“It’s official now,” I mumble at Beth, not averting my eyes from the ever increasingly fine, rune-like print of NewScene, print that seems intent on annihilating itself once read. I don’t want to lose my place, retrack, strain over the same sentences twice. Beth fails to respond; she’s busy paying bills. We’re on the sofa, I on the far right end next to the antique standing lamp, Beth, to the left, blanketed under torn envelopes with cellophane windows, invoice statements, checkbook, tallying tablet. Our sofa too is an antique, a massive, heavy Victorian piece, and one of the springs has uncoiled right beneath my buttocks. Precarious, I know, and not a little uncomfortable, but I am trying to practice self-control by learning to live with pain, discomfort, unpleasantries. I see the collective latter as the future of us all as we sprint briskly into the jaws of oblivion. Make displeasure an ally, not something to be feared and detested. I could say I learned this from native American shamans, but I would be lying. I don’t know any shamans or native Americans. It’s just a humble personal strategy I’ve devised to get by.
The TV is tuned to one of the music channels but at no volume. From time to time we gaze at it. Snoop Dog, Fifty Cent, old Bono still breathing, Beyoncé, Gwen Stafani, a mere child named JoJo … click to Iron Chef Morimoto preparing crab meat in saffron lemon gelatin … click … a pale, talking head on Bloomberg sandwiched between still more ephemeral runes, Dow citations … back to MTV, Fiona Apple, Mariah Carey … they come and go, dazzling configurations of the cathode rays, discordia concors, exuding pheromones and hormones and libidinal juices. Except Bloomberg, of course, the one channel Hell will make mandatory viewing.
I have replaced all the light bulbs in the house with ridiculously expensive full-spectrum models that resemble tiny space stations. Guaranteed to reduce glare and eye strain − and, amazingly, they do just that. We can now mass manufacture tiny versions of the sun. But the bulbs survive only a month or so. Pac-Manish photons now chew up a good portion of my salary. Planned obsolescence, not unlike the guaranteed-for-life models I once purchased from the Lighthouse for the Blind. Ripped off by the handicapped … how low can it get?
I am of course waiting for Beth’s response, knowing full well that when Beth concentrates upon printed matter of any kind (from lowly Reader’s Digest to The Tibetan Book of the Dead to Bank Uno statements), she shifts into delay mode and catches up at her own speed. “What did you say?” she finally asks as she stabs a decimal point between 60 and 78. “The animals are driving us into bankruptcy! Sixty-something dollars for worm medicine. What is a worm? Stretchable protoplasm. I had another dream.”
I am both disturbed and elated, for Beth’s dreams of late have taken on a dark, apocalyptic urgency. She finds herself in a place she describes as the isle of the dead, where she converses with demons, evil Buddhist monks (I say fake rather than evil), a tribe of zombies who call themselves the Terrible Spirits Overseeing Deliquescence. Night after night she is consumed by fire, drowned, pounded into the earth’s core, dismembered or stranded in some miasmal bog. I suggested that she sojourns not to a supernatural island but one of the Tibetan bardos, transitional stations between death and rebirth. Or maybe that weird eleventh dimension of string and membrane theory. So she devours ancient texts, as well as modern physics, in search of clues. We both take dreams more seriously than so-called reality − such a cheapskate when it comes to travel and lodging. The Holiday Inn of reality is a most barren, sparse and impoverished hovel with burned-out lightbulbs hanging from fuzzy cords.
“You said official,” she says.
“Let me hear your dream.”
“You first. Official. Like bone-fide, conclusive, authoritative, wham-bam, thank you m’am.”
“Look at me,” I say.
She looks, the lower lip slightly ajar, the meaty, moist, pink lower lip. Beth has these lips. And she’s wearing a tight t-shirt with no bra. The t-shirt is silk-screened with a wide-eyed moose whose eyes follow you as you gaze at it, like those creepy old photos of the dead still propped on mantles across America. I remember one in my Aunt Marg’s house, a faded, yellowed photo of her long dead husband, my Uncle Ambrose. I dared not look at it, yet, what with peripheral vision, who can escape? An uncle I never met practically destroyed my childhood. Yet here I am now succumbing to a sudden rush of lust for my own wife (I almost said life), ex nihilo, unplanned, random, subsuming. Testosterone, a barbarous warlord that repeatedly sacks the Rome of the mind, scatters the blueprints, aims the missiles haywire, steps out of the Sousa parade, risks all for instant, cataclysmic discharge. A personal Big Bang. (My take on Sisyphus: chugging up the hill, I think I can, I think I can … almost there, get the job done, then walloped by a hard-on, whoops!, boulder slides out of his hands, he trots down again to repeat the cycle ad infinitum.) I have always prided myself on a hefty dose of lust. It proves we’re alive. In the end, we all wind up like Uncle Ambrose, a pair of roaming eyeballs on someone’s mantle or smashed in a scrapbook.
