The dead man walked into the bar. Where he’d come from, I couldn’t say. There was always a fresh corpse to be found, usually from the hospital just down the street. Or the cemetery not far from there. Or the retirement home. People died all the time, and if you were looking for a body to borrow and not too picky, there was always something.
The jukebox played Mr. Sandman as tonight’s sole customer dragged himself across the empty room. He wasn’t covered in dirt, so he wasn’t from the cemetery. He wasn’t withered, so I doubted he was from the retirement home. I didn’t speculate further.
“Hello, Joe, how’re the wife and kids?” I asked as he sat at the stool.
His skin was that same pallid color it always was for the animated dead. He put his hat on the counter. “Good enough.” His voice was soft and distant, like the thing that was speaking through him was connected via a long, long tube leading up to his throat.
“The usual?” I said.
“Please,” he said.
I poured him a whisky, slid it across the bar. He reached for his wallet, but I stopped him.
“Your money’s no good here, Joe.”
He smiled. His slack flesh creased reluctantly, forming a grinning rictus. “You’re too good to me.” He glanced around the room. “Quiet night.”
“Bad economy,” I said.
He nodded, sipped his drink. He didn’t swallow, and it spilled out of his lips as he talked. “Those bums in Washington don’t know what they’re doing.”
“Am I dead?” asked Joe.
I hadn’t known if the question was coming. It wasn’t always asked.
“You were never alive,” I replied.
“But I have a wife,” he said. “I have kids.”
“Do you? What are their names?”
He paused. “But you said I did.”
“Just making conversation,” I said. “I could’ve asked about your dog or your job. Anything, really. And you would’ve played along. You’re name isn’t even Joe. I suppose the body you’re in could have been named Joe, and it might have a wife and kids. But that’s the body, not you.”
Joe stared at himself in the bar mirror. “Then who am I?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d tell you if I did, and I know a lot of things people were never meant to know.”
“Am I ghost?”
I shook my head. “No. As far as I can tell, you’re something else. Something here, bound to this patch of land, and every forty-one days, you wake up, grab a body, and come in for a drink. It’s just what you do. One thing I do know, you aren’t a ghost. There’s no such thing. Not as people label it.”
I poured him another drink.
“I’ve been handling this sort of thing for a while now. Maybe too long. One thing I’ve never met: a dead person who wasn’t something else. Once in a while, a person might die and not pass on right away. But once they’re gone, they’re gone. Death is a one-way trip. There’s no coming back and, frankly, I doubt there’s anything to come back.”
“What about the soul?” he asked.
I laughed. “Don’t ask me. All I know is that something like . . . well . . . you doesn’t prove much beyond that. And I don’t even know what you are.”
Joe frowned. “And when I go back to sleep will I remember any of this?”
“You never do.”
He drummed his fingers on the bar. He contemplated the same thing most of us end up contemplating. Joe existed now, but Joe would stop existing, like everything and everyone else, and what would be left behind? I’d asked the thing in Joe the question once or twice, and it never had any answer better than mine.
He took a final drink, put on his hat, and then shuffled out the door.
“Catch you next time, Joe,” I said.
He grumbled, waved as the door closed behind him.
I wiped down the bar before pouring myself a stiff drink. Then I sat in the empty bar, with the stench of the dead, and listened to Leslie Gore singing about her party while not thinking about much of anything.