I was walking down the street as usual. But, everything other than the street was far from usual. My new loafers were slowly rubbing a blister on the right side of my left foot. I hadn’t worn socks. It was as close to barefoot as I care to get.
I walked past the Ground Truth coffee shop. I was already pretty wound up without the extra caffeine. New job as an accounts manager, new apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood, new girlfriend with a fresh look. I hadn’t actually done any work yet, and my stuff was still in boxes, and my girlfriend was holding me on third base because she hates the “hook-up culture.” Unwanted pregnancies and unwanted diseases, she says.
Sure, the job was a waste of my engineering degree. And, the apartment was a nightmare of flimsy Ikea faux luxury. A granite counter over a pasteboard kitchen island. And, the girlfriend was a status-grabbing urban debutante. But, she had a great stylist, even if she didn’t understand how condoms work.
But, never mind all that. It was still a day of new beginnings. I passed the Finer Diner. I often had breakfast there. Time for a new pattern. I bought a breakfast burrito from the Texicano food truck, instead. That first bite was good.
I peeled back the foil wrapper to get at the second bite. The loafer dug hard into my foot. I stopped to wiggle my toes, to find a more comfortable position. There were white hash marks painted on the street next to my loafers.
“You’re probably confused.”
I am confused. And naked. At least the torturous loafers are gone, but I’m more embarrassed to be barefoot than having my bits and pieces hanging between my legs and resting against a bare rock. I bury my toes in the sand.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
It feels like a therapy session, but my therapist is dressed in a blousy red shirt, baggy black pants, and leather boots. My eyes are burning from the heat and salt in the air, so I close them and relate my last remembered moments to the man. My voice trails off with the paint of the crosswalk, and I open my eyes again.
The man is nodding his head. “Yeah, walking down the street as usual, eh? Then you wake up here. On a sandy beach, with the soft hum of the surf and calls of tropical birds.”
He adjusts the leather cocked hat and grins. His teeth are surprisingly white, given the ragged yellow beard and dirty face around them.
“You must think you’re in Heaven.” A thick finger wags its dirty tip. “You’re not, son. Not yet.”
He reaches down and scoops up a waterlogged hunk of sand. He holds it in front my face between finger and thumb as if some secret is hidden in it.
“There are three worlds. The one you knew is the World of Myriad Things. What you call the Universe, or Creation, depending on your eye and the way you were raised. Everything there has an expiration date.” He says it as if it were a clever phrase he uses to blend in with the kids. “Life is temporary.”
The man’s fingers squeeze until the chunk of damp beach breaks apart in a shower of sand. He reaches down and grabs a pink and white shell.
“The furthest is the World Undifferentiated, where all souls become joined and enjoy—” He grins an irreconcilably white grin. “—or suffer, the consequences of their behavior in the other two worlds. Heaven and Hell at once. Eternal. Once you’re there, you’re there for good.”
He squeezes the shell between his fingers, but it does not break. He nods, greasy blond curls scraping the red calico on his shoulders. The shell falls back to the sand and the man reaches down to scoop up a length of kelp by its float bladder.
“This in-between place—” He waves the kelp around to our left and right. His head tilts back and forth, his eyes guiding mine. Toward the black and green of the rocky, forested hills. Toward the smooth turquoise waters of a nearby lagoon. Toward the deep gray-blue sea stretching infinitely behind him. “—is the World Facing.”
His fingers rotate the float bladder as his tongue plays on sun-parched lips.
“It’s called that because it is the face between the other two worlds. You might have known it as Purgatory, but it’s much more than that. It’s where each world flows into the other. Like a ladder with angels climbing up and down. Like a sea between continents. You get to stay here as long as you can survive. No disease. No old age.”
His fingers squeeze and the float bladder pops.
“But, if you die here from violence, that’s it. You go on to your reward. Understand?”
I do not understand, so I ask the first thing that comes to my head. “What is that?”
His eyes are guided by mine, upward into the clear blue sky where a silver crescent glimmers. He chuckles.
“You knew a world with only one moon. Here we have three. One to drive the tides in league with the Sun. Two more to light the skies in the other’s absence.”
That left me with the second thing that comes to my head. “Who are you?”
He drops the seaweed. “You can call me Yellowbeard.”
“Like that crappy Monty Python movie?”
He shakes his head and bunches his mouth up in one corner. “Why do people always ask that? No, I am not from a ‘movie.’ There were no movies when I came here, but I hear that they’re quite remarkable. There are six pirate lords in the World Facing, each of us identified by the color of our beards. It’s like a nom-de-guerre.”
“Yes. The original Blackbeard was Edward Teach himself. But he’s been doubly dead for a couple of centuries now, sent on to the World Undifferentiated and replaced by another Blackbeard. And another Blackbeard after him.”
I nod as if I understand. My hands are cupping my junk.
