Richard K. Weems
Richard K. Weems (weemsnet.net) is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Prize and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and the Cheap Stories eBook series, most recently The Way of It: New and Selected Cheap Stories. Zombies are his life.
The Munson Debates
Morris and Clarke have reached an impasse over the fate of our friend Munson. Clarke contends that Munson ought to be brained at our earliest opportunity, even though the Pit we contain him in is deep enough that Munson could only get his mitts into someone fool enough to dangle a body part in his reach. Even now, Clarke pats the wrench holstered in his belt as though it yearns to bury itself into the back of Munson’s skull. Morris, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, author of a seminal tome on semiology and namesake of a study room in the library, won’t go so far as to deny the possibility that Munson is a zombie but insists that we do not have ample evidence to convict him as such.
“Inadequate,” Morris proclaims. He crosses his arms and tucks his chin until the area between his lapels is a cascade of whisker hair. Clarke glares at him from the opposite edge of the Pit.
“Inadequate, I say.” Morris nods agreement to his own line of thinking. He glances back to his seconds, Professor Donnelly and Dean Crane, who gesture approval. Morris turns his attentions to the Pit and onto Munson, who has been waffling back and forth between Morris and Clarke according to who leans on the rail at the time. Munson reaches up at Morris with fingers crooked like holly branches. Munson’s dull eyes twinge with hunger, his once-styled mustache now a scraggle of straw. Morris puts a thumb to his lips and shakes his head until he concludes, “We cannot write off Munson without further examination. A diagnosis of undead would be laughed out,” but he does not specify out from where such a diagnosis would be laughed.
Clarke touches his murderous wrench again as though it intends to disobey him. Clarke’s seconds, two other security guards who are both smaller than their leader and bear the same tool sidearms and crewcuts, flinch in readiness to back whatever move their alpha male makes.
Two weeks after we were sealed in down here, Munson woke in a chill, his whole head lacquered in sweat. Only then did he reveal a neglected scratch on his ankle, now bursting with gray pus. A hand, he claimed between gulps of water, grabbed him from under some brush while he sojourned along a campus nature trail the night before the lockdown sounded. Only recently, the drone of muffled gunfire, inhumanly low moans and fingernails at the steel door of our shelter had ceased, and here was Munson reminding us of what we had been shut away from. Our nurse, Mrs. Hynes, kept Munson hydrated and full of oat bran. She did what she could with the gauze and hydrogen peroxide in our lunchbox first-aid kits, but still Munson declined to a quivering, dribbling mass. (Our poet, bard and jester reduced to a quivering, dribbling mass!) Thus, we lowered him into the Pit, where he shivered and moaned until he grew still. Minutes later, he rose again. He stumbled around like a sleepwalker and leveled his blinkless gaze on whoever approached the rail.
We are the motley clutch of campus denizens who found themselves closest to this shelter when the lockdown siren bellowed. From the inception of fall semester, second- to fourth-hand reports rebounded about a disoriented pre-law who checked into the health center with complaints of chills and a headache only to later take a bite out of an alcohol-poisoned Delta Phi. A scrawny groundskeeper attacked some smoochers down by the artificial lake and didn’t flinch at a blast of mace. A Hare Krishna dropped his vegan ways for a PoliSci’s arm in Quad D. Humorless EMTs wearing sunglasses carted off victims and perpetrators alike in nondescript, unmarked ambulances. Whispers of zombie infestation and government cover-up circulated, but so did rumors of a new designer drug cooked up by pharmacology grads.
Then, the National Guard lent a hand at Homecoming. They surrounded every drunk who staggered toward the entry gates and threw some into the back of their Humvees. They imposed curfew, and absenteeism grew. To combat the growing trepidation over a potential zombie outbreak, Campus Activities hosted a zombie film festival under the stars in Grover Cleveland Plaza as though to convince everyone that the undead existed only in the realm of fiction.
