Ambrose Bierce is alive. He dwells in the mind of Theodore Pane, a thirty-five year old unemployed bartender. Pane tended bars because he enjoyed working at night and because he liked to talk to people. He is unemployed because now his nights are filled with episodes from Bierce’s life, and some of the people he talks to have been dead for over a century.
At first, beginning years ago, Pane was occupied only with youthful ruminations about the long-dead, mysterious writer. But now, after a disturbing series of unusual occurrences and inexplicable mental dislocations, he believes that his mind is under siege by Bierce’s disembodied essence. The renowned cynic has returned, nearly eighty years after his supposed death, to the place where he had spent his childhood and adolescence.
Although convinced that he was selected by Bierce as the vessel in which to re-emerge, Pane does not understand the reason for such an unlikely circumstance. Not only can he find no rationality in such a thing; he can also not speak of it. No one, not even his wife, would believe him. And who could blame her? If he wouldn’t be experiencing it himself, he certainly would not deem such a thing possible. But the troubling dreams, some of which more closely resemble out-of-body experiences, have plagued Pane for the past year. In these manifestations Pane is thrown into the past for a few moments or even for hours, and in them he is Bierce – as a boy, as a young man, as a mature writer, and in some of the most vivid visions an aging and troubled misfit. Pane never communicates directly with Bierce, but rather carries on this peculiar and intimate relationship by being him.
Bierce’s death, Pane has come to believe, although generally considered to have occurred in 1914 during Bierce’s enigmatic involvement with Mexico’s Pancho Villa, actually took place over a period of years, occurring in and near a strange and obscure Mexican mountain village that does not exist on any map. The cause of death was not traceable to a specific agent or event, but rather was the result of a series of unrelated and disconnected phenomena that Bierce himself did not fully understand. Lacking a definitive and dramatic end – the kind that Bierce’s readers and admirers might have expected, and that his detractors and the objects of his journalistic ridicule might have desired – his disquieted consciousness continued on even after his body ceased to function. And with each of Pane’s time-leaping episodes Bierce’s long-disjointed, restive spirit has settled gradually and inexorably into the hapless bartender’s brain.
At first Pane marveled at and even enjoyed the spiritual liaison. Going from conjectural, purely imaginative speculations about Bierce’s life to first-hand exposure to his innermost thoughts and emotions was, if nothing else, a broadening experience. Bierce was a legendary and controversial figure, and had lived, as a young man, no more than a quarter mile from Pane’s trailer, just a few miles from Warsaw, Indiana. Pane, as something of an amateur historian, occasional student of literature, and now a resident of Bierce’s one-time neighborhood, naturally had found himself pursuing reflective, informal research about him. But now, as Pane’s own life has deteriorated and fallen out from under him, and he is able to think only sporadically with the last remnants of his own psyche, he has finally come to resent Bierce’s intrusion into his life. By the time Pane realized he was being taken over by the virtual ego of Bierce it was too late to fend off the attack. Pane never could have guessed that things would end up like they have.
“Please stay with me a while, Louise,” he told his wife as she walked out of their trailer one Saturday morning. “Don’t go away yet. I still need you. Louise, please. Just another week or so, then it’s OK.”
“Get a job, Teddy,” she said coldly.
“I will, Louise, I swear it.”
“You had one, you idiot, and you lost it.”
“It wasn’t me, Louise. It’s not my fault.”
But she left anyway, shaking her head and glancing behind her as she passed through the door. She looked at Pane’s forehead and wondered what in hell was growing in there that would make a man so crazy. Lapsing into some kind of catatonic trance and carrying on one-sided conversations with no one was not natural. It took his job and wrecked their marriage. She thought it was cancer; a fast-growing, poisonous lump of diseased tissue that was choking Pane’s brain and making him nuts. Now he would have to go it alone, and she would come back after he was institutionalized and take over his meager possessions. After suffering with his lunacy for so long, and after listening to doctor after doctor declare her husband physically fit, she was giving him over to the ethereal malignant demon in his brain.
