THE NIGHT CROSSING
NOVEMBER 2, 2010
Its been an unruly week on the Island, with heavy clouds rumbling over the tumultuous hustings, tearing loose campaign posters and causing the bunting to flap in the breeze until finally the rain busted loose on Sunday in torrential downpours. Its the wicked time of year when strange smokes hover over the empty lots, leaves skitter across the pavement when there is no breeze and shadows walk among us. Now is come to El Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, which last for two days, when we remember, according to tradition, those who have walked on to the Other Side never to return.
It is the time, once again for Denby to make that pilgrimage. You know. That Special Visit.
Every year, the Editor assembles the staff in the Island-Life offices at night after the sun has gone down to draw straws by candlelight, all according to tradition. Every year, first the one, then the other approaches the cup and, trembling, removes their little stick. Every year, Denby approaches the cup, draws a straw, and every year, according to strict tradition, Denby draws the shortest straw.
He has tried drawing first. He has tried drawing last. He has tried drawing in the middle and he has tried to avoid the ritual altogether, but tradition is very powerful when the spirits are at work.
And so it was he 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."
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 that's 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 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, 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 voice greeted us, "Denby! Back again so soon? Is it your time at last?"
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.
"Oh!" She said. "You are not one of us quite yet! Well, come on and visit for a while. There are some new people here."
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.
"Hey Penny, is there somebody around here with a big voice who keeps shouting things in Italian . . . ?"
"What are you talking about? Don't be silly."
A man appeared sauntering along the beach there. He was looking out over what would have been the Bay, but none of the bridges could be seen although there was a distant glow that could easily have been San Francisco. The man turned and saw Denby and spoke. "I know you! You are a friend of Beatrice. I met you before!"
Someone beside the fire spoke up. "Beatrice? Dante Alighieri's Beatrice!?"
"No a different Beatrice," Denby said.
"Wasn't there something about Dante and a lobster? Was the lobster named Beatrice?" Somebody asked.
"No," somebody else said. It was Michael Rubin, a former professor at State. "That was Beckett."
"Beckett owned a lobster named Beatrice? I didn't know that," a former poet said. "How bourgeois."
"No, it was just a story," explained Michael. This provoked an animated discussion around the bonfire over the quirks of geniuses and their curious pets.
"Yes, Bea was never one for standing on a pedestal to be admired from afar," the man said in a slight southern drawl to Denby. "She sure never had anything to do with guiding anybody through Heaven, I and assure you. Be-a-Tricks, I called her. How is she doing?"
"Robert," said Denby. "She's had her ups and downs. We all have."
"Hm," Robert said. "She helped with the restaurant. After so many years just knocking aroundI finally got things together and figured out what to do with my life. And then suddenly its all over. How about that?"
"Suppose that's just the way it goes. Soon as you have it all figured out, there is no time left and its time to go. Can't be concerned about all that any more. Never really had a chance to tell Bea . . .".
A small child wearing a granny gown ran past them and disappeared into the dark shadows of the tufted dunes.
"Tell her what?"
"Oh . . . nevermind. Look there's the ferry! And . . . Ah! The fare!" A glimmer was approaching from far across the water, angling to the left of the beach. It looked like there were two wheels of fire aboard. As Denby noticed this, Robert took what looked like a gold coin from his mouth, then, inexplicably, put it back. Several children ran laughing towards a sort of jetty to which the ferry was heading. There seemed to be some excitement happening over that way.
"I have to go now," Robert said. "Say hello to Bea for me." Then over his shoulder he added, "Better not mention you saw me, though."
"What the devil is going on, Penny?" Another little girl, about eight or nine, ran past him in the other direction.
"That is not the best authority on whom to call right now," Penny laughed. "You don't think that we spend all of eternity beside a campfire on a beach do you? This is just a waiting place for the ferry."
Denby started moving toward the ferry landing but something in Penny's voice when she spoke again stopped him. "I don't think you better go over there. He has a guard dog and . . . well, it would not be good for you."
"What's with the coin in his mouth? Why does he get to go and all of you stay?"
"Robert's time has come. Perhaps because he just learned what he needed to learn. As for the coin, just be glad we are not living in ancient Egypt. Crossing the river used to be really rough back then!"
"Close your eyes a moment. . . "
Suddenly Denby was standing in a close room of stone which stank of blood and offal which several incense braziers failed to dispel. A sort of half-man with the head of some animal stood holding a dripping sword in front of a black door. To his left a man stood with his shirt torn open in a puddle of blood with his back to Denby facing the door. To the thing's right a large scales rose up with two big golden platters hanging from chains. On the one side was a feather, and on the other side a warm, pumping . . .
Denby's eyes snapped open and he was back on the beach in the dark beside a bonfire. "Jesus fucking Christ!" he said.
A familiar voice spoke to him. "Really Denby, that sort of language will not be tolerated around here."