But two days before finals week, the lockdown siren wailed, and Guardsmen hustled civilians to nearby shelters, in our case the converted basement of the old veterinary science building. This stretch of empty labs, holding pens and a seven-foot observation pit had been furnished with military-grade cots, blankets and sad sacks of fluff pretending to be pillows. Plus, a stock room full of dehydrates and towers of canned ravioli. Just before a stocky staff sergeant with a cigar-ash buzzcut shut us in, he reminded us to come out only at the sound of the All Clear, even though the door and steel shutters locked from the outside and neither cell phone nor radio transmission could penetrate the seamless walls. Almost as soon as the bolts clanged to, shouts and gunfire commenced outside. Tenured faculty, custodial staff, TAs, groundskeepers, administrative assistants, a visiting lecturer, co-eds, and security all cowered, winced and yelped, but until Munson woke in a swoon we were relatively sure that the danger lay outside our environs.
Clarke tenses his arm as though to flex the entire length of his veins as he points down into the Pit.
“Then put your hand down there if you want to examine him some more.” Clarke sweeps his arm back and forth to catch Munson’s attention. Munson crosses the Pit and follows the motion of Clarke’s arm as a dog might follow the promise of a biscuit. “If you’re so damn convinced that Munson can’t be a zombie, hang your arm in his reach and prove to us that he won’t chomp off your fingers.” Clarke mugs confidence to his cohorts. His cohorts mug back in kind, especially the more compact one with a rivulet of scar from his forehead to the corner of his lips, and the workers among our number nod agreement.
When they debate, Morris and Clarke stand on opposite edges of the Pit. Morris prefers to argue from the far side and lean on the rail as though at a lectern. Clarke, meanwhile, positions himself with his cronies on the cusp of our numbers as though he were one of us but also far enough away so we can appreciate the acreage of his cobra-shield back, which stretches SECURITY on his work shirt into six syllables. They have at each other as though some boon awaited the winner—our unanimous approval, maybe, or our devoted minionship. But in truth, most of us already know on whose side we stand, so the Munson Debates have become more of a way to remind ourselves what we already believe rather than to hear the arguments and form our own conclusions.
Morris takes hold of his lapels and stares down at Munson as though there were a single cell of that body he has not yet surveyed. “You interpolate, as always, sir.” He threads some his fingers into his beard and holds fast. “I do not insist that Munson is not a zombie. I merely contend that we have not gathered proper evidence to confirm him as such and therefore cannot yet dispose of him as if he were one.” Donnelly and Crane mumble approval at this filibuster, and the tenured faculty among us parrot that approval.
For those two weeks between lockdown and Munson’s illness, we managed to commune well enough. Research fellows dined with groundskeepers. Tenured faculty and administrative assistants scrubbed ravioli-crusted pots side by side. Crane, Dean of Chemistry, distilled wine from the barrels of lubricator in the generator room. The vintage came out green and cloudy and harbored the makings of a wicked hangover, but it also opened the door for carousing. Munson, a visiting poet who was supposed to continue on to Syracuse for the next stop of his book tour, recited his poems and improvised dactyls on the phases of the moon and the constellations we could no longer see. Since the workers found his compositions too heady and esoteric, for them he sang “Hotel California” and “Freebird,” complete with extended tongue solos while he pulled on his coiffured stache. His voice only got clearer and more virtuous when he drank lube wine.
But even during those homogenous days, the early signs of our factioning eked forth. Morris, Donnelly and Crane declared themselves too old for chores and conferred like village elders on matters known only to them. Up above, Clarke was little more than the draconian gatekeeper of the faculty parking lot. Flapping their valid key cards, he’d grill department chair and adjunct alike on their office numbers or teaching schedules as though he were sniffing out terrorists at the border, especially when said faculty were running late. But down here, Clarke’s dedication to his latissimus wingspan made him top gun of our three-man security detail. As such, he claimed one of the examination rooms for himself and his cronies while others crammed together in the general purpose room.
When Munson fell ill, Clarke and Morris cemented their opposition and would soon divide the rest of us. Morris insisted on patience, “The least we can do for our dear bard,” while Clarke campaigned for immediate braining, “To be on the safe side.” Munson shivered and shuddered and could not contribute to his judgment. In what would turn out to be their final act of compromise, Morris and Clarke agreed to lower Munson into the Pit.
Clarke, ever the man of action, stoops through the rail and lowers his hand toward Munson, who reaches back in kind and runs a dry, cracked tongue over his teeth.
“Sure looks like he wants a hunk of me,” Clarke observes.