“There’s also a Bluebeard, a Redbeard, a Greybeard, and a Whitebeard.”
“Why am I naked?”
“Because that’s how it works.” He cracks his neck and grabs the leather sack he had earlier set on the sand beside the rock he sits on. “I put some clothes in here when my scout told me you were here.”
I release my sack and take the sack he’s holding out. “Thanks.”
“Most welcome. I have to get back to my ship to make sure the careening’s going well.” He pushes himself up, hands on knees.
“Wait. You don’t know my name.”
He puts a dirty hand on my bare shoulder. “You don’t need one yet.”
I was left alone for a bit, to gather my thoughts while Yellowbeard wandered off into the forest. I put on the rags he had given me, to cover my nakedness. White linen pants that only went down to my shins, tied off with a bit of buff rope. A blousy white shirt with a brown blood stain around a hole just right of my belly button. A tan burlap bag with a shoulder strap. A woven grass hat that looked like something a woman would wear on vacation.
I always thought death would be followed by a bright light and my dead friends and relatives greeting me with ecstatic smiles. Instead, I woke up on a beach. The bright light was just the sun.
Yellowbeard had been standing at the edge of the surf, staring out over the sea. Once I’d noticed him and raised my voice, he laughed for several minutes. He looked healthy, but filthy. Not exactly the introduction to the afterlife I had been taught to expect.
As I was pulling on my new clothes, I noticed that all my scars were gone. I had been killed, probably by a car slamming into me at a crosswalk, at the age of 49. My body looked more like 30. My beer gut was gone. The gray hairs on my chest were brown again.
It made me wonder how anyone in this place qualified for the roles of Greybeard and Whitebeard. If there is no aging in the World Facing, how could anyone have grey or white beards?
I found the shell that Yellowbeard had used to symbolize the World Undifferentiated. It was a broken piece of conch, smoothed by the sand in the surf. So, it wasn’t as unbroken as the old pirate had implied. I stuffed the shell into my pocket.
Having dressed myself, there was nothing else to do, so I wandered into the forest behind me. It was a small spit of land between two lagoons. On the shore of the far lagoon was a three-masted ship leaning on its side in the sand. Dozens of sailors were scraping the underneath of the hull. I guess that’s what it’s called. A half-dozen more were tending a fire with a pig on a spit. A few others were just sort of standing around talking with hands on the handles of their swords, like construction workers making a lie of their “Men Working” sign.
Why was Purgatory a pirate movie?
Nobody paid me any mind. Okay, one of the cooks smiled and nodded at me. I seemed to remember him. Was he the scout who had alerted Yellowbeard to my presence? As if summoned by my internal monologue, the pirate lord stepped out of the shadow of the ship.
“Ah, here you are!” His white smile broke the perimeter of his cracked lips. “You’ve decided to come with us on the account?”
“On the account?”
His blond head shook. “The lingo will come to you.” Another phrase that had no business in a pirate’s mouth. “You can’t starve here, but you can hunger. You’ll need some means of putting food in your belly. This little island isn’t going to do it for you.”
I scanned left and right up the beach. The island was basically a figure-eight of sand and low hills and palm trees with a small lagoon in each armpit.
“My name is John Randolph.”
Yellowbeard waved toward the men standing idle. “Get Jack a hanger and a dragon.”
“John,” I said.
Yellowbeard grinned at his men. They grinned back. “He’s as vain as Rackham. Alright then, John Randolph. You’ll choose your own name in time.”
A pair of pirates scrambled aboard the tilted ship. I was about to call out for a pair of shoes, but noticed that none but the captain were shod.
“Who in this place do you pirate?”
Yellowbeard grinned at his men and they again grinned back. I could not tell if their grins were genuine or driven by fear and authority.
“Some who find themselves in this world also find it difficult to leave behind the drives of the last world. They build, they invest, they maneuver.”
I shook my own head clear. As clear as I could get it. “You mean businessmen. Capitalists.”
The pirate lord put his arm over my shoulder. “Colonialists, yes. Only every strand is a colony here. And they seek to remake the second world in the third world’s image.”
“I was an accounts manager,” I said. “Before.”
“A comptroller, then?”
I strolled into the archaic. “I suppose. You have no accountants in your crew?”
Yellowbeard frowned and nodded to the side. “Mostly what they call landscapers and cashiers. Passing men with a gun and cutlass.”
“And no engineers?”
The pirate inhaled, then exhaled. Then he hugged my shoulder to his breast. “An engineer, you say?”
“By schooling if not by trade.”
I found myself attended by Yellowbeard’s men, a leather belt wrapped around my waist with a sword and pistol hanging from it.
“My fellows,” the filthy pirate bellowed to his men. They all stopped what they were doing and stood at attention. The pig sizzled on its spit. “Let me introduce you to our new man, ship’s engineer John Randolph.”
I stood barefoot as the crew shouted a triple huzzah.