By Nancy Pica Renken
The groaning jangled my nerves and perspiration drenched my apron. With shaking hands, knocking knees, and all 120 pounds of me barricaded against the oaken door, the bolts made a discordant, metallic zing before the hefty door splintered and gave way. Life was not fair. I was set to graduate from culinary school when the zombie apocalypse struck. I had stayed behind to lock up at Louie’s Cajun Café, my night job, when the undead broke through. A shuffling band of ragtag dead staggered like the living drunk across the tile, shedding strips of pungent flesh, emitting a stench like decayed grapefruit.
“Feed. Us!” Discordant chanting assailed my eardrums as I cringed away from the unwashed horde advancing on the New Orleans-themed restaurant. Its facade resembled the pink, yellow, and blue row houses on Bourbon Street, complete with French windows and wrought-iron balconies overlooking the bar. Soothing pastels laced with Southern charm, the restaurant was never designed to play host to foul, unkempt, cemetery rot.
A grey, pallid, hulkish form knocked over an enormous, stuffed, blinged-out Mardi Gras alligator that stood sentinel next to the wait stand. The grey hulk then towered over me, the fetid aroma of rotting meat and unwashed socks assaulting my nostrils. It caught one of its remaining fingers on the gold, purple, and green necklaces worn by the alligator. The rotted finger ripped completely off. The grey hulk appeared not to have noticed, but I flinched, feeling nausea swilling my stomach as I recoiled from the outstretched hand with three, filthy, remaining fingers that seemed to be grasping for my jaw.
“No! Please, no!”
“You. Have. Brains?” Moaned the one-eyed, one-armed humanoid.
“Yes, but I’d like to keep them.” My words tumbled out in a high-pitched, ragged squeak.
It rolled the one, bloodshot eye it had left at me until it, too, fell out of its socket.The blank, spectral gaze neither recoiled nor left my face. “Use. Them. Feed. Us!”
All my dreams and aspirations flashed before me in vivid hues of a pink-and-orange-sherbet sunset. This was it. The end of the world as I knew it. But wait. Use them? They’re not after my literal brain. They’re patrons who just want a good meal!
“W-what would you-you like?”
“Something. To. Die. For.”
The ungainly compatriots, with ashen pallor and maggoty flesh, wore the tattered remains of funereal suits and dresses as though attired for a grisly, All-Spooks ball. These somber, grunting, ghastly forms lost an arm here, a leg there, as they loped with unbending knees over to the interior patio, slumping into wrought-iron tables and chairs. There, my patrons awaited their fete, flanked with overhanging baskets of lush ferns, mason-jarred candles flickering and emanating warmth, and blown-glass vases of pink roses and baby’s breath towering like queens over the crystal salt-and-pepper shakers.
A half-baked idea took shape as I kneaded dough to fashion the crisp crust and delicate, fluffy center of our signature French bread. I pivoted and fired up the stove, cooking as if my life depended on it. My killer remoulade sauce had a delicate balance of chervil, tarragon, chives, parsley, and a special ingredient I found in the maintenance closet. The po’ boys, nestled in freshly-baked French bread, had crunchy, golden-brown shrimp dredged in a mixture of flour and cornmeal, lightly dressed in zesty remoulade, with crisp, shredded lettuce, garden-grown tomatoes, and pickles. The crawfish etouffee, perfectly smothered in a roux crafted with the Cajun, Holy Trinity of bell pepper, celery, and onion, blended with garlic and hot sauce, was made to please the unholy ghosts impatiently mucking about in their seats.
But would the soul-satisfying heat and spicy, mouthwatering flavors of my slow-bubbling shrimp jambalaya raise even more dead with its chili-pepper aroma wafting out the open kitchen window and down the avenue? I bit my hangnail as I considered my choices, listening to the increasingly cacophonous groaning and shuffling of the testy, restless spirits in the next room. I certainly didn’t need any additional undead banging down my doors, begging for my cooking! Oh, well. Too late to change plans now, I shrugged, barging through the double kitchen doors with my large, balanced silver tray heaped with steaming plates on delicate white doilies.
Lastly, I brought them my gumbo, the café favorite, a blending of French, Spanish, Native American, and African cultures in a melting pot teeming with slowly-simmered okra, dried sassafras leaves, golden-brown roux, tender chicken, spicy andouille, and more of that special ingredient…
They drooled and gnawed away, making monster-mashing noises, and I ignored their poor table manners and the festering, damp-earthworm stink.
“Best. Meal. Alive. Or. Dead!” The hulkish leader grunted,crumpling over and expiring at the table, dissolving into grey dust and trickling, pinkish ooze.
One by one, they finished their feast and expired, leaving an unholy, putrescent mess that dripped through the tables, pooling and solidifying into a pinkish-grey, greasy goo as thick as molasses.
My cooking sated them, releasing their spirits into the great unknown! Crouched in a corner, my drenched shirt sticking to the wall, I toasted them with a shaking hand and expensive French wine as Mr. Louie, the owner, a short, balding, grey-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses, rushed in, tripped over a seeping carcass, and appraised me and the macabre scene between us.
“My God! What did you feed these—people? You killed them!”
Maniacal laughter bubbled over into gold-brown relief, smothered in a roux of hysteria. My head leaned back against the wall, and my shoulders unclenched as I stifled a yawn. Too deliriously happy to be alive to care, I sipped my Pinot Noir, looking him straight in the eye:
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”