Monday, December 15, 2014

Lifetimes Ago

Ever since I'd woken up from that dream, I'd felt like years and years had passed.  I dropped by to see people I knew, and it seemed like they were in completely different places in their lives.  My brother's ex-wife even greeted me warmly at her door, old grudges all forgotten.  She cooked breakfast for a houseful of guests.  They all sat around the kitchen laughing over eggs.  Who were these people?  It was the same with everyone else.  Old friends were all doing new things, working new jobs, telling unfamiliar jokes, stressed over different problems.  I felt adrift, disconnected, alienated from the people around me.  I blinked my sleepy eyes.  All of this overnight?

I chalked it all up to the epic span of the dream itself.  It was that sense that a whole lifetime had passed in my sleep.  I'd only dreamt that years had gone by, and that feeling had resonated upon waking.  I tried to explain all this to my family as they sat around on sunken couches in my grandmother's living room on Christmas afternoon, the garland wound around the bannister, the lights strung along the wood paneling.  My brother sat at a table and nodded over a glass of eggnog, but I could see that none of them really understood what I was saying or how strange it all felt.  It was just a dream.  How could a mere dream throw someone so out of sync?

I figured that if they could see it, maybe they'd understand.  I had sold the movie rights to the dream and I wheeled in the old silver TV with the rabbit ears and everyone gathered around on my grandmother's floor to watch.  The dream had told the story of a dog.  It had been a little puppy when we were all kids crouching there in the grass to pet it.  It was white with patches of black, and it grew as we all grew.  It was a frisky little critter.  There was a scene where it squeezed through a wooden fence and started paddling around in an alligator tank, and we stood outside the fence reaching our hands and yelling out the dog's name and hoping and praying that one of the alligators wouldn't bite it.  On the floor in front of the TV everyone laughed at that part and thought it was cute.  Then the dog got older, even as we all got older and we moved out of the house and went our separate ways, and there it was in the winter twilight all mangy and laying at the end of the driveway in the snow, whining, wondering where we'd all gone.  The credits rolled on this somber note.

After the movie, I went home with my wife.  But things were off there as well.  The place was a cramped basement apartment with high windows.  It wasn't the cozy country house out in Perry that I remembered.  I tried to tell my wife, but she wouldn't listen.  She just dragged me from room to room being playful.  "None of this is right," I told her as she pulled me along by my arm.  There were throw pillows and broken coffee makers and dirty dishes and junk everywhere.  I picked up a discarded towel with my free hand.  "I know that you used to keep the house a lot cleaner than this," I shouted over her laughter, showing her the towel.

She led me into the kitchen, which was just as cluttered as the rest of the place.  The cabinets were all crammed full of open cereal boxes.  The walls were bright yellow and there was an old icebox style refrigerator, the kind with the latch you pop out to open the door.  None of this looked right.  And then I noticed a small room off the kitchen.  "What's this?" I asked my wife.  She shook her head.  She didn't seem to know.  She suddenly grew serious.  I thought I had seen all the other bedrooms and rooms of the apartment on my dizzy guided tour.

I crept into the room.  It was actually more of a hallway, as it led to the laundry room down at the other end.  The light shined down from another basement window high on the wall above and my desk was beneath this window, piled with loose papers and folded laundry, leaving no space to work.  Even the chair was piled with laundry.  But as I got closer, I saw that it wasn't laundry.  There was a bundle of people in the chair, or maybe just their heads.  I brushed back the dark hair from one of the faces and the eyes stared back at me, and then I jumped and jolted and screamed and finally found myself back in my own bed.                       

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Our Uncanny Valley

Somewhere in the wilderness out west, my daughter and I found the valley that the creator of the video game The Clones was said to have based the layout of his game on.  The story went that while on vacation, and while ruminating on different project deadlines that he was facing back at work, he had climbed to the peak of one of the mountains surrounding the valley.  When he had reached the summit, he turned back and looked out over the green fields below, and in that whipping wind and the panoramic curve of the Earth, the whole idea for a video game simulating people and life hit him just like that.

Staring out from that same summit, I had a similar inspiration.  I stretched my hand out over the land and explained it all to my daughter.  We would buy up the whole area, and we would create a real world community based on the game.  We'd cut some kind of deal with the company that held the license to the game.  We'd set up the roads just as they were in the neighborhoods of the game, and we'd sell off all the individual parcels of land.  People could come and build any kind of crazy houses they wanted to.  The streets would all be named after references to the game.  There could be shops and thoroughfares where people could buy themed merchandise and furnishings for their homes just like those featured in the game.

