A Friend in Need (1903). Source.
The dream, always the same dream: the forgotten stairs, a forgotten alleyway, next to the courthouse. The same stairs going in the earth, the concrete stairs burrowing down to what was a barbershop, or, at least, it was in his childhood. Descending the stairs in his dream, he’d pause to notice how the blue paint peeled and chipped here, there. How on the landing in front of the door, water would pool. Dead leafs float in the puddle. Must be late November in the dream.
The door at the bottom of these stairs next to the courthouse is unlocked. He opens it. Every time the scene is same: dogs playing poker—always dogs playing poker. One of them pants, turning to him. He crosses the threshold and falls asleep.
“Are you sure? You just need a second opinion! You’ve had a lot of—”
“—Yes,” he says, “I’m sure. Two weeks as of today.”
“Oh, I understand that,” she says, “but insurance—how will you pay?—”
“Two weeks as of today, thank you.”
She forgets to shake his hand as he walks from her office. She holds the short typewritten note. Trifolded, as if to fit an envelope.
The diagnosis was grim. The doctor said weeks. You’d want a man with a death sentence to have a good job, good insurance. You might have imagined the scene of the two weeks notice to occur over a desk: her in a smart pantsuit and he in a tie. Or so you’d like to think. But, you’d be mistaken.
It was after his shift. His uniform untucked. It was wet from cleaning the mysterious detergent spill on aisle eleven. His manager was unable to stand at his parting. It was difficult for her to stand. Her weight made it so when she was down, she was down for the count. She couldn’t even stand for a dying man. Not that she’d try. She was already conniving the schedule, anticipating his absence.
He skipped the bus to walk home in the crisp November air. The mountains burst with rust and all the golden hues caught the afternoon sun to light aflame. He always noticed the mountains, but moreso on this day, the day he quit his job, three days after the doctors. My God, he thought, how they bled and flowed at the sky, these mountains of his.
It was forty-five minutes on foot from door to door and thirty-five by bus on a good day to his momma’s house. Well, he lived there, too, in the basement, but it was always his momma’s house. That’s what he calls it.
“You’re home early,” momma remarked. “Did they mess your schedule again?”
“No, momma,” he said, as he passed her, “I quit today.”
“Oh,” she said. The light from the teeve reflected in her eyes.
She’d thought if there were anything wrong, like wrong wrong, with her son, he’d tell her. She is mistaken.
He shuts the door to the basement, descending steps to his bedroom.
“I’m sure we can get a cashier’s check for you.”
“No ma’am,” he says, “I’d like it in tens and twenties.”
“I’ll have to get my manager’s approval.”
“There’s not that much there—”
“Oh, honey, I know, but I still need management approval.”
“That’s fine,” he says, leaning against the counter. “I’ll wait.”
The bedroom was the same basement bedroom since he moved to the mountains with his momma. He passes the AC/DC and Meatloaf posters by the foot of the stairs. He tosses his uniform hat on the same mattress on the floor. He shakes loose his ponytail. He sits.
Why dogs playing poker? It’d bothered him for years. He can’t remember ever seeing the paintings. Momma didn’t have it. Neither did either of his grannies. None of his friends—not that he had many since the move to the mountains—had it. None of his friends in the town with the barbershop had it either. He’d had the dream in all states emotional and geographic.
About ten years ago, he goes to the library. He takes a big plastic-covered art book opened in his arms to the librarian behind the desk.She was always friendly to him when he came to use the internet.
“‘Xcuse me, ma’am,” he says
“Yes sir? What can I do for you?”
“Could you help me understand this word right here? I’ve never seen it.”
“Kitsch,” she says.
“What is it?”
“It’s a hard one to define.”
“I think this book is saying these paintings of dogs playing poker is that—is kitsch.”
“Definitely,” she says. “You know kitsch when you see it.”
She is mistaken.
“The dictionary should help.” She points to the book on a stand.
He nods. “Thank you ma’am.”
SUSPICION—he writes in a spiral-bound notebook—the dogs playing poker is a trick of my waking mind. He underlines it. Just like how Rick blacked out after the car accident, Rick’s mind protected itself from trauma.
What was his mind protecting him from? What lie at the bottom of the same steps next to forgotten alleyway near the courthouse of his childhood? What did the dogs playing poker hide?
