Step Right Up, by Michael A. Kechula
This story has been published in two previous fiction magazines.
“Step right up ladies and gentlemen,” yelled the carnival barker, “and see Herbie, the friendliest zombie in the world. He sings, he dances, he tells jokes. See the greatest show on Earth for just a dollar. Step right up and see Herbie, the only zombie who ever performed for European Royalty. Show starts in five minutes. Hurry, hurry.”
The barker didn’t have to convince Wilma. She couldn’t wait to see the zombie after reading about him in the newspaper. The part that really caught her eye described Herbie as tall, dark, and exceptionally handsome.
Once inside the tent, she noticed one end of the stage was blocked from view by black curtains. She figured the handsome zombie was probably behind them preparing for his performance. The idea of being just feet away from a famous celebrity gave her butterflies.
At the other end of the stage, a man sat facing a machine loaded with dials, switches, and flickering lights. Wilma thought it looked like something from a mad scientist’s laboratory.
The barker appeared onstage and said, “What you’re about to see will amaze you. But before we begin, I have a few announcements. First, that bouncy accordion music you heard when you came into the tent is from Herbie’s latest CD album, Herbie Plays Polka Greats. It’ll be on sale after the show, along with Herbie T-shirts, and photos. Herbie will sign every photo you buy. Finally, if you look toward the back of the tent, you’ll see bright yellow exit signs.”
“Is that where we’re supposta run in case the zombie goes nuts and attacks us?” yelled a drunk.
The audience giggled nervously, as two carnival bruisers dragged the drunk toward an exit.
The barker blew a whistle to draw attention back to the stage. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Doctor Zangara’s Amazing Traveling Shows is proud to present Herbie, the friendliest zombie in the world!”
Everyone applauded, as a spotlight illuminated the curtains. The barker opened them to reveal a zombie in a yellow jump suit sitting in a steel chair. Steel cuffs bound his wrists and ankles to the chair. Wide chains pressed against his chest. His bald head was bowed, as if he were in utter despair.
“Why’s he tied up like that?” somebody asked.
“There’s nothing to worry about. He’s very comfortable,” the barker replied.
“Aren’t those chains hurting him?” asked Wilma.
“No. Zombies don’t feel pain. Nobody feels pain when they’re dead. And Herbie’s dead as a doornail. That’s why we tie him down—so his lifeless body won’t fall outta the chair.”
“How did Herbie get to be a zombie?” asked a little girl.
“He useta live in Haiti. One day He got sick and died. After they buried him, a witch doctor dug him up and made him a zombie. Somehow, Herbie wandered into the jungle and got lost. Dr. Dumont of the Haitian Zombie Institute found him. Dumont invented a machine that could bring Herbie back to life, but for only six hours a day. The doctor taught Herbie how to sing, dance, tell jokes, do magic tricks, and play ten musical instruments. Herbie was so happy to be alive for six hours every day, he became very friendly. Dumont was trying to find a way to bring Herbie back to life forever, but he died before he could make that happen. I’ll take one more question, and then we’ll get on with the show.”
“I don’t get it,” somebody said. “Did Dr. Dumont bring Herbie back to life in a way that you and I have life? Or does he have a different kinda life?”
“I don’t know. What does it matter, if he’s friendly and can put on a terrific show? Okay, now we’ll bring Herbie back to life for six hours like Dr. Dumont did by using a Renticular Renificator. It’s a special machine Dumont invented to animate zombies. So let’s get started. First, I’ll put this headset on Herbie. Then I’ll ask James, who’s sitting in front of the machine, to send an electrical signal through the headset.”
When the barker put the headset on the zombie’s bowed head, he said, “James, set renticular renification to zero point three, and press start.”
James twisted some dials and pressed a button. Suddenly, the zombie’s head jerked upward, his eyes popped open, and his face broke out into a brilliant smile. “Hi everybody,” he said in a rich, bubbly voice. “I’m Herbie, the friendliest zombie in the world. Welcome to my show.”
