by Bob Kirk, Becketwood Member
As the tow cast off from the Saint Paul Terminal, a cable popped from an aft barge, caught Dan in the chest, tore off his life vest and hurled him into the river. Without his vest, he floated just below the surface and the crew missed him as he drifted by. Unable to use his arms and legs, Dan had to be content to go wherever the currents of the Mississippi took him, and he was just starting to think he might make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico when an unusually strong eddy spun him into Pig’s Eye Lake.
Now the scum on Pig’s Eye Lake was not your ordinary scum; it had combined the antibiotics and drugs that flowed out of the city’s sewage system with the algae, creosote, and cement clinker of the lake, to make an effective regenerative soup. It had been able to restore life to a number of bodies, and it started to work on Dan’s as soon as he floated in.
Initially the scum probed Dan’s various orifices, both natural and un-natural, which he found alternately humorous and insulting. Ultimately, Dan was grateful the scum sealed most of the cuts and fractures and the parts that had been eaten by especially hungry fish. Dan was not so grateful for the opportunistic parasites. The small black worm that took up residence in his empty eye socket gave him double vision, he had a tickle cough from the black beetle in his throat, and the large tapeworm that occupied most of his lower intestine made him constipated.
Finding work again was difficult for Dan. Having died, he was could not get his old job back, but his union was able to get him on permanent disability. He finally found a position in the Costume Shop at the Mall of America where the customers marveled at his appearance. In addition to his missing eye, his ears were nibbled into fine filigree and his face had a deathly white pallor with deep furrows highlighted by the dried green scum. His voice had a very realistic death rattle and his outfit was arresting. He had lost so many body parts his clothes were several sizes too large, and they barely held together. The customers were eager to ask his advice on makeup and costumes, and he made the shop a success.
One customer, who was trying very hard to achieve the vampire look, kept asking his opinion on her makeup. Young and pretty, she had all her parts and Dan thought her cosmetic efforts were wasted on someone he found so very attractive.
“If you want a man’s opinion, I think you are making a mistake going with that vampire look. It’s covering up your natural good looks.”
Hattie shot back, “That’s its purpose, buster. I don’t need any social life right now. I don’t have time for it with my studies and swimming. I’m trying to be a business major and still be on the U’s swim team. And look who’s talking, mister rugged man who covers it all up with scary makeup.”
Dan was taken aback and stammered, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. As for my makeup, most of it is real. You see, I had an accident and this is the only job I can get looking the way I do.”
Hattie looked seriously at Dan for some time. “Look I’m sorry I came across as such a hard ass. Can I buy you coffee or something as a way to make amends?”
Hattie was even more apologetic when she found that he had died in his accident. They were sitting in the Caribou coffee shop on the third floor of the Mall of America. Then her curiosity got the better of her, and she wanted to know all about dying.
“Did you see anything special when you died? Was there a tunnel? A bright light?”
“I did see a bright light but it flashed and changed color, first white then green. Actually now that I think of it, it was probably the beacon from the airport,” mused Dan.
“Did you feel like you were floating? Any out-of-body experiences?” asked Hattie.
“Oh, I was floating all right, but it was below the water surface, which is why they didn’t see me. I was still in my body. It just wasn’t working.”
Hattie was intrigued by Dan and wanted to talk more but she needed to get back to the U. “Look, for the rest of the quarter our meet schedule is crazy and I won’t have a moment to spare. Could we get together after that? I really want to hear more about your life, I mean death, or whatever. I promise I won’t wear vampire makeup, but you’ve got to promise to find some better clothes. They might be okay in the shop, but they frighten people here. The barista even cringed when you ordered.”
Hattie’s criticisms thrilled Dan; it meant she was concerned about his looks. He bought a new pair of jeans and a new shirt, which he made fit using several strategically placed athletic pads that covered his missing parts. Dan cleaned the scum from his face, filled in the deepest crevices with putty, and improved its pallor with extensive use of blush. He eliminated his parasites, replacing the eye worm with a glass eye. Finally he trimmed his chewed ears to make them less surprising.
