Something Woke Me
by David H. Fears
In the dream I knew her well; that much was certain. But the barest suggestion of her luminous eyes dissolved like a negative into smoke.
I sat up. My feet tingled, as if I’d been running.
In the shadows the furniture looked misshapen, ghostly. I parted the drapes and stared down into gloomy, rain-soaked streets. Dawn was tinting buildings purple, unpeeling the cold silver eyes of windows. Toward downtown, taillights darted across the canyon of streets.
A gaunt man in an old-fashioned suit and fedora hunched up the avenue. Headed to the Sixth Street play casting, I thought.
The dream woman’s panic clung to me like guilt.
“Late” was all she said, her tongue falling in slow motion. Had I been late? Had she?
Trucks lined the curb; muffled clanks of hand trucks mixed with workers’ shouts. Deliverymen rolled their produce and meats into the side doors of Morty’s diner. I envied them their schedules, their ability to steer great crafts through the streets of a waking city. Most of all I envied them their work. I hadn’t worked in months.
These broad-shouldered teamsters reminded me of my late father, who drove a produce route when I was a boy. It was the job he had when he met my mother. I’d heard the story of their courtship a hundred times when I was growing up, how Dad flirted from his truck every day when Mom walked to work, and how he kept asking for a date but she turned him down until the time she twisted an ankle in a sewer grate and he’d rescued her.
Dad died of prostate cancer eighteen years ago and Mom’s hanging on with Alzheimer’s. The last time I visited her she didn’t know me, talked to me as if I was Dad; she was angry I was late. I went along, responding the way Dad used to, calmly with understated laughter.
A potbellied cook was hosing off the sidewalk elevator. He hollered good-naturedly at the deliverymen, who loitered and passed around a match, throwing back their heads as they smoked.
A young woman in a black, shoulder-padded dress and high heels trotted by. The men turned their heads as one. It was like I was watching a vivid movie. Vivid as hell, every detail. She had flowing amber hair, curled up at the ends, and it bounced and swayed as if in slow motion. One of the drivers cupped his hands and called out to her. She tossed her head but peeked back, half smiling, and waved as she hurried down the street.
Something in the woman’s aspect told me she knew the driver who’d called out. His urgency and the laughter of the men made me smile. I was rooting for him in some way, sharing his excitement over her.
That’s when a dream sequence flashed, and I saw the woman’s hair and dress sitting across from me — the woman down in the street. “Late.”
Some impulse jolted me like I’d touched a power line. I had to catch her.
I dressed hurriedly and sprinted to the elevator. A fat man in a brown uniform with yesterday’s lunch on his lapels was leaning out the open elevator doors. He manually closed the doors with a handle and brought me to the lobby, furtively glancing back, like I was some deadbeat who didn’t belong in the apartments. There must be something wrong with the elevators, I thought as I stepped out. A repairman. I’ll ask him later, if he’s still there.
A cook who’d bantered with the drivers was still hosing off the sidewalk. I’d eaten breakfast at Morty’s Diner lots of times but had never seen him before. I hoped Al wasn’t sick. Al was the cook I joked with every morning.
Crossing the street I heard a black car bearing down before I saw it. I leaped to the curb. An old LaSalle, a ’41, just like the grocer next door drove when I was growing up. I hadn’t seen a car like that in years.
The cook clamped a stogie in the corner of his mouth. He was coiling the hose on the sidewalk elevator when I asked: “Is Al out sick?”
“You work fast, kid,” he said, nodding, smiling. “Get the date?” He laughed and his second chin bounced. Then his expression fell cold. “Say — how’d you get changed and back here so quick?”
My legs felt stiff, but stronger than usual. I’d been having some pain in my knee from an old fall but it was gone. I started to answer when he looked past me like I wasn’t there, turned back and pushed the elevator button, and descended into the subbasement.
A delivery driver was still at the curb reading a newspaper folded lengthwise, so I tapped his side window.
He didn’t look up. “Sure, Mack, what’s cookin’?”
“About the woman who just walked by? You know her? Saw her from my building.” I pointed up at my apartment even though the rawboned noodle never left the sports page.
“Four hundred. A sawbuck says the guy won’t hit four hundred. He’s only got a couple more at bats. No way.”
The driver jerked his head toward me. “Whaddya pullin’, Louie?” he sneered. “Who else?” A Vargas pinup picture hung from the dashboard of the truck. It was a vintage Studebaker truck in showroom condition. “The same Sox slugger you been hatin’ all summer,” he says, shaking out the paper and firing his engine. “Hey, you finally hit it off with the brunette?” he said. You can’t be done with your route alreadys. I gotta hand it to youse — bringing a change of duds to catch that skirt is pretty smooth.”
I started to tell the guy I wasn’t Louie, but a passing truck backfired and he pulled away before I could finish.
Stepping into Morty’s, another piece of the dream skidded into place. The woman had leaned forward in a booth in Morty’s, her hands over mine while a waitress was pouring us coffee. The woman got teary. I strained to remember her face but it wasn’t clear, only her eyes that held some power over me. The image of those eyes was so strong that I was lost in thought sitting in my usual booth before the waitress’s nasal voice yanked me to reality.
“Hey, Louie. You’re late today. What’ll it be? Ham and eggs again?”
“No, bacon. I hate ham,” I told her. I remembered getting sick on ham one Fourth of July at Dad’s company picnic in Flushing. I threw up in the back seat of Dad’s Buick and he thumped me on the head for not telling him to pull over. How many of Dad’s thumps did I wear growing up? I’m late today? Late. She must have said more than late. Dreams are stupid. There must be some stupid subconscious reason why that word stuck with me and nothing else she said did.
I looked up at Miss Nasal. Red hair, skinny, working her gum like she was mad at it. She wasn’t any waitress I’d ever seen at Morty’s. Newbie maybe. I pinched myself just to make sure it was all happening.
I was about to ask why everyone was calling me Louie when she turned and sang out greetings to a couple of truckers who burst in, roosting on counter stools.
I gawked. I hadn’t been in Morty’s for a couple of weeks, and they’d redone the joint. Real retro, classic diner layout. It looked good. The cook I’d seen earlier was jostling chow through the serving window to three waitresses, none of whom I recognized. Otherwise, Morty’s was still Morty’s. Grandpa used to tell me stories about playing poker with Morty back in the ’30s in the diner’s basement. He cleaned out Morty more than once.
A couple of banker types in the booth behind me were jawing politics. I stared out the window, pinpointing details of my dream, digging out what it was that woke me. I overheard most of what one guy was saying, arguing that Truman had no choice but to drop the bomb. The other guy didn’t say much, except to hold out that there had to be another way. The discussion was getting heated, and I smiled that this old controversy could still raise sparks.
”I’m telling you Edgar, it saved a million of our boys, that bomb,” said the man with his back to me.
“Look — the Japs were ready to surrender. I hope to God they don’t rise up and drop one on San Francisco some day.”
“You’re all wet, even though you know investments, you don’t know Japs. Ended the war, didn’t it? You’re American, aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes, I’m only saying there must have been a better — ”
The guy turns and taps me on the shoulder. “Let’s ask Louie,” he said. “What do you think? Should we have dropped Little Boy? It’s a pretty stupid question, I’ll admit. Tell us what the younger set thinks.”
“Listen, I’m not Louie,” I said evenly. The guy laughed so I pulled out my wallet and flipped it open to the driver’s license holder and stuck it under his nose. “No offense, Bud, but what name do you see? It sure isn’t Louie.”
The guy cleared his throat and said something quiet-like to his colleague. They slid out of the booth, went out the front and down the street, leaning their heads together as if sharing a secret. One man thumbed back at the diner.
I gripped the wallet to slip it back into my pocket and felt the woven leather border. My wallet doesn’t have a border. It wasn’t mine. Just as I flipped open the driver’s license frame, a woman in a black dress with long amber hair tapped my shoulder and dropped dejectedly into the booth across from me. It was her, the woman on the street, the dream woman.
“I had to make excuses at work,” she said. “Actually, not completely an excuse. I’m feeling sick again this morning.”
Dream echoes hit me. I’d been there, in my dream, in this same booth, with this same woman. I searched her eyes, filled with tears. I knew the face, but didn’t know how I knew.
I looked down at my open wallet. The license read, Louis J. Carter, my father. The expiration date was 1948. Maybe I’d grabbed Dad’s old wallet from my dresser. Maybe, but I didn’t remember ever having it. I felt dizzy. The dream was playing out in front of me, and I was about to discover what the woman wanted so badly to say.
She sat there, sobs cutting off her words. She gripped my hands. Then her eyes found mine and I remembered them from the brown-tone wedding pictures that used to sit on our mantel in Brooklyn. I was sitting there with my mother. As a young woman!
“I’m late,” she said and I saw her tongue fall but this time at normal speed. “More than late, I’m going to have your baby.”
That’s when I noticed my hands were larger, my arms more muscled. A shiver went through me. Words were shooting out of my mouth like I was reading a script. I couldn’t say what I was thinking, feeling — that she was pregnant with me! It had to be me; Mom only had one kid.
“Aw, don’t worry, honey,” came out of me. “I know a guy who’s sort of a doctor who can fix it.” This echo bounced back at me, listening to myself in horror. It was Dad talking — out of my mouth. My pulse raced.
It’s pretty creepy to hear yourself blurt words from nowhere, and creepier still to be talking like someone else. A tug of war was going on between the guy in the dream. Dad. And me. I was the one who wanted to live, but only Dad could talk. Her eyes emptied me; I grew sick to my stomach.
“If you don’t want it,” she whimpered, “I, mean, our baby, Oh, Louis — ”
I struggled to say yes, we would have the baby, but Louis kept kicking my words aside. A hell of a war erupted inside my brain. I tried to stop the script, but it kept going, going — this scene, this life I was in, wanting to kill the thing, kill this unwanted pregnancy — kill me!
I kept saying the wrong thing, saying I didn’t want a kid, that the operation would take a few minutes, that everything would be back the way it was, even as I realized that if I couldn’t beat Dad’s fear then I couldn’t be born. It was like he was strangling me, choking off my words. No wonder I woke from that dream, except now it was really happening.
When she started sobbing it was like someone socked my jaw, hard. I went to her and held her and told her I’d changed my mind. Maybe Dad had changed his mind, too, maybe I’d helped him, I don’t know, but it was too late; I’d gone too far with the script — I’d become Louie, at least more Louie than David, and everyone knew me as Louie, even the next day when I woke up and it was forty years later and she was in a home with Alzheimer’s. I was still Louie, at least in the mirror I was. But, hell, she didn’t know me and wouldn’t have known David or anybody.
So I’ve stayed here, shut myself off from all of my friends, hoped some night it would all be reversed. My body is Louie’s and it’s giving out. I’m suddenly old. It’s truly late.
I have two sets of memories and two sets of urges, which sometimes locks me up good.
There’s something I understand now, something I didn’t fully appreciate when I was David. A father and son can take wholly different roads, but really aren’t that different at heart. Louie was angry having to work so hard to feed a family he never wanted — I’ve touched his anger up close, peeled the top off of it and peered down inside. Dad and I always suffered from a gulf between us; well, we’re not distant now; we’ve finally broken through to each other. He feels bad that he didn’t want me at first. I know his regret. I know all his feelings from the inside and he knows mine. I’m living it all.
This being two guys in the same body, well, I don’t sleep good. Afraid I guess. Afraid I’ll wake up and have lost all these years I’ve had with him, with David and Louie, afraid I won’t live long enough to be all I could have been, afraid of what might be causing all this.
I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at one. Louie’s dying and I’m comforting him at the same time hoping I’ll survive, get all of myself back. Maybe the doc can fix it, what we’ve got. He isn’t sure. Says he’s never seen anything like it — I’ve got the heart and blood pressure of a forty-year-old man, but somehow my organs are quitting. We’re a young dude trapped in a geezer’s body. I’m talking like David now. I can go either way. And yet, strangely enough, we’ve become one. I think we found each other in that moment in Morty’s, when she — my mother, my wife — broke down and our love merged for her sake. It was a moment that gave David life and gave Louie meaning, a moment that woke me but kept me awake in a dream.
Copyright © 2005 by David H Fears