by T. E. H****
Bob Gooden wasn't having a good day. Actually, Bob Gooden really wasn't having a particularly good life.
The realization or revelation came about five miles outside of Yreka, California near a place called Jump-Off Joe Creek. Bob sat in the fourth row back from the front of a chartered tour bus packed with geriatric revelers bound for the "Biggest Little City in the West" -- Reno, Nevada. Once in that glittering oasis from reality, most of them would drink too much, sit in front of nickel slot machines staring glassy-eyed at spinning dials as drool trickled out of their mouths. This was considered better than sex to most of the people on the bus.
Bob had very little in common with his fellow travelers. He was a relatively young man and had been patted and pinched on the cheek by a good portion of the surrogate grand fathers and mothers on the bus.
Bob's reason for being on the bus wasn't quite as clear cut as his wrinkled bus mates either. Right now as he passed over Jump-off Joe Creek he didn't really care where the bus would end up.
The ex-steel-worker-buy-American-retired-union-shop steward in the next seat nudged Bob for the hundredth time and pointed a tobacco-stained finger out the window. "Jump-off Joe Creek," he said with stale breath squeezed between yellowed dentures. "Why do you suppose they call it Jump-off Joe Creek"?
Bob's head slowly turned and he stared morosely at the man whose chronic flatulence and endless tales of cancer operations had kept him unwillingly entertained throughout the trip.
"That's a good question," Bob pronounced. "In fact that's one of the most important questions I've ever heard." The man looked at Bob and shook his head sadly. That's when Bob decided he really didn't like the path or -- the tour for that matter -- his life seemed to be on. That's also when he decided he was going to do something about it.
He slid by the old man and worked his way down the aisle past clicking knitting needles and through clouds of smoke. He approached the driver and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Yeah," the driver said, glancing at Bob with irritated red-rimmed eyes.
"I want off," Bob replied calmly.
"I want off the bus."
"Listen buddy, we aren't due for a rest stop until we reach Mount Shasta," the driver growled. "There's a john in the back so just use that."
"I don't need to use the toilet," Bob explained carefully. "I've decided I don't want to go any further."
"Well, Jesus man, you'll just have to wait until we reach the next town," the driver said threateningly. "I ain't stopping the bus out in the middle of nowhere just because you get some wild hair that you don't want to go to Reno...Hell I don't want to cart these old geeks any further myself but sometimes you got to do things you don't want...so why don't you jez go sit back down with the sunshine-set and let me drive."
Bob reached into his pocket. "I have a gun here and if you don't stop the bus I'm going to splatter your brain...small as it is...all over the windshield."
The driver slammed on the brakes sending balls of yarn and false teeth clicking around the cab of the bus. With a whoosh of air the driver opened the door. "Okay, asshole, you want out...go."
"Thank you," Bob said. Even in a crisis, Bob had always been taught to be polite. As he worked his way carefully down the steps, the driver -- who had been brought up with entirely different rules of etiquette -- helped Bob out the door with a kick. He tumbled rudely down the steps. The door whooshed closed behind him and the bus lurched away spitting gravel into his face.
Bob sat up and carefully picked fragments of the Interstate out of his face. The green Jump-off Joe Creek sign rose above him in the fading light. He pulled himself to his feet and looked over the guardrail at the dark water slithering below the bridge. Muddy clouds hovered overhead. With a sigh he lifted his leg over the guardrail, followed Joe's immortalized example, and jumped.
Bob squeezed his eyes together, hoping he wouldn't have to suffer the final indignity of having his miserable life pass before his eyes. An agonizingly long moment passed and instead of an icy impact he felt a painful jerk at his leg. Nausea swept over him as he looked up and dizzily saw and felt his leg wedged in the bridge guardrail.
"shit...Shit...SHIT," he screamed in pain and frustration. The dull water of Jump-off Joe Creek swirled tantalizingly close below. He struggled to get loose. His leg wedged a little tighter in the guardrail and he winced.
