This story is for Bede, who gave me the phrase "drive the bus." The featured picture is "Cerberus" by William Blake.
Everybody and his dog wants to go to the Elysian Fields. Nobody wants to go to Tartarus. I don’t decide where they go. I’ve explained to them that I’m neither the Ruler of the Underworld nor the Demi-God of Death. I don't make the rules. I’m just the ferryman.
Ferrying the dead across the Acheron River into the Underworld wasn't my first choice of occupation. When I was a young girl, I wanted to drive the bus. The tour-bus guides in Athens seemed to have all the fun, all the adventure. Now, I wouldn’t pick any other job. The hours are long, but the pay is good, and I meet a lot of interesting people. If you want to hear the best stories this side of Creation, Acheron is the place to be. Besides, Hades relies on me. I'm smart, fast, and immune to flattery. Everyone has to pay a toll to get across the river, but some Shades of the Dead don't want to part with their obolus coins. Others have inconsiderate relatives who totally neglected to place the obolus coins under their tongues. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't the poor who get the raw end of this deal as much as the rich.
Today, I had a particularly good run of passengers. The obolus coins were rapidly filling up my toll-bag and I had heard a particularly fine tale of the Great Vizier Winston Churchill. I could hardly wait to tell Hades. Hades was throwing a surprise party at the Asphodel Ball for his wife, Persephone, in honor of their wedding anniversary. He’d asked me to be the featured storyteller. Of course, he was going to pay me.
Then, “Hog” Sewerbug showed up. “Hog” Sewerbug was the recently-deceased king of a super-powerful country, and like Sisyphus of thousands of years ago, he exuded entitlement and resistance.
“Hog” Sewerbug walked up to the edge of the riverbank and wrinkled his nose. "This wasn't quite what I pictured for my luxurious afterlife," he said. "This place is the sticks."
“Yes,” I replied. The guy didn’t look too bright, and I wasn’t often fooled by appearances, but perhaps Mr. Sewerbug wouldn’t need the general spiel about the procedures to follow Down Under.
Mr. Sewerbug looked at me. “I thought Charon was supposed to be male,” he said. “You are a ferryman, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am Karen the ferryman, but I'm female. Down Under, we don’t go for politically-correct titles. Hades says that the only job requiring a specific gender is child-bearing, and there’s not too much child-bearing going on around here. Every other job is up for grabs, whether you’re female, male or Hermaphrodite.”
“So, how much advancement does your job offer?” Mr. Sewerbug asked. “As far as I can tell, all you do is row people back and forth across the boiling water. It looks boring to me.”
“I don’t want advancement,” I said. I was beginning to get steamed. My parents were always lobbying Hades for me to get a promotion. They said that ferrying the Dead was a dangerous job and one never knew what sort of people would show up needing passage. Hades pointed out that eventually everyone showed up for the big boat ride and that I could take care of myself. Besides, I had Cerberus for backup. If a man’s best friend was his dog, then I was a thrice-blessed woman. Cerberus had three heads, and each head liked to be scratched behind the ears. However, right now, Cerberus was baring all three sets of teeth.
“Well, never mind that,” he said. “We can’t all go far in Life.”
“No, but we can go pretty far into Death,” I said. “Do you know yet where you’re headed?”
“The Elysian Fields of course,” he said. I sighed. Obviously, Mr. Sewerbug hadn’t gotten his paperwork processed yet.
“Let’s see your coin, then,” I said.
“Coin? What coin? I’m a righteous man, and I don’t need a coin to get into the Afterlife.”
“Everyone has to pay an obolus,” I explained.
“What about the poor people?” he asked.
“Did you ever really care about the poor people?” I asked.
“Only around election time!” Mr. Sewerbug said. He laughed as if he had said something funny, but Cerberus just glowered.
“Let’s see your coin, then,” I said.
“Um, I don’t have one,” Mr. Sewerbug said. “Surely money is no object Down Under?”
I’ve said that I’ve heard a lot of interesting stories on the banks of Acheron. This is not one of them. I ended up having to leave Mr. “Hog” Sewerbug by the edge of the bank. He tried to force his way onto the ferryboat, but gave up after Cerberus bit him on the ankle. "Hog" Sewerbug sputtered and swore, but no amount of curse words produced a single coin. The Sewerbug family was loaded, but as they were cheapskates in Life, so they begrudged their son a single obolus in Death.
There were people in Life who hated “Hog” Sewerbug and had wished would go to Tartarus. Mr. Sewerbug didn’t even make it to the other side of the river. The last I’d heard of him, Mr. Sewerbug had started a tour-guide business up the road. To this day, he’s trying to earn enough money to pay his ferry-toll. Despite myself, I have some admiration for the guy. It can be hell trying to make a decent wage.
Edited and updated 8/11/05