“I swear to my mother, God, and every angel in the Baptist choir that I have died before. I have seen death. I have been death!

The old barfly stood up on his stool and only got down when McCreary, the surly bartender, barked at him to sit down.

“I apologize to Old Man McCreary, but I do not apologize to you,” the barfly said to his companion. Both men were regulars. It was hard to tell one from the other. Both were above sixty, short with noticeable paunches, and gray mustaches that failed to cover the full width of their upper lips. They spoke eloquently, but in an older fashion. On that late afternoon, one wore a sweat-stained Dodgers T-shirt and matching baseball cap, while the other sported an obnoxiously loud Hawaiian-style button-up. McCreary tolerated them; he did not like them, despite the fact that their tabs kept the lights on in the Silver Horseshoe.

The animated boozehound settled back into his seat and addressed his long-time friend in a more pleasant manner. “I tell you, Henry. I swear to you, Henry. I have died and come back to life.”

“You’re telling another tall tale. Typical Hollywoodland barker.”

The other man made to stand up again, but a sharp eye from McCreary kept him seated. “You’re just mad that I have a career worth remembering. Nobody is going to remember that you once sold more nails than anyone else at that Dubuque hardware store.”

“You had a career worth remembering, Charlie. Now you’re no better than any another stumblebum in Los Angeles.”

“Damn you, Henry. For such an insolent remark, I’m going to tell you my story, whether you want to hear it or not.”

“Oh, brother.”

“Oh, Henry!” This comment earned a rare chuckle from McCreary, who busied himself with cleaning out the bar’s empty beer glasses.

“Okay, Charlie. Tell your story. But make it spicy, please. Remember that last one you spun down here? The one about that China doll you used to pork back in the silent days? You made that one drier than toast.”

“Anna was better than a China doll, and I tell stories just fine. Millions of box office receipts prove it.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll buy us beer. You tell your death story.”

There was a brief pause as both men waited for McCreary to pour them their Coors. When the two glasses containing the cold, straw-colored liquid arrived, Charlie and Henry both stared as if long-lost manna had finally descended from Heaven.

“They better serve these at my funeral, or else I’m not dying again,” Charlie said.

“Would that be death number two or three?” Henry needled him.

“Alright, you clown. Here’s the tale.”

Charlie leaned back a little and started dreaming. He took Henry and himself back to the halcyon days of 1906 in the fair city of Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville was home for Charlie, and he still considered it home even though he hadn’t lived in the Derby City since they first started playing jazz on the radio. 1906 had been a different time and much different Charlie. The twenty-six-year-old runt from a respectable family made his money working in a traveling circus.

At 21, Charlie started as a roustabout in Louisville. By the next year he was barking and spieling at the marks in New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis. He was good at his job. He had big pipes for such a pipsqueak of a man, and his Kentucky lilt somehow made him seem trustworthy to the rubes. He plied them with gallons of verbal grease, and the wheels always spun. Charlie made a lot of money. Some of it was handed to him underneath the table. Other times, there wasn’t even a table in sight. But no matter. Mr. Lowery, the big boss of the carnival, liked having Charlie around. Mr. Lowery put his top bread winner in all the best spots, like doing magic tricks for society ladies aboard steamboats on the Mississippi. Charlie liked that job in particular because it allowed him to flirt with a higher class of women. Sure, Charlie’s family was considered good by Louisville standards, but they never had real quality. Charlie did his best to explain quality to Henry, but his Iowa mind could not comprehend the finer points of Southern culture.

“But your father made plenty of dough as a bricklayer. You grew up in a nice house. Your mother didn’t have to slave away at a funeral parlor for extra change like mine did. Isn’t that quality enough?”

“You wouldn’t get it, Henry. Quality is something that you are born with. It’s in the blood. You cannot force it into being, only shape and mold it where it exists already. Quality families have declined here and there, to be sure. Most of the time though, quality remains. My people were never quality, and never could be quality. Jumped-up white trash, but dad did at least keep a moral household. Every Sunday saw us at the Baptist church, and by God you always said ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘yes, sir,’ and ‘yes, ma’am.’ Anything other than that earned a hiding.”

Henry tapped the bar for another round. McCreary obliged. “I know you well enough to know that you got spanked plenty.”

“Indeed. Always been a kink in my nature. Born rotten, I guess. Or rather, sideways. That’s it—I was born sideways.”

“Your poor mother,” Henry said. Both men laughed at the slightly risqué joke.

