Zombies

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In case you missed it, yesterday we announced the third book that will be filling our shelves next year, the debut collection of short stories from the fantastic Robert James Russell, The Mating Habits of College Girls. Needless to say you will be seeing a lot more in the coming weeks and months. But for now, sit back and enjoy one of the stories form this collection.

Zombies

By the time I wake up my headache’s gone and I realize I’m not nearly as hungover as I thought I’d be even though we drank two fifths of tequila between the eight of us last night (and not the good kind, the kind with the little sombrero on top, whatever it’s called, I forget the name).  I’m looking over at my nightstand for some reason, staring at this weird Japanese lamp I got at Goodwill that looks like some bastard child of two Pokemon with the lightbult coming out of it’s mouth, like it’s being spit up—I call it Benji, but I’m not sure why and for some reason, when I’ve had a particularly rough night, this thing just mesmerizes me, like I can’t look away.  And here I am, again, studying the neon yellow painted-on scale-like stenciled skin, the big white eyes with the little half-moon pupils the way you’d draw on a cat when you’re a kid, and the red lamp shade that looks like a burp of fire.  It’s hideous, really, but I’ve had it for so long I can’t imagine not having it, you know?  I yawn and look from the lamp to my alarm clock, the little black thing I picked up…somewhere, I can’t remember where, and it’s blinking 1:33 AM so I’m assuming there must’ve been a power outage last night, maybe a thunderstorm knocked out the power or something.  If I had to guess, looking at the light coming in from the blinds at the other end of the room, I’d say it’s sometime between eleven and noon, but what the hell do I know—I never did the Cub Scouts or Webelos or anything, the places you’d learn those sorts of time-telling skills.  No, I had a childhood filled with Sega Channel and NBA Jam.

I pull myself out of bed and instantly feel achy all over, like I got into a car accident. I manage to hobble into my bathroom and study myself in the mirror, these deep blue rings slung under my these batshit crazy raw eyes looking back at me, these eyes that I barely recognize as my own.  Then I feel a wave of pain coming from my right foot and look down at the broken big toe I had forgotten about from a week ago, all gray and blue and swollen huge, and I try to touch it, wondering how much damage I did to it last night and it hurts so bad I make a face.  For some reason I think that rinsing it with cold water will help and it stings for a second when I do but finally it numbs a bit, which is great.  Satisfied, I take a handful of ibuprofen, like seven of them, and drink from a half-gone can of PBR sitting on the sink.  I put the beer back where I found it, even though the trash can is right there, and see my cell phone on the back of the toilet, face-down. I pick it up and wipe it clean and look through the cracked screen at the time: 1:45 PM.

“Goddamn,” I say to myself, pissed that I’ve wasted most of the day, dropping my boxers and taking the most satisfying piss I’ve had in a while.

Out in the living room there’s an upturned pizza box on the floor, some broken glass near the stereo, a bunch of blue plastic cups and empty beer cans all over the couch and underneath the TV. I see a Corona on the coffee table that’s almost completely full so I take a drink.  It’s warm but still has some carbonation so I keep drinking, sort of tidying up as I move along slowly, shuffling, really, so I don’t hurt my toe any more.  The kitchen is just as much of a warzone: half-cut limes dried up all over the place, spilled salt from failed tequila shooters, more cans of cheapo beer. I look in the fridge for something to eat and suddenly realize it’s Tuesday.  Fucking Tuesday.

            I’m down the hall probably quicker than I should be and after only three knocks on Troy’s door he’s screaming “I’m up, I’m up.”  I head back to the kitchen to look for some food but only find packages of Ramen and boxes of white cheddar macaroni and cheese, the generic brand, and an orange that’s been in the fridge for going on two months and growing mold.

            “Yo, Drew,” Troy says coming into the kitchen, surprising me.  “What’s the what?”

            “It’s Tuesday.”

            “Okay…” he says slowly, taking over for me looking in the fridge.