Dan and Hattie agreed to meet at the Birchwood Café, close to Hattie’s dorm. The converted old creamery had tables under the trees, and the coffee was strong and black.
They were both surprised by how the other looked. As promised, Hattie didn’t wear vampire makeup or a black wig. Instead, she wore a bright yellow sleeveless shirt with her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Dan almost fell down when he saw her. Hattie had to ask him several times if he was all right before he could even make a sound. Hattie for her part was surprised by how handsome Dan was, once cleaned up.
Hattie was filled with stories about the swim team. “We won regionals, and next month we go to the nationals,” proclaimed Hattie.
“Can I take you to dinner as a way of celebrating?” said Dan.
Hattie stopped talking and looked quizzically at Dan.
Dan’s heart sank. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know there would be a problem. Please don’t feel you would be obligated to me. Let’s just forget I said anything.”
“It’s not that. It’s really sweet of you to invite me to dinner, but just that you being a zombie, I was wondering what sort of food you were thinking about,” said Hattie.
Hattie stopped when she saw the look on Dan’s face.
“A zombie! I’m not a zombie. Where did you get that idea? Zombies are slow and dumb. I’m not at all like that. Okay, maybe I sound a little slow, but I’ve always been a slow talker.” Dan became more and more agitated as he talked.
“Dan, Dan. Please don’t get upset. I think you’re really nice. I don’t care if you’re a zombie or not. It’s not important to me. I like being with you and if you want to go to dinner, whatever you eat is fine with me.” Hattie reached over and held Dan’s hands in hers. Dan’s eyes filled with tears, and his face, that was never well put together, now looked like it was going to fall apart.
Hattie’s touch seemed to give some calm to Dan. After several long minutes, he wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
“Now that you say it, I knew at some level that I was a zombie. Even as a kid I never liked playing those video games where you killed zombies. Maybe I knew I was going to be a zombie. But I don’t want to be a zombie. People hate zombies.” Dan put his head in his hands. Hattie got up and came over to sit next to him, putting her arms around him.
“I believe in you, whether you’re a zombie or not.”
“Maybe I could change. Maybe I don’t have to be a zombie,” said Dan.
“Please don’t try to change. It wouldn’t be who you are. Besides I like you this way.” Hattie reached and held Dan’s face in her hands and kissed him full on the lips. The experience was not at all what either expected.
During the Spring Quarter, Hattie and Dan started seeing each other every weekend. They often spent Saturdays canoeing the Mississippi, with Dan showing Hattie the many channels and inlets he remembered from his time on the tows. Hattie learned that the term zombie was not PC; the better term was undead. Dan started thinking about going back to the U to finish his degree, and he liked being part of campus life. Hattie’s friends were impressed she was dating an undead who had so many stories about life on the Mississippi. Most everyone was friendly except some of the guys who had been trying all year to date Hattie.
Once, when her roommate went home for the weekend, Hattie invited Dan to stay the night. The next morning they had breakfast at Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. The restaurant was little more than a roofed-over alley with one long counter. Hattie and Dan sat at the end by the kitchen.
Hattie knew something was not right. “Are you okay? I just want to say again I had a really nice time last night. But you seem distracted. What’s the problem?
Dan took a deep breath. “You were great, but I’m worried about myself. Even when you were at your most appealing, I found myself thinking more about your brain than your body. There’s something about the undead and brains. I think, for your sake, we should not see each other for a while. At least until I can talk to some people at Pigs Eye Lake and find out what’s happening to me and what I can do about it.”
Hattie was mad. “You’ve known you were an undead ever since we started dating, and it’s only now you’ve started to worry about it? You think you can put me on hold just like that? Well, buster, I have better things to do with my life than to wait around while you get advice from some dumb old zombie.” Hattie got up and stomped down the long row of stools and out the door.
When Hattie broke up with Dan, she didn’t realize how important he had become to her. She was surprised how often she would turn to share an opinion or reaction before realizing he was no longer there. Her appetite disappeared and she began to lose weight. Her grades and swimming suffered. She kept reminding herself she was better off away from Dan. But it was becoming harder and harder to believe it. She needed help.
