Dreams of Distant Lives [story] by Lee K. Abbott

The other victim the summer my wife left me was my dreamlife, which, like a mirage, dried up completely the closer we came to the absolute end of us. In the fourteen years we were married, I had been a ferocious dreamer, drawing all I knew or feared or loved about the waking world into my sleeplife. If I had seen a neighbor’s animal—Les Fletcher’s horse, say, or Newt Grider’s collie dog—in my dreams that night I would see dozens of them, beasts whose language I understood and respected, animals whose own stories I heard and wept over just as one day I would weep over my private misfortune.

One night—actually the early-morning hours after our first son was born—I watched a flock of pigeons from my wife’s hospital room. There were hundreds, mindless as those swivel-eyed birds can be, flapping and swirling in a hurly-burly over the massive air conditioners, their bird-chatter an unhappy loud whirring, constant as party talk. It was a noise I heard distinctly hours later when I fell asleep at home. They were yammering, those dreambirds; and what they said to each other, and would say to others yet to arrive, seemed so sensible to me in my sleep that I awoke smiling, as if I had heard secrets vital enough to live by. I had been where they had been—north and south, in good weather and bad—all the places they visit, into trees and onto ledges, on rooftops and in parks. I was, in the few hours I dozed, a pigeon.

Another time, on a vacation to Disneyland, I became the folds we met on the road—those who pumped our gas, or cooked burgers for us, or stood behind desks at the Holiday Inns we stayed in. I was the boy who bussed out table in Phoenix, the blonde woman outside the entrance of the San Diego Zoo whose own child was colicky or too well-fed; I was the motorists we passed by at sixty miles an hour, and I was those citizens whose communities we circled on the atlas: Santa Barbara, Laguna Beach, San Mateo. I paid their utility bills (PG&E, water and garbage), shopped and ate and hollered for them. At the end of our four weeks, as we drove south from San Francisco to our home in Las Cruces, I was even the pilots overhead, whose lingo was as remarkable and private as that, yes, spoken by birds.

But when Karen left, my dreams stopped—not abruptly, as if the tape that was my inner life had finally ended, but gradually, as if the world inside were subject to erosion by the common elements of wind and water, and by the uncommon elements of lovelessness and despair. My first night alone, I was a general—a George Armstrong Custer. I had blond heroic hair, plus a heavy gold braid on a tight broadcloth tunic that flattened the lazy-man’s belly I have. My dream voice was stern, gifted as what stage actors aim for, and for that voice I used a vocabulary as fancy and important as one in any schoolbook. In that dream, I issued orders which were ungrudgingly obeyed and had my name called so often that, when my alarm clanged, I woke saying, “Yes, how may I help?” I remember standing—at attention, I suppose—at my bedside, alert as a sentinel, listening for what was needed of me, what emergency had fetched me into daylight again. “Karen?” I said. “What is it?” I was awake, but part of me—that part, clearly, that Karen had left when she went to her sister’s in El Paso—part of me believed that she was still here, if not in the bathroom next door then in the kitchen.

Searching for her, I opened Danny’s door, and then that of Mark, his younger brother. Their bedrooms seemed empty, not abandoned. Beds were made, closets organized, their toys put away. Still, hearing her name over and over in my memory, I looked for her. Her plants were here—the Boston fern, the overwatered rhododendron—as were her books and most of her clothes, but she was not; and it was only when I opened the patio door and stood in the backyard, studying the rank of rose bushes she’d planted the year before, that I snapped to. I had been slugged, I felt. I was actually staggered, thrown backward by a force like horror. “Karen?” I said again, but by then I did not mean it. Her name was only a word that stood for an absence, like darkness itself, that had made way for the waking life.

