Dead Man Working
by Janet E. Sever
I listen to National Public Radio, and I remember that first story from a Paris hospital. Scott Simon reported that a man who’d been dead several hours got up and walked out of the morgue. He made it through the parking lot before doctors caught him and strapped him to a bed.
A couple of days later, Noah Adams gave a chilling report about Haitian refugees. Thought to have been killed by the cholera epidemic, they were walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince.
During our coffee break, Bill, Carla and I talked about the story.
“Zombies, man. Just in time for Halloween.” Bill reached for a Red Bull from his stash in the fridge. “Always knew it would happen.”
“So far they don’t seem to be biting anyone,” Carla said, agitating her tea bag.
“I think ‘must eat brains’ is an invention of George Romero,” I said, pushing the button for a cappuccino. “Makes for a scarier movie. Zombies need motivation.”
“If it’s zombies for real,” Bill said, “what do you think they want? Like, they’re dead and all.” He put his Red Bull down long enough to adjust the rubber band holding the thin hank of hair off his face. Bill, a few years away from retirement, refused to believe the Age of Aquarius had passed.
“Well, I’m no expert” — I took a swig of coffee and considered the science fiction I’d read — “but I think that if we died and were reanimated, we’d keep doing what we always did. Habit.”
Carla’s eyes were big. “Why do you think that?”
“It’s ingrained in our brain cells. We do the same thing, day after day, don’t think about it. Alarm goes off, automatic pilot: shower, dress, drive in, and I bet you don’t remember a single detail of what you did here yesterday. Face it, most of us do our jobs and use little of our brain at all.”
A few weeks later, NPR’s John Burnett reported that a Metro train driver had died of a heart attack, and the funeral home laid him out in the uniform he’d worn for years. He got out of his casket and made his way to the Central Metro station, where he drove the train on its regular schedule. It made three on-time stops before anyone noticed that the operator was a corpse.
The same day I heard that news story, my office had a meeting about our company’s financials. No good news, and there hadn’t been for some time. Universal Amalgamated Insurance’s loss ratio was a whopping 172%, meaning that for every hundred dollars we took in from policyholders, we paid out a hundred seventy two dollars. We were told to watch expenses, every penny counted, and we needed to tighten our belts. Bill leaned over and whispered, “Health insurance is going to go up. Again.”
Carla muttered, “‘Watch expenses’, but he’s driving a company BMW.”
“Efficiency,” our president kept saying. “The word for 2018 and beyond.”
After the meeting, we stepped outside for a smoke. “How long before they announce layoffs?” Bill asked.
“Soon,” Carla said. “You and I know what ‘efficiency’ means.”
“I’d better polish up my resume,” I said. “This won’t look good; I haven’t been here long.”
“I’m in worse shape,” Bill said. “I’ve been here too long; no one wants me.”
Carla and I immediately pooh-poohed this. “You’ve got great experience. Everyone will want you.”
“Trust me,” Bill said. “I’ve been looking. I don’t get calls back. Too old, too weird, and they think I want too much money.”
When we went back upstairs, the office seemed quieter than usual. I imagined my co-workers were emailing resumes before the inevitable layoffs happened. Carla was right: it was a matter of time and, if the money leaks didn’t stop, the company would close its doors and we’d all lose our jobs.
Hoping to stave off unemployment by showing my commitment, I started going in to work earlier, but I really used the time to work on my resume. On the daily drive I continued to hear stories on the radio about the dead reanimating and, despite my trust in NPR, I have to admit that I didn’t believe what I was hearing until one morning when I saw one of the undead for myself.
I had a long traffic light and looked over at the bus stop. A man in a business suit was reading the paper, and a young woman was fussing over a baby in a stroller. An older gentleman was standing there in a hospital gown. At first I thought he was a mental patient or had gotten loose from an Alzheimer’s ward, but then I noticed his pallor, flaccid skin, and the IV needle hanging from his arm. I realized that this man, waiting patiently, was dead.
The bus stopped and with the businessman and the young mother, the man in the hospital gown got on. How would he pay? But the bus pulled away with him on it, so I imagined the young mother paid his fare. Where was he going? To the office where he’d reported for work every day for the last twenty years, like that Metro operator? Would his family think to look for him at the office? How long before his co-workers discovered they were working next to a corpse? Would someone take the time to dress him in something besides that backless hospital Johnny?
Bill thought it was funny during our smoke break. “He’s dead. He can’t feel the breeze on his bare butt.” He inhaled and began coughing.
“You don’t sound so good.”
“Yeah, I’ve had this cough for a while, but I’m not going to the doctors; they’ll tell me to quit smoking, eat better and give up my Red Bulls.” He was overcome by another fit of coughing, and I whacked him on the back.
“Maybe not such bad advice.”
“Ya gotta go sometime. I can’t afford it now that they’ve raised the deductible on our health insurance. Besides, I get cancer, I can smoke all the dope I want. You know, legally.”
“You better watch it. You could end up like that guy on the bus.”
“There are worse things.” He lit another cigarette off the stub of the old one and grinned at me. “But I’ll make ’em let me leave my boxers on.”
If I’d been writing a story or a plot for a movie, Bill’s cough would have gotten worse, and he would have died at the hospital. It didn’t happen that way. Three days after our conversation, he was mugged at a Starbucks on his way to work.
Nobody noticed his sweater was saturated with blood when he showed up at the office, empty latte cup in hand. He logged into his computer and answered emails including two of mine, but when I stopped by his desk for our smoke break, I realized he was dead. His eyes were vacant and glazed, and his movements jerky and uncoordinated as he reached for his cigarettes.
