By the time I ran into Vern Fronk one bright April morning, it had been two years since the undead first began appearing in our community. We had mostly calmed down by then. Our civic leaders never liked the tanks and flash-bang grenades so popular in other places, especially once we saw that the PRISA protocol worked better— although a few holdouts still contended that PRISA was “coddling” the undead. As for me, I hadn’t been thinking much one way or the other about the undead— until Vern came along.
I knew Vern because he was a customer at the credit union where I used to work. I had always tried to be nice to him, but it was tiresome dealing with his repetitive questions and poor social skills. When I spotted him that morning in his wrinkled plaid shirt and mustard-stained khaki pants, I didn’t immediately think of PRISA, because Vern didn’t fit the typical undead profile. He looked the way he always looked, maybe slightly worse, lurching along the sidewalk with a book in one hand and a Speedy-Mart coffee cup in the other— the local branch library and the convenience store were his two regular hangouts.
I was on the way to the library myself and came up behind Vern as he approached the front desk. He plopped down a book of baseball statistics and splashed coffee over a display of promotional bookmarks. “I know this book is overdue,” he said to Katya, the librarian. “If I pay the fine, can I renew it?”
He fished around in his shirt pocket, dislodging a couple of Speedy-Mart mustard packets, and took out a battered library card. I had to move out of range of his odor —even more pungent than usual— with a new undertone of rotten eggs. Katya leaned back with a grimace. “That’s OK, Vern, never mind the fine. Just take the book.”
Vern didn’t move. “But it’s overdue.”
“Really, just keep it.”
Then it came to me as Vern gathered his things: a couple of months earlier I had seen his obituary. I turned to Katya in astonishment. “Vern, undead? Has anyone called the PRISA hotline?” By then, it was common knowledge that most undead had been clever, charismatic people with a grand passion who died unexpectedly without fulfilling an ambitious goal— definitely not how we thought of Vern.
At the time, we considered the problem of the undead solved, thanks to our very own scientists at the state university, who had developed PRISA the previous year. Who would have thought the actions of a local six-year-old would inspire such an important advance? We all knew the story: Evie Teixeira, on a family visit to Swan Point Cemetery, had wandered over to the grave of a local politician who died in a car accident soon after winning a controversial election. As Evie played near his headstone, he loomed over her. “I deserve to be mayor,” he said. “I almost had the key to this city.”
Evie told researchers later that she was worried about the man because he looked tired and sick. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a rainbow-colored diary with a tiny gold-plated lock and key. “You can have mine,” she said, putting the key in his discolored hand. She pointed at the ground. “Somebody looks sleepy. I think it’s time for somebody to take a nap.” As Evie’s terrified family ran toward her, the undead politician smiled and sank into his grave. He was never seen again.
Evie’s story reached some researchers at the university and it gave them the idea to develop PRISA —the Positive Re-interment Imagery and Symbolic Appeasement protocol— which usually coaxed the undead person back into the grave within a few days.
But Vern was another story, Katya told me. Vern seemed to have plenty of small obsessions, but no sign of a high-profile, unfulfilled ambition that was causing stress and exhaustion. The PRISA specialist learned that he had worked in the mailroom of a jewelry manufacturer, never missed a day of work, and had taken an early retirement package. He lived alone. After an upstairs tenant called his landlady about a terrible smell, the EMTs broke in and found Vern’s body. Apparently, he had died of a heart attack.
The specialist had been unable to locate any symbolic appeasement object. Vern’s sister, who had cleared out Vern’s apartment, turned over things he might have picked up on impulse from a discount bin— unopened packages of ballpoint pens, half a dozen cheap compact umbrellas, five-dollar sets of screwdrivers still stapled to their display cards. Katya contributed the kind of items Vern would check out— books about sports and animal DVDs. The Speedy-Mart manager authorized a daily ration of a hot dog, a cup of coffee, and a newspaper, along with a supply of mustard packets, which Vern used to scoop up by the handful and stuff in his pockets. Vern seemed pleased with the offerings. His usual response to the suggestion of returning to Swan Point Cemetery was, “Oh, OK.” And he would disappear. But the next day, he would be back at the library or the Speedy-Mart.
