A Dream Called Life
Somewhere an alarm went off; then another followed nearby, and a third more distantly. Soon each room in the house rang. A groan came from a small shape that could just be guessed under the twisted covers in a third story room under a pitched gable from which a green dragon hung with a too long head, and a two-masted yacht, a schooner, while an unlikely elephant who perilously tap-danced on a flying trapeze hung by them. The elephant was elegantly dressed, and wore spats.
A boy of ten sat up muttering, looked around wildly, and stumbled to the dresser across the room to turn off the nearest alarm. Somewhere on the second floor a hand silenced another, but these two made little difference to the cacophony of buzzers, beeps and bars of music that filled the house.
Sam—that was the boy’s name—disappeared into the bathroom to turn off another alarm, dashed across the hallway into the other third floor bedroom to silence the alarm there, and then hurried down to the second floor to join his father John shutting off the remaining clocks there before they moved to the first to shut off the rest. They ended in the kitchen where an out-of-place grandfather clock stood beside the refrigerator striking deep gongs without relief until John hooked the pendulum to one side.
As he did so a machine took three eggs, a dab of butter and avquart of milk from the refrigerator, cracked the eggs over a bowl on the counter, discarded the shells, added milk, stirred, and then emptied the contents into a frying pan with the butter to make scrambled eggs. When done long arms served two equal portions on plates neatly set out on the small table by the window, and cleaned the bowl and pan— or so it was supposed to—but the machine always stalled early in the process, its motor making a high-pitched, irritating whine. This was, in fact, the last of the alarms which John turned off as Sam rescued the eggs poised over the bowl.
John had never been able to make this machine work, his onegreat, determined yet failing stab at invention.
At least, having begun to make breakfast, there was no reason now not to continue, which was really the point.
John was a tall man with blue eyes that had lost their light: his blond hair laid limply on his head. His beak of a nose was too small to be called big, but too big to be called small. Sam was tall for his age and looked very like his father. They made breakfast and sat to eat it in silence.
After breakfast John and Sam shrugged on overalls and boots over their pajamas and went out to milk Madrigal, who rolled her eyes at Sam’s arrival and moaned in relief as her milk filled his pail. He took that in, then went back for the blue and brown-speckled eggs from the chicken nests in their enclosed henhouse while John spread feed for the chickens and the one rooster who had lost half his comb to a fox a year ago.
In season they visited the garden which always looked thirsty but produced a steady stream of beans and tomatoes, squash and broccoli, carrots, lettuce and chard as the season permitted. They were nearly self-sufficient.
Neither looked up at their Victorian house with its ornate fretwork, gables, and cornices painted a myriad of colors faded to a nearly uniform gray. They called it the “Last House:” it was the only house in a canyon beside an all-year stream that provided their water. Up canyon they could see taller hills, while between the canyon’s walls at its foot was a sandy beach and restless ocean.
Fog covered the canyon part of each day for months on end in late winter and spring, sometimes lasting through the summer. Even when it was green and blue, sunny and blowing, the air sharp and tangy, a gray spirit seemed to live in the canyon and look out from behind the sky’s blue and the blue of John’s eyes.
Sam’s, brighter, seemed troubled by some puzzle he couldn’t solve or forget. It was impossible to say whether they echoed the land, or the land them.
Their chores done they went back to the kitchen where John lingered over coffee and Sam over a hot chocolate. Finally, still silent, they shrugged off their boots and overalls and went upstairs to dress properly.
There Sam found himself staring dreamily at the elephant on his trapeze. Idly he touched the elephant so he swung back and forth, then set the schooner spinning, as though caught inside a tornado; last he wondered why the dragon’s head looked too large for its body.
“Sam! Do you hear me?! Come down for your lessons!”
His father had been calling repeatedly, Sam realized with a start, and slunk downstairs.
John waited at the kitchen table, books piled beside a sheaf of paper. Sam hoped today didn’t start with history. He disliked math, but because his father was weak in that they spent little time on it. The lessons in English dragged on, his father’s strength, but history was worst. Sam was incapable of remembering anything from the past. He despised Christopher Columbus for starting American History. He hated the Norman Conquest of England for starting English history.
But as he took his seat with a sinking heart he saw today was going to start with spelling.
“Let’s begin,” John said: “spell ubiquitous.”
“Ubiquitous. It means something that’s everywhere.”
“I just want something that’s here.”
“Like what?” John asked. Sam shrugged helplessly. “Spell ubiquitous!”
“Ubitous is not ubiquitous.”
“I don’t want to spell that word!”
“Tomorrow then,” John said with a sigh. There was never more than the beginning of a fight between them.
“No, not tomorrow! Spell—” he looked at his list—“relevant.”
“Just spell it!”
“That spells revert, not relevant.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Something related to what you are talking about or doing right now is relevant.”
“No, revert!” John sighed.
“I don’t want to spell anything today. I don’t want any lessons today—”
“It’s only Wednesday,” John hesitated, not at all sure until he glanced at the calendar.
Sam’s face f lushed, and he stood up so his chair crashed backwards.
