Sunday, July 17, 2005


Not the Johnny Mercer kind.

We are living again on the third floor of a Cambridge triple-decker. It seems odd to me that I have so much difficulty finding my way from room to room, but one tends to be dismissive of such thoughts while dreaming.

I take three videotapes downstairs and get into the back seat of the car, because I have to watch two before returning them; I figure that I'll do it quickly, then drive over to the rental store and return them. I slip one into the VCR, settled back to watch, but then can't find the screen. Fine, I think. I won't watch them. So I hit rewind. Then I notice that the third videocassette box is labelled HAM. Problems, problems. I grab the box and go back upstairs.

At least I have no trouble finding the kitchen, and I accost my wife. "Look here," I say, "what's the deal on ham rentals? I'm not going to eat this." She looks at me with infinite condescension and explains, "Then throw it out. But you're still going to have to return the box to the video store, so hang onto it."

I go into the living-room to find that our former doctor and his wife are visiting. I don't recall having invited them -- not ever, as a matter of fact -- but one makes allowances in dreams, and I assume my wife must have invited them. And their several cats, whom they are allowing to wander about unsupervised. I'll just have to deal with my allergies later, I think. The doctor is having a roaring good time, elaborating cheerfully on his infantile utopian fantasies while chortling about the sheer, unmitigated stupidity of those knuckle-dragging conservatives. His wife seems to be greatly amused, and I sit down. He continues on obliviously, as I struggle to hold a skeletally polite grin on my face. My wife will be angry if I start trouble, trouble in 1970s Cambridge (where I've decided we are, more or less, despite a few curious anachronisms) being even the appearance of disagreement. He's waving a paperback book about, a yellow thing with bright red lettering announcing its bestseller status, with a picture of the author grinning from the upper righthand corner of the cover. The title cheerfully announces the end of the world, and I'm trying consciously not to roll my eyes at my wife, who has entered with drinks and snacks. I remember thinking to myself: Why is it that you can buy this progressive claptrap by the dozens in any supermarket? whereas you have to hunt high and low for expensive copies of Hayek or Hume or Russell Kirk, and heaven help you if you're spotted actually reading them? For a moment, I'm tempted to self-pity: it's very unfair.

The doctor has ceased his monologue temporarily, as his wife, rather shamelessly and without excusing herself, has wandered off to poke her nose into our various rooms. I begin to make small talk, but find myself meandering into a pointed anecdote about two janitorial employees I saw sweeping up in the supermarket. It's an election year, I relate, and one employee is liberal, the other conservative. They're sweeping up piles of dirt and trash, but when the time comes to sweep everything into a great big pile, they lock brooms and begin fighting. They seem to be disagreeing violently over whether the final pile will be a liberal or conservative one. I recall the incident well, and the doctor is listening politely. But I find to my alarm that I can't remember the culmination of the fight. Perhaps I left the store prematurely. In any case, I know I began telling the story in order to make a singular point, but now I can't recall what the point was. Perhaps I can end it with some sort of punchline, but nothing comes to mind. The doctor is laughing at me, while across the room my wife is giving me a finger-across-the-throat gesture, though she's smiling easily.

Fortunately, the uneasy silence is only momentary, as the doctor picks up his new baby. He starts going through the usual googoo, gaga, who's-my-big-boy routine, and it's all quite embarrassing, though my wife is feigning interest. I think, Why are a couple well into their sixties having a baby? Don't they have any sense? The latter question answers itself. But my alarm grows when I catch a glimpse of the baby's face. This is the ugliest baby I've seen in my life. Its face is thin, angular, and gaunt. It has deepset, glaring eyes. While its daddy goes through his gleeful contortions, the baby responds not at all, its mouth set in a sort of malevolent sneer. What's worse, the mouth is encrusted with dried food, as is much of his lower face. I've had enough -- I can't bring myself to start cooing about the pretty baby -- so I make a vague excuse and leave the room.

I decide to play the piano in the master bedroom. I improvise some Chopinesque nonsense, lots of flourishes and scalar runs, impressive but devoid of much musical content. It's the sort of thing that I find comes easily to me in dreams. After doing grandiose variations in several keys, I notice that the piano is becoming progressively more and more out of tune. I decide to wind things up with a few smashing chords.

The doctor's wife is there. Damn, she's been sneaking about in all the rooms, and now she's silently appeared here. God knows how long she's been listening.

"It sounds familiar," she remarks.

I try to explain that it's an improvisation done in the Romantic style, and that, yes, it's meant to evoke that style...

"That's not what I mean," she says. "I mean it sounds like the piano we had in high school."

Later, they've gone, but I notice the doctor's wallet in the spare bedroom. Damn, I think, and start examining the driver's license so I can return the thing; but it's no longer his driver's license -- it's a name I can't quite make out. Similarly with the labels on the trunks and bags I've just noticed.

"Can you leave our things alone?" challenges one of the women on the bed. I hadn't noticed them. They're both rather fat, very short, and dressed in prim Victorian nightgowns. The one who spoke continues: "If you're going to rent us this room, you have to remember to stay out, and not to go through our things. We'd appreciate some consideration," she adds in an unnecessarily nasty tone of voice. Taken aback, I apologize, put down the wallet, and begin to leave the room. My wife has evidently rented the room out without telling me. Damn, damn, damn. Would it be too much trouble to tell me these things?

The women seem frail and sickly, especially the one who hasn't spoken. "Look," I suggest, "there's a clinic a few blocks over, and perhaps you'd be more comfortable--" But this is getting me nowhere, so I break off.

Just as I'm backing out the doorway, the heretofore silent woman smiles at me and says, "We've always lived here."

Dream, and they might come true. -J. Mercer