A HANGER AND A DRAGON
That day, I was walking down the sidewalk as usual. But, everything other than the sidewalk was far from usual. I had a new pair of loafers which were slowly rubbing a blister on the right side of my left foot. Even through my new socks.
I walked right past the Ground Truth, where I often grabbed coffee. That was unusual. I was already pretty wound up without any extra caffeine. In addition to new shows and new socks (in fact, in explanation of them) I had a new job as an accounts manager. Starting that day.
That damned day.
This new job on the heels of a new apartment in a newly gentrifying neighborhood and a new girlfriend with a fresh new look every week.
But, since I was starting that day, I hadn’t actually done any work yet, and my stuff was still in boxes at the apartment, and my girlfriend was holding me on third base because she hates the “hook-up culture.” Unwanted pregnancies and unwanted diseases, she says.
The job was a complete waste of my engineering degree. And, the apartment was a nightmare of flimsy Ikea faux luxury. A granite counter over a pasteboard kitchen island? How long would that last? And, the girlfriend was a status-grabbing urban debutante. But, she had a great stylist, even if she didn’t seem to understand how condoms work.
But, never mind all that. That day was still a day of new beginnings. I passed the Finer Diner. I often had breakfast there. Time for a new pattern. Something new and unusual. I bought a breakfast burrito from a new Texicano food truck, instead. The first bite was really 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.
That day was the day I died.
“You’re probably confused.”
I was confused. And intensely awake all of a sudden. And naked. At least the torturous loafers were gone, but I was more embarrassed to be barefoot than having my bits and pieces hanging between my legs and resting against a bare rock. I buried my toes in the sand.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
It felt like a therapy session, but my therapist was dressed in a blousy red shirt, baggy black pants, and leather boots. My eyes were burning from the heat and salt in the air, so I closed them and related my last remembered moments to the man. My voice trailed off with the paint of the crosswalk, and I opened my eyes again.
The man was 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 adjusted the leather cocked hat and grins. His teeth were surprisingly white, given the ragged yellow beard and dirty face around them. Despite his rough appearance, he had a posh accent.
“You must think you’re in Heaven.” A thick finger wagged its dirty tip. “You’re not, son. Not yet.”
He reached down and scooped up a waterlogged hunk of sand. He held it in front my face between finger and thumb as if some secret were 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 said it as if it were a clever phrase he used to blend in with the kids. “Life is temporary.”
The man’s fingers squeezed until the chunk of damp beach broke apart in a shower of sand. He reached down and grabbed a pink and white shell.
“The furthest is the World Undifferentiated, where all souls become joined and enjoy—” He grinned 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 squeezed the shell between his fingers, but it did not break. He nodded, greasy blond curls scraping the red calico on his shoulders. The shell fell back to the sand and the man reached down to scoop up a length of kelp by its float bladder.
“This in-between place—” He waved the kelp around to our left and right. His head tilted 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 rotated the float bladder as his tongue played 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 squeezed and the float bladder popped.
“But, if you die here from violence, that’s it. You go on to your reward. Understand?”
I did not understand, so I asked the first thing that comes to my head. “What is that?”
His eyes were guided by mine, upward into the clear blue sky where a silver crescent glimmered. He chuckled.
“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 came to my head. “Who are you?”
He dropped the seaweed. “You can call me Yellowbeard.”
“Like that crappy Monty Python movie?”
His head shook and his mouth bunched 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. I hear that they’re quite remarkable. But, I’m not named for one. It’s like a nom-de-guerre. There are six pirate lords in the World Facing, each of us identified by the color of our beards.”
“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 nodded as if I understood. My hands were 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 cracked his neck and grabbed 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 released my sack and took the sack he was holding out. “Thanks.”
“Most welcome. I have to get back to my ship to make sure the careening’s going well.” He pushed himself up, hands on knees.
“Wait. You don’t know my name.”
He put a dirty hand on my bare shoulder. “You don’t need one yet.”
I felt myself calming a bit, my mind settling into the weirdness of what is going on, until finally I just shrugged and said, “Well, fuck.”
I was left alone for a bit, to gather my thoughts after 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 dearly departed friends and relatives greeting me with ecstatic smiles. Instead, I woke up on a beach. The bright light was just the sun.
