Archive for October, 2009

The blood tasted like mint, and pulled at the hairs of my arm. My shirt had stiffened. It was in my teeth, my nose, my ears. One of the actors dipped his hands into a vat and slathered it on my arms, finishing by leaving a red hand-print on the back of my jeans. I guess he figured sexual harassment doesn’t apply to the undead.

If  you watch horror films, you know that there are fast zombies, and there are slow zombies. Most make gutteral sounds, others moan, and some prefer a snarl/hiss combo (usually the fast ones). I played about five different zombies in a movie that was filmed near Red Lodge this summer, which meant five new ways to hurt myself sprinting, falling, sliding, pouncing, and flailing around in a menacing way. In honor of the Halloween season, I thought I’d share my notes from the experience, as follows:

July 31, 2009

It’s 11:00 p.m. and I’m in the Brown Bear Cabin in Red Lodge, with all the (working) lights on, watching an MSNBC presentation of “Disappearance at the Dairy Queen” after spending most of the day covered in fake blood and sores and very real bruises playing a zombie extra in a movie shot east of Red Lodge. The movie, written and directed by Trevor Styles, offers a classic horror storyline, pitting good against evil, the sexy against the less sexy, and a SWAT team against a powerful “zombie horde.”

Zombie Movie 2009

Zombies lined up for attack (See those rocks in the ground? They hurt when you're skidding across them after being mowed down by assault rifles)

Following today’s filming, I joined four other zombies at the Red Lodge Alehouse for Bent Nails. We enjoyed two of my favorite activities: frightening children and drinking hoppy beer.

August 1, 2009

Mental patient zombies. Showing off the six-inch bruise on my thigh. “Attack on the cabin” shoot.

August 2, 2009

Morning shoot eating heart outside of cabin in green shirt and jeans. Makeup artist said she wanted to make me “glam rock.” Same makeup around three in afternoon for two-hour highway shoot. Running at actors from woods, clutching intestines.  

Copy of Zombie Movie 2009 023

Me as "Glam Zombie" at shoot site

The amount of detail in my notes correlates with my energy level; by the third day, I had sustained several nasty bruises and pulled my right quad so badly that I had to use my left leg to operate the gas and brake pedals on my drive home.  Still, charging across a field, dragging a slimy length of intestine, I felt as though I were in my element.

In the gathering dusk, I help collect fake shotgun shells from the ground, and use the intestine to skip rope with two other zombies. We pass around a bottle of fake blood to swirl around in our mouths as we reposition ourselves in the woods for the next take.

The first group of zombies shoots out of the trees toward the actors, then it’s time for our pod of three females, who lurch out all too convincingly, muscles screaming, throats raw, desperate for the moment when one of the heroines jogs to the center of the fray and raises her guns–our cue to fall on the scrubby ground and sleep the sweet, sweet sleep of death. We lay still as the blood burbles from our slack lips–but if you look closely, you can see ribs expand and eyelids twitch; we’re hungry now, for real.

Later, as we settle on the grass with our crock-pot hamburgers, taking wide bites to avoid smearing makeup on our food, we resemble a team of laborers relaxing after a hard day’s work. Glassy-eyed, we regard the actors laughing shrilly from the hot tub, and exchange knowing looks. Our day will come, my comrades, our hollow eyes seem to say. Our day will come.


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You can’t manage to say, “I’ve been spending a lot of time alone,” without people looking at you with sympathy. There’s something a little shameful about it, and also something that makes people wary or nervous, like a trail of blood leading to the trunk of your car. Some people might say things like, “How do you stand it? I’d go crazy!” and if you’ve been spending far too much time alone, those people might be throw-pillows, and you might be considering forming a barbershop quartet with them–or at least the three with mustaches.

Then I was about thirteen or fourteen, I remember spending almost an entire week of the summer alone while my parents and little brother were on a trip. I loved it. Twice a day I walked over the hill to irrigate Mom’s field;  I took one of the  four-wheelers if I was in a hurry or if I wanted to do little spin-outs on the sandy road on the way over.  I think this must have been early summer, before the deer-flies rose out of the swamps during the day to feast on the blood of their mammalian neighbors, because I don’t recall wearing heavy jeans and long-sleeved, collared shirts in the heat.

I don’t remember much of what I did at all, only that I loved listening to music while I made little meals for myself. I’d lift weights in the backyard and make my daily 500 basketball shots or whatever the hell it was. In the evenings I’d work on stories I posted on the internet and read what other tween shut-ins wrote.