It's no damned fair, he thought. "HOW COME IT WORKED FOR JOE, HUH...?" His words bounced off the water and slapped him in the face. Then the rain began.
At least I'm under the bridge and out of the rain, he thought. A moment later, overflow from the highway drained off the edge of the bridge and down his pant leg. He crossed his arms and sullenly prayed that the creek would flood enough to reach his head.
Darkness fell...or rather; it crept over him in cowardly fashion like mold over day-old bread. Bob shivered. Maybe I'll freeze to death, he thought. Not quite as quick as an icy plunge into Jump-off Joe Creek but the end suits the means. They say you feel warm just before you die anyway. He wasn't sure how that fact was established, however. He tried to imagine frozen corpses holding a press conference. He could hear the first question now...the icebreaker, he thought with a macabre chuckle:
"How did it feel just before you...well...went over?"
"Warm, incredibly warm...just like I was bobsledding in hell!" The questions would really start heating up then. Bob began giggling softly, the laughter building in his chest until gravity forced it to a sputtering halt in his throat. The choked laughter burped out and drowned in the creek below. I could die laughing, Bob thought as he fought to catch his breath. That sent him into another fit of laughter. With that Bob shut his eyes and snickered himself into an awkward sleep.
* * *
Bob slept, fitfully dreaming of being a caterpillar diligently spinning a cocoon while hanging from an extremely large shrub. As he hung bundled in his cocoon, he felt something clawing at him and pulling him from the safety of his branch into a giant gaping mouth. He jerked awake with the realization that something was indeed tugging at his leg. From his dizzy point-of-view he made out a dark shape struggling to free his foot from the guardrail, presumably to plunge him into the salivating waters of Jump-off Joe Creek below.
Suddenly the prospect of drowning lost its appeal. Bob kicked out instinctively with his free foot and screamed at the top -- or considering his position, the bottom -- of his lungs. The dark thing gave out a distinctly human grunt followed by a thud. Bob stopped screaming and listened. For a moment all he could hear was the slurping water below. He detected a soft moaning followed by a rustling sound. Something leaned over the guardrail. The something was suddenly illuminated with the flickering glow of a Bic lighter. Bob gasped. It was the gaping mouth of his dreams. He began screaming again.
"Jesus man, be cool," the mouth said calmly. "It ain't like I'm the Creature from the Black Lagoon." Bob stopped screaming. It seemed like a human voice.
"I'm going to swing my belt down to you," the voice continued. "Loop it around your shoulders and I'll hoist you up." The lighter went out and Bob squinted up into the night. The buckle end of a belt swung down and struck him in the forehead. His numb fingers fumbled to get the belt over his head and around his shoulders.
"Just holler when you've got it around your shoulders and I'll start pulling," the voice said.
Bob had the belt around his neck and was still concentrating on working it down to his shoulders.
"Okay, here goes!"
"Wait a minute," Bob called back. "It's around my neckkkkk!" The words and his breath were cut off as he was jerked upward. Bob gasped and plucked at the belt as he felt himself rising rapidly towards the guardrail. Bright spots appeared before his eyes and he began to black out. The pressure released suddenly as he flopped rag-doll style over the edge of the guardrail.
"Whoa, you shouldn't have looped it around your neck that way," the voice said reproachfully. Bob managed a weak nod and tried to roll off the edge of the bridge but his leg was still wedged in between the rails. The source of the voice untangled Bob's foot and propped him up on the rail. The man grabbed his hand and pumped it enthusiastically several times.
"Pleased to meet you Bob, my names G.R. Charon but you can call me Finney -- everybody does."
Bob massaged his throat gingerly, "Uhh...how'd you know my name?"
"Says so right there on your nametag...HELLO MY NAME IS BOB...besides, if I hadn't fished you out from under the bridge you would have been bobbing around in Jump-off Joe Creek!" With that the stranger slapped Bob on the shoulder and let loose a laugh that made him wish he were still sleeping hanging peacefully under the bridge.
Bob looked down at his shirt and sheepishly ripped off the tag he'd been forced to wear while on the tour bus. He rubbed his eyes and looked at his rescuer closely for the first time. G.R. Charon -- Finney -- looked a little like Bob imagined a Southern California version of Dickens' Artful Dodger might look. He wore a battered top hat perched cavalierly atop unfashionably long black hair, curling up as it collided with his jacket collar. The vintage black overcoat with tails matched the formal hat. It looked as if it might have belonged to a proper English gentleman or a mortician. Bob noted that the formal jacket clashed rudely with a slightly dirty tank top. A dead carnation with a black ribbon was pinned to his lapel. A loosely knotted black tie hung around his neck, reaching almost to his faded Levi's. He wore a black high-top tennis shoe on one foot and a white one on the other.
Finney's attire was unique, but it was his face that fascinated Bob. Perhaps it was merely the odd glow from the highway lights but Finney's face seemed...well, crooked. It wasn't deformed. It just conveyed a peculiar paradox of expressions. One side appeared frozen in joy, the other in sadness. Even his eyes were mismatched, one pale blue and the other almost black.
The black eye winked at Bob. "So Bob, if you're through hanging around here, how 'bout we shove off?"
"What," Bob said, blinking dumbly.
"You know, take off, hit the trail, head on down the road, pull out, leave, depart..."
"Oh...I guess...but where are we going?"
"Well, Bob I'm headed to Reno," Finney said somberly. "You can come along or stay here." He pulled a tarnished pocket watch out of an inside pocket and popped it open.
"Shit it's almost midnight; I'm behind schedule. Are you coming?"
Bob looked over his shoulder at Jump-off Joe Creek. The black water rudely gurgled a raspberry at him. Bob looked back at Finney and nodded. "Sure, I was headed to Reno anyway."
A laugh ripped out of Finney's crooked mouth and he slapped Bob on the shoulder again. "Well good enough, I can use the company. Come on, the ol' black barge is waiting!" He pulled Bob to his feet and motioned him down the road where a large dark automobile idled patiently.
Bob wasn't sure how or why he hadn't noticed the car before. It wasn't the kind of car you could easily ignore. It was a hearse, a long, black Cadillac hearse. It wasn't a new hearse -- not one of those modern limo-jobs painted in soothing pastels that thumbed their noses at death and pussyfooted around the whole grim concept. No, this was a genuine, black "there's-a-body-in-the-back" hearse.
Finney grinned as if reading Bob's mind. "She's a beauty ain't she...a 1958 Cadillac hearse. They don't make 'em like this anymore." He ran his hand lovingly along the fender and flicked away an unfortunate bug that'd met his demise on the road.
"Say, Bob, I hate to ask you, but you got any cash?"
Bob looked at him suspiciously.
"Hey, I'm not trying to rob you," Finney said, a genuine look of hurt on his face. "The boss just gets real irritated when I take on cargo without cash. It doesn't have to be much...just kind of a token payment."
Bob sighed and reached for his wallet. It was gone, apparently bailing out when Bob jumped from the bridge. "Er...I seem to have lost my wallet." It was Finney's turn to look suspicious. Bob dug into his hip pocket looking for some money. His hand closed around the lucky silver dollar that he'd been given as part of the tour package when he'd boarded the bus in Portland.
"Wait a second, here's a dollar...it's all I have left." He dropped the coin into Finney's outstretched hand. Finney held the coin up to the light cast by the hearse headlights chuckled gleefully and put it into his pocket.
"That's perfect Bob! I never did like paper money." Finney jumped into the driver's seat and sat there looking comfortably ludicrous in his top hat and tails. "Come on Bob, hop in!"
Bob opened the door and read with a shudder a neat, tastefully lettered sign on the door -- WE PICK UP AND DELIVER! He climbed hesitantly into the passenger seat and gave another shudder.
Everything in the interior, including the dashboard, was covered with dark, purple crushed velvet.
"My boss and I customized this baby ourselves, you like it," Finney said as he caressed the dashboard lovingly.
"Like is hardly the word, Mr...er Finney."
Finney laughed, adjusted his rear view mirror which set a pair of purple, furry dice dancing. He shifted the car into gear and floored the accelerator. Bob fumbled for his seatbelt.
"If you're looking for a seatbelt, you're out of luck," Finney stated somberly. "The only people who ever got strapped down in this car were the ones who rode in the back!" He grinned and let loose a howl. Bob looked over his shoulder uncomfortably at the compartment behind them. A velvet current blocked it from view.
"Don't worry Bob, I've never had an accident." Bob eyed him dubiously. He looked so small perched in front of the steering wheel peering into the lighted corridor the headlights opened up in front of them.
Finney's serious black eyeball swept over and pinned Bob to the purple cushion. "You ever think much about death, Bob?" Bob squirmed slightly and tried vainly to find a pupil swimming somewhere in that vast black iris. He swallowed painfully.
"Well...er...I...uh suppose I do, why do you ask?"
"Bob, Bob...we've got a long way to go so let's just cut through the bullshit," Finney said, followed by a soft "tsk, tsk" and a sad shake of his head. "You don't look like the kind of guy that casually gets an urge to hang under a bridge by one leg and catch a few winks...granted I've known a few people that would do that, but come on...you were trying to kill yourself by taking a nose dive into good 'ol Jump-off Joe Creek weren't you."
Bob nodded feebly.
"A nod's as good as a wink to a blind man!" Finney laughed, grabbed Bob's head in a neck lock and ran the knuckles of his other hand over his skull. The hearse careened towards an oncoming pair of headlights and a horn blared out of the night. Bob screamed and Finney casually corrected course with his knee.
"See Bob, you don't really want to die...you're scared of death." He let go of Bob's head and grabbed the wheel again.
"More like scared to death," Bob said, shocked that he'd discovered his voice.
"Ooooooooh...pretty good one Bob ol' pal," Finney said, obviously impressed. "I'm glad to see you've got a sense of humor."
"I don't really seem to have any sense at all," Bob snapped back. "You know, this is really weird...I mean, sure I jumped off a bridge and ended up hanging over a creek named after some schmuck who jumped into it, but come on...it's not every day you get saved by a guy in a top hat and tails driving a hearse now is it?"
"Hey, let's not start attacking the way I dress or earn a living," Finney said in a feigned hurt voice. "If I weren't who I am and do what I do, you'd still be swinging there in the breeze freezing your heuvo's off."
"I suppose I never did say thanks, did I?"
Finney reached over and slapped Bob on the back. "Ahhh, lighten up...so why were you trying to snuff yourself?"
Bob sighed. "It's a long story."
Finney nodded. "It's a long drive."
* * *
"For the longest time I've been normal," Bob began. "I mean, I didn't have an unhappy childhood or anything. My parents never locked me in a closet or beat me. They treated me quite well...sent me to Sunday school and everything."
Finney shook his head sadly. Bob continued.
"I guess the problem was that everything was too normal. My father was boring. He was an orthopedic shoe salesman. My mother's sole claim to fame was that she was a member of the Cheese of the Month Club.
The entire household was a veritable den of dullness. I even had a boring pet -- a goldfish. Do you realize how dreary goldfish are? I even named it a dull name; do you know what it was?" Finney shook his lopsided head vigorously.
"Its name was Goldy for Christ's sake...GOLDY! I'd watch it swim round and round this stupid plastic palm tree, always clockwise, always at the same monotonous pace. It'd stare vacantly back at me; it's stupid boring mouth gaping all the time. I'd sit there and watch the damn thing and realize how simple and boring it really was. It reminded me of me. That was the way my life was, going round and round in circles. Well, I decided to change things a little, and put some excitement into both of our lackluster lives."
"Yeah, what'd you do," Finney asked, his black eyeball gleaming and his blue one blinking sympathetically.
"I saved money from my stupid boring paper route and sent away to a company that advertised in the back of Boy's Lifestyles -- a stupid, boring magazine -- for a piranha."
"Oooh...I'd never have thought of that," Finney said. "What happened next?"
"I slipped the piranha -- I called him Spike -- into the fishbowl and sat back for the show. Then..." Bob paused and shook his head.
"Then...yeah...come on, what happened."
"Spike looked at Goldy and Goldy looked at Spike. Then that stupid, boring piranha started swimming slowly round and round the plastic palm tree behind Goldy. Round and round and round and round..." Bob's voice faded away.
"Tough luck...defective piranha, huh? What'd you do then?"
"I flushed both of the stupid boring things down the toilet, plastic palm tree and all." Bob turned and stared glumly out the window. Lines of silent pine trees bowed mournfully as they passed down the serpentine road.
"Come on Bob...how about some music? That should cheer you up." Finney leaned over and began rummaging through a cluttered glove box. The hearse swerved uncomfortably close to the shoulder as he concentrated on tape titles. Each time the vehicle seemed ready to plunge into the crowds of trees, Finney unconsciously moved the wheel, skirting disaster. The spectator trees watched the spectacle, literally rooted to the spot. "Hmmm...Grateful Dead...naaaaa, maybe later...Rockin' Requiems...too cutesy...the Gregorian Chant Anthology...nice rhythm...anything special you'd like to hear Bob?"
Like the trees, Bob's attention was rooted to the hearse's erratic course. He managed to gasp out a reply. "Uh...I'd just soon pass on the music for now if you don't mind." Finney popped the glove compartment shut and sat up. The hearse snapped to attention and swerved back into the right lane.
"Suit yourself," Finney said. "Not much of the stuff I like anyway...the boss picks it. Says it's what the clientele expect."
"Eh, what kind of business did you say this was again?"
Finney smiled and winked. "Jes like the sign on the door says, 'We Pick Up and Deliver'."
"Pick up and deliver what," Bob asked warily.
"Whatever...but back to your story. You flushed ol' Goldy, Spike and the plastic palm tree down the crapper. Then what?"
Bob sighed and took a deep breath before answering. "I decided to follow them."
"Down the john?"
"Well, so to speak. I stuck my head in the toilet and tried to flush myself to death."
Finney grimace-grinned. "What a way to go."
"I was on the 13th flush before my dad pulled my head out. He didn't even ask me what I was doing. He just threw me a towel and lectured me about water being a precious commodity and that perhaps I would have to use my allowance to help with the next water bill. My father was boring but practical." Bob stopped talking suddenly.
Drops of rain joined the carcasses of kamikaze bugs on the windshield. Finney twisted a knob and twin wipers groaned into action. Bob stared at them mournfully.
Finney nodded knowingly. "So the running water of Jump-off Joe Creek triggered some psychological switch and you flushed back...I mean flashed back to the toilet trauma, eh?"
Bob sighed and continued to stare at the wipers.
"You take life too seriously Bob...or maybe death. I think I know just the thing to help. Why don't you crawl in the back and pop open that box back there." He pulled aside the curtains screening off the cargo space behind the front seat and motioned with his thumb for Bob to hop in the back.
"Box?" Bob froze, unable to look back where Finney was pointing.
"Yeah, behind you." Finney's voice had taken on a slightly commanding tone. "Just crawl back there and pop the top like I told you...trust me."
Bob had no choice. His body reacted mechanically. He turned and looked into the back of the hearse. He could barely make out a long oblong box with a rounded top in the gloom of the curtained compartment.
"Go ahead Bob."
He climbed over the back of the seat. His hand brushed the metal top of the box and he shuddered involuntarily. It was ice cold.
"Okay, I'm back here, now what?"
"Just open the box." Finney's voice seemed far away.
"It...it looks like a coffin," Bob stammered.
Finney chuckled sinisterly. "Just open it Bob. The latch is right there on the side."
Bob ran his hand along the side of the container. Trickles of icy sweat ran down his back. He found the catch.
"I'm not sure I want to do this."
"There's nothing to be afraid of Bob...OPEN THE BOX."
Bob closed his eyes. Flashes of his life began screening on the inside of his eyelids. Goldy and Spike waved at him from under the plastic palm tree. The waters of Jump-off Joe creek splashed in his face. He snapped his eyes open and lifted the edge of the box. An icy blast of air smacked his cheek and a dim light came on within the chest.
"Help yourself," Finney called back.
Bob began laughing. Softly at first and then crescendoing into a wave of hilarity mixed with gasping sobs of relief. There, illuminated in the dim light of the box, were several six-packs of beer.
"Grab a six-pack and climb on back," Finney instructed. Bob wiped the tears from his eyes and hooked his finger through one of the six-packs. He shut the lid and crawled back into the front seat. He held out the beer. Finney declined.
"It's all yours," he said. "I never drink and drive." Bob shrugged and popped open one of the beers. He didn't normally drink but this seemed like a good time to start.
"That's some cooler you've got there. I thought for a minute..." His voice trailed off.
"That there'd be a body in it," Finney said quizzically.
"Well...er...no, I mean...well this is a hearse." Finney grinned vacantly. Bob drained the first can and belched unrepentantly.
"This stuff isn't half bad." He crushed the can in a momentary rush of beer-induced macho.
"So," Finney said. "You were telling me about how you ended up as a human windsock under Jump-off Joe Creek Bridge."
The beer was lubricating Bob's tongue nicely. He smiled slightly and opened another before continuing.
* * *
"The trauma of the toilet broke my spirit for awhile. My parents never said anything else about it. They did start to get nervous if I spent more than five minutes in the bathroom, though.
I figured the die had been cast. I was determined not to make any more waves..."
"Or flushes," Finney offered.
Bob belched in disgust and continued. "Anyway, I sunk into the purgatory of numbing normalcy. Before I knew it the circle was complete -- I followed in my father's footsteps and landed a job in orthopedic shoe sales at the IF THE SHOE FITS shoe shop. Everything was routine, safe and simple. And despite my resolution to live within the mold that had been created for me I felt the pressure of knowing there had to be more.
"So why didn't you do something else," Phinney asked softly, staring intently at the road. Bob popped the top of his fifth beer and waiting for the foam to ooze back into the can. He took a long pull on the beer and continued.
"I did. One day I walked out of the 'IF THE SHOE FITS' shop and took all of my money out of the bank. I walked into a travel agency and booked the next tour bus out -- the Sunshine Singles tour to Reno. Within an hour I was sitting on a bus loaded with retirees headed for the Promised Land. I felt a certain exhilaration knowing I'd somehow cheated fate. I was breaking away from the circle I'd been swimming around in since childhood."
"So why'd you jump ship halfway to the Promised Land?"
Bob closed his eyes for a moment, recreating the scene in his mind. "I was just sitting there staring out the window when an old guy sitting next to me nudged me for the hundredth time and pointed out Jump-off Joe Creek. 'Why do you suppose they called it Jump-off Joe Creek,' he asked. It was as if someone had replaced the 60-watt bulb in my head with a 150-watt spotlight. It dawned on me what a completely useless and totally pointless question I'd been asked. It also made me realize how completely useless and totally pointless my life really was no matter where I went. I decided then and there to break the circle once and for all. I stopped the bus and got off. Simple as that. Then I jumped. The rest you know." Bob sank morosely in his seat and finished the beer.
"You know what I think Bob," Finney asked solemnly. Bob shook his head slightly. His brain felt thick and fuzzy. "I think you should have replaced that 60-watt bulb with a bug light cause you're one buggy dude."
"Thanks a lot," Bob said, sinking lower in his seat.
"That just seems like a pretty lame excuse to try and off yourself."
"Hey, if I hadn't of taken that opportunity to dive off the bridge, I wouldn't be sitting here getting drunk and keeping you entertained while you deliver whatever it is that you're delivering to whoever it is you're delivering it to."
Finney's black eye swept over and looked at Bob carefully. "You'd have been here sooner or later anyway Bob."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Finney swerved the car to the shoulder of the road suddenly and stopped the hearse. His black and the blue eye compromised and Finney leaned over and looked into Bob's eyes. Bob blinked his beer-blurred eyes and tried to focus.
Finney sighed loudly. "I mean it wouldn't have mattered whether you'd jumped off Jump-off Joe Creek on the way to Reno or leaped off Suicide Ridge on the way to Boise. You'd still be riding with me. We almost met that time you tried flushing yourself into oblivion."
"I don't understand," Bob said, blinking dumbly.
"What's Bob spelled backwards?"
"What's Bob spelled backwards," Bob echoed. Finney nodded his head vigorously.
"I mean, Bob old boy that you've finally succeeded at breaking the endless monotone of your life that you've grown so obsessed with. You've joined our infamous friend Jump-off Joe in the murky waters of Jump-off Joe creek."
Thousands of bubbles of beer began bursting in Bob's brain. "You mean I'm dead?"
Finney whacked Bob's shoulder and chuckled gleefully. He put the hearse into gear and squealed away from the shoulder. "As a doornail."
Bob pressed his hand against his temples, trying desperately to massage Finney's words into his brain. His head was spinning.
"But...where are you taking me...heaven or hell?"
"Relative terms Bob ol' pal." Finney hit the accelerator and the hearse lurched forward. Bob's stomach lurched at the same time and the beer and the excitement combined forces. He leaned over and spilled his guts on the purple carpeted floor of the hearse. Bob moaned weakly and tried sitting up. It was too much for him. The hearse hit a bump and he mercifully blacked out.
* * *
A blast of gray light and cold air nudged Bob awake. He tried to swallow and gagged slightly at the sour taste in his mouth. He sat up stiffly. Finney grinned at him from the driver's seat.
"Not much of a drinker, eh," Finney said with a wink.
"I guess I was overwhelmed by all of the excitement."
"I just wish you'd have warned me before you got overwhelmed in my car."
Bob croaked out a weak apology. "Where are we," he asked, noting the trees lining the road had been replaced with billboards.
"About three miles out of the little city of fortune -- Reno!"
"I never thought I'd see it," Bob said, perking up a bit. "I had this dream that you told me I was dead and on my way to...well...er...never mind."
Finney looked at Bob somberly. "I'm going to drop you off at the Palms Casino." Bob nodded absently. His eyes soaked in the neon and flashing signs as the hearse rolled into downtown Reno. Even in the dull morning light there were people bustling about on the streets.
The hearse pulled into a long circular entryway in front of the casino and stopped at the curb. Bob's eyes gleamed at row after row of neon palm trees swaying electronically on the side of the pink building.
Finney looked at him with his sad blue eye. Bob thought he detected a little precipitation forming on the lower lid. He climbed out of the hearse. "Thanks Finney, I owe you..." Bob began.
"No thanks needed; it's all part of the job. I hope Reno's what you expect. It's one hell of a town."
"But what do I do now, where do I go." Bob asked.
Finney sniffed slightly, wiped his nose on his jacket sleeve and pointed to the pink casino. Then without a word he shifted the hearse into gear and disappeared in a cloud of exhaust.
Bob turned slowly and wiped away the sweat beading up on his forehead. Hotter than I expected, he thought. He started walking toward the building. Glass doors slid noiselessly open as he approached. The casino was a huge round room with a giant palm tree in the center. Gaming tables and slot machines surrounded the giant palm tree like spokes of a giant wheel. Cocktail waitresses dressed in hot pink uniforms mechanically served the feverish faces that paced around the tables or clung to sweaty slot machine handles. Many people just milled about, walking round and round the room.
Bob stood for a moment and blinked at the giant palm tree. Finally he fell in step and began walking around the room. Round and round and round...