The Pub Where Death Hangs Out

Seth Chambers
 

© Copyright 2004 by Seth Chambers

 

Photo of a bartender.

I used to kid myself that Death didn’t scare me unduly. Sure he gave me a fright, that’s only natural. But when he came into my pub, I walked right up to him, didn’t I? When it was apparent nobody in my wait staff was about to approach him, didn’t I march right over to his table and say, “Could I bring you a beer? We have Heineken and Lowenbrau and Miller Genuine Draft on tap. Or perhaps you’d prefer something stronger?”

Only later did I realize Death had done some mysterious thing or another to make it possible for me to approach him. He had wanted somebody to talk to that night and just happened to pick me, Gordon McKenna, owner of a friendly little place called Gordon’s Pub and Grill.

“Just a Club Soda,” said Death. “I’m still working.”

As I went behind the bar, it occurred to me that his comment about “still working” was meant as a joke. The Reaper has a grim sense of humor, if you’ll pardon the pun.

I returned with his Club Soda and just then the Rockola finished up its last song and the whole place went dead silent, so to speak. The song had been “The End,” an old Doors tune, and Jim Morrison crooned, “This is the... e-n-d!” Then silence, as if the other people in my pub were not only sitting quietly but actually absorbing sound.

I set the Club Soda in front of Death.

The place stayed quiet. Not everyone recognizes Death on sight but most people at least sense there is something foreboding about the tall, good-looking man sporting a Lord and Taylor three-piece. He motioned for me to have a seat. I had work to do but who can say no to Death? I sat across from him. Here and there conversations were picking up again.

“Are you angry with me?” Death asked.

I looked at him, a bit confused.

“You do know who I am?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You... You’re D--”

I could not finish the word but that first letter was plenty.

“So then, I’m asking if you are angry with me about Jack,” he said.

Death had a good memory. Jack was one of several dogs I had had as a child. I will never forgive the son of a bitch who swerved his pickup off the road to make sport of Jack. But I had no quarrel with Death for coming by later that night to put my dog, my buddy, out of his pain.

“No,” I said. “I’m not mad.”

Then we began to talk.

Death did not exactly open up to me that night. He’s not the sort you get to know all at once. But he did talk about some things: Which towns were his favorite (he’s visited every country, ever city, every hamlet, and every piss ant little burg in the world, of course), where in the world to go for the best barbecue, and the insanity of The Crusades. He also mentioned, in passing, that fire bothers him.

I had wanted to ask questions about his work. Who doesn’t have a question or two for Death? But I could not quite bring myself too. After a time he became hungry and ordered the house-special, which is our famous Olive Burger. He complimented the food, fell into a silence, and spent the remainder of the evening staring at the Matisse I keep hanging on one wall. I returned to the bar to help my wait staff.

I wondered if it could have been a slow night for him. Or maybe he had helpers. I didn’t ask. Around two in the morning I looked over and he was gone. A generous tip lay on the table.

*****

I lay awake for a long time that night. It seems I had befriended Death. I suppose that it’s a honor, of a sort, and I should have simply left it at that. But I am human and fraught with human frailties and my mind sought ways to take advantage of this friendship. A part of me, maybe a big part, wanted to cheat Death, so I could live forever on this Earth and not have to deal with whatever lay beyond.

I felt ashamed of these feelings. Not the part about wanting to live forever, that’s only natural, but the bit about betraying a new-found friend to do it. So the next night, while one part of me schemed and plotted, another part of me hoped Death wouldn’t show.

But he did.

I let him talk. He spoke of the castles he had occasion to visit in Scotland, and he went on and on about how beautiful Ireland is, then he somehow jumped from that to a tirade on the stupidity of bungee-jumping.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I haven’t let you get a word in edgewise.”

“I am kind of curious about some things,” I said.

“Then say what’s on your mind,” he said, and gave me a half-smile.

My throat dried up and I could barely look at him at all. I most certainly was not able to meet his eye. My jaw was numb and my neck broke out in a cold sweat which I had to restrain myself from wiping away.

“Is...?”

“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “You can ask.”

“Is there anybody dying right now? I mean, right this moment?”

“Hmmmm,” he said. “Probably. Yes, probably. Somebody’s always dying, after all.”

“Right now? This moment? Then where do you come in? I mean, I don’t understand. Don’t you... go... to them when...”

Death smiled and there was something about that smile that told me I was asking the things he wanted me to ask, that while I had planned to pull one over on him, he was pulling something over on me. But what, I could not guess.

“I will be there for them. And yes, right at the time of their deaths. I will be there for every single one of them. There could be a hundred people dying right now, and I will be with them.”

