Welcome back, Dear Reader! If you’ve read the first three 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. Joe, our protagonist, is haunted by visions that have unceremoniously disrupted his ordered, predictable life. In search of answers, he finds himself wandering into the unlikeliest of establishments (no, this isn’t “A main character walks into a bar…” setup. Then again, the joke might as well be on Joseph).
The door groaned against Joe’s push on the handle; decades of expansion and contraction had warped it against its frame, and the jamb offered its own greeting to potential patrons. An old-fashioned bell triggered in its moorings above the frame, and with this sound Joe saw a long-haired cat – who appeared as old as the shop itself – scurry from one end to the other. A symphony of smells greeted him; a menagerie of old books and yellowed newspapers, incense, tea, and that general dusted-over smell of rooms where the furniture might well be fused into the floors or walls, not displaced in ages.
These were comforting smells, ones Joe associated with his grandparents’ homes – tea perpetually on the kettle, varnish coating on scuffed but welcoming wooden floors, fresh produce in the cold pantry, and Irish Spring soap in the bathroom. They were scents of reflection, just as certain songs become the soundtrack of moments passed. While Kemp’s, with it’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling timeworn shelves and eclectic goods – more books pertaining to spirituality (Joe was certain he wouldn’t find a novel for his next airplane flight here), incense burners, more oddly-shaped lighting – didn’t exactly remind him of his forebears’ homes in content (his grandparents on both sides having epitomized 1950’s conservatism), it did remind him in feel. Much as the content of whatever this purveyor was peddling may have been as foreign to Joe’s sensibilities as poetry to a neanderthal, this place somehow had the feeling of safety. Familiarity. Wisdom. Answers, perhaps.
“Oh,” a voice croaked from behind a large, solid oak counter that seemed to run nearly two-thirds of the store. It looked more like a barroom fixture than a point of exchange for retail goods – covered with more random knick-knacks than Joe could absorb all at once, or put names to. “Well hello there, friend. Welcome. You look lost,” this voice – as weathered and scratched as the hardwood floors Joe’s feet creaked upon -uttered out from somewhere behind the massive flat-top.
Between more display copies of books like The Alchemist (fiction after all!) and the Bhagavad Gita, hookah pipes and prayer flags, Joe couldn’t immediately spot whence the voice originated, but he heard a slow shuffling of what sounded like slippers on the hardwood. He half expected Gandalf or Merlin to greet him.
“What brings you in today, young man?” the voice said, now closer to Joe’s right. “I’m afraid for as long as I’ve lived here, I’m not great with directions.” As Joe turned toward the sound, instead of a human being he locked eyes with the ancient cat that had darted to the back of the cavernous shop when he’d opened the doors, now sitting proudly on the counter-top. While Joe had never experienced a paranormal or magical event, this neither surprised nor frightened him – it was the way this day seemed to be shaping up overall. Why not talk to a cat in this day of overexposed light, under-slept confusion, third-party dreaming and dimly lit, Must-Be-Halloween-Year-Round primeval shops?
An age-spotted and marble-knuckled hand appeared over the crown of the feline’s head and stroked it, throwing the old cat’s head back in closed-eye delight and eliciting an audible if croaking purr. Joe saw a face to match the hand emerge from behind a stack of what could have been first edition Dickensian works, by the look of their weathered hardcovers. It wasn’t Gandalf or Merlin, exactly – there was no long-flowing or pointed beard, nor cape and conical hat – this ancient gentleman looked more like an adult-sized friendly troll. A pointed nose housed rimless spectacles (Joe would have normally referred to eye-wear simply as ‘glasses’, but in this case the word ‘spectacles’ seemed to do a better service) that rested above the point and before the bridge of this sharp and bony olfactory organ, positioned in such a way that their wearer had to tilt his head down in order to look up, and tilt up in order to read down.
Above the nose were small but clearly keen, bright glacier-blue eyes; eyes Joe was certain had seen multiple incarnations of truth and experience in a long and time-tested life. These were chalked by brows that might well have been caterpillars collecting a pension; these preceded an incredibly smooth brow. Long, steel-wool hair shot off in multiple directions – not quite Einstein-esque due to the shiny, age-spotted bowl that created a perfect circumference from just above one temple to the other. This man looked as old – older, even – than Dickens himself, but those eyes looked as young as a child’s – sharp and aware. It occurred to Joe that the eyes are the constant of physical appearance; the same baby-blues we might gaze into of a childhood friend will be the same we see fifty or sixty years later.
