I had a dream. It was an awful dream. One of those dreams, the kind where you almost know you’re dreaming but also don’t—somewhere in between, crouched cold and quivering in the crawlspace beneath consciousness and above dreaming. That kind. I was at the aquarium. In front of the jellyfish. They were floating, drifting…..in that jellyfish way they do….these amorphous blobs, drifting through space, silken white tendrils of jellyfish pulled behind them, languidly in the water—like a bodily fluid spilled into a clear glass of water….like oil into water….or cream into coffee…..their bodies an uncertainty. An uncertainty.
When I woke up, I had a very unsettled feeling in my gut. Like indigestion. But worse, a feeling of something I couldn’t quite name or put a number to. It haunted me all day, this indefinable something. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, couldn’t really eat, or manage to say but two words to anyone; couldn’t do anything, really, but think of that silken-white amorphous drifting. I couldn’t figure why I might be dreaming of jellyfish. I hadn’t been to the zoo since I was a child. Couldn’t rightly say that I’d ever been to an aquarium, furthermore. Once as a child, I stepped on a jellyfish while at the beach with my family. It hurt, and I had to piss on my own foot to take the stinging away. It was a fairly unremarkable experience. Not the worst pain in the world, and far from the worst trauma I would ever feel. Other than that, I had no special reason to be dreaming of jellyfish. I suppose. I guess there’s no special reason for anything when it comes to dreaming. I had to ask myself, still, where this feeling of unease was coming from. When work was done, I had the strange urge to drive by the aquarium—way downtown, in the city, miles and miles out of the way—but decided against it. It was already dark by the time I got home. And by that time, I was tired. I made a ham sandwich with a soda, watched a little TV and then fell asleep there on the sofa. My unease relaxed like a knot of cramped muscles loosened with the sudden onset death…..a perfect Gordion knot taking up slack in my gut, loosened to a limp tangle of ropes. As the knot continued to untie, I returned to the aquarium. And the jellyfish.
Coffee into cream. Oil into water. Ejaculate into water. Amorphous. Silken white tendrils drifting and swaying in the water’s gentle ebb…somehow, this was a horrible dream. A nightmare, quite. Why, I couldn’t easily say, or say at all. If pressed, I simply would come up short—blank and empty for the correct answer or indeed, any answer at all. Like a school-child who’s not done the reading and is called on by the teacher. I was speechless—at a loss—more than at a loss…embarrassed. That I could find such a serene, tranquil, and verging on beautiful little thing of a dream to be at once confounding and nightmarish. Perhaps nightmarish for being so confounding. Or who knows why. Who knows why. In any case and for whatever reason, I woke cold and clammy in the middle of the night. Clammy and feverish. I went into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of tepid water. I nearly caught myself checking it for thin, white tendrils.
My cat was dead. She was now in a little sealed oak box, perched over the fireplace. The dust and ashes to ashes of incinerated flesh fur and bone. In a little oak box over the fireplace. I sat down on the sofa and looked straight ahead at it, like watching a movie or a TV show…watching an incinerated cat in a box. I watched it like it might possibly move, or otherwise change its state. This was also confounding. And vaguely nightmarish. She was dead of cancer. Cat cancer. Dead of it five weeks, and now in a little box on the mantle over the fireplace. Over the incinerator. I found myself watching the box more and more, and not knowing why. An amorphous, drifting spectre like the jellyfish. My stomach cramped up, and I began to vomit.
“It makes that sound,” the old woman whispered to me as I lay on my back. “That vibrating sound. I can’t play it like this,” she whispered. I could barely hear her, this woman who couldn’t play her piano because it ‘vibrates’.
It was the next day, at work, out on a call to tune a baby-grand for an apparently well-off old woman with laryngitis. I had spent most of the last night vomiting, and like so many things these days, not knowing why. “This will take a while,” I echoed from under the piano, my tools laid out beside me for what appeared to be quite a lengthy and complicated task. “Please,” I said, “Ms. Arlen, don’t speak. Your voice needs rest. And this will take a while.”
“Have you ever had laryngitis?,” Ms. Arlen said, directly ignoring my advice.
