It wasn’t Paul’s physical presence that intimidated people. Instead he had a facial expression that said, “Don’t fuck with me”. In his line of work, this was an important asset. The lack of a bulky frame had its advantages as well. He could blend in with crowds, maintain invisibility until required. Paul had inherited the don’t-fuck-with-me look from his mother. It was the only useful thing she had left him.
Tonight he was invisible. He sat at a small table with a glass of Coke watery from melted ice, surrounded by a riot of thumping dance music and gyrating bodies. Coloured lights swung across the nightclub like search beacons, momentarily illuminating exposed jutted angular hips, perfect teeth and solarium tans. Had young people ever been as perfectly beautiful as they were these days? Paul’s adolescence had been one of acne, bucked teeth and ridicule. The people in the night club looked like they had stepped out of film screen; perhaps from a teen flick or romantic comedy. Of course, not all young people looked as good as this. The night clubbers had never looked so good, but those on the streets outside had never been so bad.
No one noticed Paul in his neat but nondescript clothes. At thirty, he was slightly older than the other people there, but the discrepancy was not enough to arouse suspicion. He did not dance or talk to anyone. Although his teeth had long ago been straightened and the acne was only a distant memory, no one approached him, either. It was like some kind of natural law that he would never mix with people such as these. He had always loathed them anyway.
He had been watching Isobel since they had arrived nearly four hours ago. Straight blonde hair whipped across her face as she danced, breasts jumping to their own rhythm under her skimpy black singlet, hip bones jutting out over the top of her low-slung jeans. Surely she knew he watched her, but she showed no indication of being aware. Isobel danced with her two girlfriends. Paul could not remember their names. They were of no concern to him. Occasionally Isobel would dance with a man. On other nights she would be led into a dark corner of this or some other nightclub by a man and they would kiss or perhaps go further. Sometimes a guy would take her outside the club and into a parked car. Paul would follow at a safe distance. On these occasions the car would not start up, but instead only rock in tune with the sex inside. Paul would stand inside a shop doorway, write down the license plate number and wait patiently for Isobel to emerge with her lover and walk right past him as if he wasn’t there. He would follow them back inside, only approaching them to ward off any of the Walking Dead that shambled along the footpath towards her.
Most nights Isobel would buy pills from a dealer in the nightclub and take them soon after. This, too, Paul would note down in his pad.
Only in the hours before dawn, when the nightclub crowd was thinning out and the pills were wearing off, would Isobel stagger towards Paul and say, “Go get the car, I wanna go home”.
Paul had had worked in personal security for two years. Previously he had worked for Community Services in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. He’d lasted longer than most who worked there – eight years to be exact. He thought his durability had a lot to do with the fact that he hadn’t come into the job with any high ideals about saving people’s lives, like most of his colleagues had. Growing up with his mother and her habit had giving him no such illusions, so the work was not particularly surprising to him, either. The only one who had worked there longer than Paul was this guy in his fifties named David. He was the one who coined the term, “walking dead”.
“You can see it in their eyes,” David would say as he leaned back in his office chair, gut stretching his belt and waistband tight. He sneered when ever he talked this way about their ‘clients’. “And, to a certain extent, in the way they walk. They kind of stagger around, you know what I mean. Kinda like zombies in that movie “Night of the Living Dead”. And the eyes have this vacant stare. Eyes half closed, blind to everything except where the next fix might come from. When they get that look, they are as good as dead, mate. The fuckin’ walking dead. You ever see “Night of the Living Dead”? Should be fuckin’ compulsory for everyone in our line of work.”
He had seen them alright, and not just amongst the junkies he counselled everyday. He had grown up with his junkie mother after all.
Paul drove the BMW out of the multi-level car park and stopped it out front of the nightclub. The BMW was Coventry’s car, Isobel’s father and Paul’s employer. Well, one of his cars. Paul turned off the engines, stepped out and ensured the car doors were locked. Outside the nightclub entrance stood a bearded bouncer dressed in black slacks and t-shirt. About half a dozen walking dead lingered nearby in the shadows.
“Evening, Paul”, the bouncer said. Paul nodded to him as he walked inside. Isobel Coventry sat at a table just inside the exit, slouched in her chair with eyes partially closed. One of her girlfriends was snoring against Isobel’s shoulder. The other was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s your friend?” Paul asked her.
“She’s gone off with some guy, doesn’t matter…just take me home.”
She was right, the other girl didn’t matter to Paul. His job was Isobel and no one else. She stumbled to her feet and gave her remaining friend a rough shake. Paul led them out of the nightclub.
As soon as they were on the pavement, the walking dead came shuffling out of the shadows towards them.
“I’m a diabetic”, a young male in a dirty yellow t-shirt and shorts said to Isobel, “I feel sick, give me two bucks so I can buy a Coke”.
A middle-aged woman with matted grey hair and a filthy overcoat held out her hand. “Gimme two dollars so I can get a train ticket home”.
A teenage girl in a singlet exposing scabbed, track-marked arms mumbled something unintelligible.
All of them had the shuffle and vague stare of the Walking Dead.
Paul batted their outstretched arms away as he led Isobel and her friend to the car. He buzzed his key ring and the BMW’s lights blinked as it unlocked. The girls slipped into the backseat. As Paul shut the door behind them, the junkie in the yellow t-shirt bumped into him with an exaggerated trip.
“Sorry, man”, he said through a smile of missing teeth and Walking Dead eyes. He went to shuffle off, but not before Paul grabbed his scrawny arm. He swung the junkie back against the BMW and laid the don’t-fuck-with-me look on him.
“Hey, man, no hard feelin’s”, the junkie chuckled as he handed back the wallet he had lifted from Paul’s pocket.