From the door of their trailer Pane watched Louise open the trunk of her car, throw in the last few boxes of her possessions, and drive off. He waved at her, a pathetic signal that she neither saw nor would have appreciated. He was waving himself into a life without her, a life that few people could comprehend, let alone empathize with. Long after Louise had driven beyond sight Pane was still waving, but only to stir the thick and humid summer air as it enveloped him and smothered him in its stifling grip.
Finally giving up, he backed into the trailer, a pink- and green-striped white metal box that he and Louise had purchased for $2800 from her Uncle Joe in Silver Lake when they got married, and that had served them well during the nine years since. He backed all the way across the living room and bumped into the sofa that he and Louise had made love on the morning after their senior prom and again on the day of their graduation from high school in her parents’ recreation room in the basement of their home. He fell backwards and sat down hard on it. He looked through the open door at the deserted county road outside. The sunlight was brilliant and almost auditory as it exploded across the countryside, blasting the vibrant summer colors into his eyes. The corn plants in the field across the road, dancing and swirling in the wind, were an ocean of green, fluorescent flashes. He could hear them rustling and cracking, swishing and swaying. In unison they taunted him and mocked him, laughing at him and his agony.
He leaned back and laced his fingers together behind his head. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his wife’s departure, knowing that if he didn’t concentrate hard he would lose the thought. He wondered what it would be like without her. He loved her still, although he knew she had probably lost most of her feelings for him. With her gone there was little left to anchor him to his own reality; little now to keep him from drifting away.
As Pane’s thoughts rambled, his mind wandered gradually and inevitably into familiar territory. The road in front of the trailer, the same one that Ambrose Bierce traveled regularly nearly 150 years before, lay waiting for him. He opened his eyes and stood up, walked out through the open door, down the steps, and across the lawn. The dusty dirt trail was riddled with potholes and littered with horse dung. He carefully picked his way along it, walking east toward the road that went north into Warsaw.
His route was a friend to him in its rustic disrepair and rural isolation. He had walked on it many times in the past few months, and when he had he always felt the same emotions. They were his roads, he thought, and walking on them as much as he did gave him the right to call them his. If his father had owned a horse worth the powder to blow it up, he would be riding to town. But since Pane was embarrassed to even sit on the sway-backed beasts his father called horses, he walked. Walking, at least, was an honest and invigorating way to spend the hour it took to get there.
This trip was more special than any of the others. It was about a job, a real job that might mean he wouldn’t have to spend his days out here in the country any more. If so he would be happy – joyous would be more like it. And his life would be changed. He craved change, like a prisoner serving a long sentence craves anything that will make one day different from the others. Anything, any kind of deviation will do. A job, one in town, would be a sea change for him – it would transport him into a different place, a different world, a better life. It could mean everything to him – or utter despair if he didn’t get it. So he was excited but frightened. He must get it, he thought, or he’ll be stuck on the farm for the rest of his life, at least until a war happens somewhere. And his father would own him until the end of his days, and his smothering family would devour him and suck the life juices right out of him and leave his empty carcass hanging on the back of the barn.
He walked with unusual vigor for such a hot day. He sweated hard but didn’t mind, just wiping the water off his face with his kerchief when it bothered him. Summer didn’t last forever, he thought, so a person might as well accept it and enjoy the warmth. He passed the minutes contemplating a few new words he had run across the other day. He liked words and loved new ones, and spent much of his spare time considering and comparing certain eccentric qualities of them. He made sentences and even paragraphs in his mind, although he rarely wrote them down. It was difficult to write while one was walking, and that’s when he did most of his composing. He crossed the bridge over Walnut Creek and turned north at the intersection just beyond it.