In the weeks that followed, my dreams came quickly, but with parts missing or poorly joined. They had no beginnings and their endings seemed less like conclusions than, well, interruptions. Not nightmares exactly, they were like slide exhibits, flashing picture shows thrown together by the weary, unthinking heart of me. The family who came and went: my boys were born, grew, and went into adulthood in minutes. My father, dead many years, appeared dressed for golf, in the too colorful plus fours he favored, and in his happy Panama hat. He did not speak, nor did I see him, as I often had, in front of the TV, his expression fixed and baleful. Instead, he was swinging his Walter Hagen driver, in slide after slide, his stroke an enviable display of coordination and strength. I saw my mother, too. In every frame that rose out of the night, she sat at the shallow end of the country club pool, her bathing suit an unflattering one-piece affair whose wide should straps hung down her arms and whose skirt seemed more appropriate to a child. She was fluttering her feet in the water, again and again and again, and pointing, in obvious joy, to a soaked figure in the baby pool—me, I think—a skinny, clumsy diapered toddler. One night I saw the few friends I had as a youngster—Mark Runyan, John Risner, Jay Ballard—and I saw the first house we lived in, 111 West Gallagher, behind which was a cotton field where we raced our Schwinn bicycles and, later, a rusted two-door Ford we bought. I saw the girl I loved first, a high school sophomore named Michelle Parker, and I saw the way she was now, which was sad and too perplexing to sleep through. I saw the Texas college I could not graduate from, the cramped dorm room I lived in, and the Lake Dallas oil man’s house I was violently drunk in once. And often, too often to be unimportant, I saw faces and events placed side by side, as if between them I were to make comparisons; as if between them, on the left, my wife at home in her nightwear, and on the right, me in the caddy room at the country club, I were to see a connection.

I saw nothing. No meaning, no significance. I was uninvolved, as distant from what was being shown to me in sleep as from what I had once seen in time. In these days, I climbed into bed after the ten-o’clock news, and before setting the alarm and switching off the bedstand light, I asked myself what silliness, what oddball’s concoction of delight and misery, I would dream. Nothing of my job as a ninth-grade math teacher came to me, nor did I recognize anyone from the present—not Herb Swetman, my principal and best pal; not Emily Probert, his secretary; not any of the youngsters I coach on the freshman soccer team. Puzzled and partly stunned, I conceived of my unconscious, the thing we are told our dreams spill from, as a fishing net whose weave was too wide for the current world.

By September, my dreams involved me in tasks. Night after night, I picked up the leaves from trees I don’t have, one by one, and stacked them in piles as high as my ears. I wrote my name, with one hand then the other, in ink and in pencil, on ruled and on unlined paper. One time, after a phone call from Karen (a conversation whose last lines were so impersonal they could have been uttered by Martians), I sleepwalked. My cream concerned thirst, and when the alarm went off, on my nightstand I found not one but five glasses of water; and I report to you now that I drank each of them, slowly and seriously, as if I dared not, as if the penalty for neglecting what our dreams bid us to do is not less than death itself. Yes, I drank them; and after each, in the silent moment between the putting down of one and the taking up of another, I had a vision of myself as I was when Karen and I married—an eager beaver ignorant of what time can do to love.

The last of these dreams—when they ran out and never came back—was almost a year later, after our divorce was final and I knew I ought to go forward again. This was several years ago, when I regularly played stud poker in the men’s locker at the country club. There were five of us, all married but me, and the most you could lose in our quarter-limit game was twenty dollars; we would drink and order roast beef sandwiches from the second-floor snack bar and, if we planned to be late, we could shower or, as we once did, we could dive into the pool or go out to the driving range to be crazy. On the night of this dream, I was the last to leave. I’d won, but the sight of the winnings, folding money and change, didn’t impress me. There was no place to go. Ed had driven home to Bonnie, Max to Jean, the rest to their wives, and I was there, in a chair, a drink at my elbow, listening to the showers drip and the satisfying whoosh-whoosh the outdoor sprinklers made.

Almost directly, I went to the pool and tumbled in, clothes and lace-up shoes and all, and as I had as a kid, I pulled straight for the deep end, down fifteen feet to the drain where, for the child I recalled, the pressure and heavy silence of the water overhead seemed as reassuring as gravity. Several times I plunged down, suspending myself as long as I could before crawling up for air. I felt good, I say. I had a wife who lived elsewhere, sons who would not be too much damaged by what had happened, and a job I was fine enough at; more important, I had this night to myself—a spread of stars whole nations could wish upon, and clouds that say rain is on the way, and breezes that bring with them the smells of what we plant hereabouts in the Mesilla Valley. I think I sang; or I wish I had sung, and now—in the wistful half of me that’s putting this on paper—I hear that singing again, as if I were out on the course at night, and say to myself, as a stranger, that there is a man singing over yonder, in a scratchy voice that certainly has some liquor and cigarettes in it, and that man is happy.

I folded my soggy clothes over the chain-link fence and, alone like one of the first smart creatures on our planet, I considered this place. I studied the buildings—the pro shop, the ballroom, the women’s locker a floor above our own—and beyond them, the third of my town that wasn’t asleep or had no work to do. I could see Hiebert’s Drive-In, the Rocket Theater, and the curve of North Main Street that swept by the Loretto Shopping Center. I could hear cars, faint and steady, and I wondered who was out there. I imagined moving the one hill in front of me and being able to point out the house I owned as well as those I pass every day on my way to Alameda Junior High School. I was putting together my world as my dreams had once put me together, and everywhere I looked I spotted something—a willow tree, someone’s Lincoln Continental, a garage—that might look better over there. Or there. Or there. Naked, common sense stripped away by the Jack Daniel’s booze I like, I saw the world I could construct for the sixty thousand souls I share it with. A house became a castle; a streetlight, a tower. I put X with Y, A with B, and by the time, an hour later, I sat down in a ratty chaise by the pool, this largest town in Dona Ana County had become as quaint and patchwork as those we yearn for from olden times that never were. Joy—and mirth and bliss and virtue—had many faces that night, I say; for I put in pockets or hearts or minds whatever over time had been stolen or broken or made sad.

And then I dreamed.

* * *

We are told, I believe, too many truisms about our inner lives. In books, magazines and on TV, in all the yakety-yak that comes our way, we hear too much about the selves we are. We are good, we hear, or we are bad; like dogs, or not; like angels, or not; flawed, or perfected. Our swamis tell us—preachers and teachers, politicians and doctors, all the tattling experts loose among us. But it is in dreams—of pigeons, of the past, of people long gone—that we attend to the inner life itself, hear it in its own words, at its own pitch.

My last dream featured the desert we have, the thousands of square miles of sand and rock and scrawny brush that doomsayers tell us will one day be your home, too. It was a flat world, infertile as a skillet, with lightning flashing at the horizon. It was a world of red and yellow and green skies, all the colors poets love, a place whose light was liquid and melting all around. I was in it, I dreamed, at an unmarked crossroads, the age I am now, thirty-nine, and in good health. I could go left, or right, or straight, but to the man I was then, the choice made no real difference. I was to see something, I knew, and soon enough it appeared in the shimmering, indistinct distance. I was seeing myself out there, black against white, too tall in an otherwise diminished land. “All right,” I said. “All right.” And I waited—waited on me. My inner life, the world constructed from what I’d been and done, was speaking to me, patiently and calmly. I would hear what it had to say, and I would understand. And do I cam to myself—observed the man I am now walk forward to the man I was then and take him, as you take your children, into his arms. The on held the other—the future cradling the present—and the one who had been left, the one whose interior hooks and hasps and snaps had come undone, gave himself up utterly. They were both there, in dreamland, under heaven or over hell, two versions of the same man, clasped in an embrace that would end when the world came up again.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: We asked Abbott for his inspiration for this story. He responded: “Well, amigo, the first thing to know is that I don’t dream. Well, I do, as everyone must, but I rarely remember them. Oh, once every decade or so I will have one vivid or peculiar enough to be worth troubling the Sweetheart of the Rodeo about, but in the main I sleep like the log I’m told I often am. The second thing to know is that I don’t trust dreams in fiction. They are, too frequently, the lazy writer’s way of saying to the reader, ‘Dang it, you figure it out.’ Still, here’s a story with nothing but dreams in it. Which I thank John Updike for. In the early ‘80s, I remember hearing him say that writing stories was mostly a matter of finding what connects ostensibly unrelated things, events, or people. I brooded about that observation, as is my wont. I mean, what might a stolen bicycle, a box of Lucky Charms, and a girl named Trixie have in common? In ‘Dreams…,’ of course, dreams became the means by which our hero saved his own life, once his world went blooey—as fine a use for the phenomenon as I know of.”]

 Image by Haoyuan Wei via Flickr Creative Commons

Lee K. Abbott is the author of seven collections of short stories, most recently All Things, All at Once: New & Selected Stories (Norton). His fiction has appeared in nearly one hundred periodicals, including Harper’s, The Atlantic, the Georgia Review, Epoch, the Southern Review, Tin House, and Boulevard. His work has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: The Prize Stories, The Best of the West series, and the Pushcart Prize series. Twice a winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, he has published essays and reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review. He is Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor in English, Emeritus, at The Ohio State University. “Dreams of Distant Lives” first appeared in Harper’s Magazine, November 1986.

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