NOVEMBER 01, 2015
EL NOCHE DE LOS MUERTOS
So anyway, once again Denby lost the annual drawing of straws. The Editor escorted him out the door of the Island-Life Offices, cigar clenched as usual between his teeth. "Don't forget to find out who is going to become the next President of the United States," the Editor said. "If not that, at least who wins the GOP nomination."
"C'mon man! Buck up and show some leatherneck spirit! Hoo ya!"
"Boss, I am not and have been a Marine."
The Editor swished his cigar from one side of his mouth to the
other. "In that case, pity for you." The man clapped Denby on the
back. "Get along now, boy! And best of luck to you."
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, 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 down to the bayside and came to the path that borders the Strand. He follow this for a ways as a moist wind caused leaves to skitter across the pavement. The street extended in both directions from the shadow of trees that hid Crab Cove to the distance hidden by a grey mist. No one else walked this path and the beach below extended silent and deserted on this night. Eventually he 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 many, many years, 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.
For pete's sake. 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.
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. A dense, lightless fog hung a few yards offshore, making it appear that the water extended out beyond to Infinity.
All up and down the strand he could now see that countless 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 towards him 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.
"Hello Penny." Denby said.
"Looks like you are still a bit solid," Penny said. "Going to stay long?"
"I am kinda hoping not," Denby said.
"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 the skull: "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 he came here, 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 and barefoot as the others, ran up, paused and stared at the two of them. She was tall and had a lanky build and possessed blue-green eyes that shone under thick eyebrows frames by black hair and straight cut bangs.
O now really!" Penny said. "Found someone new?"
The girl ran between them laughing. She too, disappeared into the darkness.
"O yeah? I can see stuff, y'know. I think there is someone . . .".
"She's just a friend!" Denby said emphatically. "It's been decided." He folded his arms.
"Have it your way!" Penny said, laughing.
"O for pete's sake . . .".
They came upon two men walking along the strand, deep in conversation with one another.
"O hello, Oliver!" Penny said. "I've brought you a musician!"
The bearded man named Oliver peered at Denby with his spectacles.
"Actually, I've been told recently I am a little tone deaf," Denby said.
"I don't think I know you," Oliver said with an English accent.
"We never met," Denby said.
"It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads," Oliver said. "Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears - it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many [people], music is even more - it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity."
A look of surprise came over his face and he reached into his mouth and pulled out a small gold coin.
"The obolu!" Penny said.
"I say! I was rather the bad boy in my youth," Oliver said. "But I guess now all is forgiven!"
"You get to go to the landing," Penny said wistfully. "Feeling afraid?"
"I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."
And with that Oliver headed down the beach with energy to a dock where a single lantern shed light on a crowd of people waiting there.
"Not your time yet, Mario," Penny said to the other man.
The man shrugged and then said in a thick New York accent, "I was a politician", before ambling on down the beach to a campfire where he sat heavily.
A young man wearing a tattered Army uniform came jogging along the beach. Beside him on his left loped a woman with close-cropped blonde hair. A short Asian man wearing a tattered NVA uniform jogged on his right and his wrist was bound to the White man by a slender filligreed chain and cuffs.
"Hey Denby!" said the guy.
"Johnny. Julie," Denby said. "Where you guys running off to?"
"Going to find Raymond," Johnny said. "He is down there somewhere. Remember Raymond?"
"I sure do," Denby said. "That funeral was something. Man!"
"What happened?" Julie asked. "That was not part of my history."
"After the honor guard left the casket at the house, his mother broke it open," Denby said.
"Muther f----!" Johnny said. "How the hell she do that?"
An angry rumble rolled from out of the fog across the water.
"Best watch your language down here," Penny said. "You don't want to stay any longer than you have to."
"Those things are made of brass inside and sealed tight!" Johnny said. "You come back from 'Nam in a box through the tropic heat and your body don't look so good."
"She used her dead husband's power tools," Denby said, remembering the following day now and what happened. The woman lost her husband due to complications from getting fragged in Korea, then one son died at the racecourse. Then Raymond was next, providing point. A tripwire got him. They did not call them IED's back then. Boobytrap. And then there she was, all alone in that big empty house, staring at the framed pictures of the long line of military men, starting with her great grandfather, killed during the Indian wars. All of them getting married, siring children, then going off to die on the battlefield.
