by Kristen Simental
“Nicer Than a Gold Watch and Easier to Get, Too” appears in Issue Two Spring 2021
I want to take a look at “Nicer Than a Gold Watch and Easier to Get, Too” by Stephen Kyo Kaczmarek because, to me, it’s the one least like the others. In our big content meeting, I remember pushing for this one because it’s funny. Even though this story has grim subject matter, it falls into the Shawn of the Dead category of dark comedies. It’s not meant to be scary or gruesome. It’s intended to make you laugh, and dear God, we need that right now. This last season, the themes in our slush ranged from dark and sad to nostalgic and painful. Literature is a reflection of the times and how we’re collectively feeling. 2020 was the worst year ever, and our slush is a mirror of that pain.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life. The most painful so far was my Dad’s in 2007. I noticed that even though everyone was beside themselves with grief, we couldn’t help but laugh, tell jokes, remember funny things he said or did. Laugh, cry. Cry, laugh. It’s human nature to laugh during dark times. We build up all this pressure, and it has to release somehow. Laughter is the best medicine.
From the very first sentence, Kaczmarek uses the word, “deceasedly” and I thought, “OK. Let’s see where this is going.” Merriam-Webster might take offense at the word, but it’s already telling me about the character. What it’s telling me, I don’t know yet, but I want to find out. It’s either a bold choice or poor writing skills. Either way, I’m intrigued enough to keep reading.
The zombies rattle the high school’s doors or as close to it as something deceasedly lackadaisical can. Mostly, they’re just bumping into one another.
Kaczmarek has me at “Mostly, they’re just bumping into one another.” It’s clear from the first paragraph this piece isn’t taking itself too seriously. It’s not trying to be Night of the Living Dead or World War Z. I especially loved the deadpan responses of our heroine, a blue-haired economics teacher, unfazed by the end of the world because she’s clearly seen worse. “Nicer Than a Gold Watch…” ends on a scene where the old lady peels out in a ’71 silver Mustang. It feels like the ending of an epic movie. You can just imagine the tires spitting gravel and the dust cloud forming behind her as she heads out into a dead world. Go, grandma, go! Cue squealing guitar, roll credits.
This isn’t to say some of our other fiction pieces aren’t funny. “No Cure” and “I (Palm Tree) Los Angeles” are funny in different ways. Both of those stories touch on current subject matters using the language of the now. “Nicer Than a Gold Watch” is an old, but familiar trope. Kaczmarek tells us the world is ending without telling us the world is ending. It’s as much a reflection of the times as stories about politics, racial inequality, or police brutality without being on-the-nose or soapboxing. Good stories do this. They use the art of analogy to convey their message. Human beings are wired for story. It’s how we learn, but not every story has to have a message. Some stories only have to make you laugh and take you away from doom-scrolling for a minute. We need the release.
It’s interesting to note that this was the only zombie piece we received all season. You know why? As a writer myself, I can tell you why: I’d be afraid to write (or submit) a zombie story because I don’t think anyone would take it seriously. It’s such a tired trope. But it’s not. The fact that The Walking Dead is still on the air after ten seasons tells you people might never get tired of zombies. Good or bad, zombies are here to stay. Naturally, the zombie is always us, right? How many times have you felt like a zombie this last year? After months and months of being locked up with my husband, when I got onto a Zoom for the Los Angles Review of Books Publishing Workshop in July 2020, I felt like I’d lost all my social skills. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I was a zombie.
At the end of the day, I love this story because it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It took me away from my troubles, which is what good story is all about. Go grandma, go!