Hattie and Zach sat in the patio of the Swede Hollow Café with a perfect view of downtown Saint Paul. Hattie wanted to talk with her friend Zach about living with the undead. Zach had met and married Martha, who was an undead, when he worked at the Sewage Plant.
Hattie confided to Zach, “Dan’s worried he’s more interested in my brain than my body and he doesn’t trust himself around me. Yet we love each other. What can we do about it?”
Zach was quiet for a while and then said, “The problem is Dan is new at being undead. He only came to the Lake last year and he doesn’t understand where this craving for brains comes from and he hasn’t learned how to deal with it. Dan doesn’t realize the undead need brains to survive and if he ignores it too long it will come out in twisted ways. Now remember it doesn’t have to be human brains; almost any type of brain will do; and it doesn’t need to be very much. Martha and I have found that most fast food sliders have enough brains ground into them to satisfy Martha’s needs. So, once a month we go out to a fast food restaurant and she pigs out on sliders. It’s made me lose my appetite for sliders but our kids really love them.”
“I also want to say you and Dan seemed very happy together and I know from personal experience that you can have a wonderful life with the undead.”
Hattie thought about it for a few days and came up with a plan: Dan was to down a couple of sliders whenever they went out on a date, which allowed Dan to be passionate without being distracted.
Hattie eventually brought Dan home to meet her parents, Herb and Edith. She had alerted them that Dan used to work on the river and Herb loved the river. He had a houseboat docked on the Saint Croix River and looked forward to sharing experiences with Dan. Both Herb and Edith were surprised at how old Dan appeared.
“So Dan are you still going to school?” asked Edith.
Before Dan had a chance to speak, Hattie said quickly, “Dan works at a shop at the Mall of America but he is planning on going back to school in the fall.” Dan looked surprised but quickly recovered.
“Well yes, but I’ve had some difficulty deciding what I really wanted to study. Now I know I want to be an undertaker.”
“Undertaker, what made you pick that?” asked Herb.
Hattie again jumped in. “Dan has had some firsthand experiences with cadavers and isn’t at all uncomfortable around them.”
Edith sat up a bit straighter. “Well, that sounds very interesting. I am sure there are plenty of opportunities for funeral directors. People are always dying.”
Herb said, “You know you remind me of a character in an old zombie movie. Do you have any relatives in the movie industry?”
Dan looked at Herb and before Hattie could jump in, responded. “No I don’t know anybody in the movies, but I do have some friends who are zombies.” Dan paused and then said, “Matter of fact, I would like you to know that I am a zombie myself but we prefer to call ourselves undead.”
There was a long time when no one said anything.
Then Edith said, “Herb, you know Uncle Kevin who always wanted to live in the cemetery. We all assumed he was a zombie, ah, I mean undead, but we didn’t want to embarrass him by asking him directly.”
Herb said, “Kevin certainly was an odd duck. I never thought of him in quite that way, but I suppose you’re right. Now that mother mentioned it, Dan, you do look a lot like Uncle Kevin.
In an effort to change the subject Edith said, “Dan, I understand you spent some time working on river barges.”
Dan smiled at Edith’s diplomacy and gave an animated description of his work on the tows in the Twin Cities. Dan got Herb to talk about the challenges of the Saint Croix River and then Herb took Dan out to show him his antique outboard motor collection. Edith took the opportunity to ask Hattie about the age difference with Dan. Hattie explained it was not a problem, because the undead didn’t age, she eventually would catch up to Dan. After that they would just have to see what happens.
Afterwards, Hattie was pleased Dan had made such a good impression on her parents. It made her feel even closer to Dan.
On Midsummer’s Eve, Hattie and Dan were invited to a wedding reception at Pig’s Eye Lake for two of Dan’s friends, Leroy and Elizabeth, who had gone to Iowa to be married because Minnesota didn’t recognize undead marriages. The reception was held in a grassy clearing between Pig’s Eye Lake and the Mississippi River. The lights of Saint Paul shone through the trees, and a gentle breeze kept the sewage plant downwind. The evening was mild, cloudless, and there was a full moon. It was Minnesota at its best.
