Once Charon the boatman decided to turn the money down. He’d ferry the dead to oblivion in the underworld free of charge if it was worth the price. For some time, though, it hadn’t seemed worth even the cheek-stretching mouthful of coins the majority of expectant passengers now showed up with to pay their way across the murky water—more off-putting in its presumptions than the single coin the dead had arrived with on their tongues in the past, no matter how slobber-slathered it might have been. What was he supposed to do with all this slimy lucre? The waiting crowds must know you couldn’t buy anything worth having in the underworld. Or maybe this lot just didn’t get it. Were they still incapable of seeing that the glitter of the lives they’d thought made them the envy of the world was revealed down here as the dross they should always have recognized it to be? And the soul-soiling behavior they’d eagerly engaged in for such rewards, as if confident none of it would ever stick, now caked them hard from head to foot. Phew, what foulness! What stench! Up and down the river’s edge surged armies of dime-store mountebanks, all insisting, as best any of them could through their mouthful of dough, that Charon grant them the inflated regard they’d commanded for so long. Were they utterly blind to the moral bankruptcy of their so-called triumphs? Did the fact they could get away with it for years convince them the fraud would work one last time? Cheek by sticky jowl, they made their confident pitch: dot-Ponzi schemers and seducers, loan sharks in pinstripes and heartless foreclosers, “self-regulating” exploiters exercising their full allotment of loopholes, guileful bankers with bloated off-shore tax cheats in tow, financial soothsayers who knew nothing more than La La Land astrologers, credit-card vampires sucking late fees from those with no more blood to give, bonus-encrusted corporate bunglers, no-bid do-nothing government contractors building mirages out of greenback bricks, white-coated drug pushers for pharmaceutical cartels and hospital administrators with the ethics of serial billers, “it’s your life or our bottom line” health insurers acting less like compassionate professionals than drooling raptors, revolving-door influence-peddlers, oily lobbyists buttering legislators up one side today and down the other tomorrow, has-been political hacks paid five-digit speaking fees and seven-digit book advances or given cushy positions as “visiting scholars” at universities that apparently value such “intellects,” gilded-throne televangelists washing their hands in the collection plate, plus, most demoralizing of all, a self-snookered public who should have had the sense to put a stop to all this chicanery but never did out of a delusional hope they too might get the chance, some day, to roll in riches themselves. Who could blame Charon for looking “grim” or “sullen” with revulsion at this worthless lot elbowing one another to get into his boat and now counting on him to abet their escape from the consequences of human trust so disastrously misspent? Fear of a true reckoning before they’d given their victims the final slip drove their determination to get clear of all they’d done in a wasted life by escaping into oblivion, forgotten by the millions sold a last bill of goods to drink from Lethe for them—and thus, forgotten by others, home free and forgiven by themselves. But not by the grizzled boatman, who was having none of their brazen attempt to elude judgment for their deeds. Let the charlatans spend an eternity blown about this place like withered longing, Charon grumbled, short of the deliverance they thought they’d finagled. To believe they could hoodwink him into being an accessory to their flight from the cries for justice that followed them all the way to Hades was insulting. Did he look like just another patsy? A fuddled old rube who wouldn’t recognize that the coins they pressed him to accept were a bribe to secure their safe passage beyond people’s outrage at shady behavior valued much too long? Did they suppose they’d simply take up again where they’d left off, leveraging a permanent dead zone from the one they’d made a career of creating? No, they should have to wait without hope of the public amnesia they’d counted on. Not one of them should be allowed to profit from oblivion, as they had so much else. Not one should succeed in turning a damnable forfeit of conscience into yet more ill-gotten gain.
Copyright © 2009 by Geoffrey Grosshans