“Once,” I echoed. “As a boy. It didn’t matter all that much though,” I said. “I don’t talk a lot anyways.”
“Mm,” she said only. After several quiet minutes following that, I presumed she had wandered off. “It’s got to be quite the soporific profession, Mr. Lands…repairing and tuning pianos.” Still in the room, apparently, she went on, whispering and disregarding my advice to preserve her voice, “Is it?”
“Is it what?” I said, distracted by my work.
“Not really,” I said. “I don’t sleep much to start with.”
“Not really,” I said. “I just don’t sleep.” Wiping a bead of sweat from my forehead. “Bad dreams.”
“You need your sleep, Mr. Lands. You don’t know how crucial sleep really is.”
“I suppose not,” I echoed. “Ms. Arlen…your voice,” I added, increasingly frustrated.
“What do you dream of, Mr. Lands?” she asked me under her raspy whisper, which was becoming fainter with the syllable.
“Jellyfish,” I answered.
“That’s interesting,” she said, rasp lower and fainter still.
“You’ll be mute pretty soon, Ms. Arlen. And this will take a while.”
After several minutes of silence once again, I presumed her to have wandered off. This time I supposed I was right. I continued working, laid out on my back and sweating in the un-air conditioned day room. I was increasingly bothered, over the hours it took to come at last to a stopping place, by something again and increasingly typically amorphous. Vague. Whatever had inspired the bad dreams of silken white jellyfish, and my watching of an incinerated cat in a box. It was that. Whatever ‘that’ was…it was making me physically ill. My stomach was a tight knot, cramping and painful, by the time I left the old woman’s house for the day. I vomited in her driveway. Thankfully, she had already waved goodbye and gone inside.
Are you a married man, Mr. Lands? she had asked me before I left. No I said. She, likewise, was not married. Not married or at least widowed. I had an inkling but wasn’t sure, and wasn’t about to ask. I’d come to fix her piano. That was all. Like I’d fixed thousands of pianos before that. I’d never particularly enjoyed having to work in stranger’s houses…so often they would feel it necessary to hover about me in the same room and make conversation while I tried to work. If not for that, maybe I could call it a particularly soporific profession.
I went home. I watched my dead cat in a box for a while and then ate dinner, and then threw dinner up. My stomach was in tight, taught contractions by the time I’d finished vomiting…pain only increasing. Maybe I had cancer too, I wondered. Just like my cat. Not cat cancer but human cancer. And in my stomach. Stomach cancer. Human stomach cancer. One of the worst kinds of cancer to have, to be sure. While my stomach tightened and cramped with pain, I thought again about Ms. Arlen’s question. Are you a married man, Mr. Lands? I’d spent the majority of my adult life alone, and for the most part I presumed it didn’t bother me all that much to be alone. I presumed but couldn’t say with conviction I knew. It was something I couldn’t know all that well, one way or another, having spent so much time one way. At a certain point, I’d lost touch with anything with which to compare it. I was increasingly spending my nights awake or in nightmares, my stomach contracting in acute pain as I silently watched the little box atop my fireplace mantle. That dead, incinerated cat. She had been about the only thing I’d had to call company, for quite a number of years…until she got the cancer and died. I was not emotional about it. She’d provided a little companionship, had run around crazy at 3 in the morning and dragged the trash across the apartment floor, and otherwise lead a rather full and perfectly fine cat life. Died at a ripe old age, the two of us parting as perfect strangers and happy to have known each other as such. I was good with that. I presumed. The weeks were dragging on and my dreams of amorphous, white jellyfish still plagued me night and day. What little sleep I got was filled with jellyfish. That amorphous, formless nothing that I now began to blame entirely for my stomach pains. The question remained why. That amorphous, formless question. Not like repairing or tuning a piano…not a simple, logical answer to a complex, mechanical problem…not that simple, and not that logical. Not at all. My tools could not address this pain. I could not tune this pain. It only gnawed at my guts, growing inexplicably from within. And without form or reason, as far as I could tell. As far as I was able as a tuner of pianos to determine. The mechanical breakdown of my insides was by all appearances completely resistant to a logical, mechanical fix. I dashed all my tools against the wall in frustration, my stomach pierced by an intense, white-hot agony.