This was the main trail into Warsaw from the south. On this Saturday morning it was busy with buggies, wagons, and men on horseback. Some of those in vehicles stopped to offer him a ride and others just waved as they passed him. He knew some of them, recognized others, and wondered who the rest were and where they came from. Most of them were making their weekly or monthly trip to town, and some of them, perhaps, were going to Warsaw for the first time. If so, Pane thought, this day will be one that they will remember.
Three miles from home, but in no time at all, he entered the south edge of town. He had been here often, and during the school term every day, but he always felt like a stranger. He knew very few people in town, all of whom excepting a dozen or so not giving one good damn about why he might be walking into their midst today.
But, unknown or not, going to Warsaw on Saturday morning was nearly as good as going to a fair. Almost everyone in the county, and even some from beyond, were there to participate in its commerce. The people were either buying or selling, and many were doing both. Pane viewed the wares of many makeshift merchants as he picked his way slowly down the dirt and shit-laden streets, dodging wagons and buggies and horses, running children and wandering dogs. He made his way to the offices of the Northern Indianian, the weekly newspaper published by Reuben Williams. He had been inside the place only one other time, to inquire about the job that he had read about in the pages of the very newspaper that was in need of a printer’s devil.
He stopped in front of the red brick building, peering through the open front door at the intriguing blackness inside, blinking hard after the hour-long exposure to the bright sunlight and wondering if he were embarrassingly early or unforgivably late for the appointment that he had arranged three days before. He was self-conscious, and was certain that everyone passing by on the street thought him a pathetic country clod who probably stopped and ogled through the open door of each of the city’s buildings as he meandered aimlessly about the town.
“Are you Bierce?” a strong voice struck him in the face from within the dark office. Pane backed up a step, then pushed his head forward and looked wide-eyed into the darkness. He cleared his throat.
“Well, come in then.” The masculine voice was commanding and tinged with the slightest hint of impatience, but yet was not menacing.
Pane stepped forward, then stopped and checked the bottoms of his shoes. Horseshit was caked fresh and thick on each one. He took an old butter knife out of his pocket and scraped the shoes clean, flipping the moist, repugnant stuff back into the street where he had found it. He wiped the knife on his pant leg and went into the office.
“There’s more horse and dog crap in this town than honest men,” the man inside said. “Seems like for every new turd there’s a new thief or charlatan. This town, I’m afraid, is going to the dogs. The dogs and the Democrats.”
Pane couldn’t see the man at first, just a shadow among other shadows as his eyes adjusted to the meager light inside. Pane rubbed his eyes, hoping they would come around quickly so he wouldn’t appear rude and stupid.
Sitting behind a large desk at the back of the front room, the man held a cigar tightly in his teeth and carefully inspected the applicant. Pane, finally able to see well enough to find the man’s eyes, realized that he was under careful scrutiny. He stood erect as if at attention and wondered if the man had somehow made reference to him in his joke.
“I’m Reub Williams,” the man said. “I’m the fellow you’re here to see.”
Pane knew it had to be him, but smiled and acted surprised.
“Mr. Williams, I’m Ambrose Bierce.” He walked forward and stretched his hand across the desk. Williams rose and shook it. Pane felt bones mash together in his hand. He should have winced – would have loved to groan – but instead forced a grin and endured the pain. Williams, a thin and rather small man, was strong and confident. He wore a white, long-sleeved shirt inside a brown, unbuttoned vest, and a black tie dangled loosely from his neck. His coat lay across the desk, and a dress straw hat sat atop it. Williams was much younger than Pane had imagined. He had turned twenty-four just several days before.
“Sit down, son,” Williams said, and pointed to a straight-backed chair in front of the desk. Pane found it comical that he should be called “son” by a man younger than several of Pane’s own siblings.
Pane sat on the edge of the chair and placed his hands on the front edge of Williams’ desk. He took a long deep breath to calm himself and smelled the sweetly pungent ink and solvent odors that had stayed in his nose and in his thoughts since the first time he entered the office. He had not met Williams then, but had made arrangements for this meeting through one of the publisher’s employees.