I stared out, nodding with satisfaction as if I could already see it all under construction below.  But my daughter was still confused about the whole idea.  She wasn't sure why anyone would go for it, why they would want to come live here.  I just shrugged as we turned to head back down the path that had led us to the summit and I told her, "There comes a point with any simulation, if you take it to one extreme or another, that it eventually coincides with reality." 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Residents

I was a homicide detective.  Two cops from our precinct had been gunned down while responding to a call to an apartment complex in the city.  My partner and I were trying to track down which apartment complex it was.  We drove out to this one place on the outskirts of town.  The parking-lot was piled with the rusted out shells of abandoned vehicles, as though the place were a junkyard.  The weeds grew tall and wild through the cracks in the pavement.  A four-story brick apartment building looked out over this mournful desolation.  Most of the glass was broken out of the windows and I could see countless corpses piled in the unlit apartments within.  One leg in blood spattered jeans dangled out a window on the top floor; a limp arm in a striped sweater hung from another.  In some spots there were streaks of dried blood running down the side of the building.  My partner and I stood beside our cruiser, looking out over the scene.  "You sure this isn't the place?", I asked.

"Nah, this has been like this for years.  Everybody knows about this," he told me, tossing aside his cigarette and getting back into the car.  As we headed back down the road, the call came in over the radio.  Someone else had found the right apartment complex.  My partner called back in to confirm it.  We got the address of the place, and my partner lit up our flashers and cut right through the traffic.  He knocked back the last cold dregs of his coffee and tossed the styrofoam cup out the window.

It seems everyone was looking to get in on the revenge for the two fallen officers.  Every cop in the city converged on this apartment complex.  The SWAT team arrived in a caravan of armored buses.  Looking at all this commotion, I realized that they weren't just there to arrest whoever had shot the officers.  No.  They were planning an all out massacre.  They were going to slaughter everyone who lived here.  They all poured from the buses and the squad cars.  Even more came scaling over the fence that ran the perimeter of the property, all dressed in bullet-proof black.  And with the sudden muzzle flare of a machine gun, they opened fire in all directions.

Bullets and shells and shattered glass rained everywhere.  Smoke rose in thick black clouds.  Confusion on the ground.  A sudden pause punctuated the action, and a door opened and one of the residents came out in their bathrobe to see what was going on.  There was a moment of hesitation, but then someone opened fire, and then everyone opened fire.  The resident was tossed this way and that by the bullets, but he seemed otherwise unperturbed.  He looked more confused than anything.  He just stared back at us as blood dripped from his robe.  And we all realized it all at once.  These people in this apartment complex, they were all already dead.  They couldn't be killed again.  There was going to be a massacre here.  It was going to be us.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Street Level

Somewhere underground, deep down in the dark in these industrial catacombs of damp concrete walls and rusty pipes, I sat on a couch in a waiting area with my wife and daughter.  There was a lamp in the corner and a bunch of old magazines spread out on the table before us.  I got involved in a petty argument with my daughter while we were sitting there.  We kept our voices hushed in accordance with some strange waiting room etiquette.  She accused me of being lazy, and I took offense.  I enumerated all the things I did for her every day.  She mocked every word I said and threw them back in my face.  She sneered at me in disgust and I grew more and more frustrated with her.  Finally, I snapped at her in a suppressed growl, "I'm leaving!"

Just as I said this, these two women that I used to work with at the plastic factory came walking up to retrieve me from the waiting area.  One of them, I knew, was a notorious cynic, and I knew that she had heard me blurt out "I'm leaving!" so spitefully, and I knew that she would think that it was an awful thing to say to my daughter, to throw such a threat of abandonment in her face, and I knew that she would sit in judgment on me for being such an awful father.  So I tried to play it off.  I tried to make it seem as though I had simply meant that I was leaving my daughter to go to work, not leaving our home and our family and her life entirely.  The cynical woman just gave me a look and a wry smirk.

I got up and followed these women to further perpetuate this pretext that I was going to work.  We climbed up a metal stairwell to another level which was still steamy and subterranean, but much warmer and better lit than the catacombs below.  It was a maze of machinery and metal walkways.  We passed my old boss's office and he stood outside the door with his arms folded across his chest.  He grunted as I approached, as though he had been watching and waiting for me.  I had started working back at my old job on my days off from my current job, juggling between the two.  But now both places had me scheduled for the same hours, and I would have to make a choice between them.  I lifted my head and looked at all the pumping, steaming equipment around me.  How did I end up back here?

