EL DIA DE LOS MUERTOS
NOVEMBER 1, 2009
It was an extremely unquiet week on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. There was all kinds of ruction with gang battles in the usually sober-sided East End, ghosts and goblins haunting all over the place, much nervous jumping up and down and furthermore the annual Day of the Dead Tradition in the Offices.
Over in the Offices the Editor was pounding on the door of the Office Toilet with all the Staff there behind him and poor old Chad needing to pee real bad, but Denby remained securely locked on the other side refusing to come out.
"Denby! Come on out now! Be a man about it!"
"Fer chrissakes open the door. Ya sound like a bullock being dragged off to be made into something more edible. Open the door!"
"Denby, its Tradition. We all draw straws, every one of us. Every year, no exceptions."
"Not me. I'm opting out this year. Make Javier do it."
"He's done it already and he's not The One. You have to draw. We all do. Nobody has drawn the shortest one yet."
"Why me? I draw the short one every year!"
"Come on now. Buck up. Its Tradition. Think of the East Coast and so on. They are full of that Tradition all the time over there. Come out. Besides, Chad has to pee."
"Have him use the Editorial Office. You have one all to yourself."
"You know I can't allow that. That throne is for me and me alone. Come out now I order you!"
"Dennnnnbeeeeeeeee!", wailed the agonized Chad.
"Well, I guess I am just going to have to have a word with the Social Coordinator, a certain Ms. Sharon, and we just might have to put you on the Disco Rap DJ circuit for a while until you are again in her good graces . . . ".
"Ahhhhrrrrg! Not that!"
Suddenly the door burst open. Chad abruptly pushed forward, entered and slammed the door behind him.
"Right then. Thats a man. Okay now, bring up the cup."
Javier stepped forward with a pewter chalice which held what appeared to be several straws. All of them rather short looking.
Denby covered his eyes and drew. And held it up. It was compared. It was the shortest straw of course. And a great sigh of relief passed through the Staff of the Island-Life Offices.
Denby groaned with anguish.
Now, now Denby. This is Tradition. Go now. The Editor said.
And he slapped the man on his back and sent him out the door as at least one voice muttered, "Glad its not me this time."
It is Tradition. Every year about this time Denby draws the short straw and is given The Dream. The Dream goes like this:
From the offices he walked along the path that borders the Strand and came to a stone wall. He could not remember a stone wall being there, about two and a half feet high and extending for infinity in both directions, but this one seemed to have been there for eons, with scraggly weeds crowding up against lichened stones. There was no gate or path through but something called us from the dim otherside and so, hesitating a moment to leave the relatively well-lit path, he slogged through the sand before the wall and stepped over into a dark mist and a voice seemed to echo in the darkness, "Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!" and the words flamed inside the skull as if poured in molten steel.
Well thats a funk.
On the other side the ground sloped down as usual to the water for about thirty yards, but he could not see the far lights of Babylon's port facilities or the Coluseum. In fact, the water had the appearance of extending out beyond to Infinity. But all up and down the strand bonfires had been lit, as is customary among our people in this part of the world, and towards one of these he stumbled among drift and seawrack.
A small child wearing a nightdress ran past and disappeared as quickly as she had come, a Daughter of the Dust.
At the bonfire's edge a bright voice greeted us, "Denby! What are you
doing here now? Is it your time at last?"
A spritely gal with a blonde poll appeared and reached out. But her hand went right through our arm, leaving a clammy, cold sensation.
"Oh!" She said. "You are not one of us quite yet! Well, come on and visit for a while."
The girl flit back to the firelight around which a number of forms sat or stood.
"Penny, its you," He said. "We miss you. . . ".
"Oh Denby, you were always so . . . lugubrious. Lighten up and don't be so dead!" came the response. And her laughter was a sparkle of diamonds in that dark night.
Sitting around that fire, we recognized many faces. And many more all up and down that beach.
Strange words in another language reverberated inside the skull: "si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta" echoing and echoing down long hallways of mirrors into eternity. None of this seemed to make any sense at all.
There beside the firelight, reclining upon an ottoman and dressed in a silk
gown lay a familiar form capped with luxurious chestnut curls. A number of gentlemen
stood and sat about her, some with cornicopia and platters laden with grapes,
oranges and mangos and a cat lay at her feet. She jumped up and greeted him
"Lynn! Lynn you are here!"
"And there YOU are! Big as life!" Here a peal of girlish laughter erupted from her. "You should come join us for The Revels. We all dress up in medieval costume, just like in the old days of the Society of Creative Anachronisms. Might loosen you up a bit."
"Well, maybe later on," he said. "How have you been?"
"Oh I am fine! Its everyone else I am worried about. I am fully done and cared for already. Its you that has the problems. Really Denby, you just turned half a century now, I hear. Tell me this? What do you want to be when you grow up? I mean, if you could be anything at all."
