A meeting with Dr. Pezzolanti is like? I don’t know…a meeting with Willy Wonka. One never knows what to expect, and there is a strong possibility one will end up licking a wall. I limber up my tongue by wiggling it back and forth in anticipation, but it’s doubtful I will get a word in edgewise with the good doctor. Instead, I flirt with his receptionist.
“So, good looking, how did you get your job?” I ask.
She is filing her nails, and doesn’t bother to acknowledge my query.
“I uh, I only ask because that beehive hairdo you got going on…I don’t know. It looks like an OSHA lawsuit waiting to happen.”
She stops filing for a moment, then continues.
Her intercom buzzes, “You may let Dr. Jones down, Ms. McCall.”
She looks up at me and smiles a cold, morgue honed smile, “The doctor will see you now.”
I walk across the small waiting room, her perfume smells like pine needles.
“Is that ‘Christmas Tree’ I smell?” I ask.
She opens a thin drawer beneath her desk. It’s filled with air fresheners.
“For when the doc brings in his cadavers through the front door,” she deadpans. She looks up at me with her cold, blue eyes and smiles grimly. She goes back to filing her nails.
“Well, Ms. McCall, it has been a pleasure, as always. Season’s greetings,” I say and tip my hat to her.
I walk down the long, empty hallway, and begin to have second thoughts about my attire. I am dressed for a night on the town with my lovely wife, Camille. I will most likely spend all tomorrow morning begging for her forgiveness, as no doubt I will be detained by Dr. Pez. The heels of my dress shoes click clack and echo on the white tile floor, and it is unbearably warm in here. Even with the chilled winter evening air I came in from only moments ago, the hallway is stifling hot. I loosen my tie and take off my dinner jacket.
I reach the lone door that leads down into the good doctor’s laboratory. (To the callow reader, that’s pronounced lah-BORE-a-tory by the good doctor. Don’t let him hear you refer to it in layman’s terms. Never call it a ‘lab’. A lab is yellow, and fetches water fowl. And the doctor is anything but good.)
I open the green steel door, and a blast of hot, putrid air greets me. It’s awful. It smells like rotten eggs. The only lighting on the steep, twisty staircase emanates from below, the source of sulfuric aerosol bombards my olfactory senses. What a stench.
I make my way down the stairs, and buried behind a myriad of test tubes, graduated cylinders, Bunsen burners and books sits Dr. Pez.
I greet him. “Doctor.”
“Doctor,” he echoes.
“Well,” I say. “Pleasantries aside, what urgent eureka moment have you stumbled across this cold evening to pull me away from-“
“Shut up,” he says. “I’m thinking.”
I stand there awkwardly. He’s tenured, so I endure his rude demeanor. I stare ice daggers at the back of his bald head. The horseshoe of close cropped hair is sprinkling with more salt and less pepper with each passing semester.
“Doctor, as you can see I am dressed for the evening-“
“Camille can wait, this is important.”
His workspace is a mess. An array of circuit breadboards and discarded capacitors, transistors and spaghetti tangled wires are pushed aside. In the center of his black lab table a small tin pot is boiling over, hissing steam up to the too low ceiling. I know the doctor stated in many board meetings his new digs needed to be…well, dug. It was dug deep underground, beneath the old library…for dulling out vibrations aboveground of some sort. All I know is it cost the institute a fortune, and call me nostalgic, but I was rather fond of the old bookcases.
He turns, and presents me with a thick wax covered paper plate, the type more suited for a picnic, not a laboratory. On it sits a very tall sandwich.
“I’ve done it! Behold…”
“Dr. Pezzolanti, you called me away from dinner…to show me a sandwich?”
His long pointy nose hones in on me like a bird rooting out a grub, “A sandwich? A sandwich?? Dr. Jones, I pity your observational abilities. This is no ordinary sandwich.”
“It is rather tall.”
“Precisely, it is the solution to a decade long dilemma of mine.” He pauses, and ponders aloud, “How can one eat an egg salad sandwich without…the egg…squirting from the sides?”