The cheers and applause were deafening.
“I can do lots of things,” Herbie said. “I can play the Beer Barrel Polka on my accordion. I can dance, or sing Jingle Bells and a hundred other songs. I can ride a motorcycle while standing on my head. And lots of other things. What should I do first?”
The crowd shouted a hundred different requests.
“Let’s make it Herbie’s choice” the barker said. “Well, Herbie, what do you feel like doing?”
“I’m in the mood for ballet. James, would you please play that CD I love so much—the one with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies?”
“Sure thing,” James said, inserting a CD and pressing a green button on the Renticular Renificator to release the zombie’s restraints.
Herbie sprang from the chair and donned a pair of hot-pink ballet slippers. “How do you like my slippers, boys and girls?” he asked, standing on his toes and twirling.
The kids screamed with delight.
The zombie ran behind the black curtains, removed his jump suit, and slid into a hot-pink leotard.
While Herbie twirled and danced on his toes, Wilma felt a flutter unlike anything she’d ever experienced. As he pranced across the stage, she noticed his pouty, fleshy lips, his muscular arms and thighs, his tight glutes. She found herself staring at the bulge below his stomach and how it strained against his tights. Fanaticizing about holding him close, she could almost feel the bulge pressing against her. In all her forty years, Wilma had never felt so wicked.
“That’s very nice, Herbie,” said the barker. “How about showing us how Elvis Presley used to move his pelvis.”
James played raunchy music, and pressed more buttons on the renificator. Herbie went into a frenzy of gyrations that brought squeals from his female admirers. Mesmerized by his frantic pelvic thrusts, Wilma found herself lightheaded and gasping for breath. When sweat broke out on her forehead, she realized Herbie was the man for her.
After the spectacular show, Wilma raced to the back of the tent so she could buy a souvenir photo. Dozens of women had the same idea.
Giggles and flushed faces greeted Herbie when he arrived at the table. Wilma thought he looked like a dashing, fairytale prince.
“Ten dollars, please,” Herbie said with a charming Caribbean accent, when Wilma selected a photo.
“Would you autograph it?” she asked.
“That’ll be five dollars extra,” he said, flashing a gorgeous smile that turned her insides to mush.
As she paid Herbie, his fingertips brushed her hand. Though they were ice cold, Wilma was too overwhelmed to notice.
“What would you like me to write on the picture?” Herbie asked.
“Whatever you wish. But please sign it, With Love, Herbie.”
“What’s your first name, Dear?”
The zombie scribbled across the top, “To Wilma. You’re a sweet, Southern gal. With Love, Herbie.”
She thought she’d faint when he squeezed her hand and said, “Thanks for coming to the show, Sweetie.”
She wanted to tell him how handsome he was, but he’d already turned his attention to the next woman. When he made flirtatious comments to the woman, Wilma felt a jealous flash. She reminded herself that he was just conducting business. All handsome celebrities flirted with fans. It was part of the fame game. It meant nothing. How could it, after the way he squeezed her hand and called her Sweetie with such intensity?
Wilma attended the rest of Herbie’s shows that night. Sitting up front, she waved every time he turned her way.
Herbie did something different in every show, which increased Wilma’s fascination. But she was alarmed during the last show when he sang, I Gotta Be Me. His voice was weakening. Her wrist watch showed five hours and fifty minutes had passed. It was almost time for Herbie to die again.
Right before Herbie’s time ran out, he sat in his steel chair and waved goodbye to the audience. When his head dropped abruptly to his chest, the barker closed the curtains, James threw a switch to activate the chair’s restraints, then turned off the renificator.
Wilma ran from the tent weeping.
On the way to her car, an inner voice reminded her that Herbie wasn’t gone forever. They’d revive him again tomorrow, and she’d see him again.
