Usually, when your average moron plummets from a warehouse catwalk into a dumpster full of sharp objects, he can think of only one thing to say:
But not me.
I fall under the category of abnormal moron.
A moron for two reasons. One, because only a moron would traverse a rickety indoor bridge with an expensive camera to capture footage of an industrial warehouse against his better judgment. And two, because I was falling towards a dumpster stocked with pointy things.
Abnormal because somehow, in a pocket of air, while kicking the emptiness and clawing at futility, I chose to be all melodramatic instead of screamy. With Zen diction, I observed:
“The most remarkable thing about my life will be my death.”
And it was this hammy commentary — this pathetic eye roll of words — that led to my friendship with Josh.
“Oh, get over yourself,” he said, appearing out of nowhere in his bathrobe and breathing a haggled sigh, which was strange because Josh has no lungs — just a well-ventilated chest cavity.
My head whirled in his direction. He flinched, looking shocked by the attention (as shocked as a face without skin could look).
I had just enough time before crashing into a smorgasbord of ouchie-wowwa shanks to say: “Huh?”
Josh had multitudes of infinite time to ponder before saying, “You can see me? But you’re still alive.” And then, “Oh, what the hell…”
He snapped his fingers.
My arms and legs jerked against their will, being posed into something that resembled an Egyptian hieroglyph. A thump! as I landed hard on a soft pillow of loose asbestos. A poof! as the disturbed asbestos became a swirling cloud all around. I coughed. I breathed. I lived.
Several suits and haircuts peered over the catwalk’s broken safety rail.
One of them said, “That shot was too fancy, anyway. Too off-brand.”
In my dumpster landing zone, spikes and glass and rebar filled the empty spaces between my legs and fingers and armpits. My right hand still clutched the camera — a bit dusty, but otherwise intact.
By some miracle, so was I.
That mysterious, involuntary (and possibly offensive) Walk-Like-an-Egyptian pose just saved my life.
Josh floated through the asbestos cloud asking, “You wanna hang out sometime?”
That night, I found him saying, “Knock-knock-knock,” while knock-knock-knocking on my front door … from inside my house.
“Oh,” was all I managed to say.
He cinched his black bathrobe tighter. “I wasn’t sure about this. It’s been a long time since I talked to anyone alive. The last one didn’t go so well.”
“Come in,” I said. “Have a seat?”
He took his time falling back onto the couch, groaning, knees cracking, moaning: “I am outta shape.” He brushed his hands against the cushions as if his bony fingers could actually feel the fabric. “Cool place. Open floor plan. Nice.”
I looked around as though I’d never seen my own house before. “Um… Do I pack anything…?”
“What?” Had he an eyebrow, it would have raised. “Oh, relax. This isn’t the end.”
“It’s not?” I slapped a hand against my chest, feeling the drumbeat of my heart. “I’m not…?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“But, you are…” I pointed at him, trying to finish, trying to recite the name that humankind has feared since Time began — Life’s Omega, the end of everyone, the big D-word.
“Call me Josh,” said Josh, standing tall, straightening his bathrobe, offering a cold hand. “Don’t worry. It’s clean.”
I shook it, then tested life with a deep breath. “I’ve got some charcuterie,” I said. “Are you hungry?”
“I don’t eat, but thanks.”
“Right.” My finger traced the slim shape of his face from a distance. “It’s the whole gaunt thing. Made me think of starving children. I’m sorry.”
He waved my sorry away. “Happens all the time. Usually right before the bargaining.”
“Does it ever work?”
“Bargaining? Never.” Josh gestured at me with a circling finger. “And what do you do?”
“I’m a freelance videographer.”
“Of weddings and such?”
I shook my head. “No, but that’s what everybody thinks at first. I do mostly corporate stuff. Recruitment videos, some TV commercials, all small-market projects. Like what local TV stations do, but more high-end.”
He nodded politely, the way you do to hide the truth: I’m bored. This was a bad idea.
I cleared my throat. “I get paid to make little movies for big companies.”
His mouth opened into what I can only assume was a smile. He said, “Oh, wow! Well, that’s remarkable.”