Pane looked around at the cluttered but cozy office, and focused on a small, framed picture on the wall. It was a man he didn’t recognize. Williams noticed Pane’s interest in it.
“Do you know who that is, Bierce?” he asked.
“No, sir, I don’t believe I do.”
“That’s John C. Frémont, the first Republican presidential candidate,” Williams said proudly. “He’s a good man, and should have been elected.” Williams had established the Northern Indianian, along with C.W. Fairbrother, in 1856 – just a year ago – as an organ of the newly formed Republican Party.
“How old are you, son?” Williams dispensed with small talk and drove headlong into the business at hand.
“Fifteen,” Pane said.
Williams looked surprised.
“Fifteen isn’t very old,” he said.
“Why does a young fellow like you need a job? Isn’t your father a farmer?” Williams leaned back and stroked his heavy dark mustache. He stared intently into Pane’s face.
“Yes sir, he is.”
“Well, couldn’t he use your help on the farm?”
Pane considered his answer for a few seconds before he started it.
“I do help him, sir, and I’ll continue to help him. But he don’t need me around much ’cause he’s got older sons. They’re much better farmhands than I am, and quite a bit stronger, too.” Pane’s brows arched sharply as he spoke, and his adolescent voice cracked with emotion. Williams looked upon him with compassion as well as with a sense of humor. He stifled a grin, then coughed and composed himself.
“With all that good strong help, your father’s probably anxious to be rid of such a weakling as you.”
“Yes, sir, that’s a definite possibility.”
Williams considered the seriousness of Pane’s reply.
“But that doesn’t explain why you want this job.”
“Well, sir, I believe I’d like to learn a trade as well as earn money.” Pane looked Williams square in the eyes when he spoke, and Williams appreciated his forthrightness.
“Do you have any idea, Bierce, what trade you’d like to learn?”
“No, sir. Well, the newspaper trade I guess.” Pane regretted his reply and felt stupid. He knew he should have solid, positive answers in a job interview.
“Do you know anything about the newspaper business?”
“Yes, sir. I read ’em quite a little bit.”
Williams looked down quickly and allowed the wisdom of youth to take hold of him. He looked back up at Pane.
“Do you ever read mine?”
“Oh, yes sir. Every week. My father is a subscriber.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, sir, I sure do.”
Williams leaned forward and picked up a sheet of paper. He looked at it for a minute, then placed it back on the desk.
“Do you go to school?”
“The high school?”
“Do you like school?”
“Well, certain aspects of it, sir.”
“Yes, Bierce, I think I know what you mean.” Williams looked over Pane’s shoulder and through the open front door as his thoughts went somewhere beyond the room they were in.
It was hot in the office, and the noises from the street – the children’s shouts and horses’ whinnies and the grinding of the wagon wheels in the dirt – were strangely deadened as they drifted into the heavily scented, stagnant air inside. Pane slapped at a fly that landed on his nose. He pulled out his already damp kerchief and wiped his forehead. He wondered what Williams was thinking, and felt with great certainty that he considered Pane a miserable excuse for a prospective employee. Pane had, undoubtedly, ruined his chances for a job here and Williams was probably thinking about another fellow that had applied for the job earlier. Yes, he could see it in his eyes – Williams was trying to formulate his reason for excluding Pane from consideration. Finally, after dozens of interminable seconds, Williams looked back to him.
“Bierce,” he said, “my guess is you’d take the job even if I said you’d have to scrub outhouses and dip excrement. Wouldn’t you?”
Williams laughed out loud. He leaned over his desk, putting both elbows on it and resting his chin in his hands.
“If I gave you the job, would you quit school?”
Pane didn’t know the answer to that. He hadn’t thought about it, and had no idea what kind of answer Williams expected or desired. He shrugged his shoulders.
“I will not give you this job, Bierce, if it means you’ll quit school.” Williams sat back in his chair and looked sternly at the applicant.
