Welcome back, Dear Reader! If you’ve read the first five 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. We’re returning to a scene featured in Excerpt 4, where Joe has wandered into a shop purportedly purveying (alongside alliteration, apparently) the mystical. He meets William Kemp, a retired doctor who took over the shop from his late brother, Stephen. Joe and William are knee-deep in a discussion concerning science, metaphysics, fate, and order. Joe is also about to confide in William about the dreams he’s been having. Enjoy!
“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.”
Another chuckle. “But in truth, my young friend Joe, I don’t know if I ever considered it at that depth, at that time. I might have known the part about not wanting to close up Steve’s life, but in truth, a lot of the considerations were more… practical.
“This may be hard to believe, especially by the sight of this place, but after I had the accountants go through the books – and take a hard look at mine – this place turned more of a profit than my medical practice. Steve managed to keep the overhead miraculously low, between a grandfathered lease, and inventory purchased on the cheap.” William picked up a small, wood-carving of a Buddha and examined it, as if recalling the procurement of that particular item.
“I’m sure it comes as no surprise that these sorts of ‘Mom ‘n Pop Shops’ often struggle to make ends meet at the best of times. Let alone when the primary substance of sale deals in the paranormal or metaphysical. The customers we do have are very – well, again, far be it from me to dismiss or disparage my clientele – so we’ll just say they’re dedicated. Thank the heavens for that, but we’re not exactly getting the foot traffic of Walmart or Starbucks.” He paused to glance out the window, running a hand against the grey stubble dotting his cheeks. “Steve knew this going in – somewhere along the line our parents’ practicality and penchant for entrepreneurialism soaked in – so he kept a keen eye for ‘going out of business’ sales of bookstores, or other shops of a similar philosophical bent. This was long before the advent of the digital age, so he subscribed to various newsletters and papers to comb over the classifieds almost daily.” William turned his focus back to Joe.
“That, combined with a healthy – well, for the most part – suspicion of ‘the man’, kept Steve from ever borrowing any more than necessary from banks or suppliers. And the moment he had an extra dime to spare after Merlin – our aged friend giving you a new coat of fur on your trouser legs there – and himself were fed, it would go to keeping the books in the black.” Of the cat’s name, Joe thought ‘But of course’.
“Again, I was astonished – if not impressed – at how savvy he’d been with the place, when the number-crunchers opened the books. I wish I could have said the same for my family practice. My only saving grace there was selling it during an economic upswing, after I decided to take over this dust-bucket full time.”
Joe regarded him silently, absorbing the story of a man who had the appearance of a medieval sorcerer, but purported to be a scientist. One with the universally recognized, automatic-conferral-of-respect initials of ‘M.D.’ following his name. For a moment, Joe thought his bedside manner seems decent, but then again, if he looked then as he does now, maybe patients were leery.
Before Joe’s unceasing voice of judgment could carry on, The Wizard interrupted his train of thought. “That is certainly enough about me; I’m clearly forgetting one of the first rules of business. That was something else Steve unconsciously excelled at: It’s always about the client, never about me. Steve even insisted on calling the patrons of this place ‘clients’ – he wanted to maintain the mentality of building relationships, not piling up transactions.
“So tell me, Joe Riley, what is it that you do, and more importantly, what is it that’s troubling you?”
“Uh….” Joe shifted his gaze downwards, now that the focus was on him. “Well, the first part is easy, I suppose. I’m in I.T. Analyst for a media company. You mentioned the ‘digital age’ before, and my job revolves around analyzing traffic to our website, and the effectiveness of our online media.”
“Doesn’t sound easy. That makes you part of the avant-garde of the World Wild-West Web, by the sounds of it. When I look at the internet, I see a massive hay stack where I wouldn’t know where to begin, let alone something to analyze.”
“I suppose. I sort of fell into this current position by evolution. My degree was in computer science; I graduated around the time Hotmail was becoming a thing and the tech bubble was forming, after spending my early-twenties backpacking. Though my parents would have preferred – like yours, by the sounds of it – I’d taken the road of the tried and true, like medicine or law, I wanted to be on the upswing of the next big thing. It hasn’t exactly turned out the way my younger self envisioned, however. I never really blew a bubble big enough to burst,” he chuckled wryly. Then he heard himself say the words that always caused him to choke a little as they left his throat: “It’s a good place to work, though. Good benefits. Decent salary.”
“Sounds like you don’t believe the words coming out of your own mouth.”
“No no, it’s a good career, really. On the one hand I wanted to be part of the avant-garde – to borrow one of your words now – but I also wanted a long-term career with stability, so I designed this path as much as possible. I don’t hold with those who jump from one position or one career to another, based on impulse or whim, or ‘chasing their dreams’.” Joe threw up air-quotes for emphasis. “I don’t chase anything. I design it, I map it out, and then I go and get it.”
“Well that’s an IT-minded answer for certain. Or even a hikers’ answer. But what did you want to do?”
“How do you mean?”
“You’ve just told me about what you thought you should do, what you designed to do.” William leaned forward on the grand countertop, peering with those ice-blue eyes into Joe’s. “What did you want to be, before questions of ‘ought’ and ‘should’ and practicality entered into the decision?”
“I… don’t know.” Joe paused to consider this a moment. “I can’t really remember.”
At this one Joe laughed. “Hmmmmm?”
William returned the laugh. “Just hmm-ing at the idea that some ideas are worth remembering. Worth looking back on. And sometimes worth pursuing.”
“Is this you speaking, or are you channeling your brother?”
“Ha! I’m no medium, that’s for certain. Never seen a ghost, certainly never heard from or spoken to one.” William straightened back up, returning his gaze to some distant point outside the shop window. “I guess it’s just been my experience that we only get one shot at this life, and more and more these days I wonder if ‘ought’ or ‘should’ fit anywhere into that. I wonder if practicality ought or should have anything to do with it at all.” One shot. Joe’s oft-quoted mantra, though turned on its head.
“That sounds awfully reckless, for a man of science.”
“I loved science. Still do. I’m human, and I believe we’re all driven by a need to comprehend, to make sense of this world and life we’re thrust into. Science and mathematics are beautiful mechanisms to provide context and comprehension for so much of what we see and experience. But it’s also been my experience that when one lives long enough, there’s a significant collection of events – and even sights – that we can’t explain. Which then casts doubt on what we thought was already summed up neatly in our little boxes and paradigms. At some point the discernible answers fail, and then what?
“Beyond that, I guess there are the larger questions of: ‘How much of this do I want to be easily explainable? How much of this do I want to fall into tidy parameters?’ I’m a unique human being – I’m the only William Bosworth Kemp there has ever been, and ever will be. The only being with these particular attributes – physical, metaphysical, spiritual. How comfortable am I with the idea that everything I ever see or do can be quantified in an equation? There’s some order in that, sure. And for some, there’s comfort in that.” Merlin the cat had jumped back onto the counter, forcing his head into William’s folded arms to elicit a head-scratch. “Is that what I want, or do I hope there’s something that allows room for an experience capable of transcending boundaries? Where living, and feeling, and experiencing, are more than what can be explained away by physiological responses of my nervous system? Science has always been about possibility, to a certain extent, but it’s also about disproving, about ruling out. And when it comes to the soul, even as a man of science, I don’t know that I’m comfortable limiting. I don’t think I want to rule anything out.”
“While I didn’t know him, I think more of your brother rubbed off on you than you realize.” Joe said this with a smile, but William’s eyes momentarily lost their twinkle. The lines along his brow and corners of his mouth appeared to deepen.
“I only wish more of him had.”
“I apologize. Again. I really don’t know what’s come over me the last few days. And here I am, a complete stranger, making unfounded judgments and spewing unfiltered statements at you. I need some sleep.”
“And again, my young friend Joe, I will tell you to pay no mind. Sometimes – not often, but in rare, shooting-star moments – conversations with strangers are more fertile ground for honesty than those with our loved ones. It can be easier to open up – it can be easier to be honestly honest – with someone we don’t know. When it’s someone we do, we usually know their pain points, their insecurities. But ‘unfiltered’ can be refreshing.” He picked up Merlin as though the cat were a baby; the feline responded in kind by falling into an instant doze in his arms.
“I’m grateful for this conversation today, Joe, and I like thinking about – and talking about – my brother. It keeps him alive, just as this store you’ve wandered into today does.” William paused. “But once again, let us return to you, Mr. Riley. And if you prefer,” the twinkle and laugh-lines were back, “you can tell the ‘good doctor what brings you into the office today’.”
“Well… I’ve begun to dream again.”
Thanks again for stopping by, Dear Reader! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.