And his words surprised me in a way that forced a tear into the corner of my eye. I faked an itch, smearing the tear across my temple, then cleared my throat one more time. “I think I need a drink,” I said.
“Make it two!”
I blinked. “You?”
“Me!” Josh said. “I’d fucking love a bourbon… If you have some.”
“But,” looking up and down his robe, “where does it go?”
“Everywhere! Bourbon permeates the skull. Lubricates the spine. Soaks through every bone and shoos away the woe.”
“Should I get a towel?”
He laughed, sounding a bit like Popeye the Sailor Man as his jaw chomped and clacked. He gently patted my shoulder. “Let’s get that drink at a bar. I know just where to go.”
“Okay. But they might not serve you unless you put on some pants.”
Josh looked deadly serious, which is just his normal expression. He has Resting Deadly Serious Face. He said:
“No one has ever refused me.”
His thumb and index finger tapped, then snapped.
Ice cubes kissed and danced around the bottom of a rocks glass. The bartender popped the top on a bottle of Ghost Hollow and tipped it till the bourbon nearly spilled.
Josh told him, “I will send you to Hell if you hand me a cold drink.”
The ‘tender tensed and shivered. Like someone just walked over his grave. He turned to me. “Did you just say something?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I ordered those bourbons neat?”
The ‘tender peered at the lovebird ice cubes and tossed them. In fact, he threw the whole glass away. Crink-crink, SMASH! He asked, “You sure you don’t just want a double?”
“Two Ghost Hollow bourbons,” I repeated. “One for me, one for my friend. Both neat, if you please.”
The ‘tender looked at Josh, but I could tell he only saw an empty stool. He poured two neat bourbons, giving me the side-eye, and backed away.
I nodded, swallowed the juice, and asked Josh, “Where the hell are we?”
“Just wait. This’ll be fun.” Josh poured a sip in between his teeth. He kept looking around the bar. “Where is she?”
“Who?” The bar was full of cracked oak and stained glass, and smelled like ten-thousand cigarettes. There was a caged shelf proudly displaying a raccoon penis. I only know that for sure because of the loose-leaf flyer marked and arrowed with a Sharpie. Plenty of women around, but apparently not the she Josh was looking for.
I didn’t recall how we got there, or even walking in. I just remember ordering.
“What is this place?” I asked. “It smells like rot and corn.”
“Welcome to Fort Madison,” Josh said. “The land of corn and … what did you say?”
“Rot!” Josh said, raising his glass. “To rot.”
We clinked glasses. “To rot,” I echoed.
Josh tipped another sip. “So,” he said, “a while back, I got into a… I guess you’d call it one of those classic Meet-Joe-Black situations.”
My brow furrowed. “Uhhhh, like the movie?”
“I got lonely. So I borrowed a corpse. And there was a girl. We, uhhh, you know.”
“But it ended,” Josh clapped his metacarpals, “like that. I never got to say goodbye.”
“Why? Couldn’t you borrow another dead guy?”
“Icky.” He shivered. “Hey, I have a question for you. What was up with that dumb thing you said when you fell? Most people just go AAAHHHHHHHHHH!”
Josh’s fake scream not only gushed through his jaw, but also whistled out his ear holes. It freaked me right off the stool. I landed on my butt bone. Everyone in the whole raccoon-penis bar laughed at me as I climbed back up to my perch.
“Sit much?” Josh asked. He was smirking even though he had no lips.
I found this so funny that I laughed till I cried.
“Jesus,” Josh whispered, looking at everyone look at me. “Calm down.”
And then I realized it wasn’t the joke that made me cry.
I almost died today. One slip nearly locked my legacy into a punchline — pointless trivia in the seconds between conversations and food:
(“What was the name of that video-kebab guy…” they’d start rapidly snapping their fingers “…the one who fell into that warehouse booby trap? Ah! Doesn’t matter; our pizza’s here.”)
My shoulders spasmed. Tears spilled into my glass, which was now empty.
“Drink another one,” Josh hissed. “Before you embarrass me.”
I held up a finger to the ‘tender, sobbing. “Hey, eee, eye, oh, you…”
The wary ‘tender crept back and took my glass, turning to pour another round.