“I don’t know, Pez…maybe use a pita pocket?”
“A pita pocket! How absurd…how ridiculous,” he laughs. And then he sighs, “Pita pocket, of course. From the mouths of babes. This does away with my celery scaffolding theory outright.” He tosses the sandwich in the trash and begins scribbling frantically on a doodle covered napkin.
I pull the sandwich out and admire it thoughtfully, “I see. You made little celery pillars along the edges. It’s ingenious.”
“It’s rubbish. Filth. Gimmie a bite, I haven’t eaten since Wednesday,” he pulls the sandwich from my hands and eats like a savage.
That’s when I notice the cadaver laying on a table off in a darkened corner of the lab…laboratory… darkened corner of the laboratory. It’s a large cadaver, almost of Frankenstein’s monster proportions. It has thin red and yellow wires protruding from every sinewy joint. On its chest, the usual leads for an EKG. The EKG monitor and other vitals are flat lined on a small green monochrome monitor above the table. The cadaver’s face is pulled back and off the skull, and hangs like a loose fitting turtleneck around the throat. Black and white wires emanate from emptied eye sockets. I look at the doctor licking at his fingers and immediately become alarmed.
“Dr. Pezzolanti. Tell me that sandwich of yours…was made of eggs, from a chicken’s butt…and not the eyes of that cadaver lying over there?”
“Preposterous! Really…what kind of a scientist do you take me to be? Really, absurd.”
“Then what are you doing with the cadaver?”
“Why, reanimation of the dead, naturally. Where is your brain today, Jones? Left in a jar back in that silly behavioral ‘science’ office of yours?”
“Never mind that, where did you get the eggs?”
He fidgets in his chair, “I sent out my new secretary, Ms. McCall, to fetch me several dozen eggs earlier. Really, Jones, you must not think much of what I do down here.”
He’s right, I don’t. I try to placate him, “I don’t question your dedication, Dr. Pez. Only…your…motivation.”
He gets up and walks over to the cadaver. “My dear, dear young Dr. Jones. This…experiment…you see lying on this table? Another failure in a long line of failures. I’m afraid I’ve stumbled down another dead end.” He chuckles, “Dead end. Get it?”
“I get it, Doctor.”
“I wish the institute would get it. Why, I ask you? Why is it so important…for our…’side’ to be the first to acquire zombies? Animated corpses are akin to atom bombs now? Really?”
I feel uncomfortable, and in the back of my mind I see the Camille meter ticking away mercilessly.
“I don’t question the merit of your work, Pez.”
He scoffs, “Of course *you* don’t. Why would you? You’re idea of a zombie pandemic is to brainwash the masses.”
“It’s working. More and more, there are people pretending to be zombies. Why, our own school hosts a zombie walk that surpasses the attendance records of homecoming.”
“Call it what you will, Pez. But with each website, with each fan page and imaginary story published of the dead rising…I feel a single well-timed main stream media story can trigger a pandemic.”
“Hogwash,” he dismisses me with a wave of his scrawny hand. “What about that bath salt story in Miami?”
“That? More kindling to the bonfire that will one day happen. And it will happen. The same single shot that gave us World War one and two will give us World War…something. Brainwashing will one day lead to brain eating, Dr. Pezzolanti. It’s the new science.”
“It’s hogwash, what the world needs is cold…hard…facts,” he flips a switch and the cadaver twitches and spasms. I stumble backwards as it sits up.
I back into a table and knock over several empty test tubes. I stammer, “Is this some kind of sick joke, Pez?”
Dr. Pez helps the cadaver sit up, “I already told you. This is failure number 18764zA4. I call him ‘Four’ for short. Introduce yourself, Dr. Jones.”
I’m flabbergast. He did it. He finally, really did it. The missing link to the zombie apocalypse!
“Well?” Dr. Pez looks at me with his narrow face, his thin lips downturned in a frown.
“What? You expect me to address a corpse?”
