Ross Wells always was a bit crazy. Not in the “Woo-hoo!! Road trip to Tijuana!” way, but in the Lithium, child-psychologist way. That was, of course, the reason he was treated the way he was in high school. But when he starts coming to me in dreams, it’s going too far. Even for him. The phone calls had been bad enough.
The dream takes place in a diner – all-American. I’m sitting at the counter on one of those blood-red vinyl stools they have. I can’t get comfortable and keep slipping and having to readjust myself, worming my way back up the sleek, sheer plastic. The diner is lit so brightly that its walls seem to be throbbing. The spotty, stainless steel knives and forks and napkin dispensers hum with reflected light, so brightly that I find it hard to keep my eyes open and have to blink against them constantly. There is a waitress behind the counter. Her skin is so pale that I can make out nothing but the big, blue almonds of her eyes and even those are obscured by the intermittent smoke screen of her break time Pall Mall. She ignores the pinging summons of the short-order bell. I can neither keep my eyes open nor closed, it’s disorienting and frustrating. My eyeballs itch. Her dress is a yellow picnic checker cinched at the waist of a body that makes me more and more desperate to see her face.
In the tacit assumption of the dream I have already ordered, though. There is a blue plate special of fries and hamburger in front of me that looks as fresh and fake as the picture on the menu. It is untouched, pristine, but I am chewing something. I swallow but the same amount of food remains in my mouth and I have to keep chewing although I can’t taste anything. My jaw is aching and my patience is wearing thin. Behind my eyes there is now a buzzing, like a dentist’s drill getting closer. It’s far off at the moment but won’t be for long.
The jukebox sounds like the same line from the same song is playing over and over again on the same steel guitar. Or that might actually be the song – it is country music. Again I slide to the edge of my stool and pull and wriggle back up on it.
Ross is sitting three stools down, looking like he did when I saw him last, at the ten year reunion six months ago. Same weight and hair (receding and gelled back into a rocker-style duck’s-ass) but without his glasses. He is wearing a black, Members Only jacket and turned-up black jeans. He looks straight down into his plate, left a jaundiced white by the yolk of a long-gone fried egg, and runs a crust of bread round and round the rim. For the first time ever, he seems cooler than me. He doesn’t look up when he speaks nor does he stop mopping his plate. I don’t even see his lips move.
Can you believe it?
I cannot answer his question. I don’t know what he means and, besides, I have my mouth full. There is a cam-corder on the counter in front of Ross that I hadn’t noticed before, one of the older models: about the size of a lunch box with a long eye piece and manual focus in a reassuring black. The tiny red light on the top of the top of the camera is blinking but it is pointed catatonically toward itself, reflected in the long mirror behind the lunch counter (you can watch yourself while you are eating).
I saw everything, Carter. I got their number.
I want to say something that the waitress will overhear and be impressed by. I want to cut Ross down like we used to at school. I chew faster and breathe harder but now find I can’t swallow at all, that I can’t remember how. I begin to worry that I will never finish this mouthful and will never be able to speak again.
You’ll never see those the same way again.
I look down. It takes effort to keep my burning eyes open for long, I can see only in patches through glare and welling tears. There on my picture perfect plate, next to the bun and fries, is a whole pickle. The pickle is a dark, verdant green and is grotesquely studded with warty bumps. It shines with grease in this light and moves with a blind, maggot-like writhe. I wake up, hard.
I blame the dream for making me late for work. And for my skipping lunch that day.
* * *
Ross Wells is not registered with Classmates.com. He is in my old yearbook, with the quote: “Who Watches the Watchmen?” and a teased-up, gothed-out pompadour that makes me laugh out loud.
Am I really at the point of believing that my high school days were a kinder, simpler time? Surely in today’s schools a kid like Ross would be yanked from class, shot full of Paxil and called to account for his Charlie Manson t-shirt and Poli-Sci papers on the CIA starting the AIDS virus. Wouldn’t he be counseled, diagnosed, medicated until the black trench coat gave way to a backwards baseball cap and the Anne Rice books to a can of Mountain Dew?