Josh patted my shoulder. “I know what will make you feel better. Watch this.”
He looked into the bar-back mirror, staring at the ‘tender’s reflection with vacant eye sockets — Resting Deadly Serious Face.
The ‘tender paused his pour, shivering again, probably feeling that feeling you get in an empty house … when you suspect you’re not alone. He looked up into the mirror. His eyes widened past their limits. Had they not been attached, both eyeballs would have popped out onto the rum shelf.
“Holy sheeeeeeit!” the ‘tender screamed, spinning around, seeing nothing where Josh sat. He screamed again and ran for the door. “I saw him! Damn Reaper in the mirror! Black cloak and bone! Lookin’ at me! Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, sheeeeeeeeeeit!”
He sheeeeeeit’d himself all the way out of Iowa. Josh went behind the bar and brought the bottle of Ghost Hollow. “Feel better?”
“What was that?” I asked, wiping my eyes.
“That,” Josh told me, “is all I got unless you’re dead. Pretty funny, eh? No one alive can see me unless it’s in a mirror. No one but you, that is.”
“Why is that?”
“I never question a good thing. I just put it to use.”
I whispered to myself, “I’m alive.”
“I thought we already established that.” Josh grunted as he reclaimed his stool, then tipped the bottle of Ghost Hollow into his mouth until the floor puddled. He wiped his front teeth. “Now, about those last words of yours…”
It took me another second to catch up. He meant when I fell. “But they weren’t my last words.”
“They should have been.”
“‘The only remarkable thing,’” I began.
“‘…about my life will be my death.’” Josh finished. “I remember.”
I thought about it, and each time I opened my mouth to explain, I felt a quivering jaw and more tears. So I just said, “I don’t know.”
Josh checked a nonexistent wristwatch. “A hundred and six people died while you were making up your mind not to tell me, just so you know.”
I took the bottle of Ghost Hollow and poured us both three fingers. “It’s pathetic, isn’t it?”
“Well…” Josh accepted the pour and shrugged. “I mean, that’s life.”
He leaned in close and whispered, “You wanna know the secret?”
“Of life?” I asked.
“Yeppers. It’s a juicy one.”
I leaned in. “Tell me.”
“Well…” He looked around the bar again, giggling. “When you feel the need to relieve yourself, you take your thumb and your index finger, and you—holy shit; there she is.”
He grabbed my neck and pulled me low. I tried to look, but he yanked me back shouting, “Right there, right there, right there!”
“Well, then, what do you want from me?” I shrieked.
He considered, then said, “Okay, look.”
I peeked and saw a hellfire redhead with blond roots clearing glasses and bottles in the back, all while telling some bulky redneck, “You can’t smoke that in here.”
I looked at Josh. I looked at the woman. I smiled. “I’ll be damned.”
“Not if I can help it,” Josh said. “I need you to do something, first.”
“What?” I asked.
“Okay,” Josh said, close to hyperventilation. “Okay, okay, shit, okay. Say exactly what I say…”
I nodded at the redhead. “Is she a waitress?”
“She’s my ex. Now… Say, ‘Hello, love!’” Josh put on such a sharp Cockney accent that it sounded like, Ellow, luff!
“Do it now…”
“ELLOW, LUFF!” I screamed.
The redhead froze. She dropped her tray full of empties and slowly turned around, possessed by shock and awe. “Josh…”
The whole raccoon-penis bar went silent.
“She remembers me,” Josh said. “Okay. Time to make amends.”
He whispered, and I translated for all the living ears. “I’ll bet you never thought you’d hear this voice again.” Bad Cockney: All beh yew nevah thow you’d’eer thess voice uh-gain.
I stopped and frowned and mumbled, “But she’s never heard my voice before.”
“Never mind that,” Josh said, and went on whispering his supernaturally-coded message. Now, blessedly Cockney-free.
I translated, feeling a sudden tenderness melt my heart: “Our brief time together — those stormy nights in Acapulco, lying in each other’s arms — reminded me of what it’s like to feel alive…”
The hellfire redhead moved, trance-like, stepping behind the bar, one slow foot at a time.