            “We said we were going to launch the site today.”

            “Shit, yeah,” he says coming up for air, scanning the kitchen all confused.  “Do we have any cereal?”

            “No. I don’t know.  But yeah, are you going to be ready?”

            “For…cereal?”

            “For the site launch.”

            “Oh, sure. Not that big of a deal, just need to sit down and hammer it out.”

            “Yeah, but we’ve been talking about this for over a month.”

            “I know, dude, and we’ll do it,” he says looking in the cupboards. “Honestly, just need to finish a few coding things is all.  Real simple.”

            “Cool,” I say sitting on the only barstool still standing, looking around quick for the other two.  “You see where the other stools went?”

            “Huh? No,” he says looking in the fridge again, like he missed something the first time.  “Hey, let me us your phone.”

            “Why?”

            “I’m going to order pizza.”

            “Fine,” I say handing my phone over.  He orders a large with chicken and jalapeños, our favorite, and when he hangs up he slumps on the counter.

            “Fuck, I’m tired,” he says. “Hey, did Jenny friend you on Facebook?”

“Jenny?”
“The drunk girl from last night.”

“Oh. I haven’t checked.  Wait, who?”

“The girl I fucked last night. Jenny.”

“Is she still…back there?” I say pointing in the direction of his room, thinking about the last time I got laid, a few weeks ago with Mina, another in a long line of reminders as to why you shouldn’t fuck someone you’re only mildly attracted to. Sigh.

“Naw. She split pretty much right afterwards. Get this. She said she can’t sleep good in someone else’s bed, asked if I minded that she left. I was like…’Uh, no?’”

“Nice.  Why is she going to friend me?”

“I told her you were a writer, and she’s taking some writing classes at the school or something. I said she should network. That you know people.”

“I don’t know anyone, man.”

“She doesn’t know that.”

“I guess.”

“Oh, and dude, her ass, just for the record, is…wow.”

“Cool, cool,” I say. “How long on the pizza?”

“They said twenty.”

“So, what…like, forty?”

“Probably.”

I head back over to the living room and start corralling cans of beer together, placing them in a lazy pile rather than actually cleaning them up. I sit on the couch and check my email on my phone, waiting for the familiar ding to announce that yes, in fact, I do have new messages.  Troy makes his way over eating a bagel and I have no idea where he got it.

“I think I want to get an iPad,” I say scrolling through all the spam, seeing that indeed I did get a friend request from a Miss Jennifer Pellegrino.  Cute, blonde, perky-looking and I’m still just barely able to remember her from last night.

“Jesus Christ, are you serious?” Troy says messing with his perfectly tangled bed hair.

“Look, I know I don’t need an iPad. No one needs an iPad. But I want one, okay?”

“I swear to God,” he says pacing and acting all crazy, “if I see an iPad in this apartment I’m going to smash it with a fucking hammer, bro.”

“That’s a little extreme, isn’t it?” I say watching him pantomime grandly and with great conviction.

“No, it’s not. Apple…they’re everywhere.  They’re, like, taking over everything, you know? I don’t want to be a part of that.”

“But…you’re not going to be. It’s mine. Or, will be, I mean.”

“Yeah, but this is my place too. And let’s assume we have some people over, some girls or whatever, like last night, and they see your precious iPad sitting out.  They’re going to automatically assume I had something to do with it.”

“Do with what?”

“With the acquisition of said iPad.”

“Maybe…”

“And I don’t want anyone thinking that I shelled out a fucking dime for that thing.”

“Wouldn’t the simple solution be then to just tell them that it’s mine? That I paid for it exclusively?”

“Doesn’t matter. The very idea that that thing would be housed within these walls makes me want to puke.”

“Calm down. You’re not going to puke.”

“Not now, no, but if you get an iPad and bring it here, then I will puke. I promise you that.”

“I don’t even get why you’re so against it. Who cares?”

“Look what it represents! he says breathing hard, which makes me laugh a bit.

“An easier access to porn?”

“The death of art, man.”

“Oh.”

“I mean, you should know, you’re still trying to get your novel published the traditional route. I mean, we’re old school, you and I.”

“Yeah, but we’re also creating an online lit mag.”

“True, but that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the practicality of the hardcopy. We embrace it and change. But the iPad…all those fucking ebooks, they just represent the death of reading as we know it.  It’s so easy to buy books that no one will go to bookstores any more and things will just cascade.  At least our lit mag will have a print version four times a year.”

“Hopefully.”

“Yes, well, hopefully. Anyway, you might as well just give up on your dream if

you buy an iPad. That’s all I’m saying.”

            “You’re an idiot.”

            “But I have a point. Don’t contribute to the death of a medium we love. That’s all I’m saying.”

            “You’re barely a writer anymore.”

            “Even still.”

“Anyway, check this out.”

“What?”

“I just looked, I hadn’t been paying attention, but guess how many fans my

Facebook fan page has now?”

“Two-hundred?” he says still pacing with his arms folded behind his back.

“Fuck that, man. Almost four-hundred.”

“So these people are fans of a writer who has nothing published?”

“Not the point.  And I just passed the five-hundred followers mark on Twitter this week too, thank you very much.”

“People still use that?” he says and I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but it kinda rubs me the wrong way, that he doesn’t take this stuff as seriously as I do.

“Seriously?”

“I dunno.  Not my thing.”

“Yeah, man, people still use it,” I say sounding like a total asshole then read through a rejection email I got from this online literary journal I submitted to last week, two poems I really like that apparently don’t fit their “vision” or whatever. I must’ve made a face when I read the email because suddenly Troy’s all over me.

“Shit, another one?” he says.

“Yeah, but it’s…fine.”

“All part of the game, huh?”

“I’m just annoyed at how incestuous it all is.  How, like, no one will even look at your stuff unless you happen to know someone who knows someone, that sort of thing.”

“You should totally write a poem about being rejected. How meta is that?”

“Would be more meta if it got accepted into a place that had rejected my stuff previously.”

“Oh, shit. You just blew my mind,” he says laughing, then, “You should’ve gone into graphic design.”

“Fuck that. Not my bag. It’s all you.  Besides, you used to be a writer…once.”

“Yeah, used to be,” he says lost in thought and I’m thinking back to the first piece of Troy’s I read during the first semester of grad school, a little story about an orphan girl in the Wild West who befriended a werewolf.  The two of them decide to hunt down the banditos who killed her parents and…well, not my personal taste, but it was too kitschy not to like. And his writing really wasn’t bad.

“You been writing at all?” I say, trying to make conversation as I scroll through the rest of my emails, deleting entirely too much spam and nothing of substance, stopping on a message from one of the dating websites I’m on.

“For…the mag?” he says, confused.

“For anything.  I’m supposed to be reminding you to finish that short story you started.”

“Which one?”

“That fantasy one you started a few months ago, the one with the troll fighting the legion of elves or something. I can’t remember.”

“Oh. Uh…no,” he says looking down at the floor, thinking.  After a moment he comes over and sits next to me, looking for the remote in the cushions. “You do a pretty horrible job of reminding me, by the way.”

“Yeah.  “Well, this is me reminding you.”

“What are you doing today?”

“I have my writing group in a few hours, then figured I’d meet Mandy later or something.”

“Oh.”  

“What?” I say all defensively.

“I really think you shouldn’t be hanging out with your ex. That’s all.”

“Well, whatever. It’s not like we’re getting back together,” I say looking at the profile of the girl who sent me the message (I always check them out before I check their messages, to see if I’m wasting my time or not). Her screenname is BriBriLove19 and she’s cute, maybe a little thicker than I’d normally go for, but definitely has a body on her.  Dark hair, short, like 5’1”, dark features (which I like), and she looks like she could be a closet freak.  I go back to the message and read it again:

  

I’m smiling now, feeling better about the rejection email already, then look over and see Troy just staring at me. 