Leroy and Elizabeth made an attractive couple, and appeared to be very much in love. They were both about 30 but they had come to Pig’s Eye almost 40 years apart. Elizabeth, recently revived by the Lake, had been homeless and sleeping under the 35W bridge when it collapsed. Leroy, an enforcer for the Minneapolis Mob, had been ‘enforced’ himself almost 40 years before. Fortunately, Leroy hit the Lake shortly after the introduction of the pill, and the new hormones in the sewage system allowed the scum to do its revitalization work. Leroy proudly wore his Tuxedo that still had bullet holes in it.
Elizabeth was very friendly to Hattie and made an effort to introduce her around to the other guests. Hattie already knew some of the undead through Dan and they greeted her warmly. However, some of the other undead were less than friendly; they didn’t approve of mixed couples and they felt if too many of the undead married the living, they would bring up their children live and the undead would die out. Hattie, however, felt strongly it was a decision the children should make for themselves.
An overstuffed woman with garish red hair, proudly wearing a Klondike Kate sash, pushed up to Hattie and Elizabeth, announcing that she had an understanding with Dan and demanding to know why Hattie was there. Elizabeth took the opportunity to introduce Hester Johnson to Hattie. “We all call her Katie because of her title in the 1973 Saint Paul Winter Carnival. She came to the Lake after crashing through the ice when she missed the blanket in the Blanket Toss.”
“I’ll have you know I was the star of the Carnival,” said Katie.
“Especially after going though the ice,” said Elizabeth.
Hattie exclaimed, “I love the Winter Carnival. I was a runner up for the Junior Princess of Ice my senior year in High School and it was so much fun.”
Katie looked at Hattie. “Ha, a runner up.”
Hattie didn’t take offense and moved on to a group of well-dressed vampires. She made a point of greeting Victoria who worked at the Victoria’s Secret store in the Mall of America. Victoria had been instrumental in getting Dan his job at the Costume Shop. Victoria assured Hattie that the other vampires at the reception had all been through treatment, but the looks some gave Hattie made her pull her shawl a bit higher.
Once Hattie had become accustomed to the dim light, she could make out the ghosts who hung out under the trees. Dan explained the ghosts were of people who had come to the Lake before it could revitalize bodies. Some of the first Europeans were there, including Pierre ‘Pig’s Eye’ Parrant, the first European settler in Saint Paul and for whom the Lake was named. Dan was disappointed the full moon hadn’t brought out some of the werewolves. They had been recently taken off the endangered list and had been invited especially.
At the sound of what seemed to be a circus echoing from the bluffs, the guests started to drift toward the riverbank. “Oh, that’s the steam calliope on the Delta Queen. She’s casting off from Lambert’s Landing in Saint Paul and she’ll be coming by in about fifteen minutes,” said Dan. The stern-wheeler was lit up like a four-layered birthday cake. It eased through the swing bridge abutments and powered down the river past the crowd. The calliope was belting out some grand old tunes with the passengers joining in. No one saw the crowd on the shore except the pilot who gave them a big wave. The calliope kept echoing off the bluffs and the music seemed everywhere.
Hattie said, “What a lovely and peaceful place. It would be a nice place to make a home.”
Katie offered to show Hattie around the area while Dan went back to help with the food. They walked through the trees to the edge of the Lake where they could see the reception on the far side. Then Katie pushed Hattie into the Lake.
That was a dumb thing to do, thought Hattie. However, the water was warm and the scum had a soft pleasant feel, perfect for swimming, so Hattie decided to swim back to the reception. Dripping water and green scum Hattie made a dramatic return to the party.
“What happened?” Dan came up concerned.
“Take me home. I fell into the Lake and I need to get into some dry clothes.”
When they were alone, Hattie unloaded on Dan. “What kind of friends do you have? Katie tried to kill me. She tried to drown me by pushing me into the Lake. And it’s not just Katie; I could see a lot of the undead disapprove of us.”
