Got on my dead man’s suit and my smilin’ skull ring
My lucky graveyard boots and a song to sing
I got a song to sing, it keeps me out of the cold
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.
~ “Further On (Up the Road)” performed by Johnny Cash
Mad World (American Pie, Part One)
Blood-stained sidewalks lead in one direction when the world is at war with itself. The way is dark and the night is cold, all towns bleed together. My dog Marley and I keep movin’ on, further down the road. We’ve got songs to sing; they keep us out of the cold and help keep us grounded. We’ve been making pretty good time. It helps that we stay to ourselves. Marley is as cautious as I am about steering clear of others—dead and alive. We’re good at staying in the shadows.
Marley and I have had a few close calls, but thankfully, we’ve not been in any grave danger. Yet. The zombies haven’t noticed us; they all seem self-absorbed. Or lost. Some of them even seem sad.
A few nights ago, Marley and I slept in the back office of an old Kohl’s department store. The office still had working security cameras—they must have been tied to an internal back-up power system, though we never could find it. In one security screen, a female zombie stood outside of the dressing rooms. She was wearing a short black skirt and a long black jacket. She must have been beautiful in her past life. Now her blonde hair was stringy and caked with dark blood; much of it had fallen out. We watched her watching herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. She spun in circles and watched her reflection pass each of the multiple mirrors, like some dead Narcissus gazing into the water’s glassy surface. Some of the dead are less dead than others.
She kept smoothing her long hair, and when a clump would fall out, she’d look stricken, distraught, and continue spinning and smoothing, spinning and smoothing, spinning and smoothing. Perhaps that’s what hell is, being trapped in a speechless decaying shell with all of our emotions and insecurities still intact.
Most of our days, like the haunted towns and the bloody sidewalks, run together. We use our imagination to keep on keepin’ on, trying to make the best of our bad situation. Thoughts of Dave keep me going. I wonder what he’s doing, imagine where he is.
Lately it seems like everyone is changing, like there’s no one left that’s real. I feel darkness beckon and pull on my ankles. I’ve struggled with depression, disassociation, for most of my life. But Dave changed all that, he took it all away. He was, he is, my lighthouse, my shelter from the storm. I could always tether myself to him; I was never worried about becoming unhinged because I knew he would be the last face I saw at night and always the first face I saw in the morning.
I remember waiting for Dave to meet me for lunch at my favorite Mexican café in Roswell. We had just started dating, and this was his first time coming to the café. Dave was running late, but I wasn’t worried; Atlanta traffic is notorious. The owner, Rosa, a second mother to me, was hovering around, trying to act busy. Her forehead glistened with sweat from nervous excitement about meeting Dave for the first time. “You sure he’s coming, mija? It’s been more than an hour. You want to call him? How about some queso while you wait? You need to eat, flaca, you’re skin and bones. I’ll go fix you something.”
“No, no, no, gracias, tía, he’ll be here, I’m not worried. How about a Diet Coke, por favor?”
“Diet Coke?” Rosa scoffed. “That stuff will kill you.”
I laughed and returned to my book, Hamlet by Shakespeare. I was so engrossed in the story, I didn’t see Dave walk in or sneak up behind me, but I would know his voice anywhere. In my ear he whispered:
“Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love.
“Sorry I’m late, Sam. Food delivery truck broke down so we had to wait for the back-up driver. Did you think I wasn’t coming?”
“I never doubted you for a second, my noble Prince of Georgia,” I smiled and turned my head to kiss him, “but I’m not so sure about her.”
Dave looked up to a stern, disapproving Rosa, looming over our table, “Lo siento, lo siento. I’m so sorry I’m late,” Dave said, trying to placate Rosa.
“You should be sorry. Leaving such a pretty young lady by herself. Men these days…” Rosa muttered, along with a few other choice words.
It didn’t take long for Dave to get in Rosa’s good graces though. Nobody stays mad at him for long, especially not women. By the time we’d finished lunch, Rosa had shared her secret tamales recipe with Dave and had shown him pictures of all 22 of her kids and grandchildren. She’d even invited him back into her kitchen to cook with her—an act previously unheard of in the thirty plus years she’d been open.
That was the day I fell into a love from which I’ve never recovered. The day I tethered myself to Dave. The day I got my heart set, my feet wet. And he didn’t even know it yet. Oh he knew later, there was a night in the rain…but I’ll let Dave tell you that story someday. Rosa knew though, and it was our little secret.
No matter what I have to do, no matter how far I have to go, I will reach our destination. I will find Dave. Ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low, that can keep me from getting to him. So I feel the dark hands grabbing on to my ankles, but I keep kicking them off and I keep movin’ on.
“I go out walkin’ after midnight, out in the moonlight, just like we used to do, I’m always walkin’ after midnight, searchin’ for you…” I sing, not very well, but Marley smiles approvingly. He’s got a thing for Patsy Cline. Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Sam Cooke, Patsy, and of course Bob Marley, all get his tail waggin’. He’s not so sure about Willie Nelson though. Marley loves “Yesterday’s Wine,” but he growled when I sang “On the Road Again.” I don’t blame him, it’s not my favorite either; I’d never put it on a playlist. Bob the Dog had diverse taste in music too; I’m really glad some things stay the same.
