The first came years ago, before the losses started to add up.
In the dream, he is standing in front of an entire wall of magazines. The smell of ink and paper is competing with the redolent, sweet scent of tobacco that distinguishes the other half of the dark, dingy, downtown shop inspired by one he visits in the waking world.
The wall of magazines is an infinite playground. Five rows in the lower section, six above, both stretching to the left and the right like an artist’s exercise in perspective drawing. Every inch of the pale, pinewood rack shouts with color and typography. Women’s magazines in pink and white and yellow promise perfect skin. Wood-crafting magazines in walnut brown and forest green promise six steps to a perfect dining room table. Business magazines in black and silver and gold promise perfect portfolios.
Even in his dream state, he doesn’t care for such pointed promises. He has always been drawn instead to vague hope, the kind you find at the intersection of uncertainty and possibility.
He stands before the rack, scanning the shelves. He knows what he’s looking for – a science magazine, a commentary on the art of film, and one or two literary publications. In the waking world, he could name the magazines that define his desire. But in dreams, all of the magazines are new to him.
In the first dream, he finds everything he’s looking for and more. He carries a dozen magazines to the counter with an almost boyish glee. He is addicted to the drugs of anticipation and wonder. He buys two candy bars and a pack of gum and his mouth salivates before the dream fades.
In the years that follow, the magazine dreams continue. But what was once a wall of magazines in a magazine shop, over time, becomes a tiny, dusty display in a convenience store most notable for its lingering stench of burned coffee. There are only a few magazines to choose from, and he rarely finds one he wants. He thinks about the evolution of this dream when he is awake, and tries to convince himself that the diminishing magazine selection is merely symbolic of what’s happening in the real world. He knows that’s only a piece of the truth.
He hopes the magazine dreams end before the racks are completely empty.
His screensaver at work is a collection of pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. The images confound him in all the right ways. Sometimes when he is daydreaming, he wonders about the edge of the universe. He is no scientist, but he’s read enough to know that astrophysicists are always attempting to define its boundaries. Once, he asked this question of a co-worker: “What kind of math could possibly exist that has the breadth to constrain or define the infinite?” His co-worker had been impressed by the rhetorical question, but quite rightly had no answer to give.
During the slow moments at work, and there are many, he imagines himself escaping his cubicle through the ceiling, rocketing through the Earth’s atmosphere, out of the solar system, past the Milky Way Galaxy, and straight on to the end of everything. The closer he gets to the imagined edge of the universe, the more he thinks about Horton Hears a Who. It’s the only explanation that makes sense to him. There has to be something bigger than the biggest thing. Something to look after the things that are smaller. When he returns from his daydream, he reaches over and caresses the closest of the Russian nesting dolls that decorate the only shelf in his cubicle. He owns seven sets of dolls. Six of the seven were given to him as gifts by friends and family who believed anyone who had one set of Russian nesting dolls must be a collector and want many. He has never opened any of them more than one layer deep.
There is a familiar song playing on the radio. He listens almost exclusively to one station at his computer. It’s a station that plays movie scores. Not the popular songs that define so many movie soundtracks these days, but the instrumental cues that in years past had always been performed by orchestras and probably are all done on computers now.
Movie scores are as close as he dares get to classical music. Any closer and he is overwhelmed by the weight of history and the embarrassment of having retained so little from his music appreciation classes.
The music that’s playing is from a movie he hasn’t seen, and never will. The hesitant interplay of piano and cello and the slow progression teasing resolution that never comes is its own movie. It’s a heartbreaking scene of such perfect beauty and perfect pain that he has to turn off the radio if he isn’t in a safe place for tears. His cubicle at work is usually one of those places because he keeps the music loud enough to mask the whimper and choke. But even there he sometimes changes the channel to chase away the memory of her skin and the look of desperate longing in her eyes.