“A living corpse,” he corrects me. “He’s terribly big on manners, though, Dr. Jones. Please…introduce yourself.”
Dr. Pez fiddles with some knobs by the table and the corpse stands up, and holds out a hand.
“Go on, Jones. Don’t be shy.”
I look at the beast in front of me, with its empty eye sockets stuffed with wires and diodes, harnessed to a laptop that Dr. Pez pecks at occasionally.
Finally, I humor the doctor and walk forward, “Hello, Four. I’m Dr. Jones, behaviorist and psychologist.”
I stumble back again as the beast speaks, “Hallo, guvnor. Pleased to meet ya!”
“Dr. Pezzolanti…did you make a zombie…with a cockney accent?”
The beast answers, “Cockney? Heaven’s no, guvnor. I’m from the Chilterns, I am. Me mum and I grow potatoes on our plot, we do. And on Sundays I drive her to the theatre, and sometimes we play Bingo.” Four stares out into space and licks his lips, “Doctor Pezzolanti, might I bother you for a muffin? Forgive my clammy hands, Dr. Jones, but you’ve yet to make my acquaintance.”
The zombie, for lack of a better term, waves his hands around aimlessly. I shake it, and am surprised at how icy cold and firm his grip is. It gives me chills, but I smile faintly. “Pleased to meet you…mister…number…four?”
He shakes my hand vigorously, and that’s another puzzling oxymoron. For a zombie, he’s quite lively.
“Pleasure’s all on this end, guvnor, it is. About that muffin, doctor?”
Dr. Pezzolanti turns a dial and the zombie slumps backwards as the doctor lays him again on the gurney. I assist him.
“Hogwash, Four. No more muffins for you.”
“You feed him muffins?” I ask.
He shakes his head, “And hard boiled eggs. That’s all he clamors for. I find it easier to turn him off. As I said before: failure.”
“Failure? How can you say that? Look at his vitals. Assuming you have those wired up correctly, I’d say number four is deader than a doornail.”
“Oh, he’s quite dead,” answers Dr. Pez. “In the clinical sense. But as you saw, a zombie he is not. He doesn’t even get antsy if I forget tea time. Which, by the way Jones, my finishing school memory is quite hazy. When do the British drink tea?”
“I’m not sure, I think 3pm. So what happens if you forget? Does he try to take a chunk out of you?”
He shakes his head again, “No…no. He doesn’t even get perturbed, not even moderately annoyed. He acts like a school master who’s lenient with a perpetually late student. Just clucks his tongue and goes on about his mother and the potato farm.”
I look at the hands of the corpse. Of Four. I try to keep in mind that this was once a living person, even if he is a half assed zombie. His hands are big and calloused. “Was he from a farm?”
“Of course he was,” Dr. Pez says, and addresses a clipboard. “Died of a heart attack back in September, right at the peak of rutabaga season. Shipped stateside in October, he’s been my pet project for over a month now. Another failure.”
“He’s a stepping stone, for sure. Might I borrow him?”
Dr. Pez looks at me puzzled, “A stepping stone? For who? For you? Hardly. No, just like my egg salad tower sandwich, to the rubbish bin for ole number Four here.”
“I’d like to pick his brain, Pez. No politics at play here.”
He laughs, “Forget it. Unless you want to hear him drone on about how English muffins are not proper English toast. He’s a bore. Ha. Imagine that. I invented a boring zombie.”
“Well then, if you’re not the sharing type, I hope you can excuse me, but I have a dinner date with my wife, who is still waiting in the car, heaven willing.”
He grabs my arm, “No, no…wait. You can’t leave without seeing my breakthrough of all breakthroughs.”
“What’s that? You’ve perfected the perfect pickle?”
His eyebrows work like knitting needles, “Of course not, too crunchy, too soft…too many variables with vinegar, I’m afraid. I have perfected a good bread and butter recipe, if you’re so inclined.”
His voice trails off in deep thought, and I honestly don’t have time for it. “Doctor Pez, please. What did you call me away from dinner for?”
