Dreamscapes

I had that dream again.

I grew up at a time when nuclear annihilation was more imminently possible.  It was an ongoing theme of movies, television shows, and books. My favorite movie Dr. Strangelove is, at its heart, a move about nuclear annihilation caused by a series of preposterous missteps. The main gist of Strangelove, or Fail Safe, or On the Beach, or The Planet of the Apes was not just how easily self-inflicted catastrophe could occur—there was no complex multi-layered process that led to disaster, because what’s more important in an emergency: expedience or caution? Expedience and doom always win the battle—but how ill-conceived the consequences of nuclear war were, how little those in power understood the horror they could unleash.

That was the background noise of my childhood. My parents insulated me from the tumult of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit of protest in the late 1960’s (news did not become a facet of our conversations until we reached late adolescence); and yet the horror of nuclear war was omnipresent. It permeated my dreams.

I dreamed of fireballs and explosions, desolate plains and skeletal cities. I was incinerated, eviscerated, desiccated, mutilated. I knew early on that “If you die in your sleep, then you die in real life,” was a lie. I died. Lots. What began as nightmares turned into storyscapes—choose your own post-apocalyptic adventures of the subconscious.  My journeys through strange charred landscapes became a nightly feature of my dreams. As I grew older and the threat of Nuclear War lessened, my dreamscape spread to other, less spare territory. My dreams flowered and matured until they included quantum physics, white rabbits, and characters that would inhabit my writing.

Two nights ago I dreamed that my daughter and I were outside when an ICBM was launched. It was launched from a silo in our city. It rose into the sky. I don’t know why I felt this way, but in the dream I knew that it was not intended for any target. I knew it was meant to explode in the air above us. I turned away, but my daughter could not help but watch. The blast seared the sky, it turned the blue cloudless sky into the white hot center of the sun. I knew she would be blinded. I knew the radiation would turn her skin—she wore an open backed dress—to a mass of burns. I knew we were all going to die, if not immediately, then soon from the awful lingering effects of the blast.

We walked into a destroyed structure. We walked through dust that washed over our shoes. Another man was in the structure. All our shoes began to disintegrate; the radioactive detritus eroded the leather of our shoes almost instantly.

I could not conceive why the bomb was detonated over the city. Why would our generals, our president, decide to destroy a part of our country?

I had that dream again.

The Man in the Basement

Francis crept back into the basement. It was not his basement. It belonged to a woman he had courted in his youth, or in his middle age; he could not remember which. He had been creeping into the basement every night for as long as he could remember, but there must have been a time when he had not. He could not remember such a time.

The basement was simple and stark. He had entered through the steps that opened onto the driveway at the side of the house. In the far corner of the space a wooden staircase proceeded up into the house with a series of three short flights of steps, joined by right angles; his bed was under those stairs. It was a small bed, and the bedding was the brightly colored sheets of a child’s bed, but faded with time and use. He looked at the bed and tonight it seemed smaller than it ever had before. Had the bed been larger once, he thought? Had it occupied some other place in the basement? Perhaps, but he could not imagine that place.

As he got into the bed, he began to wonder what he was doing there. He did, after all, have his own home. His daughters had retired to their own beds. His pets: one large dog–a cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Great Dane–and three small cats; would wait for him to return in the morning. His bed was made, and he dutifully washed the sheets every week, even though he had not slept there for longer than he could remember. “Shouldn’t I be at home?” He wondered. 

He tried to roll over in the small bed. Nothing he did seemed to make sense anymore. He thought of his daughters, at home alone. He knew there was a family living in the rooms above where he slept each night, but they were not his family, no matter what fantasy he had once had about them. Perhaps it had been more than a fantasy. Perhaps he had once imagined a place in that home with a bevy of beautiful daughters and handsome suitors, and a place permanently set for him at the head of the table. He tried to recall when he had started slinking into the basement late at night, and his memory was a wash of grays and browns. This, he thought, is not where I should be.

He got out of the bed and gathered his things. He tried to do it without switching on the light. He could not find his glasses. Maybe they had fallen between the mattress and the wall. He tried to make no noise, cognizant of the people who lived in the house above him. I must not disturb them, he thought.

Then a light flicked on, and one young woman bounded down the stairs. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” Francis offered.

“It’s okay,” answered the young woman, “we knew you were here.” 

“I hope I didn’t bother you,” said Francis.

“No. You’re fine,” answered the young woman, “just don’t try to get to mom.”

“No, of course not.” Francis held up his bag, “it’s time for me to go home.”

“Wait,” declared the young woman, who then ushered her sisters down the stairs. “He’s going,” she told them.

The basement now seemed full of beautiful young women. They were dressed in sweat pants and t-shirts, dressed for bed in the house above the basement. “Don’t leave yet,” one of them said, “we have something for you.”

They brought down large baking sheets covered with food. There were cookies and candied fruits. One of the younger women knew that Francis loved their candied strawberries, and offered them to him. “Take as much as you like,” she said.

One of the young women wept. He was going; he had been there so long.

As the women gathered, more lights were turned on in the basement, which no longer seemed as cramped and contained to Francis. Rooms upon rooms seemed to open up. There were men in brown tweed jackets and loafers, and the family he had imagined all these years teemed throughout the rooms. There were daughters and granddaughters, and young men for each as they were wished. Only one thing was missing, and he knew not to look for her.

Two floors above the gathering, the mother got out of her shower, toweled off, and clapped powder over her arms and legs. “Surely this must be over,” she thought. She listened to the quiet commotion, and grew mildly annoyed. But she was tired. She had, after all, raised her family and prepared them for what came next. She fell asleep. She dreamed of a house–some nights it was in the desert, some nights it was in the mountains, other nights it was on an island surrounded by the green northern sea. It was a house without a basement, into which men might come to fix the water heater or garbage disposal, and then leave. She dreamed on through the night and into morning, and when the sun rise and she woke, she stripped the little bed in the basement for the last time.