Monday, June 26, 2006

That'll Be The Day

The genesis of this story goes back a few years to a very realistic dream I had about a person now deceased, but close to me in life. It made me think, are these vivid dreams wishes our minds make, subconscious desires or messages bubbling to the surface during our sleep? Or are they premonitions? My character, Martin, has much more of a problem with his dream dilemma.

El Postino

Martin Phillips III dreamed that his grandfather, Martin Phillips I, told him he was going to die. "You will die on March 23 of next year," Martin I said.

Martin I had died of a heart attack in 1932 at the age of 42. Martin III, now sixty, had never known his dad's father. True to the nature of dreams, he accepted that this was indeed his paternal grandfather.

In the dream, Martin I was in an old-fashioned room, sitting in a large overstuffed chair. He wore a dark suit, stiff collar, black tie, patent leather shoes. His hair was slicked back straight from his forehead. One leg dangled over the other in a very casual attitude, and he was smoking a long cigarette. The smoke curled around his head like a shifting corona, illuminated by the dim light of a bulb in a nearby lamp. Martin III sat across from him on a green velvet love seat, with curved legs ending in carved wooden lions' feet, and doilies sewn onto the armrests.

Martin III thought, Grandfather is dressed like he's going to a funeral.

"How do you know I'm going to die?" said Martin III to Martin I, still feeling safe in the dream. The dream Martin I answered, "We people on the other side know these things. I know, for instance that you will die--"

Martin III felt a sudden rush of alarm. "Stop! Stop! Do I want to know that?"

Martin I stubbed out his cigarette in the freestanding brass ashtray next to the chair arm. "I just thought you should know. Remember your therapist told you that you have an avoidant personality, and always run away from problems. Death is a problem you can't run away from. You need to prepare yourself. You don't have much time."

Martin III could say nothing. He looked at the smoke from the cigarette hanging in the air, but his grandfather was gone, and he was facing an empty chair.

He forced himself to wake up and look at the alarm clock, whose lighted dial told him it was an hour before he was to get up. He got up anyway, careful so as not to awake his wife Janet, who stirred. Her gentle snoring stopped briefly, and then resumed as soon as he padded through the bedroom door.

He spent the next hour sitting at the dinette table drinking coffee, thinking about the dream. He decided to tell Janet what he had dreamed. He didn't expect much from her in the way of reaction. He was correct, because as he related the dream she stood over the toaster with her back to him. Every once in a while in his recitation she would throw in an "uh-huh," or "oh," although none of them had the force of a real interjection, being said in her most bland, disinterested voice.

"Don't you understand? He said March 23. March 23! That's only four months away. He said I have a lot to prepare for, that I'm unprepared to die."

"Who is prepared to die?" she asked, dropping a piece of margarine-smeared toast on his plate, then settling down at the table with her coffee.

"Of course," he answered, as if they had finally reached some sort of common ground in their thinking. "I think I should see a lawyer, get my will written. My subconscious is prodding me to do what I need to do, and there's a lot to do."

"Just cleaning up the garage would be a help," she said, then took a sip of her coffee. Sometimes he didn't know if she was kidding him. He looked at the toast, uninterested, as it got cold.

At work, running through those endless columns of budget figures, he could barely keep his mind on what he was doing. He found himself in the break room, getting a Snickers bar out of the vending machine. He usually didn't eat candy, because it was bad for the teeth and cholesterol, not to mention his expanding waistline. He thought, if I only have four months to live, then who cares about my teeth or cholesterol.

In his life Martin had never noticed how many people used death references in everyday conversation. That day he noticed people saying things like, "that guy kills me," or "I died when I saw how much it cost."

Driving home he switched on his favorite oldies radio station, turning up the volume to drown out the thoughts in his head. The first song they played was Buddy Holly, himself long dead, singing, "That'll be the day-hey-hey, when I die."

He was able to keep his thoughts to himself that evening, although his wife thought he was unusually quiet. She just assumed it was the usual funk he went into after a hard day at the office. He finally spoke and asked her, "Is Marty coming over this weekend, do you think?"

Their son was 21, and lived in an apartment. He was a good son who usually visited his parents once a week or so.

"I suppose so, why?"

"I thought I'd show him some stuff of mine. Tools and such. See if he might want them."

"Why would he want anything of yours?"

"Well, you know, just stuff he might want if I, well, if I die."

