By Amy Hadden Marsh
Harry’s dreams are mutating. They are changing, different. He used to laugh in his sleep which angered her. “You always have more fun when I’m not around,” she’d tell him from across the breakfast table. Now, he wakes up in the night, his wavy hair smashed on the side, wiry behind as if traumatized. He’s having sex in his sleep with a woman whose face is always in shadow. Her black sequined dress hugs every curve like a fast car on winding country roads. He thinks about this when he drives his black Saab turbo. He thinks about the woman, the dress, and the sex when he is tired at work from not getting enough sleep the night before.
For the past three weeks, around 2:30 every morning, he is a submarine gliding out of the woman in the black sequined dress, surfacing through a milky sea of mundane memories, aground on the shoals of a shallow sleep cycle until he is jolted awake by an electrifying ejaculation. He always leaves the bed to wash up and avoid interrogation from his wife, although leaving the bed sometimes attracts its own set of questions. He doesn’t understand why the same dream at the same time, night after night.
He gets up now, delicately lifting cotton sheets. Slowly, like an injured man, he separates his body from the warm imprint on the bed. He runs a sticky hand through his hair and glances at her, sleeping next to where just seconds ago he was ejaculating underwater. He shuffles to the bathroom. The glare of light on white tiles banishes the residue of longing he felt from the dream. Warm water from the faucet reminds him of being a submarine and he wonders how he would ever explain this to the woman sleeping in the other room. “I don’t mean to upset you,” he imagines telling her, thinking that anything he does outside her field of vision or just beyond earshot upsets her. “I’m just having these dreams.” He has said this out loud to no one but the man in the mirror. Startled, he steps back from the sink. He turns off the water and looks at the white tiles in the bathroom. He removes his shirt and stands in the middle of the floor in white pajama bottoms. The toilet seat is up. He flushes and pees, remembering that this also angers her. “Why don’t you wait until after you pee to flush?” she’d ask, making the question sound more like a demand. He leaves the bathroom without washing, the scent of ejaculate reminding him of the ocean.
The kitchen is silent and dark. He keeps the light off. The curtain of darkness behind him keeps anyone who might be outside looking at him from actually seeing him as he peers from the window. He is alone. It’s 3 am. Outside, a feral cat blurs across the grayish clumps of late-winter snow in his front yard, a few feet from the eternal light of streetlamps – hundreds of small moons blotting out the stars. He steps away from the window, shuddering at the thought of eternal light.
By 5 a.m., he is lying on the living room couch, hands behind his head, legs crossed at the ankles. His feet perched on the arm of the couch remind him that he has never really fit any of the furniture in this house. He’s too long for the couch. Too big for the small, wooden chair at the other end of the room that is used more as a shelf or coat hanger where piles of unread newspapers, magazines, and junk mail tilt and smear together. Her giant, blue suede bag gapes, yawning at the apex of the paper pile. Coats, sweaters, scarves, woolly remnants of winter, are draped across the back of the chair. One glove hangs out of the bag. The other lies crumpled on the floor, half hidden by a muddy boot. He can’t remember the last time he sat in that chair.
He gets up and proceeds to clear off the chair. Silently, she descends the stairs, watching him. “What’re you doing?” she asks quietly, almost whispering. “I’m, uh,” he stammers, clearing his throat. “I’m cleaning off this chair.” He decides to smile and appear as if there is intention governing his actions, as if it’s five in the afternoon. “You had another dream, didn’t you?” she asks. Her voice makes his movements seem clownish. He doesn’t look up from what he is doing with the chair. He knows her arms are folded across her chest; her eyes, pleading with him. “No,” he replies. He didn’t have another dream, he had the same dream. “Why don’t you come back to bed?” she says. “Well,” he tells her, finally looking at her eyes, “I kinda want to sit in this chair.” Feeling confident for a moment, he continues. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been lying on the couch wondering what it would be like to sit in this chair. You know, neither of us has sat in this chair for a long time.” He feels as though his eyes are bleeding. “It’s 5 o’clock in the morning,” she reminds him. “Come back to bed.” She looks at him for a long time, maybe a full minute, and holds out her hand to lead him back up the stairs to the safety and normalcy of bed. “The chair belonged to my mother,” she sighs. “Nobody has sat in it for years because the back is broken.” Her lower lip begins to tremble. She bites it and turns and walks back up the stairs.
