Jan was shaking her head in disbelief. “The mummified body of Jesus Christ . . .”
“I made exactly the same deduction,” I said; and then I added, as kindly as possible: “And I was just as wrong as you are.”
Lower lip quivering, Jan stared at me like I'd just told her that Santa Claus was a myth, the Tooth Fairy was a lie, and Broadway plays only got produced if they starred a Hollywood actor. “It’s not Jesus Christ?”
“It’s not Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus Christ!” she said angrily, waving her hands. “Okay; okay. It’s a body but it’s not Christ’s body. So it’s Mary’s, right?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“But what about all the twelves? The twelve coins, the twelve harbors?”
“Twelve letters in his name, when you spell it out with hieroglyphics. Well, eleven, actually.” I held up my coin. “Plus the designation. He was the third of that name.”
“The third of what name?”
I looked at the author. “You want to do the honors?”
She shook her head. “It’s your story.”
“But you know who it is, right?”
She nodded. “I know who it is.”
“Will you please tell me please?” Jan cried.
“Okay, okay.” And I leaned over and whispered three words in her ear.
You might have read in the Monday papers that there was a minor tremor centered around Bank Street Sunday night, coming in at 2.5 on the Richter scale. It wasn’t an earthquake. It was the sound of Jan's jaw hitting the floor at exactly 10:44 PM.
One minute later, at 10:45, a tall thin guy in black came into the room. He had a thick gray moustache and snow white hair, and he carried a tiny J. Arthur Rank gong in one hand and a small silver hammer in the other. The Ferryman. He tapped the gong with the hammer once. As the tiny bong echoed in the room, he said, “Coins?”
We each held up our obol.
“This way,” he said, and led us to the end of a line of men and women that led into the kitchen, positioning us by our coins so that the author stood in front of Jan, and I stood behind her.
On line ahead of us, I noticed a local baseball player going into his retirement year, a local governor trying to get out from under a scandal, a TV actor who had just opened on Broadway, and a talk show host who had just signed a new contract.
“Well,” said Jan, squaring her shoulders, “they’re all in good company.”
The talk show host turned around and grinned at her. The author giggled. The Ferryman said “Ssshhh!” like a substitute teacher trying to assert his authority over a class of juvenile delinquents.
And then the line started moving. Into the kitchen. Down a flight of stairs in the back to the keg cellar. And then through a doorway behind the kegs to a twelve-step stairway that wound clockwise down to a dimly lit corridor, with whitewashed bricks on one side and a blank wooden wall on the other.
“Look at those bricks,” I whispered to Jan. I reached out and let my fingers trail across them as we walked. “They’ve got to be early Nineteenth Century, maybe even late Eighteenth. This room’s been down here since George Washington had his own teeth.”
At the end of the corridor was a doorway. We walked through it into a wide low-ceilinged room with a pool table near one wall and a bocce court near the other. In the center of the wall by the bocce court was a stone archway around a wooden double door. The Ferryman pulled the doors open. Less than five seconds later, the smell of incense was everywhere, triggering in me, at least, the memories of about a dozen family funeral masses at once.
We walked through the archway into a small cathedral. The ceiling had constellations on it, like Grand Central Station, which were all contained within the wide blue waves of Ôkeanos, the river that surrounds the universe. There were paintings along each wall, six on the left and six on the right, like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross. On the floor was a purple carpet; at the end of the carpet were two small pews in front of a red curtain, one pew on the left and one on the right. We walked on that royal carpet up to the pews, where the Ferryman sat us in order by coin inscription, first letter of the name first, Roman numeral III last.
A low deep gong sounded from our left. A perfect piece of misdirection, because we all automatically glanced to our left as the red curtain dropped to the floor. The first thing we saw was a small podium against the left-hand wall, on which was a book the size of an old Oxford English Dictionary: the guest book. We quickly turned to look in front of us, and saw everything at once—a kneeler in front of an altar rail—twelve white bowls on the altar rail, each with a candle behind it—a recessed alcove draped in white, and in the center of the alcove a raised platform.