“The doctor says I can resume my singing lessons,” Ms. Arlen said, her hushed rasp nearly gone. It was some time later, and I was out again to her place to replace a part.
“You’d have healed much faster had you kept quiet,” I echoed from underneath the piano.
“You sound as if you’re in pain, Mr. Lands,” she said. She was right. I was in pain. A lot of it.
“Just the usual,” I muttered.
“Nothing,” I said. “I didn’t say anything.” My stomach spasmed. I winced, holding back a howl for the pain.
“Mr. Lands?,” Ms. Arlen said…
“Mr. Lands, would you please consider meeting my daughter. I do believe you and her will enjoy each other’s company. Go to dinner with her. She’s a lovely young woman. You’re getting too old to play this ‘bachelor’ game any longer, you know.”
“Thank you but no thank you, Ms. Arlen. I don’t think I’m very good company for anyone.”
“Please, Mr. Lands. Don’t be like that. Consider this my thanks for your services, please.”
“Oh. So this is some sort of favor,” I bantered.
“Indeed, it is. You’ll see.”
“Fine. I’ll meet her,” I said flatly.
I went home and writhed about in pain for some time, then sat—still in pain—watching my cat in a box. I hadn’t slept for several days. Partly for fear of the jellyfish. What had gotten into me, to accept that odd old woman’s ‘offer’, I wondered. I would be lucky to make it through dinner with this strange young woman without doubling over in pain and falling out of my chair.
The time came, in a day or two, to fulfill my obligation and meet this stranger. I picked a moderately priced restaurant and a bland Hollywood movie. I doubted I’d make it to the movie.
“Greg?” a pert, female voice came from behind me. I was dressed decently in black slacks and a suit-coat. The woman who’d come from behind me was decent-looking and dressed casually. Either too casually or I was too overdressed; I couldn’t tell which. We exchanged the necessary pleasantries, the hi how are you’s and the like and proceeded to dinner…my stomach was oddly calm for a change; the sharp talons that typically gripped and twisted it were, for this night only, loosed, but only slightly. “Are you okay?” she asked as we sat down…
“I’m in agony,” I said flatly. “Most of the time, lately, I’m in agony.”
Her face reddened and she either feigned concern or was overcome by concern…I was unable to tell. “Oh my god, are you serious? What’s wrong? Tell me…”
Suddenly, my amorphous, drifting spectre of pain and nightmares began to take form. It was foreign, but form nonetheless. “I don’t know,” I said, sincerely. For the first time in a long time, I had said something sincere to a person. Just then. And the claw that gripped and twisted my insides loosed just a little more. “Do you have a cat?” I asked.
“What? …I,” she stuttered, stammered… “Yes. Why?” Her either feigned or real concern became something else then.
“I had one,” I replied.
“Oh. I’m sorry…” she said…reaching for my hand, which was not on the table.
“It’s okay,” I said. “…anyway, it’s okay. I’m starting to feel a little better, thank you.”
My hands remained where they were…still, on my knees. Under the table.
Precisely on the corner of 56th and 7th, the right rear wheel of my Pontiac snuffed the life out of a perfectly adorable jack Russell terrier mix. I couldn’t help it. I’d swerved to avoid collision with some asshole in a Jeep running a red light. By mere inches, my vehicle (and, potentially, my life) was spared. Sad to say the same could not be said for this plaintive, twitching canine. He was still alive, but barely. My heart swelled, partly in shock, part in a deep sadness and remorse. I felt awful. And panic. I couldn’t think what to do. Pick the poor twitching thing up in my arms and race him to a vet, or what.
Unfortunately, I could not do that. I was in a hurry. My wife had sent me out on a last minute venture to the supermarket. I was to pick up some onions and a pack of sanitary napkins. The sanitary napkins were for my wife, who was on the rag, and not in the best of moods. The onions were for dinner. My mother-in-law was in town and on her way from the airport, and the onions were a necessary ingredient for the dinner my wife was preparing for us. Any minute, that old bat of a woman would be setting down her bags on the front porch, ready for an extended stay at our place. My wife would be scrambling to cook dinner and make a last minute sweep of the house, cleaning up the clutter and arranging things just so. I wouldn’t dare return home without the onions.