She decided to attend every show while the carnival was in town. She’d buy mementos after every show. That’d give her three opportunities every night to shake his muscular hand, look into his passionate eyes, hear his glorious voice. Soon, he’d remember her, perhaps even look forward to seeing her. And maybe he’d even want her.
Soon the carnival would move on to other Southern towns. Wilma, an affluent spinster, decided to follow no matter where it went. Realizing nothing could stop her from seeing Herbie three times nightly gave her a deep sense of peace. She fell asleep thinking how he’d succumb to her charms when he recognized her inner beauty and unlimited ability to love.
Next day, she went to the carnival early, hoping to find the barker. She found him at a hot dog stand. She sat at a table facing the barker. “I wanted to tell you how impressive your zombie show is.”
“Glad you like it. I noticed you were at all the shows last night. Are you from the Herbie Fan Club?”
“No. I love the show. Herbie really is the friendliest zombie in the world. He’s also the most handsome and entertaining performer I’ve ever seen. Have you ever thought of having him try out for a Broadway musical?”
“I don’t think that’d work.”
“I can’t imagine why. He does everything remarkably well. He’s extremely talented, and he’s the most dynamic performer I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes, he does come across that way. But there’s lotsa complicated stuff involved to make that happen. More than you’d ever imagine.”
“How complicated can it be?” she asked. “ James throws a switch on that machine of yours, and off he goes. Look, I’d like to make you a proposition. As a patron of the arts, and considering how talented your zombie is, I think he needs someone who has the means to sponsor him and lead him to higher things. Plays. Musicals. A concert at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps he can even play his violin with the New York Philharmonic. Or sing with the Metropolitan Opera. Frankly, I can offer Herbie a better life than a traveling carnival. I want to buy Herbie. How much do you want for him?”
“He ain’t for sale.”
“Not even for a million dollars?”
“You wanna pay a million dollars for a dead zombie?”
“For goodness sakes! You make it sound like he’s lower than a maggot. I’ll pay you a million for Herbie and that ugly machine that James operates. Of course I’ll need an operator’s manual, the restraining chair, and whatever else is necessary to make everything work smoothly.”
“Like I said, Herbie ain’t for sale.”
“How about renting him?”
“I never heard of renting out a zombie. Come to think of it, we shut down the show from Thanksgiving until mid-January. Money gets pretty tight. If I agreed, you’d hafta set up a place for his special equipment, and get a backup generator in case of power failures. You’d also hafta sign papers promising that you wouldn’t use him in any public performances. Let me think about it. How can I reach you?”
“I’ll be at every show from now on.”
That night after the last show, the barker approached Wilma. “Herbie ain’t for sale or rent. I like things the way they are. Besides, if we lose control of him, there might be trouble.”
Wilma cried all night.
The next day, the carnival departed Charleston for Atlanta. Wilma checked into Atlanta’s best hotel. For the next week, she waved to Herbie from the front row and bought his autographed photos.
By the time the carnival reached Birmingham, Herbie was used to seeing Wilma at every show. He acknowledged her presence by asking her to stand and wave to the audience.
When the carnival played Chattanooga, Herbie called Wilma to the stage, put his arm around her, and introduced her to the applauding audience. When he told them she hadn’t missed a single show for two months, they clapped louder.
Herbie autographed the photos she bought after every show with a different caption every time. The messages had grown warmer. One evening, he wrote, “Wish we could meet and talk.”
Wilma wept with joy.
The next day, she spotted the barker sitting alone at the carnival’s pizza stand. “How’s it going, Tom?”
“I’m fine. I gotta say, you sure are one helluva gutsy woman. I never figured you’d go to such lengths to be around Herbie. Why are you doing this?”
“I’m in love with Herbie.”
“Geez, Wilma. Are you gonna spend your life pursuing a zombie? He’s dead. He was buried over fifty years ago. Dr. Dumont’s journal says Herbie doesn’t even have a heart. All his internal organs are gone. He’s filled with embalming fluid to keep his body from collapsing. When he waves his arms, and you’re standing close enough, you can hear fluid sloshing inside.”
