Recount of the Living Dead

Chicago politicians have never scrupled to do their campaigning at wakes. Until recently, however, they restricted themselves to other people’s wakes.

That all changed at the end of last October. Fittingly, it was Halloween, when the barrier between the living and dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. Trick-or-treaters abounded in the streets, and then people started noticing that some of the trick-or-treaters, though apparently costumed and made up, were not children. They walked stiffly, spoke gratingly, and seemed unable to figure out what to do with their treats. And when the children and their chaperones went home, these other masqueraders continued to wander in the streets until dawn.

The sunshine drove them undercover. Some of them banged on doors, others wandered into basements and places of business, under bridges and into tunnels.

Some of them fell into an uneasy slumber on stacks of the morning newspapers, sprawled across the headline “TWO LEGENDS PASS.” The two legends, both of whom had gone to their eternal reward late on Halloween night, were the Reverend Dr. Cleotas Theophrastus Jefferson, Jr., pastor of the Truth and Deliverance Cathedral and founder of Operation PULL (People United for Love and Leadership), and Edwin M. Nosferatu, Alderman of the 61st Ward and unofficial leader of Chicago’s white ethnic community.

By late that afternoon, the Reverend was being waked at Mamie Raney’s Funeral Home and Cosmetology School, and Nosferatu at Voinovich’s Mortuary. Most of Chicago’s eminent citizens, from university presidents to police chiefs, from cardinals to chefs, poured out to pay their respects to each decedent in turn, forming long lines of double- and triple-parked limos, pickup trucks, and stretch SUVs in the shabby neighborhood streets.

Emerson Trueblood, one of the City News Bureau’s new stringers, slipped into Rainey’s with the crowd and found himself a corner by the door where he could take down the names of the guests and note any peculiarities of the demeanor and interactions. Protocol required them to work their way to the front of the room to shake hands with the widow, Sheila, Cleotas III (popularly known as Threebie), the Reverend Dr. Desiree, and Mohammed (“Mo”), the family outcast. “So sorry for your loss,” they would say. The response, always, was “Thank you for coming.” It went on like that for nearly an hour, until the room had filled up and all the handshaking was pretty much over. Then Threebie stepped up beside the open casket, cleared his throat, and tuned up his solid bass voice with, “ Brothers and sisters, ladies and gennumen…” The talking and milling around stopped. People who could find seats took them. “Our family wants to thank you all for coming to comfort us in our time of sorrow. In my father’s life, you were his friends, and now…”

No one was looking at him. No one was listening. They were all staring at a point directly to the right of Threebie’s right hand. When he realized it, he stopped orating and followed their eyes. Followed their eyes to his father’s casket, where the late Reverend Dr. C.T. Jefferson Jr. was sitting bolt upright and clearing his throat.

“Brothers and sisters, ladies and gennumen,” he said. “It gives me great pleasure to see you all here today in my honor. Unaccustomed as I am to speaking from this position,” awkwardly he climbed out of the casket and stood beside his son, who, like every other living person in the room, was struck speechless. “Threebie, what in hell was I doing in that casket?”

It was the City News Bureau stringer who had the presence of mind to answer, “You were dead, Reverend. Heart attack, allegedly.”

The Reverend thought about that, then felt for his pulse, unsuccessfully. He held out his wrist to Threebie, who had no better luck. “Halleluyah!” he said, finally. “I b’lieve I am dead. Praise the Lord!”

Trueblood, who knew a good story when he saw it, stepped up to the front of the room, switched on his pocket tape recorder, and said, “Reverend, now that you’ve risen from the dead, what are your plans?”

The Reverend raised his arms. “I b’lieve the Lord has a plan for me. I b’lieve He means for me to overcome the forces of hatred and reaction and greed just as He has enabled me to overcome death. It ain’t ev’y day a man rises from the dead. But I am not considering a run for the presidency.” Trueblood clicked off his tape recorder, ran outside, and phoned the Bureau.

When he got back to the office, the security at the front desk was watching the news. A sleek blonde reporter was asking a tightly corseted middle-aged woman dressed in black, “Mrs. Nosferatu, how did you feel when your husband sat up in his casket?”

It was now two days before the election. The Reverend’s disclaimer of any plans to run for president seemed untimely at best. But that evening, the ragtag assemblage of trick-or-treaters swelled, and it became apparent that the two politicians were only the most noticeable of the revenants. They filled the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill. The police tried arresting them, but were stymied by the fact that none of them (except an occasional dog-tagged veteran) carried I.D., and most of them were unresponsive to questioning. It was the same, apparently, all over the country. The dead were returning, and making a complete nuisance of themselves.

At midnight, the police commissioner held a press conference. Emerson Trueblood was one of the few reporters present, mainly because he had walked all the way from 87th and Lafayette, rather than trying to drive through the horde of decedents. So he had a front row seat for a change, when the commissioner announced, “We are consulting our legal staff for a determination of what measures of restraint and detention are constitutionally appropriate upon subjects who are strictly speaking, ah, deceased.”

