His eyes were the oval disks of Japanese cartoon characters, glassy and brimming with nothing. Like the whiteness of Melville's whale, you could read anything into them, and while Lyda and I sat staring at him staring at the wall, I projected my desires and frustrations into those mirrors with a will I doubt Ahab could have mustered.
«A blown Easter egg,» said Lyda, breaking the silence.
And in the end, she was right. There was an exquisite emptiness about him. His face was drawn, his limbs thin but wiry with real muscle. He looked like a fellow who might at one time have worked as a car mechanic or a UPS delivery man. I guessed his age to be somewhere in the late thirties but knew, from what Malthusian had suggested, that his youth was merely compliance to a command. I wondered how old he would become when the spell was broken. Perhaps, like Valdemar in Poe's story, I thought, he will eventually be reduced to a pool of putrescence.
We had been sitting with the zombie for over an hour when Susan finally arrived home from work. Lyda got up from her seat and ran into the living room to tell her mother that we had a visitor.
«Guess who?» I heard her ask. She led Susan by the hand into the kitchen.
Upon discovering our guest, the first word out of her mouth was, «No.» It wasn't like the shriek of a heroine being accosted by a creature in the horror movies. This was the no of derailed late-night amorous advances, a response to Lyda's pleading to stay up till eleven on a school night.
«Let's be sensible about this,» I said. «What are we going to do?»
«Call the police,» said Susan.
«Are you crazy?» I said. «The very fact that he is here proves that what Malthusian told me was all true. We'd be putting our lives in danger.»
«Go play,» Susan said to Lyda.
«Can the zombie play?» she asked.
«The zombie has to stay here,» I said and pointed toward the kitchen entrance.
When Lyda was gone, Susan sat down at the table and she and I stared at him some more. His breathing was very shallow, and with the exception of this subtle movement of his chest he sat perfectly still. There was something very relaxing about his presence.
«This is crazy,» she said to me. «What are we going to do with him?»
«Malthusian said he would soon remember where he was from, and that we should take him to his home whenever the memory of it became clear to him.»
«Can't we just drive him somewhere and let him out of the car?» asked Susan. «We'll leave him off in the parking lot at the mall.»
«You wouldn't do that with a cat, but you would abandon a human being?» I said.
She shook her head in exasperation. «Well, what does he do? It doesn't look like much is becoming clear to him,» she said.
I turned to the zombie and said, «What is your name?»
He didn't move.
Susan reached over and snapped her fingers in front of his face. «Hey, Mister Zombie, what should we call you?»
«Wait a second,» I said. «He doesn't answer questions, he responds to commands.»
«Tell me your name,» Susan said to him.
The zombie turned his head slightly toward her and began to slowly move his lips. «Tom,» he said and the word sort of fell out of his mouth, flat and dull as an old coin.
Susan brought her hand up to cover a giggle. «Tommy the zombie,» she said.
«Pathetic,» I said and couldn't suppress my own laughter even though there were shadowed entities at large in the world who might engineer our demise.
We had never had so unassuming a house guest. Tom was like that broom standing in the kitchen closet until you need it. The novelty of performance upon command soon wore off. Sure, we got a little mileage out of the stage hypnotist antics—«Bark like a dog.» «Act like a chicken.» I know it sounds a bit unfeeling, but we did it, I suppose, simply because we could, similar in spirit to the whim of the government that originally engineered the poor man's circumstance. Lyda put an end to this foolishness. She lectured to us about how we should respect him. We were embarrassed by her words, but at the same time pleased that we had raised such a caring individual. As it turned out, she had a real affection for the zombie. He was, for Lyda, the puppy we would not let her have.
It was not difficult remembering to command him to go to the bathroom twice a day, or to eat, or shower. What was truly hard was keeping him a secret. We all swore to each other that we would tell no one. Susan and I were afraid that Lyda, so completely carried away by her new friend, might not be able to contain herself at school. Think of the status one would reap in the third grade if it was known you had your own zombie at home. Throughout the ordeal, she proved to be the most practical, the most caring, the most insightful of all of us.