After dark, I locked the doors and double-checked them before I went to sleep. Towards the end of the week, I started going around to each room and looking in the closets in case someone had hidden while I was out. I think I kept a steak-knife by my bed, or maybe I’m thinking of the time I house-sat for a man who lived out near the highway with no locks for his doors and the biggest non-tarantula spiders I’ve seen in my life darting behind  the coffee grinder or just lounging around on the wall over my bed.

“Oh, hey there,” their casual postures suggested. “You might be noticing my colorful markings. What? Are you thinking of clubbing me with that shoe? You could try. You’ll turn it over to check the heel and expect to see me squished there, or you’ll look for me all crumpled up on the ground. And maybe I’ll be there. Then again, maybe I won’t–and if I’m not, where did I go? You probably won’t know for sure until they amputate something. If you wake up at all, that is. Or you could just go to bed and mind your own business.”  

As you can imagine, I hardly slept at all. More than the spiders, I felt a pervasive sense of “not being alone.” Maybe it’s the kind of feeling that people assign to haunted places. You might be washing dishes when you become quite certain that someone is sitting at the table behind you; you may even think you see their shadow move across the tiles in the corner of your eye. Yet, you know, when you turn around, the chair will be empty, in the same way that I knew–although, with less conviction–that nobody was hiding in the closets.

The more time people spend alone, the more frequently they seem to sense these “presences,” and the more certain of their legitamacy they become. 

Maybe you wake up one day, and on the wall above your bed, you see a spider the size of your hand. His name’s Edgar, and the doctors said he won’t hurt you. But your socks say he’s planning something–biding his time. At the same time, you’re never really alone while Edgar’s around. Your image, reflected in his eight, tiny eyes, looks like eight different people, walled off from each other and looking more lonely and desperate with each day, staring at you as if you’re all they’ve got.

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Burris Cemetery

Walkin’ on down to the burial ground
It’s a very old dance with a merry old sound
Looks like it’s on today

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Slow Cheetah”

Driving down Central Avenue in Billings last month, I decided to pass through Mountainview Cemetery, which, incidentally, overlooks a golf course. I missed the first entrance, so I pulled in by what appeared to be the war memorial section, identical white stones protruding from the ground like manicured fingernails. I thought I’d be overtaken with the urge to get out and walk around, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I drove  slowly with my windows rolled down and my radio off, feeling completely out of touch with my own mortality.

Exploring a modern cemetery is a lot like driving through an average suburban neighborhood–houses look serenely uniform, lawns are coaxed into a radioactive shade of green, and you get the sense that this is something you’re supposed to want someday. I imagined visiting my grandmother’s grave in a similar cemetery in Wyoming, and worried that I would not be reminded of her–a tough little woman who shot at blackbirds from her front porch and whose oatmeal cookies carried a faint odor of cigarette smoke.

The cemetery is barely distinguishable from the  golf course on the other slope of the hill, and I can’t help but wonder how golfers can refrain from throwing down their tedious sack of clubs for good when confronted with the reality of death each time a ball sails a little too far east.

These orderly city cemeteries lack the beauty of  Burris Cemetery, located about a mile from my parents’ house in the middle of high desert range-land; sagebrush and long yellow grasses sprout among the headstones, and before the recent addition of a flag-pole, only locals had any idea where it was. On my last visit, I noticed that only one or two people had been buried there recently, most of the headstones dating back to the 60s.

Burris Cemetery

Burris Cemetery

This was the first cemetery I ever visited, and for me, it defines everything a cemetery should be–a secluded place where you can be alone with the names of people you never had a chance to know, and where the mystery of life, in the long light of late afternoon, feels very beautiful and very old. If you feel that way among Mountainview Cemetery’s evenly spaced trees, the sound of golf balls pinging against tees in the distance, more power to you. But let’s be honest–no matter what your views on death may be, we both know the deceased probably don’t care what breed of grass you plant on their grave, or how green it is. I’m pretty sure they’d want us to conserve water, anyway.

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No unnecessary travel

Road to Dubois

Road to Dubois

 “I’m not feeling real comfortable about this whole situation,” Mom says.

Spectral bluffs emerge from the white on all sides as we drive toward Dubois in a snow-storm, hauling a horse trailer. We pass a row of mailboxes that appear to float in the air; impressions of trees shift in the postapocalyptic gloom.

The needle of Mom’s speedometer wavers between 40 and 45 miles per hour on the snow-packed road, and I notice a car following us. 

“If they’re in a big enough hurry, they can pass,” Mom says.

Luckily, they don’t. A few moments later, a school bus hurdles down the other lane out of the fog as if materializing from a child’s nightmare.  We lost sight of Dad’s trailer in front of us five minutes after pulling out of our turn-off.

