Fiction by Richard J. O’Brien 〉 Photography by Aunna Moriarty
When I was young I dreamed of innocent flight. By the time adolescence arrived, those dreams had changed. Call it growing up; call it a profound change in the chemical make-up of my brain. Whatever it was, by the time I reached puberty my dreams of flight were over. It pretty much went on that way for decades. My name is Nick Varo, and my life was a normal one until I reached my fiftieth birthday. In the decades between boyhood and manhood of course I still dreamed. And those were ordinary dreams. On my fiftieth birthday, however, my old dreams of flight returned; only this time they were decidedly different. This time they were larcenous.
Lately, I had been thinking about my childhood home of the Fairview section of Camden, New Jersey. Every town in America possessed its own charm and magic; my childhood home was no different; but the years had not been kind to Fairview. Today there are still hints of the original magic left, but one would be hard-pressed to find any of it; instead, that magic shows itself in strange ways, like the way something scurries past a man and he catches it only from the corner of his eye. That’s how it was for most people. For me, it was different. I got to take some of the magic with me; even though I never asked for it.
My obsession with my childhood neighborhood was not a sudden revelation. It built up over several years until one night I dreamed that I was flying over the old village square in the dark. My favorite place in the square when I was a boy was a little five and dime store that sold comic books. In my dream I touched down on the sidewalk right outside the store which at that hour was closed.
Through the large display window I spotted the old wire spindle racks that Mr. Salter, the store owner, kept filled with comic books, mostly from Marvel Comics and a few from their rival DC Comics. The store was dark inside. Light from a nearby streetlight offered just enough illumination to make out the titles of Dr. Strange, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Power Man and Iron Fist, and others. I tried the door, expecting it be locked, but the moment I did the tumblers moved and the door unlocked itself.
My wife Jennifer found my stash of comic books under our bed one Saturday morning. She maintained a meticulous schedule when it came to cleaning the house. After working all week in a senior citizen home in Cherry Hill, Jennifer made sure that our home remained clean with painstaking care. Early on in our marriage we often argued about whether or not I should be helping her out, but my wife always won that debate. Jennifer had a certain way of doing things, and she never wanted me to help because I could never clean a countertop or vacuum a carpet or even wash a window with the same meticulousness she employed.
“Stick to taking out the trash and doing the lawn,” my wife once told me.
One Saturday morning, a week after my birthday, I stood in the kitchen looking out the window above the sink. From there I had a good view of the backyard lawn and two old Japanese maple trees located at the edge of the backyard whose branches looked like black forked lightning. The leaves on the Japanese maples were already turning color in anticipation of autumn.
“Nick,” Jennifer said as she entered the kitchen. “Can you tell me—”
“I’m going to wait one more week before I cut the lawn,” I told my wife.
When I turned to face her she held up a half-dozen comic books in one hand.
“Where did these come from?” my wife asked.
Work, I thought. Tell her work. Instead, I told her, “I found them.”
“Are you having a mid-life crisis?”
“Well, I guess it’s better than porn magazines.”
“Why would I collect porn magazines—”
“—when I can look at porn for free on my cell phone?”
“Honesty, I don’t care about that,” said Jennifer. “What I don’t want is you starting a collection of these under the bed. It can turn into a fire hazard. Or worse, attract dust mites and who knows what else—”
“Fine,” I took the comic books from her, “I’ll stash them in the bedroom closet.”
Jennifer offered me a half-assed salute as I exited the kitchen with my comic books in hand. She was my wife and I loved her, almost as much as the day when we had first met at Penn State University during freshman orientation; but she could be unreasonable with her expectations of cleanliness. This quality about her, her mania for immaculateness, made me anxious. What made me apprehensive that day, however, was not my wife’s enduring campaign for tidiness; instead, it had to do with the origins of my comic books.
My friend Carl “Buddy” Givens was a huge comic book nut. He and I worked a three-to-midnight shift as building engineers at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Broad Street in Philadelphia. Buddy was an electrician by trade. He had his own business once, but he sold it after his wife died on her forty-eight birthday. Buddy was a few years older than me. He dabbled in the occult; that is to say instead of wasting his money at strip clubs he frequented psychic parlors in the hope of contacting his late wife. He never had much success, but he always kept the faith. I thought if anyone might be able to explain what was happening to me it might be Buddy.
“Varo, come on,” Buddy said when I explained the situation. “You expect me to believe that?”
We busied ourselves replacing recessed lighting along a guest floor hallway.
“You saw the comic books,” I told him.
“So they’re forty years old,” he said. “You could have picked them up at a trade show.”
“I’ll prove it to you.”
“No, I am serious.”
Buddy wanted empirical evidence. So I decided to provide him with it.