Our class was self-diagnosing. Cruelty is remarkably therapeutic. Instead of red Post-Its in a case-worker’s inbox, Ross was tagged by his peers, with names and spit-balls: Ross-putin. That was one of mine that stuck, but not the worst. Still, poor old Ross didn’t get the worst ration of shit at LBJ, not by a long shot. Everyone got to take a bite out of that sandwich at one point or another and everyone has their high school crosses to bear. Even I endured my share of wedgies and smack downs. It prepares you for life.
It is amazing what you can justify, looking back.
* * *
I have the same dream again that night. Only this time Ross and I sit together in one of the booths against the brightly lit diner’s back wall. That red vinyl creaks and farts every time I move and sometimes when I don’t, I dread seeming rude, but there is barely any space between the seat and the edge of the table. It presses into the bottom of my ribcage and pushes me against the back of my seat like I’m caught in a mummy’s tomb.
Ross is explaining something to me, a message that I will have to repeat back to him before I can leave to deliver it, but I am paying no attention. My head feels heavy. Or my neck is noodle-weak. I cannot lift my gaze up to meet his and take in the important information he is imparting. I try to brace myself against the table’s edge and make a space to breathe into.
Can you believe it? My days are numbered. That’s it for me.
The waitress is standing at the edge of our table. I cannot describe a single feature of her face and her notebook and pen are poised and sinister. She does not speak. I am beginning to catch a little more of Ross’ spiel:
A phone rings. A door knocks. The car that pulls alongside you in the street. They’re not looking for a parking space. No. That’s it for me.
Tonight I know I’m dreaming. I even remember something I had read a long time ago about lucid dreaming: that once you realize you are in a dream you can control it. But I can’t even think of anything interesting to say back to Ross (how rude), let alone steer this towards the Hollywood sex orgy I had hoped for after reading that article.
Carter, they’re out to get me. I’m going to the papers. That’s what I’m trying to say. They’re out. To get me.
I am looking down at the primary colors of ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper arranged on the table top like Queen’s Gambit Declined.
The buzzing dentist’s drill is there again and this time an inch away from my ear. My fear is distilled into anger that overcomes manners and I struggle into a stare to say:
“Fuck off, Ross. Why don’t you just fuck off?” it is my dream, after all. Who’s to know?
I can hear that country song again. Then the bell that dangles from the inside of the doorframe sounds, the tin sound ricochets off all four walls and back again as the door closes with a decisive clap. The waitress turns her head to see who just came in.
I wake up sweating and gasping like a TV Vietnam vet. I decide to return Ross’ calls.
* * *
He answers the phone by lifting it wordlessly to his ear.
“Hello? Hello? Uh, Ross?”
“This is he.”
“It’s Carter. From high school. Just returning your call from the other day.”
“Calls. But thanks for getting back to me, Carter. I was hoping I could count on you.”
“Yeah. So what’s up? What’re you doing?”
“Nothing. Just waiting.”
“Oh yeah? Waiting for what?”
“The phone. The door. However it’s going to go down.”
That’s a pretty sinister statement to make to a classmate you haven’t kept in touch with but I find myself more annoyed for his tendency to speak like a character from a TV show. His voice is light and blasé; it has the assurance of a film geek about to crush a civilian at the Star Wars edition of Trivial Pursuit.
“So, I got your voice mail. What’s up?”
“You’re in journalism, right, Parker?”
“Not really – publishing. Educational CD-ROMs.”
He laughs: “I got something educational for you. Something that’s got to get out, it’ll blow the whole lid off of everything.”
I know he is going to say a tape.
“A tape. Cam-corder. I saw everything. You won’t believe it.”
“A tape of what? Isn’t that more of a TV thing?”
“They have the TV. TV is suicide. You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? Zapruder? Rodney King? The Alien Autopsy shit? Sound familiar? This is bigger than all that put together. I’m not going to go into it on the phone, Carter. Can you going to help me? Yes or no?”
“Take it easy, Ross. Where are you, anyway, where is Area Code 775?”
“I asked you a question. Yes or no?”
“I’m not saying no. I don’t know. I mean,I don’t know what you’re talking about, man. Can you hear that clicking? Is that just on my phone?”