“Are we talking about cannibalism here?” asked the commisioner’s driver, apple-cheeked Officer Mary Jane Piatek, tremulously.

The reporters all moved closer, goggling. The commissioner growled, “Hell, no, Officer Piatek, we’re talking about aggravated jaywalking. If you don’t stop watching those late night horror movies, I’m gonna put you back on the swing shift.”

Trueblood, whose journalistic background leaned more to politics than to crime, asked, “Has your office considered contacting some of their leadership?”

“Leadership?” said the commissioner, too frazzled to continue in police report English. “What the hell kind of leadership are you talking about?”

“Sorry, sir, I thought you knew. C.T. Jefferson and Ed Nosferatu both—ah—resurrected yesterday.”

“Holy flogging crullers, why doesn’t anybody tell me anything!” The commissioner sent his harried assistants off in search of various contact people, and then belatedly declared the press conference over.

The morning news aired nothing of that press conference. It did, however, carry an early-morning press conference from Mamie Raney’s banquet hall. C.T. Jefferson and Ed Nosferatu sat side by side at the main table, the very picture of multicultural amity. Ed spoke first. “I’m glad youse could be here today to see this historic moment. Hell, I’m glad I could be here. The Reverend and I has had a coupla hours to talk, and we discovered we got a lot more in common now than we ever did before. From what they’re tellin’ us, dead people are comin’ back at the rate of thousands every hour, all over the country. Some bean-counter at U. of I. says that dead people make up more than half the adult population of the U.S. Some of you out there, listenin’ to us now, are probably dead. If you can hear us, pay attention. Quit hangin’ out and millin’ around in the street. Come down here, to 87th and Lafayette, and meet us. We wanna represent you. It don’t matter who you was when you was alive. The Reverend and I wouldna give each other the tima day back when we was alive. But now, we see how important it is for us to work togedda for the good of all of us dead Americans. So now I’m gonna turn the mike over to my good friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. C.T. Jefferson.”

He sat down, looking more modest and humble than he ever had in life, and the Reverend stood and gave the speech that may well be remembered for decades. “Brothers and sisters, my dear friends among the deceased all over the country, we speak to you from Chicago, a city that has pioneered in furthering the civil rights of the dead. Our fair city has a hallowed tradition of fairness toward deceased Americans.

“Brothers an’ sisters, we are the majority of voting-age Americans. We have the wisdom of the ages at our fingertips, we speak from the perspective of centuries. You are entitled, we are entitled, to choose our own leadership.

“The professional live politicians will deplore and decry our movement. Their veins pulse with the denial of our rights. They will point to the primaries and conventions that have already chosen the official candidates, and they will say, ‘These, and only these, are the men you can vote for.’ They may even point to you, and say, ‘Only the living may vote. Only the living may run for office. Only to them belong the sacred rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But we, my brothahs and sistahs, know bettah. Do we not pay taxes, and therefore are we not entitled to representation? Do we not have eyes and ears, most of us anyway? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you diss us, shall we not revenge?

“And so, brothers and sisters, we ask you, my friend Ed and I, to give us the privilege of representing your interests in the halls of power. On November 4th, two days from now, go to your polling place, and cast your write-in votes for Ed and I.

“The living have had their chance at running the country. What have they brought us? Greed and poverty, hatred and misery! It’s our turn now. It’s time to give death a chance. Brothers and sisters all over America, I ask you to rise up, from Old North Churchyard in the East to Forest Lawn in the West, from Arlington to Graceland, from sea to shinin’ sea, gathah yourselves togethah and proclaim with one voice, ‘I was somebody! I was somebody! I was somebody!’”

The rest, of course, is history. Jefferson and Nosferatu were elected by the largest vote ever cast in the US, and the largest write-in vote anywhere. The Reverend began his administration by moving White House operations to Arlington National Cemetery, and then calling a constitutional convention. Among the issues under discussion was affirmative action for minorities.

Minorities. That’s us. Mostly they’re polite. Politically correct, I guess you could say. The Reverend and Ed and their honchos would never dream of calling us “breathers.” They disown fringe groups like the ones that want to move us into holes in the ground. And the reparations nuts, who want refunds of all their inheritance taxes.

We still haven’t figured out all the implications of this mess. For a while, some of the hard-line “red-bloods” were seriously discussing overturning the election results on the grounds of fraud, just as if this was the same kind of graveyard vote we used to have, with live people usurping the votes of the dead, instead of dead people exercising their own god-given rights. But cooler heads prevailed. In fact, some of us have even learned something from the Reverend and Ed: the thing we’ve got in common—being alive—is bigger than all the ways we’re different. That’s a good start toward something, I guess.

Red Emma

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