We turn off the radio and make brief comments about vehicles idling on the side of the road, and wonder whether it might be letting up. Sometimes, the world brightens, but a few miles later we’re engulfed in white again, snowflakes streaming down in a shroud of static.

“If they weren’t in the corral we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Mom is talking about the 116 pair and one bull that spent the night without food or decent shelter after being rounded up from their lease west of Dubois yesterday afternoon. Two other ranchers share the sprawling mountain pasture with my parents, and each year, they select a day to round up and sort all of their cattle at once to make the event easier; certain circumstances alligned to make that day today.

Just before Dubois, we pass a cut-out of Smoky the Bear describing the fire danger as “moderate.” I try to joke about it, but Mom leans rigidly over the steering wheel, clutching it with elbows out like a ship’s captain bracing herself for the next big wave.

 As we make a wide turn onto Main Street in Dubois, the snow stops and we drive through town without talking much; we look around at the storefronts as if seeing them for the first time, or as if the world, revealed out of the clearing mist, is somehow different from before.

The rest of our trip is unremarkable. We meet Dad at the corrals and wait an hour and a half for the semis to arrive. Someone had already sorted our cows from their calves. We load calves in groups of ten, followed by 16 or 17 cows at a time, and when the semis are full, we herd calves into our horse trailers and start the 40 minute drive home to unload them near our house. Then, we return to Dubois with a single horse trailer to retrieve the remaining cattle–four calves and the single cow that we left to keep them calm.

The next day on my walk, I find a circle of blood in the snow, studded with dark flecks of dried tissue that the dogs hold daintily in their bared teeth before bolting down; when they are finished, they lap up the red clumps of snow. A hunter’s gunshots reverberate from distant parts of the fog, and I stand still and straight, watching the heat of my breath spill out in vapor that clouds the visible world.



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1. Start a blog. It’s free on sites like WordPress and BlogSpot, and you can probably while away hours customizing your page. If you’re feeling industrious, you can also write  a book or compose letters to the editor from the perspectives of a wide array of disgruntled characters who believe the American flag should come in a standard size or that in the right context a lawn gnome can be viewed as a lethal weapon. The main idea here is to stay at home where you won’t be spending money.

2. Sleep. When you’re tempted to run errands that are just going to eat up your cash, take a nap. This is a great way to fend off hunger, as well. Remember–you’re poor and you need to be saving your energy so that you can stretch your food (baked beans and rice are cheap, filling, and provide useful proteins and carbs; just remember to take a multivitamin, since you probably can’t afford fruit or vegetables that you don’t grow yourself).

3. Bone up on creative ways to make Halloween fun. Are your kids hassling you about buying them that expensive Hannah Montana or Optimus Prime costume? Explain that they can be anything they want with a glue-gun, cardboard, some paint, and a little ingenuity. Or suggest they dress as characters from Where the Wild Things Are, and glue some hair and sticks to them or something. Crafts in general–especially things involving googly eyes–should be embraced wholeheartedly at all times of the year.

Googly Eye Knitted Turd

Googly Eye Knitted Turd

4.  Visit a pet store. Petting animals at a shop not only lowers your blood-pressure without the cost of owning a pet (studies have demonstrated this), but allows you to view strange creatures without purchasing a ticket. In Billings, Exotic Pets on Grand Avenue has the best variety of animals, but the salt-water fish tanks at the Heights Pet Store are a close runner-up.

5. Exercise. Go on a walk or lift dumbbells in your living room. Squats are free.

6.   Read a book. I request books on the city library’s website. They notify me when the book is ready, and since it’s held by the front desk until I pick it up, I don’t need to spend any more time there than necessary (this doesn’t save money, but it’s convenient and I don’t like the library).  

7. You probably have an instrument lying around–a guitar or a tuba. Maybe you bought a banjo on a whim while you were in college. Play it.

8.   Daydream. Staring out your window is free, and it’s good for you.

9. Avoid people. Socializing usually involves meeting for coffee or lunch–things you can’t afford. The internet is a wonderful substitute for face-to-face human interaction. If you don’t have access to the internet, maybe you have a pet you can talk to. Some people believe that plants respond to the human voice–why don’t you try it?  If you do decide you want to be around people,organize a potluck or inite them over to your house to enjoy a $4 bottle of wine and some home-made cupcakes–little touches, like cheerful sprinkles or high alcohol content, can make your offerings more appealing.

Spice up your gatherings

Spice up your gatherings

10. Develop hobbies. Boredom and lack of funds will help you perfect whatever hobby it is that will someday make you an interesting and well-rounded person. You probably know someone who has profited from making things out of dung or broken candy canes. This is your time to shine.

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