He awakens from a self-induced haze of deep thought, “Right. Right. Come this way, over here.”
He leads me across the lab to another dark corner. He flips on an overhead light, and the corner crackles under the soft glow of florescent lights….which crackle. Anyway, it’s not test tubes and beakers. Instead it’s a switchboard of wires and computers, and what looks like a cadre of S&M harnesses and collars.
“I’d rather not go there with you tonight, Pez.”
“Hogwash. Where’s to go?”
It’s a tired argument we’ve had, the doctor and I: the preemptive strike against zombies. The end all before there is an end all. In short, boring solutions to prevent a zombie apocalypse.
“Alright, Pez. Out with it. What have you got here?”
His face becomes animated, and a string of drool vibrates between his thin lips and crooked teeth like it was on a fiddle.
He holds up a strap of leather. “Behold, I give you…the anti-zombie collar. Or something. I’m not good with naming things.”
“Why not be done with it and name it number Five?” I chuckle.
“Make jokes, the simple minded always scoff progress. I ask you-“
“Ask me quickly, Doctor. Camille waits.”
He rolls his eyes, “I give you front row seats to the greatest invention since the wheel, and your mind is on wasted theatre tickets to some droll off Broadway play?”
“Actually, we were planning on taking in the tree at Rockefeller Plaza.”
He waves his hands, “As the kids are so fond of saying these days: whatever. Here, take it in your hands. Feel the power, and the glory.”
He hands me the strap of leather, and I am surprised at how lightweight it is, “Some new type of polymer?”
“Don’t worry about the particulars, Jones. Feel it. Put it on.”
I look at it; it’s about the size of a necklace, so I try it on as such. “Like this?”
“Precisely, it’s intuitive, even for a rube like you.”
I correct him, “You did say it was a collar.”
“Right, you’re right. I was caught up in my excitement. It is a collar. Care to know what is inside?”
“No, not really.”
“Always a joker, Jones. GPS, for one.”
I take the collar off and look at it again, “Really? Well, I suppose there would be a market for a light weight necklace for the comfort of house arrest prisoners all over the tri-state area. Beats the devil out of those ornery bothersome ankle bracelets.”
“Be serious, will you? GPS, tracking for vitals, downloadable by Bluetooth. It tells your pulse, your rate of respiration, your O2 levels. If you were diabetic, not only will it let you know when you have low blood sugar, but here.”
He takes the collar off, and shows me hidden within the band, a series of empty compartments.
“Here we can fit insulin, epinephrine, nitro glycerin, any pharmaceutical on the market, actually.”
One compartment has a small biohazard symbol painted on it. I point to it, “And this one?”
“That? For the C4, naturally.”
I laugh, “Oh…naturally, naturally. The cure all for the insufferable headache.”
He looks at me grimly.
“You’re serious?” I ask.
“The institute is already fast tracking this with Washington. I’m to go after the first of the New Year. May I ask you a question, Jones?”
I look at my watch. I’ve been down here nearly a half hour, “Yes, but be quick about it.”
“Why do people fear zombies?”
I roll my eyes, “Philosophy hour is held between the hours 12 and 1pm on Tuesdays in Gilder Hall, doctor.”
He grabs my arm, “Hunger. Pure and simple.”
“Perhaps too pure, I don’t follow.”
He goes to a white board, and erases some hieroglyphic calculus. He draws a dot, “One man, alone, yes?”
“I bet he’s lonely,” I say.
“You’re right! He needs a companion, man is a social beast.”
I agree by nodding my head.
He makes a series of dots, “Ten, twenty…a hundred…two hundred…and then?”
“You approach Dunbar’s number?”
“Precisely. How social is man, when you get down to brass tacks? In our lives, at most, we can care for…by that I mean recall the names of friend’s children and birthdays of perhaps no more than 200 people. 300…if you’re blessed with a good memory. And after that?”