It was almost time for the shift to begin, and everyone was headed over to the time clock to punch in.  But I noticed another set of metal stairs off to the side where no one was paying attention.  I climbed them and they took me up to the ground floor where the morning light shone through an open bay. There was no one around.  I walked out of the building and off the property.  I went strolling around the residential neighborhood surrounding the shop, admiring all the grand Victorian houses with flower beds and dogwood trees blooming in their yards.  A pretty girl on roller skates waved to me from across the street.  I turned a corner onto a main road.  The morning traffic streamed by.  I felt like I could float away.

And somewhere below, as though coming up from the storm drain along the curb, I could hear my boss grumbling, wondering where I was, wondering why I hadn't punched the time clock, wondering why I wasn't working now that it was twenty minutes past.  I crouched down beside a tree and tilted my head to listen at the drain and I just laughed.  The pretty girl was skating towards me down the sidewalk, looking like she needed to tell me something.  I turned and stood waiting for her to get close enough to tell me what she had to say.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Trick Questions

I was back in school.  The math teacher had given us all a worksheet with a bunch of problems on it.  I stared it at for a long time but something didn't seem right.  I held the paper up and away from my face, and that's when I noticed that each of the equations, when viewed from a slight distance, were arranged in such a way that they each resembled a face.  The square root of zero plus one over one, for instance, was meant to be a person winking, while nine times nine was a person rolling their eyes, and zero minus zero was obviously a person wearing glasses.  I went down the page, answering which face each equation was supposed to be, and then I handed my paper in.  I wondered if anyone else had figured out the trick.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

About a Dog

One evening, as the sun was going down, I was driving along a winding country road.  I lived in a house on this road.  It was set back a ways, at the end of a long dirt drive, and there was a row of tall trees that lined the edge of the road along the front of the property.  I drove right past the house without stopping.  I had things on my mind, a decision I was struggling with.  Further down the road, I came into town.  I came to an intersection with a stoplight.  I sat there for a while.  I may have even dozed off.  I seemed lost in another lifetime, full of cares and concerns of its own.  But then someone came up behind me and honked their horn and yelled something at me out their window and shook me out of it.  The light was green and I pulled ahead.

I pulled off into a parking-lot at the far corner of this intersection.  There was a tiny brick building there that sat in the shadow of a larger office building.  I felt compelled to go to this brick building, as though I had been summoned there or advised to go there, as if someone had told that I would find the answers to my problems there.  I found a small empty vestibule inside, like the cramped lobby of a take-out place.  There was a hand-written menu board hanging up.  It covered the window where one would normally place their orders.  I felt that I was speaking to someone on the other side of that board.  I had an uncanny faith that there was someone stirring behind the board that heard me.

I stammered as I began to speak, stumbling over my words.  I wasn't sure how to explain what I was doing there, or how I had come to arrive there, by what steps and inclinations.  I spoke about a dog.  Back at the house, I had a dog, a dog that I had had for many years, a dog that I loved and had grown attached to.  But I had to give this dog up.  I had to find another home for it.  And it seemed that in my conflict over this, I had driven past the house, and I couldn't go back until I had come to terms with what I had to do.  I wasn't sure what I was supposed to find in this dusty little shop.  I wasn't sure what I expected them to do for me or even what I was asking of them.  I didn't know why I was there.  I grew embarrassed trying to put it all into words.  My sentences trailed off, incomplete.  My face went red.  The person behind the menu board said nothing.  It all seemed so pointless.

It was dark when I came back out.  A little foreign woman had come down from the office building and she was crossing the parking-lot to her car.  She had a stumpy, waddling way of walking.  I stopped her and asked her about the proprietors of the brick shop across the way.  She shook her head and spoke in a thick but indiscernible accent, "No, no.  Is been empty for a long time.  Is no one there."  I looked back at the building, sitting there so forlorn and dilapidated, so clearly vacant.  It seemed so obvious now.  A chill went through me.

When I got back to my car, my father and my brother and my step-brother were there.  I climbed into the back seat.  My father was driving, my step-brother was in the passenger seat, and my brother was in the back with me.  We headed back down that same winding country road.  It seemed even the clock was turned back.  The sun was out again, on its way back down.  We zipped right by the house again, going the other way.  The row of trees rolled by on the passenger side this time, and I looked back at the house, wondering who was waiting for me there.

