It sure is a shame that these kinds of things have to happen. But what can you do? Life is a cycle that goes round and round. All things have a beginning, middle and an end when it comes to life. She hasn’t found much comfort in her hard, ole hospital bed. Pretty soon, she’ll be ready. But I haven’t been very hospitable; let me tell you a little about myself.
The name is Curtis Jackson. S’born in South Louisiana. I was a simple man I s’pose. My mama always told me I had a big heart, but a slow mind. My memory is like a bad refrigerator. Can’t keep nothin’. We moved to Kentucky back in nineteen thirty somethin’, when we were deep into the depression. We didn’t want for nothin’ though, because we never had nothin’. Felecia Jackson was her name, my mother. She did what she could. I never knew my papa.
I remember as a kid, not understandin’ some of the hardships we had to go through. But I always had big dreams of making my family proud. The only thing I was ever good at was drivin’. I knew my way ‘round, boy! I could get you anywhere! I drove taxicabs, school buses, limousines, a city bus. I was good too. Sleet, snow, rain or shine! It’s how I made a livin’.
I was a young man with ambition. I couldn’t tell you much about automobiles, but I knew how to move them. And I was always told I was good with people. It was probably about nineteen fifty-three when I started. When I was a young boy I used to shine shoes back in the old barbershop. All the money I ever got I worked hard for. But back in sixty-four I started drivin’ a taxicab. I got to meet all kinds of interesting people.
Rich people, poor people, black folk and white folk. Back when things were a little different, I even had a few people refuse to ride in a cab with a driver of color. I paid them no never-mind though. We didn’t have any of those fancy tracking devices, or those GPS or BLT, whatever you youngsters call those things. I knew my way around town.
It was June thirtieth, nineteen seventy-three. A day I’ll never forget. I was drivin’ through downtown in my sleek yellow cab, when a man I won’t soon forget was hailin’ for me with his thumb in the air. There surely wasn’t anything remarkable about the man at first sight. I glided on over to the curve, as smooth as ever. People don’t just ride with me, they glide with me, I tell you what! I’ll never forget it.
I pulled over to the curb, and he hopped in the back seat. I turned around and gave him a quick smile and I asked, “where to mister?” And he replied, “to the airport, if you please.”
I reckon I’ll sound a bit crazy. He was a young lookin’ white man, probably in his thirties. I remember he had on black slacks, a white dress shirt, unbuttoned. He looked like a businessman, but he didn’t have any brief case. He wanted to go to the airport, but he didn’t even have any luggage. I thought it was peculiar, but I wasn’t one to judge. It’s not like I’m going to tell him he can’t go to the airport if he doesn’t have luggage.
It was a rough couple of years around then, I remember. We were goin’ through a recession. Gasoline was about forty cents a gallon, but it was expensive back then. People were waitin’ in line at the gas station for an hour some places! My favorite song was Ball of Confusion, by the Temptations. And Nixon had gotten himself in a whole heap of trouble. Things happen in cycles. What comes around goes around, and what happened and went, will more than likely come back around again, my mama used to say that.
My first job was drivin’ a city bus, but back in seventy-three I was driving a taxicab. I was forty-one years old when I met him. He said his name was Joshua. That young man, probably in his thirties sat in the back seat as I went out from the curb and made our way to the airport. I didn’t think anything special about it at the time. Small talk really. Chrysler had started closing down a bunch of plants, and hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs. One of my good friends did, as matter of fact. Nam had just ended, and we talked back and forth about that. We even talked about the weather. I’m not shy or bashful, I talk to my passengers, and that’s what I did.
He sat there with his black slacks, and his white unbuttoned dress shirt. I remember he had blonde hair, and bright blue eyes. He seemed like a pretty smart cat. He was talking to me about the oil embargo that was going on, and all about the current garbage that had been going on in the world. I asked him what he did for a livin’. I remember lookin’ back at him from the rear-view mirror and he looked up at me and had this sly smile on his face. He said, “I’m a business man, I guess you could say.”
“What kind of business?” I pushed on; my hands on the steering wheel, moving along the highway.
“If you can keep a secret, I handle God’s business,” he replied.