“Dude, I mean it,” he says.  “Don’t get back with her. You’ve tried that three times, and, as your friend, I’m getting really tired of hearing about how she’s changed or you’ve patched things up, or…whatever.”

“I’ve learned my lesson, scouts honor,” I say. “Now check out this chick who emailed me,” I say handing over my phone. Troy looks at her profile picture, smirks, then hands it back to me.

“Pretty cute,” he says reaching back into the couch.

“Yeah. She’s pretty dumb, though, I think, going off the contents of the message she sent.  You know, seems to lack any and all grammatical abilities.”

“Which can be forgiven for a good pair of tits.”

“True.”

“Well, do your thang, m’boy” he says finally pulling the remote from the depths of the couch, smiling and holding it up like a trophy.  “I have complete and utter faith in your ability to charm your way into her pants.”

“I appreciate that,” I say, already typing a response to the girl, asking if she wants to hang out tomorrow, making sure to brag about the Master’s Degree I just received and the fact I’m a writer, just in case she didn’t already get the gist of that from my profile.  I can’t imagine she’ll say no.

Later on I’m wandering around State Street trying to figure out which coffee shop to stop at before the writing group, checking out the website on my phone as I meander, mentally making notes on what needs to get fixed, little things like missing strokes around text boxes and graphics that aren’t lined up, little cosmetic things that Troy couldn’t give two shits about but that bother me for some reason (like I think they’re going to make or break the site), when I see Sari, this girl from my grad program, a year behind me.  She’s a poet and actually quite good, a bit too hippie-ish on the subject matter for my taste, but she’s hot, I guess, even though she now has dreads.  She’s wearing a long floral dress and carrying a Whole Foods reusable grocery bag, even though she’s carrying books in it, not food, and when she sees me too her face lights up.  We hooked up once, at a party, nothing major, just some hand work and some sneaky making out in a hallway closet and on the porch, and, I think, if I remember correctly, she went down on me for like a second.  We were all pretty fucking drunk.

            She crosses the street and we hug. I had forgotten how petite she was, how great her tits are and how blue her eyes are, a good combination that spins my mind toward some very nefarious thoughts.

            “How are you?” she says slowly and in a way to almost suggest she didn’t expect me to be doing well at all, for some reason.

            “I’m good. Great,” I say. “How’re you? How’s the thesis?”

            “Not bad. I’ve been finding more sources than I would’ve originally thought, to be honest,” she says looking at a car drive by, a car full of girls, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s bisexual, a depraved thought attaching itself to my already-existing train of depraved thoughts.

            “Remind me again what you’re doing yours on?”

            “I’m dissecting ‘Howl’,” she says proudly, then, as if I didn’t understand, “By Ginsberg.”

            “Yeah, I know,” I say trying to think back to if I’ve ever actually read it. “Great poem.”

            “Totally.  What have you been up to? Working yet?”

            “No, not really. Living off my loans for now, trying to figure out what I actually want to do, you know?”

            “Right, sure. And the writing?”

            “It’s going, I say. Trying to get a novel published.”

            “Oh, was that the, uh…that one you showed me last semester you were working on?”

            “No, that was just…I dunno, I’m not going to do anything with that. This one, the one I’m trying to get published now, this is the one.”

            “Ooh, the one, huh?” she says touching my arm, smiling.

            “Yes ma’am. And you? Doing much writing other than academic?”

            “Actually, yeah. Just got a poem picked up by Great Lakes Review, and a short story of mine is going to be in Puzzle, I just found out. I think in their winter volume.”

            “Puzzle?” I say, watching her nod yes. “That is…a great journal.  Wow. Congrats.”

            “Thanks. I was totally surprised.”

            “Seriously, I mean, that’s…totally a national magazine.”

            “Yup.  Have you gotten any stuff published, poems or shorts or anything?”