I had a guitar with me.  I pulled it out from its case and began to sing, making up the song off the top of my head.  I sang a ballad about the dog, the perennial source of my troubles.  The words were goofy, inconsequential, but I belted them out, rhymes and passions, verses and chorus, rolling out effortlessly.  I really got into it.  I felt like this was what I needed to do.  I was going to write songs now.  It came so naturally to me.  And so I sang, and so we went, my father driving and my brothers singing along, never knowing where this road would go. 

Friday, November 14, 2014


I was working on the set of a movie.  The director wanted a shot of two men on horseback galloping alongside a speeding train.  Unfortunately, the locomotive's engine lay on its side derailed in a clearing about a quarter of a mile down the track.  A bunch of us had to go out there and see if we could get the train upright again.  The mud was thick around the train where it lay, and we had no equipment to hoist it up.  We stared at the daunting task under the broiling sun.  We scowled and spit and a few suggestions were made, but finally it was decided that there was nothing to do but just put our backs into it.

Some of us got under it, and some of us behind it, and we heaved it up with all our strength.  The guy next to me got all red in the face, his cheeks bulging and his jaw tight.  The engine seemed irretrievably fixed in the mud, but with one mighty effort that extended beyond all our limits, we managed to dislodge it.  We all grunted as we felt it begin to give way.  Some of the guys slipped about in the slop as we got the engine up over our heads.  Others tried to brace the side of the engine with wooden posts as the rest of us held it up, but the posts couldn't get a firm hold anywhere in the loose mud.

Finally we had it up and almost back onto the track.  But that's when the accident happened.  One of the guys on the crew was bracing his boot against the steel rail as he put all of his weight into lifting the engine.  He was focused on hefting the engine, watching in case it began to slip from our grasp, rather than being mindful of where he placed his feet.  One of the train's wheels came down right where he had his boot.  The whole weight of the train came right down on his foot and snipped it in half like a twig.  He didn't even cry out, but I could see the look on his face, shocked and sickened and gone completely pale from the pain.

The director came riding up in a white convertible, standing and raising his head up over the windshield and gripping his white panama hat with one hand and shouting questions about what we were doing even before his driver had pulled up and stopped.  Some of the crew stood around and stared at the severed stump of the injured man's foot in disbelief.  Others more mindful of the man's pain, took an arm around each shoulder and helped him up.  The director yelled at the driver to shut off the car so that he wouldn't have to keep shouting over it.  The men bearing the injured man just glared at the director, like they were thinking about killing him.

We all went to see the injured man after he got out of the hospital.  He had a house on the open prairie.  They had given him a cane to walk with, and after he greeted us at the door, he hobbled over to his chair and sat down.  We'd all heard that he wouldn't be able to find work now.  He sat there brooding.  A train let out a whistle far off somewhere, and I saw him wince at the sound.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Like Riding a Bike

I was riding a bike around the block in my neighborhood.  I hadn't ridden a bike in years, and my first frustrated efforts to propel myself forward sent the front tire wobbling all over the place.  The bike itself seemed too small under the thick grip of my hands and the awkward bending of my knees.  But I managed to get myself going, and as I rounded the corner onto Orchard Grove, I saw a bunch of neighborhood kids playing baseball down on the far corner of the street.  The post of the street sign and other prominent landmarks were serving as the bases, and they were playing the game in the road itself.

I knew that my path was going to take me straight through the middle of their game, and I didn't yet have enough control over the bike to avoid it.  I just hunched over and braced myself as I barreled right though the makeshift, asphalt infield.  The kids all turned and yelled at me.  I even felt the hard knot of the baseball bounce off my back.  But I didn't care.  I was riding free, peddling faster.  I hopped the bike sideways over the curb and up onto the sidewalk.  I laughed at my agility as I coasted away, the kids staring after me.

I rode home, and an uncle of mine was there, sitting in a pickup truck parked in the front yard under the shade of a tree.  The yard was mostly worn away to dirt patches from a long habit of such parkings, and I came skidding up in a cloud of dust.  My uncle leaned out the window of the truck and called down, "Hey there kiddo."  And so it was.  I dropped the bike there in the dirt and ran inside and upstairs to my room where the air hung close and humid on the hot summer day.