Dead Zone

In which Citizen Jim becomes aware of the limits placed on several modes of communication in rural America.

I’d been sitting on the couch at my mother’s staring at a spot of carpet for five hours, wondering how the hell I’d ended up living back in my hometown for the second time in eight years. I was about to commence a three-day crying jag when I heard a car horn beeping wildly on the street outside the front door.

My mother got confused because she thought it was Jack, her gentleman caller, coming for their Tuesday night date.

“He knows I don’t socialize on game day,” she muttered under her breath while motioning at the TV with a remote control which rarely left her hands, even while she slept. Never mind that WVU’s “game day” was Saturday and today was Wednesday.

Since the horn-blowing outside didn’t cease or even lull, the only thing I could suspect was that Citizen Jim had found me and would be bursting through the door as soon as the noise outside stopped.

I was wrong.

“Chicken Sheets! Get out here RIGHT NOW!” he yelled through the screen on my mother’s front door. He had to shout over the sound of the blaring car horn, which turned out to be a security alarm activated by the panic button on Jim’s keyring.

I shouted back, “I’m not coming out until you stop that awful noise!”

My mother had since fled to the back of the house, as she was sure the police had the place surrounded and would be throwing tear gas through the windows at any moment. “It’s not like when you were growing up around here. Every day’s like an episode of ‘Law and Order,'” she had said as she jogged from the living room holding her oxygen tubes aloft in one hand and clutching her cigarettes and lighter in the other.

The piercing sound of the car alarm ceased right before Citizen Jim’s fist burst through the screen on the door. He uncurled his fist then re-curled his fingers around my throat. “You don’t even know how much trouble you’re in, Missy!” he yelled.

I tried to tell Jim I couldn’t breathe, but all I could produce was a single croak.

“Why the hell should I let you breathe? You’re trying to kill me by running off and not telling me where you’re going. I’ve a good mind to just kill you first and get answers to my questions later.”

He released my throat and I fell to the floor, desperately trying to catch my breath so I could assure Citizen Jim that, no matter what, I loved him more than life itself and the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt his feelings or make him angry. He opened the door and I fell onto the front porch. He brought his foot back as if he might land a good kick to my head, but he just put his shoe on my hand and stomped my fingers until I passed out from the pain.

When I regained consciousness, I was lying on the floor of my mother’s kitchen. She and Jim were seated at the table watching “Law and Order” on my mother’s little thirteen-inch color TV.

“Go outside,” Citizen Jim snapped at my mother. “I got things to discuss with your worthless girl child.”

“Whatever you do, don’t turn your back on her,” she said as she made her way through the living room. “From everything you’ve told me, she can’t be trusted as far as she can be thrown.”

“Sad but true,” Jim agreed. “Get up off the floor, you dolt. I need to ask you something.”

I took a seat at the table across from Jim. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Well, I’m sure you are. If I’m here you won’t have to go to the trouble of ignoring my phone calls and emails and the hundreds of personal ads I’ve placed in newspapers and on Craigslist.com all over the country.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “I’ve never ignored your emails or phone calls.”

“I’m through threatening you,” Jim said, picking up a deck of cards and absently shuffling them while glaring at me. “I’ve sent you sixty-three emails and left a hundred and five messages on your cell phone just in the past week. Two hundred new digital photos of Spalding sitting on Bubba’s shoulder at El Rey, fifty MP3 files, lots of cute jokes from Charlotte and a PDF of the best manuscript I’ve received over the transom in my entire career in publishing—nine hundred seventy-two pages of perfect prose.”

I was speechless.

“That’s right. I sent you all that! And no response to any of it.”

I smiled weakly. “Oh, Jim, it was real sweet of you to send me all those huge, unwieldy files via email, but I thought you knew.”

“Knew what? That you hate me and everything I love? Oh, I’ve known that for a long, looooong time,” he said.

“Precious Lamb, I meant I thought you knew that my mother’s house is in the middle of a dead zone.”

He jumped up, suddenly grinning from ear to ear. “Oh my God! You never told me you used to live in a town full of zombies—I thought those were just disease-ridden retired coal miners and half-dead miners’ widows sitting on their porches when I rolled into town. Wah hooo!” he whooped and jumped in the air, clicking his heels before he touched the floor again. “What’re we waiting for? Let’s go see some undead!”

I laid my forehead against my arm, ready to weep. “No, Jim. Not that kind of dead zone—there are no zombies in this town.”

“I guess next you’re going to tell me there’s no movie theater, either.”

“There isn’t.”

“But you can rent movies, right? From a video store?”

“Nope.”

“Can you rent movies from one of those vending machines in the grocery store?”

“There is no grocery store.”

“Where do you buy your cereal, at the local gas station?”

“We have no gas station, Jim.”

“Bars? A bar?”

“Not anymore.”

He was lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling, eyes closed and hands folded across his chest like a corpse in a casket. “Your lies have killed me,” he said. “I am now dead because of your lies and since there are no zombies I suppose that’s the only thing that makes this a dead zone.”

“I’m not lying,” I said. “Believe me, I wish I were.”

He sat up with a jolt, a reanimated dead body. “If you don’t have a store or a gas station or a freaking BAR in this town, where do you people spend your money?”

I shrugged. “The post office. You know—buying stamps? And I think there’s a soda pop machine on the porch of an old shack someone built over Paw Paw Creek.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“But this doesn’t explain why you never answered my emails or phone messages. Being courteous doesn’t cost a damn thing! You just hate my guts! Dead zone MY ASS!”

“What I meant was, we’re in a dead zone where there’s no cell phone reception and no broadband Internet.”

“Bullshit! There’s no such place on EARTH!”

“That’s exactly right. Except you’re all wrong. Because this is that place.”

“You can’t LIVE HERE!” Jim shouted. “There’s no way in HELL I’ll put up with it.”

“Well, I am living here. And you will have to put up with it.”

“Not if I kill you.”

“Can you come back to do that later? Like, after the ‘Law and Order’ marathon? My mom HATES when her ‘Law and Order’ marathon gets interrupted.”

“How long’s that going to last?” he asked, glancing at his watch.

“They usually last a couple of weeks.” He looked at his watch again. “Ah, hell, Stimpy! All right,” he said. “But I’m not driving all the way back to Alabama. You need to take me the airport in this piece of shit town.”