The man was fat, piggy blue eyes squinting out from behind steel rimmed glasses that were nearly a part of his sallow and greasy face. He wore an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. Hairless legs that were so crisscrossed with varicose veins that they made his pallid calves look like they were carved from bleu cheese. Many of the boatman’s fares looked like this man. Not just the confused expression, but the obvious lack of appreciation for their physical appearance. The man doffed his fedora with its tacky red band and feather, kneading the sweat stained brim with overstuffed sausage fingers. He finally noticed the other man standing on the dock.
“Excuse me, sir. But - well, where am I?”
The boatman pulled a battered pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his grubby shirt, sliding one of the old coffin nails out as he surveyed his passenger.
“You’re at the crossing.”
He tucked the cigarette between his lips, popping a sulphur match alight with a dirty thumbnail. Drooping end of the cigarette lit, he exhaled twin coils of smoke through his nostrils, a weathered and weary dragon. The fat man looked around again, his face beginning to flush. The boatman could see beads of sweat begin to prickle on the furrowed brow.
“I don’t know what you mean…I have no idea where I am, let alone how I got here in the first place. I was sitting in Mikey’s Sports Bar in Miami Beach just a minute ago watchin’ the Yanks beat the pants off the fucking BoSoxs when all of a sudden, here I am.” He shrugged in the smoking man’s direction. “And here you are, doing a shitty impression of Clint Eastwood, with your goddamned boat, and this goddamned river and your goddamned riddles.”
The boatman chuckled at this.
“There’s no riddle, no sir. Just a statement of fact. In answer to your question, in fact.”
The fat man flushed a deeper shade of crimson. The smoking man chuckled at the prospect of that piggy face turning a very particular shade of eggplant.
“Fuck you that was an answer to my goddamn question! Where the fuck am I? What the fuck am I doing here? Tell me, goddammit! I know people, I know connected people, if you know what I mean.” The piggy eyes narrowed maliciously.
The boatman grinned, exposing two rows of stained ivory piano keys.
“I told you. You’re at the Crossing.”
This time the fat man was sure he heard the capital letter at the beginning of the word “crossing”. He swallowed the lump rising in his throat. The boatman continued.
“As for those people you ‘know’, I’ve known more powerful men than you could meet in a hundred lifetimes. And eventually, I will get to know these ‘friends’ of yours far better than you do. You know how you got here and you know why you’re here. Any more questions?”
The fat man opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it. Awareness spread slowly across his flushed features.
“I’m...dead?” The boatman nodded, blowing a smoke ring into the overcast sky.
The kneading of the hat brim resumed. The fat man looked down at his feet in their dilapidated Birkenstocks.
“I can’t believe I died at Mikey’s. In the middle of the day, no less. Heart atta-?” He let the question dangle, shaking his head. “What am I saying? Of course it was a heart attack. I mean, look at me.” He gestured down at his corpulence stuffed into the Hawaiian print shirt. Something clinked against his pinky ring. Withdrawing his hand from his pocket, he found an ancient and rough looking coin lying in the center of his sweaty palm. He looked from the coin to the boatman.
“This for you?”
The boatman blew another smoke ring and nodded. The fat man shrugged and stepped out onto the dock, handing the coin to the smoking man. It disappeared into the pocket of the boatman’s stained brown work pants.
“The name’s Charlie.” The boatman grunted around the rapidly ashing cigarette to his passenger. It sounded more like “Challie” to the fat man. He gripped the extended and very weathered hand, burnt a deep bronze and crisscrossed with thick cables of tendon and vein.
“Pleased to meet you, Charlie. I’m Carl.”
The boatman loosed another gruff chuckle.
“Yer not pleased to meet me, Carl. Hardly no one ever is. I don’t mind s’much anymore. When I first took over the job from my father, I had a real hard time with it. But when you get to be my age, things like that don’t bother you s’much. Now, it’s the ones that’re happy to be here that get to me. Shame, knowing that life was so hard you’d welcome this.” He gestured around.
Not knowing what to say, Carl nodded and stepped down into the boat with a sharp huff of exhalation, the boat rocking a but under his sandaled feet. Untying the thick hempen rope that tethered them to the dock, Charlie jumped down into the boat with a surprising grace belied by his gruff demeanor, landing neatly on the balls of his feet next to his stunned passenger. He seated himself between the oarlocks and began to pull, the muscles in his arms were rippling steel cables beneath sun-baked skin. Carl lowered himself into the only available seat and the boat began a leisurely crawl out into the river. He couldn’t make out a discernible sign of the opposite shore.
Other than the gentle splash of the oars breaking the surface, there was very little sound out on the river. Carl began to relax, lulled by the hypnotic rocking of the boat and the rhythmic sound of the rowing. All sense of time seemed to disappear, borne away down the river on the crests of the tiny, placid waves.
“So, Carl. Tell me about yourself.”
The fat man sat up, blinking.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we’ve got a bit of time on our hands and I figured you might want to talk a bit. Rowing gets kind of boring after a while.”
“Oh, yeah. I could understand that. Well, I was born in 1932 in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Played football in high school the year our team went to the state championship and ran numbers for a couple of connected guys. Eventually, I met Sylvia and got married. I think sometime in ‘61 or ‘62, but it didn’t last long. She took our daughter, Maria, and left me in ‘64. Been working as a bookie, with a couple of other odd jobs since then. At least my folks weren’t alive when Sylvia split. Saved them some embarrassment, I guess.”
Carl had removed the hat from his head and was kneading the brim again. While he had been talking, a thick fog had begun to roll in, shrouding much of the surrounding river from view. Carl peered out into the blankness. Charlie continued to pull on the oars.
“What of that life have you brought here with you, Carl?”
Carl didn’t take his gaze from the shifting banks of fog. He thought he could make something out in the distance downriver, but he wasn’t sure.
“Hm? I’m not really sure. I mean, obviously not Sylvia or Maria.”
“So, you are no longer a husband and father, now that you are here?”
Carl allowed himself a grim little laugh at this.
“Charlie, I stopped being a husband and a father long before I got here. To be honest with you, I’m not too sure I ever was either, even when I was married. I checked up on them every so often, mostly just to see how Maria was doing. Sylvia remarried a couple of years after we split. Nice guy. Engineer or an architect or something like that. Big house out on Long Island. From all accounts, they’re very happy. I couldn’t have ever given them a life like that. Last I heard, Maria got accepted to Columbia, pre-med. If me’n’Sylvia had stayed together? I don’t really want to think about it. I mean, I never even sent Maria a birthday card or a Christmas present after they left. Figured that it’d be better for her if I stayed out of her life. Those old memories of me, if she had any, that is, they’d just scab over and fade with time. That other guy, he’s more of a father to her than I ever was. No, Charlie, that part of me died a long time ago.”
Peering out into the fog, Carl attempted to locate whatever it was he had seen (or thought he’d seen) there before. It took a bit, but he was able to make out another shape in the mist. But that was really it, nothing but an indistinct shape.
“So what parts of you have you brought, Carl?”
Carl kneaded the brim of the sweat-stained fedora, squinting out into the shifting fog.
“Do you...do you see something out there?”
“It’s just a trick of the light, Carl. Did you hear what I just asked you?”
Carl turned back to face the boatman.
“Um. Well, I just brought, you know, myself. Carl Montalbianco, small-time bookie.”
“Is there really any use for your profession here, do you think, Carl Montalbianco?”
Shaking his head slowly, Carl replied.
“No, I doubt that there really is.”
Off in the distance, over Charlie’s shoulder, Carl swore he saw a brief flash, like the twinkling of a christmas light glimpsed through a window. Charlie fixed Carl with a thoughtful stare.
“So, what is left, Carl?”
Carl looked down at his dilapidated Birkenstocks.
“I really don’t know. Just, well, me, I guess.”
“And who are you, exactly?”
“Carl Montalbianco, the…” Face wrinkling in temporary concentration, as if trying to grasp the last cobwebby fragments of a dream after waking. “Just Carl Montalbianco.” He stated firmly.
“Do you think there’s any reason to hold onto that name any longer? Is it really who you are? Or is it just a placeholder? Y’know, an easy way for people to point you out.”
Charlie was pulling slower now, just enough to keep the boat from drifting downriver.
“Well, I don’t really know. I guess it depends on where you’re taking me. How will my family recognize me, if not by my name?” Carl realized how ludicrous this statement sounded as he spoke it. “Well, I guess they would know me no matter that my name was, wouldn’t they? I guess it probably doesn’t matter here...And hell, I wasn’t all that close with my family anyways. Maybe I don’t want them to be able to find me…” He trailed off. “Not that my name mattered all that much when I was alive, it was just letters on paper...some way to make sure my mail made it into the right box...I guess.”
More tiny flashes of light in the distance, it seemed like the fog was starting to thin, though Carl still couldn’t see any sign of the opposite shore.
“So what’s left, then?” Charlie asked the man who had once been Carlo Antonio Montalbianco. The man looked down at his Hawaiian shirt and sandals, at the alabaster legs.
“This body. But maybe that doesn’t matter, either. Never really did me much good before. Kind of seems silly, now. It is all that is left of who I am or who I was...If I give it up, won’t that be it? I’ll just cease to be? Gone from wherever this is? I guess there has to be a soul in there, somewhere. But if there isn’t...I’ll just...disappear, right?” Carl stared off into the thinning fog. He found that shape again. It was hard to see, but it looked like another boat. There were two figures in it. It took the man who had been called Carl a minute to realize that Charlie had stopped rowing altogether.
“I can’t answer that for you. We’ve reached the middle of the river. I can’t go any further until you decide for yourself. We can drift with the current as long as you like, but we’ll always just end up back here until you make up your mind.”
“I’m...afraid.” The man finally managed.
“I know. You’re not the first. And you certainly won’t be th’last. But you have to decide, one way or the other. Let go, or drift forever, like this.
The man who used to be Carl looked down again. Flashes of the life he’d led danced across his mind’s eye in flickering and spotty images. He waved a hand.
“Mine or not, even this body means nothing here. I don’t want to drift on this river forever, no offense to you, of course.” Charlie waved a dismissive hand. The other man continued. “Part of me...:” He laughed a little at this, “part of me feels like it didn’t matter there, either.”
There was a soft, metallic thud. Where the man had been sitting, all that remained was an ancient coin, the twin of the one in the boatman’s pocket. A small, glowing light flashed in the air above the boat, approximately where the man who was called Carl had been. Charlie smiled, leaned over, and picked up the coin. The fog had dissipated. He began pulling on the oars again. The sky had begun to darken, and as he rowed on towards the unseen shore, he was engulfed in a deep, welcoming darkness. The small light resolved itself into a firefly, hovering along with the boat as Charlie continued on into the dark. Eventually, Charlie shipped his oars and stood up, cupping the firefly in his worn, old hands.
He turned then, facing towards the prow of the little boat. Slowly extending his arms above him, Charlie released the firefly. As it fluttered off into the darkness, Charlie followed it’s flickering progress. Suddenly, its solitary light was answered in the distance by another. Then another. Charlie smiled as the darkness gave way to a great flickering field of light, endless galaxies and constellations of fireflies extending off into forever all around him.
Charlie had been doing this job for a long, long time, but he still never tired of this moment. He watched for a few minutes, and then sat down and began rowing back the way he had come, knowing that dawn would find someone waiting by the rickety old dock on that far shore.