Welcome back, Dear Reader! If you’ve read the first two excerpts, feel free to skip this preamble to the meat a few paragraphs down. If you haven’t, well, thanks for joining me!
These are exciting times for your ol’ pal Jerry – after talking about it for most of my life, I finally put the proverbial money and mouth together and started my first novel, Of Dreams & Angels, in the fall of 2019. It’s still in the first draft, but I thought it would be fun to start putting pieces of it (and thereby my entire soul, don’t you know!) out into the universe. Maybe you’ll get caught up in the intrigue and start following along too.
The synopsis – well, before we get to that, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, wrote that many of his stories can be expressed as a What-if question, and after reading that, my imagination (as it pertained to story ideas) started framing situations that way. Of Dreams is this question: What if a man started dreaming about a woman he’d never met, but who actually exists; falls in love with her based on what he sees in the dreams and sets out to find her?
Don’t ask me where it came from, and believe me when I say I’m just as shocked as you are that my first idea for a novel – ok maybe not the first idea in the grand scope of my life, but the first one to make it to fruition – was a fantastical love story. But as soon as I thought of it, *I* wanted to know what would happen, which made me think others might want to, too.
At all rates, here you have it, Dear Reader (also a not-so-subtle borrow from Mr. King, who as you may know refers to us as “Constant Reader”) – another excerpt from Of Dreams & Angels. It’s early in the novel, and our protagonist, Joe, is about to have his ordered life (he’s quite the cynic, quite the structured soul) interrupted by his first dream of her.
Joe Riley had long settled into the routine of his carefully crafted life. Wake at seven. Fruit for breakfast. Showered and adorning his Holt Renfrew suit by 8:15. Forty-five minute commute while listening to a personal development audiobook. Coffee with Brad at 10:15 in the employee lunchroom that was perennially “renovated” to half its former size – until it felt as though they were standing in little more than a broom closet – solving the world’s problems over two lumps and a dash of powdered creamer.
Weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports compiled neatly and on time, every time. Joe was a supervisor’s dream – dependable, timely, never a nuisance, forever predictable. Two weeks off every July 15-31, request submitted well in advance. The time of year when Joe presumed the weather would be steady (as it would ever be in the Canadian Rockies, anyhow), and the trails less trafficked by the rambunctious Titans of Summer: the kids he admired, but knew he would never have.
By mid-July the campground’s young inhabitants had abandoned the trails (save for when adults insisted they find something to do, lest the parents find something for them) and settled into their own routines. The pent-up energy the school year wrought was expended; they had returned to being more interested in sleeping late and thumbing along their devices. The rivers and hillsides became a faded backdrop, as they longed to reconnect with friends they escaped (sometimes willingly; oftentimes not) in those first few days of freedom. Their parents had fatigued equally by then, having their own perennial remembrance of the substantial difference in energy spent on progeny, compared to the relatively low demands of whatever their chosen profession.
All this left the pathways stretched out and free for Joe to reach back and connect with that thing he dared not put a name to – lest in the end he be duped through anything resembling belief – but nonetheless had an inkling was out there. Perhaps that was why he hiked in the first place – to know God without ever having to admit they were acquainted. But this too, like every ephemeral dream up to that point, was a notion Joe wouldn’t have paid any heed. He knew only that the majority of his working hours were dedicated to that annual release and re-connection, and had his vacation days submitted and hiking permits procured before most of his colleagues had time to declare and abandon their New Year’s resolutions.
Home after work by 5:30. Joe elected to power through most lunches – nibbling at assorted nuts and sliced fruits while at his standing desk, looking for efficiency even via his diet and workstation – and leave early. He saw no sense in voluntarily spending time (unpaid, at that) in a place where while he didn’t mind the work, the structure, or even the people, brought no more meaning to his life than the funds necessary to gear up for this year’s back-country excursion, while keeping bills paid at home and his retirement projections intact. Dinner for two carefully portioned and ingested by 7 p.m. – the “two” being a serving now, and the remainder stowed in tomorrow’s lunch bag. Personal messages checked and replied to by 7:45. In bed and reading by eight. Lights out and securing 8.5 hours of sleep by 10:15 (it took fifteen minutes on average for him to fall asleep, so this needed to be factored in, of course).