By the middle of May, the neighborhood was in an uproar. Vern, being dead, couldn’t consume any food or drink from the Speedy-Mart. He would stow the hot dogs in his pockets, where they would rot, and he would put the coffee down and spill it everywhere he went. He smelled so bad that the librarians and Speedy-Mart employees resorted to putting out bowls of potpourri and burning incense. Local businesses demanded that city officials do something: Vern was driving away customers.
He also kept trying to go back to his apartment, which had been sanitized and de-odorized by a crime-scene cleaning company, then refurbished and repainted. Tenants were trying to break their leases, and the frantic landlady was making life miserable for the mayor’s office. The residents who opposed PRISA got louder. Rumors started to spread that national leaders, always more skeptical of PRISA than our town, were taking notice.
My old boss Bruce, the manager of the Hope Street credit union branch, called me and asked if I would be willing to come back and work part-time— there had been a lot of turnover. I guessed that Vern had been showing up. Sure enough, my first day back, as I was replenishing flyers about a new checking account, I saw Vern out at the ATM, trying to jam his debit card into the wrong slot. In the four years I worked there when Vern was alive, he had never figured out how to swipe the card. I walked over, gagging at the smell. Vern turned to me. “There’s something wrong with this card.”
“Hi, Vern,” I said. “You know, your account has been closed, because . . . well, because of your . . . condition.”
“Oh, no! My account has been closed? Where will my social security check get deposited? And I need to get a hot dog and pay my rent.”
“I’m sorry to say you won’t be getting social security anymore, but the good news is, you don’t need any money! You’re getting free hot dogs and coffee from Speedy-Mart. And you’ve . . . sort of moved out of your apartment, remember? There’s someone else living there now.”
“What?! Where am I supposed to live?”
I remembered some techniques from listening to the PRISA folks on TV. “You could go back to your plot at Swan Point. It’s so cozy. I wish I had such a pretty, peaceful home.”
“Oh, OK. I guess you’re right.”
A week and a half went by and Vern did not appear anywhere in the neighborhood. The neighbors and local business owners were ecstatic. The PRISA specialist stopped by to thank me and update her report. “Just goes to show you, we should always consult local people about the right symbolic appeasement object,” she said. “That was clever, persuading your undead subject to wait in the grave for a delivery. We’ll have to think about how to put that in the protocol.”
Truth be told, I did not enjoy the attention. The more I thought about it, the more ashamed I was of misleading Vern. I wasn’t so sure he was gone, either— it hadn’t been ten business days. I went to Bruce. “I need to drop off some checks at Vern’s grave, like I said I would.”
“Why? Just let him wait forever.”
“I wouldn’t feel right,” I said. “I promised him I would do it. Anyway, if I don’t, he’ll probably just show up here again. How about if I take a few blank temporary checks? They say the undead can’t tell the difference between a symbolic thing and a real thing.”
“Fine, but if that doesn’t work, don’t waste any more time with this PRISA nonsense. I always said it made more sense to blow them to bits.”
I picked up a temporary check kit and stopped by my house to cut some lilacs from my garden. At Swan Point, I found Vern’s simple granite marker and stopped for a moment to think about what his life must have been like. People hadn’t been very nice to him. I had never ridiculed him like some others, but I had mostly just avoided him. Our community prided itself on our friendliness— but surely we could have done better by Vern. I laid down the lilacs and tucked the checks underneath. “Here you go, Vern,” I said. “Just like I promised.”
After a few more Vern-less days, people were starting to call me a hero, which made me uncomfortable. Then, on Friday near closing time, I heard the other teller’s shrill cry, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” There was Vern at her window, waving the temporary checks at her.