This perplexed him a bit, but then Lynn had always perplexed him just such a way.
One of the little girls scampering through almost ran into him then, and stood there suddenly looking at him with big dark eyes which seemed to hold entire spinning galaxies before she ran off.
"Oh you think about it," she said. "Oh will you look at that!
Just look! Aren't you something!" She was referring to the cat, which had
crept under the ottoman to hide behind the overhanging fringe and bat at a horseshoe
This caused Lynn to erupt into peals of laughter which she interrupted briefly to look over her shoulder at him and wink, saying, "Bye bye!" And she vanished.
A familiar voice called out from the ring of fire. It was Carol, a younger and slimmer woman than we remembered, with a head of golden curls we had only seen in a photograph. "Hello Denby. Still writing I see."
He told her she was looking well, and a girlish fit of laughter erupted. "At the very least we get to look our best here. Just because Mayakovsky does not mention eyelashes and lipstick doesn't mean an old girl can't fix her self up for the Revolution."
"You haven't changed a bit. You know that was quite a service with Jack holding forth like in the old days of the Beats. Must have packed every lefty poet in town in there . . .".
"Oh really. I didn't go. It didn't seem it would add much and I never was one to fish for compliments."
He asked here if she had any prescience for "The Revolution," and she responded that no one in this place had any more foresight than before. "You just need to pick your battles carefully and be smart about it," she said, simply. "I really don't think there will be a Revolution in America; the big Middle Class is all too comfortable with yielding up important things for the sake of an easy-chair, as you have seen the past few years. There still will always be The Struggle in various forms, and I see you taking part from time to time. Now I am out of all that and have enough to do meeting new and old friends. Say hello to David when you see him -- but don't tell him you saw me. The boy is sensitive."
A bulky form rose up from next to her and we were astonished to face once again someone we thought we would never meet again. This time, he greeted this ghost first. "David, you are here." This David, not Carole's David, had been the foremost among that rowdy group of uncontrolled bohemian artists called the "Babarians" after their meeting place Cafe Babar in the City.
David was, as usual, sardonic and terse in his response. Did you expect me
somewhere else? Here he had found alternative companions and a few more besides.
Tonight, he visited among the lesser known. As it turned out, he was gratified
and surprised there were as few differences between him and Denby than first
"I always had thought in the beginning we were extraordinary, we Cafe Babarians, but when I met you doing the same scut work as I did to get by, I learned the differences are not so great and that was a painful lesson. As for you," he turned to look far out across the water. "You must suffer a great deal more to become as hard as we were. Unfortunately, there is yet hope for you." The form of David stepped back into the darkness and that of Michael appeared, floating at least six inches above the earth as he sat zazen.
"Michael, I am still trying to find the center of my ethnic identity . . .".
"No!" he responded more emphatically from his devout position, his fingers jabbing with insistent energy like spears, "I wanted you to find the center of yourself independent of history -- whether you are Jew or Sufi it does not matter! You are a soul spinning ecstatically through the universe and without a center you just become dizzy and fall down." Then he added, somewhat sardonically, "And I notice you tend to fall down frequently. Know yourself, then you can wear the beautiful Mask and write about it. Excuse me as I must now return to my conversation with Ghandi."
Another voice called to us. "Well, Denby, you were right when you told me to stop following everybody and to make my own stand. But I made my stand in a place not my own and stood up in the firefight, and so wound up here. And these people are not my people tonight. Most nights I sit with Patton and Eisenhower and Sherman. And many from The Other Side."
That voice belonged to Johnny, wearing the torn uniform of an Army officer. In the closing days of 1972 he shipped off to 'Nam, lying about his age, along with about thirty others, a futile Children's Crusade.
"Johnny, why did you do it? Why did you fudge the records and go in unofficial? When they found out, they struck your name from The Black Wall. You got declared noncombatant because you were underage. . .".
"That's not what it ever was about, Denby. About a million guys from the NVA never wound up on that Wall and never will and its my sentence to meet each one of them and spend unnumbered hours with them here. I have my own concerns now and my own resolutions. This here is my last stand and there is no other."
A couple jogging by paused in the moonlight beside the bonfire, a Black man and a white woman. "Well," said the man, "How surprised I am to find a Ghost down here." Eric stood there in a lean track-suit -- black, of course, with white stripes -- his beard neatly clipped, his 'Fro a reminder of some other decade. Beside him stood blonde-haired Julie, wearing a suit of dazzling white.
"Julie, Eric, you found each other. Eric, I though you were shot down in DC, and Julie, there was that window . . .".