I need to call someone. Who do you call, I wondered, when a dead guy shows up for work? This had to be happening with greater frequency; people died daily. Was there a new section at the police department?
I walked to Carla’s cubicle, and Bill shuffled behind me, cigarettes in hand. “Carla?”
“Just a sec.”
“Carla.” I nodded my head toward Bill swaying behind me.
“Hey, Bill. What’s all over your sweater?”
“What?” She looked at me, then up at Bill. “Holy cow! What happened to Bill?”
“I think he got stabbed,” I whispered. Even now, I’m not sure why. Afraid of hurting his feelings? “He’s dead.”
“I can see that,” she whispered back. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
In the end, we went downstairs, Bill trailing behind. He couldn’t light his cigarette, but it didn’t seem to matter; he sat on the low wall and sucked on the unlit tube, while Carla and I chain-smoked and debated.
“We need to tell someone,” I said.
“Why? He’s not hurting anything You said he even worked this morning.”
“Well, it’s wrong. He’s dead. He should have some peace.”
“I’ll really miss him if he’s gone,” Carla said, touching his arm. Bill stared straight ahead, puffing on his unlit cigarette.
“Carla, he is gone.”
In the end, we agreed that we had to do the right thing. We couldn’t have a dead guy hanging around the office.
We knocked on Sherry Stevens’ door after our break. She was the claims manager, and I felt better dumping this in someone else’s lap.
“Sherry, we have a situation,” I said.
“Yes?” Sherry always exudes impatience, like she has somewhere important to be.
“Bill Nevis. He died.”
“Oh, well, we’ll send flowers. What funeral home is taking care of it?”
“Well, that’s the thing. He’s here, in the office. You know, like on the news. The living dead.”
Sherry looked puzzled, and I could tell that she wasn't a regular NPR listener and apparently never watched CNN. Or opened a newspaper.
Carla said, “It’s been on the news. People die, they get up and walk, go in to work... We didn’t know what to do.”
“Show me.” Together we walked over to Bill’s desk.
The three of us stood there and watched Bill answer emails, and they looked good. He was able to correct typos; even dead, his grammar was better than the college intern’s from the previous summer.
Sherry said, “I’ll be right back.” She walked back to her office and closed the door.
“I bet she’s calling Human Resources,” I told Carla.
A few minutes later, Sherry came back with several vice presidents in tow. “Watch.”
Bill focused on his work like he'd never done in life. That report was the only thing that existed for him, and when a voice came over the intercom and announced birthday cake in the break room, he didn’t look up. I was creeped out when his hand reached over and grabbed the Red Bull can he’d left on his desk the day before, but his dead brain didn’t register that it was empty as he brought it to his lips. Like the cigarette, it was the habit of the action that stayed with him.
“Let me,” Lane Reed, the VP of marketing said. He went back to his desk and returned a couple of minutes later. “I sent him an email with a question. I wanted to see if he could answer it.” We watched over his shoulder as Bill slowly typed out a response, and Lane nodded. “He’s right.”
“We need to talk,” Sherry said, and the top staff retired to the conference room.
“What did human resources tell them?” I asked Carla. She shrugged, and we went back to our desks. Management would deal with it now.
We never saw it coming. Three days later, Bill was still commuting into work, still taking smoke breaks with us, and Carla and another guy in our department got their pink slips. Sherry Stevens informed me that I was to be Bill’s “buddy”; Bill would be responsible for all the paperwork and most of the email. Since he couldn’t speak, I would take and make all the phone calls. Carla’s and the other adjuster’s files would be reassigned to us.
“Efficiency,” said Sherry.
I was dubious, but I soon saw that this worked well. I’d never been a fan of paperwork and, because of Bill’s focus, everything was turned in on time. Our team of two was never late, despite having twice as much work to do.
Three months later, I called Carla. She still hadn’t found a job.
“How’s it going with Bill?” she asked.
“Okay, I guess. Someone snipped off his pony tail. He’d be so pissed. And they got rid of his sweater and put him in polyester shirt that’s two sizes too small and put a tie on him. He used to say he’d never be caught dead in a tie.”
“For a while it was kind of smelly around here, but now he’s sort of mummified, so it’s not so bad. He’s cranking it out. He still goes on smoke breaks, but I miss having someone to talk to.”
“Really.” I could hear the lack of enthusiasm in her voice. It’s got to be hard to accept that you’ve been replaced by a dead guy and that his work is better than yours.
“Yeah. It was better when Bernice in clerical died. She was embalmed, so it wasn’t so reeky. They laid off the entire department, and now she does it all. Six people gone.”
“You know, other companies are doing it, too. I can’t even get an interview.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, but was secretly glad it was she who had been laid off and not me, although I knew it was probably a matter of time.
“You know there are temp companies that employ the undead now? They don’t have to pay them anything, or pay just a nominal amount to their families, and they go in and work. Low salaries, no benefits.”
“It’s baloney, is what it is.” Carla hung up.
The good news is, we just had another meeting and the loss ratio improved considerably. Several departments are using zombies, and the effect on salaries and benefits is significant. We might even get a bonus this year.
In fact, yesterday, NPR announced that Adam Davidson is doing a three-part series about the economic effect of zombie labor. The benefits and drawbacks seem pretty obvious, but I hope they go into some of the other things that people don’t talk much about, like how Bill’s fingers are starting to shed chunks of skin that keep getting caught in his keyboard. Pretty gross, but easily addressed with SaranWrap over the keys. Bill doesn’t notice, and it keeps me from having to get up every couple of hours and dislodge the pieces. I have to help my buddy out.
Copyright © 2018 by Janet E. Sever