THE NIGHT CROSSING THIS TIME - NOCHE DE LOS MUERTOS
NOVEMBER 2, 2011
So anyway, the Indian Summer which had just about overstayed its welcome finally ended this week with the gulls coming inland ahead of sodden rain cloud pillows on Thursday and dropping temps.
But you don't want to hear about the weather, now do you?
You are wanting to hear all about the 14-year old Tradition that played itself out in the Island-Life Offices, the Tradition that always ends with the same dismal, dolorous, tragic result followed by the harrowing, hair-raising and substantially purple prose of what happens next, naturally. Of course you do.
Well, all right. We will tell you.
When we last left you all the staff were gathered in the Offices upstairs. Even Chad came up from the HTML Dungeon to participate in the annual Drawing of Straws from a cup held aloft by a Maiden who Knows No Shame.
The Editor was going to get Tammy to do the honors as the Maid, but a technical problem intervened.
"Are you kidding?" Tammy said. "I've got kids and grandkids living in SoCal! I sure as heck aint no maid!"
Same problem happened with Sharon, who bluntly said "Eff you!"
Everyone agreed that although the first part was dubious, she definitely had no shame, so they got Rachel to hold the cup. "Whatever," Rachel said.
Finally, they all got around to it and dragged Jose out from the bathroom stalls where he had been hiding.
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."
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 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.
A large owl, about two feet tall, perched on a piling and looked at him with large owl eyes.
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. ". . . 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. It never did each time, even though this same thing happened time and again, like an old fashioned stuck record.
Records. LPs. Wax and vinyl. Does anyone remember those things?
"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."
"Well . . . nevermind."
"Ah, there is the ferry! Looks like Him is coming to take somebody over there."
"Who is 'Him'?" Denby asked.
"O I do not think it is a good idea for you to look on Him just yet."
"Is it god or . . .".
"No! The Ferryman is terrible! Don't get close! Do not look into his eyes!"
But a rush of souls were heading to the breakwater which had been transformed into a long platform of evenly-spaced stones extending out into the black water. Denby moved in the same direction, pulled by something he could not explain. Penny and several others also went there, but Penny and a number of others stopped well away from the landing as the low skiff pulled up to the dock, oared by a man standing at the stern.
Among the passengers apparently allowed onto the landing by something Denby could not clearly see in that half-light were a tall, broad-shouldered man dripping with sea-water, a slim bespectacled man with close-cropped hair carrying a computer tablet under one arm, a squat, jowly man, and a bald man with a pair of women's shoes hanging about his neck by their shoelaces.
"Y'know what really bugs me about people standing in lines?" The squat man said irritably. "They always stand right up against one another so close like cars at the Jersey Turnpike tolls. If I wanted to know what kind of underwear you were wearing I would ask, so please!"
"I can finally do it!" the man with shoes about his neck said. "I can make the sound of an elephant! Listen to this!"
Sure enough the man blared out the sound of an elephant trumpeting in the forest. "And here is the sound of an elephant belching on the high seas in a storm!"
He made that sound, or sounds, as well. "I am so happy!"
Everyone but the Ferryman looked at him.
"You're dying, Tom!" the squat man said. "Dying in front of your last audience."
"Dying?" the soundman named Tom said. "I am dead already! Want to hear the sound of gas escaping a corpse . . .?"
"O please!" said the squat man. "Its our turn. Lets not be like Republicans and go already."
The line shuffled forward as the souls handed over their coin and got into the skiff.
"You know, Andy," the mouthsound man said. "I think you are in heaven just being grumpy. Been that way all your life. You really should do something about those eyebrows when you get there."
"Shut up, Tom. I refuse to shave them."
The man holding the computer tablet paused at the edge of the dock, looking not at the skiff but far out across the water.
"Wow!" he said. "Oh wow!"
After he got in, Denby could see that the shapeless mass holding off the other people wanting passage appeared to be a group of three mastiffs standing in dark shadows, amorphous, barely discernible. Since something about them caused a fearful shiver he looked directly at the Ferryman, who slowly turned his gaze toward the shore.
Denby fell to the sands, crying and whimpering and clutching his head. "O . . .! O . . .! O, god . . .! The fire . . .! O . . .!"
Penny stood there a while above him until the flames inside his skull died down.
"Silly boy! I told you not to look!"
"I . . . wanted to . . . to . . .".
"Yes, yes," the girl said impatiently. "I too want to cross. Each day, each minute. You have no idea . . .".
The intense longing in her voice pierced him. A diaphanous girl jumped over him as he lay there and ran down the beach. He managed to stand up, lights dancing in his eyeballs. The skiff had by then left the dock and was now a glimmer heading out to sea.
"Come along! You are lucky this trip Him is taking the trip to the Good Place. It would have been really bad for you if Him was going the other way." Penny said. "He might have taken you with him!" A peal of girlish laughter erupted from her.
"Somehow I don't think that is funny."
