Issue 35, Final Fringe

Zombie Thanksgiving

by Lesley Wheeler Issue 29 02.20.2012

I.    That Corpse You Planted Last Year in Your Garden

November surprised us, Congress undone again,
whiff of dread in a drift of mothballed coats.
When we were children, we didn’t know we’d always
be children, that the sun would stoop every
year, suddenly reddening a crowd of houses.
Inside ours, mannequins sneered at unwary
looters and putrid hordes closed in.
Yet when we sat up late instead of packing,
cat on your thighs, iridescent pixels
mirrored in our glasses of beer, I could not
pull the plug. Neither asleep nor awake
but cosy with horror.
Oed’ und leer das TV.

Pittsburgh, unreal. I read for much of the drive
through the resentful Alleghenies.
Monsters crawl through the pentameter
of George Romero’s Waste Land.

Enmities buried last year in drifts
of wrapping paper, will they shrug off their ribbons?
The Monroeville Mall locks its doors with a snick
on the stroke of nine. Keep the undead hence,
whose gas-guzzlers veer from lane to lane.
Hypocrite reader trapped in the refrain.


Scene: a Pontiac ascends the cracked
asphalt roads north of the city, Barbra
and Johnny bickering over an annual rite:
laying a wreath on an old man’s grave. Stripped
oaks advise detachment. The radio stutters
apologies. They park, find the stone, where she
kneels and he mocks her respect. Cypress branches
finger his shoulders as the would-be cynic
reminisces. “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,”
he taunts, but when Raccoon-Eyed Man attacks,
Johnny protects her. She lurks nearby, ruthless
in her Alice band and belted trench coat,
observing how he falls. Soon she will sprint
for the car, kicking off treacherous heels,
slipping in mud’s confusion. She will release
the emergency break, slide downhill toward
the farmhouse. There is always a farmhouse where
survivors gather to fend off hungry ghouls.
A claustrophobic place. The phone lines dead.
Prejudice condensing like fog.
You’d think she’d be the one to endure, but
Barbra’s carried off before the credits.

Inside the minivan my family
ponders the epidemiology
of zombie apocalypse.
                                        He explains, “It’s a plague.”

I rest my cheek on the window, practicing cold.
They do not know enough to do the same.

“The sick are hard to neutralize, and the well
just keep turning, increasing the infected
                      I remember mercury
falling. That shimmer gone digital.

A child asks, “What starts it?”
                                                      “Radioactive germs
from space. Or an experimental virus
engineered in a lab, set free by animal rights
activists. The enemy changes around.”

Mercury shrinks in me. I have seen this carnage
before, can taste it now: synthetic gore,
Bosco, hambone. Offense beats quarantine,
but either way all decency is doomed.

III.    Z-Day

Begins with gratitude, everyone pleased to have safely steered
through highways clogged with sluggish truckers. Embraces,
exclamations over a new haircut or a sprouting kid.
Unloading of burdens. Survivors of the first wave
pooling their pies and covered casseroles, cracking open
microbrews. Someone pulls the drapes against the dark.

One in-law hunches quietly near the potato chips, his face just
a tinge gray, sheen of perspiration on his cheeks.
He has rolled his holiday sweater sleeve over the bite-marks.
Some kid in the rest-stop men’s room. Barely broke the skin.
His loving wife suspects, but she will never turn him in.

Litter of brimming dishes washes up on the table, cranberries
poisonously red, butter chill in its porcelain box.
One grown daughter pours a second glass of wine. So thirsty.
Her girl pinches a toddler. Sweet potatoes singe to black.
The oldest son berates his sister as she scatters pecans
in the salad. “You know Karen is allergic.” “No, it’s fine,
it’s really all right,” Karen cries, panicked she might be the trigger.
Everyone knows how tension builds. Grandkids sit at the end,
refusing food. Teenagers sneer at their toasted parents. The ashen
man lurks as far from them as he can and salts his meal before
he tastes it. Every neuron’s under siege; fever steams
open his seals. “Oh, the turkey came out dry, what a shame,”
he smirks. Grandma wilts. Grandpa stiffens, demands,
“So, son, you still unemployed?” Mortification, bluster, rage.
The words seem small, insidious as germs, but they can lodge
in anyone. To save your kin, back slowly out of range.

I foresuffered all: bright bow
of insult nocked; bead of tainted
blood swelling after the arrow;
feeble dabbing instead
of confrontation; news
left on, announcer’s voice
chiming into our silence
about a wreck or demonstration;
racist joke, napkin tossed down,
plate abandoned; toxic uncle
gone berserk and chewing on a cousin.
Hunkered down, shutting zombies outside,
unearthing more zombies within.

IV.    No More Room in Hell

The zombie in hot pants, a fortnight dead,
forgot the cry of the register, and how to tell the cost of things,
and the names of her friends.
                                                    A necktied zombie
snacked on her with relish. As they rose and rose
again, they swatted at zombies in turbans or baggy jeans
staggering through the food court.
                                                              Cult fan or critic,
O you who scramble into the beating copter,
consider Hot Pants Zombie, who once was tender-hearted too.

V. What the Sniper Said

After the torchlight red on rotting faces
The gnawing and the crying
Homestead and mall and reverberation
             of rifle-shots over the Appalachians
We who are living are now escaping

Here is no relief but only asphalt
The road pouring into a dead mountain mouth
Gravel of carious teeth
If there were mercy, but there are only zombies
             shambling behind the minivan
Red-tailed hawk staring from pine trees
But there is no mercy

I could be kinder to my creatures
             who do not comprehend human speech
             or that they are damaged and contagious.
My husband and children mourn but their pity
             scratches me like sleet rustling
             off the windshield, sticking to the grass.
They don’t know the stakes. The sick want to pull you down.
Never get better. Hope could kill us all.
Someone has to face backwards, watching the city shrink,
             picking off the zombies who would follow.
Someone must ape the indifference of the dead.
My vigilance. For others, nostalgia,
             watching ice from a warm place
             as return becomes impossible.
A blizzard that passes understanding.

Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler

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Lesley Wheeler’s latest poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales, is a Tiptree Award Honor Book. Heterotopia was selected by David Wojahn for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize; her other books include Heathen (C&R Press, 2009) and Voicing American Poetry (Cornell, 2008). Her poems appear in Poetry, Rattle, 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, Slate, and other journals. The Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, she has also won fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and other grantors.