OCTOBER 27, 2013



So anyway, all hell broke loose in the Island-Life offices when it came time for the annual drawing of straws. Because Denby was accompanied the last time in an highly unusual situation involving Jose and a wheelchair that went exceedingly against Tradition, people started going nuts with anxiety now that it seemed just about anything could happen.

Jose, the wheelchair pusher and chanter of his grandmother's Inca Spell ("Okay, say "tahui" four times. Repita!""What means 'tahui?" "Heck if I know," Jose said. "Mi abuelita told me to say it just like that.") was totally petrified to the extent of forgetting all of his English as well as all of his native Spanish as well.

Outside the Offices a front had kicked in from the Arctic and banshees were knocking the tree limbs and howling all about the chimney.

Rachel found the coffee pot inexplicably inoperable and offered to go on a run to Starbucks. Which the Editor forbade, ordering her to sit. This is not something one tells a New Yorker expat, but the Editor remained stern.

"Habberdy jibberty wooble foo woot an wooten kanickickerbocker . . .".

"Jose," Rachel said, "If you cannot remember your languages just shut up." Sigh. "I want a beer."

"Hey!" Denby said. "Who took the hinges off the bathroom door?"

The Editor relit his permanent cigar. "We'll have no more lavatory sequesters and no childish government shutdowns on MY watch." He rattled the hinge screws in his waistcoat pocket.

"Humperty boo." Jose said, shivering with fear.

"Jose, shut your filibustering. You make as much sense as the Pee Tardy Party," said the Editor. "And you Festus, quit pretending that you are hunting for something in the circular file. Come on out!"

Festus, the Island-Life messenger hamster, poked his head up above the brim of the wastebasket. "Just looking for nesting material, boss. Isn't this a human only sort of thing?"

"Get up on the table you wretched rodent or there will be no more nuts for you!" scowled the Editor.

Everyone in the office went "Oooooooooo!" at that and Festus scampered up on the desk beside the inbox.

"Hey," someone said. "The coffeepot wasn't plugged in . . . Now it's working . . .".

After the Editor made sure everyone was in attendance, with a special interactive hologram for the Euro desk glimmering in a roll chair, he had Rachel fetch the Official Cup of Straws. As Rachel came gliding along the aisle the way dance instructors of certain experience will do, Jose unceremoniously fainted and fell down.

Javier kicked him until the kid got up again to sit wan and shaking in a chair.

Now what this Tradition is all about, to inform newcomers to the Life here is the Annual Drawing of Straws to determine who must follow the same path that Orpheus, Ulysses, Persephone, Virgil with his Italian Companion, Nicholas Cage, and a very few of others, have done through the ages. The Island-Lifer's charge was to go down, sniff about so as to gather good information about what the future might hold, and, of course, come back. Otherwise there was no point to it all, really. That the fellow or gal, whomever it might be, must do. They must return through what generally is regarded as a one-way door.

This, by Island-Life Tradition over the past fifteen years, always takes place on the last day of Los Dias de Los Muertos, which in the past has been the night after October 31. What makes this trip so much more terrible - in addition to the fear of Death, the infernal Ferryman with wheels of fire for eyes, and the three-headed dog, the usual accouterments of howling, wailing, eerie specters, etcetera and so on -- is that the visitor must encounter all the people he or she has known and who have passed beyond. This is not exactly comfortable. This is not exactly fearful -- necessarily. One can only imagine it. It is definitively wretched and tearing to the soul on a case by case basis.

Perhaps we shall get the good Richard Dawkins to do a study on the matter. He probably has the tools and necessary know-how to get the metrics of everything. All the emotions involved. Even, the metric of lost desire. Of lost hope.

Naturally this not entirely all the way over on the Other Side. That path is forbidden and no one has gone there. Well, maybe Virgil and his friend Alighieri Possibly Milton. Doubt it about Milton, though; he liked Oliver Cromwell, and that is not a sign of humanity nor perceptual acuity. Still, no one knows for sure. No, this place is a waiting place where souls abide for a while, to learn something, pay a final debt, figure out which direction to go from there. Call it Hell's Anteroom. Or just Charon's Wharf.

So you see nobody wants the short straw on this one. Traditionally, for 13 years, Denby drew the short straw. Even on the 14th he drew again bad luck. But confined to a wheelchair at the time, he needed a second for that trip.

So the big question this time around -- actually several big questions but mainly this: would the previous year's break cause a new game of chance? Or would Tradition reassert itself. The clock ticked. The tension mounted. Everyone's nerves on edge.

"I am all for a new game," Denby said. "How about we get the dice and cup from the Yahtzee set . . .".

The Editor told him brusquely to shut up. And told Rachel, as the cupbearer, to draw first.

"Okay I am closing my eyes . . . I am reaching in . . . O god, o god, o god, o god, O! O! O! O! O no! O yes! Yes, yes, yes, yesyesyesyes! Not me! Yippee! O gawd! Yesssss!"

"Well, I am glad it was good for you, Rachel. I too, felt a little something just listening to you, the Editor said, dryly. "Next!"

"Can I have a drink now?" Rachel asked.

"O for pete's sake. Next!"

The 3D specter of Hildegard stood up and walked over to the cup. She reached down with a ghostly finger and a longish straw arose from the cup.

"Oy gott sei dank!" said Hildegard.