“As I was saying,” Charlie intoned after clearing his throat. “I worked those steamboats up and down the river. I spent the better part of two years as a river dog with the ugliest band of cutthroats this side of Algiers. If the passengers represented quality, then me and the crew represented regression. As in mammalian regression back to hairy apes.”

Henry laughed. “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”

“Alright, can it with the easy ones, Hank.” Charlie punched Henry’s shoulder as a sign of good intentions. He knew better than anyone else that calling Henry “Hank” was asking for a donnybrook.

“I tried to keep myself separate from the sailors at first, but you cannot work in close proximity with other rounders and not get a little bit of their darkness. First it was booze.” Charlie held up his glass of beer. “This delicious elixir is healthy and safe for me. It’s a comedown from all those years of living on corn mash liquor. When I worked the steamboats, it was either that or rye first thing in the morning. Second came the gambling. Dice and stud poker was how we kept each other entertained until the wee hours of the morning. For every dollar I won, I lost five more. That’s how I wound up broke after two years.”

Charlie put down his beer and looked longingly at the outside world. The late summer sun was just starting to drift below the horizon. Pretty soon, the streets of Los Angeles would fill with nightcrawlers, and the Silver Horseshoe would get too crowded for the two men. Charlie realized that his story had to hurry up.

“It did not help matters that I met a dame on one of those steamboats. Amy. Prettiest woman ever reared by the Bluegrass hills. A Louisville native. She dressed well and said all the right words, but she wasn’t quality either. We made a fine pair—me pulling out rabbits and shuffling cards, and her serving soup to the fat widows. I cannot explain it any better than saying we fell into each other. Felt like an accident, but it was probably fate.

“I left the steamboat circuit when I did not want to. I was forced to leave. I went ashore in Cincinnati and made my way back to Louisville. Mr. Lowery was none too pleased about me going AWOL. No, sir. That old miser hung me out to dry on a promised job on purpose. It was his way of teaching me a lesson in contractual obligation. I did not take it that way. I turned my back on him and took a job as a clown with the Ringling Brothers.” Charlie whistled to emphasize just how much his decision angered Mr. Lowery. Henry cut him off.

“But why did you have to quit the steamboats early?”

“I got Amy pregnant.” The usually verbose and melodramatic Charlie said the words with a profound bluntness that took his drinking partner aback.

“I never knew you had a kid,” he said.

“Kids,” Charlie shot back. “None of them want anything to do with their old man anymore. A boy and girl. The last time I saw them was in 1932. They showed up at my door with Amy asking for a handout. I’ll tell you something, Henry. That damned vampire movie caused me more trouble than it was worth. As soon as I started making talkie money hand over fist, every two-bit creep in Southern California came to me asking for a dime or half-dollar. About drove me nuts.”

“Is that why you never made a movie after Dracula?”

Charlie scowled. “Oh, I made plenty of movies. I made my best one ever less than a year later, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer buried it. Called the film degenerate and unseemly. They fed scurrilous information about me to Catholic crusaders, who in turn filled their rags with poison pen-tier gossip about my past. They called me a lecher, a sadist, and a lousy drunk.”

“Aren’t you all of those things?” Henry asked. “You told me yourself that your China doll was not 18 when you two cavorted with each other.”

“You better stop, or else I’ll scream ‘Hank’ until McCreary shoots me with that coach gun he keeps under the bar.”

“Alright, alright. Just tell your story explaining why you’re a ghost.”

“But I’m not a ghost.”

“You died once before, yes?” Charlie shook his head in the affirmative. “Ok, so you died but are right now talking to me and drinking beer that I purchased. If all that is true, then you have to be a ghost.”

“Clam up, Hank.”

Both men fell into bickering. The volume was low at first, but it steadily increased in power until it caught McCreary’s attention. The old, weathered Irishman slapped a reddened paw flat on the space between the two beers.

“Finish the fucking story, Charlie.”

“I didn’t know you were listening.” McCreary growled. That was all it took. Charlie went back to his yarn.

He told Henry and the aloof bartender about his time wearing greasepaint and lemon meringue pies for the Ringling Brothers. He told them that those years were good and stable ones. He and Amy settled down in St. Louis, where they had two babies and a modest two-bedroom house. He said that everything went swimmingly, but Henry could tell that his friend was lying to them and himself.

“Ok, you got me. The years were not all grand, pie-in-the-sky salad days. I drank too much. I spent money I did not have. Clowns make more than the usual carnie yobs, but even well-paid clowns couldn’t afford my bar tabs. I drank myself out of house and home. Amy kicked me out and left me soaked and on my rearend one rainy morning in September. She told me to come back when I was sober and rich.