The next day Hattie told Dan she couldn’t see him anymore. Hattie had started her internship at Wells Fargo Bank and she asked Dan to meet her downtown Minneapolis at Hell’s Kitchen for breakfast. The Underground Dining Room was filled with suits and Hattie fit right in with her dark power suit and low heels. Dan stood out in his sport shirt and jeans.
She looked at Dan, “It’s not going to work. We don’t have a future. Your friends don’t like me being with you. My friends don’t understand you. I don’t know if we could ever mix with my coworkers at the bank. After last night I realize we don’t have a future with your undead friends. I’ve decided to get on with my life and I’m going to stick with the living.”
Dan was not ready to accept her decision, but Hattie was mad and was not about to change her mind—at least not right away. Dan said, “My life, such as it is, will always include the Lake and the people of the Lake. Katie is only one. You know a lot of the others like you and support us as a couple. Please give it time and think about it. I am sure we could have a future there.”
They sat in the booth for the longest time until Hattie said she had to go. They did not touch.
Three weeks later Katie, Martha, and Victoria visited Hattie in the apartment she shared with two other women, also interns at the bank. Pierre ‘Pig’s Eye’ Parrant’s ghost also came but waited respectfully outside the door until Hattie invited him through it. Hattie’s roommates were from California so they didn’t find the visitors all that unusual. They did excuse themselves to give Hattie some privacy.
Katie was first to speak, “I really feel bad I pushed you into the lake. I admit I was jealous and had this fantasy Dan would be interested in me once I made you feel unwelcome. In these last weeks, I have come to understand how much you mean to Dan. He has poured out his heart to all of us at the Lake. He has done nothing but talk about how happy he was with you and how wonderful and understanding you were. I realize now I could never take your place.”
Martha joined in, “Katie shouldn’t have pushed you in, but I know she didn’t think you would drown. The undead don’t think about drowning. The undead forget what it was like to be living, but the memories can be brought back and they can be wonderful. Zach certainly has done it for me.”
Victoria spoke next, “For those of us who don’t have to worry about drowning, we use the Lake as medicine. It’s like our own personal medical treatment center. Have something cut or broken, even acne? Go lie in the lake for a while and its all fixed. For me it’s better than a pint of someone’s blood.”
Hattie involuntarily put her hand to her cheek where a patch of acne had been for the longest time. It was gone.
Hattie took a deep breath and said, “I appreciate you guys coming and thank you, Katie, for being honest with me. I really miss all of you. I was having such a great time at the reception. I didn’t see that I was making some of you jealous. It’s been hard enough dealing with what the living think of Dan, and I didn’t think about what the Lake people thought of me. I would really like to find a way to make a life with Dan but I need your support.” To demonstrate that they were indeed rooting for Hattie and Dan, they all had a group hug, making sure to leave a space for Pierre.
When they had dried their tears, Hattie asked, “By the way, you talk about how great the Lake is in curing your medical problems. Do you know if the scum works on living people?”
Pierre spoke up, “Ma Amie, A drunk with a broken foot, he fall half in the Lake for one day. Sacre Bleu, the Lake fixed his foot and he walked.”
Hattie thought about her acne.
Hattie eventually came back to Pig’s Eye Lake with Dan and together they started the Pig’s Eye Cosmetic Company offering a line of very effective acne and anti-aging creams. The distinctive green color of the creams became well known, and the sales boomed, and there were jobs for everyone at the Lake. Katie was in charge of the crew harvesting the scum and Victoria organized the vampires into the marketing team. Minnesota finally recognized undead marriages, and Hattie and Dan’s wedding was the highlight of the season. Everyone came, even the mayor who proclaimed it to be Undead Day.
Years later, Hattie and Dan’s children and grandchildren would gather at Christmas, and along with a turkey, they would cook a sheep’s brain and serve it with mashed potatoes and white sauce, a dish no one really liked but they served it in honor of their grandfather. Hattie and Dan were very proud of their family and were thankful to have everybody at the table. They would all hold hands and say how happy they were to be alive. So to speak.