“A shovel is never not useful.”
The phrase has been stuck my head for days like a nasty ad jingle or 80’s rock anthem. I’ll forget my bank account number or even my wife’s birthday, but I immediately recall the meaningless phrase my Walking Dead character utters when discovering a shovel.
I think it’s the playful double negative; it delays your reaction to your discovery. A shovel is not particularly valuable, but in a zombie apocalypse it’s very handy. It’s the towel of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the lembas bread of the Elves.
The shovel allows the player to dig up a dead dog. A macabre yet clever puzzle that involves opening a remote controlled doggy door. It comes in handy later when burying the little boy you found in the attic who starved to death. Shooting his little zombie brain brings closure to a father who couldn’t kill his own infected son. The player has the option of saving the family the horror of euthanizing Duck. As the end game statistics suggested, a majority of people, myself included, chose this path in the branching storyline.
I didn’t know what this meant, if it meant anything at all.
Yet, watching the childless man weep, a shaking finger brushing the trigger pointed at a miniature emaciated zombie, I knew this was something he needed to do himself. It wasn’t fear or survival or even self-defense that killed the zombie boy: it was mercy.
The game is teaching me sympathy for the undead.My character speaks, “Send him on his way.”
I don’t know if zombies have any recollection of their former lives. Most evidence suggests there’s nothing left of the mind or memories, nothing that creates a person. They are unthinking prisoners, trapped by death, slaves to a single desire for the living.These thoughts come upon me suddenly. I release the mouse and keyboard to hastily jot notes to myself. Without pausing the game, the soundtrack loops the din of zombie hoards as I write.
I stop writing and listen. The menace of their moaning and crying fades even as I listen to the background track; it is the sound of human torture.
Thinking of death, I remember my grandfather. I watch myself pour dirt on his casket and it eases the ache. My Jewish Studies professor told us the ancient Israelites believed burying a loved one was the highest honor you could bestow. It’s a gesture and a service they can never repay. It’s humbling because we can never bury ourselves, and suddenly I am overcome with a feeling of complete vulnerability. No one likes to ask for help.
When I bury the boy in the attic, it’s out of respect, honoring not what the boy has become, but what he used to be, what he still can claim: here was a human being.
If we cannot see that, we soon lose sight of the humanness in the old, the weak and the young as the band of Crawfords have. The group of survivors holed up behind high walls, throwing out the weak members and anyone deigned a liability. They see only enemies, unable to recognize the traces of humanity. And if we can’t recognize it in others, how can we claim to see it in ourselves?
I go back to dump another shovelful of dirt on my grandpa Sukkau’s casket, and another, more than is required to complete the gesture. I took my time; I felt the weight of the dirt and kept going until I felt the sweat bead on my hairline. Because for me it’s not about saying goodbye, it’s my last chance to help this man I so rarely took the time to serve. It was my final gift for someone I loved yet never thought to show it. I’m glad there was more than one shovel.
A shovel is never not useful.