“But you’re here right now,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, and his smile became even wider, sepulchral even in my inflamed imagination. The he was rising to his feet and reaching for my arm. I hardly even felt my body and it occurred to me that maybe this was a business call for Death, that this was my time and he was taking me away. I don’t know if I said that aloud or not, but he spoke as if I had: “No, not yet, you have some time yet. We’re just going on a little trip.”

“Where?” I heard myself say.

“To the answers to your questions,” he said.

Then he led me outside the pub and a few steps later we stepped through a hole in the world that only opens for Death.

*****

His house was little more than a wooden framework, sitting alone in a vast wheat field. It was night and Death mentioned that it was always night here. Death cooked on a cast iron wood stove and carried water up from a nearby stream.

“That’s not very convenient,” I said, pointing to the water bucket.

“I’m in no hurry. Time doesn’t matter here. Nor space. Come, I’ll show you.”

We stepped outside and into the field. I spotted tiny points of light which I at first took to be fireflies, but then noticed were not moving about. “Since the normal laws of time and space don’t exist here, we can wind up anywhere. Or anywhen. So if you’re expecting a guided tour, you’re in for a surprise because I never know what to expect myself.”

“But I... That is to say, it’s okay, I think you’ve answered my...”

“Come,” he said. Then he took my arm and led me to a point of light. Then we kept walking, into the light and--

--And we were in a burned, ravaged town exploding with guerrilla warfare. Infantry soldiers wore full-body armor and fired some sort of plasma guns that emitted devastating pulses of energy. And I was in the midst of it! In the flesh! I had expected that Death would bring me along in noncorporeal form so that it would be like watching television. But no: I felt the ground, solid beneath my feet as I ran and crawled for cover, felt the impact of nearby plasma charges, smelled sulfur and sweat and fear and blood. I dove into dirt, scrambled for cover, screaming.

Nobody seemed to notice me. Maybe I was invisible to everyone, but I could still bite the Big One in the crossfire. All about me soldiers ran, shouted orders, cursed and prayed and screamed and cried. Nearby, an infantryman was hit and I saw armor melt into flesh.

I looked about for Death. I wasn’t the only one looking for Death. One soldier, burned almost to a crisp and missing both legs, reached out for Death but Death walked on, away from him. “Come back here you bloody bastard you!” he screamed at Death.

After what seemed a millennium, Death came striding back across the devastated landscape and beckoned me to follow. I scurried after him.

We returned to the field where it was always night.

I screamed and raved at Death, then. “What the fuck were you thinking taking me there? I could have been fucking killed!”

“What, you want to live forever?” Death asked, and flashed that quirky smile of his at me. Then he grabbed my arm and pulled me right through another point of light.

We emerged in the bedroom of a young girl. She must have been eight or nine and was in bed but wide awake. A Winnie the Pooh bear sat on her dresser. I wondered what we were doing there.

She was telling herself a story: “Once upon a time, there lived a terrible dragon, but he wasn’t really terrible. But everyone thought he was terrible because he was so big and he breathed fire, but he couldn’t help but breathe fire and sometimes he set things on fire without meaning to. Then one day--”

“Go on, Cindy,” said Death.

“Then one day the king’s army came to slay the dragon. And the dragon started crying and the general of the army asked him why he was crying. The dragon said, ‘Because you want to kill me.’ Then the general felt really bad and led his army back home. After that the dragon lived a long, long time, then he got old and Death came to visit him and the dragon was afraid of Death.”

Death knelt down beside Cindy and said, “Why was the dragon afraid of Death?”

She rolled her eyes with exasperation. “Because,” she said. “He had never met you before!”

Death smiled at her.

“Are you afraid of me?” he asked.

“No! Did you come by to hear my story?”

“No, sweetheart. I’m afraid not, but it was a good tale nonetheless. Come, it’s time to go now.”

“But I’m not even sick!”

“I’m sorry. Sometimes it happens that way.”

“Wait, I’ll tell you another one and if you like it, you let me live some more.”

“Sorry, Scheherazade, no can-do.”

Now she was scared. She hugged her pillow and cried, but she was also brave. When Death reached out for her, she put down her pillow and took his hand in hers. I stood there wishing I was back on the battlefield, or anywhere but here.

“Where am I going?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It’s different for everybody. All I know if that you’re going somewhere.”

“Can I take Pooh?”

Death shook his head no. “Goodbye,” he whispered, and her head fell back on the pillow.

I followed Death back to the field and told him I had had enough.

“But the night is just getting started,” he said.

“Why’d you have to take her?” I asked. “She was just a little girl, what the hell is wrong with you? She was fine!”

“I don’t decide who lives and who dies.”

“Then who does?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never met my boss. At least, not face to face. Now, let’s get going!”