Janet had forgotten their breakfast conversation, so she gave him a puzzled look, but then the memory of his dream came back to her. "Are you still thinking of that silly dream you had about your grandpa?"

"I don't know that it was a silly dream. My grandfather was a doctor. He attended to people who were dying. Maybe he knows the signs that someone is dying before they die."

"Your grandfather has been dead for over seventy years. You never met him. What, do you think he sits around in heaven watching you all day, looking for signs you're going to die?"

Martin tried to make a joke of it, but it came out flat. "Maybe he's got an inside track with St. Peter."

Martin wasn't a religious person. No one in his family was, not his wife or son, not his late parents. He didn't know if he believed anyone went anywhere after they died. It all seemed like a subject that, true to the avoidant nature of his personality, he didn't think of. Before he fell asleep that night he tried convincing himself what he had dreamed was some sort of warning signal from his brain, using his grandfather as a symbol. It represented things he needed to take care of. Things his mind had neglected. That was probably what his therapist would tell him. He fought back the nagging thought which kept intruding, that the dream, and his grandfather, seemed as real as could be, as real as everyday life, not like most dreams, disjointed and fuzzy around the edges.

The next morning Martin felt better. He had a good night's sleep without dreams, woke refreshed, his mind clear of the morbidity of the day before. That day at work was like most other days. He did his job without thinking too many extra thoughts.

He did allow himself to indulge in his on-again-off-again fantasy about Tiffany, the twenty-something receptionist with the great chest. Tiffany was a black girl who was actually more of a tan color, with freckles sprayed across her nose and cheeks. She had long legs and bright red fingernails like daggers that had little designs appliqu├ęd to them. Tiffany would walk by Martin's desk and at the sound of her heels clicking on the linoleum, he'd smile and say hello, and most times he got a return greeting with a big smile, showing off her full red lips and gleaming large, straight teeth. He thought she liked him, and that fed his fantasy.

If I'm really going to die, then before I die I'd like to get in her pants, he thought. One time he had been alone with her in the break room and had an impulse to ask her what she thought of him, but decided he didn't want to know, preferring fantasy to reality. He also thought about the ramifications of sleeping with Tiffany, or any other woman for that matter, and tried hard to shake off his thoughts.

In thirty years of marriage Martin had never cheated on his wife, both because of problems inherent to an extramarital affair, and because he felt no one would be interested enough to want an affair with him. Still, if he was going to die, it might be nice to know what it was like.

In late February Martin had another dream, this time with his grandfather and his father, Martin II, who had died when he was fifty. They were in that same dreary room with the green velvet love seat. They were both dressed in black suits, Martin I in his chair, Martin II standing by his side. Martin III knew he was dreaming, but the two men seemed very real. "Sonny," Martin II said, "your grandfather and I are worried that you aren't doing enough to prepare for your death."

Martin III felt very uncomfortable, and squirmed, but Martin II continued, "You'll be here on the other side with us, and you'll feel bad that your widow and son aren't cared for like they should be. You need to get on the horn to your insurance agent and get more insurance." His father put his hand to his ear, thumb and pinky fingers extended in a mime of holding a telephone. "You need to move that savings account into a trust, Sonny, so Uncle Sam doesn't get his greedy mitts on it." Dad has always been one to keep as much money as possible for himself and not let the IRS have it.

To this Martin could only nod. He couldn't find any fault with what his father had told him, but asked him, "Are you talking about heaven? Is that where you are? I'm not a religious person. Maybe I don't deserve to be in heaven."

Martin I laughed. "Your dad and I are here, and we can tell you everyone makes it to the other side. No one gets out of life alive, as the old saying goes." Both senior Martins chuckled briefly. For a fleeting instant he thought he should ask what was going to cause his death, but he couldn't get the words out of his mouth, and then the dream was over.

Martin didn't have to force himself awake this time. The alarm clock went off at that moment. He faced the day, feeling much the same as he had after the first dream. This time he didn't bother his wife with the story.

During the day he called his insurance agent and upped his life insurance, figuring his wife could live comfortably for a few years, at least. She might have to go back to work, but she could pay off the house, pay off their bills, and since she wasn't by nature a spendthrift, he figured she'd do OK.

He borrowed a CD-Rom from the company controller. It was a home will kit, already written in legalese. It just needed to have some blanks filled in. He had thought of borrowing it before, but this time he defied his avoidant nature, and using the controller's advice, had soon filled out, printed and signed a document that gave him respite, at least for the time being, from his dreadful feeling.