"Don't be so lugubrious!"
"Why does Raymond Zack get to cross while you stay here?"
"Who is Raymond Zack?"
"Um . . . he was . . . a kind of suicide. I thought . . .".
"I don't make the rules here, Denby. "
A little girl tried to run past them both but Penny grabbed her up and swung her around before setting her down and letting her dash off into the weeds up the slope. They had arrived at one of the bonfires.
"What's with the coin in his mouth? Why does he get to go and all of you stay?"
"Raymond's time has come. Perhaps because he just learned what he needed to learn. Perhaps he has suffered enough already. As for the coin, just be glad we are not living in ancient Egypt. Crossing the river used to be really rough back then!"
"You better believe it," a familiar voice said.
A sixty-ish 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?"
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 still pissed at you."
Jim meditatively flicked his front teeth with his thumbnail. "What I put that poor girl through."
In the next few hours, what felt like days in which the sun never rose and the bonfires burned without anyone tossing on fuel, Denby talked with many people he had known.
Two figures came jogging down the beach, a man with a large 'fro in a black tracksuit and a woman with close-cropped blond hair dressed in white.
"Nice to see you, Denby!" the woman said.
"Eric. Julie. Glad you two hooked up," Denby said.
"Well we never knew each other before the Change, but we have you in common. Something to talk about."
"Please don't talk about me when I am gone," Denby said.
"I am surprised you both are still here."
"Well, here a thousand years are like a day," Eric said. "I guess I still got things to work out. Still trying to work Fanon into the scheme of things. Tell me -- is the Revolution happening back there?"
Denby did not know exactly what to say. "Well a kind of Revolution is happening. They call it 'Occupy Wallstreet', but you know how it goes. They are trying to televise it."
"Figures!" Eric snorted. "Damned ofay, KKK, . . . only way to get rid of the Master-Slave situation is shoot the Master down! Then instead of Master and Slave, both impossible, you got one Free Man!"
"O Eric." Julie said, interrupting. "Is there no room for Love in your Revolution . . ."?
"Love? I still be workin' that one out, tryin' to figure that one in." He paused. "Denby, how is my sister? Have you seen her and . . . ma?"
"Eric . . . I have not been back there for 35 years. I am sorry, I don't know."
"Thirty-five . . .".
"Julie," Denby said. "And you? What happened? Why are you still here?"
"I ran and ran and could not stop." Julie said. "In the end, it was just my window ledge."
A vision of shattering glass and a falling body manifested itself to Denby, and his heart was riven by those thousand shards and the shattering sense of failure.
"Well, don't be so melodramatic," Julie said, as if she could see precisely what transpired inside his head. "It wasn't quite like that. You said 'If ever you want me, call and I will be there.' In the end, it wasn't enough. You did what you could do. I had . . . problems. I am still working them out."
A voice from the other side of the bonfire called to Denby and the two, Black and White jogged off into the darkness down the Strand.
A man sat there in lotus position, floating about six inches above the ground.
"Denby, have you not yet found the thing inside you that will be the source of inspiration?"
"Listen to your origins, my friend. Use them."
"And why are you still here, if you have attained Nirvana."
A bellow of laughter erupted from Michael. "Nirvana?! No damn way! I was always chasing after the next best ass at the baths! I couldn't let go of the world until it was too late. And I know now roughly how much there is to learn."
Michael burped and a gold coin fell out of his mouth.
"O! Time to go soon!"
"You always were a great teacher, Michael. You were always dead on."
"I guess I was a better guide than example. Sorry about that." Michael examined the coin with wonder.
"Hope you are there when I cross over."
"If I am here." Michael said.
"That's what you said when we last met . . . on the Other Side."
"Yes, On the Other Side. You had a good idea for that story. Work on it some more."
"Well, there isn't any more Berlin Wall you know. The Soviet Union is gone since you, um changed."
Michael pondered, then said, "Well, that's nice. Still, work some more on the story. There is always an Other Side."
Then, strolling into the firelight came a figure dressed in jungle fatigues, followed by what looked like a legion of others, all dressed in black and wearing the silk sunhats favored by the Hmong and northern tribes of Vietnam.
They looked at one another a long while, before Denby spoke.
"Seems you finally have learned not to follow but to lead."
Johnny gave a sigh of despair."As you say, I always followed everyone until I enlisted and they put me in a command position, a position I should not have had."
"Because you were underage."
"No, because I had not learned to lead. I imagine they got pissed when they found out afterwards, but no. I really still need to learn how not to follow, to not do what everyone expects, to not always pursue."
"And these behind you?"
"All those I killed or had killed or relatives. My chore is to learn from them and listen to them. From now until the Harrowing."
"I am lucky, my friend, for I at least know the day and the hour. Not many do. How is my brother?"
"I don't know," Denby said. "I saw him on a trip back . . . to the Old Town, some twenty years ago. He had just got let out of prison. He seemed to be . . . better. Haven't been back there otherwise for 35 years."