“You got anything in the back? He asks, leaning against the counter.
“Buddy,” the man speaks, “I don’t know what kind of shop you think I run.”
He takes a wad of cash out of his right pocket (his left pocket held a bloody handkerchief). He makes a show of it. The money, that is, fanning it out.
The man’s protestations trail off. His eyes widen.
“Right this way, sir.”
They walk into a stockroom marked Employees Only with a crude sign. The man flips on the lights. The lights hum. There’s a water stain on a corner tile.
“Cash only,” the man says, “all non-traceable. You never met me if—”
“—I know the deal. How many of those?”
He points a finger at an AR-15 on the wall.
“Three,” the man says.
“Three it will be, then,” he says.
They shake hands. The man studies the floor. The man thinks there’s something off about this guy, but money—the money he slides into his right pocket next to his ex-wife’s photo. Lawyers are expensive when love is dead.
He’d tore a page out of the spiral-bound notebook to leave a note for his momma not to worry that he’d be home soon enough. He was out checking his options, he wrote. He loves her. Be back in a few days—a week, tops. With only a dufflebag and backpack, he walks to the bus station.
It was the last bus, the night bus, out from the mountains to the stairs of his dreams, the courthouse of his childhood. He gives the driver a one-way ticket.
Outside of town, they turn off the lights as he wipes the dried blood from the corner of his mouth with his handkerchief.
“Girl, where you heading?” a friendly female voice says behind him.
“Oh, nowheres in particular—just sure as shit outta here,” another voice in the dark says.
“Damn, I hear that, girl.”
“Don’t need nothing: I got three shirts and a douche. Good for at least a week on the road.” They laugh.
He can smell the opened bottle of tequila. The bus leans into the darkness of the hills, lulling them asleep. Hours later when they’re snoring, he gets up to use the toilet in the back. It smells like piss. There’s piss on the toilet seat. He cleans it with toilet paper before flushing it.
He walks back to his seat, but sets two hundred dollar bills next to each of the sleeping women before he sits. It wasn’t hard to spot them. The night bus out of Appalachia was deserted. Just a few people sure as shit getting out.
A few hours later, no hooping or hollering. The women slid the money in their pockets with a smile, without even a word to each other.
Asleep to autumn, but awakened in winter: dawn shone on flat land out the bus windows.
The Librarian behind the desk doesn’t ask about the books on lucid dreaming, his fifth that month. Librarians raise no eyebrows. She smiles. Just tells him the due date.
He read about it on one of his online message boards. The books have techniques on how to be awake enough to manipulate your own dreams. His goal is to descend the stairs, but still be conscious when he opens the door. He was going to peek behind the dogs playing poker, take a look at what was really going on down there.
One practice was simple: throughout the day, try to push your middle finger through the opposite palm. Do it enough while you’re awake to develop a habit. When he’d realize he was dreaming while he was dreaming, he’d perform the test to see his middle finger slide through his palm. It was the confirmation that you’re dreaming.
It was a year or two before the diagnosis. He is in the back freezer at his old job loading stock before the dinner rush. He holds up his hands before his face. He pushes his left finger into his right palm. Everything’s normal. He pushes his right finger into his left palm. It slides through without feeling. He wiggles his middle finger on the outside of his palm. He was Thomas examining wounds.
His boss walks in the freezer.
He drops his hands. His face reddens. He turns from her.
He imagines that when he turns back, his boss will become a gorgeous supermodel begging for sex.
He turns. She stays herself, her tired self.
“Come on,” she says, “we need to get this done before we let the cold out.”
Rick first met his mother at the restaurant down from the courthouse. The second night he came in a loosened-tie. When he came out of the rain for catfish and potato the third night, he promised her a mountain chalet: a log cabin so big even the clothes closets would have pants closets and our pants closets will have shoe closets, and all their Rick Jrs. would breathe fresh mountain air—oh, he said, you already have a son? How old? Rick clicked his tongue. Oh, he said, a fourteen year-old boy would love the hills and hollars, the hunting, shooting! He swept his hands out in front of him.