Routine was key, routine was everything. Consistency and discipline were the corner- and key-stones of any well-ordered and well-lived life. He watched friends from school live haphazardly and unintentionally, before long finding themselves settled into a life of reactivity versus pro-activity. The consequence of which seemed to be using the Thursday night Wings & Feathers (chicken & darts) pub league as a collective outlet of regret: complaining about wives they couldn’t remember wanting to marry, or children they weren’t sure they had planned, or careers they never would have chosen if they’d known at twenty what they knew now at forty. So what, if they had the boats and cottages and golf carts to show for it? (And undoubtedly, Joe would think, the monthly leverage statements in the mail that somehow never made it into the discussion.)
That wasn’t Joe. That would never be Joe. If, on a rare occasion, he privately lamented his solitude, he knew life was far too transitory to be improvised. “One shot,” he was fond of saying, “one shot is all we’re afforded, so don’t you think it’s important to aim?”, and would proffer a comforting self-reminder that in every choice there is inherent sacrifice. That sacrifice was merely the cost of admission to the life one chose to design. One determined what cost was acceptable (making certain to never a borrower-nor-lender-be in money, time or emotion), paid the toll, and pursued the path.
Dreams, as such, were nothing more to Joe than the musings of a drunk-tired consciousness – nothing to read into, either in expended mental energy or via literal books. Certainly they weren’t worthy of any detailed analysis. What did it mean when at fourteen he had dreamed that wonderfully embarrassing dream of the Social Studies schoolmarm he normally couldn’t stand? Nothing, other than the physical shell he inhabited was undergoing tremendous, terrific, and terrifying changes in that 8th Grade year, and his mind likely reached for the last female he had seen (aside from his mother) in order to provide the needed physical and hormonal relief. Sure, Joe could have fostered a story in the later requisite-therapy-phase years about repressed feelings for authoritative or older women. Or he could just say – and so he did, and so he believed – it was “just a fucking dream” (pun neither intended nor avoided). No more relevant than other nights when he had powers of flight, or more meaningful than the fact he could never seem to turn on lights or dial phones while in the company of Mr. Sandman.
Those who read into dreams were just as likely the women (Janice in HR) who carried crystals in their bras to ward off (or reel in, Joe would think) negative energies, or attract (or repel, he’d think again) handsome suitors. Or the men (Jason in Media) who went on lonely Google searches to find star maps from the night they were born, in order to ascertain some sense of destiny in their lives. All of these pursuits struck Joe as a reach for reassurance, that the way they had lived wasn’t random or misspent. That it was all part of a cosmic plan, and they could rest easy. This seemed to be the easier road, he observed, than just taking responsibility for their choices. Crystals. Star maps. Dreams.
For Joe, it was far better – and easier – to believe one’s life was framed by deliberation, by action, by determination. Why leave things to chance? To the stars? Make your own universe. Live your own design. Those watchwords had served him well all his thirty-nine years, and while there hadn’t been a complete absence of bumps in the road, there was no reason to believe the trend of stability and progress wouldn’t continue for the next forty or beyond.
Until he saw her. Or more precisely, when he saw as her.
Joe had only been under anesthesia once, after his dentist suggested elective wisdom-tooth surgery in his mid-twenties, to avoid either row of teeth later looking like the mouth of a shark (but with no foreseeable need to decimate prey). Thus the sample size of his experience was small, but he remembered the extraordinarily dreamlike quality of coming to: the strange haze for hours afterwards, yet knowing he was in fact alive, he was in fact awake. The stifled laughs of the medical staff to his inane and frequent inquiries – “Am I falling out of this bed?” – were as real as the air felt on his naked backside every time he required (or was ordered, in that ubiquitously-accepted measure of human functionality: the ability to make wee-wee) the restroom.
The first dream was like that; it possessed the feeling of an entirely real and conscious experience, yet as if he was looking through the eyes of someone sedated. Not that they were sedated, but as though his mind and vision had a paralytic front row seat behind the irises of another human carrying out all the action, while he tried to absorb through molasses whatever was happening. Every time she spoke it was like a gong echoing in a metal room within his head. The words made little sense to him (though he could discern it was plain and proper English), drawing a feeling he had walked into the middle of a conversation for which he had no context. Every motion created a sense of swaying, as though he had undergone his orthodontic surgery on a boat.
Then there was the voice itself: unmistakably a woman’s, but seemingly spoken from his head, his mouth. The tonality and dialect were unfamiliar; Joe’s sleepy and confused mind grasped first for familiarity – his mother, one of his three sisters, past lovers – but no lights of recognition flipped on. He reached further back: was this perhaps the grandmother, of whom he had lingering memories, who departed fifteen years earlier? Or was it the other he barely had fragments of, who passed when he was ten? He was certain it was neither, but as a mind will do in throes of the cacophony and menagerie of a dream-state – especially if it perceives an inkling of the dream itself – his searched for anything familiar, and came up empty.
He saw a kitchen, a conversation with two children, perhaps another woman (he found he couldn’t crane his (her?) neck to see) off to the side. If the voice emanating from the head he found himself in was barely intelligible, the sounds from the others were more like the teachers from the Charlie Brown cartoons of his youth. For whatever meager powers of observation and discernment he did possess in this altered state, Joe didn’t bother trying to sort out what was said in question or response to the woman he was seeing through.
The kids were middle-aged, as far as children go, not quite toddlers and not quite teenagers. With children never part of his design (and thereby usually becoming a point of contention in relationships), Joe wasn’t certain of the proper terms. He guessed they were between six and ten, trying to remember from his array of nieces and nephews what a 6-10 year old was supposed to look like, but his memory – as with these dream-people in his soaped-over vision – was too hazy and out of reach.
He sensed that along with the overall feeling of the dream itself, it wasn’t the kids (or the other woman out of the frame, whom he couldn’t see but heard in a dampened, trumpet-like voice) themselves that were hazy, as figures might appear in any other dream. They had an anesthetized quality of real people – like those nurses that had quietly giggled post-surgery – but remained too elusive for Joe to pull focus with eyes that weren’t quite his own.
The scene had the feel of a school day breakfast routine, or at least Joe surmised as much: parents checking in on pending homework assignments and confirming the evening’s extra-curricular activities, children reluctantly adorning backpacks as though shouldering an unruly sibling for an unsolicited piggyback. A coffee pot percolating and a toaster preparing to Jack-in-the-box its culinary offering at any moment. Animals running through legs excitedly as if saying “FINALLY you’re awake! We’ve been waiting to play for hours!” to their bipedal companions. He couldn’t explicitly see these things from the fog-ringed eyes he looked out of, but it was the sense the dream offered… and while he had never experienced this environment directly beyond his own childhood, it felt warm, despite the chaos. It felt welcoming.
But confusion remained; like his recurrent dream-disability with lights or phones, he strained to grapple control over this body he occupied. He felt himself straining to call out in his own voice things like “WH-WH-WH-HHH-OOOOO A-A-A-RRRRRRREE YUH-YUH-YUH-YOOOOUUUUU” and “WH-WH-WH-WHEEERRRRRR AM-AM-AM-AM IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII” – or even more importantly, “WH-WH-WH-WHOOOOOOOO AMMMM IIIIIIIIIIIIIII”. Yet every attempt to speak either produced no response from this woman’s face, or a string of uncomprehending and unrelated words instead – but words the others in the room appeared to understand, and replied to in their discordant melodies. He wondered if this was how a stroke victim might feel; the words formed in mind but betrayed by voice.
The sounds in the room became magnified and deafening, as though he was underwater while fireworks cracked off and a band played poolside. He began to feel a sensation almost entirely foreign to him: nausea. In his panic he couldn’t imagine how this might manifest: If I vomit, will it be through this body? Or will it just be a sensation like the rest where she (apparently) doesn’t feel it, but I do? Or if I’m (please, Dream-Gods) asleep, will I awake having booted all over my own bed?