This time we stepped onto the shoulder of a freeway at mid-day. After my eyes adjusted to the light, I beheld the worst traffic mishap I had ever witnessed. The pileup must have gone on for a mile, one of those domino-effect scenarios. I watched Death go about his work, never hurrying but also never pausing.

These scenarios went on for an eternity. Death walked among the world of mortals like a tourist strolling through Bali. He whispered to an unfortunate individual who had overdosed on heroine, “I’m sorry, friend, but you’ve made a mistake.” He went to a very old woman who said, “Well, just where the hell have you been, stranger?” She kissed Death’s cheek and slipped away with a smile.

I watched as Death stood on a street corner and put his hand on a young man’s left shoulder. The man looked more puzzled than frightened as he fell. On another street, Death delivered a woman from the horror of a knife attack. He made himself invisible to her attacker but spit on the man as he split the scene with her purse in hand.

Death walked by a bedroom window and, as his shadow passed, a woman cried out.

I stood outside on a crisp winter’s evening while Death marched through the flames of a burning house to rescue a family of three: Mother, Father and their young son. “Fire bothers me,” Death said after that, and we finally called it a night.

*****

After taking the journey to the field of night, and after going with Death on his rounds where sometimes it was day, sometimes night, sometimes the present and sometimes the future... After all this, time lost some of its meaning for me. A couple of my waitresses showed up late but I was not bothered. How could I be concerned with such trivial matters after the journey I had taken?

I spent the next evening experimenting with recipes and getting in the way of Ernie, my best cook. Ernie did his damnedest to hid his irritation. When Death stepped in at nine o’clock mortal time, I served him up a plate of jalapeno poppers I had just fried.

“These are wonderful,” said Death. “It is always good to have a meal before a long night’s work. You will be joining me again tonight, right?”

My stomach knotted at the mere thought of making another such journey. How many deaths had I witnessed that night -- several hundred, a thousand, or more? The things I had seen, the pain, the fear, and all of it so nearby...

“No!” I said, almost yelling the word. “I didn’t ask for you to drag me along the last time. All I did was ask a simple question and you...”

I ran out of words. I was mad and scared at the same time. I told him to enjoy the poppers, then turned to head back to the kitchen.

“Wait,” said Death.

I waited.

“The night gets lonely,” he said. “You have no idea, no idea at all. The few things I showed you... That was nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just... Not again. I don’t know why you came in here and singled me out. Out of all the billions of people who ever lived! I’m nobody. I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I just want a friend,” said Death.

I looked away.

Death stared at the Matisse for a long time, then he closed his eyes for an even longer time. I stood there, just waiting. Several times he tensed and I knew he was seeing those thousands upon thousands of deaths. They say Death never sleeps. That may be true, but I’m sure he dreams.

“I know what you want,” Death said in a voice as soft and cool as falling snow. “You want to keep right on just as you are, tending this pub, living your comfortable little existence. You never want to move on, you just want to mark time right here while the world marches by into oblivion.”

I said nothing but turned back towards him.

“You want immortality right here on Earth,” said Death. “And you think that it’s just a matter of tricking me. Well, it isn’t like that. I’m not the problem. It’s disease and old age and accident that take their toll.”

“What about that little girl, Cindy? She wasn’t old or diseased, she didn’t meet with an accident.”

“Look, friend: the human body is made up of thousands of little vessels and moving parts, organs and chemicals in delicate balance. When something goes wrong, it goes wrong. I don’t make it go wrong, it just does. I’m just the guy who comes along to do the final paperwork.”

“You make yourself sound like a civil servant,” I said.

“In a way, I am. However... And I should not even be saying this, but I do have some degree of influence... over certain things. I could arrange for you to get... what you want, the whole immortality thing. Although, trust me, it’s not as cheerful as you might think. but I could get it for you. In exchange for your company for one more night.”

I almost accepted his offer.

Then I thought about the little girl taking Death’s hand, and the old lady kissing his cheek, and the hundreds of other people who faced Death with courage or, sometimes, raging defiance. These were people I wanted to see again someday, somewhere, on some level of existence. I did not want to be left behind.

So I turned down Death’s offer of immortality. But I did go with him on one more night’s journey.

For friendship’s sake.

*****

Death has been busy since then. He visited another of my dogs last summer, running his long fingers through his hair and telling him what a good pooch he had been. He came to my mother in hospital, long after visiting hours. She was sleeping and only Death could wake her. “Never be lonely again,” he whispered. He visited a friend of mine who had wrapped a length of rope around his neck. And, at some point, Death stepped out of the night to pay me a final visit. But I can’t tell you that story -- not yet.

I am still hoping that someday Death will complete his work, step back in time, and come by my pub for a casual visit. And a stiff drink.
 
 

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