He also called his doctor, hoping to get an appointment. He thought, I wish I’d had Grandfather tell me what I was going to die from. If I'm going to have a heart attack, stroke, or die of something like that, maybe Doctor LeBeau would be able to catch it and head it off. His doctor was very busy. He couldn't make an appointment until several weeks hence, long past his March 23 deadline.

When Martin drove back and forth to work he was extra careful. He was an already careful driver who avoided dangerous situations on the road.

He had never smoked. It had killed his dad, and presumably his grandfather. But he now paid special attention to what he ate, any unusual feelings he might have in his chest to forewarn him of a heart attack. When he shaved he examined his face for any signs of skin cancer. He became self-aware to the point that it was distracting to others.

When asked by a coworker, "How’re you doing today?" he would sometimes now answer, "How do I look? Do I look all right? I'm OK. Do you think I'm OK?"

It got noticed by the people he worked with, and less and less of them passed the time of day with a man who seemed so distracted, who even took his own pulse at odd times during the day.

The Saturday before March 23, Martin cleaned out his garage.

The morning of March 23 was a beautiful day, an indicator of springtime ahead. He woke up thinking, "Well, if I have to die, this will be a good day to do it." Then just as quickly he thought, "No, this would be a terrible day to die! No one should die on a beautiful day."

He was once again totally distracted at work. He went to the break room, had a Diet Coke, sat on the employee couch and, lost in thought, ignored anyone who came in the room. He even ignored Tiffany, who bustled around the coffeepot for a few minutes. He remembered the time at age eleven he nearly drowned in a boating accident, but was saved by an alert boater, and then thought about his two years in the Army. While others went to Vietnam, he spent his time stateside as a finance clerk. He had been pretty lucky all his life to avoid accidents. He had been reasonably healthy, but he considered now that he was of an age when men sometimes died from hidden or neglected health problems.

He also had a thought of what he wanted his obituary to say, so he wrote it on a legal pad while he sipped his Diet Coke:

Martin Phillips III, 60, of 16 West Anker Lane, City, of (insert cause of death). Born May 21, 1948, died (insert date).1973 Graduate, University of Southern California. Sergeant, U.S. Army 1966-68. Longtime employee, J. J. Cook Company. Married Janet Holloway June 30, 1969. Survivors, wife, son Martin Phillips IV. Funeral arrangements (insert details here).

He thought of writing an extra note to Janet, but instead folded the obituary and put it in his wallet. If nothing happened to him then no one would have to see it, and if he did die unexpectedly the first place anyone would look would be his wallet.

He went home and watched television, although he couldn't have told anyone what he was watching. His wife's attempts at conversation were met with grunts and monosyllables. She soon gave up.

At 11:00 PM he started feeling better. One more hour and it wouldn't be March 23 anymore. If nothing happened, well, then they were just silly dreams and not real premonitions of doom.

Janet was reading in bed when he slipped between the sheets about 11:20. Forty minutes to go," he said to her.

"Forty minutes to go what?"

"You remember that dream of my grandfather, telling me I'd die on March 23. Well, it's forty minutes to go until March 24, and I'm still alive."

She said, "I can't believe you are still thinking of that dream. You are such a nut! I can't believe you'd believe in any of that dream nonsense."

He said, "you never know, do you? All I know for sure is it won't be March 23 for much longer."

"Actually," she replied, flipping the page of her book. "It may be March 24 here, but somewhere in the world it's probably still March 23. I don't know much about international datelines and all that, but I'm sure someplace is twenty-four hours behind us."

He had no response for that. The thought that somewhere it was March 23 hit him hard. It didn't make sense. If it was a genuine premonition, then his grandfather would mean March 23, Martin III's time, wouldn't he? Not time in Bora Bora or Paris or Vladivostok, or heaven, but here in Martin's time zone.

He lay on his pillow. Little beads of sweat dotted his forehead and upper lip as he considered what Janet had said. What is the time zone on the other side where Martin I and II were? Is it March 23 there, or March 22?

His eyes slowly closed. His brain felt cloudy. Too much thinking about this had wearied him, more than any day at work had ever done. He thought briefly, of all things, of Tiffany and her dagger-like fingernails. He thought about his will, his insurance, his tools, and in the midst of it all that old Buddy Holly song kept running through his head. But fatigue took over, and in the waning moments of what could be his last day on earth, Martin Phillips III finally dropped from consciousness into that place where dreams are alive.


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