It’s just another day as Marley and I make our way to Dave and the lighthouse. We turn quickly into an alley when we see a small group of humans approaching. We watch from the shadows as they walk by: there’s a scruffy man wearing a Sheriff’s hat, a striking woman with a sword, and a very delicious looking man with a crossbow. In a different world, maybe I’d be that badass woman with the sword. And maybe Dave would be the hot man with the crossbow. There’s always fantasies, right? I smile and lose myself in thought . . . I picture Dave watching me with hungry eyes while he pulls out his rigid crossbow. I wait on a bed of black satin sheets dressed in a leather bustier ala Xena the Warrior Princess, my own hunger grows … “What? Ow! That hurts, Marley!” I yelp after Marley nipped my hand, and then I see what Marley was warning me about, zombies. “Oh crap.”
At quick count, there are about ten of them, maybe twelve. There are three adults, but I go numb when I realize most of them are just kids. They’re all wearing costumes, one girl—dressed as a princess in an ice blue dress—is even clinging to a plastic pumpkin overflowing with candy. The smallest is a boy. He is dressed all in black and has on a black cape and a black mask. He looks about five. I feel something break inside of me. I want to scream and curse at the gods. This is so unfair, so cruel! Such a very very mad world. I’d cry if I had any tears left. “Where did they come from, Marley?” We must have been in such a hurry to hide from the living that we walked right into Trick or Treat Alley.
Marley and I spot a dumpster a few feet away, so we creep over to it and hide. We look around for an escape route, but it’s a dead-end, there’s no way out. Well, there’s a fence behind the dumpster, but it’s locked and it’s too high to climb over. I wouldn’t leave Marley anyway. I consider wrapping him around my shoulders like a cloak and trying to climb the fence, but it’s too late. The zombies are closing in, shuffling our way in a sweep formation. I don’t think it’s candy they want. And even though the thought makes me want to throw-up, I’m down to just one thing, and I’m starting to scare myself.
“Marley, listen to me. We have to get past them. We have to get to Dave. If we stay here we die.”
How I wish I had that sword, that crossbow. I’d even be happy with a stick to protect myself. I don’t relish the thought of hurting a child, but they’re not children, not anymore. I have to remember that. I’ve been trying my best to live a skillful life of non-harming–“What would Pema do?”–but I don’t see any other way here. I guess I’ll have to repair my Karma in my next life. Maybe Dave, Marley and I can all come back together.
Just survive somehow, Sam, I hear Dave’s voice echo in my ears. It brings me back to reality, and I am reminded of the only thing that matters. Reaching Dave.
“Okay, Marley, let’s both head toward the little one in black. He’s smallest, I mean, it’s smallest. It shouldn’t be that hard to get around or…you know,” I say, choking back a sob. “Let’s go.”
I start to get up, but Marley stands over me and uses his snout to push me back to the ground.
“Stop messing around, Marley, we’re wasting time. I don’t want to do it either, but I don’t want to die. At least this way we have a chance.”
I try again to stand up but Marley won’t budge. Just as stubborn as Bob was. Yep, some things never change.
“Mar…” I start to say, but he lifts the corner of his jowl and quietly growls at me. His amber eyes go pitch black and in that moment I fear he’s been turned. I fully expect him to attack me, and I’m stunned into paralysis. How can I hurt Marley? He’s my dog, my friend. But how can I not protect myself?
I’m about to throw Marley off of me and sprint for my life, when he must smell my fear. He lowers his head to mine and licks me on the cheek. Marley growls lowly again, but this time I realize it’s not a growl, he is saying, “Shhhhhh.” His black eyes gaze deeply into mine. They flicker again with amber light; they implore me to trust him. So I take a deep breath, and I do.
I hide my head in Marley’s furry neck and drink in his cinnamon scent. He leans into me, drapes himself over me like a security blanket. I feel like Marley is holding me in his arms, and I feel safe. Protected. The way I felt with Dave.
I close my eyes and think back to the time Dave and I went to the beach after my mother died. We scattered her ashes at sunset from the top of the lighthouse while the sky was quite a lovely fire. And then we sat on the wet sand of the shore and took turns drinking out of a big bottle of wine, sharing memories and listening to sad songs on Spotify under the glow of a blood red moon (“My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore. . .”). I spent all of that night crying in Dave’s arms. I told him I felt weak for crying, that I hated feeling sad. I just wanted it all to go away, I just wanted my mother, I just wanted … something I could never have. “I don’t want to feel anymore, Dave, I’m so tired of all this sadness.”