“You okay in there?” It is his supervisor’s voice. She is a smart and kind woman. She knows how important it is to give him space to do his magic. And it is magic. This is the one positive truth he is able to hold onto about himself. His supervisor’s hair is wild and dark and the same wayward strand falls in front of her face whenever she bends down to study the mock-ups he’s assembled for a book cover meeting. She smells like fresh earth and her eyes are green, but they’re not quite the right shade of green so he doesn’t fall in love with her.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Just working on something big.” He uses a variation of this excuse every time she worries aloud. She always accepts it because she knows brilliance sometimes comes with tears and she doesn’t want to do anything to frighten it away.
The drive home takes twenty-seven minutes on average. It’s a well-researched number, which he calculated only after recording the daily return times for more than three months. He doesn’t know how long it takes to drive to work. He’s always the last to arrive.
Often during the drive home he holds two competing thoughts in his head for at least three of those 27 minutes. One is a wish that he had an ice pick. The other is thankfulness that he doesn’t.
If he had one, he would retrieve it from the empty passenger seat where it would have been rolling around with every stop and turn, distracting him from the traffic on the road and the traffic in his head. He would play with it in his right hand, feeling the smooth grain of the polished wooden handle and the sharp point of the short, cold spike. He would wait for one of those rare moments in his commute when the road was empty and no one was staring into his window thinking, “Ichabod Crane,” and then he would thrust it into his thigh.
Sometimes when he imagines this he gasps. Sometimes he sighs.
And sometimes he makes a fist and punches his thigh instead. Never quite enough to leave a bruise. But always enough to remember why he’s thankful he doesn’t own an ice pick.
At the intersection of Ninth Ave. and Garden St, he slows for a red light. As he rolls to a stop, the ground begins to shake. He feels unbound for the briefest of moments, then he begins to laugh. It is an earthquake. This is the first he’s experienced while in his car. He looks over at the empty passenger seat and imagines the ice pick vibrating a warning like the cup of water in Jurassic Park.
He turns on the car stereo as the rumble subsides, and the same piano and cello tune begins to play from a CD he’d forgotten he’d made. Two blocks later, he approaches the town’s only Tobacco and Magazine shop and sees a rare empty parking space in front of it. He pulls into it, leaving the car running. There is a sign in the window he hasn’t seen before. “Now Leasing.”
This isn’t a magazine dream. This is the waking world and the shop has gone out of business.
He turns off the car and the stereo, and listens to the sound of his own tears without accompaniment or distraction.
It is a curious sound. A sad and beautiful sound.
The first aftershock shakes him out of his reverie and back to the smell of concrete and exhaust. When he realizes he has been rubbing his thigh, he stops, wipes a tear from his eye, then starts his car.
“There has to be something bigger than the biggest thing,” he says aloud, surprised by the strength in his voice.
Then he backs out of the parking space, and rockets away to find it.
This is the first time I’ve used it. I thought it might be cool to pronounce it like “Martian,” but every time I said that out loud while practicing in the bathroom (words sound better there), I saw Jacob and David laughing at me and Missy wondering if she should join them. I don’t care so much about Jacob and David. They’re jerks anyway. But Missy would make a terrible jerk.
So it’s Martin. Mar. Tin.
My father is in the basement again. He’s always in the basement. He calls it the “cellar,” because the walls and floor aren’t finished like the rest of the house. He used to say, “someday we’ll fix up the cellar and make it a proper basement,” but not so much lately. I don’t care. It’s finished enough for me. The scratches on the concrete floor where I play roller hockey for the Green Bay Slicers is proof of that. My dad’s on the team, too, along with a bunch of people we made up. We’re the world champions. Again. He taught me how to play. He got in trouble when he was teaching me because Mom came down to see what the noise was and saw all the scratches on the floor. Or maybe it was the black marks on the walls. Here’s a tip: Don’t use black rubber pucks when you play cellar roller hockey. Use the fake plastic ones.
Dad’s back has been hurting a lot, though. You can’t play cellar roller hockey with a bad back. Everyone knows that.
Mostly these days he just sits at the desk in the corner by the window well and types things on his desktop computer – the one he named “Old Stupid.” If you tried to play a game on it you’d understand. But it works okay for writing emails and stories. That’s what he does when he’s not helping out at Aunt Louise’s dairy farm.
I read one of his stories once. He forgot to turn off the computer and it was right there staring at me. I had been playing basement bowling and I guess I was being too loud or something because he just slammed his chair into the desk and went upstairs without saying a word. Basement bowling is fun when you have someone to set up the pins, but not so much when you’re the only one playing.
The story had a name. “Entropy.” I had to look it up. That didn’t help much. It was about a guy named Lawrence. Lots of bad things happen to him. Like for one, he falls down a flight of stairs. But that’s not the worst thing according to Lawrence. According to Lawrence the worst thing is that the girl he loves more than anything stops loving him. At first I thought Lawrence was an idiot. The worst thing would be the stairs. They were metal stairs. Metal! But then I thought of Missy and the way she smiles and how she is the opposite of a jerk and I kind of understood what Lawrence meant, even if I still don’t understand the title.
Every day I walk to the train tracks. It takes me 27 minutes. I decided that 27 minutes equals one Train Minute. Just because. I used to count things in Train Minutes. Once I wanted to know how long the school day was in Train Minutes. I needed a calculator. The answer is one of those numbers that goes on and on: fourteen point four four four four four and an infinite number of fours after that.
I think that’s when I stopped counting things in Train Minutes. Infinity hurts my head.
My dad doesn’t like it that I go to the tracks, but he lets me go anyway.
“I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” he says. “There haven’t been any trains on those tracks in years.”
Ever since the bombings. I know about that. I learned about it in school, like everyone else. Terrorists blew up some trains. A whole bunch of people died. No one wanted to ride the trains anymore so most of them stopped running. Simple math, really. Not like infinity.
“The trains will never come back,” he says. But the way he says it makes me think he isn’t really talking about trains. I don’t think he’s talking about Mom either. Because she does come back sometimes. She doesn’t stay long, though. Just long enough to tell me she loves me and tell Dad she doesn’t love him, I guess.
I want the trains to come back. I read a really cool story about trains a long time ago and it was kind of like finding out that time machines were real. But when I tell dad that he just gives me one of his sad smiles and says, “Some things never come back, Byron.”
Byron is my real name. I was named after a dead poet. He was a Lord, but not the kind you learn about in church. (Don’t ask how I know that. But I’m glad we don’t go to church anymore.) I looked up some of his poems. They’re kind of like entropy and infinity. I don’t understand them. But there was this part in a poem called “When We Two Parted” that I liked so much I memorized it. (Ask my teacher. This is a big deal.) It goes like this:
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow--
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
That’s how Lawrence feels in Dad’s story. And it’s kind of how I feel when I sit on the train tracks. My dad is right, they’re never coming back. My dad is always right. He was right when he said Mom would kick him out for a while. (He was gone for a month. The longest month in the history of life.) He was right when he said she would be the one to leave for good. (She did, though she visits sometimes, like I said already.) He was right when he said people would make fun of me because I change my name all the time. But he was even more right when he said it didn’t matter because I could choose any name I wanted.
“A name is just a way of talking about a thing,” he said. “You don’t love someone’s name, you love the person inside.” He was talking about me, but not only me. He wasn’t talking about Mom, though. I mean, he loves her in a way. You have to love the person you share a name with. But that’s not the same kind of love. I told him that and he laughed and said something about “irony.” I looked that up, too. Don’t ask.
“Some things never come back.” He says that about the trains, but I know he mostly means Marie. That’s not her real name. That’s the name Lawrence uses. I didn’t tell you this yet, but I’m pretty sure the story about Lawrence is really about my dad. Lawrence was married, too. But he loved someone else.
He loved Marie. She’s the one who stops loving him. After he falls down the stairs. It hurts just thinking about it.
When I go to the tracks, I just sit there and listen. I know what a train horn sounds like. I’ve heard them online. I also have a pretty good idea what the track would feel like if a train were coming. I think it would be like the way the whole house vibrated when Dad dragged Mom’s dresser to the garage last year. I was sitting on kitchen floor eating a Pop-Tart when he did it and the crumbs bounced on the linoleum like they were trying to fly. Mom calls Pop-Tarts empty calories, but I always feel pretty full when I eat them so I’m not sure what she means.
Or maybe she’s just wrong. Sometimes Mom is wrong.
Today is Saturday. When there’s no school I walk to the tracks right after breakfast. (Usually Pop-Tarts.) I like weekends because I can go early. The “chill on my brow,“ and all that.
I was only two when the trains blew up. The tracks are rusty now. And cold. And broken in some places. Some things never come back.
My dad is always right. But I don’t think he wants to be.
Tomorrow I’m going to be Timmy.
And I will wait for trains.
[Author’s Note: This short story is based on a very minor character in my current novel-in-progress. I know that’s kind of meaningless, considering the fact that the novel is still “in-progress” and you can’t go out and buy it anywhere. But someday you’ll be able to. And when you do, you’ll be among a select group who can say, “Hey, I remember that Byron kid.”]
The black, breathless shroud. An emptiness to end the emptiness. An infinite, dreamless sleep.
The IV is a cold finger on his skin. Its slow drip of forgetting ushers him from the black into the gray. Thoughts float like ashes and dissolve like cotton candy. Images flash like lightning and fade like Polaroids peeled too soon. Beginnings. Endings. A lingering embrace. A longer goodbye. There is freckled skin, warm, alive, eager. And then her fading scent on an empty pillow. Hope disappears like an almost-kiss.
The gray is an Escher paradox. Impossible paths leading everywhere and nowhere. At the center of the chaos, a tremulous pause, a hesitation where never-arriving calm threatens shadows into panic.
He opens his eyes. Shapes like faces hover. Some familiar. Some strange. They smile. They stare. They curse. They pray. They ask why.
There was a song. A very specific song, repeating, repeating, repeating. Were there pills? He remembers music. Not this music. Electronic beeps and clicks, a rhythm without a melody. Soulless machines singing soulless songs to save his soul.
What was that song?
It made him feel. One last feeling before the black.
He is dizzy, swirling. He is Scrabble tiles looking for words in a tornado. His feelings are woodland creatures – sad bunnies, angry chipmunks, happy squirrels. They stand in formation across a meadow, then turn at the edge of a blazing forest to shrug before losing themselves in the smoke of it. Don’t go, he says. He wants to cry for them, but they have his tears.
Days and minutes blend into each other like the side of a rotting barn against a storm-welcoming sky. He sleeps for a moment and a year. When he wakes, the gray is gone. It does not go gently, like a woman teasing her lover awake with a song. It runs away like rabbit on fire. The room lights that seemed distant as stars pierce him like spotlights pressing for truth. They water his eyes. A false tear drips disappointment down his cheek and through the blur he sees a woman's face.
He wonders if she will speak. If she will yell at him for trying to leave. If she will try to understand with words what he doesn’t understand with or without them.
He remembers now. There were pills.
Knives stab his stomach. Hammers pound his brain. Pliers pinch his arms. Chlorine and urine assault his nose. He feels the blood pump in his veins, defying him, teasing him back. He wants to be angry. He is too weak. He wants to be sorry. He doesn't know how.
What was that song?
He listens for it. Strains to hear its echo. There is nothing but the beep and click. And then, a sound like a sob. Another tear falls down his cheek. It is warm, and he wonders if it’s hers. She reaches down to wipe it away.
Her fingers are cold and their touch surprises him. The sobbing stops. And then she begins to hum. It is a sweet melody that reminds him of Christmas mornings.
That’s not the song. That’s not it at all. That’s the opposite of the song.
He opens his mouth to complain. She presses a finger to his lips. You’re not alone, she sings. You are never alone. We are all broken. And we are okay.
She closes his eyes with her cold fingers. Rest, she says.
When he opens his eyes, she is gone.
He feels the throbbing in his chest and wishes it would stop. His bones ache.
He sleeps for another moment and a year. When he wakes, he looks for her.
Where is she? he asks the nurse.
The woman who sings.
You've had lots of visitors. Do you know her name?
She has cold fingers.
The nurse laughs. I don’t know, she says.
He sighs. My head hurts, he says. It hurts so fucking much.
More gray sleep. More stairs that lead nowhere. More waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping to the incessant beep and click. And then, a different sound. Whispers.
He opens his eyes to a room full of people. His brother is here. His ex-wife. The friend who found him. Not the one who broke him.
Where is she? he asks.
Let her go, they say. She's no good for you, they say. They don’t mean the woman with cold fingers.
A nurse stands over him.
How do you feel? she asks.
Everything hurts, he says.
Do you want something for the pain?
He looks at their faces. His brother, his ex-wife, his friend, the nurse. They are silent. They are waiting. They are listening.
You're not alone. You are never alone.
That’s not it, he yells. That’s not the goddamn song!
We're all broken...
A tear rolls down his cheek. That's not the song, he sobs.
His tears last a moment and a year. Then, a smile from nowhere and everywhere gently twists the gray into blue. He says it again, but this time his voice is a laugh like Christmas mornings.
That's not the song.
He looks at his brother. His ex-wife. His friend. The nurse.
He sees everyone.
And begins to sing.
He looked at his friend, the seriousness in her eyes betraying the question as one she had already asked – and answered – herself.
“I’d spend the rest of my life trying to prove the uncertainty of certainty,” he said. She didn’t flinch.
“Even knowing you would fail? Because you understand the premise, right? It’s not going to change. Ever.”
He brushed a cherry blossom from his shoulder, glanced up at the tree as if to ask a question, then looked at Holly again. She had the wrong color eyes. They were blue. The color of faded denim, she would argue, but he thought they were darker. “I think they’re more of a sky blue,” he had said. “But I want them to be denim blue.” “Okay.” She had wanted to be taller, too.
“Yes. Even knowing I would fail.”
Holly found Jack on a dating site. Eight men ago. But they had never dated. In Jack, she had found the girlfriend she’d always longed for – the person she could tell anything to without fear of judgment. Sometimes she called him that. Her girlfriend. The first time, he responded with uncharacteristic verve, offering claims of heterosexuality so outrageous she half-wondered if he was a homophobe. He wasn’t. He was just being funny.
Sometimes she felt bad teasing him. She knew about all of his insecurities. Some she’d discovered by observation, others he’d just spilled onto the table like a woman emptying her purse. She laughed at this thought, filed away the words for a future teasing. She liked watching him squirm. There was something compelling about Jack’s discomfort. A strange beauty revealed itself in his vulnerability. She would never tell him this, though. He had gotten the wrong idea once when she’d offered an unguarded compliment. Something about his way with words. Moments later, he had his arm around her. They were at the movie theater he called "theirs." The movie was Titanic. In 3D. She had turned to him and stared through the plastic glasses with such a curiously furrowed brow that he knew immediately he’d done something wrong. When he said, “Sorry, I thought you were Rose there for a moment,” she had nearly regretted the unvoiced complaint. He returned his arm to the armrest and she wondered then, for the first and only time, what it would be like to hold his hand. Perhaps if they’d been further along in the movie – the scene where Rose poses for Jack – she would have done it. They never talked about it.
“Why?” she asked. A reflected ray from the setting sun touched her face then, and her eyes did seem a lighter blue. Faded denim. Maybe she had only ever seen them in such light? No. Though she rarely wore makeup – an observation that always prompted a familiar ache – she would surely see her face in the mirror every morning, every night. Her bathroom had no such magical light. It was a dim, dark, windowless place. He had seen it just once, but the picture had stuck with him, a puzzle piece that didn’t fit with the woman he knew as an infinite source of sun-bright energy and shadowless optimism.
He’d only spent that one night at her house, after a party she invited him to turned into a drinking competition. She had won. He had lost, but only by virtue of having not played. She asked him to drive her home, and he did. Then she had slurred an invitation to spend the night because of the long drive, which he not even for one second imagined meant sharing her bed. This was before they saw Titanic.
“I don’t think I could handle living the rest of my life without the hope of love, the possibility of it,” he said.
“But you’ve given up on love. You've given up on hope, too. You said that. Didn’t you mean it?”
Her smile was somewhere between curious and coy. He thought of reaching over and pulling down the left side of the smile to erase the coy. It wasn’t meant for him. But they didn’t touch one another that way. They had only hugged once. Awkwardly. The coy, the sexy, the wanting – those were always meant for Michael, the lover who got away. The lover she sent away. The lover she always talked about between failed relationships and sometimes in the middle of moderately successful ones. He’s in South Africa now. Or New Zealand. She pretends not to know which, but it’s always the first she mentions. The second is merely an attempt to dilute a poorly-hidden ache.
“I meant it when I said it. I still mean it.” He didn’t need to tell the story again. She’d heard it a hundred times. But he paused anyway, to give her time to recall it. The desire, the bliss, the deception, the emptiness, the loss, and his own poorly-hidden ache.
“So you’d rather be alone, than with someone other than her.”
“But you hate being alone.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said. Another cherry blossom landed on his shoulder. He didn’t look up.
“What if the closest I get to the moment is now,” she said.
“It’s from a song. ‘What if the closest I get to the moment is now.’ Katie Herzig.”
“Should I listen to it?”
“You will. Over and over again.”
“I’m going to hate it, aren’t I,” he said.
“No. You’re going to love it. You love all the things that break your heart.”
A waitress came by to smile and drop off the check. He took it before she could reach for her purse. It was their only dance, and he always led. Her best girlfriend.
“Oh, you need to see this,” she said with her words, her hands, and her eyes all at once. “Come sit on my side of the table.” He obeyed without hesitation. The patio lights dimmed just as he stood. He dragged his chair across the tile floor, sat next to her, but not so close as to fear the accidental brush of his hand against hers. Together, they looked out over the city at a fading day. The sun’s escape was painting a yellow and orange and red halo above the mountains.
He had seen thousands of sunsets, of course. Every one broke his heart for all the right reasons. The last few thousand, for those reasons and one more.
“You see her everywhere, don’t you,” Holly said, her voice softened by the night.
“Everywhere but next to me.”
She took a sip of her wine. Red. Always red. “I hope you can do it,” she said.
“Prove the uncertainty of certainty.”
He smiled then. A kind, sad smile that would have made a sound like a sigh. Then he spoke, his voice strong, confident.
“’Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’”
“Dylan Thomas?” she said after a respectful pause. “I love that you know poetry.”
“I don’t know much. That’s the only part I remember,” he said.
“If Michael had known even one verse of poetry…” Her expression darkened, and he saw what she must see every morning, every night in the bathroom mirror. Someone she didn’t want to be. The darkness only lasted an instant, and she was back, sparkling denim eyes and bright spirit called to purpose by sheer force of will. “Well, I don’t now about you, but I’m going to rage every single day,” she said.
Holly looked over at Jack. He continued to stare straight ahead. She wondered what he saw in the color and the light. Then she realized she already knew.
“I think I will go gently,” he said, finally, this time with uncertain voice.
Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded, a dog barked. Behind them, the rattle and scrape of tables being cleared. The patio was nearly empty when a breeze stirred the cherry tree. Blossoms fell like snow then, pulled to the ground by gravity and the first chill of autumn.