"Oh, all that is old history," said Eric. "You should live for the now and pay more attention to what's around you. White men is the Devil, as Fanon said. No surprise when planes smack into buildings because of it. You give my Brother Tom a call when you get back; he could use some help right about now. As for me, this fine lady keeps me company these days."
"Let the memories push you forward, not hold you back. One headlight," said Julie.
"Gotta run. Take care of yourself, Denby." And the two were gone, running down the strand.
Another figure came jogging along, a trim man with a trim salt and pepper beard who paused in front of him.
"Well, Jack, how are you now."
"Ah Denby. Been a long time since I have seen you. Gained a little weight I see."
"A few minor injuries." Denby said.
Jack patted his stomach. "One of the benefits of waiting here. In this place. Get to keep just as trim as I always was. Hear you have been climbing mountains or some such thing."
"Something like it," Denby said. He looked to the water where there was a wharf he had not noticed ever being before. A skiff was approaching, poled by a figure who had eyes like wheels of fire. An animal or animal, looking like dogs seemed to be with him.
"Yes, after a while, we go one at a time to the City on the Other Side. I was a doctor, as you know, but that counts for little in the grand scheme of things here. Other things are . . . more important."
With that, Jack was gone.
A figure appeared with sticks rapping out a rhythm on drift logs. He had curly hair and a slim figure.
"I don't know you, " Denby said. And the figure paused his drumming. "My name is Michael. We never met. I ... crossed over ... in Thailand. You know my sister. And we have been living together, you and me, for some fifteen years now."
They faced one another, the ghost and the drummer. Ever since we first learned of Michael his habits and resume have filled our days for he was the brother of the Adored and so closest to everything that we hold dear. Not a day goes by when she does not say, "Michael did that." or "Michael said this about that." If ever there were one who remained in effect after the crossing, Michael was the man.
She had raised her brother in a solitary home after mother had died before her thirteenth birthday and father had gone nuts among the nuns in some distant House for the Mentally Indigent. The long loop of the years had roped in their consecutive lives into a kind of family existence with Xmas'es and Fourths and Thanksgivings spent among the rag tag of punk society that is for such that manage to survive under severe conditions while she fought her way through nursing school and he through rock bands and finally aviation in the doomed world of Reaganomics. He had a lot of questions to ask this Michael.
"You cannot stay here now. You must go back now for your term." Michael said. "In the meantime, take care of my sister -- and anyone's sister for that matter. Study clouds and wind patterns. Look at the sky as often as you can. Go now."
Brief flashes in the darkness. Little girls wearing nightdresses running barefoot between the groups, playing tag with bright eyes. Wind brought sea spray across the tidal mud flats.
"Who are these", he asked.
"They are the not yet and never was, said Penny, with a trace of rueful wistfulness not characteristic of her. "Of us and of others with you."
It took a moment to register. And then she said to come with her now. Time was finished and soon the change of the hours would come.
Penny took him back to the wall, which he would not have found otherwise, as sight seemed to have become blurred by some saltwater carried on the air.
"Oh, you'll be back before long," Penny said. "Try to enjoy your stay where you are at for now. Fling yourself into Life while you still have it; at this point I don't regret a thing except waiting far too long to take up skydiving." She paused at the wall and looked with big eyes, a half-smile on her face. "And practice your singing. You really need lots of practice." A wet something touched his cheek and she was gone.
And after he climbed over that low wall, everything back there receded into a mist and there was only the stretch of water out to Babylon and the lights of Bayview and Hunters Point and the ring of the Coluseum. One by one the distant bonfires winked out until there was only the long and lonely empty length of beach with the lights of the apartment houses behind him.
He walked back to the Offices where only the Editor sat there behind his desk, his eyeglasses perched on his nose and his remaining hair flying about in an aurole about his head.
Any idea when the Recession will be over? he asked Denby.
They didn't tell me, Denby said. No idea.
The Editor sighed. Rather bad this time, wasn't it?
Denby said nothing. The Editor reached back behind him and brought out a bottle of Glenfiddich with two glasses. "Probably doesn't matter. When the Recession ends and who knows about it. Would anyone really do anything different if they knew? Doubt it. The way things are going, we all are going to need more than a stiff drink to get through and a stiff one is all we got. Ice?"
As they sat there with their glasses filled with ice and Glenfiddich and as the watches of the night turned over to reluctantly start the next day, right on schedule, the long wail of the throughpassing train as it ploughed through the Jack London Waterfront ululated across the moonlight diamond-sparkled waves of the estuary, across the chopped waves of the Bay, across the humped hills of Babylon and through the high singing wires of the barren and traffic-less Bay Bridge, over the turretted antennae of San Bruno Mountain and the quiet plots of Colma where the dew formed out of the fog, falling softly through the universe upon all, upon all of the living and the dead.
That is the way it is on the Island. Have a lively week.
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