The utter strangeness of the affair did not strike me until the next night when I woke from a bad dream with a dry mouth. Half in a daze, I got out of bed and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I took my drink and, going into the living room, sat down on the couch. For some reason, I was thinking about Poe's «The Fall of the House of Usher,» and how D. H. Lawrence had described it as a story of vampirism. I followed a thread of thought that looped in and out of that loopy story and ended with an image of the previously airy and lethargic Madeline bursting out of her tomb to jump on old Roderick. Then I happened to look to the left, and jumped, myself, realizing that the zombie had been sitting next to me the entire time.
Tom could make a great pot of coffee. He vacuumed like a veteran chambermaid. Susan showed him how to do hospital corners when making the beds. When he was not busy, he would simply sit on the couch in the living room and stare directly across at the face of the grandfather clock. It was clear that he had a conception of time, because it was possible to set him like a VCR. If we were going out, we could tell him, «Make and eat a bologna sandwich at one p.m.» «Go to the bathroom at three.»
Somewhere in the second week of his asylum with us, I got the notion to become more expansive in my commands. I recalled Malthusian telling me that he was capable of playing Chopin after only listening to a piece once. It became clear that the requests I had been making of him were penny ante. I upped the stakes and instructed him to begin typing my handwritten notes for the Poe book. He flawlessly copied exactly what I had on the paper. Excited by this new breakthrough, I then told him to read a grammar book and correct the text. Voil`a!
It became rapidly evident that we would have to get Tom some new clothes, since he continued to wear the same short-sleeved gray Sears workshirt and pants day in and day out. There was no question he would have worn them until they were reduced to shreds. Susan went to the store on her way home from work one night and bought him a few things. The next day, as an experiment, we told him to get dressed, choosing items from the pile of garments we laid before him. He came out of the spare bedroom, wearing a pair of loose-fitting khakis and a black T-shirt that had written in white block letters across it I'm with Stupid. We all got a charge out of this.
«Laugh, Tom,» said Lyda.
The zombie opened wide his mouth, and from way back in his throat came a high-pitched «Ha . . . ha.»
The horror of it melted my smile, and I began to wonder about his choice of shirts. That is when I noticed that a distinct five o'clock shadow had sprouted across his chin and sunken cheeks. «My God,» I thought, without telling Susan or Lyda, «the aging process has begun.»
When Tom wasn't pulling his weight around the house, Lyda usually had him engaged in some game. They played catch, cards, Barbies, and with those activities that were competitions, Lyda would tell him when it was his turn to win—and he would. For the most part, though, they drew pictures. Sitting at the kitchen table, each with a pencil and a few sheets of paper, they would create monsters. Lyda would have to tell Tom what to draw.
«Now do the werewolf with a dress and a hat. Mrs. Werewolf,» she said.
That zombie could draw. When he was done there was a startlingly well-rendered, perfectly shadowed and shaded portrait of Lon Chaney in drag, a veritable hirsute Minnie Pearl. Susan hung it with magnets on the refrigerator.
«Take a bow,» Lyda told him and he bent gracefully at the waist in a perfect forty-five degree angle.
My wife and daughter didn't notice that Tom was changing, but I did. Slowly, over the course of mere days, his hair had begun to thin out, and crow's feet formed at the corners of his eyes. This transformation I was seeing the first signs of was astounding to me. I wondered what it was that Malthusian had done to offset the effects of the original surgery that had been performed on him. Perhaps it was a series of commands; some kind of rigid behavioristic training. I hated to think of the old man poking around in Tom's head in that checkerboard kitchen under the fluorescent lights. What also puzzled me was how Malthusian had transferred command of the zombie to myself and my family. I began paying much closer attention to him, waiting for a sign that he had begun to recollect himself.