            “Uh, I have a few things on the horizon,” I say smiling big and cheesy, nervously, looking beyond her now at two cougars wearing skirts and heels carrying probably Prada purses and giant Coach sunglasses, wondering why the fuck I can’t get published, why no one wants to read what I have to say, finding it more difficult to make eye contact with Sari the longer this conversation drags on. “But seriously, congrats. That’s very cool.”

“Well, I appreciate that,” she says touching my arm again, maybe flirting but probably just trying to make me feel better in an oh-so-condescending way, then, “Hey, what are you up to tonight?”

            “Tonight? Uh…nothing, really.”

“Well, if you’re interested, some of the grad students are putting on this event

tonight over at the Starbucks on Main.  Basically some of us local writers are going to get together, do some readings of our work, get people interested in local literature, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, cool,” I say and watch as she reaches in her bag and pulls out a hot pink flier

that reads ANN ARBOR WRITERS AND ARTISTS COLLABERATIVE. I take it from her and admire it, still thinking about the fact she’s getting published in Puzzle. Fuck.

            “I’d actually love to have you read some of your stuff,” she says. “I meant to text you a few weeks back, but got caught up.”

            “I guess I could, sure.”  Part of me thinks this is a pity invite, given to me at the last minute to fill the slot of someone else, someone more prolific who just dropped our or something, which makes me really not want to do it, but the other part of me doesn’t care, as it’s a good opportunity to show what I can do, that even though I’m not published, really, to show I have it in me. 

            “I mean, I just think it’s important for local artists to stay connected, right?” she says, interrupting my thoughts. “Some of us, well, like me and Sarah Rogers, I think you know her, right? Well, us and Jamie Wu, we’re trying to start up more of these local get-togethers for writers specifically, kind of like art installations in the mid-Nineties, really getting the word out about new and upcoming voices.  This is our second one.”

            “Gotcha,” I say wondering how old she was in the mid-Nineties. “I’ll drop by, then for sure.” I actually have no idea who the two girls are she mentioned, which isn’t a huge surprise, as I didn’t really care for most of the people in my own year, let alone the ones a year younger, but Jamie Wu sounds familiar, I think she got a short story published in a big magazine recently, or something. I feel like I got an email from the university congratulating her but I tend to just delete those the second I get them.

            “Excellent.  Well, I gotta jet, but, you look good. I got the email about your lit mag, I’ll definitely check it out too. See you later, okay?”

            “Sure, yeah,” I say and watch as Sari walks away, her ass humping along with each shuffled step, disappearing into a crowd of Asian boys wearing Campus Crusade teeshirts and a trio of attractive girls who look far too young to be current students.  I start remembering my last few months in grad school, how I realized, even though I was just about to graduate, how unnecessary it was for a writer to get a Master’s in English Literature, which is funny, considering almost everybody in the program is a writer of some sort. Sure, it’s cool that I can tell you all about the metatextual background of Ulysses and the cultural significance of the book on the collective Irish mindset at the time it was written, but really, who cares? And while I’m quite proud of my degree, and, at the least, think it’s a fascinating conversation starter for a first date, I can’t quite shake the feeling I may have just wasted the last two years of my life.

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5 Responses to Zombies

  1. Pingback: Short story collection ‘Mating Habits’ to be published in 2011 « Robert James Russell

  2. great story. the iPad conversation reminds me of my friend, an artist, who’s totally set dead against Photoshop and Illustrator because he argued it’s the end of art as we know it.

  3. LMStull says:

    A fun and very engaging read featuring everyday characters that are easy to relate to. I look forward to reading more of these fabulous stories!

  4. Bailey says:

    Like everything else I’ve read of Robert’s, this is great. 🙂 Real people doing real things and told in a deliciously real way. I can’t wait for the finished product!

  5. Pingback: Napkin Haiku Review – Zombies, by Robert James Russell | Jeff Pfaller – Chicago Writer

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