“These checks have something wrong with them. They don’t have my name and address or my account number.”
Bruce barged out of his office, his face bright red. “Get out!” he yelled at Vern. “You’re fucking dead! Why do you keep coming back here?”
Vern turned to Bruce and held out the checks. “There are only three checks. Usually they come in a box.”
Bruce knocked Vern’s arm aside. “You fat zombie moron, you don’t need checks— go back to your grave and leave us alone!” He shoved Vern across the lobby, pushed him out the front entrance, and left him sprawled on the sidewalk. Then he slammed the sliding glass door shut and locked it. “Quick, everyone out the back,” he barked, and I’m embarrassed to say that the other teller and I followed him without a word. We sprinted to our cars and sped out of the parking lot. As I turned onto Hope Street, I could see Vern still lying on the sidewalk, struggling to get up, his eyes virtually popping out of his head with the strain, and all the pedestrians crossing the street to avoid him.
The main office decided to close the Hope Street branch until further notice and reassign the staff. I told Bruce I wasn’t going back and spent most of my time reading and tending my garden. A week went by with no Vern. I felt worse and worse about the shabby way we had treated him.
My daughter came up from Fall River with my eight-year-old grandson Cody. Like many children his age, Cody was interested in the new field of undead science. He wanted to go to an open house on the topic at the Maris Findlay Elementary School, where Evie Teixeira, now in third grade, was something of a celebrity. The PRISA Institute had even invited her to attend the inaugural conference of AURA— the American Undead Research Association.
Evie had her own booth at the open house and was telling a local TV news team that when she grew up, she wanted to be a scientist and work at the PRISA Institute. Cody ran off to meet her. I walked by three fifth-graders explaining PRISA to a group of parents, gesturing at a tri-fold presentation board from their recent science fair.
I stopped in front of a table with brochures from AURA and a tent sign, “Atypical Undead Research Project.” Behind the table, a young man in a lab coat introduced himself as Dr. Jamal Sykes, head of research at the PRISA Institute. Beside him was a young woman called Leticia Peña from the Maris Findlay Foundation. I was interested to hear from Dr. Sykes that his researchers had interviewed undead subjects in other communities and identified a small number —3.7 percent, to be exact— who, like Vern, did not respond to PRISA. “Developing an interview protocol for the undead was a little challenging,” Dr. Sykes said. “It’s hard to keep them focused on the questions. And it took a while for our Institutional Research Board to approve the study, since they didn’t agree on whether the undead were ‘human subjects.’ But, we’ve made some progress.”
First, he said, the research confirmed that the more-typical undead had enjoyed success and power in their lifetimes, but at a high cost of stress and exhaustion, and they had failed at some major goal before dying. Although it was tricky to manage typicals, since they sometimes became violent, once you hit on the right approach, they were gone forever. “But in the former lives of atypicals like your Vern Fronk, we more often found hardship and social isolation,” Dr. Sykes continued. “They aren’t as easily fooled by symbolic offerings. The idea of rest doesn’t seem to appeal to them. They never get violent. They just keep trying to go back to familiar places and hang out with the living.”
Leticia Peña spoke up. “That’s where the Findlay Foundation comes in.” The foundation’s mission, she explained, was to improve community life. Lately, they had become interested in the plight of the atypical undead and the communities that didn’t know how to deal with them. The foundation had discovered a possible answer. “We started giving stipends to community people who were willing to spend time with the atypicals and treat them with empathy.” She looked at me like she was expecting something. To my surprise, she added, “Actually, I think you would make a great caseworker.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said. “Surely you have experts who know much more than I do.”
“See, that’s the thing,” said Leticia. “The researchers laid the theoretical groundwork, but the most effective caseworkers are the community people who know and care about the undead. You seem to have established a personal connection with Vern. If you don’t help him feel comfortable enough to rest in his grave, who will?”