Before Morris can even begin to shake his head and restate his argumentative stance, the junior faculty and research assistants mumble disapproval at Clarke’s fallacious use of anecdotal evidence to transpose correlation and causality, not to mention Clarke’s insinuation that Morris doesn’t believe his own argument, as he is too scared to dip his hand within Munson’s reach. But this educated evaluation is little more than a gnatsy buzz to those who wear grimy coveralls, worn down Wolverines or hairnet remnants among their curls, those who have been lorded over by the intellectual elite of this institution, for Clarke fits their bill nicely as a warrior against complex, unsimplified truth.
It was almost as soon as the Munson Debates began that our cooperative spirit dissolved. Proxies negotiated meal time rotations and chore assignments by level of education. The only thing we gather together for anymore is to hear Morris and Clarke battle it out. The workers despise Morris for his snobbery; the academics culture displeasure in Clarke for his oversimplification and cherry-picking of facts.
And where do I stand? Literally, among this crowd of fifty or so, but in essence, I tread a gray zone no one else wants to acknowledge. Pre-lockdown, I adjuncted a couple of sections of adult school Persuasive Writing 201 every semester and washed pizza trays and red plastic cups at the local Four Brothers. Late at night, I scrawled away at A Proto-Victorian Ethos in the Russia of Pushkin and Gogol, a thesis that the old dogs of Comparative Literature scoffed and rejected from the pages of their Journal of. I distinguished myself to my night schoolers as a fellow paycheck-to-paychecker, son of a butcher and a daycare marm who remembered the birthdays of her charges more easily than her son’s. Yet I yearned to lounge like those tenured louts against the overstuffed medallion back chairs of the faculty lounge. What an existence, to assign grades in the most arbitrary of strokes, nap during office hours, and score the same course assignments semester in and semester out. I seem to be virtually alone in the perspective that these blowhards, Morris and Clarke, are more about scoring points against each other rather than negotiating an understanding between the sides they’ve engendered.
“Meaningless,” Morris insists as Clarke retracts from Munson’s reach. “You’ll note that Munson never shows desire for flesh until someone interferes with his regular state of being and enters his field of vision.”
Clarke fingers his wrench as though to wake it from slumber. “If no one is at the rail, how can we know that he’s acting hungry?”
“My point exactly.” Morris offers a slight bow to Clarke for his assist. “I cite the mythical falling tree in the forest, Schrödinger’s cat, et. al. We interfere with his state of being when we observe it, so we have to assume that Munson’s pure state of hunger and being are indeterminate and unresolved.”
“He’s a dumb zombie.” Clarke reaches again toward Munson, whose jaws clack like a Geiger tube nearing a vein of thorium. “Why should he act hungry when there’s no flesh at hand?”
Morris sniffs. “Tell me, are you hungry only when there is a freshly opened can of ravioli in your vicinity, or are you hungry even when there isn’t the waft of tomato paste to precipitate your salivation? A zombie’s hunger should be persistent even when there is no flesh nearby to reach for, yes?”
Clarke resorts to his perpetual need to maintain a superior image. “Do you think I know what a zombie feels?”
“We are zombies, are we not? Zombies are us. Merely transitioned. If we are hungry even without the presence of food, a physical state determined by internal physiology rather than exterior stimulus, it stands to reason that a zombie should be hungry all the time. As we cannot confirm that Munson does not show this regular gnashing of teeth when there is no flesh at hand, there might be cause to think that he does not exhibit such hunger until we force him to act accordingly.”
Clarke lowers his hand further, this time close enough for Munson’s fingertips to brush against his own. “I confirm it thus.” His constituency gasp at the contact, while Clarke’s crony with a deep rivulet of scar mutters, “Damn straight.” Meanwhile, Professor Donnelly rolls his eyes at the cheap bastardization of Samuel Johnson’s retort to Bishop Berkley.
To my left, just a few faces away, stands Ramirez, the only other undecided among us. When the factioning began, Ramirez and I shared a bench and a jug of lube wine after meals. We shook our heads when a dining hall cashier brimmed tears as fellow workers made no room for her at the table during chow, and we snickered and mocked looks of pity when an associate lecturer followed Morris about as though surviving the zombie apocalypse with the Professor Emeritus would solidify his case to the tenure committee.
“Cling-ons,” Ramirez chided under his breath. “These wimps are like revolutionaries who wave the flag of whichever side gives them bread.” We marveled at people’s propensity to need a side to join, a category to place themselves in.