Paul dug his fingers deep into the junkie’s track-marked arm before he let him go.
You know things are bad when no one talks about how bad things have gotten.
When Paul had first started in Community Services it seemed that everyone had heroin addiction high on their list of problems to fix. Every government; local, state and federal; had had their schemes to fix things. Throughout his eight years there, Paul had seen government policies swing from one extreme to the next. From zero tolerance and mandatory sentencing of addicts, right through to decriminalisation and safe injecting rooms. Nothing had improved, things only got worse. More and more people joined the legions of the Walking Dead. In the beginning their numbers were mainly drawn from lower poverty-line classes. Children of broken families, alcoholic, unemployed parents. But as the years went on and the policies and programs continued to fail, people from all walks of life fell prey to the Big H. Young, old, rich poor, white, black; there was no discrimination.
Society gave up on them. Governments cut back funding on their failed programmes and drug counselling services like the one Paul worked for. Ambulances no longer sped to the scene of drug overdoses. Instead they drove steadily at the speed limit, sirens mute and lifeless. It was unspoken amongst paramedics that they no longer attempted to revive overdose victims, although their paperwork would indicate they had. In the days when they had been revived, half the Walking Dead had come back to life spitting abuse at the paramedics who had saved their lives for the waste of their hit.
It was better for everyone if things were left to take their natural course.
There was no conversation in the BMW during the trip back, only the nasal snore of Isobel’s friend.
“Did you have a good time tonight”, Paul said, searching for Isobel’s face in the shadows of the rear-view mirror.
At the gates of Coventry’s house, Paul leant out of the car window and entered the security code into the keypad. The gates opened and the BMW rolled through, tyres crunching gravel underneath. The car halted outside the columned entrance of the mock Georgian mansion. The rear door of the BMW swung open and Isobel stumbled out, pulling her half-conscious friend by the hand. The front door of the house opened and light spilled around the silhouette of Coventry clad in striped pyjamas and white thick white bathrobe. Isobel pushed past him into the house. Paul turned off the ignition, got out of the car and walked to his employer, offering up the keys.
“The things I do for that girl”, Coventry muttered. He took the keys, still looking towards the open front door. “The money I spend on her, and not a word of thanks. Sometimes not a word – period”.
He turned his gaze on Paul. Coventry was an overweight man in his fifties with a ruddied, jowelled face that looked perpetually tired. “Come in, Paul, and we’ll settle your account”.
Paul followed him through an entrance hall furnished with vases on marble pedestals of indeterminate value, and antique chairs that had never been sat on. They walked into a wood-panelled study that smelt of cigars and money.
“No trouble tonight?” Coventry asked as he moved to the other side of the oak desk in the middle of the room.
Paul took out his pad and flipped it to his notes from the evening. “The usual. Went to the same place as last night. Bought pills from the usual guy.”
Coventry grunted. “What about…”
Paul shook his head slightly. “No, she didn’t fuck anyone tonight.” Coventry grimaced. Fuck you, Paul thought, you don’t pay me to be diplomatic.
Coventry opened a desk drawer and rummaged in it. “You don’t have kids, do you, Paul?”
Paul didn’t answer. Coventry knew very well he didn’t.
“Not easy, you know, this parenting business”. He kept rummaging, looking down into the drawer. “You give them the world, and they treat you like shit. If you are lucky enough to have them talk to you at all”. He took a wad of bills from the drawer and began counting out one hundred dollar notes onto the desktop. “Here’s your money”.
Paul came to the side of the desk and picked up his pay. He glimpsed several syringes rolling around in the open drawer with loose spoons and bundles of cash.
“See you tomorrow night,” Coventry said.
His home is a one bedroom flat on the third floor. Thick, dusty drapes cover dirty windows. It is an hour before dawn. Paul drinks a beer on his couch, bathed in the dead light of the TV and the orange bars of the electric radiator. Occasionally he points the remote at the TV and click between the endless Infomercials and religious programs banished to the wasteland of late night TV.
There is a heavy banging on the front door.
The flats have no security. The upper floors are accessed by exterior concrete stairs, open to anyone. This is a cheap part of town. Many of his neighbours alternate between the ranks of the Walking Dead and ultimately futile attempts at lives of stability and normality. So a thick, lifeless thumping on his door in the small hours shouldn’t surprise or even alarm Paul unnecessarily…but this does. Because he recognises that thumping on his door.
“Paul…Paul…I know you’re in there”. The voice breaks into to a deep coughing fit. “It’s me, Paul,” it gurgles.
He stands and unbolts the door to a woman who could be in her sixties, or younger and dying from some kind of terrible disease. Her face is painfully gaunt, her eyes sunken and dazed. Dirty jeans and t-shirt hang off her bony frame. “Paul…Paul…I need help”.
How could she still be alive after all these years? Maybe she isn’t, Paul thinks. Maybe she is just a ghost. Are the Walking Dead really anything but ghosts? She seems like an ageless thing, existing outside time and reason. Even when Paul was younger she seemed this way to him. She had flitted in and out of his life like a ghost, or a dream, in between absences of days or even weeks when Paul would be left alone in their flat; a little boy living on stale bread, cornflakes and weak tea; but determined to survive, determined not to become a ghost, too.
“Come in”, he tells her. “I’ll make you something to eat”. She doesn’t move, only shoots the look at him. His look…but really it was hers first. Don’t fuck with me.
He takes $200 from out of his pocket and hands it to her. She turns and stumbles down the concrete stairs without a second look, cash crumpled in her skeletal hand.
“Goodnight, Mum”, he says after her. She keeps on walking. Paul goes back inside and bolts the door behind him.
Copyright Clinton Green, 2004. First published in Revelation 2.2.
Other stories by Clinton Green