I thought about what it would be like to come back undead myself, stinking of rotten eggs, butting into my book club discussions, intruding on the new owners of my house, or trying to give Cody a hug as he struggled to escape. I ended up agreeing to be an atypical-undead caseworker, with Vern as my first assigned client.
I asked my friend Rosalie, who owned the flower shop next to the credit union, to let me know if Vern showed up again, and before long, she called. I found Vern trying to swipe his debit card to open the door. “Vern, remember me? Grace, from the credit union. This branch is closed. Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, it’s a good thing you’re here. I don’t think these checks will work. I need to pay a library fine and get something to eat.”
I knew I wouldn’t convince him that he didn’t have to pay the fine. Since becoming his caseworker, I had thought about other approaches, and I had already talked to Katya and the Speedy-Mart manager. “I guarantee you the checks are good,” I said. “Let’s go to the library right now and pay that fine.”
Katya had a hard time keeping a straight face while Vern painstakingly tore off one of the temporary checks and made it out for $13.70. But she thanked Vern and assured him that he was all squared away with the library now. She even pulled out a DVD about how German shepherds were trained to be service dogs. “This just came in,” she said. “I’ve been saving it for you.”
Next, we went to the Speedy-Mart, where I looked the manager in the eye and firmly said, “Vern would like to pay you for that $299.99 special you were advertising of a year’s supply of hot dogs, coffee, and newspapers.” It hadn’t been easy to convince the manager that this was the best solution, but he finally agreed to play along. Vern made out the check, asking a couple of times for confirmation of the exact amount. In the memo line, he wrote the date, a year later, when the deal would expire. We walked out with a hot dog, a cup of coffee, and the local paper.
“I’d like to go back to my apartment to watch that DVD,” Vern said. I hadn’t anticipated this problem— the last thing we needed was to give the angry new tenants more reason to make trouble. My first reaction was to blurt, “You can come over to my house to watch it,” not thinking about the smell. When we got to my house, I opened a couple of windows and spread a plastic tablecloth over the couch. The smell was overwhelming, but after a while, it didn’t bother me as much. The DVD was actually pretty interesting. Vern told me about the German shepherd called Scout that his family had when he was a child, more than fifty years earlier.
After that, Vern would come over to my house once or twice a week. He seemed to have forgotten about his apartment and the checks. Sometimes, we watched DVDs together; sometimes, we read the paper. Sometimes, Cody joined us when he was visiting. I began to actually enjoy Vern’s company and his stories about his childhood. I found myself looking forward to his visits.
According to the Findlay Foundation, it usually took about three months of kindness and offerings of simple, everyday things to make the atypicals comfortable enough to return to the grave. As the end of summer approached, more and more time passed between each of Vern’s appearances, and he seemed almost ready to return to Swan Point permanently. I felt that I was close to succeeding with my first case.
Then, we had a setback. Some of my neighbors objected to my being a caseworker; they said Vern’s visits would bring down their property values. One day when I wasn’t home, Vern showed up at my house. My next-door neighbor went after him with a shovel, and Vern disappeared; I went around to all his regular spots, but I couldn’t find him.
That same day, Leticia Peña called me. She wanted to assign me another client— a woman called Trudy, said to be a hoarder, who had recently died of complications from diabetes. Leticia had learned from Katya that when Trudy was alive, she had spent long hours at the branch library researching a behavior modification theory popular several decades ago called general semantics, which Trudy insisted would make the human race more rational. She was now hounding her former landlord, who had thrown her belongings in a dumpster, including her complete collection of the writings of Alfred Korzybski. As Leticia filled in more details, I started to think seriously about leaving the Findlay program. When I first signed up, I hadn’t bargained on having more cases than I could handle, especially if it were someone I didn’t know. I didn’t even seem to be making any progress with Vern.
And I was already having doubts about the program. I had noticed more and more people who looked like they might be future clients —people living in tents under the bridge, people asking for money at traffic lights, people pushing grocery carts of belongings around the neighborhood— people struggling, people in need. Maybe our community wasn’t as welcoming as we thought.