“But he has charm, and spirit, and gusto and—”
“That was all programmed into the electronic gadgets Dumont put into his skull after all Herbie’s brains were sucked out. Do you know that the top of Herbie’s head has hinges? James has to open his skull once a week to blow compressed air through all the electrical equipment in there? If James didn’t do that, we’d never be able to rouse Herbie from his death trance. Think about what it is you love. Herbie’s a dead man who was turned into a zombie by a witch doctor. He’s a cadaver that doesn’t rot, because of high-tech embalming fluid. He’s got no heart. No lungs. His head is full of electronics. A head that has hinges. A head that needs to be cleaned every week with compressed air. How can you sit there and tell me you love such a thing?”
“You don’t know what love is, Tom!”
“Not the kind you’re talking about. What if I told you I was in love with a vampire? One that sucked blood from little kids. What would you say?”
“I’d say that vampires need love too. Just like zombies. And werewolves. And ghouls.”
Figuring Wilma for a harmless loon, the barker never mentioned her actions again.
Wilma followed them to New Orleans. Then Miami. That’s where she discovered Herbie had a dark side.
During the final show on closing night, Herbie was doing a handstand on a bicycle’s handlebars. A teen threw an egg that smashed against Herbie’s head, throwing him off balance. He fell off the bike and hit the ground hard.
Wilma screamed. The barker tried to help Herbie to his feet, but the zombie roughly shoved him aside. The barker yelled to James, “Reduce renticular renification to seven point nine.”
James turned switches and pressed buttons like a madman. Herbie’s growls were so unnerving the audience rushed to the exits screaming.
Wilma ran to the stage and threw her arms around Herbie. His behavior changed instantly. He smiled and called to the audience, “Hey, y’all. C’mon back. It’s all part of the act. Don’t be alarmed. Everything’s cool.” He kissed Wilma’s cheek. Eyes twinkling, he said, “Thanks, Wilma. You’re a sweetie. We oughta hug more often.”
The barker couldn’t thank Wilma enough for what she’d done, though he wasn’t sure which had calmed Herbie: Wilma’s embrace, or renificator signals. Even James was uncertain if he’d completed the calming sequence before Wilma hugged the zombie.
As a reward for preventing a potential disaster, the barker included Wilma in Herbie’s act. At first, she did little things: passed him juggling balls, setup tables for his magic acts, rolled out the bicycle on which he performed acrobatics.
Wilma was never happier.
But after a year, Wilma felt that something was still missing in her relationship with Herbie—something she couldn’t articulate. On one hand she wanted to find ways to get closer. On the other, she wasn’t sure how to bridge the chasm that separated them. When the answer came to her in a dream, she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it sooner. After careful consideration, she explained her plans to the barker.
“Are you sure, Wilma?” he asked.
“Positive. I can’t think of anything I want more.”
“Wilma, you’re one helluva a gutsy woman. In fact, you have more guts than any ten men I know.”
“It’s not guts, Tom. It’s love.”
Wilma disappeared the next day.
Months passed. Few people remembered Wilma had ever existed. But Herbie didn’t forget. Her name was the last word he uttered every night, before he dropped his head and died.
* * *
On a beautiful Spring evening in Biloxi, Mississippi the barker stood outside the zombie show tent. In his proudest voice, he called out, “Step right up ladies and gentlemen. Step right up and see Herbie…and Wilma…the friendliest zombies in the world.”
BIO: Michael A. Kechula’s flash and micro-fiction tales have been published by 150 magazines and 50 anthologies in 8 countries. He’s won 1st prize in 12 writing contests and 2nd prize in 8 others. He’s authored 5 books of flash and micro-fiction tales, including a book that teaches how to write flash fiction. See his publisher’s site at: http://www.booksforabuck.com/ to read a free story or chapter in all of his books.