“People get lost, forest for the trees syndrome. We start referring to people not as people, but as ‘them’ and ‘they’. You’re preaching to the choir, Doctor.” I find it hard to focus on what he is saying, as my thoughts drift back to Four.
He scratches his shiny bald head, “And you’re not listening to the sermon, Doctor. 200…300 is our genetic limit for a tribe. Villages, towns, cities. These massive social, beelike hives of business from cradle to grave. No, Doctor Jones. Cities are not natural. They’re man made prisons.”
“But they’re man made, therefore natural for man,” I correct him.
“And in our fight against nature we fight against our own nature. These people who get a…kick…about dreaming up zombie apocalypse scenarios, present company excluded, of course.”
“Oh, no offense taken.”
“None intended. This…sick, perverted indulgence. It’s more than a craze, Doctor. It’s more than a phase. It’s bigger than pop culture. Question-“
I interrupt him, “You’re asking too damn many, Pez.”
“Plans. Have you plans for the 25th?”
“For Christmas day? Of course. Why?”
“So you believe in one fairy tale, and dismiss the Mayan one?”
I laugh, “I don’t mind having a day off, but yes. To answer your questions, I am a man of faith. Sir Isaac Newton was a man of deep faith, too.”
Now he laughs, “I highly doubt you’ll ever have any theories named after you. But back to my point-“
“I was beginning to think you didn’t have one.”
“I do. My point is, here comes the Mayan doomsday, or the Hale Bop doomsday, or Y2K…and people *relish* in it. They come up with plans for avoiding it, and watch TV shows dramatizing it. They thrive in it. They romanticize foraging for food, and building small alliances between groups, and dreaming of establishments and governments decaying into history. Zombies…they almost *wish* for zombies to happen.”
“As do your benefactors, Doctor. Is that what all this is? Do you want validation from me?”
He laughs his tinny, high pitched feminine laugh, “From you? Be serious. My heartfelt theory…or symptom of malaise…I can’t tell which these days. But I’m beginning to speculate we dream of zombie scenarios because we want to act out…some…deep, carnal desire to devour each other.”
“Cannibalism on a broad scale. Think about it. The stars are aligning, polar ice caps melting. Drinking water filled with toxins and hormones, we’re in this constant state of a media driven imminent worldwide catastrophe reported punctually at 6 each evening. I think, when push comes to shove, and we’re driven off whatever cliff it is we create…we are all just afraid of getting eaten by our neighbor once the canned goods get used up.”
“Now who is it that needs to brush up on their history, Jones? I remember watching those old black and white war footage films, of Poles picking meat off a bloated upturned horse on the sidewalk as the Nazi’s blitzed on through. The poles did their own blitz on that horse. Running in like jackals, and slinking away with a strip of meat.”
I become acutely aware of the thin collar I hold in my hand. “And this is your solution?”
“Streamlined, and to be presented before a closed door congressional committee after the 1st. I too, am a man of faith, Doctor Jones. I have plans.”
I study the collar in my hand. “And what are they?”
He clears his throat. “End the apocalypse before it begins, of course. Everyone gets a collar. Instantly, the CIA can tell where you are, what you ate, how much exercise you need. It will be a windfall of insurance savings. You and your people can concoct some reason the collar can become fashionable.”
I’m caught off guard and go on autopilot behavioral scientist. “You’re not part of the green movement if you’re not wearing one.”
“Yes, only in this case, if you *do* become green and crave human brains, with a push of a button-“
He winks, “Click. No more zombie threat. Blow your head right off remotely.”
“It’s brilliant. Too bad it will never become law to wear one.”
He grabs the collar from my hands, “And why not?”
“Well, for starters, as soon as you make it mandatory, counter culture will demand you *don’t* wear one.”
“Aha. That is where big brother comes in. If you’re found without it, you’re a potential zombie threat, and in that case, the click will come from a trigger instead of some clerk manning a server, popping heads off people like he were playing a video game.”
I look at him. He’s deranged. In the florescent light his head looks like a talking skull, not unlike ole number Four. Only this one has the mad eyes of a deranged man given a thoughtful audience. I get goose bumps…excuse me, gers berms at his calm, matter of fact tone. “That’s a rather harsh solution, isn’t it?”