“No,” he said, softly, but with an intensity that surprised them both.
“What’s gotten into you—” John started.
“Not today,” Sam insisted with the same intensity.
John flushed, too, surprised at his own flood of anger, but then nodded his head. What’s gotten into us, he wondered? What difference would a day make when they kept to their schedule so routinely?
“Go ahead—go out, play,” he said quietly, watching the deepening frown vanish from Sam’s face. Sam bounced out of the room. John put his chair upright, then went upstairs to his study. There was a disorderly pile of papers to one side of his laptop he started to thumb through. He went on idly turning pages until he fell into a reverie…. Slowly his head settled on his arms folded in front of his laptop.
Sam drifted downstream towards the beach as the fog deepened and turned the gulls into disembodied cries. Along the shore the surf was low, the tall, heavy-shouldered winter waves forgotten each spring. Sometimes a storm blew that surf into thirty foot waves crashing onto the beach and, at high tide, drumming at the rocky feet of the bluffs, but now the tide was out, the waves barely more than the ripples you might see on the shore of a protected bay.
If anything, his mind was emptier than usual. At low tide the beach stretched miles north around one arm of the canyon with only occasional breaks in the bluffs: to the south there was a village which had been discovered by tourists that he and his father avoided. The headland ran into the waves, there: to reach the village they had to drive up the canyon to the main road. He turned up the beach and walked along the low tide line, driven by the same unusual restlessness that had made him cut his lessons short, shoulders hunched, head down.
The wind blew softly, gulls cried, surf lapped the shore.
He had no sense of time, simply turning on his heel and walking back abruptly, surprised at how far the tide had let him walk. By the time he reached their canyon the water was up to his knees as he came around the bluff into their valley. He was hungry, and hurried home. There he found his father setting out their usual turkey sandwiches. Four empty hours had passed.
More passed before with unspoken, precise timing the two walked up the long drive to the main road. They soon heard a badly mufflered roar, then Mr. Nicholas drove up in his newspaper delivery truck, faded, dented, and without bumpers. Even though he saw them waiting he beeped his horn, a sly smile on his face. Then he leaned out the window.
“Good afternoon, John. Got yer paper.” When he handed it to John Sam saw yet again that one of his arms was longer than the other.
“Maybe there’ll be udder news t’morra,” Mr. Nicholas said, relishing the doubt in his voice. “How’s the novel goin’?” He knew John was a writer. He seemed to know a great deal about everyone without asking.
“Oh, great! Just great,” John lied.
“Ya been workin’ on thet a long time, must be the biggest novel eva’,” Mr. Nicholas rasped. Mr. Nicholas had a purple nose too big for his beet-colored face, his wild red mane of hair a clashing shade. He smelled of whiskey, salt, and wet wool. Just now he screwed his eyebrows together: he didn’t believe John was writing anything.
“Each word has to be right,” John said to that stare. “Takes a long time to do it right. Like anything.”
“Oh, yeh.” Mr. Nicholas’ eyebrows were still screwed together. Sam wondered how often they had said just these words to each other. He shuffled his feet.
“Y’know, thet boy oughta be goin’ t’school in ter village.”
“I don’t want to,” Sam said, horrified at the thought, then angry at himself: how often had Mr. Nicholas taunted him this way, too?
“Do’im sum good,” added Mr. Nicholas, “looks gray around the gills, if ya get me meanin’. Needs ter be with others his age.” Sam shuffled his feet and choked off his reply. Mr. Nicholas’ eyebrows screwed together tighter.
“Darned shame about his muther: lad needs mutherin’.”
John stepped back as if slapped. Angrily he said good day to Mr. Nicholas and headed back down the canyon. Sam looked at Mr. Nicholas, half wanting to stay and ask, “Where is my mother?” But he didn’t dare. She was a closed book. One look at his father’s face whenever the subject of his mother came up made sure that book stayed closed. Yet each time Mr. Nicholas offended his father this way Sam ached with curiosity and sadness.
“See yas t’morra!” Mr. Nicholas ground out, and gunned away with an unpleasant laugh. “Same time, same news!”
“Mean man,” John muttered as Sam caught up with him. “He’s the kind of person you have to take with a grain of salt, Sam,” John added; “what else does he have to do out here but deliver papers and make meaningless small talk?”
“At least he does something. We never do anything.”
“What do you want to do?” Sam shrugged, the moment of rebellion gone with his words.
Afternoon dragged into evening and the slow process of preparing dinner: vegetables washed and sorted, fat sliced from the meat, potatoes in the oven. Each step was a ritual, each knew his place, each knew without thinking how this too made time pass. A silent eating followed, and the reverse rituals of cleaning, putting away, and resetting the machine for the morning as the last of the light faded.
They moved into a small room with a fireplace where they laboriously built a fire: then John as laboriously filled and lit his pipe.
“You shouldn’t smoke, Dad,” Sam said, almost by rote, sighed, and read a little of this or that or drew. There was no television or radio. The phone was turned so low it had to be checked for messages, and never had any. On a Tuesday or Friday night Sam took a bath, but not tonight. His father made no effort to shoo him off to bed, but a hazy, gray sleepiness soon sent him upstairs, automatically turning the alarms back on as he went.
