Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 53—The Vertical Ferryman

Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

—Wm. Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus Act V, Scene 1

The express to the 42nd floor started with an unpromising lurch; there was a grinding sound from behind rosewood and stainless steel. Bay lights flickered as the elevator picked up speed then slowed, seeking a safe berth in its vertical universe. The passengers looked at one another with varying degrees of alarm as the car settled in by inches. The grinding stopped. From the shaft outside the double doors came hurried footfalls, then frantic fist pounding. A draft from below carried the smell of roasting flesh. “Hey, god damn it, open up, you piece of antediluvian shit.” Bang-ity, bang, bang, bang. The doors heaved open and, out of what in a better-ordered universe would have been the tightly packed molecules of a solid concrete building, a figure in a hooded robe ran at them. He carried a thermos and a paper sack under one arm. Eyes wide, he looked back as if checking on a gaining pursuer, then jumped, skidded on his heels and caromed off a zit-covered adolescent who clutched a skateboard to his chest.

“Ow. Hey. Watch it, man,” said the kid.

“Almost left without me. Can’t have that.” On his chest, over the heart, a plastic name tag said Ferryman. “Name’s Steinmetz. Willard Steinmetz.” The kid’s head was covered with a heavy wrapping of gauze bandages; there had been some seepage. The Ferryman leaned in closer and sniffed. “Phew! Skateboarding against uptown traffic, eh? Well, there’s a last time for everything; you’ll be happy here.” He threw back his cowl and slapped on a Greek fisherman’s cap; there was a glittering of gold braid and nautical insignia. Willard the Ferryman singled out a gray-faced woman in a cleaning service uniform. Her name tag said J. Southcott—Maintenance. “Oh hello, Joanna.”

“Hullo, Ferryman. I didn’t think to be meeting up with you today exactly.”

“Then just pretend that I am not here. We’ll sort you out sooner or later. Damn! Forgot my bargepole.”

From the elevator shaft came a slow-motion flapping as if from a giant bird of prey. “Hail, O Ferryman,” said a voice. The passengers gasped for breath as they flattened themselves against the elevator’s far wall.

Willard pried a peephole in the door’s rubber safety lips. “Hold my ankles, Prophetess, there’s a good girl.” He pulled the doors apart and leaned into the shaft to where a scaly hand held out a staff some inches in heft and a good fifteen feet long. “Got it. Pull, Joanna!” Joanna pulled. Willard the Ferryman, a son of Nyx and Erebus, rolled back into the car, bargepole in hand. “Thank ’ee, Angel Dave,” he said. “Malakh of the Principalities said you might be dropping by.”

Dave Peel hovered in the shaft on a set of giant leather wings which he wore strapped to his back. Hot spots shimmered where wisps of smoke exited his body. “Don’t bother about the fumes,” said the angel. “Got some room in there?” Dave tried to squeeze into the car, but his wings were wider than the door. “Damn wings.” He poked the Ferryman in the stomach. The Ferryman frowned. “Oh come on, Will. I’m being pursued by posse of demons—some minor infraction, one of those days, dig?” There was another lurch.

“OK, but make it snappy,” said the Ferryman and pulled a lever with a big red handle. The bay lights went out and a dim yellow emergency light clicked on as the car went to standby power. The grinding started up again. Dave shrugged out of his wings, swung a leg over the edge and scissored himself into the car. There was a smattering of applause. “Thank you, thank you. Rather gymnastic if I do say so myself.”

“There should be a phone...” The Ferryman slapped at a panel of buttons to the right of the elevator’s sliding doors. “They do that sometimes, these new models. A bad sign, no pride in a job well done anymore. And the critters in the shaft—they keep ’em hungry.” The snarl of an ill-tempered carnivore rose as if on cue. There was a subdued gargling and a crunching of bones. “You won’t want to leave your nibblies hanging out.” Willard sighed and settled to the floor. “The critters just love their little nibbly bits.”

Dave the angel pulled a bewildered salamander out of his nose and sneezed. “How’s tricks, Ferryman?” He tossed the salamander into the elevator shaft and surveyed the company, “And what do we have trapped in our net of wonder?”

Willard displayed his paper bag. “I got lunch.”

“And you will share then? How delightful. I am famished.”

A tiny green LED sparked and faded as the skateboard kid checked the time at his wrist.

“Yo, Tad,” said Dave. The kid jumped. “You know your name, that’s a start. And yes, so do I. Speechless, I see. Forget the time. Any appointments you have made or might make are cancelled. As of now. Got it? So, barring any more scintillating conversation, is anyone here named Lucian Hobart? I thought we might recognize each other, but things being as they are, op. cit., in re de: confused—it occurs to me that we might look differently and thus miss our appointment.”

The bay lights went on again. Then off. The doors closed and they rose slowly through the dark. Tad Needy IV sized up the angel and wrote him off as a delusion, wings or not.

“I am the Messenger; that’s capitalized and all, Tad lad.” said Angel Dave. “A herald of the High and Mighty Underwriters of Entropy, I am here to offer one of you an unparalleled opportunity—fame, fortune, a well-positioned mutual fund, all the most wanted items. Plus—The Miraculous Child. The anti-child, actually. No need to form a queue, the title role has been filled. However, I am pleased to announce that one of you—and that means here and now, stuck with me in this dreary dumbwaiter—has Potential. Humans, too. Just think.” he beamed.

Joanna adjusted her grip on the mop handle. “We’re all pretty long in the tooth if it’s a messiah you’re after, Angel. The delinquent lost lamb,” she nodded to Tad IV who bristled and slouched, “is the youngest here—or was, being dead, ’ee knows.”

“Ah-hah.” Dave entered a notation into a pocket device that flashed blue and orange. “Of our jolly crew Willard here has the subtle sense of humor; this has been duly noted. Our cleaning lady has issues, but is resigned to her place in the order of things. And all the liturgical implements, too—mop, pail, tool trolley on display so we are made sure that this is what she really is. Appearances can be deceiving; tools never lie—if you hold an ear against her chest you should hear ticking. Next, an adolescent grandnephew—a skateboarder just dropped out of his freshman year to be squished by the number five bus here to put the arm on his uncle, a CEO whose office lies high above us, if I am not mistaken.”

“Tad Needy, Tad IV they called me. Because of my father and my grandfather?” said the kid.

“Ah, yes,” said Dave, taking a note. “And then there is Mary Lu Schermerhorn.”

“I’ve got coffee,” offered Mary Lu. “Two black, one extra sugar, three lattes and a cappuccino.” She had been headed to the 53rd floor. This was her regular afternoon mercy run for the guys in Creative.

“As I said, Mary Lu Schermerhorn. Mary Lu’s posterity is booked for early extinction with any surviving heirs and assigns sure to be judged in the First Rapture. She is well turned-out but past her prime. She will not be missed; the afternoon coffee run is low-hanging fruit, achievement-wise.” Mary Lu smiled weakly as she repurposed her serenity.

The Ferryman leaned back against the wall. “And I got lunch, ham and Swiss on rye with lettuce and mayo.” He hopefully crinkled the brown paper of his as yet unopened sack.

“And I don’t,” said the Sixth Choir Angel, “I get it. And beneath your humble exterior you are still a nut job.” He extended a hand. Willard took it, shook it and, while their hands were still engaged, raised his eyebrows in a speculative arc. “Do I know you? Aside from choir practice I mean. I think we’ve met before.”

The lights came on.

“You smell funny,” said Tad IV, meaning the Sixth Choir Angel. He wrinkled his nose and withdrew to as far as the cramped quarters would allow.

“There’s a landfill in Jersey City that’s had a tire fire burning since 1942. I use it for cologne,” said Dave. “Then again, it could be the barbecue ribs on the grill at the bottom of the shaft; incense confuses a lot of folks—pitch, pine tar, aromatic resins, sugar and gin. This is the mete of affliction of the true believer, bronchial collapse.”

“Maybe his mayonnaise is off,” said Mary Lu, referring to the Ferryman.

“The Anointed One?” said the Prophetess, referring to a virgin birth of her later years, “Not a chance.”

“You don’t remember me, do you?” said Dave the Angel to the kid.

“Jesus Christ,” said the Prophetess.

“Close. We are sometimes mistaken for one another.” said Dave. “But no, He would be taller.” The angel took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the air in the elevator cage. His face became blue, then red. He turned to exhale into the shaft outside. “Sorry about that. There, are we all comfy-cozy?” Dave Peel flapped; there was a mild odor of barbecue sauce.

“Bruce Willis?” said Tad IV. “No. You are not Bruce Willis; I would know. I’ve seen all the movies.” The Ferryman nodded agreement. He undid the lid of his vacuum bottle and an aura of freshly-ground Caribbean Dark flooded the cab.

“Coffee in the afternoon always makes me pee,” said Joanna.

“So? You got a bucket,” said Willard. “Use it.”

Tad IV looked pouty and checked the time again. He stared at the Ferryman’s lunch bag. “That’s OK, I got a Power Bar.” Thirty seconds had elapsed. Mary Lu gasped and spritzed herself with a nasal inhaler.

“You asthmatic?” The Ferryman seemed interested. “Anxiety or something about Power Bars?”

“Anxiety is a sure sign of an unfocused mind,” said Joanna Southcott.

“Hope to Hell it’s asthma, then,” said the Ferryman. “The creatures out there in the shaft, they can smell the fear on you.”

“I’m Mary Lu. Century, Ebersol Lystrander. From the 53rd floor?” The coffee-run girl had a regular workout routine; her grip was strong and sure. She extended a hand to Joanna. “Ow!” The clockwork woman’s grip was stronger.

“How do. Joanna Southcott, I work here. They’ll send someone if we can find the telephone.”

“This it?” Tad IV held up a red handset with a severed cord. “Looks fucked to me.” His eyes said that he had no idea where to run in case of a fire or where the men’s room was. Tad IV has this about him. His grandfather’s distant Electrolux distributor was glad to know you could still find guys like Tad out in the Maine boondocks.

“They’ll miss us...” said Mary Lu. “Will they miss me?”

“You maybe,” said Willard the Ferryman. “Me, the son of Nyx and Erebus, what’s to miss? I got my sandwich; that’s a comfort.”

“I was supposed to be at school,” said the skateboarder, Tad Needy Junior, Junior, Junior. “In Connecticut. Nobody knows where I am.”

Mary Lu brought her mind into focus. “You’re dead; that’s where you are. I saw all the Die Hard movies, too. I saw Bruce Willis go hand-over-hand on the elevator cables.”

“I just love Bruce Willis,” said Joanna. “We’re all dead; that’s the point.”

“You saw this in the movies?” said Tad IV, looking very young. “We’re dead. That’s it? Dumb question, sorry.”

“No question is dumb. This is how we learn, kid,” said Willard, himself a refugee of many second features before the barge poling gig.

The elevator shook and dropped again, with sufficient force to spill some of Joanna’s mop water on the floor. Mary Lu juggled escaping lattes. There was a silvery ding as they crunched to a stop; the doors opened part way and jammed. From a bifocal horizon line defined by a steel beam, an overalled leg groped for a footing in midair. Mary Lu started to cry.

In the shaft, a barrage of mild cursing—then, “Hello?”

“Hello, Lucy Hobart. Squeeze on through. We’ve been waiting for you.”

This interleaves with what might have been; fiction trumps truth and, on loan from cable TV, unhappinesses, poverty, and anxiety are airbrushed away to give happy endings to otherwise meaningless lives. Glamor calls; Days of Our Lives  wins a daytime Emmy; in Florida a giant sinkhole swallows a mall parking lot and a Jiffy Lube. Everything happens at once.

“’Kay, bye,” says someone.

“Things could be worse,” says Willard.

“A favorite saying, I’ll just bet,” says Dave Peel.

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