“No harsher than dreaming up elaborate tales of not having to reload machetes to kill our already fallen comrades.”
Once again, I loathe him and his ability to be one step ahead of me. “Well, twice in one night you’ve taken the fun out of zombies, Doctor Pezzolanti.”
He smiles the smile of the Cheshire cat and takes a theatrical bow.
“I do have one question of my own,” I say. “That is, if you will entertain me.”
“I’m all ears.”
He is, but I won’t poke fun. “Why not just come up with a cure, once and for all?”
He laughs, “Cure? For what? Apart from number Four, there is no zombie apocalypse.” He laughs again, and then he turns serious. “There never will be, and I’ve concocted a foolproof plan to ensure there never will be one. Me. I did it. From cradle to grave people everywhere will wear my Pezzolanti Collar, and if they go to the grave with it and decide to one day rise? Pop goes the weasel. No pulse? Pop goes the weasel. Run from the law? Pop goes the weasel. It will be interesting to see what direction society takes when Dunbar’s number grows to a thousand, ten thousand. When we no longer crave to go back to simpler times and instead…move forward where technology so boldly demands we go. No more reminiscing. I’ve found a cure, Jones.”
I shrug and pick up a ball gag from his S&M collection, “Mind if I take this?”
“For you or Camille?” he chuckles lecherously. “Be my guest. You’ll have to turn in a requisition form, naturally. Have it on my desk after the holiday.”
I smile, “Of course. Congratulations on your…cure, Dr. Pezzolanti. Now, if you’ll excuse me. My wife is famished.”
He laughs the laugh of a forty year old virgin as he points to the ball gag, “I’m sure she’s a lady of healthy appetites?”
“In more ways than one. Goodnight, Doctor…and Merry Christmas.”
“Happy holidays, Doctor.”
I walk up the stairs, and hear Four come alive, “About those muffins, guvnor…”
I walk down the long corridor, my thoughts of the doctor drifting away as my footsteps echo further and further from his lab. Laboratory…laboratory.
I smile at the breath of cold fresh air that Ms. McCall gives me as she wishes me tidings of a happy New Year.
“See you next year,” I say.
I walk out into the bitterly cold December air, and turn up the lapels of my dinner jacket and thrust my hands into my pockets, and fiddle for my car keys. I don’t find them. That’s right; they’re in the car where Camille is waiting.
The campus is eerily empty this time of year, and I try to shake off the morose thoughts of the doctor and his ‘cure.’ I trot stiffly and briskly over to the running Mercedes parked in a dark corner of the parking lot near the Student’s Union.
I get in the car and immediately warm my hands on the air vents and lower the radio, “Sorry, my love.”
My wife is staring wistfully out the fogged up passenger window and only grunts.
“I couldn’t help being late.”
She growls dismissively.
I reach to stroke her velvet black hair, “Dr. Pez…he hasn’t fallen for my subconscious ploys, my dear.”
She swats at my hand, ignoring my very presence with the disdain of a woman kept waiting.
“Don’t be like that Camille,” I say and pull out the ball gag. “I have an early Christmas gift.”
She growls savagely at me.
“I noticed the one you have is fraying at the edges,” I say, as I take off the ball gag she is already wearing.
She turns towards me, her lifeless eyes a vestige of her former self.
“Please, Camille. Turn around for me,” I carefully try to turn her face, and she snaps at my fingers. I jerk back and tighten her seatbelt until she’s pinned in place. She shakes her head and tries to bite as I put the new ball gag in place.
“Bright orange brings out the crimson in your glowing eyes, my dear.”
She gags and shudders involuntarily. I turn on Brahms again and she softens and sinks into her heated leather chair.
“Soon, love. Soon he’ll find a cure. I’ll keep planting the thought to find a cure, and he’ll keep dismissing me. But one day it will stick. It worked before. It worked before.”