The Dream

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
My head is filled with the dream. The hot shower helps to blur the edges, smudge the images, fool me into thinking it is only a dream. I look in the mirror as I dry off, rejecting the thought of shaving for another day, avoiding my own eyes, unwilling to admit that the dream is swallowing me while I desperately try to hold on to reality.

Submitted: December 05, 2016

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Submitted: December 05, 2016

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I wake up exhausted.  My body aches.  There’s no specific pain, just the feeling that every part of me is wearing out.  I can’t lie down any longer.  I want to turn over, curl up, find that sweet spot and drift off to sleep again, but every configuration hurts.  I reluctantly climb out of bed and into my life again.  I stand up slowly, tensing my body in anticipation of the pain, straighten up and stretch.  Years ago, I discovered that stretching, extreme stretching somehow snapped my parts back into place.  Stretching, a very hot shower and black coffee, the three stages of consciousness to arm me for the day.

My head is filled with the dream.  The hot shower helps to blur the edges, smudge the images, fool me into thinking it is only a dream.  I look in the mirror as I dry off, rejecting the thought of shaving for another day, avoiding my own eyes, unwilling to admit that the dream is swallowing me while I desperately try to hold on to reality.

The gurgling of the coffeemaker is soothing as is the voice of NPR.  Somewhere along the way, I fell off the healthy eating train and have reverted back to a cold bowl of Life cereal and real milk.  That’s right, artery clogging whole milk, not that watery one percent stuff.  I prolong breakfast with a package of strawberry pop tarts.  Why is it so comforting to hear the click of the toaster and reach for these nearly tasteless rectangles?  I’m sure the comfort is in the routine.  When I come to a cross road in my head and don’t know where to turn, or when I’m surrounded by the dream and need to escape, that’s when I seek out the momentary distraction of toasting a pop tart.

Inevitably, I think about the dream when I’m awake.  It’s never like a complete movie or even a short video with a natural beginning and end.  It plays out in bits and pieces, starting and ending at random points, sometimes crystal clear and sometimes in hazy vignettes.  Sometimes, I’m in the dream interacting with the characters.  Sometimes I’m a voyeur, watching them play out the endless loop of their lives. Sometimes I’m in the present or in my past or the past of the people I encounter.

The dream is somewhat work related; at least it feels that way.  I’m on the road traveling, but not on a vacation or a singular journey.  I’m on US Hwy 40, a road that is vaguely familiar to me, yet strangely unfamiliar. I have a sense that I-70, my escape route, is off in the distance, but there are no road signs, no directions to help me find my way. As I arrive at the place I am destined to visit over and over again, I look around and wonder why I am here.  On closer inspection, I have the uneasy thought that I have never been here before, but only have the memory of this nameless place.

It’s always early evening at the end of summer.  I’m tired from driving and bad coffee and stopping at gas station restrooms that have never been cleaned.  I’m weary from my journey.  I need a hot shower, a bed that’s not too lumpy and a burger special.  Ah, the burger special!  I can taste it.  The patty is hand formed, the bun is lightly toasted and there is a generous scoop of potato and macaroni salad.  The burger special is the high point of the dream.  But not the pie.  The pie is always a disappointment.

I pull off the highway into the lot of the Tall Pines Motel.  Funny, I can never remember whether I am in Illinois or Indiana.  The motel is one of those places that had seen better days since the time it was built. I briefly speculate about the name Tall Pines, noting that cornfields stretch out in every direction.  The faded, rusty sign has a permanent “vacancy” painted on it, an admission by the owner that the place would never be filled.  The obligatory red neon “motel” sign seems oddly welcoming, triggering in my mind the smell of fresh, cool sheets, hospital corners and a big bulky color TV with lots of channels.  It is a week night.  The motel is even more silent than the weekend flurry of horny kids, cheating husbands and wives and retired people on their way to somewhere else.  Tonight there is only an aging pickup truck, a local I’m sure, and a shabby rental cargo van with “Beacon Rentals – We light the way for your move”, in peeling plastic letters on its side.  Something in the back of my mind tells me that somewhere down the road, Motel 6 has left the light on for me, but I’m too tired to care.

I pause a moment before I get out of the car.  But I always get out of the car.  I always go into the motel office.  The cheap aluminum screen door is dented and oxidized.  The glass in the door rattles when I close it and the damn little bell jangles.  Tonight Bonnie is at the office desk.  Sometimes she is in the back room watching “The Young and the Restless”.  That’s the reason for the stupid bell. After hundreds of nights, I expect that she is going to know me but she never does.  She looks up at me with a tight little dismissive smile and looks back at her desk, signifying that managing a twenty room motel with only two other lodgers is a frantic task that requires her full attention.  Finally, she looks up again and asks
“How can I help you?” 
I’m tempted to say that I want two live chickens and a hundred pound bag of feed, or that I want to pick up my dry cleaning or that I would like to have the holes in my bowling ball redrilled.  Instead, I ask for a room.  Bonnie is about to say that she will check to see what’s available, but realizing that I know the place is empty too, only asks if I want one bed or two.  She can tell that there is no one else in my car.  Does she think that I plan to get lucky?  I tell her one bed and she hands over the key to 107.  I think about asking for a different room but know, after endless reruns, the dream doesn’t work that way.  It is always room 107.

Room 107, like all the rooms, has a  picture window that looks out to the back of the motel where I have a depressing view of the 1960’s vintage pink and gray trailer that is Bonnie’s home.  Next to the trailer are decaying stakes in the ground outlining the future in ground pool. One of the many things I’ll learn later is that six years ago, a fast talking salesman from Ajax Pools gave Bonnie a hard-to-believe, low,  end-of-season price on an in ground pool that he had a crew standing by waiting to install.  Of course, he staked out the pool, collected a $500 deposit and never returned.  Bonnie wasn’t mad too long.  She expected misfortune.  Her philosophy is that behind every cloud is another cloud. 

Sometimes I’m outside the dream looking in.  I see myself in the room reaching for the TV remote, knowing in advance that the reception will be intermittent or at least fuzzy.  I’ve already explored the room and found the tiny soaps with their limp wrappers and the yellowing pad of note paper in the desk.  Although I wouldn’t seek comfort there anyway, I realized by its absence that neither Gideon nor the chamber of commerce had stopped by here when they were dropping off bibles.  I am reminded by the rumble in my stomach that something good is supposed to happen at this point in the dream.  Ah yes, dinner!  Earlier, with a nod of her head in that direction, Bonnie indicated that Shelley’s, across the highway, “ain’t a bad place.  Try the burger special.”

Given that the only other dining options in town are the Dairy Dine and the Chik-a-Flik, I head over to Shelley’s, a 40’s era restaurant with maroon and tan glass panels on the outside and cheap paneling covering the walls half way up on the inside.  A sign on the wall announces that “Chicken Fried Steak is available in your choice of twelve toppings”.  The place is deserted save for a guy in the corner wearing grimy mechanics overalls and the waitress who I know is named Lorrie.  Lorrie looks up and smiles when I enter and immediately dials back the smile to indifference when she realizes that I am at least her father’s age.  She’s a tiny girl with an uneven complexion that reveals her teenage battle scars with acne.  Lorrie is in her mid-20’s and everything about her appearance spells defeated.  I’ll learn later that Lorrie dropped out of high school in the spring of her junior year when Rodney, a local farm boy, the only boy to ever look at her twice, got her pregnant.  Rodney, not man enough to be a father, escaped to a long haul trucking job.  Lorrie had a miscarriage over the summer but was too sad and embarrassed to return to school.  She will confide to me that once she finishes her GED she plans to take an online course through Ocean Breeze University to become a shipboard activities director.  In the meantime, the only dim light in her dreary life is sex with Jack in the sleeper cab of his truck when he stops by every two weeks on his regular cross country route for chicken fried steak with his choice of toppings.  Lorrie refuses to consider the ample evidence that Jack, a crude fellow in his early thirties with fading good looks, has a wife or at least a girlfriend in another state.

I sit on one of the old fashioned round stools at the counter, a relic with a washed out Formica top and dented aluminum side molding.  I could choose a more comfortable booth but I have been alone all day and need whatever humanity and minor conversation Lorrie might provide.  I ask about the burger special and she lights up a bit as she tells me it is her favorite.  I order coffee too but skip the “fifty cents off” deal if I order the combo with fries.  I avoid glancing at the cook, who looks as if he could use a good steam cleaning.  Lorrie explains the empty restaurant to me by saying that the supper crowd, mostly retired folks and feed mill workers, has come and gone.

Lorrie flits nervously around the inside of the counter, wiping potential spills off the surface, realigning the salt and pepper shakers, adding more blue and pink and white packets to the already filled sugar bowls and verifying that there is a full assortment of jelly packets in each of the little chrome stands.  She reminds me of a frazzled bird, frantically running around trying to gather up enough seeds to hold her over before winter hits.  The worried look on her face says she is afraid; on edge and afraid of everything. She is afraid of losing her job.  Her boss Shelley, as she sits at a booth in the back smoking, tells her almost daily that she has to keep moving, keep busy even when there are no customers.
“If you ain’t moving, who needs you?” she says to Lorrie with a greasy laugh as she downs a piece of the terrible pie.  She is afraid of what will happen when her father dies and there is no monthly disability payment to help with the mortgage.  It’s not being homeless that frightens her, but the fear of change.

Lorrie is almost always on my mind when I wake up.  Lorrie is part of the reason for the empty, aching, hopeless feeling I have in the morning after returning exhausted from the dream.  Each day I resolve to tell her to get on the Trailways bus, get out of town, go anywhere, escape, but I can’t.  I am mute in the dream except to say the things I say to her in response to the things she says to me.
“More coffee?  Just passing through?  Want some pie?” 

Somehow I know we must talk more because I know other things about her.  I know each night after work she walks two blocks over to a sour street where she lives with her father in a tiny two-bedroom house.  Ralph is on permanent disability after too many years of lifting too many hundred pound sacks at the feed mill.  He’s technically not an alcoholic because he drinks coffee all day and doesn’t switch to beer until after the five o’clock news.  He sits in front of the TV all day and most of the night in his armchair, one of those faux leather jobs with the built in can holder.  His belly protrudes from his stained wife-beater tee shirt.  He rarely showers or shaves and never brushes his teeth. 
He greets Lorrie every night with, “Where you been?  Get me a meal.”
Before she can take her coat off or change out of her faded waitress uniform, she shoves a Hungry Man meatloaf TV dinner in the oven.  He likes the meatloaf because it comes with a little dessert brownie.  She’s too tired to eat herself.

It’s depressing to think that working at the diner is the bright spot in Lorrie’s day.  At night she retreats to her tiny bedroom trying to hide from her father’s mean spirited remarks.  If she passes through the front room, he calls after her,
“You scrawny thing, you’re so ugly no wonder no one wants you. Everyone knows what you’re doing with that bum Jack.  All he’s doing is using you. You think he gives you a second thought? You’re just like your Mother, except she had some looks on her.”
Lorrie’s mother Alice worked at Shelley’s too.  Not long after Ralph went out on disability, Alice left town with a trucker.  She never called.  She never wrote. She never let Lorrie know that she ever thought about her.

Her father is right about Jack.  Jack never shows her tenderness.  He never makes her feel special.  The only sentiment he ever shares is to tell her that she should be grateful that he spends time with her.  In her secret heart, she knows that it isn’t pleasure that draws her to Jack.  It is simply another way to tear herself down, another way to prove to herself how worthless she is.

Yes, I think a lot about Lorrie.  I try to puzzle out why she is in my dream.  Is she there as a summation of all my failures?  Is she a reminder that I too am sad and lonely and empty inside?  Is she there to remind me that there are no silver linings?

Sometimes I fantasize about Lorrie.  I imagine that instead of me, I am a handsome young man in my mid 20’s.  She smiles shyly at me as we talk at the counter.  Her face glows as she tells me about her plans for the future.  On a whim, I take a risk and invite her to go to the movies with me after she gets off work.  We go to see some little romance movie where everything turns out alright in the end.  After the movie, we go over to the Dairy Dine where the chubby girl at the window, a former classmate and cheerleader, is envious at seeing Lorrie with a cute guy.  At her door later, I thank her for spending time with me and ask her if I can see her again when I’m in town.  She smiles and tells me she would like that.  I reach for her hand, but instead she tilts her head up and kisses me lightly on the cheek.  As she turns to go inside, her heart leaps because she knows I’ll be back.

Other times, I am in her tiny dark bedroom.  I see her on the bed sleeping, curled up into a tight protective ball.  I go over to her and kiss her gently on the forehead.  Her body relaxes completely and she falls into a deep, peaceful sleep.

What does all this mean?  I want to be her prince charming come to her rescue.  I want to be her protector.  I want to save her.  I want to save myself.

Bonnie is a reminder about duty.  Bonnie is a reminder that one day follows another and that there is no choice except to go on.

Bonnie grew up at the motel.  Her father Frank bought the motel years ago using his WWII bonus as a down payment.  It was 1946 and new cars were being produced for the first time since 1942. Hwy 40 was transformed from a fraying rope holding the country together to a throbbing pipeline of commerce and high expectations.  Frank watched the growing parade of out-of-state plates, truckers and traveling salesmen and families with new found free time and knew the motel was a gold mine. It was called Sleepy Time Rest then, one of the first motels built in a long row of ten connected rooms instead of individual tiny cottages.  The initial traffic gave him visions of sugar plums in his head and inspired him to mortgage the place and add ten more rooms, five on each end of the original building, creating a u-shaped structure.  He planted a row of pine trees behind the units, his attempt at creating a “traveler’s oasis” like the pictures he saw in the new monthly American Automobile Association magazine.  The crowning touch was a new sign out front and a new name, Tall Pines Motel.  The faded photograph in the motel office shows bulky cars and station wagons with big tail fins parked behind a grinning Frank shaking the Chamber of Commerce President’s hand.

Betty, Frank’s wife, worked herself to death cleaning all those bathrooms, changing sheets and taking care of little Bonnie and Frank Jr. while Frank got fat sitting in the office smoking and drinking cokes out of the new machine he put out front.  Bonnie was only sixteen, just a junior in high school when Betty’s health began to fade.  Bonnie, a wholly uninspired person who was never troubled with career plans gradually took on more and more of the chores at the motel until she owned them all.  Frank Jr. didn’t wait for the draft.  The day after graduation, he joined the Army, not to serve God and country but to escape the dusty, dreary existence that threatened to swallow him at home.  He had an aptitude for electronics and proved to be nimble and resourceful in adapting the new computers under challenging conditions.  In Viet Nam he met La’nh (gentle), a pretty young girl who hoped to become a teacher.  After the war, he brought her back to the States and they made their home in California where she had relatives and Frank Jr. thrived in Silicon Valley.  He never returned home.

Bonnie was already working mostly full time at the motel when she finished the business program for non-college bound students at the high school.  Her chief form of entertainment was watching television and with limited curiosity about anything, she rarely left town.  On her weekly trips to the IGA for groceries, she met JT who had been a year ahead of her in school until he dropped out to work after his parents lost the farm and moved away.  JT had a room over the hardware store and drifted through his days wondering vaguely when his draft notice would arrive.  Bonnie and JT were married a few weeks before he reported to Ft. Leonard Wood for basic training.  Both had their reasons.  Bonnie joined that group of girls in town who had “somebody in the Army”.  The health benefits and the MSA (married soldier’s allotment) didn’t hurt.  Besides, her Dad got a deal on a used trailer that he put out behind the motel for when she needed her own place.  JT’s reason for marrying Bonnie was simple.  He wanted someone to come home to.

In the morning, when I awaken from the dream, I find that events from my own life are woven in and out of the story.  Reflecting on my failed marriage, I ask myself why we married just two months before I entered the Air Force.  Oh yes, I remember being in love!But, I recall with regret the repeated months of separations, the poverty of enlisted military salaries and being plucked out of familiar surroundings and deposited in alien places both here and abroad.  Fortunately, I returned home safely, but the experience left irreparable cracks in the foundation of our marriage.

JT wasn’t so lucky.  Toward the end of his tour in Viet Nam, he stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs and sustained a severe head injury.  If he had known how his life would play out, he might have chosen to die in the jungle.  After years of repeated operations, inadequate medical care and virtually no stimulation, JT spends his days in the long term care ward at the VA Medical Center in Ft. Wayne drifting in and out.  Bonnie tries to get up to see him on Christmas and his birthday if the weather isn’t too bad.

At night in room 107, I call her.  She answers with an almost inaudible “hello”, completely devoid of emotion.  I can see her there in bed, watching repeats of “Law and Order”, shutters closed, a single dim light on, a cup of tea now gone cold and remnants of popcorn scattered around.  She listens silently while I tell her about my day.  She doesn’t ask where I am or when I will be home.
 I ask about her day and she says “what do you care”?
“I’ll call you tomorrow” I say but she has already hung up.

One of the odd things about The Dream is that I never seem to check out of the motel, only check in. I’m never getting in my car thinking about the long trip home or about some intermediate destination.  It is always threatening to rain.  The thought of driving at night, the rain pounding on my windshield, the headlights of oncoming trucks making it impossible to see and the miles, all the miles left to go are too much, so I pull in to the motel.  Something tells me that I should go on; that at the end of the road it is clean and bright and there is sunshine, but I am tired, tired of the journey.

“Interesting name”, I say to Bonnie about the name, Tall Pines on the motel sign.
“Frank”, she has always called her Dad Frank, “planted a row of pine trees out back not long after he bought the place.  Then in the 80’s when fuel prices got so high and we needed the money, he sold them to some guy who cut them down and hauled them away.  I thought about planting new ones but by that time most people were staying at the big motels on I-70 and it didn’t matter.”

Even though Room 107 has been designated as a “non-smoking” room for a long time, there is a residue of stale cigarette odor under the stronger scent of cleaning chemicals.All the furnishings are worn to a level of two steps above shabby.  The orange vinyl on the padded arm chairs has faded to white on the edges.  The wood grain pattern on top of the Formica desk top is receding into the brown base color.  Around the plastic starburst brackets that hold the mirror to the wall, the silver is beginning to flake away.  In the tiny bathroom, the dull brass color is showing through the edges on the chrome faucets.  But there is no dust anywhere and certainly no dirt.  There is more of an air of inactivity.  Bonnie doesn’t have the money or the imagination to redecorate and upgrade the rooms but she does have standards.  Bonnie is not one to drift through the sameness of each day year after year.  She faces each day as she would an endless oncoming army.  Cleaning tools at the ready, she conquers the day with resolute satisfaction, never looking for or expecting a brighter tomorrow, only secure in the knowledge that each day will be exactly the same.

I sit on the edge of the bed thinking I should have picked up a newspaper when I was at the restaurant, but I never do.  I glance over at my briefcase feeling vaguely guilty about some unnamed report that I should be completing or sales data that I should be reviewing.  Oddly, I can’t quite picture the product my company sells although I have recollections of endless sales calls on faceless buyers sitting in drab offices with gray or tan metal desks or cheap sixties desks with skinny chrome legs and wood-grain laminate tops.  The buyers are generally dismissive in attitude.  They buy from me because they need my product but deeply resent my firm practice of not buying their business with personal gifts to them.

Oh sure, I’ve thought about giving in; imagined my annual bonus rise along with sales, that is, until the buyer leaves or is fired and I have to explain why sales have plummeted along with my productivity.  Of course, my boss, who has been riding on a wave of kudos because of the sales increase “he” has produced, begins to suspect that my drop in sales has been planned by me as a move to get him fired so I can have his job.  All these thoughts swirl around in my mind and I wish, as I do every night, that I could slip off this merry-go-round and escape to the good old days.  At this point, the nagging truth, that big hairy monster in the corner, reminds me that there have never been any good old days.  The path of my career has been littered with roadblocks often too broad and deep to be overcome solely through hard work, dedication, honesty and integrity.
“If you don’t schmooze, you lose”, laughed one of my colleagues as he talked about his road to success.

Sometimes I wake from the dream at night.  It’s like jumping off a speeding train.  I jolt upright.  The events surrounding me melt away and I am standing there alone.  The night sounds of the house take over.  There is always the silence, the knowledge that if I walked from room to room opening each door, I would find no one.  There is the tick of the heat ducts expanding as the warm air begins to flow.  There is the chill of the cold air being pushed out ahead of the warm.  There is the inevitable creak of 130 year old timbers, straining to stand tall under the weight of the original slate roof.  There is the almost silent gnawing of time, moving ahead with glacial slowness, attacking the very soul of the once grand house.

I never see ghosts or hear ghosts or envision times past.  If the Haslets are lurking in the dark corners, they remain silent.  On a bare wall, after removing ancient wallpaper, I found the scrawled signature of a J. Mosher, one of the workmen who built the house.  I wonder about him and what he thought about working on this extravagant structure.

My own experience here has been dashed hopes and plans gone awry.  A family returned home only to quickly splinter in all directions.  I sit awake and alone at 3 am.  In truth, the silence is comforting.  Even alone, it feels calm here; a refuge from the dream.

Sometimes I glimpse the past.  The TG&Y south of town, long closed, has just opened. A shiny new Kroger supermarket anchors the other end of what will become the South Acres Mall, a strip of stores consisting mostly of downtown merchants who fled the safety of generations of business on Main Street for the lure of the future.

I watch from my perch at Shelley’s as an older Chevy with New Jersey plates pulls into the motel lot.  A man and his teenage son get out of the car.  I can tell from his body language that the son is not pleased with the Tall Pines and would rather stay at a chain motel down the road.  The man has a worried look on his face as he thinks about the cost of gas and food so far on their trip and now the motel and the other motels and gas and food for their trip to visit a small state college in Missouri where his son has been accepted in spite of his lackluster high school performance. Later at Shelley’s, I overhear them talking about the new Kroger store.  The man works in a grocery store stocking shelves.  For him, this trip is a sightseeing vacation to visit all the innovative supermarket chains he reads about in his monthly issue of Chain Store Age magazine.  It is impossible to tell from looking at this socially awkward, painfully inarticulate man that he has a brilliant mind, is a voracious reader of the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Time magazines and endless books on science and math and economics and history.  He is frustrated by his son who flounders in math, yet refuses his help while neighborhood kids come to him for help in Algebra and Geometry.

I linger over my coffee after the man and his son leave and go back to their room.  They will go to bed early and get up before dawn to complete their trip to Missouri.  My mind skips forward and I see them again sitting in the stately marble hallway of the administration building at the college while the son waits to register for his freshman classes.  A young female student rushes by and the man notices that she has dropped a handkerchief.  The girl is halfway down the hall by now but the man gets up and awkwardly bends down to pick up the handkerchief and sets off after her calling, “miss, miss”.  The son is embarrassed watching his father’s uneven, comical gait, the result of a poorly set broken leg during the war, not in battle but from playing touch football.  Two seats away, a woman, likely a mother waiting for her own child to register turns to the son,
“Your dad is a real gentleman.”
The son, still embarrassed, just nods not realizing that this moment will stay with him forever. 
The man returns to his seat, out of breath.  The woman smiles at him and mentions his good deed and then asks if he had attended the college too.  The man, who rarely makes eye contact with anyone, especially women, looks at the floor as he tells her he didn’t go to college.

The truth is he did go to college.  He chose engineering school and was doing well until one Friday evening when he had a huge fight with his Dad over using the car to go out with friends.  He impulsively quit school and joined the National Guard not long before the United States entered World War II.

I wake up in a sweat.  I hope that when I open my eyes, I will be at home.  The sound of a big truck accelerating, heading across the fields, across the miles tells me I am still in the dream.  I open my eyes to the silent room.  I can pick out the shapes of the sparse furniture in the near darkness.  I am awake in my own dream.  I think about grabbing a coke from the machine out front.  There are hours to go before dawn.  I wish that Shelley’s was an all-night place.  I would go over and sit at the counter and talk to Lorrie; let her sadness wash over me as she tells me her story.  And just for tonight, her burden would be lighter.  Sharing her load relieves my own.  After all, my time is limited.  My life stretches out behind me. Perhaps if I can sort it all out; make a list of what I have learned and endured and experienced and felt, I can share it, share it all and in doing so, find some meaning in my life.
 


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