My smile came back to life, and I swooned with thoughts of strange romance, swept away in supernova love-stars. This is probably why I didn’t catch what came next until it was too late.
“…which is why I had to get the fuck outta there, you two-timing harpy… Wait, what?”
There is nothing chauvinistic about the sound of a pump-action shotgun. The hellfire redhead hefted a nickel-plated Remington 12 gauge from the space behind the beer cooler, swinging it in our direction.
I raised my hands shouting, “Josh?”
“Just keep saying what I say,” he replied. “It’s not your time. Your time was four hours ago. You’ll be fine.”
“You vanished!” shouted the shotgunned redhead, blazing with fury. “And left a corpse in my bed.”
“You did?” I asked Josh.
“The borrowed body,” he told me. “Now, say this…”
“Baby,” I translated, sweating, cringing, “everyone who spends more than a weekend with you winds up a corpse in a bed. Oh, GOD…”
“Show me your face,” she demanded, “so I might blow it off!”
“Look behind you,” I repeated.
The redhead glanced over her shoulder, into the bar-back mirror. Her face softened as she made goo-goo-ga-ga eyes at Josh’s reflection — his Resting Deadly Serious Face.
I repeated, “Goodbye, Baby?”
“With conviction,” Josh told me.
Baby begged the Reaper’s image: “Kiss me!”
Josh rolled his eye sockets. “Why do I always pick the psychos?”
I repeated the question, much to Josh’s dismay.
The hellfire redhead, Baby, blasted the mirror with a slug. A shard of glass scratched my face just as Josh snapped his fingers.
Back at my place, we unwound with bottles of Three Philosophers, laughing hysterically.
“Fuck it,” Josh said. “Get the charcuterie.”
He went for all the salami, which limply tumbled down his bones and made a greasy pile on my sofa.
I, as I often do with drinking company, turned on my gargantuan TV and played an old reel of my video work. The creative stuff from years ago, before bigger companies paid me a shitload to make vanilla milquetoast over and over and over...
I stopped laughing. I said, “I think I should have died.”
Josh scooted away. “Jesus, man. Are you drunk?”
“Well, look at the stuff I used to do. I had talent.”
“Big corpse, small graveyard,” Josh mumbled.
“All the promise. The big dreams. I traded them all in for this.” I gestured to my stuff, my house, my life.
“Trade it back,” Josh said. “You’re still here.”
“I’m too much of a coward.” I resumed the laughter, but sadder. “What am I gonna do, make less? Fail more? At least if I would have died, this would all be over. Now I gotta keep going, losing a sliver of soul for every climb up a warehouse catwalk. And THAT is why I said what I said when I fell. Because — are you sleeping?”
Josh twitched halfway through a snore. “Hmm? No. Just resting my eyes.”
“Touché. Go on.”
“I’m in my forties, you know…”
He slapped my shoulder. “Hey, me too.”
Josh coughed up a little pickle. Then clarified. “Well, forty-plus millennia. But same thing … per capita, like.”
“I’m mid-forties,” I said, all somber and dramatic, “I’m alone, and I’m nothing.”
“You sound just like me.”
Josh puffed his chest. “I was supposed to be a god.”
“So, there I was, doing my thing,” said Josh, chewing on a slice of lardo. “A young skull in his prime. Making waves. Everyone telling me: ‘Oh, Josh, you’re going places.’ And I did. Here and there. But that’s as far as I went.”
I leaned forward to listen.
“All that work,” he said, “no divine promotion. Anubis? Hades? They get groupies. Me? Just work. Mortality is a young man’s game. How much longer can I keep this up? Another three, four-thousand years? Picture me in the future, these old bones hobbling, my scythe a cane, my cloak faded to gray… Will they even take me seriously?”
He washed the lardo down with beer.
“So, here I am. Nothing to become and nowhere to go. Just me, doing my thing.”
“Wowwww,” I said, dragging the word into another sip. “A guy like you, and a guy like me.”
He clinked my bottle. “Ain’t we a couple of miserable punks?”
We laughed again. And I fell asleep on the couch with my friend, Death.