"She broke it open and when she saw it, she used rollers to wrangle the casket into the stationwagon. Drove it to the church on Sunday and drove over the curb right up to the doors. I guess the casket was too heavy so when she slid it off the tailgate, it fell and everything spilled out."
"Yeesh!" Johnny said.
"Some wars you fight because you have to," said the NVA guy. "All wars bad."
"Looks like you got a little bracelet there," Denby commented.
"He kill my brother," the NVA soldier said. "I shoot him. Now we spend long time together. Until the Crossing maybe. Or maybe longer." He stared intently into the fog offshore.
"Let's go guys," Johnny said. And the three of them jogged off down the beach.
"Miss you!" Denby called out to Julie's back.
"Too late!" She called back over her shoulder. "I called for help too late."
Denby closed his eyes and pressed one hand to his face.
"Ah, Denby." Penny said.
A bevy of little girls, all no more than six or seven, came running through the reeds up high, all playing tag with one another. One dark complexioned girl ran up to Denby with big brown saucer eyes and her brown hair tied in dreads with pink ribbons. "Geechee!" she said and ran off.
A deep chuckle came from off to the side. "Bin lang tyme sin ah spik dat Gullah!"
"How ya doin'," Denby said.
"Me, I am just waiting here like everybody else. Sure is nice you remember the islands. Writers are the memory for the people." He was dark complected and spoke with a deep voice and he stood in the shadows.
"Someone has to. I hear all the children are leaving the Gullah islands," Denby said.
"Yeah, they be selling out. Going to the Carolina mainland and leaving the one place in America where no man and no woman was a slave. The Daughters of the Dust."
"It's too bad," Denby said.
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," Denby said
The dark man laughed. "O hardly! You have your own Daughters of the Dust; your girls have provided endless amusements."
"All mine?" Denby said, one eyebrow rising.
"Well, would have, could have more like it. All the ones who are not and never were and most likely never will be. 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."
From across the water a glimmering approached.
"Denby," Penny said. "Each time you come here it is closer to the time of the Ferry. What can this mean?"
A jovial man carrying an electric guitar and playing it as he walked passed them, headed to the landing where the souls waiting to cross over moved anxiously to the edge. A tall, slender, handsome man strode along the sands with him.
"C'mon brother Julian! We gonna cross over the river Jordan for sure this time!"
"Good things don't come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate!" Julian said.
The two of them reached the landing even as the eyes of the Ferryman became clearer, burning in the mist out of which he poled his skiff.
You only live but once, and when you're dead you're done, so let the good times roll, said the man with the guitar before bursting into a robust song.
"I've got the key to the highway. Feel I just got to go. Gonna leave here running. Walking is most too slow . . ."!
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.
A tall man with close-cropped hair passed closely by them and he paused to raise up his arm in a familiar guesture, palm outward, thumb, forefinger and index pressed together, making a V between them and the two smaller fingers, ring and pinky.
"Live long and prosper," said the man before turning to head down to the landing as the skiff drew nearer.
"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!" Penny said.
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..
"I have been told I am tone-deaf with the voice . . ." Denby started, but she was already gone, and she had not been talking about music anyway. She was 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. As the street and house lights draped over the distant hills began to reappear, 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.
Perhaps because of the old angina, or something, he felt a pain in his chest. Perhaps because of the mist or something, his face was wet.
He made his way back to the island offices which now remained dark and empty, 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 this time," 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."
And the two men sat there with their glasses filled with scotch
and melting ice, the war veteran Marine and the musician, each remembering many
things on the last night of Los Dias de los Muertos.
Time passed and then the train ululated from far across the water as the locomotive trundled from beneath the spectral gantries of the Port of Oaktown with their 1000 watt lamps, letting its cry keen across the waves of the estuary, the riprap embankments, the haunted 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 and its weedy railbed and interstices of its chainlink fence, dropping slowly over the basketball hoops of Littlejohn Park as the locomotive click-clacked in front of the shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, trundling out of ghostly shadows on the edge of town past the Ohlone shellmounds to parts unknown.
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