Desperation came next: a distressed attempt to grapple control over this foreign body and steer it toward a bathroom, a sink, a large salad bowl – anything… but the body refused to heed his commands and remained stationary at the kitchen island. If the body itself wasn’t sweating and shaking, Joe knew that he was, and couldn’t comprehend how this human costume betrayed on the outside all the physical symptoms he was feeling internally. The mind-panic hit a fevered pitch and he later remembered thinking thisisgonnabebadthisisgonnabeuglywhywon’tyoumovewhywon’tyoufindasinkwhatingodsnameishappeningthishastobeadreambutwhywon’titstopitneedstostop – and just as suddenly he found himself in his own bed, his own room, suspicions of a dream confirmed, while his body was doused in sweat and retched uncontrollably.
A saving grace was a wastebasket kept at the side of the bed; while Joe never wanted to accumulate trash in his bedroom – his sanctuary – he wanted less to find himself in a circumstance where there was something needing disposal with nowhere to place it (he had read once that Walt Disney observed the guests in his famed park and how long they seemed willing to walk with trash in their hands before dropping it; determined that distance was 25 feet, and thus installed garbage cans at that interval. That, to Joe, made good, solid sense). He frantically leaned over the side and vacated the undigested bits of last night’s dinner. When the first wave passed he dashed lopsidedly to the adjoining bathroom in preparation for any subsequent episodes. Only a brief fit of gagging, coughing, and half a cup of yellow stomach bile came with this wave, while this real world (he hoped, anyway) began to slow its spinning, and he began to get his bearings.
As he leaned one arm on the toilet reservoir, still hunched over the bowl, he realized his other arm was holding the wastebasket a third-full of vomit. His mother always said the key to keeping a clean home was making sure one never wasted a trip to another room by not bringing something that belonged there, after all, and he smiled humorlessly at his conditioned efficiency even in chaos. Joe dumped the putrescence into the toilet, to join the rest of what his stomach rejected following this bizarre merry-go-round, and flushed. He moved to the mirror to survey the damage, and found his face looking like the rest of his body felt: drenched in sweat, yet cold and disoriented.
Joe typically remembered fragments of dreams most nights, but the majority of these were nonsensical: some unconsciously stored memory of the day played out in a greater – or at least comically embellished – way while his body rested. Most of the time he found his dreams a nuisance, keeping his mind active on some peripheral level when all he wanted was silent and sublime reprieve from the demands of the day. He’d already lived it once, he didn’t need to experience it again – but this time in the company of Spiderman and Tigger, or his long-forgotten boss from a golf-cart washing job he’d had when he was 15.
This episode was vastly different than any previous excursion into the Land of Subconscious. Not only did his dreams – even the rare nightmares – seldom affect his physiology, they’d never taken on such a real (if distorted) quality. There was always something within the dream itself (treehouse building with Jake from Accounts Receivable, for example) that let him know the situation was highly unlikely, or if nothing else, the eventual return to wakefulness that confirmed it. But here, now, standing in what he knew was his bathroom, he couldn’t escape the feeling of having been transported – violently so.
He mulled this over while looking at his wildly dilated pupils and clammy skin, feeling his heartbeat not just within his chest but pulsating at his neck and wrists. Finally, that calm voice of reason – Uncle Peter, he called it – finally emerged as it so often would, saying in its soothing, wisdom-filled baritone “Hey, dreams are funny. They’re not meant to make sense, or to make sense of. Wipe off your face, brush your teeth (stomach acid is murder on enamel, don’t you know), check the time and if there’s time, finish your sleep.” Joe obeyed these sensible commands, found it was 4:30, changed into a fresh set of pajamas and laid back down.
But sleep eluded him, and he found himself watching the red numbers of the clock pulse from one minute to the next, eventually begging time to speed up so he could distract his mind with the demands of the day. Of all that he couldn’t sort through, what bothered him perhaps the most was why he felt bothered to begin with; it wasn’t as though he had just been chased by a jungle tribe warding him off their island, or slipped off the ledge of a skyscraper, or was bedside for a loved one’s last moments. He had been in a kitchen, for chrissakes. A perfunctory conversation presumably between family members. The being-in-a-woman’s-body thing was strange, to be sure, but again, that wasn’t what troubled him the most. Whatever did – his mind couldn’t put a name or description or even a feeling beyond discomfited to it – continued to elude him just as sleep had. Until, classic to a night of interrupted sleep, he finally felt himself drifting off twenty minutes before his alarm stood ready to take him back to order, to consistency, to discipline, to real.