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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ebola, Zombies, and Midterm Elections

Like a lot of other cities, the East Village of Des Moines hosted a zombie walk and pub crawl this fall, where the walking dead can roam around, drink beer, party, and scare each other. My cousin’s Robin’s clothing store is in the East Village, and she convinced me to dress up and help out, since she was counting on increased store traffic and sales. “It will be fun,” she assured me. “I’ll make you look all zombie-like, and afterwards we can grab a beer.”

This was just a few days after the CDC had confirmed that Eric Duncan had the first case of Ebola here in the U.S. But people weren’t panicking; he seemed to be doing okay and the message was simple. The United States of America has the resources to handle Ebola. We’re not like West Africa, and we don’t need to worry.

So Robin and I had a good time, enjoying the creepy festivities and chatting with people who roamed into her store. The only thing I was worried about was that customers would get their zombie makeup all over Robin’s beautifully constructed clothes. I was in the middle of arranging a rack of dresses when I heard a voice behind me. “Lucy? It’s you, isn’t it?”

I turned, and became nearly hypnotized, dumb with the realization that the person who had said my name was my high school nemesis Reggie, a guy who used to bully me relentlessly. A hunting accident post graduation had put him in a wheel chair, plus he was in zombie makeup and he had aged twenty-years. But I recognized those cold, hard eyes and the diabolical scrape of his voice, as if no time had passed since when he would terrorize me on a daily basis.

“Hello, Reggie,” I said, keeping my voice even.

Reggie laughed, causing his eyes, which were outlined in blood-red, to squint. “Are you working in a clothing store now? Wow. Whatever happened to the class brainiac’s big aspirations? I thought you were a college professor in Seattle.”

I didn’t ask how he knew that, because I didn’t want to know. “We moved back to Des Moines last year, after my dad had a stroke. This is my cousin’s store, and I’m just helping out for the day.”

Reggie nodded. “Yeah, and aren’t you married to Monty Bricker?”

I nodded. It didn’t surprise me that he knew that. Everybody in high school knew Monty, and he and Reggie’s moms were friends. But my pulse was racing and I felt all flushed. Much as I hated to admit it, I was in panic mode, capable only of hostility or idiocy.

“I have a lot to do, Reggie. So unless you need something, I should get back to work.” I turned towards the clothes, away from him.

“Wait,” he said. “Midterm elections. How about the Republican’s chances?  Not only is Ernst going to beat Braley, but the Republicans are totally going to take over the Senate. You must hate that.”

Reggie and I always used to spar in our Civics class, taking opposite views. Our senior year was when Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush, and I can still feel the burn from Reggie’s glee. So although I shouldn’t have taken the bait, I did.

“Ernst and Braley are tied,” I retorted. “And there is still time for Democrats to pull ahead in the other Senate races.”

Reggie chuckled. “Maybe there was still time. But not now. Obama blew it when he didn’t close travel to and from West Africa, and the Republicans are going to play on everyone’s panic. It’s done.”

“I don’t think so.” I sighed, looking around the store, trying to locate Robin. She was busy, in the process of making a big sale to some college girls.

“Oh come on, Lucy. You know I’m right. Why do you think events like this are so popular?” Reggie gestured around, at all the zombie stuff. “There is no better allegory for modern times than the zombie apocalypse, because we’ve all become zombies ourselves, surrendering our individuality to government surveillance and our autonomy to social programs and ridiculous spending. So now there’s a virus that will actually make people bleed from the eyes, and it’s come here to the U.S.! People are not only going to believe that Obama didn’t do enough to prevent it, but that on some level he wants us to suffer. He wants us to all be zombies.”

My mouth dropped open. “That’s insane.”

“But I’m right. And the republicans are going to capitalize on all our fears, and they’re going to win.”

There was something tribal about the moment that passed between us, like I could feast on that huge ego of his and spit it out all over the floor, and I’d never be hungry again. “Reggie,” I murmured, suddenly aware of how dry my throat was. “I don’t know why you’re talking to me like we’re friends. We’re not. And even if all your predictions come true, you’re still a narcissist, and I’d like you leave right now.”

Reggie raised his eyebrows in amusement, as if I’d just told a mildly funny joke. “I was looking for a present for my wife.” He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Sorry to ruin your day, or whatever. I’ll get out of your hair.” He laughed and wheeled himself out of the store, and hopefully out of my life for good.

But now, weeks later, his predictions still ring in my ears. Especially since Monty told me he’d be D.C. indefinitely, full time.  He was packing his bags one afternoon when I came home. “They’re putting me on an emergency committee, to work with the World Health Organization, writing briefs and policy about Ebola. This is the worst health crisis in decades, and we need to be on top of it.”

“You won’t actually be travelling over there, will you?”

He shook his head. “I promise I won’t set foot in West Africa.”

But he left for D.C. a couple of weeks ago, and is now working around the clock. At night when we talk, he rants about the news coverage, that they’re causing a panic, and that people still don’t understand that Ebola is not airborne. “But we can’t turn our backs on Liberia and surrounding regions if we want to find a solution,” he said. “A travel ban will just make it worse. West Africans will fly to other places first, and then come here, so we won’t be able to monitor them, and then people really could die. I don’t understand how Republicans can be advocating for it.”

“It’s politically motivated,” I answered, thinking about what Reggie said. “They’re playing on people’s fear.”

“When did everyone become so ruthless?” Monty answered back. “I can remember a time when everything wasn’t always about politics, when the value of human life was actually put first.”

“Yeah, I know.” I sighed. “Any idea when you’ll be able to come home?”

“No.” He lowered his voice. “I’m sorry. I really miss you.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I suppose I’ll be watching the midterm election coverage alone in a couple of weeks, if I can even bring myself to watch it at all. The republicans have a 65% chance of taking the Senate, Mitch McConnell and Pat Roberts are probably going to win after all, and here in Iowa, Ernst has pulled ahead. What’s worse is that Reggie was totally right. People are freaking out about Ebola, but at least there isn’t a real zombie apocalypse on our hands. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid.