NOVEMBER 1, 2014
THE CROSSING THIS TIME
So anyway, as the iron bells tolled and the last vestige of summer fled yammering into the cold dark out of which a darker cold breeze blew, and crows carried messages from unseen senders to unseen recipients, Denby put on put on his coat and he put on his hat and so walked out the door, this year the same as the last, with people gathered in fearful little knots, whispering among themselves as he went. "Sure glad it's not me."
As in all Traditions, there is a sense of repetition, of revenance, each time the ritual is repeated.
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 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.
As per Tradition. Dammit.
A large owl, about two feet tall, perched on a piling and scolded him with large owl eyes.
Okay, okay. Poor choice of words around here.
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 Coliseum. 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 to do during the colder winter months along the Strand, and towards one of these he stumbled among drift and seawrack.
A small child, barefoot and wearing a nightdress ran past and disappeared as quickly as she had come.
At the bonfire's edge a bright familiar voice greeted us, "Denby! Back again so soon?"
A sort of pale glimmer drifted over the dark sands, a woman dressed in white with frizzy platinum blonde hair. She reached out with her left arm. But her hand went right through his arm, leaving a clammy, cold sensation.
"Almost crossed over a few times during the past year, Penny," he said to the apparition.
"I know; I could feel it in my bones," Penny said, and she laughed. "Don't be so lugubrious! Come along, meet some people . . .".
As he stepped out of the sawgrass area to the hardpan of compacted sand, he looked up and down the beach to see a myriad bonfires arranged in a broad arc off into the distance. Strange words in another language reverberated inside his hollow braincase with syllables that knocked against the backs of his eyeballs: "si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta . . ." the words echoing and echoing down long hallways of mirrors into eternity. None of this seemed to make any sense at all. It never did each time, even though this same thing happened time and again, like an old fashioned stuck record on a phonograph.
"I sure would like to know who's the big voice who keeps shouting things in Italian," Denby said.
"What are you talking about? Don't be silly," she said, skipping down the slope.
"Well . . . nevermind."
Another child, dressed in a private school uniform, but barefoot, ran between them laughing. She too, disappeared into the darkness.
They came to the bonfire where a number of people sat around on logs, pillows, blankets, talking.
On the edge of the group a slender woman, dressed in 1950's style pants and a simple blouse with brown hair done in a utilitarian perm sat on a log with several dogs at her feet. All of the dogs possessed sharp alert ears, faces like that of a fox with pointed muzzles, wiry bodies built for speed and a short-hair coat of orange with white pattern markings. Their tails curled behind them in upwards curlicues, each one tipped with white as if dipped in bleach.
"Basenjis!" Denby said in surprise, and one of them ran up to him to sniff. "Comet! It's you!"
When he said that the dog sat back and made the most unearthly yodeling sound," Owooooowwwoooo!" Then all the other dogs ran up to him and made as if to leap up and rest their paws on his torso, but their insubstantial bodies kept falling through his, and they milled about in confusion until they made do with lower level sniffing and licking, which felt like cold cotton towels on his skin, every once in a while letting out that unearthly yodel, for basenjis cannot bark.
"Aunt Liz! How did Comet and Betsy and Toto come to be here?"
"They are my welcoming committee. Maybe they have been waiting all this time for me to arrive."
"Well I guess this answers the age-old question, 'Do dogs have souls?'." Denby said.
"Indeed they do. More soul than a lot of people."
"Well how have you been?"
"O, up and down. Been down a long time, but somewhat more up than otherwise recently. Actually its been kind of a roller coaster."
A couple girls ran barefoot between them from outside the firelight and then off into the darkness. Another one, dressed in gingham, came tearing in from the other side, but Penny reached out to snag her squealing and swing her around in a hug.
"I am glad to see its not all doom and gloom around here."
Aunt Liz laughed. "O hardly! Your girls have provided endless amusements."
"All mine?" Denby said, one eyebrow rising.
"Well, would have, could have more like it. Young man, I don't see why you never married."
"Well, you know," Denby said, looking over at Penny playing with the gingham girl, "Things didn't work out the way I planned. The right girl just didn't hang around."
"O Denby, they are all the same. Take it from me. I know there is a certain bartender down there who . . .".
"Now Denby, she's a winsome . . . ".
"She's a character," Denby said. "And she has her own fate. So you going to hook up with Origen or Harry now?"
"O, I don't see any reason to limit my options. Why not hook up with both? After all everything is possible in Paradise."
"Aunt Liz! What makes you so certain in this place, the waiting room for that place and the other one, you are going over to the Golden City? Never mind the idea of hooking with two men at once . . .".
In answer Aunt Liz removed a golden disk from her mouth. "I have the obolu. Whichever way I am going, I am going soon. And I just have a feeling. You should always trust a woman's intuition. Right Penny?"
Penny's laugh tinkled like crystalline bells. "Right you are!"
"Aunt Liz you were to have your 98th birthday on Thursday next! Now you are planning to paint the town red in Heaven?!"
"Better believe it boy! And if it's the Other Place, I am going to show that mean old fellow just how to do the jellyroll! Maybe soften Old Nick up a bit and get him to contribute to the Orphanage as a start; get him on the road for good instead of evil. I tell you, Denby, I had a good old time for about 90 of those years, sonny, but I wasted too much time pining for Harry the last eight or so. Learn this from my example -- don't put off a good time because that's the sort of thing you want to remember when you can't do it any more, not the roller coaster stuff. I only regret selling that RX7 when I was just 67 years young. I could handle it much better than that kid who wrapped it around a telephone pole."
A girl wearing thick glasses and jeans and a pageboy haircut ran by and stopped suddenly in front of Denby. "Boo!" she said suddenly before scampering off into the reeds along the shore.
From across the water a glimmering approached.
"Denby," Penny said. "Each time you come here it is closer to the time of the Ferryman. What can this mean?"
"Time to go," said Aunt Liz, and she stood up with all the dogs and moved down towards the landing.
As Denby watched knots of people began moving toward the landing as well, and a strange compulsion to follow them took hold of the man with a powerful longing. But Penny held him back. By some strange power she was able to hold him back.
"You cannot abide the sight of his eyes, which are wheels of fire," she said. "Now is not your time. And don't think I do not feel such a longing to run down there right now as of this minute myself. I so long to be rid of this place and crossing over you cannot believe how bad it is! I don't know how long I have and every second is a tick on the side of Eternity! I want to rise from this oubliette hour by waiting hour!" Penny sobbed.
"Penny, why then are you still here in the anteroom?"
There was a long pause. "I am afraid of what it means." And she paused again, looking down. "Because I am waiting for you."
"Well then," Denby said, reaching to his pouch for his knife. "I will end it now and then you can go . . .".
"No! Self-murder means you and I will never see each other again! Not for eternity! I will be responsible and they will send you to the Other Place and it will definitely not be a good place. Stop! Stop!"
"We just have to wait," Denby said, knowing that the Angry Elf gang was looking to resolve him as a problem for good. A matter of time.
"Yes," Penny said, and hung her shoulders down sadly. "We can only wait."
Around the two of them a ring of girls stood watching with silent dark eyes. Then the mood broke as a knot of people drifted down the beach, scattering the girls to the winds.
A thin albino man came striding across the sands with a guitar accompanied by a reedy sort of fellow, also with a guitar strumming an old folk-blues song. The albino fellow asked the reedy fellow how the song went again, and the reedy fellow said, "Now Johnny, you don't need to be playing all those notes and making it over complicated. We are going to be playing a concert for somebody pretty special soon. Just strum it and it goes, I am a ho ho ho ho hobo. . . sorta like that . . .".
Along after this group followed a stately Black woman dressed in robes and a duffy sort of professorial white man and they were conversing. "I know now why the caged bird sings," said the white man.
What, anyway, was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which you lived? said the Black woman. And they passed on.
They all went down there to the infernal dock and waited there for the Ferryman.
An animated group followed after that with several people who may have considered themselves important in life, but now no matter. A woman was trying to converse with a fellow in a suit, and she kept saying with a strong New York accent, "Can we talk? Can we talk?"
When the Ferryman docked, most of the gathered souls got on board, but one figure was waved off, even as the figure stood there shouting, "I am the son of Papa Doc Duvalier! I have earned my passage!"
In answer, the ferryman turned his eyes, which are wheels of fire, upon the figure on the dock and cindered his soul into the semblance of a man, and so there he stood, a pillar of embers and dark charcoal, waiting for passage to the other place.
A young girl ran up to Denby and stared at him with big dark eyes and he looked down at her with a mixture of feelings, of frustration and some kind of loss. "Papi?" she said. A faint odor of cinnamon and cloves wafted over him. Her eyes were large and deep as deep Caribbean pools. And then she turned and ran off into the darkness.
An iron bell began to clang.
"Time to go back, Denby," Penny said ruefully. "I was hoping we could talk more this time."
"Not much these days seems to go according to what I like," Denby said.
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..
"Didn't you say something like that last time . . ." Denby started, but she was already gone. Ephemeral and evasive as she had been in life.
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 Coliseum. 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 made his way back to the island offices which now stood empty, the desk machines all gone dark and silent for the night, save for the Editor in his glass-enclosed cubicle.
"Any news about the Elections," asked the Editor. "Any tips on who comes out on top?"
"Somehow it never came up," Denby said.
"How bad was it down there," asked the Editor.
"Well," said Denby. "There were moments of discovery. Um could I have that drink now?"
"I haven't offered you any, but I can tell by the look on your face you really could use one. Or two."
That was when the Editor broke out the 12 year old Scotch. He knew intuitively that something had happened. Always trust an editor's intuition.
Then came the eerie ululation of the throughpassing train from
far across the water as it trundled from the gantries of the Port of Oaktown
with their sentry lights along First Street, letting its cry keen across the
waves of the estuary, the riprap embankments, the grasses of the Buena Vista
flats and the open spaces of the former Beltline, through the cracked brick
of the former Cannery with its leaf-scattered loading dock, its ghost-haunted,
weedy railbed, its chainlink fence interstices until the locomotive click-clacked
past the shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off out of shadows
on the edge of town past the old Ohlone shellmounds, trundling lugubriously
under the gaze of the haunted moon to parts unknown, bearing its heavy load
of longing and memory.
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