Dave wrapped his arms tighter around me and said, “You have to feel it, Sam, the only way out is through. You can’t sleep-walk through your life. Dolor hic tibi proderit olim, someday this pain will be useful to you.” He pulled me closer and sang, “Don’t let your eyes refuse to see; Don’t let your ears refuse to hear; Or you ain’t never going to shake this sense of sadness; I could hold you in my arms, I could hold on forever…”
I lift my head up from Marley’s neck and open my eyes.
The princess zombie is right in front of us. And she is looking directly at me. Her eyes are vacant, there’s no fire, no expression. No expression, she’s just staring coldly.
My body goes rigid against Marley.
Marley stares into my eyes, and it feels like he’s shooting feelings of calm and peace right into my veins. The amber candles in his eyes flicker, mesmerize me. Don’t worry about a thing, every little thing gonna be alright.
I take a deep breath and look again to the young girl. She was someone’s child. In another world, she could have been my daughter. I just want to hold her in my arms, I just want to protect her from the world, I just want … something I can never have. I stare deep into her crystal blue eyes, the way Marley stared into mine. “Look right through me. Look right through me,” I whisper softly to her. And then, as quickly as she appeared, the young zombie princess turns and shuffles away in the other direction, still clutching her bucket of candy. Something tells me she will never let it go.
I can’t believe it. “What the hell just happened here, Marley? Did you know that would happen? HOW did you know that would happen?” I hear myself growing frantic, “Why didn’t she eat us, Marley? Why didn’t the others smell us? Why did they leave us alone? What in the world just happened, Marley? We should be dead! Why are we not dead now? Why?!”
If Marley knew, he wasn’t talking.
“C’mon Marley, please. I need some happy news.”
But he just smiled and turned away.
Frustrated, but relieved, I pull myself up to follow Marley since he seems to know where he’s going better than I do. I have a hard time walking though, my legs feel like Jell-O. My blood sugar must be non-existent. I know I should eat something but there’s no way I can hope to hold anything down.
We round the alley corner, and I start to tell Marley that I need a break, but I notice he’s already standing at the door of a store front. It looks like an abandoned music store. The name on the door reads American Pie.
There’s a small sign in the window. “Closed: The music wouldn’t play.”
We shimmy the door open and cautiously step in. I go quickly through my checklist and find all the exits. I find it kind of funny how the grocery stores, pharmacies and liquor stores have all been looted, but this music store looks untouched for years. I find it kind of sad too, and I shake my head and mourn the day the music died. Some say that was the day Buddy Holly died; I say it was the day Tower Records closed. Or maybe it was the day iTunes launched. Maybe it was when Dick Clark died. Or John Lennon. Or Bob Marley. Or Jimi or Janis or Jim or Jerry or Amy or Michael or Luther or Elvis or Kurt. Or maybe it was Altamont. Maybe it was Paris. Music has died so many times, but thank god it still lives in our hearts and memories. Somehow it always finds a way to come back.
The record store is decked out with concert photos all over the walls. I wander around looking at them, and spot a sign wedged between shots of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. It’s a piece of graffiti art: Jerry Garcia strumming a daisy guitar beside a quote, “Do you believe in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul?”
I hope so. God I hope so.
In the back of the store I find listening booths with stuffed chairs and dusty turntables, but signs on each door say, “Booth closed. Go sample on iTunes.” I shake my head and call Marley over when I find an office we can nap in.
The back office is small, but there’s a desk and a swivel chair, and a faded green paisley loveseat in the corner. Most importantly, there’s an emergency exit.
On the desk I spot a black and white wedding photo in a silver frame. In it a young couple smiles, obviously in love. He is a young soldier in dress uniform (World War II, I wonder? Korea?), she a beaming bride in white on his arm. He looks just like Buddy Holly with curly dark brown hair and black horn-rimmed glasses; she reminds me of Mary Tyler Moore, her long dark hair falling beautifully to her shoulders in a classic flip. The edges of the photo are just starting to fade.
Instinctively, I reach for my locket and look once again at the photo of me and Dave on the beach. It’s probably just my imagination, but it looks like my photo is starting to fade too. I can barely make out Dave’s face. Everything is blurry. I sigh, close the locket and slip it back under my shirt.
There’s an old portable record player sitting on the desk across from the wedding photo. I don’t see a cord, so it must be battery-powered. There’s already an album on it, so I take a chance and turn it on, setting the needle to a random spot on the mystery vinyl. I am surprised when it starts spinning in circles, and soon Jim Morrison’s ghostly voice fills the room:
The days are bright and filled with pain
Enclose me in your gentle rain
The time you ran was too insane
We’ll meet again, we’ll meet again
And then nothing.
The batteries died.
The music wouldn’t play.
So with Marley sitting beside my feet, I recline on the faded loveseat and continue to softly sing the rest of the song:
Oh tell me where your freedom lies
The streets are fields that never die
Deliver me from reasons why
You’d rather cry, I’d rather fly …
Before I can finish, I slip into unconsciousness.
To be continued at the new home for Sam & Dave’s stories. Come visit us there!
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I wanna drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow
“Mad World” performed by Gary Jules
Again, Sam and Dave’s series can now be found at its new home: