Tuesday, September 11, 2007


They said he would not dream. Faceless They or the pamphlet or the commercial on TV. But he did, and he had paid not to. It was a matter to take up with his lawyers when he finally awoke. Ten years of dreams; ten years of one plot slipping into another, one story line or character abandoned and another picked up with the sort of inconsistency of logic that only exists in failing soap operas or the subconscious. What sort of price or penalty could the law inflict for a decade of such a non-life as this?

He even dreamt once, somewhere within those ten years—perhaps toward the latter part of it, but it is understandably hard to pin-point such things—that he visited a lawyer and discussed the situation with him.

The lawyer was a round, pink man with dimples, watery eyes and hair the color of wet sand. His office was in the very point of a tall, silver building downtown—the interior of the office being obviously constrained by the building’s tapering exterior so that the ceiling and walls surrounding his desk formed an inverted pyramid. The exact center of the room—where the lawyer kept his desk--was the only place where a normal sized person could stand up straight.

The lawyer sat at his desk, and his client slouched in a chair across from him.
“I can see your problem, Mr. Smith,” the lawyer said.

Mr. Smith was not the man’s real name, but the one he was currently answering to in his dream.

“Do you think I have a case then?”
“Oh definitely. Mental hardship, breech of contract, assault, grievous torture, criminal neglect and disillusionment. Let me ask you this: in the last ten or so years, to the best of your recollection, have you signed any contracts?”
“While I’ve been asleep, you mean?”
“Yes. Certainly. While you’ve been asleep.”
“How would they get me to do that? Put a pen in my hand and move it around? Or some sort of…um…suggestion, or something?” He did not quite understand the question.
“I mean in this world, Mr. Smith. In your dreams.”

The man thought about it. It was hard to keep track of the events that had happened in his subconscious. How could he separate what he had dreamt from what he remembered, or remembered dreaming, or dreamed that he had remembered dreaming? It gave him a headache to think about it and he clutched at a pain in his scalp, beneath his hair, and felt a small hole cave in beneath his fingertips.

“Are you in pain, Mr. Smith?” the lawyer asked, smiling.
The lawyer smiled and made a note on the pad of yellow paper on his desk.
The man pulled his hand away from his head and removed a small fragment of eggshell from beneath his fingernail.
“I don’t recall signing any contracts.”
The lawyer frowned. He was one of those men whose frowns and smiles meant roughly the same thing.
“It’s too bad. We might have got them for breech of those contracts as well. Would have been ground breaking stuff, really.” He shook his head wistfully. “But never mind that. We’ve got plenty to work with already. What about marriage? Sexual encounters? Any crimes you may have committed here that you may have suffered unwonted guilt from?”

The man thought back again remembered vaguely certain red-haired women, drunken fights, bank robberies and beheadings.
“I don’t know about unwonted guilt,” he said.
“Well. No mind. No mind. Never mind. We’ve still got plenty to work with here. Exciting stuff.” He ripped the yellow sheet from the pad, and slid it into a slot on his desk. The sound of gears and wheels turning came from somewhere inside the desk or beneath the floor. Things grinding or being shredded or mulched and compressed into small squares.

The lawyer stood up and held out a hand the size, color and consistency of an uncooked leg of lamb.

The man stood up (not all the way) shook the lawyer’s hand, and left the office.

In the elevator going down, Mr. Smith wiped the cold blood from his hand onto a leg of his trousers.

The elevator stopped and opened directly onto a moving sidewalk and a bright summer day. He stepped out into a crowd of black suited men and black gowned women and was carried away. The city around him was tall and unfamiliar, and yet he knew it was his city. It was the metropolis he was born in, raised in, and someday would awake from.

The spires, spears and towers glistened and slid by him. The men and women that surrounded him did not jostle or push, like the madding crowds in movies or commercials for island getaways, but stood politely beside him talking in normal voices as they all traveled along together through the city.

At a corner he stepped off the sidewalk and came to a stop. A pay phone rang and he answered it. It was the lawyer.

“Come back to my office,” he said. His voice was almost shrill with his excitement.
“I’ll be right there.”
But when he stepped onto the sidewalk he thought would take him back it carried him further away.
“Crap,” he muttered as the silver-pointed building that contained his lawyer’s office slipped further and further down the horizon.
“How do I get back,” he asked a man standing next to him.
“Get back where?”
“There…” He pointed, but already the building had sunk completely from view.
“North sidewalks are on the east side of the street,’” the man offered.

It seemed hopeless now. There were no more exits within sight; the sidewalk was taking him into a part of the city that not only looked unfamiliar, but was. In no dream or life had he ever been here before.

The light faded, the buildings became more alien and shabby, and the crowd—despite the lack of apparent exits—thinned to half a dozen or so men and women.

“I was supposed to get back to my lawyer’s office,” he said to no one in particular. A young woman answered. She stood only a few feet away yet somehow he had not noticed her before.

“How far away is it?” she asked. She had curly red hair—as most women in this world did—pale skin, a slightly turned up nose and a pink mouth and chin that reminded him of a baby’s. She wore a white dress with tiny red flowers. She was the first person he had seen all day wearing something besides black. And despite the dim blueness of the growing evening, a spot of golden sunlight fell upon her, then slid away.