On that platform, lying upon an ornately-carved ivory pallet and enclosed entirely in glass, was the body of a man. A small man. Sunken desiccated features. Strands of colorless hair that once were golden. A jewel-encrusted diadem on his head. Arms crossed over a gold chest plate. A white tunic that glowed like it was radioactive, which made me think there was a black light shining on it from somewhere.
Jan leaned over to me and whispered: “What happened to his nose?” Because of course his nose was missing. But then, it had been missing since Cleopatra died.
“Octavian Caesar knocked it off by mistake,” I whispered back.
“How do you knock off a nose by mistake?”
“You reach down to take the original crown off, and your hand slips. And your hand slips because you're a total schlemiel.”
“So that’s not the original crown.”
“That’s not the original tunic either.”
“It looks like Lord & Taylor,” said the author.
“Ssshhh!” said the Ferryman.
One by one they went up to the altar: the baseball player, the governor, the talk show host, the author, Jan. One by one an obol was dropped in a white bowl. A candle was lit. A wish was made, or thanks were given, or prayers were offered up. For strength, for courage, for success; to endure, to achieve, to win a battle. One by one each person recited the words that were printed in front of each candle: “Kye Amy Kye Iskandros.” And one by one each person walked over to the podium and signed the guest book, while the next person went up to the altar.
Jan said later that she made a wish for her daughter, and I totally believe it, because that’s the kind of person she is. Me, I wasn’t that unselfish. When it came my turn, I dropped my obol into its bowl, lit the final candle, and thought about the two plays I was working on, and the novel I was having a hard time writing, and the seemingly endless list of ideas which would probably outlive me. And then I thought of all the things this man had done in the last thirteen years of his all-too short life, the places he'd seen, the battles he'd fought and won. And I asked for the one thing he never got, the thing he continues to conquer even now. I asked for time.
And when I said “Kye Amy Kye Iskandros,” I really tried to say it like I meant it.
“What does that Amy thing mean?” Jan asked later as I was walking her home.
“It's bad ancient Greek for ‘And I too am Iskander,’ which is what the Persians and the Afghanis and the Egyptians and pretty much everybody but the Greeks called him. The story goes that when Darius was defeated at the Battle of Issus, he didn’t just abandon his camp, he abandoned his family as well—mother, wife, sons, daughters. Next morning, the Queen mother, whose name was, crap, I forget what her name was; anyway, she was told that the general who defeated her son wanted to see her, and into her tent walked two men, one small and fair-haired and slim, one tall and dark-haired and built like a wrestler. Naturally she knelt down in front of the wrestler. Who wouldn’t? He looked like a god. But he wasn’t the general—he was the general’s best friend. The general was the small slim guy. And when the Queen apologized, he brushed it off by saying, ‘No harm done; for he, too, is Iskander.’ ”
“Kye Amy Kye Iskandros.” I too can change the world.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Somewhere in one of the oldest bars in Manhattan there is a woman ordering a bowl of French Canadian bean soup. Perhaps a friend told her to do it; more likely it was a business associate, or a financial adviser, or someone in the court of the King of New York. If she is lucky, she is one of the first twelve people that night to order the dish, and when it is delivered to her table she will spoon out a silver coin that has a curious design on one side and a crown or a horse on the other. And then she will wait, wait till it is almost dawn in the still-living city of Alexandria, when she and eleven other people will descend to the sub-basement of this bar and light a candle and make a wish in front of the man who founded that city: Alexandros III of Macedon, commonly known as Aléxandros ho Mégas—Alexander the Great—Basileus of Macedon, pupil of Aristotle, Hegemon of the Hellenic League, sworn brother of Hephaestion, Shahanshah of Persia, tamer of Bucephalus, Pharaoh of Egypt, Lord of Asia, and self-proclaimed God of the world—whose embalmed and mummified body is even now, as it always will be, safely resting in one of its twelve harbors.