The following day at work I presented Buddy with a framed photograph of his wife that he kept on a bedside table. Clarice was her name. She was pretty; her blond hair, fair skin, and big green eyes spoke of certain vulnerability; as if she had never intended to be long for this world. I felt bad for Buddy; being all alone in the world the way he was. I handed him the photograph. Tears welled up in his eyes as he clutched the photograph to his chest.
“How did you do it, Varo?” asked Buddy as he wiped the tears from his eyes. “My place is fully rigged with an alarm system.”
“I told you already,” I said.
“Years ago I put my army dog tags somewhere,” he said, “and now I can’t find them. If you come to work tomorrow with them then I’ll believe you.”
Buddy was a tough customer, but I needed an ally. So that night I dreamed again.
The next day I presented him with a small plastic Ziploc bag with his old dog tags inside. Unlike when I presented him with the framed picture of him and his wife, Buddy maintained his composure.
“Where were they?” he asked.
It was two hours into our shift at work. We were hanging out in the engineering shop on the basement level of the hotel. Whenever the trains ran along the Broad Street line the walls shook and the tools on wall-mounted racks vibrated.
“In a hat box on the floor of the bedroom closet,” I told him.
“What was in the hat box?” he asked.
“A woman’s winter hat,” I told him. “It was wool with a rolled brim.”
“I don’t remember Clarice ever wearing that hat,” said Buddy. “Isn’t that something?”
It was. And I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I also found typewritten love letters from some guy named Dave. The letters were addressed to the initials C.G.; they offered long passages in one large block paragraph about longings, nights and days spent together, secret love, and all the things love letters were supposed to contain; portions of them, at least the ones I had read, were quite poetic. None of the letters were dated; so there was no telling how old they were. I ended up taking the letters along with the Ziploc bag containing Buddy’s dog tags. Nobody needed that kind of heartache after already losing a wife to cervical cancer.
“Buddy,” I said. “Do me a favor?”
“Yeah, Varo,” he said. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”
The dream of my childhood home arrived a few nights later. When I was a little boy I lived in a row home on Trent Road next door to Mrs. Bernstein who was a Holocaust survivor. When she died a kid over on Sumter Road went to her house, Keenan was his name, and found her in the basement along with a bunch of skulls rumored to have been recently attached to living Nazis who fled Germany after the war. Anyway, I grew up right next door to Mrs. Bernstein and while I remember her waddling around on bowed legs I never knew about the skulls or her husband who turned out to be a Nazi hunter.
That night I dreamed of the old house and soon found myself sailing through the air, the sky was overcast and no stars shined through, until I landed in the backyard. The yard looked pretty much the same as it always did; only now there was a small three-foot high pool and all of the grass that my father had tried so desperately to grow was gone now. The porch was still the same too, but the back door had been replaced. I tried the doorknob and the moment my hand came into contact with it the lock turned.
In the kitchen there were plates in the sink. The walls were painted sky blue. From there I went into the dining room. On one wall was a painting of some African king I did not know. And from there I started for the living room but stopped when I reached the threshold and saw the familiar flickering light of a television set.
The soft snore coming from the woman asleep on a sofa directly in front of me reminded of a cat’s purr. She was tall with dark skin the color of baking chocolate. In the dark I guessed that she was no more than twenty or thirty years old. She wore a pale red robe that had come undone while she slept; her right breast was exposed and slouched some toward her arm. The woman’s legs were long and muscular and stretched out so that her feet rested on the sofa’s arm. Her hair was cut close to her head and colored magenta. She stirred once and turned on her side, curling her legs beneath her.
I left the woman for the moment and went upstairs to get a look at my old room. There I found a little boy asleep in his bed. He lay on his stomach, breathing through his mouth. There were posters on the walls, the typical superhero imagery that graced boys’ bedrooms everywhere, and a laptop computer on his desk. All along the top of the bookshelf headboard there were superhero action figures like Superman, Batman, Ironman, and the like. The boy whimpered in his sleep once then grunted a few times; as if he had chosen to battle whatever dream monster that threatened him.
I didn’t bother with the other rooms on the second floor. Instead, I went back downstairs to the living room. The young woman on the couch murmured something in her sleep. In the short time I had been upstairs she had managed to remove her robe and leave it on the floor. Her body was presently covered with an afghan. The robe lay in a crumpled mess between the sofa and a coffee table. The robe’s belt felt satiny to the touch. I tugged on the belt and removed it from the robe. And I was busy stuffing the belt into my pocket the woman stirred. She opened her eyes, blinked a few times, and started at the sight of me.
The last part of the dream went like this: I darted through the dining room and into the kitchen. The woman chased me through the house. She didn’t scream or anything, but I heard her pause to open a drawer in her kitchen. So I ran out of the house through the back door, and when I reached the porch I leaped from it; but not before I felt a blade slice through my shirt and cut into my back. The woman stood on the porch now, her robe billowing as she brandished a carving knife she had taken from the kitchen.
Seconds later, I sailed through the air over the rooftops of my old neighborhood. I landed on Octagon Road where my car was parked. This part of the dream was different from the other dreams in which I visited places and took things. I never needed a car in my dreams; no one ever saw me or chased me, and until that night no one after attempted to stab me with a carving knife. I remember thinking that it was time to cool it; that maybe these dreams were dangerous; that, in my selfish explorations, I had gone too far and exploited others when I should not have. After that night, plagued by thoughts concerning the statistical probability of breaking into houses while dreaming, I decided that it was time to quit this dream game of breaking and entering while I was ahead. Only, as I would soon find out, it was too late.
I was at the kitchen window looking out at my overgrown lawn when I heard Jennifer cursing in the laundry room. She did this quite often over the years; so I paid her no mind.
“Nick,” Jennifer called out.
I turned away from the window. My wife had this habit of calling my name in an urgent manner. I could never tell if she had found a bug in the house or if she had somehow injured herself. Some days when she got like that I took my time responding to her plea. That day, however, I didn’t have to go find her. When I had turned around Jennifer was standing in the kitchen brandishing my torn shirt from the previous evening and the red satin belt I had pocketed.
“What the hell is all this?” she asked.
“That’s not yours?” I pointed at the belt.
I hadn’t told Jennifer about my dreamtime break-ins. My wife was a realist in the classic sense. In her worldview there were no such things as ghosts, out of body experiences, or husbands who managed to pull the immaterial from dreams back into reality where they became whole. My back had suffered only a minor laceration, but there was dried blood visible on my shirt.
What followed was an argument the likes of which we’d never had until that point. Jennifer accused me of being unfaithful, spitting out words like prostitutes and whorehouses. When I asked her about the red satin belt she said she had found it in my pants pocket when she was loading the washing machine. We exchanged some harsh words and accusations that day; none of which are worth repeating here. At some point I took off my wedding band and slammed it down on the kitchen counter after she had threatened to divorce me.
“Just get out,” said Jennifer, her eyes red with tears now.
There was not much point in arguing further. So I grabbed my car keys and left the house. I still had three hours before I had to be at work. After the blow-up with Jennifer, I didn’t feel like going to work; but I had nowhere else to go.
When my shift ended I followed Buddy back to his place in National Park which was thirty or forty minutes from where I lived. Before I left work I called Jennifer and left a message saying I was staying at Buddy’s and that I wanted to work things out. There was an easy explanation, I explained in the voicemail message. And then just as I was about to tell her the truth about my dreams and the comic books and how it all started the voicemail beeped. I had run out of time.
Buddy and I sat in his kitchen for an hour drinking beer. It was nearly three in the morning when I told him about taking my wedding band off and slamming it down.
“You’re an idiot,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“Was she pretty?”
“The woman in your dream,” he said.
“Beautiful,” I told him. “Dark skin and long legs. But it was just a dream.”
“Was it?” Buddy said as he stood up.
I didn’t answer. He gathered an extra pillow and blanket for me. I wanted to drink myself to sleep. In the past, if I had had too much to drink, I didn’t dream the way I did when was I sober. I never remembered those dreams. What was even better than having no recollection was that I never brought anything back.
Instead, I stumbled into the living room. After I kicked off my boots and I lay down on Buddy’s couch. I slept in fits and starts that night. I remember thinking that maybe if I dreamed of Jennifer I could explain to her in the dream what had happened.
I woke up later that the morning to the smell of coffee, and I couldn’t remember dreaming at all. I was still lost in thought about Jennifer and that red satin belt when Buddy walked into the living room carrying two coffee mugs.
“Black,” he handed me a mug. “I don’t keep sugar or cream in the house.”
“That’s fine,” I told him. “Thanks.”
“You went and got your ring back?” Buddy said, nodding at my hand.
I didn’t remember doing it, but at some point I must have dreamed myself into my house to retrieve my wedding band.
“Listen,” I said. “I appreciate your hospitality, but I should get back home and try to sort this out.”
Buddy gave me a look. Then he said, “I’m going with you.”
“I am not so sure that’s a good idea,” I told him. “Jennifer’s angry. It won’t be a good scene.”
Buddy left the living room and went upstairs. When he came back he was holding the framed photograph of his wife that I had taken from his bedroom in one of my dreams.
“We’re going to prove to your wife what’s going on,” said Buddy. “I’m the only one who can substantiate your claims.”
“Good point,” I said, even though I didn’t think it would work.
“This isn’t a mission of mercy, friend,” Buddy told me. “I’ll help you sort this thing out with your wife, but I’d also like those letters back. The ones from Dave. They were mine.”
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