With a start he found himself standing in the middle of the room in his pajamas, hair combed, teeth brushed. Idly he touched the dragon with the too long head hanging above him, spun the yacht, and set the elephant swinging back and forth as he danced on his flying trapeze, watching their shadows mingle and separate on the walls. Then he turned off the light, asleep as his head hit his pillow….
Sam was in a dense forest, its leaves earthy reds and shades of orange: the sky was red. He took a step, amazed, bounced, and fell. Carefully he got up and tested the ground: it looked like a yellow rug piled with dark leaves and was so resilient he had to learn to walk by bouncing, and soon found himself bouncing ever higher through the trees. This would have been exhilarating except that he didn’t really like heights, but couldn’t stop himself.
Then he bounced by a platform high in a tree and saw three misshapen men, one with a mane of red hair, one with a beet-colored face with a purple nose that was too big, and the third with arms of different lengths smoking a fat cigar.
“Bid,” said one.
“Three more, and two bits,” said another, but instead of tossing chips into the pot, they tossed what looked like disembodied, rolling eyes.
“Two pair, aces high!” said one eye, looking up at the cards held by the man with the purple nose. Sam had no idea how it spoke, but the sound of the words was startling in its sharpness.
“Three kings!” said another about the cards held by the man with red hair.
That set off a terrible row. Again and again Sam bounced high enough to witness their play, and saw the men throw in their hands, disgusted. They could never finish a game with eyes used for chips giving away their cards.
Then the one with red hair saw Sam. “Not you,” he said.
“Not here,” said the second with uneven arms who blew a cloud of smoke into Sam’s face.
“Soon!” shouted the third with the huge purple nose. Sam tried to wave away the smoke as he choked. When he could see again he was on the bare expanse on a plain baked by a violet sun so hot he gasped for air. He didn’t dare move—the ground was covered with sharp pieces of glass and piles of springs, gears, hands and shattered near-human clock faces almost as big as himself.
Not far off was a little out-of-place Victorian house. Sam heard shouting, a crash, and silence. The violet sun deepened to purple and the house flaked away. He reached out for the last flake as it blew towards him, although it seemed to take years reaching his outstretched hand. When it did he held what at first he took to be a card, the Queen of Hearts, except he found himself staring at a living woman’s face he could not take his eyes from, her eyes searching his even as she turned to dust.
“No!” he shouted—and sat up, drenched with sweat. His room
turned around him before it stilled, full of dark shapes. As it stilled he got up, unnerved, touched the elephant dancing on his flying trapeze as if it was a talisman, and changed into fresh pajamas. He was afraid to fall asleep and sat in a chair until the first gray light touched the windows and he dragged himself to bed with only a few minutes to go before the alarms began to go off.
Downstairs the fire waxed and waned as John read. His head sank slowly, the book slipped from his hands onto the floor, and he slept, until a crackle from the fire made him start. He stared blindly for a moment, picked up the book and marked his place and went to his room.
That could have been a monk’s in its bareness. Bed, night table, lamp, clock on a dresser, an uncarpeted wood floor needing refinishing, a wooden chair, and a single picture of himself and Sam at an amusement park from some years ago. With a start he found himself standing in the middle of his room in his pajamas, touched the picture lightly, turned off the light, and was asleep as his head hit the pillow….
John found himself beside Mr. Nicholas in his truck, but his seat was a bathtub, and Mr. Nicholas scrubbed him with one hand as he steered around corners with others.
“Gotta work the gray in,” he snarled illogically, and with every pass of his brush John turned grayer. They careened off the road. Calmly they stepped out of the truck onto the floor of a small, one room house. Out the window John saw they were flying. Mr. Nicholas laughed and stepped off onto a platform where three men played cards with eyes for chips.
John was alone. The air around him filled with houses like his, barely missing one another. Closing his eyes, he stepped out. When he opened them he found himself in the middle of a rain of clocks as large as himself, colliding as they fell ringing, as if to say:
“Time to go!”
“Time to be up and away.”
“Time’s up!” before they crashed into a pile of springs, gears, hands and shattered faces. John couldn’t avoid the springs: he found himself bouncing on one in a forest whose leaves were ochres and siennas. He bounced right past where Sam was having an argument with the three men. They reached for John.
“That’s the one!” shouted one. “Mine!” shouted the second.
“I’ll take him!” shouted the third.
“No!” John shouted—and sat up, drenched with sweat. His room turned around him before it stilled, full of dark shapes. As it stilled he got up, unnerved, and changed into fresh pajamas. He was afraid to fall asleep and sat in a chair until the first gray light touched the windows when he dragged himself to bed with only a few minutes to go before the alarms began to go off.
Every night John and Sam dreamt the same dreams. Sometimes they switched dreams. They never spoke of this but went on one day after another each in exactly the same way as the alarms broke into their exhausted sleep and started a new round of repetition.
They would have been surprised to be told they were unhappy— sadness would have been exciting. They simply thought of this gray existence as life.