When I first came out of my post-mortem stupor, 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 had 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, as Yellowbeard claimed, 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 the burlap bag.
Having dressed myself, there was nothing else to do, so I wandered into the forest behind me where Yellowbeard had gone. I was on 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 fists 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 madly and nodded at me. I seemed to remember him, from a daze, before Yellowbeard started talking. Was he the scout who had alerted the pirates to my presence? As if summoned by my internal monologue, the captain 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 word 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, two 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, especially the one who had grinned crazily at me first. “He’s as vain as Rackham. Alright then, John Randolph. You’ll choose your own nom-de-guerre in time.”
A pair of pirates scrambled aboard the tilted ship, following Yellowbeard’s command. 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 again 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 this 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 waiters and landscapers and cashiers. But, they’re 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.”
“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.
After the crew went back to their duties and Yellowbeard stomped off in his boots to inspect their work, I stood around taking in the tropical paradise I was oddly uncomfortable in. The pig certainly smelled delicious. I had only had one bite of breakfast burrito, and I had no idea if it had come with me or had been left behind with my clothes. But, my stomach was growling.
The bushy-haired guy who had smiled at me first was gone. That oddly made me feel even more uncomfortable. How had he slipped off without my noticing?
A pair of sailors crawled out of the leaning ship, or boat. I had no idea what to call it, but I had a vague memory that there was a difference between ships and boats.
Yellowbeard had sent two men inside to get me “a hanger and a dragon,” which I assumed meant a sword and pistol, but the two men who came out were not those two men. Nevertheless, they had an extra sword and a pistol in hand. One of them pointed at me and they made a beeline in my direction, ducking under the ropes that were holding the ship, or boat, at a sharp lean.
They both looked young, late teens or early twenties. Since I had lost maybe twenty years in my transition, I guessed there was some kind of threshold at thirty. These two must have died young. One was tall and black, and he moved through the ropes with surprising grace. The other guy was short, but still somehow managed to brush his head on two ropes on his way to me.
“Are you John?” the black kid said. Generic American accent. Sounded like home.
“Lots of people are John,” I said. Not sure why I decided to give him a hard time. His drooped shoulders made me regret it. “I am John. Thank you for not calling me Jack. Or Johnny or J or whatever.”
He nodded and handed me the sword he was carrying. A cutlass, I think. I carefully slipped it into the rope holding my pants up.
“Alright, John. I’m Lincoln and this is Mukki.”
My mouth opened but I didn’t make any sound. There was just the noise of the fire and sailors scraping barnacles. Both of their names had fogged up my brain, and I only knew why “Mukki” had. I glanced at the short guy. I couldn’t place him on the globe.
“He’s Lincoln West,” Mukki said, handing me a pistol in a holster.
“Stop,” Lincoln said, eyes rolling.
My brain unfogged. “Lincoln West, the NBA draftee?”
“Oh shit,” I said, “I’m sorry. You died in fight at that club.”
Mukki’s eyes locked on Lincoln. “A bar fight?”
“It was dumb.” He glared at me. “I did not want anyone to know.”
“Sorry again,” I reached out my hand. He shook it. “It’s just, it was all over the news, like just a few months before I … you know.”
I turned my free hand to Mukki.
“Mukki Scott.” He shook my hand. He was shockingly strong. “I died just a few weeks ago.”
“Newcomers,” I said, smiling. I had pinged Mukki. Canadian accent, Native American looks. He was First Nations. I stopped smiling, wondering if I was being racist for obsessing over figuring out everyone’s ethnicity. I looked him up and down, trying to find something else to talk about. Basic pirate clothes, sword and pistol, ragged shirt. His pants were held up by two strings.
I had my in. Or, my out.
“Why do you have two strings?”
He shrugged and stared at his feet. “They wear out. I don’t want my pants to fall down.”
Lincoln rolled his eyes. “He’s got a big cock.”
I didn’t need to know that. “Didn’t you show up naked?” I asked.
Mukki gave me an annoyed look. “I didn’t like it.”
Lincoln closed his eyes and waved his hands between us. “Stop, stop, stop. The quartermaster wanted us to give you instructions.”
I grinned. Clearly, I was to be put to work as the ship’s engineer right away. Real work. Using my real skills. The World Facing was looking up, even without shoes.
Lincoln was shaking his head. “You’re not going to like it.”