“Official, what’s official?” Beth repeats, oblivious to my sudden craving for her lips and tight t-shirt. Worse, since it’s rather warm today, she wears only a pair of silk, pink panties. Imagine sitting next to a woman in silk, pink panties. Has any finer torture been devised? When now is not the time. The time is always the time for those of us afflicted or blessed with extra Y chromosomes; but women, different story, they can control themselves, the surges, the flamboyant, reckless need. In this way women are like viruses who can put themselves on hold indefinitely as they cling to a tree limb, activated only when the pertinent scent wafts below. Women are thus superior to men and sooner or later assume command.
“Jeeves, time to lug out the garbage.”
“Yowza, Miz, don’t want none of dem fruit flies. Sweet fruit flies, lil tidbids floating above dem rinds and wishbones.”
“Official?” Beth repeats with some stridency. She smacks her lips, the fleshy lips, taps her foot. “I’m losing patience here.”
But a missile out of the blank sky hurtles into my mind space.
“Uh, Beth … today’s not the day, is it?”
“Wart, the appointment. I just remembered. I’m panting here. What time did you say?”
Beth leaps from the sofa, scatters papers everywhere. “Oh my God, I forgot. You’re right! What time is it? Noon, that’s the appointment.” She pokes her head into the kitchen and squints at the stove clock, the only clock in the house that keeps a steady, reliable measure of the passage of time. “Eleven!” she cries. “We’ve got to get ready! Now! Takes fifteen minutes to get there. I forgot all about it.”
“Who would want to remember?”
“I need to put on some clothes and get ready.”
“Don’t you want to hear what’s official?”
She sighs, rushes from the room but calls back, “I’ll hear it in the car. You better get ready too.”
Then it’s faucets rushing, bathroom cabinets slamming, the rustling of materials, garments being selected and slid into. I did manage, however, a peek at the splendid rotundities of her derriere as she sped away. What a cad am I! And what a predicament to still find yourself madly in love with and desirous of your splendidly proportioned wife ten years down the line, she only thirty, you ten years more advanced, which, translate, decrepit.
We had taken the day off work in order to tend to this persistent wart that roots itself in Beth’s sole near her big toe, and then we both forget about it until the last minute! Perhaps we forgot because it amounts to a repeat performance. How often we have sought exorcism of this particular wart or its offspring, the freaking Lazarus of viral growths. If you can forget a podiatrist, you can forget anything, which says something about the vagaries of memory. I had assumed that Beth would remember, since the wart belongs to her, and yet, voila, I wind up remembering. Jeeves writ large. Frankly, we do not want to remember our infirmities (though, in another sense, how can we ever forget them?). I set NewScene down on the coffee table, huff toward the upstairs bathroom to prepare myself. I should at least shave. Maybe rub some pomade into my fast receding hair. Find a sweatshirt without holes. Beth will dress to kill, which is only apropos when you’re about to be prodded and perhaps lasered, but I will take it casual. After all, we need a break from the universe now and then; the universe is anything but casual. Given what I’ve just read in NewScene now, I’d add that the universe is one sustained panic attack.
We’re on the interstate en route to the podiatry clinic located one town over. I, from the big city, have never adjusted to this business of adjacent towns. Seems ridiculous to me. Why not just cram them all together, make wayfaring easier on everyone? I will perhaps suggest this at the next town council meeting, although I never attend such meetings. Hard to bear, sitting around with a bunch of people yakking at each other, trying to get somewhere, decide something, make resolutions, all that rigmarole … for what? Re-zone Property A for commercial. Order a new snow plough. Make Grove Avenue one way. I have little interest in progress, I sadly admit (sadly because it means I am a lousy citizen, a slacker, the one who doesn’t pitch in), but I can never get Herculaneum and Easter Island out of my mind. And now this business of dark matter. How I wish NewScene had been lost somewhere in the postal circuitry. Now I have to think about it. It’s a grand defect, thinking, but, like certain warts, chronic − that is, until we lose our minds altogether in the flotsam of senility. The fate of my Uncle Ambrose, according to family stories, and he was only forty-two when his brain ceased to function in any recognizable way. I am still only forty, but it’s close, close; I scrutinize every lapse of memory, every headache, every drift into neural haze for signs. I ingest my share of the B-complex, which, according to the vitamin people, keeps the synapses charged and kicking. Especially choline, whatever that is. And amino acids that convert into neurotransmitters. I must remember to order some. I keep forgetting. Uncle Ambrose, I curse your bloodshot eyes!
Beth looks a bit melancholic as she listens to the new Tori Amos cd. She’s deciding whether she likes it or not. Usually she has no use for female singers at all, whereas I can’t get enough of them. I even prefer male singers with castrati voices, like Thom York of Radiohead. We pass fields of petrified cows, bales of hay, a few stunted horses and dead trees here and there. I am reminded of Childe Roland’s quest for the dark tower. Ah, country life. Beth pushes a button, out slides the cd.
“It’s all right.” She wavers her hand in an old Italian gesture she inherited from me. “Do I look ok?”
Oh my. Do I look ok? She looks ravishing. Tiny emerald ear rings. Tight silk blouse with a turtle-neck top. A suede skirt with the gluteal slit up the side. And clunky tennis shoes! In preparation for partial amputation. “You look great,” I say. “I can only hope I may have the privilege of removing those classy garments from your person when we get back.”
“Ah, well, good a time as any. Though it seems rather spurious on this fine bucolic blitz. What’s official is that astronomers have detected with instruments − no guesswork or hypotheses, precision instruments − a distant galaxy composed entirely of dark matter. What was once speculation is now as factual as any fact can be. Not the anti-matter of old, which would obliterate us if we ever connected; this is invisible stuff. If there’s one invisible galaxy, there are thousands, millions, trillions maybe. And we can’t even see them. They surround us. Invisible worlds full of maybe invisible planets and invisible ferns and bananas and people. What does it all mean? And there’s dark energy too, but I didn’t finish the article. I’m still trying to grasp the import here. In fact, I’m about to hyperventilate just thinking about it. Did you turn off the stove? I thought I saw the red light on when we left.”
“I turned it off.”
And she begins softly as if re-dreaming the dream … I dreamed I was transported toward the island, in the dream it was an island, but I think you’re right, maybe a bardo, and set adrift in this tranquil but spooky sea. Just me, treading water, then sinking way down but not drowning. Suddenly I’m surrounded by dolphins, and the biggest, alpha I guess, swims right toward me. The dolphin informs me he’s not really a dolphin but an imprisoned human soul. So we have this long conversation about life and death, what happens when we die, how we reincarnate, the coming Armageddon, the different levels of being, the strata of angels and spirits … it went on and on, and all the while the dolphin and I are bobbing under the sea, which starts to get warmer and warmer until we both think we’ll boil to death. I climb upon his back, clutch the dorsal fin and away we zoom for the island, where I’m dumped upon this sad black beach littered with skulls, bones and broken shells. The dolphin shouts, “You must see Twilisk, who will escort you to the proper domain. Pay him or else he’ll refuse admittance and you’ll shoot straight down to the Slough of Eternal Forgetfulness.”
“Pay him with what?” I cry, but the dolphin has already vanished.
I wander for what seems eons on the desolate island and finally come upon a dumpy thatched hut. “Hello?” I cry, and out hobbles an obese native guy with a bone sewn between his nostrils. Tattoos of spiders all over his almost naked body. He’s smoking a rancid cigar. He greets me with civility and introduces himself as Twilisk the Conveyer, or, as some say, Psychopomp. I introduce myself as Etherea, for that’s my name in the dream. “Before we proceed,” he says, there’s this little matter of honorarium. Everyone must pay to pass.” I told him I had no money or credit cards, that I wound up in the sea with only the clothes on my body. He looked me up and down, venally, I might add. “I would consider one of the buttons on your blouse,” he said. “Very pretty buttons.” “Deal,” I said and ripped off one of the buttons. He accepted it as payment and instructed me to go sit on this massive boulder a few yards from the hut. “They will come for you,” he said. “Now I must return inside to watch Bloomberg.” I walk toward the boulder, hoist myself onto it. The boulder faces not the sea but a kind of stagnant bay or inlet. So I twiddle my thumbs and wait. Soon a locust buzzes around my head, and then it lights on my shoulder. I’m petrified, for I know it’s no real locust but another one of these shape-shifted beings. “Good e-ve-ning,” the locust finally says, as if imitating Vincent Price in an old horror movie. “Hello,” I say.
“Have you prepared yourself?” the locust asks.
“I don’t know what to prepare for,” I say. “How do I prepare and for what?”
“To ask questions is to deceive oneself,” he croaks. “This is no big deal, just the usual transitional red tape.”
“Transition? You mean I’m dead?”
“No, you’re not. Everybody else who comes through here is, but once in a while we get someone like you. Unwitting visitor, you could say. Scary, eh? All those dreams. You feel you may be going mad. The dreams seem more real than everyday life. Don’t fret. They are … more real, I mean. You’re here to learn about the beyond. You’re a receiver. We wait around for centuries for one like you. One not so long ago. Seth escorted her. But the Bridey Murphy business, all hack. Cacey, though, he was real.”
“But I don’t want this. I want normal. I can hardly deal with one world much less whatever all this entails. I just want to pay my bills and have a wart removed. Is that too much to ask?”
“You have no choice. Sorry. But, look, I see the boat … off in the fog, it’s near. We need to get you aboard—”
“My husband thinks this is a bardo. Is it? Or the eleventh dimension?”
“Sure, all that. What’s in a name?”
And then I awake. To be continued. Every night a new chapter in the plot. I get up tired and cranky. I writhe on the mattress. I’m terrified. It’s worse when the evil Buddhist monks show up. If I don’t respond to their stupid koans, they prod me in the ribs with sticks, shine bright lights in my eyes, nothing life-threatening yet, but miserable just the same.
I have always prided myself as an able interpreter of dreams, but Beth’s forays into other worlds leave me dumbfounded. “It sounds real enough to me,” I kind of laugh, “so why don’t you just not fight it? Let them do with you what they will. See where it’s going.”
“Duh, I was told I have no choice in the matter.”
But she hates the dreams and believes they may betoken either present or future insanity. I don’t agree; I think the voices are correct when they say she’s a receiver. And need I add that I envy her that talent or gift? Here I sit beside this beautiful woman, my wife, who happens to drift each night into other realms of being where she converses with either demons or angels, as we poke slowly along to have a wart removed. The absurd juxtapositions! Weirdest of all, Beth’s dreams heighten my ardor, stiffen my apparatus. Why? Perhaps I’m hoping the exchange of bodily fluids will entitle me to a guest pass that admits me too into cloud-cuckoo land. I want to have a few words with this Twilisk about the button.
But, as usual, everyday life gets in the way. I pull into the clinic lot, park, and we drift, as in still another dream, into the waiting room. Beth steps up to the window to sign in, I plop down on a cushioned chair and glance at the magazines. NewScene! I’m destined to probe this mystery of dark matter and energy, especially since I can’t resist. I’d prefer not to give a fig and just watch Oprah on the small television mounted in one wall of the office. The theme of today’s show is false memories. A few experts on the matter sit stiffly on stage, surrounded mostly by women eager to know whether their molestation by Uncle Ambrose did in fact happen, or if they manufactured it and have thereby lived their lives in sick illusion. Is Uncle Ambrose guilty or innocent? That is the question. All I know is that I’d like to poke out his rambling eyeballs.
They call Beth into the surgery room before she has a chance to sit beside me and chat for a while, before I have a chance to comfort her, so I pick up the wrinkled magazine and thumb through to the science section. We categorize even the most urgent and harrowing of news. Dark energy. Buried somewhere in the middle of a magazine which features on its cover a portrait of Jessica Simpson kissing Nick on the cheek. Wait, how old is this magazine? Or perhaps this is the way it should be. Readers crave every iota of rumor about the happy, rich, not-so-bright couple, the ups and downs of their marriage, Jessica’s latest gaffe. Put dark energy on the cover and subscribers might commit suicide. Not a viable marketing strategy.
From what I can gather, dark energy is a kind of anti-gravity, the vacuum energy of empty space (the void contains energy? when is a void not a void, good koan), a force sometimes called, get this, the quintessence, responsible for the infinite expansion of the universe. Dark energy, the spiritual equivalent of dark matter? The experts bluntly admit that they don’t know what either is, though they occupy some ninety percent of the cosmos. Who or what is the illusion here? More and more I am drawn to God, I, an atheist for the last two decades. How simple and easy, God; what else could explain our measly ten percent? And what if all this darkness turns out to be Satan and his evil minions? Viva Zoroaster! Not a good sign if they’ve taken over nine-tenths of the territory. Reminds me of those old warning maps in grade school with the bloated red arrows pointing to where the commies have already infiltrated or taken over. So we’re back to that − except on a cosmological scale. Better crawl under my cushioned chair and wrap my arms around my head. Bolsheviks from outer space headed this way. Except they’re invisible now, a subtle refinement. No way to fight back. Spin in circles, Marshal Dillon, fire at will. I am slipping into an unsound state of mind. I can’t wait for Beth to emerge from the podiatrist’s sanctum. I don’t like the idea of another man fiddling with my wife’s foot.
Could it be that Beth has plunged, via the portal of dreams, into the geo-field of dark matter and energy? What are the odds given that nine to one ratio?
I glance at the cross-word puzzle in NewScene. Some patient has actually completed it! Flip some pages to a medley of photos of Jessica Simpson, one of the fifty sexiest people in the world, according to the editors.
In hardly no time Beth does indeed limp out of the door, heads my way. Torture has been streamlined. She clutches the arm rests on the chair beside me and lowers herself down. “Whew,” she says, “fast but furious.” She blinks rapidly, wheezes, seems disoriented. I think about Jessica Simpson. How could I ever announce to such a woman the discovery of dark matter and energy?
“Are you ok?” I ask Beth, feeling about as useless as a worn down pencil eraser. Of course she’s not ok. She has been assailed.
“Can you take care of the billing? My foot is throbbing. The pain pill hasn’t kicked in.”
Pain pill. This means Beth will be unconscious before we arrive home, and I’ll have to wait to tell her about dark energy, yet I am eager to spill it out. Instead, I move to the window and pull out my checkbook. The receptionist slides open the glass, hands me some sort of pink medical sheet and requests a thirty-five dollar co-payment.
“The insurance may not cover it all,” she says flatly, “so you may receive another invoice from us.”
“With a cellophane window, I bet!”
“What?” she asks.
She looks at me strangely, with irritation, then shrugs. “Mr. Funny Man, I see. Yes, I’m sure you’ll find an envelope with a cellophane window in your mailbox.”
Beth’s foot is thickly bandaged with gauze and tape and what looks like outright rope. She has to hop. Imagine, a grown woman hopping out of the doctor’s office in this day and age. She grips the crook of my arm and I lead the way, her tennis shoe dangling from the fingers of my other hand. As we struggle toward the car, her closest breast bounces against my lower rib case, and, alas, I am once again overcome with desire. A wounded beautiful woman who sojourns nightly into the nether realms! How hot can you get? Oedipa.
“Ohhh,” she moans, “it hurts.”
“I have just the elixir,” I say.
“Not amusing. How would you like to have a big laser hole burned through your foot?”
“I think we all do one way or another,” I say, knowing this assessment is not at all what she wants to hear or needs. The old wartless foot in the mouth. Jeeves taking a dive. A knack of mine. “I’m sorry, Beth, I know it hurts. We’ll get you home and tuck you in bed. A nice massage. You can sleep it off.”
“I’ll dream,” she mumbles. The medication is taking rapid effect, and she has grown ever limper, wobbly, and more dazed. She seems absolutely drunk.
“Nah,” I try to reassure, “that pill will devour whatever dreams come along. Good old medical science. They think of everything. Your mind, even your unconscious mind, is turning into a brick.”
“No pain, no gain,” she giggles hoarsely.
“I’d say ‘gain’ might just amount to no pain.”
“They put my little wart in a test tube and sent it to Akron, Ohio.”
“Ohio? Must be some major wart analysis outfit up there. Millions of warts, sealed in test tubes, propped up in little vertical holes. I wonder about employee morale at such a place. Here, we’re at the car already. Let’s just try to get through the door. You hang onto my shoulder, ok? Not much farther to go.”
“Door,” she mumbles.
She’s asleep by the time I slide into my side of the car. I pray for her throbbing, lacerated foot, her deadened nerves and brain, will order gold-crafted miniatures to tack onto the wall of miracles at the International Shrine of St. Jude. The possibility that the boat has arrived and taken her across not the River Styx but some more formidable, terrifying, impossible body of black, roiling water, bloated with talking reptiles and fish and dolphins streaking faster than light, fueled by the energy of darkness which ricochets off invisible monoliths and ziggurats and countless structures unknown on this side of the light. And all the while, we, in our ignorance, believe we have taken the day off to remove some wart at a podiatry clinic. A sole quark mistaking its confinement for freedom, its meager speckhood for grandeur. I will lie beside Etherea when we get home, hold her hand, stifle my unruly libido, and dream the zombies, Buddhists and dark matter for her. Presumptuous? Jeeves? One-tenth Jeeves? Who can afford the fantasy of anything less than presumption? And perhaps, yielding to and subsumed by strange, unknown forces, we might just emit a feeble, pale lumen or two, enough to brighten this patch of the horizon.