"Yeah, well, he was always a real pistol. Unlike me. He would never have stood up in the firefight. How, um . . . is 'Nam today? How is the war?"
"The war is long over now, Johnny. They won and its one country now. We are friends with the government. We have similar problems elsewhere once again."
"Well, I didn't expect that! But I am happy for the Viet people; they suffered so much. Especially around Ap Ba where I . . . changed."
The figure in Army fatigues walked down the beach followed by his army of silent followers.
"Hello, Denby," a woman's voice said.
"Hello, Jean," Denby said. "You are new here."
Jean laughed. "Not sure how to take that!"
"So where is Olga?" Denby asked. "Are not the sisters reunited at last and the circle unbroken and all of that?"
"Denby," Jean said with the kindliest voice. "Olga was a real bitch. She has taken the Ferry already."
"So much for reconciliation in the afterlife."
Jean laughed. "The English side of the family was never close in life, and so it shall be for evermore. We're not like the Continental side you know -- they always had a fiery nature."
"That Olga tried to send me to Vietnam when I was just sixteen!"
"That may be something of why she got on the Ferry headed south instead of the Other Place. She certainly put up a catfight before getting on the barque. You should have seen her! Best show I have seen in years. Not very English, I must say, but then she was from the side with, well, you know, hot tempers. I think its going to get a lot hotter for the old now now! I came from the dowdy side where you weren't allowed to put on airs. Except for that Great Aunt who owned the Mews in London. Ever hook up with her when you were there?
"The opportunity to brush elbows with Royals somehow never came up."
"Pity. She acted opposite Mina Loy, you know. Well, got to go now. I have an appointment to do my hair."
"Uh, okay. See you whenever."
A belt of laughter erupted from a divan where a woman reclined, stroking a cat. A rather large raptor perched on the couch near her head. Several gentlemen in tuxedos stood in waiting upon her.
"Well, Denby, you are really something! I really could do for a lynx right now."
"Yes madam!" One of the men said. "Right away!" And he ran off down the beach.
"Hello Lynn. Looks like you haven't changed."
"Denby, have you figured out what you want to be when you grow up yet?"
"Um I am more than a tad past fifty now, Lynn."
Lynn erupted in laughter. "What difference does that make? Some men remain babies their entire lives!"
A large furry head with tufted ears poked its head out from under the divan. "Why there you are! Just look at you! Now go over and give our friend Denby a kiss."
To Denby's alarm, a full-sized wildcat emerged impossibly from under the low divan and padded up to him. Right there in front of him it stood up on its haunches and placed its paws on Denby's shoulders to the right and to the left of his head.
"Uhh . . .", Denby said, shaking.
With a long, wet, sloppy kiss, the lynx ran its tongue from Denby's chin to his forehead.
"Hey! Mind the eyeglasses!" he said.
Jim laughed. "You two make a great pair!"
The big cat dropped down and padded back to Lynn's divan where it curled up at her feet.
"How did you manage to finagle this one, Lynn?"
"O, one of them I raised didn't live when they released them into the wild. So I get to keep him now. You know I worked for the New Mexico Fish and Game. Kept the orphans in the house until they were big enough to set free."
A hummingbird darted in front of Lynn's face, extended a tongue to her lips, then darted off.
"Animals all have souls too, you know." She said. "This is something for you to take back with you to the Other Side."
"As a sculptor I knew everything made has spirit." Jim said. "Learned that from the Ohlone growing up there."
"Too bad you gave up on making art," Denby said with a strong dose of bitterness.
"The Artist is not paid for his labor, but his vision," Jim said.
"Saw eight hawks on the river at Doyle's one morning, all in one tree. Was one of them you?"
"O, I never go back. But I do have a few messengers. How is Doyle? Still alive and kicking, since I don't see him here."
"Cranky as always. His daughter has really bloomed, though. Graduated from Colgate now."
"I am glad to hear that about Jessie," Lynn said.
Two girls in pinafores ran past the bonfire, giggling.
"You could have been prolific,"Jim mused. "I wish I had all eternity to talk to you about these things," he added.
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. "All the could-have-beens. Of Jim and his past. Of us two, and of others with you."
It took a moment to register, and then he remembered that she had said exactly the same thing the last time. 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. Ephemeral and unattainable 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 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.
"Good god, Denby!" exclaimed the Editor. "You look positively awful!"
Denby shrugged, head down.
"Find out who is going to get the Presidential Election or when this damned Recession will come to an end?
"Somehow, those things did not come up."
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 gets elected. 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, 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.
That is the way it is on the Island. Have a lively week. Live today as if someday the sun will rise without you there to see it.
Tonight I'm prayin',
Tonight I'm sayin',
Oh lord please take the
Train that takes me,
'Way down old Dixie way,:
Where southern folks are
That's why you hear me say.
I'm goin' to Tishomingo.
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