“I only knew the circus back then. A normal man could not make a living in the nickelodeons in 1906, and nobody in my neck of the woods much cared for motion pictures anyway. So, I hitched a ride on a freight train and wound up back in Louisville.

“I expected Mr. Lowery to curse me and slap me when I showed up outside of his tent with my hat in my hands. To my surprise, he hugged me. Mr. Lowery offered me a job on the spot. I took it like a drowning man takes to a lifeboat.

“I expected to start back on the bottom. Wrangling marks or spreading hay all over the elephant tent. But no, Mr. Lowery offered me something novel; something no other circus in the whole world had.”

“What?” Henry asked while wearing Coors residue on his thin mustache.

“A living corpse,” Charlie said.

“A living corpse?”

“It was an ingenious system. Mr. Lowery designed it himself, the old ghoul. My job was to lay prostrate in a glass coffin for hours on end. I was not allowed to move or open my eyes unless commanded to by Makekro the Magnificent.”

“Who’s that?”

“A fellow worker. A real nice guy named Dean who used to wear this hilarious fright wig that made him look like an electrocuted granny. When it was show time, Dean would tell the rubes that I had technically died many years before but had been kept animated thanks to hypnotism. The Great Makekro would confirm that he was my hypnotist, and he would show the slaw-jawed customers how powerful he was.”

Henry asked for a demonstration. Charlie stood up from his barstool and stretched out his arms before him. He walked back and worth with a glacial gait, almost as if his motor skills had atrophied. In between low moans, Charlie would blink his eyes or turn his head. None of the motions in themselves were horrific, but Charlie hammed them up so much that Henry started to get a chill.

“I’ll bet that frightened them!”

“It certainly did. Good marketing on Mr. Lowery’s part helped too. You might not remember, but back in those days a madman was on the loose. I cannot recall all the names the papers gave him, but I do remember that he specialized in butchering families with an ax. All of them, from pa on down, would be bludgeoned and battered by the wandering axman. The theory then was that he was a hobo who road the rails between murders. Plenty of states around Kentucky got hit—West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, you name it. When I played a corpse, everyone in Louisville was scared sick that the axman was just around the corner. Mr. Lowery knew that, so he told Dean to play up the fact that I could be commanded to do anything, including murder.”

“Boy howdy,” Henry interjected.

“You can say that again,” Charlie continued. “We came close to getting lynched a few times. One half of Louisville wanted to beat us blue for using horrible mutilation murders as a gimmick, and the other convinced themselves that I was a potential suspect. Those were heady days.”

“So, wait. Are you telling me that someone tried to kill you because they thought you were the axman?”

“Nope. It was Mr. Lowery who tried to kill me.  He was successful too, at least if you count seconds.”

Henry looked at his friend with profound confusion. He said that he did not understand why a carnival big boss would want to kill the star of a successful attraction.

“Carnies live for blood feuds. We’re liminal types. Outcasts.  Weirdos. We live and breathe eccentricity. Underneath his double-breasted suits and silk ties, Mr. Lowery had the black heart of a pirate. He never forgave me for leaving the steamboats and joining the competition.”

“So, what happened?”

“Yeah, what happened?” McCreary asked. He gave both men more beer even though they had not asked for it.

“It was around Halloween time. The idea was that the Living Hypnotic Death—that was what the signs called me—would remain in stasis for an entire show. Mr. Lowery wanted to prove to all the lingering naysayers that I really was a reanimated corpse. I was to stay deathly still from sunup to midnight, and all the patrons could gather around my glass coffin and see for themselves that I was indeed dead.”

“But wouldn’t they see you breathe?”

“Mr. Lowery figured that out. He rigged up this system that was simple and ingenious. He carved out this tiny hole in the side of the glass coffin. It was so small that nine out of every teen marks would fail to see it even if you pointed it out to them. To this hole he attached a thin and clear metal tube. The metal tube was long enough that it reached my mouth so long as I stayed as still as possible. With that thing attached to my mouth, and with the lights kept dim, nobody could tell that I was still alive. Also,” here Charlie smirked and gave both Henry and McCreary a big wink, “I made sure to get good and soused prior to the performance. When the thing started, I was three sheets to the wind.”

Both men laughed at the old drunk. They stopped laughing when Charlie’s face turned into a scowl.

“Everything was going fine and dandy until sundown. Then, like a thief in the night, Mr. Lowery sealed up the tube. He used some kind of glue to stop the air from getting to me. It took me a while to notice because I was so drunk. But when I did notice, I panicked. I started hyperventilating and thrashing about in the coffin.”