The Jack Russell, meanwhile, slowly stopped twitching. His heart slowed. Emaciated ribcage rising and falling faintly, and then altogether resting, suddenly and finally. I supposed he was dead. My heart felt tight and twisted in my chest. My stomach churned and twisted also. I felt sick. The thing’s eyes—still open—glazed over and took on a glassy, vacant appearance. My heart and stomach still twisted and sick, I reluctantly climbed back into my Pontiac and proceeded to the supermarket. Not looking back. I got the damn onions.
“Where have you been?” my wife started in on me before I’d even stepped out of my vehicle. She had been waiting, hands on her hips, in the driveway. The old bat was here. I could smell her. And dinner was late, in no small part to a poor dead dog on the side of the road. Of all the calamities and disasters in the world today…dinner was late. And a poor, innocent dog was dead. And I killed it. For want of onions and Tampax.
“I was delayed,” I said, stepping out of the car and gripping the grocery bag with white knuckles.
“Delayed,” she mimicked. “My mother is here and dinner isn’t ready. Nice of you to be here to greet her, by the way.”
“Nice, yes I know. I’m here now anyway. Here,” I said, handing her the bag and walking sullenly to the front door. My mother-in-law was here. She was a harpy. I braced myself for the nagging, the back-handed remarks, the unsolicited advice and admonishment. “Hello, Margaret,” I said, not looking in her direction. Then I noticed something. The old mare was crying, sniffling. Sobbing, in fact. I didn’t know how to take this. Even so, my first instinct was not one of sympathy.
“Some terrible man ran over this beautiful jack Russell,” she sobbed, “…and then just sped away…like nothing had happened. Oh. That poor dog. It was awful.” The old gray mare wasn’t so much telling this to me as projecting it to the wall in front of her, to no one in particular, to who knows what or why. She kept sobbing. Sniffling.
“Sick,” my wife said, obliquely. “Whoever did that ought to be shot. Just driving off like that…”
I was at first unsure of how to process the crossfire of emotions before me; but without warning, I was at once delighted. Why? Because there on the sofa was the old bat, the old gray mare who ain’t what she used to be—sobbing, blubbering, pathetically…genuinely. Seeing her in such dire straits of emotional angst I can’t help but admit warmed the cockles of my heart. I was at once ghoulishly pleased. …as for my wife…who cares, I supposed. I could go one way or another on that one. The old bag had apparently witnessed the event, but hadn’t identified me as the culprit.
“On her way here from the airport,” my wife continued, “she sees this horrible thing. Right there.”
“The onions alright?” I asked.
“Fuck the onions, Hal,” she snapped. “A dog is dead. My mother is traumatized. Think,” she said, laconically tapping her index finger to her temple.
“The onions are alright, then.” I was secretly pleased. How I’d dreaded the arrival of this woman into my home. And now, to see her cruel, shrewish demeanor reduced to sniveling and tears… only, too bad that poor Jack Russel had to buy the farm to make this possible. I almost felt badly again, for a second, but didn’t. Ding dong the witch is dead, I thought to myself. It just might be an alright weekend after all.
“Console her,” my wife said, snatching the onions from my hands and disappearing into the kitchen.
Console her, I thought. Well, she’d only torn down my standing as a full grown man—respectable—respected—she’d only demeaned my perfectly good character and position at a reputable insurance company for years on end. “There, there…Margaret,” I said…in the slimiest dulcet tone I could manage.
“So awful,” she sniveled…sobbed.
“Life is sometimes awful,” I said. And this was the one and only true thing I would say to the woman until her eventual death…which was likely not far off.
Then again, I did picture that poor Jack Russell. Bleeding. Ribs smashed in. Leg bent in a way it shouldn’t bend. I almost felt badly again.
But then didn’t.
“Yes…life is sometimes awful.”