“That’s them. They could be here at any second, Carter. My days are numbered. I know that. I accept that. This is the life I chose. But if I can get this tape out it will all be worthwhile. I’ll win. That’s where you come in.”
“Who? Who’s going to be there? Cops? Just try and relax.”
He laughs again, higher pitched this time:
“I’ll tell you who: Them. The original Them. The Men in Black.”
“Johnny Cash is coming to get you?”
“Men. Plural. And no one knows who they are: spooks, grays. It doesn’t matter. I do know that they are coming. Soon. Yes or no, Carter?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to help, Ross. Let’s just back up for a second, you sound pretty frazzled. What exactly do you want me to do? Is there someone I can get in touch with?”
“Don’t talk to me in that social worker voice, Carter. Jesus, I’m not having an ‘episode’ or whatever you think it is. This is real.”
“I’m sorry, man. I just don’t see what I can do.”
“You know what? Don’t worry about it for now. It was a long shot anyway. Hey, do you still keep in touch with Jenny Blanton?”
That’s pretty much it. I hang up the phone and spend the rest of the day Googling for Paranoid Schizophrenia.
* * *
If I were ever granted access to a time machine my first trip would be back to 1991 to kick my own 17-year-old ass. My music collection alone would justify the beating.
I wasn’t a bully at school; I wasn’t high enough up the pecking order. I was, however, very keenly aware of those beneath me in the Social Darwinian Crab Pot of Lyndon Baines Johnson High. The dandruff jokes, the nick-names, the thumb-tacks on his chair all washed over Ross like so much squid ink. The tortures I devised were, I suppose, the least of his worries.
I haul the yearbook out again but the more I look, the more I see past the hair crimes and clip-on bow ties, to Ross: nose bleeding in the locker room, straining to get back his poems as they’re read to laughter in Algebra II, picking athletic tape from his eyebrow with his tears a cocktail of stinging rage and shame.
He never kicked my ass. Not for all the redemption, the status, the revenge or the ease with which he could have done it. I wish he had.
* * *
I have the dream again. And again we are seated in the booth. This time with clean plates and empty glasses in front of us. It feels odd that I am still hungry. Ross has the check and is paying his share out of one of those big skater wallets that you chain to your pants. By the time he puts it back in his pocket there is a neat pile of bills laid cross-wise on the green tab of the check in the center of the table.
This time there is no itching in my eyes or weight in my head or trouble breathing or dentist’s drill. I am staring straight ahead at Ross and while it does occur to me that it’s rude to stare, I don’t feel bad. I don’t feel bad until Ross says:
I made you a copy. And I put it in the mail.
He stands up to leave and I realize there are people waiting for him in the doorway. I don’t know how I realize this and I have my back to the door, so I can’t see who, but they are there. The waitress is still at the foot of our table, as Ross moves past her to leave she extends her arm and caresses his cheek with a gesture that turns me on and fills me with jealousy and I am acutely aware of how much I hate Ross and how much I have always hated him.
I look down at the money on the table and know instantly that he has stiffed me on the tip. The realization that he is gone and I have forgotten my wallet wake me up, in a horror-movie sweat again.
* * *
I don’t have a camcorder and it’s one of those funny half-tapes that you can only play on one of the older models, so it’s been sitting on my coffee table since it arrived with yesterday’s stack of junk and bills. By now, whatever the tape will reveal is beside the point, anyway.
I can’t get through to Ross. The number he gave me just turns up that hideous three-note screech and the mocking voice of the computerized woman who tells me the number is no longer in service or has been disconnected.
My phone has rung every hour, on the hour. Nothing shows up on the caller ID and there is no one there when I answer, although I do keep answering. What is more embarrassing than saying: “Hello? Hello? Hell…lo?” to a dead line?
I could have said yes or no. Or sorry. I could have bought him a drink at the reunion.
That black Cadillac has been parked by the hydrant across the street since this morning.
I have that cold feeling now in my stomach, the dentist’s drill is there behind my eyes. I slouch on the couch and stare at the tape, wishing it away, wishing things different.
The doorbell rings one, long ring.