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Number 4: Counter Attack

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"We will cut the heads off the Americans...we will devour them," said a 25-year-old bus driver, making eating noises as he pretended to gnaw on human bones.

"Tell the Americans not to forget even if we don't have weapons we have other spirits," he said, warning that Haitians would send zombies to attack the Marines and throw poisonous powder at them. Other Haitians standing in line agreed.

--Reuters, August 11

Helmut is hosting an ecstasy party tonight. I can't wait to get there, but it's raining and no cabs are stopping so I decide to kill a little time in a Coffee Hut somewhere near the corner of North and Ashland. All I want to do is stay dry and drink my coffee, but the man I'm sitting next to at the counter decides I might be interested in hearing about the dangers of going up against an army laced with voodoo powder. He sucks on each syllable like a jujube he's trying to dissolve before his dentures fall out.

"Military suicide," he says. "Strategic theory abhors a vacuum. Tactical impasse--you kill them and they keep coming back. You've seen the movies! Go up against an army of zombies? Why?"

Why indeed, when he puts it that way. He tells me to use my head. "Military suicide," he says again, then asks, "What do you think?"

I ask if it isn't in poor taste to question religious eccentricities while an entire island goes without gasoline. As far as the invasion being suicide, I tell him "The drive toward oblivion is a quest for power. It's also a result of opposing goals. Maybe the threat of invading is a cry for help."

"Opposing goals? Like what opposing goals?"

"Like what? Oh I don't know. Feel into it. Opposing goals--say, the will toward domination through competition and success on one hand and the Christian ideal of helping on the other. For example."

"You just don't get it do you? They blow this white powder in your face and you can't get it off. Then you start seeing omens everywhere, but by then it's too late."

I can see we're at a crossroads. I tell him sometimes suicide can be made to look like an accident and if he wants to attach the word military to it, it's a free country.

He waves me on.

Or off, rather, as one would a fly. "Anyway," I say, "military activity favors sacrifice, so what's your complaint?" He seems disappointed. I tell him if push came to shove maybe the Pentagon could develop an antidote to zombiism, that they're probably working on one now.

"Oh an optimist," he says. I tell him yes. He makes a face like a rabbit caught in a gin. "Anyway," he says, "there is no antidote to zombiism, all the research points that way."

I'm not sure that's true, I say and ask him to pass the cream. "For the lady," he says and hands me the little tin container. A black silverfish runs out from behind the napkin dispenser to under the counter somewhere near the man's knee. I cough coffee when I see it.

"What's the matter with you?" the waitress passing asks. Not wanting to create alarm, I change the subject. I ask whether the countertop is linoleum or Formica. It's yellow and chipped and veined in a way that comes with age. "That there is neither," she says, "I don't know what that is."

"Formica?" the man next to me says. "You think this is Formica?" He tells me to use my head. "This is cork swab."

I ask what cork swab is supposed to be. "Cork swab...cork swab! Christ! It's right in front of you." He waves me on. The waitress tops our coffees off and takes the plate from the adviser's place. He has eaten an omelet and a steak. She scrapes the remains into a garbage bin at the far side of the counter.

The cook comes out from behind the grill. "What's she want to know about the counter?" he asks the waitress.

"Just whatever," the waitress says. But the cook must know more and enters the circle of discourse.

"Aren't I right about what they got going on down there, Cliff?" the man next to me asks the cook. "Didn't I tell you about zombie tactics?"

"You mentioned something along those lines. Did somebody have a question about my counter?"

I check my posture, but before a response is possible my coffee partner interrupts, saying that "the zombie is the most irrepressible of demons because it is the most radical dislocation of spirit and matter--severe detachment in the worst way." He begs us to use our heads. "How can you repress what isn't there? Here's the matter--but where's the spirit?" I tell him I don't know. On a raft? He waves me on and says that in other demons at least there is something to work with.

The cook makes a small bow and turns to the waitress, who is smoking a cigarette, drinking a can of diet Pepsi through a straw, and wearing a wig. A matted affair, seems to be worn as more of a cap. He shrugs to her.

"Linoleum"--now furtive, the man next to me whispers deeply, almost under his breath--"is laminated. Cork swab is laid with resin and then set to dry." He says he shouldn't be telling me all this and then asks whether or not I have clearance.

I'm not sure how to answer. I'd thought I had clearance, in a sense. To a degree. Maybe a degree isn't good enough. What is the term for all or nothing? Anyway, if clearance means a ticket into his logic-chopping circus of reason, I'm not so sure I'm holding. Clearance? I tell him no. "Good," he says, "neither do we."

It's raining harder now. "Evie doesn't have clearance either." He points to the waitress, suggesting that she and I should have a lot to talk about. Yes, I could see that. He tells me he lives above a shoe repair shop up the street and then asks out loud, "What's happened to Frankie?" When nobody answers he reaches into his pants pocket for a handful of change and with his middle finger sorts quarters, scooting them out onto the ridge of calloused palm at the crest of his hand. Three out of five heads face out to me. He makes a gesture, offering me the coins for the jukebox.

Evie refills my coffee cup and I see that the measure of cream from the previous dose has turned this new cup a perfect tan. Now this is a coffee worth waiting for. Is it true that the ninth cup of coffee is my most preferred? Yes. It is ne plus ultra. A drum of thunder booms outside and the black silverfish runs out from somewhere near the man's leg. Theophanic? I doubt it, but it wags an impervious tail at me. Why should I get wet? I take the quarters and play a set of four, none of them Frankie. The last quarter I use to call a cab. Ten to thirty minutes, they say.

When I return to my seat we sit and say nothing, just listen to "Que Sera, Sera." Evie sings with Miss Day mockingly, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Good. I'll just sit tight until my taxi comes. I ask my coffee partner how it is he knows I'm not a zombie. He says my face needs to be a little grayer. A beeper goes off on the other side of his belt and he leaves to return the call.

I should have pointed out the black silverfish. I should have told him it was on his head. Maybe I still will. Outside big thunder booms again and a flash of white streaks the sky. I think they call it blanching the moment. I suffer a brief coffee panic. Thank God I've got a cab on the way.

"Cab?" my coffee partner yells out from the phone across the place, loud enough for anyone outside who may be listening in to hear. The booths are full but no one responds. "Someone here call a cab?" he says again, not at all amused. The waitress joins in on the jussive and is exasperated doing it. "Ca-a-b wait-ing," the grill cook calls out. It's heartwarming how people will band together in times of crisis.

I sense opposing goals: my wanting to get out of here on the one hand and my coffee partner being my cabbie on the other. The ordeal is a combination of grief, flight, and punishment.

The ride to Helmut's is jerky. It's a mistake telling the driver there's a black silverfish on the back of his neck. He slams on the brakes and the car is spun into the oncoming lane. I am knocked to the floor. It's an accident. Someone on a bike gets hurt.

Number 5: Hot Dog.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dan Grzeca.

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