“I’ll bet that scared them.”

“It certainly did. Most ran away in terror, but the real freaks stuck around to see my death twitches. Dean did his best to try and save me and salvage the gimmick at the same time. He intoned against a rival wizard using black magic, while also using a fingernail to chip away at the glue. Neither effort worked particularly well, but I’ll always toast to Dean for trying.” Charlie raised his glass. The other two men did likewise, for McCreary had joined them with a Coors of his own.

“During those desperate moments, I saw things. Awful things. The marks huddled around my tomb began to turn, twist, and distort into hideous, inhuman figures. I saw normal men with all their limbs transform into one-armed dwarves with blue faces. I saw fat housewives become lithe demons with horns and crooked smiles. I saw and heard their chanting. It was gobbledygook, but it was gobbledygook said with force and vigor. They wanted something; they wanted me.”

“Wanted you to do what?” Henry asked.

“To die,” Charlie responded. “They wanted me to die. They hungered for my bones and my soul. I saw them march towards my coffin. They outstretched their hands. Gabba gabba. They wanted blood. Absolutely fiendish. I fought for as long as I could, but a man denied oxygen can only last so long. I succumbed to the slumber. The last thing I heard was them laughing.”

“Jeez Louise,” Henry whispered. “Was that…Hell?”

The question stopped Charlie for a moment. He had never thought of it that way. To him, it had always been a hallucination. He saw things that were not there. End of story. Now, after decades, a fellow boozehound suggested that Hell might be real.

McCreary broke Charlie’s contemplation. “I think I learned the origin of all your penny dreadfuls,” he said.

Charlie uttered an apathetic “Yeah.”

“But what happened to Mr. Lowery?” Henry asked.

“Skipped town and left a bankrupt circus behind him. The shyster did not tell anyone that he owed massive debts. He left all of us in the lurch. I do not know where he disappeared to. I used to care. After that first string of successful pictures with Lon, I hired a private detective agency to track him down. My goal was to give him a job in one of my movies. A little payback wherein he’d have to suffer the pendulum. Poe stuff, you know. But they never found him.”

“You sick puppy,” Henry said. “But you really died?”

“That’s what the doctors told me later. Said I went out and under for a few seconds in that glass coffin.”

“That’s what death is think then, eh?” Henry looked back and forth between Charlie and McCreary. They gave him stonefaces, so Henry titled back his beer with a toast: “To not dying then.”

“I can’t toast to that,” Charlie said, “but I’ll drink just the same.” The two men emptied their glasses just as a trio of office workers in suits and ties walked in. The three newcomers bellowed for cocktails. McCreary apologized to his two regulars as he moved away from them and towards a bucket of ice cubes.

“The floodgates are now open,” Henry groused. He was proven right when more people sauntered into The Silver Horseshoe.

“Three is a crowd, and ten is damn stampede,” Charlie said. With that, the two old friends stood up from their stools and walked out into the dwindling daytime. Once outside of the bar’s cozy confines, Charlie and Henry seemed different. They had less in common. Almost looked less like each other too.

“See you tomorrow?” Charlie asked.

“Where else would I be?”

“Don’t know. Maybe a date.”

“Don’t kid a kidder, Chuck.” The two men shared a laugh and a warm handshake. Charlie turned to walk towards his dilapidated Mercury, but Henry stopped him.

“Think about what I said. About Hell. I think you may have gotten a glimpse.”

“I know,” Charlie mumbled.

“If you know, then aren’t you scared?”

“You want me to find Jesus?”

“Is that so bad?”

Charlie looked at his friend and wanted to dress him down. He kept his tongue trapped in his mouth. Retelling the story of his first death must have humbled the old egoist, for he felt no passion for atheism anymore. Let Henry have his God, he thought to himself.

“I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll tell McCreary to play the Dodgers game. It’s a double-header.”

“Against your Reds,” Henry said with a smile. “It’ll be a massacre.” With that, Henry drifted off towards the nearest bus terminal. The bus would take him to his small apartment near the public library. The only thing that waited for him was his brand new television and an old mattress.

As for Charlie, at least he had a bungalow in Malibu to call home. He had purchased the place when the world still cared about him. Back then, his neighbors all called him “Tod” or “Mr. Browning.” Now they just called him Charlie. Or, more frequently, they ignored him altogether. Not their fault, Charlie thought. He had purposely secluded himself in the place since 1939, and he had no plans on leaving it until his second death.