A fortyish man with straight, dirty blond hair and a beard sat in a chair wearing a brightly colored short-sleeve shirt, khaki pants and sandals. A ring on his left hand flashed in the firelight as he removed a cigar from his mouth. "You find a job yet?"
Denby began shaking.
"I think you better sit down. Still have a touch of that pneumonia, I expect."
As Denby sat down two little girls in gingham dresses ran past.
"So you are not headed for the ferry landing either." Denby said.
"Oh. I expect it will be quite a while for me. If at all. Might even be sent back for another go around."
"Another go around?"
"Well yes. If you . . . if things end . . . abruptly . . . like they did with me, well, you might have to go back and live everything all over again."
He shook his head and relit his cigar. "No. To relearn everything and get it right."
"Well you certainly are looking well. Right now. Jim."
Jim grinned. "If you had never seen pictures of me when I was younger your mind's eye would have shown me as you saw me last. White hair, false teeth, and . . . everything eroding . . .". A spasm of pain, or memory of pain flickered across Jim's face and then he was himself again. "You know Denby, you never want to live with regrets, but then you never want to end up in a place where everything is leaving you."
A girl with dark chestnut hair flowing behind her ran up, put her hands on her hips and said, "Boo!" before running off.
"Boo to you too! Ha ha!" Jim said. "I kind of like those girls."
"What are they?" Denby asked.
"Oh, some of them are mine." Jim puffed on his cigar. "Some yours. That girl, Penny can explain it better than I can."
"You know Sue is rather pissed at you."
Jim meditatively flicked his front teeth with his thumbnail. "I can imagine."
"You bastard." Denby said quietly and forcefully.
"You know, for a writer your language is rather primitive. Take my advice: if you want to write and write well, you have to take the material the same way you take a piece of copper or wood. You take your time and work it with what you know. Patinas take time to develop. There are chemicals for every effect, just like anything else out there -- the sulfuric acid you gave me is under the sink by the way; you better let Sue know about that stuff." Somewhere an iron bell tolled. "Anyway . . . oh heck, there is so much to say and now either an eternity or no time at all."
Penny was standing there. "Time to go now, Denby."
"I have a lot of questions to ask." Denby said.
"I am sure you do," said Jim. "But you know, I have a lot of questions too. The truth is, not everything is answered. . . ".
A girl ran up and would have leapt over his legs but Jim reached out and grabbed her by the waist to pull her down on his lap where she put her hands to either side of her face before blurting, "Boo!" and laughing. "Boo!" said Jim, laughing also.
Brief flashes in the darkness. Little girls wearing nightdresses running barefoot between the bonfires on the beach, playing tag with bright eyes. Wind brought sea spray across the tidal mud flats. A girl ran right up to Denby and stared up at him with big dark eyes a long moment before whirling about to run off with her long hair flowing behind in the air like a flag.
"Who are these", he asked.
"These are the Daughters of the Dust. They are the not yet and never was," said Penny, with a trace of rueful wistfulness not characteristic of her. "Of Jim and his past. 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..
"Didn't you say something like that last time . . ." Denby started, but she was already 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 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 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 aureole about his head.
"Any idea when the Recession will be over?" He asked Denby.
"They didn't tell me," Denby said. "No idea." His body was shaking and he had to sit down. "These repetitions are worse than an Irish novel."
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?"
"I would give quite a lot right now to have just one tiny, hopeful sign of something . . . something . . .", Denby trailed off.
The Editor's bushy eyebrows went up. "Well if you don't know exactly what you want or need its going to be damned difficult providing," he said. "But I can show you one way, possibly, to be happy. Come along with me." The Editor led Denby along the dark aisles of the nighttime offices of Island-Life to a window on the far side. The hour was late. "Look there," he said, giving Denby his glass of whiskey.
Across the narrow way they could see a woman moving about a brightly lit room with several articles of furniture and a crib holding a baby. The baby was bawling absolute mad hatter screaming tears of the sort guaranteed to send most non-parents, and on occasion a few parents, into spells of murderous rage. The woman turned from the child to adjust the console of a stereo player, an old type from the seventies with a brightly lit analog dial. She then turned to lift up the squalling child and, while clearly singing along with the stereo, began jumping up and down while holding the infant close to her chest. Denby was so astonished he stepped back and nearly dropped his glass, for the baby stopped crying and, as could be seen even from this distance, began to laugh before falling asleep.
"What on earth is the song?" said Denby. "What is that music?"
"Well I went out there one night to listen beneath the window," the Editor said. "It's um, I think that new young people's stuff. Oh what's it called? I forget . . . Ah yes! Punk. That's what she is listening to. Punk it's called."
Denby wanted to inform the Editor that Punk had been around for a while, but nevermind. They went back to the Editor's cube.
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, as the locomotive wended its way through the Jack London Waterfront the long wail of the train whistle ululated across the moonlight diamond-sparkled waves of the estuary, across the spectral 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 turreted 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.
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