Rick’s words were smooth, sure. She didn’t notice his chipped tooth near the corner of his mouth when the stars fell into the back seat of his car behind the restaurant. They moved to the mountains within a month. Love at first sight, she said to her momma. His grandma tried to convince his momma to let him stay and finish school there. “No sense,” his grandma said, “in ruining two lives on a fool’s errand.”
Rick was not A Good Man. There are worse poverties than being poor and Rick was a pauper of the soul. He was always shocked at the indignity of the lack of paper in his pocket. He always schemed and plotted months-long trips to Missouri, Montana, Alabama. When Rick came home—always frustrated and penniless—Rick’d beat him. The reasons for the beating were legion yet unknown until proclaimed. Once Rick yelled that he beat him because he was shiftless and lazy. Rooms away, his momma clutched the kitchen table, closing her eyes.
“I can change!” he’d yelp, cowered in the corner and his hands raised. “I will change!”
The finger went through his palm a dozen or so more times. The second was after thrice-daily checks, months later, in his bedroom in his momma’s house. Once the test showed he was dreaming, he tried to dream Meatloaf from of the poster to perform “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”—but Meatloaf never leapt off the wall. He sat on his bed, his right middle finger wiggling through his left palm. Other than that, everything was normal.
The third was months after that, when he was walking home from his job with the walk-in freezer. He stood on the sidewalk near Walnut street, his hands above his head. He thought surely someone else will see this, someone else will know what to do. They didn’t. They kept driving by. An hour or two went by before he pulled his finger from his palm. He walked home.
Nothing in the books from library said this would happen. Once he was aware he was dreaming, he should be able to manipulate everything around him. Why could he not summon gorgeous supermodels or rockstars or money falling from the ceiling? Why couldn’t he see past the dogs playing poker? Why couldn’t he dream a better dream?
“Can I get you anything else,” she asks him.
“No ma’am. I don’t believe so,” he says.
“If you don’t mind me asking, where you from?”
“Mountains. West Virginia.”
“Beautiful part of the country. Drove through there to the beach many a time.”
“What brings you up this way?”
“Business. Looking to expand up this way into the Midwest.”
“Oh,” she says, looking down, straightening coffee mugs behind the counter.
“I grew up here, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. But you don’t have an accent, either. When you move away?”
“Fourteen. Freshman. My momma married a guy. You from here?”
“Born and raised—just like the rest of them. And just like the rest of ‘em, never left.”
He raises a handkerchief to his mouth as he hacks.
“You don’t sound too good, honey,” she says.
He waves her off. “Just a little thing. Allergies. You know.”
“I know. Hey, when you graduate from High School?”
“Damn. Well after me. My momma used to work here, you know, when it had a different name.” He hides a cough with the handkerchief. “I didn’t do a good job of keeping into touch.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re still around—”
The bell above the door behind him dings. An older woman in a jacket shuffles to the counter. She walks as if her legs are asleep, one foot dragging and the other dangling underneath her. She is unsure of her body’s place in the world. Her face turns to almost the ceiling in unknown ecstasy, a sleep too deep for dreams. The waitress goes to her.
“Carol. Carol. Carol!” The waitress slaps the counter.
Carol rouses from distant island in her mind.
“I told you a thousand times you can’t come in here high like this,” the waitress says.
“I just—” Carol says, her nose stuffy, “I just need some bacon—and—and—”
Carol’s head starts tipping back.
“Coffee!” the waitress says. “Just coffee.”
Carol slouches a little.
The waitress walks back over to him.
“If we kicked out everyone of them, we’d have to kick out the whole damn town. She’s harmless—harmless to everybuddy but herself.”
“No worries,” he says. “It’s like that in the mountains, too.”
“Hell, it’s like this everywhere,” she says. She turns and pours Carol’s coffee.
He sits with an empty plate in front of him with three-quarters gone from his cup of coffee. In his right hand is a grape between his forefingers and thumb. He holds up his left palm. His fingers—all three—go through, including the grape. He chuckles in the town near the chipped concrete steps leading to the door holding something greater than a mirage of dogs.
When the waitress turns, he is gone. His backpack is still there—she could still smell it from behind the counter—and the dufflebag holding the three AR-15s she discovers days later. He never returns for any of it.
On the counter are three crisp one hundred dollar bills clearly meant for her. She puts them in her apron with a smile, without a word.