“Very far,” he said. “And in the wrong direction.”

The sidewalk stopped moving of its own accord and the man and woman found themselves walking alone upon regular pavement, among brick buildings and wooden houses. Lights were coming on in windows now, revealing gold and yellow glimpses of the scenes inside: families at the dinner, gathered around the TV, or playing a game at the kitchen table. A man washing the dishes. A woman vacuuming. A dog curled up in the corner.

The streetlights came on with a click and hum.
“It’s getting late,” the woman said. “Do you think your lawyer will wait for you.”
“I think so. I have a very exciting case. Pioneer stuff, really.”
“Maybe we should try underground.”
“Perhaps.” It being a dream, the man had not remembered underground travel, perhaps had not even known about it, but now having been reminded of it, it made sense to him. Had he not traveled that way often and even taken one of the tubes to his lawyers office once before? It seemed to him that he had.

They walked down mossy steps and entered the tunnel that ran beneath the city. It was dark and dank down there, lit intermittently by yellowish lights hanging from the low ceiling. The floors glistened with dampness or sparkled with broken glass.

They walked—hand in hand—in the center of the passageway, as far away from the moldy, dampness-streaked walls on either side as possible.

“Of course, it’s not used much anymore,” the woman said.
“I can see why.”
“But this is the way back to your lawyers?”
“As far as I can recall.”
But he could not recall very far at all.

Did he know this young woman’s name? It seemed that he did, and it was either Ariel or Hilda. He did not know for sure where he knew her from, or even whether they were friends, lovers, or spouses.

They walked for a long ways, at a good, dream pace, until it seemed that they had gone on for miles. The passageway became narrower and the lights less frequent. The dampness and moldy stains became more pronounced, or was that only the thickening of the shadows?
“Did we take a wrong turn?” he asked.
She laughed. “We haven’t turned once since we started.”
He laughed too. He laughed for a long time. It seemed like a very funny remark and he laughed until his ribs hurt and his face was wet with tears.
The walls seemed to cry too, and the passageway begins to fill with murky water.
“We better hurry up,” Hilda says. “The tide’s coming in.”

They walked faster. He held her hand, and it seemed the warmest, softest, most comfortable hand he had ever known.

The water poured in over the tops of his shoes. It was warm water that smelled vaguely of fish. Then it was up to his ankles, his knees, his thighs.

A thin, chattering sound echoed against the stone walls and grew louder.

“Rats?” she asked.

He did not know, but soon saw the tiny grey and brown skulls of rats and squirrels as they swam out of the darkness in a frantic mob towards them.

“Holy crap,” he said, but there was no place to go. They stood still as the rodents washed over them in a wave of brown and grey fur, tiny claws and teeth and clicking that seemed to momentarily displace the water entirely.

The wave ended in a few drips—stragglers that hopped and bounced off of their heads and shoulders.

The water was up to their chest now. It became difficult to walk and the two of them struggled to move forward at all.

“Well, that’s about enough,” Hilda said. “I don’t particularly want to drown. Do you think you might be able to reschedule?”

He began to say that he thought this might be a good idea, but by then the water had reached his chin. He looked around and could only see the top of Hilda’s head, her read hair spread out in the water like there was something bleeding beneath the surface. When he opened his mouth to speak, the water poured in, filling his lungs.

But they did not die. He coughed out several enormous bubbles, felt a sharp pain deep in his chest, but did not die. Breathing water, seeing through the unfocused and murky lens of water, reaching through flotsam and jetsam to find Hilda’s hand again, he lost interest in his law suit, his lawyer and anything his lawyer might have to say—though it also occurred to him that drowning, even when it wasn’t fatal, might come under the heading of mental hardship.

They found a door beneath the surface, opened it and went down a long stairwell to where the water became colder and darker around them. The walls of the stairwell were chipped and pealing. The stairs themselves seemed to be in danger of crumbling into mud beneath them and while rounding a corner a handrail came off in his hand.

A shoe floated by (It must have been a particularly buoyant shoe; it must have been one of those shoes with the air bladders in the tongue and heal). He pointed to it, and Hilda smiled an underwater version of her beautiful smile (more serene, less teeth).

Finally coming to the end of the stairwell, they walked through steel, double doors into a vast and modern lobby. It was clean and bright here, even the water seemed thinner and more like sunlight. The ceiling was lost above them in the distance and beneath them a featureless grey marble floor stretched out for miles. Set into a black marble wall was a set of brushed steel elevator doors.

They stepped into an elevator and rode it up to the lawyer’s office, the water seeping out as they went. When the stepped out of the elevator they were dry.

There was a piece of yellow paper taped to the door of the office and the words “BACK IN 5 MINUTES written with a dying pen.

“Should we wait?” she asked.
“I suppose,” he said.

They sat down on the waiting room couch and began reading decade old copies of Better Homes and Gardens, Computer World, The Encyclopedia of Britannica (periodical edition, P through T) and Golf Digest. They did that for the next three years.


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