“No, no,” Joe finally coughed up as the wise eyes studied him carefully, “not lost, exactly. Well, actually, maybe I am.” He laughed. “I really don’t know today, to tell you the truth.” He chuckled again, but there was no humour in it.
“Ahh, my son, well as our great sage Tolkien said,” and right on the money, Joe thought, “‘Not all who wander are lost’. Maybe today you’re just a wanderer,” followed by a smile and a wink. This impish, yet somehow powerhouse of a man was more and more reminding Joe of his paternal grandfather; that feeling Joe always had as a child that there was no answer beyond Grandpa’s reach, no break that couldn’t be mended. Just as Granddad’s smile had always immediately conferred safety and security, so did the grin of this stranger.
Joe had never been adept at making small talk at the best of times – least of all when stumbling aimlessly into a store hocking wares he privately dismissed as the reaching of the ignorant (he’d once observed one of the “crystal types” put some sort of gem in their mouth to ‘feel the energy even more’, and that had caused him to immediately and irrevocably disembark a train he had decided to ride a single stop out of curiosity) – so the best he was able to offer Mr. Kemp (as he assumed this elfish/impish gentleman was) was an awkward smile.
“Pardon me for saying this, but you look troubled. And you definitely don’t look like the type of customer I normally get through the doors.” This latter statement helped to ingratiate the proprietor to Joe somehow. It was said with a level of self-awareness Joe always appreciated if and when he stumbled across it in others.
“To tell you the truth I am – troubled – but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on why. And yes,” he laughed, “I’m probably not your typical demographic. I really don’t believe,” he waved a hand absentmindedly around, while trying to convey a tone of respectful incredulity, “in any of this sort of stuff.”
The proprietor laughed. “And what’s ‘this sort of stuff’?”
“You know, the mystical. The fantastical.”
“And what do those things mean to you?”
“Well, I dunno. Doesn’t it ever strike you as funny that if people spent even half the time on improving the tangible world around us – the things we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste, to say nothing of human relationships – as they do on all this…. stuff,” a now-definitive hand-waving of dismissal, “things would be a lot better off out there?” Joe paused, self-consciously. “Wow. That was an unexpected wave of verbal vomit, probably for both of us. I apologize.”
Another warm chuckle. “Not at all. It does strike me as funny, but it also strikes me that if people do stop investing in this stuff, I better find another way of putting food on my plate.” He extended his bony but welcoming hand. “William Kemp, proprietor.”
“Joe Riley… Cynic, apparently.” At this they shared a laugh. “So you’ve had this place since ’68, hey?”
“Nope, that was my brother, Stephen. He was the one into all this ‘stuff’; always trying to touch the divine through literature, or the elements, or even through chemistry – much to the chagrin of our parents. They aimed so deliberately to have us follow in their footsteps of medicine and science, and right up until he passed, I did.” He stroked the chin that seemed in competition with the nose as to which could jut out further. “But funny enough, at the end of all of it, he was the only one that left something to hold onto: this place. We had all been too busy with career and material aspirations to give much in the way of relationships, or progeny.
“I was his executor, and came in ten years ago with the lawyers and accountants, expecting to be tied up for months unraveling whatever ‘mystical mess’ – to borrow one of your words – was here…
“But as I began going through the inventory, I felt like I was getting to know my brother for the first time. There was more there than I ever realized, and it made me sad I hadn’t tried harder to make sure we didn’t drift apart while he was here. It made me appreciate the work he did, whereas that whole time I was supposedly the healer. Then I started to hear from some of the people who frequented this place he built; how it had helped them get closer to whatever it was they sought. And I thought, ‘If I shut this down…'” He abruptly stopped, then beamed warmth from his grin again. “Now look who has a case of the verbal vomit. You’re not contagious, are you?” he said with a wink.
“No no, go on, please. I’m interested.”
“I just started to think ‘If I close this place, what does that say about life? About Steve’s life? About mine? That what we do ceases to matter the moment we take our last breath?’ It’s funny, as a physician – faced with literal questions of life and death, day in and out, I never gave much thought to any of that. One would think I might have, but life and death became… so transactional. It was either a problem for me to solve, or a condition for the patient to accept. I never paused to consider the implications beyond that. Maybe I was scared. I don’t know.”
“Scared of what?”
He paused, Joe sensed in contemplation of this perhaps not for the first time, but in deep probing of the meaning of it now, before answering. “Scared of the futility of all of it, maybe? Of what I might find, or think – or viscerally know – if I did stop to consider it? It’s no secret that many doctors have a bit of the ‘god complex’ – someone comes to us unwell in some way or another, we diagnose, we write a solution on a little pad, and enough times in a day that process leads to a micro-cure, for that day anyway. Everything we do relates back to a quantifiable process somehow – the mechanisms of physiology, the pathology of disease – and so a lot of the time we can trick ourselves into believing we have answers. And when things go right enough of the time, we can really start believing we have all the answers.
“But in our gut, we know we’re only one patient away – any deviation from the ‘diagnose, treat, cure’ paradigm – from having our illusions disrupted. Of being reminded we’re still fallible humans, after all, no matter the thousands of hours spent hunched over textbooks or in labs or writing dissertations. That’s not good evidence for a healer to have, or be reminded of: that in the end, if the universe, or God – or whatever machinations exist behind all we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste – if whatever that thing is decides this one’s not going to go according to the treatment plan, no matter how much the science says it should, there is nothing we can actually do about it.
“Self-honesty can be one of the most powerful assets a human being can have, but not if you’re a doctor, son. And your patients don’t want that, either.”
“Wow. Yeah I suppose if my doctor ever said something like that to me, I’d be asking for a transfer to another hospital.”
“Exactly. At any rate, while Steve and I weren’t close – I was almost nine years older than he was, which added in a couple factors to alienate him from me and our parents: the gap in age, and the discernible-but-never-spoken-about notion that his arrival hadn’t been planned – after his cancer took him in that Autumn of ’95 despite my own attempts at throwing everything I had into fixing him, I found myself considering for the first time – again, strange as it may sound from a doctor – the existential questions. What does it mean? Why are we here? What’s after this? Before this? Why are we doing what we’re doing?
“Whatever intent I may have started out with in becoming a physician – and whatever my own aspirations had been, whenever I was able to extricate them from those of my parents’ – I couldn’t recall anymore. I know I wanted to feel like I was doing some good, that I was improving quality of life, providing hope, giving clarity. But when so much of what you do is tied up in your ego, and that whispering-but-lingering thought you might be omnipotent – not The God, but godlike, in ways – and then you’re reminded you’re not, even when it comes to your own brother, well….” He trailed off, lost in some recollection clearly evident on his face, but indiscernible to Joe.
The cat had displaced itself from the counter and took Joe by surprise by running an affectionate figure-8 through his legs. “But can I ask…?”
His voice startled William back from whatever memory had pulled him through space and time. “Of course. I rarely speak of this, but as mentioned, whatever you’re carrying was not only infectious, but seemingly mutated as it hit me. Might as well let it run its course,” he chuckled again.
“It’s just… I don’t know. What makes a man like you – a man of science, so to speak – let the pendulum swing all the way into running a place like this? Is guilt that powerful?” He nearly threw a hand over his mouth after this latest projectile left his lips. “I apologize, again.”
“And again, not at all. Believe me, I was the last person I thought would ever patronize a place like this, let alone stand behind its counter. I don’t know if it was guilt. I’m sure that was an element of it. Perhaps guilt, crossed with a mid-life crisis, crossed with a metaphysical one. I just knew that if I shuttered the doors, then that was the end of Stephen Kemp, unceremoniously and undeservedly.” Another contemplative pause, as Joe stood transfixed.
“I don’t know… maybe even then my motives were purely selfish. I needed his life to matter more than that. I needed it not to have been an accident. And I needed to know my place in all this. If I couldn’t save him with my science, prescriptions, and therapies, and if all this,” he dramatically waved his arm around again in a good-natured imitation of Joe, “hadn’t saved him either… well I guess I wanted answers. If there was a God – whose powers and plan clearly superseded my own – I wanted to have some words. And I knew I wasn’t going to find that in my lab coat between swabs for strep and prostate exams,” he laughed again. “So I guess I decided to become a double-agent, and insert myself behind enemy lines.”
Thanks again for stopping by, Dear Reader! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.