you think?”
I am too stunned to speak at first. I say, “Great. Great.”
“We need a script,” Jesse says.
Gady is able to silence her rattling phlegm and pitches her voice like a child’s. “Gee, I wish I knew some writers.” Everyone except Laura laughs again.
Gady says, “Scripts are easy. Ninety pages, dialogue and action, and you’re done. I lived in Minnesota for three years, after I had my second boy. I can still hear the loons. There was this great pancake house. The building was shaped like U. Perfect place for a fight between zombies and your oversexed couple.” She looks at me. “If you don’t mind.”
I shake my head. “Perfect.”
The meeting ends with Gady assigning different scenes to adapt. She gives me the sex scenes. “This could be a real hit,” she says before we end the meeting.
I catch Laura near the exit. “I had a feeling we’d talk through the whole group.” I try to sound apologetic, but I am too excited.
“Thanks for the warning,” she says.
“You know, I already have a sequel sketched out. I could use a fresh perspective, if you want to get a cup of coffee or something.”
“I have a busy week.”
“I spent all month on my story, and it looks like we won’t read it next meeting either.” I recognize the edge in her voice, the needling complaint that drops on her last syllable. It makes me think of home.
I say, “It’s tough making time to write. I’m looking for a new place to live. My wife. My ex-wife. She’s not a good writer’s wife.”
“That’s too bad,” she says, but I don’t sense any sympathy in her.
“I thought, for a while, I would move to Minnesota. To get a feel for my stories. But now, looks like we got a good thing going here. Gady, she … she’s got something.”
“And she’s got valuable insight on Minnesota.”
“You’ve never been?” Laura asks.
“Nah. I just dream about Minnesota.”
“I can see that,” she says.