“Wouldn’t it be better to meet these people’s needs before they die and come back undead?” I asked Leticia. She said the foundation had other programs to fund community groups that support the living; of course, it was up to me to decide where I could contribute most, but it had been especially hard for the foundation to recruit atypical undead caseworkers.
When I thought about all the unsolved problems and people in distress, even just in our town, it seemed overwhelming. But, I didn’t want to abandon Vern after all he had been through. I told Leticia I wasn’t ready to take on a second case— I wanted to make sure I could reconnect with Vern.
A couple of days after the incident with the shovel, I found him at his old apartment, rattling and yanking the doorknob. “Vern, please come back to my house,” I said. “This is your community, too, and you’re my guest. My neighbor doesn’t have any right to chase you away.”
“I don’t want to go back there,” Vern said, his face twisting into a frown. “That guy next door to you is mean. Look what he did to me.” He lifted up his right arm, and I saw that there was a chunk missing just above the elbow.
“Then come walk with me,” I said. “We need to talk.”
As we walked, I tried to explain to Vern that there was no way he would be able to live in his apartment or have a bank account again. “But what about the checks you gave me to pay the library fine and the Speedy-Mart?” he said. I admitted that they weren’t real, and he was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, “I knew there was something wrong with those checks.”
“The librarian and the Speedy-Mart manager and I all wanted you to be happy, so we fibbed a bit,” I said. “We owe you an apology for that. But it’s really past time for you to go back to Swan Point. Sort of like returning an overdue library book.”
“But I don’t have what I need to stay in Swan Point.”
I realized that none of us had ever actually asked Vern what he wanted— we had just assumed we had to trick him. “Tell me what you need, and I’ll try to get it,” I said.
“Well, I need a DVD player and a TV and some DVDs, and a couch to sit on while I watch them, and a pan to make hot dogs in. Also, I’d like to have Scout with me.”
“But those things won’t fit in your grave,” I said. “And Scout has been dead for a while. Is there something else we could do?”
“I guess you could give me photos,” he said. “People gave me a lot of stuff, but I couldn’t take most of it back to the cemetery anyway.”
And that was the breakthrough we needed to get Vern back to Swan Point. He and I made a list of everything he thought he would need, and we cut pictures out of magazines and put them in a small plastic folder. I looked through the box of his belongings that Vern’s sister had given the PRISA specialist and found an old photo of a German shepherd, which Vern confirmed was the family dog Scout from his childhood. We got permission from the cemetery to dig into Vern’s plot and slide in the folder of photos.
The last time I saw Vern was on a gorgeous day in mid-September. “The cemetery will be beautiful this time of year, with all the leaves turning and chrysanthemums blooming and migrating birds passing through,” I said. “I hope you’ll be happy there. Are you sure you have everything you need?”
“Yes. Thanks. You’re a nice lady.”
I found myself starting to choke up. “I’ll miss you, Vern,” I said. “Can I give you a hug?” By this time, I barely even noticed his rotten egg smell.
“Oh, OK,” he said. After we shared a quick hug, he held out his library card and debit card. “These were in my pocket when they buried me. I guess I won’t need them anymore.”
“I’d be honored to keep them to remember you by. Can I visit you at Swan Point sometimes?”
“Oh, OK, that would be nice,” he said. And that was the last I saw of Vern Fronk.
I went to the Findlay Foundation office the next day, and Leticia closed Vern’s case. “You did an awesome job,” she said. “Some of the other caseworkers have struggled a bit, and they’ve found the lessons from Vern’s case very helpful.” She handed me a manila envelope labeled “Vern Fronk Final Report.” I took Vern’s library card and debit card out of my purse and slipped them inside the envelope.
“So,” I said, “If you’re still looking for a caseworker for Trudy, I guess I’m up for that. Maybe later, you could tell me about some of your other programs.”
Leticia smiled. “I’ll start the paperwork.”