Ramirez, the son of Cuban refugees, hails from a bad part of Baltimore, where he bred corn and beans that could grow in the shallow, pebbly dirt of an adjacent lot. The Biology department recruited him—full ride—for genetic research, but he never fit in. Because his education was hands-on, other Biology fellows talked theory in his presence and dropped names and molecular acronyms he didn’t know. A cousin of his worked as a campus landscaper, so he took lunch now and then in the toolshed, but the gasoline vapors made his cheese sandwiches taste like car exhaust, and the other landscapers ceased their machine-gun conversations as soon as he came in. He was about to perfect a splice between cactus and tomatoes that could grow in the Mojave when the lockdown yanked him down here.
Yet, when Clarke twitches his back muscles and prepares retort, Ramirez bumps and rubs shoulders with the workers around him as though they are psyching each other up to swarm. He looks content to count himself among their number.
Clarke wipes the hand tapped by Munson onto his grimy jeans. “We all know the state of Munson’s state. He was dying when we lowered him down there, and down there he died. But now he’s up and about, and as far as I know, the only things that get up and move about after dying are zombies.” The workers—and Ramirez in kind—hum at his syllogism.
But Morris’ eyebrow stutter shows that Clarke has opened a new door of rhetoric to befuddle him with. “So you claim that the risen dead can only be zombie.” He smoothes the mat of whiskers against his chest. “That’s interesting. Allegories to Jesus aside, there is no possibility that Munson could in fact be a vampire, or a wight? Is the possibility that a revenant now resides in the Pit out of the question?”
“No such thing as a vampire, my friend.” Clarke points towards the concrete walls around us. “Those outside who have fought and died to keep you and your elitist friends alive,” he says, bubbling with pathos, “know that what we got away from up there were zombies that wanted nothing but to tear our flesh and chew our eyeballs. No one encountered something that could turn into a bat and suck our blood. We know a zombie when we see one, and Munson down there has cannibalism on what’s left of his mind.”
Clarke’s cronies lead the cheer of the workers, who are so easily led down roads of emotion. Ramirez glows in agreement. “So you insist,” Morris says, but the celebration drowns him out, so he repeats his opening clause until their volume fades enough to let him be heard.
“So you insist, so you insist, so you insist, sir, that Munson is without doubt dead?”
Clarke licks his teeth at what he perceives as desperation in his opponent. “A shame to say, good man, but yes, our friend Munson is dead.”
Morris nods into his hand. “By whose declaration? Who signed the certificate?”
Clarke’s retort seems obvious—we have no doctor in our midst, no one with the credentials to sign off on our births much less our toe tags—but Clarke hesitates, wary of a trap.
Morris leaps into the gap Clarke leaves him. “I ask you who confirmed Munson’s actual death. Was it you, Mrs. Hynes?” He pivots his gaze into the crowd.
Mrs. Hynes looks horrified as Morris’—and subsequently all others’—eyes turn onto her. Munson was alone in the Pit when he grew still. Not that Mrs. Hynes would have ever taken such responsibility to declare him dead. Up above, Mrs. Hynes did little more than dispense Band-Aids and Neosporin for the non-emergencies in the campus med center. Down here, she doles out oat bran in Ziploc snack bags to those whose systems disagree with the canned ravioli. Dumpy, soft-spoken and subservient, Mrs. Hynes would not announce her opinion unless a gun were at her back.
Mrs. Hynes looks around as though there could be another Hynes somewhere behind her. Morris keeps his gaze targeted on her. She slowly shakes her head, quivering under this sudden weight of attention.
“Hard to say,” she mumbles, as though knowing that she’s just made some enemies. “He didn’t move for a while, if that means anything.”
Morris looks down into the Pit. “So we have no confirmation that Munson is in fact dead. Maybe we should ask him. Are you dead, Munson?”
Munson, maybe incited by meeting eyes with Morris, utters a foghorn moan. The workers no doubt hear poor Munson confirming his undeath and pleading to be released from this sorry state, while our academics hear refusal to give up the ghost, so to speak. Ramirez looks around for how to react properly.
