The Sandman’s Dream
by James Shaffer
When I opened my eyes this morning, I had one burning question in my head: How do you know you’re alive? I didn’t know why it was there or where it came from. My first thought was, I guess I could pinch myself. But then would I be pinching myself in this world — the one I’d known my whole life — or in the next?
I sniffed the same fresh linen smell from the sheets and comforter. The pictures on the walls still hung in the same places. Even if just one had been slightly askew, doubt could have crept in, but they were all straight and true. The bright, red numbers on my digital clock said 6:00. It was winter and still dark outside the window. How do you know you’re alive? The one waking question only raised more.
I threw back the covers and swung my feet out to meet the carpeted floor. Sitting up fast made me dizzy. I waited for the vertigo to pass, slightly bowed and breathing regularly, chin against my chest.
My folded glasses lay on the shelf next to the clock. The first thing I did every morning was put on my glasses. When you’ve worn glasses as long as I have, you learn to see the world through a myopic lens. It sharpens distant objects, the doctor promised. But not in the mind’s eye, I thought.
I reached over and grabbed the windowsill and pulled myself upright. Successfully standing, I parted the curtain with one hand and surveyed my realm. The back parking lot of the local supermarket looked just as I’d left it the evening before.
The streetlight at the corner of the lot shone down on a delivery van parked across the market’s receiving bay door. The driver was loading a hand truck from the back of the van. Everything looked normal. The world was still turning. Then why did I have that feeling? Why did I awaken with a bizarre question on my mind?
I didn’t remember dreaming. I didn’t remember dreaming of dying, seeing a long tunnel with a blazing, white light at its end. I didn’t remember watching myself floating above myself, seeing my own, lifeless body stretched out below me on my own bed. I didn’t dream of soaring to some heavenly, starry plenitude, tearing free from the earth’s gravity once and for all.
I reached out for the corner of the dresser, shuffled over and stepped in front of it so I could look in the mirror. I stretched up my arm and flicked on the light above it.
My pyjama sleeve caught the edge of one of several photos lodged in the mirror’s wooden frame. It fell free and, like a feather, floated lazily to the soft carpet at my feet. It landed face up.
The photo showed two young men, longhaired and bearded, in graduation cap and gown. They both wore large smiles and each had a hand raised, two fingers pointing up in the shape of a V, the universal peace sign. Churchill would have said V for victory. Peace, victory, I thought, even loss, one learns over time, are all relative terms — like gravity.
There was the gravity of actions and consequences, the gravity of choice, the gravity of inaction, the gravity of sickness and at the end, the gravest of all, when gravity let go like a nocked arrow finally released. Tearing free from the earth’s gravity, whether I dreamt it or not, was not the only serious pull that concerned me. As my gaze left the photo, and I turned and stared at myself in the mirror, it came to me. It was the gravity of living.
I leaned in close to the mirror to perform my morning ritual. I tugged at my lower eyelids to check their color. Since I hadn’t shaved in two days, my beard was showing. Maybe I’d trim it and shape it in a few days. It would be my winter coat. I pulled my lips back tight against my teeth to examine my gums.
A basin, a pitcher and a glass sat in front of me on the top of my dresser. I poured water from the pitcher into the basin and then filled the glass. I tugged a face towel from the top drawer of the dresser then removed my glasses and placed them on a shelf next to the mirror.
With soap and water, I scrubbed my face clean of sleep. The cold water snapped me fully awake. My toothpaste was a simple recipe of baking soda and salt my grandmother concocted for me when I was a kid. I always thought it was the greatest thing. I brushed my teeth furiously then spit into the basin.
I took a gulp of water from the glass, sloshed it around inside my mouth and spit that in the basin too. I wiped my mouth with the towel. I was almost done; I reached for my glasses and put them on. I poured a little water from the glass into my cupped hand, then splashed some in my other hand and passed my wet hands through what little hair remained on my head. I then took my comb from its little holder at the base of the mirror and stepped back.
As I raked the wet hairs flat on my head, I watched myself in the mirror. Among the array of photos surrounding the mirror frame, I noted the missing photo, like a broken tooth in an otherwise perfect set of dentures. I glanced down at the photo still on the floor.
There’s a certain point in life you reach where you realize you have to sit down to put on your trousers. I’d gone well beyond that point. I sat on the corner of the bed and, without looking, swept my fingers along the floor until I touched the photo’s edge. I brought it up to eye level and held the faded photo in both hands. The smiles of the two young men were bright and hopeful. How do you know you’re alive? Is it really important? I asked myself
What if one night you went to sleep but awakened in an alternate universe? Life would go on, right? What difference would it make if that happened? How would you know you were alive?
I suppose you know you’re alive because you act alive. If life as you knew it continued — the routine, the humdrum, the jokes, the laughter, the tears, the dreams, the disappointments, the heartaches, the joys — who could tell the difference? How would you know?
I’d been staring at the photo as these thoughts and questions sparked and jumped through my head like a downed high-tension wire. One of those two young men had succumbed to gravity’s final reprieve. One of those two young men now lived in an alternate universe, maybe somewhere beyond the stars, or maybe just around the corner.
No one ever found the door to that universe just by looking. The other young man in the photo was now an old man, sitting on the corner of his bed with nothing better to do than ponder alternate universes.
I turned the photo over. On the back was written a year: 1968. The Vietnam War was promised to be winding down, but as political promises go, it was far from over. One of the young men in the photo died in that war. Maybe, I thought, he’s sitting on the corner of a bed somewhere, as I am right now. Maybe he’s looking at the same photo. Maybe he’s asking the same questions. They were odd thoughts but somehow reassuring.
That night, I slept the sleep of the dead, as my grandmother used to say. I threw back the covers and swung my feet onto the carpeted floor. I wasn’t dizzy. The clock said 6:00. I put on my glasses, grabbed the windowsill and pulled myself upright. I parted the curtain and saw the streetlight shining down on an empty parking lot. The deliveryman had either been early or was late. I was on time. That I knew.
I reached for the corner of the dresser and positioned myself in front of the mirror. I switched on the light overhead. When I did, my pyjama sleeve dislodged a photo that had been stuck in the frame. It floated to the floor like a feather. It landed face up.
I stared at the photo of two smiling young men in cap and gown. I turned back to the mirror and leaned closer. When I lifted my left hand to inspect the inside of my lower eyelid, the man in the mirror lifted his left hand. I froze for a moment. Then I smiled. The man in the mirror smiled back. I looked down at the photo. The door had opened. At last, I knew I was going to find my friend.
Copyright © 2014 by James Shaffer