"How did you do that?" Denby said. "She's just a transmission!"

"The magic of Cloud Virtualization," said the Editor. "Next!"

One by one, each by each, the staffers drew their straws and reacted each according to his character. Javier removed his straw and put it between his teeth while leaning against the wall with his arms folded, grinning his macho grin.

Jose fell off his chair.

As for Denby . . . "Crap!" Tradition had been restored. There a little giddy party erupted while folks clapped Denby on the back and commiserated, each more or less secretly glad it was not him or her. Someone got out champagne. Someone else put on music. Chris Smither's "Train Home".

Later as relieved folks whooped it up Denby sat on the iron landing with Rachel and a bottle of tequila between them while Rachel smoked a cigarette between hits off the bottle.

"What's it like over there," Rachel asked.

Denby commented she could always go in his place and find out.

Rachel demurred. "Too many skeletons in the closet already." The wind blew in gusts, making the huge box elder writhe as if alive in the fitful glow of the motion detector light mounted above the garage. "Its been fifteen times now. Each time you come back you took paler, more shaky, like you are closer to some other world. Or you are headed to turn around any moment to go back there and not return."

"Lets not talk about any more," Denby said.

Life in the Old Same Place Bar carried on riotously and with great zest for a noted Celebrity had returned to enjoy his favorite dark beer. The silver-maned gentleman with the distinguished beard regaled the regulars there with stories of his prize-winning guacamole, his ghost pepper salsa, his nearly capturing the Olympic gold medal in tandem luge, the time he zip-lined a perilous track down 5,000 feet in elevation during a forest fire by shooting a crossbow loaded with parachute cord at one tree crown after another. He sat with two gorgeous women, a platinum blonde wearing crushed red velvet, and a stunning redhead wearing a jet black gown hanging onto each arm.

He was, of course, The Most Interesting Man in the World.

"All of this may be interesting to you, but I am bored of such adventures. The mako shark is really not such a bad fellow and I would loath having to kill another one. And the Bengal Tiger, I have to tell you I am rather fond of the Bengal Tiger; he is more endangered than dangerous. But there is one thing -- perhaps two things -- I simply must share with you. For one cannot be interesting unless one shares what one has. And being interesting means also cultivating all one's gifts, especially the heart. Not true?"

All had to agree to that.

"My friends, I do not donate every day, but when I do I give to at least two wonderful organizations. The first is Clear Path International. These are truly courageous, wonderful people with a few interesting stories of their own. When I met Colin King he had his head and torso inside a metal tube with fins on it and I said to him, 'My dear sir what do you have in there?' And he calmly responded, 'About three kinds of explosives plus about 12 pounds of napalm and 80kg of phosphorous. I am defusing this bomb right now and I should not stand there if I were you'."

All ears were rapt.

"Clear Path International engaged in the largest bomb and mine removal project ever conducted in the world and that was in Vietnam after the war there was over. They now handle the rehabilitation needs of civilians injured by mines throughout the world. And you know they really are interesting, so I help them out when I can. You can as well if you have a computer. You Madame. You have a computer do you not?"

"Of course sir. We all do."

"Madame, you look mahvelous, as my old friend Fernando used to say. In that case you can go to CPI.ORG and learn all about what they do cleaning up other people's messy business."

Suzie brought another round of dark bottled beers to the Man.

"My dear you look absolutely delightful, but I'll bet you are near dead on your feet as I guess by looking at the hour. You shall not have to bring another round. And remember, it is better to look good than feel good."

He turned back to his audience. "My friends, you must know that to be truly interesting you must always hold the heart of a child in your heart. Maybe run the risk of being called childish at times. This charge you can do by helping children, for I have been told by a wiser man than me that anything you do for children is never wasted. That is why another group I like to help out once in a while is called Freearts Organization. These very interesting people put artists together with kids who have had someone try to steal their childhood away. You know what happens -- the sudden seriousness. Broken bones. Bruises. Nightmares. Worse things than you can imagine, for as the poet says, "some monsters must slumber or they wake to devour us." My friends, although there indeed are true monsters out there, there also are my friends at Freearts who match up artists with kids who have been abused. You so fortunate to live in a place where everyone has computers. You can go to http://freearts.org/"

The Most Interesting Man in the World stood up to go. "My friends the hour is late and I must be on a plane tomorrow to Cambodia to handle another problem that concerns children. I bid all of you adieu and hope that sharing my little hobbies has not created ennui among you."

"My good man," a woman said as Jose and Javier came in through the door, giddy about their sudden release from doom. They greeted the MIMITW in Spanish. "My good man, I so adore your accent. Where are you from?"

"Ah, well I just came from my boat in Monterey. But do you Madame, also love this man's accent here?" He indicated the rather haphazardly mussed Jose.

"Ah, well, he does have an accent," the woman said. "I've heard him."

"When a person has an accent, it means they can speak one more language than you," said the Man. And with that, he left.

The long howl of the throughpassing train ululated from far across the water, across the waves of the estuary, the riprap embankments, the grasses of the Buena Vista flats and the open spaces of the former Beltline; it snaked through the cracked brick of the old abandoned Cannery with its ghosts and weedy railbed and chainlink fences as the locomotive glided past the shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off to parts unknown.

That's the way it is on the Island. Have a great week.