Maybe Ramirez has cowed to the mounting evidence that the animosities between factions have grown more intense. At our last lube-wine session, Ramirez told me of a meeting of workers led by Clarke’s crony with the rivulet scar, who declared that the academics were useless consumers of resources who contributed nothing but dirty dishes and snobbery. Parasites. In response, I told Ramirez of a dishwashing session with a research fellow who claimed that Professor of Mathematics Donnelly had estimated the current ratio of undead to living in the world as 235,605(±10,000):1 and concluded that our shelter could be a living capsule of knowledge and culture and the headwaters of the rebuilding of a perfected society but for the workers who tainted our essence with their retarded evolution. Ramirez worried to me that the crony professed he could “take down” the academics, and my dishwashing buddy claimed to be part of theory sessions spearheaded by Dean of Chemistry Crane about how to reduce workers to their lizard brains and keep them functional.
I had not seen Ramirez since that drinking session. I figured his chore rotation had changed, but now I see he was aligning himself with the workers. Whether it was wrong or right, he wanted compatriots to shield him from what might be coming.
When Munson’s foghorn subsides, Morris turns to Clarke, smugness bracing his spine. “I would call that ambivalent response.”
“Of the undead.” Clarke shoots his finger towards Munson’s face.
“No,” Morris retorts, “of the not-dead.”
Clarke clenches his fist as though squeezing an imaginary weapon or Morris’ skull. “Embed a steel object in his head and let’s see if he gets back up from that.”
Morris responds quickly. Too quickly. “Same thing would happen to any one of us.”
Clarke delights at the proposal, then returns to the argument at hand. “Maybe we need to chop his arm off, to see if he bleeds out like any other man.”
“And if his blood had coagulated?”
“What if the arm we sever goes ahead and crawls off on its own?”
“Starfish do the same. Worms, too.”
“Are you saying that our friend Munson has become a worm?” Clarke spreads his arms. The workers chuckle along with their leader.
“I accede to incredulity.” Morris removes his glasses and wipes them on his lapel. The slight tremble to the gesture acknowledges the mounting temptation for violence in Clarke, but Morris’s only defense is to feign ignorance and pretend that talk alone is the only way to resolve their differences. “The odds of a man taking on the characteristics of a starfish or worm are certainly astronomical, the extent of which is not in my realm of expertise to calculate, and I wouldn’t delay our proceedings to have our own Professor Donnelly compute such drastically high numbers, but you have to admit that the correct terminology would be to say that such an event would be improbable. Granted, the improbability would make such circumstances come about once in the lifespan of six or seven universes” (at this, he glances at Donnelly, who crinkles his forehead as a compliment to Morris on his guesstimation) “but improbable it remains, since of course our universe’s lifetime falls into the Venn diagram of those six or seven.”
During the above monologue, Clarke bristled and trembled with gaining intensity, as though each word out of Morris’ mouth brought him closer and closer to violence, but by the end, Clarke settled down again as though aware that lashing out to shut Morris up would only prove Morris right, that even if all the academics were overpowered or otherwise expelled from our shelter, Clarke would be forever aware that he dominated Morris by force alone, a shallow victory, and that Morris’ cognitive superiority would hang over him like a poltergeist, Morris’ arguments and lapel-grabbing stance popping up in his sleep. Maybe, deep down, both Morris and Clarke realize that their arguments only prove that neither side exist exclusively, that both their perspectives are needed for a productive existence, if we are indeed close to being the last bastion of humanity on this planet, and that they could agree to disagree and resolve the Munson question another time to let us return to our previously communal existence.
But more than likely, each thinks only of beating the other in this debate.
When I finally meet eyes with Ramirez, he scowls at me, as though only just now realizing that we are enemies.
“Well.” Clarke fingers the rail, which has grown a little rusty since we first moved in.
Morris awaits Clarke's next salvo.
“Well,” Clarke mutters, having no choice but to accede to Morris’ logic but not ready just yet to let the argument continue.
With Ramirez gone over to a side, I am left to connect only with Munson him- or itself. Even now, Munson pinballs back and forth across the Pit driven only by primeval desire for flesh, while survival alone does not suffice for the likes of Morris and Clarke. As they jockey for supremacy, they exercise the higher functions upon which they believe the universe turns. But as I watch Munson now, I realize that Morris and Clarke only distance themselves from true existence, and as a result appear less and less human. I envy Munson’s state, whichever it may be.