“I won’t, sir.”
“Where do you live, Bierce?”
“About three miles southwest of here, sir.”
“And how do you get to school?”
“I walk, sir.”
“And if you worked here after school, and on Saturdays, you’d walk it every day and would never be late for work?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure I could do it, Mr. Williams.”
“But much of your work will be in the evenings, and it will be dark when you walk home. Will you still do it?”
Williams pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket. He picked up a match from the desktop, struck it across the underside of his chair, and touched the flaming stick to the end of the long, slender stogy. He puffed until it glowed and smoked nicely, then shook the match out and dropped it on the floor.
“You want a job pretty bad, don’t you Bierce?”
“I sure do, sir.”
Williams pondered Pane’s answers for a while, then took the cigar from his mouth and cleared his throat.
“Would you consider moving into town?”
Pane hadn’t thought about that, but it certainly sounded fine to him.
“I don’t know, sir.” Pane didn’t want to appear hesitant, but he couldn’t imagine where he would live. “I don’t know where I could stay.”
“I have a room, Bierce, at my own house. Perhaps with a little persuasion I could convince my wife to let you stay in it for a time. Just for a while, until we see if things will work out. The room and board would be deducted from your wages. How does that sound?”
Pane felt his face flush red with pleasure. He nodded and mumbled something incoherent not only to Williams but to himself as well.
“If you’re going to be a newspaperman, Bierce, you’ll have to learn to speak up and say what’s on your mind. Never let anyone accuse you of mincing your words or of being unclear about anything.” Williams was perfectly serious, and Pane understood that his apprenticeship had already begun.
Williams stood up.
“If you are to be employed here,” he said, “we’d better have a look at the equipment. You might as well see what it is you’ll be doing. Maybe you’ll change your mind after you find out what I expect of you.”
Williams took Pane on a tour of the shop, spending a considerable portion of the time looking at the press and describing the process by which raw copy became the weekly published product. Pane smiled incessantly during the tour and lecture, and he made sure Williams was left with no doubt about his enthusiasm. When they returned to Williams’ desk, it was after noon and Pane’s jaw hurt from his protracted grin.
“Are you hungry, Bierce?” Williams said.
“Well, sir, I believe I could eat a bite.” Pane was ravenous, and had even suffered a spell of lightheadedness during Williams’ instructional.
“I’ll take you home for a meal, Bierce. Now be on your best behavior, because Mrs. Williams will have to judge you as a prospective boarder. Just don’t swear, and by all means don’t spit on the floor.”
They walked to Williams’ home, not far from the office. After Pane self-consciously but successfully passed Mrs. Williams’ inspection, she approved of her husband’s plan.
An hour later Pane was walking home, daydreaming about his new job and his new employer, and hoping that his parents would agree to do without him for a while. His mother, he was certain, wouldn’t even notice that he was gone. His father – well, Pane would find a way to convince him of the value of his new venture. Suddenly he thought of Louise, and wondered whether his job would make any difference to her. He thought it would. She was always thinking about practical things, and had always wanted him to find a good job in a secure trade.
Pane was exhausted but he was in excellent spirits. The falling afternoon sun shone directly in his eyes but he loved it. His tanned face absorbed the rays greedily, soaking their warmth deep into his skull. He thought he heard the sun humming, and the noise created a tingling deep inside his brain. It was a curious feeling, and if he had not been so happy it might have worried him. But he strode smoothly and gracefully down the road, watching his shoes put prints in the dirt and whistling along with the endlessly repeating music in his head. The harmonies made it sound like there was a companion walking beside him, singing with him and partaking in his reverie.
Reaching his destination, he turned off the road and walked up to the trailer. He wiped his kerchief across his face and stopped outside the open door, checking the soles of his shoes. As he scraped them clean with the butter knife, he thought of Reuben Williams and his little joke. Then he thought about Louise and giggled. She never thought I’d find a job, he thought. Now maybe she’ll come back.