This was back in the day, of course, when there were still strip joints in the hills and video stores with X-rated VHS tapes. I was in the rental place, picking up a copy of Ghostbusters, when the old man tottered out of the “back room” with an armload of dirty tapes. You weren’t supposed to bring the boxes up front; you were supposed to bring the little tags. But he hadn’t heard. As he approached the checkout he could no longer handle his load; the boxes toppled and scattered, showing their lurid titles and cover photos to everyone, including some little kids. Mothers and fathers covered the kids’ faces. The girl at the checkout was cool. She calmly picked up the boxes and brought them behind the counter and addressed the old man as Bill. She reminded him about the tags, but Bill was smiling a crooked and perverted smile, oblivious to everything but his future pleasure. I had to smile. One of the titles was ZOMBIE STRIPPERS. I had something to offer old Bill.
I went outside the entrance and smoked and waited for Bill. He emerged with his bag of tapes, and I said, “Psssst, Bill.”
He stopped and we studied one another. In the sun his skin was transparent, showing his old green and purple veins. His eyes were colorless, as were his lips. He was still smiling, his brown teeth pointed and covered with something that resembled dried blood. “I know a place you’ll like,” I said. His hands shook. He probably couldn’t wait to get to his VCR. But he kept smiling and didn’t say a word. “If you like zombie strippers. It’s the real deal.” He made a grunting sound. I wondered if he was deaf. He worked his greenish tongue over those teeth. He pulled out the ZOMBIE STRIPPERS tape and showed it to me, nodding his head.
“Let me follow you home,” I said, moving my mouth slowly before those creepy eyes. “Then I can pick you up tonight and take you there. It’s an awesome place. Trust me.”
He put the tape back and held his hand out to me. It was freezing, as I expected. “Okay,” he said, his voice a gravelly whisper that gave me a chill. I walked with him; his house was just around the corner. He said he lived by himself, that he was lonely, the girls in the tapes were his company. Sometimes he fell in love, but there was something missing. I told him I’d pick him up at eight, and he held my hand again. This time he scraped my palm with a long, yellowish nail. My spine trembled.
He wore all black — pants and a tunic, black fedora. He smelled of cheap cologne disguising the odor of impending doom. He blinked those colorless eyes, and I noticed the tears. “My friend,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Bill, this will be something you won’t forget.”
I drove from the hollow up into the purple hills. The eerie sundown made Bill glow. I could see the blood pulsing at his neck, a slow beat. He smiled at me and nodded his head. He didn’t ask where we were going — he had total trust in me.
The place was at the top of a mountain, far past where the houses stopped. A few battered pick-ups sat in the parking lot. Not a lot of people knew of this place. I’d found it one night when I was driving around, trying to forget how my wife left with the appliance guy. The auto graveyard was next to the parking lot. Some of the dancers had died in car wrecks, and those cars were sitting out there. Some stayed in their cars during the day.
Bill trembled as we entered. It was totally dark except for the stage, where Mercedes was doing her thing. She was named for the car she perished in. Now she was peeling her burnt skin from her bones. Zombie strippers can do that. There were whistles from the good old boys in the dark. “These are the real zombie strippers, Bill.” Boy how he shook. He took my hand and I led him to a table up front. There was usually a vacant zone because of the smell. Bill didn’t mind the smell; he said it reminded him of when he was young — gasoline and burnt rubber. He didn’t mention the burnt flesh. He said he could love a woman like that.
Mercedes shook her bare bones. They rattled. She removed her blonde hair like a wig and swung it around, her naked skull grinning. Bill clapped and tried to whistle, but he was dry. I summoned the waitress, Molly, whose chubby arms molted skin as they took my order. I ordered us both a whiskey, and when it came we toasted and downed them, sputtering. Bill whistled. Mercedes was done and Angela took the stage. She spun on a stool, removing her legs and then her arms in a sexy way. She rolled on the stage and arched her back. She looked in pain but she smiled. The pain was short-lived when she was hit by the truck that severed her. Projected on a screen behind her was a picture of the tractor-trailer, and the men booed at first. Then they cheered, realizing that without the truck there would be no Angela the zombie. Then came Susanne, who had been murdered by her boyfriend with a big knife across her throat. She did a bump and grind while slowly removing her head and holding it by the black hair. All the strippers had died in terrible ways, and Bill was shedding tears of sorrow and joy.
“I want to help these poor girls,” he said.
“There’s no helping them, Bill. They’re dead. They stay in the junkyard when they’re not dancing.”
“I want to meet one, to hear her story. I want to meet Mercedes. Can that happen?”
Mercedes was sitting at the bar. She’d pulled her skin back on and freshened up a bit. I sat next to her and asked if she could do a favor for an old, appreciative man who didn’t just see her as skin and bones.
Her smile looked painful. How she had suffered in her crash, but not for long. I nodded towards Bill, and she said she’d be glad to tell her sad story to a man who cared. “He’s a lonely man,” I said.
“I can help him,” she said, her voice just empty puffs of air. I could smell the metal, the old blood, but also something sweet and innocent from her former life. “I’m done for the night. We can go to my car.”
I took Bill by the hand and we followed her into the moonlight, winding between all the cars until we came to hers, a late model Mercedes with the front end crushed. They climbed into the back seat like a couple of teens. Mercedes told him the story of her life — the abusive husband that caused her to drink and drive way too fast one too many times. Bill said he didn’t understand how such a beautiful woman couldn’t just break free from the bastard, and she said Bill was sweet. He laid his head on her shoulder. She kissed his head with her bluish lips that were sliding off her face, and Bill was in heaven.
“I want to stay here with you,” he told her.
“You have to be dead to get in here. Otherwise you’ll have to keep going back to your life. You have to eat. We have no food here.”
“Then come live with me,” Bill said. “I’ll take care of you. You won’t have to dance anymore. I’ll buy you new clothes, and make-up, and we can spend our days inside. Until I die, then we can come back here and live forever. “What do you say?”
So that’s how it happened. I would walk by Bill’s house at night and see them dancing. He had gotten her white dresses from Goodwill so she looked more angel than demon. I’d see him brushing her hair, but it was falling out. So he got her a wig. He rarely left the house, and she never did. He rented only normal movies now, so they could watch them and she’d feel like a real person again.
But then something terrible happened; Bill stepped in front of the number seven bus. You could say it was an accident, or you could know the truth like me. At the funeral I caught glimpses of Mercedes in the distance. She waved to me. She was happy. Bill would be with her now.
His house was auctioned, but I still looked in the windows for them. I drove to the junkyard. They were staying in the Mercedes now. She was working as a waitress, and Bill was a stay-in-car zombie. He showed me his special ability; he could pose his arms and legs in all possible contortions, thanks to the bus. They lived there happily. Over the years I visited, became old myself, and started looking for my own zombie girl.
Gary Moshimer has stories in Smokelong Quarterly, PANK, Monkeybicycle, Necessary Fiction, and many other places. He wishes to be a zombie.