My first thought was, oh okay, this guy is a preacher. I’ve always gone to church and been faithful, so I figured that meant I was in good company. So I said, “which church do you Pastor?” And he told me something that I will never forget for as long as I live. I haven’t forgotten it even to this day. I’ve met all different kinds of people. I have a way of reading them, and knowing when they’re lyin’ or telling tales, or putting me on.
“I’ve had many different names and titles through the years. The most common is death.”
I recall I nearly jerked the wheel to the left into the median. I didn’t know whether to be insulted, scared, or laugh. I thought I could at least play along. I started thinkin’ about all the different questions I could ask, anything at all that might be able to reveal the truth about this guy. I s’pose he read the look on my face as disbelief, because he started telling me about myself.
“Your mothers name is Felicia. She died when you were thirty-seven. You never knew your father, or the five other half brothers and sisters he’s had through the years, though one of them had recently tried to contact you. You’ve been in the transportation business your whole working life.”
I sat there for a moment without anything to say. I was completely dumbfounded.
“You’re mother was buried in the red dress that she loved, the one with the sash around the waist.”
I don’t know why I laughed. It was the only response that seemed normal. I couldn’t even begin to believe what I heard. A few tears mixed in.
“Are you here for me? I don’t feel sick!” I said.
I pulled in to the airport, and he asked me to pull in to one of the empty parking spots. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ll admit I was scared. He asked me how much he owed me for the drive, and I told him not to worry about it. I asked him what he wanted with me. He told me he needed a replacement. He went on to talkin’ about his job, if you could call it that. He said that every time some one dies, and he takes them to the other side, it’s like he dies a little death of his own each time. He relives it over and over again with each death.
“I don’t think I understand,” I admitted.
Joshua told me that life is a cycle. You are born, you live, you die, and you are born again. Maybe not in the way you think, but born again into a new way of bein’. And each time he takes a soul, he lives that death with them, and that little piece of death is what he takes with him. He literally is death. It is both a blessin’, and a curse in a way, that he takes as his duty.
“There comes a time when I finally get to rest. I can put the death behind me, and I can go and be in peace. But not before I pass it along. And I can think of no one better.”
Why me, I asked. Why not you, he replied. He said I’ve spent most of my life takin’ people to where they need to go. Everyone you drive, he says, is on his or her way somewhere. The final journey waits for them all. It reminds me about the story of the Ferryman, who takes the dead over the river Styx, to the other side. That’s what he wants me to be. He wants me to be the boatman.
He began to climb out of the taxi when I stopped him with more questions.
“Wait. Will I see you again?”
He looked at me in my eyes, and then the answer occurred to me.
“Where are you goin’ now?” I asked next.
“I’m going my way to the next,” he replied.
He stepped out of the cab, and closed the door behind him, and made his way towards the airport. I wanted to follow him, I wanted to ask more questions, but I couldn’t even find the words to form them. Before I could untangle my thoughts, he was already out of sight. He didn’t wait for my answer, but I s’pose he already knew.
I never did see him again. I drove away and life went truckin’ on as it always does. Years passed, and every day I wondered if I’d see him again with his thumb in the air. Maybe today he’ll be comin’ for me, I thought. I continued to drive my cab, takin’ people here and there. Like he said, everybody is on their way somewhere.
I began lookin’ in the mirror and all I saw was a seventy-seven year old man. My dark hair had turned all gray. I had a few wrinkles. I’d led a simple life, but a good one. I want you to know, I did get in contact with one of my half brothers, Darrell, which was one of the best decisions I ever made. I retired, not havin’ much else to do. My get up and go had got up and gone, you could say. One day I knew I’d go to sleep at night and not wake up. Life was going to go on though until that day that I knew would come, when Joshua would come to get me. I’ve been a limo driver, a city bus driver, and a taxi driver. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. I knew I’d drive again. It’ll be both my blessing, and my curse. I knew that day would come.
Which brings me to where I am now, at the foot of this women’s hospital bed. Pretty soon her machine will flat line and I’ll be there for her. I’ll carry her death with me, at least until I can pass it along. She’ll ride with me, and I’ll take her to the next place. My name is Curtis Jackson, but you can call me the boatman.