Title Unconfirmed

Posted by Jesse

This is a story I wrote several years back that I have recently returned to. I've changed the ending considerably from its first, and have been trying to transform it from a pointless meandering through a series of character sketches to something that resembles a coherent story with focus and plot and meaning. Previously titled "Death, Warmed Over," I've been considering other titles because there is no real correlation between the title and its topic. Another option might be "Crossing the Bar." The story takes place in a bar owned by Death, so this title has a nice little play on words built into it as well. Any other title ideas would be welcome.

I'll post a couple of sample pieces here; I'm wont to publish the whole thing for fear of not being able to have it published elsewhere if I do. So here are three excerpts:

I saw Death first thing when I entered the bar. He was at the slots by the entrance, plugging quarters into the machine and muttering recriminations to it through fleshless jaws. When I walked by he looked up briefly, touched the brim of his black Stetson and turned back to the spinning wheels of fortune.

I can't say I felt easy about Death being here, but I needed a phone, and badly. I hadn't had cell reception since I passed through Hawthorne some hundred miles back, and my car broke down not too long after that. I'd only made it to this bar through a series of events I wouldn't wish on anyone, and I took Death's presence as one more stop on this train of oddities my day had become.

I was an accountant for Paternale and Associates of Reno, Nevada, traveling home from a business trip to Boulder City. I hated traveling, even in the best of conditions; I'm a terrible homebody who has never in his life been east of the Mississippi, north of Boise, south of Phoenix, or west of San Francisco. I liked knowing where things were and having things happen just as I predicted. Perhaps that's why I became an accountant in the first place. Numbers didn't surprise me, and I knew if they were out of order, it was my job to find out why and fix them. Accounting made sense and it didn't scare me. Traveling, however, did, and today's events were a prime example of why.

I'd left Boulder City, Nevada, at 8:30 this morning. The weather was a balmy 85°, and I took my car – a two-year-old Mazda 6 – to Jiffy Lube right before I left to have the oil changed and the fluids checked. I always did this.

I traveled incident-free until I entered the Walker Indian Reservation. Then my car started lurching, increasing in violence and frequency the further I drove. The thermometer readout on rearview mirror said 102°. I didn't want to stop, but I couldn't go on – not with the way the car was operating.

I waited for someone to stop. Like I said, I had no cell service. I kept bottles of water in the trunk for emergencies, and they went fast as hours passed and no one responded to my attempts to flag them down. Finally, as dehydration began to set in, a lone trucker stopped and offered me a ride. I accepted gladly, but was horrified when some time into our drive he asked me to perform acts of a sexual nature upon him in exchange for the ride. I refused, of course, but this only made him angry. Under compulsion I offered him a check for $50, telling him that with that money he ought to be able to pay someone else to do that for him. “Think of it as a gift certificate,” I said. He reluctantly accepted it, then dumped me unceremoniously in the town I was now in. I'd stopped in the Shell station first, but their phone was out of order. They'd directed me to this bar.

That's the first. I'd appreciate it if you'd let know if you'd read on, or anything you might change, or might be confusing.

Here's the second:


gulped deep breaths, sucking in oxygen like a man drowning. What happened in there? I looked back at the bar. Neon lights spelled “TURN--'-” on the roof, half the letters extinguished. The situation was beyond me, beyond my ability to analyze and manage, but I tried anyway, listing the sequence of events in my head like items on a financial report. Item one, a business trip to a client in Boulder City; Item two, Jiffy Lube; Item three, bad gas(?); Item four, stranded; Item five, horny homosexual trucker; Item six, no phone at Shell station; Item seven, bar owned by Death.

Item eight: a woman named Heather.

Item nine: whatever had just happened in there.

How did things balance? I wasn't liking what they were adding up to. It looked like I was ending up in the red.

Accountants hate red.

One thing puzzled me still – item eight. Where did it fit? It was right after Heather left that Death pulled his hypnotic trick. Why then? What was going on between them?

Thinking of Heather brought a vivid picture of her into my mind. She wasn't my type, if I had one, so why did she dominate my thoughts? The way she smiled, the way she moved when she walked – that slow-motion gait – what a dream she was!

A movement caught the corner of my eye. I turned. It was Heather, the glow of her cigarette lighting up her lined face. My heart leaped. Perhaps she was my way out, the item that would make my books balance. She saw me and smiled. “Good to see you again, Cowboy.”

Her smoky, velvet voice gave me chills. “Good to see you too, uh, cowgirl.” I'd never been good at flirting, and was glad for the dark that hid my blush.

She laughed that silvery laugh again. “You've got a sharp wit, Cowboy, watch where you point that thing!” She winked at me.

“Are- are you in any trouble?” I asked. “I couldn't help overhearing...”

“Oh, now Cowboy, don't even worry your head about that,” she lilted. “Ol' Turner's just got a stick up his ass tonight, 's all. But there is one thing you could do...”

“What's that?” I said, eager.

“Well, this little friend o' mine -” she held up a small hip flask “- seems to be runnin' dry. Could you nip in there and buy me a swallow or two of Jim Beam? I'd make it worth your while.”

Worth my while. “Sure,” I said, forgetting the terror I'd just faced in the bar as I stared into those captivating gray eyes. “I'd be glad to.”

“Well, that's just fine. I'll be right here waitin'.”

I cleared my throat and prepared to face down Death. Heather had me in her thrall. I swung the door open wide, setting off the bell above it.

And the third:

It was quiet for another few minutes as I pondered all this. I was a junk soul – I was meant to be tossed out with the trash, destroyed. If it weren't for Arnie ... I choked up suddenly, overcome by the immensity of what he had done. “Is it common practice for reclaimers to give up their lives for the souls they're reclaiming?” I asked.

Walt and Rufus exchanged glances. “It happens,” Walt said. “Every reclaimer ends up doing it at one point or another. We try not to, of course, but sometimes that's the only option you got left.”

“So what am I supposed to do from here?” I asked. “You've reclaimed me, but what does a reclaimed man do? Am I supposed to go help orphans in Africa? Become a Buddhist monk?”

Rufus chuckled. “How about you start with just living, Wilson. Seems like you need to practice that first. What about that pretty lady who flirts with you? Why don't you ask her out?”

Walt grinned, a toothless smile like his brother's. “Good idea, Rufus. That's a good start. And for gosh sake, take a vacation! You got what, four weeks' time accumulated? Go see the world, man!”

I nodded. “I don't know what my problem has been.”

“Your soul's been collecting dust, that's what the problem's been,” Rufus said. “Every man knows how to live, but not every man has the courage to.”

I reached for the truck's radio dial, flipping it on. I tuned the radio till I found what I was looking for: something warbly, screechy, and raw: Jimi Hendrix's “All Along the Watchtower.” I cranked it up as high as it would go. Walt and Rufus rolled down their windows, and the wind whipped at us as we sang along at the top of our lungs. It was good to live.

There you have it. This is a rewrite, still a little rough, but it gives you a basic feel for the voice of the story and a glimpse at the main characters. If you have any comments on these, don't hesitate. If you'd like to read the whole thing, let me know and I'll email it to you.