He sits in the chair, feeling the firm, springy, velvet cushion curving up beneath his thighs and behind his knees. He leans into the wounded wood which supports him for a long breath. The chair then begins to fulfill its promise of collapse as he knew it would. The back breaks off and falls outward toward the hallway. He lets himself fall with the chair just to experience the feeling of falling backward.
At breakfast, she asks him to leave. “But I was going to take your mother’s chair in for repair,” he whines. He is still wearing only white pajama bottoms. By now, his hair is wild with static. He hasn’t been back to bed. “I want you to leave,” she says, not looking at him. She studies her eggs as if she is from some place that doesn’t have eggs. “Why?” he asks. “Because I’m not normal anymore?” She gets up from the table. The screech of the chair against the tiles startles him but he pretends not to notice. She grabs the blue suede bag from the rubble of the broken chair in the hallway and leaves the house. He notices she has forgotten her coat.
The chair is firewood. He’s not going to fix it now that she left. “So there,” he thinks. “SO THERE!” he shouts. He bends down to pick up the broken back of the chair. It looks like a small harp. Wearing it as a breastplate, he storms the stairs, taking them two at a time. He waltzes into the bathroom. He leans the broken piece of chair against the wall and sits on the toilet. The lid is down. He is thinking. Suddenly this broken back of an heirloom chair takes on new meaning. He has fallen backward out of his own life. His marriage lies in a heap downstairs in the hallway.
Returning to the faithful mirror, his hands braced against the porcelain sink, Harry leans into the glass, scrutinizing his face. Shifting his weight for a better angle, he peers at his pores, his eyebrows, his graying sideburns, his Einstein hair. He wonders if baldness can be learned and considers shaving his head until the thought of a raw, pink scalp, unavoidable razor burn, and the tell-tale nicks and cuts of unnatural hair loss dissuade him. Instead, he opens a drawer beneath the cabinet, rummaging through a sticky assortment of tweezers, nail clippers, a sample bottle of lemon-scented nail polish remover, an eyelash curler, his wife’s expensive eyebrow pencils and pots of eye shadow bought on impulse and used only once, and pulls out a small pair of scissors. Realizing these curved, nickel-plated scissors are intended to cut fingernails, Harry begins to cut his hair.
The bathroom has no windows. It is an inside room. A room inside a room. Harry’s sanctuary surrounded by rooms and walls. One way in, one way out like a box canyon and Harry’s a wild horse willing to stay in the corral; a hostage who befriended his captors. The room is lit by the steady flicker of small, fluorescent chandeliers. There are no shadows except for those under his eyes when he stands at an odd angle to the overhead light.
The porcelain sink darkens with ragged tufts of hair that Harry washes down the drain at intervals to avoid having to call a plumber. Until now, he took some small pride in not being handy around the house. He made enough money to afford to pay a stranger to repair minor appliances, run a metal snake down the shower drain, fix the garage door opener, rotate the tires on the Saab. Today, however, he’s hatching a plan and wishing he had a tool box with a big wrench inside.
Inches of hair swirl down the drain. Harry yawns, looks at his watch, and is surprised to see only a pale band of skin marking the accustomed place on his wrist. He shrugs, stretches, squints at his reflection, and switches the scissors from his right hand to his left. The tiny scissors become unwieldy in his left hand usually reserved for holding a dinner knife, a woman’s hand while dancing, or masturbating. He is fooled by what he sees in the mirror, cuts in front when he should be cutting further back. The dull scissors bend and pull his hair as he pinches his way around his head. There is hair all over the white floor. Harry looks at the unfamiliar man in the mirror, smiles, and runs his hands over his spiky hair.
“That’s enough,” he says. “I’ll get a Boy’s Regular somewhere down the road.” Still in his pajamas, Harry emerges out of the bright, white bathroom into the semi-darkness of the bedroom, tracking bits and clumps of hair onto the rug. The window shades are up as if it were morning; but, the world beyond the windows is bathed in twilight. Harry has been in the bathroom since breakfast.
An hour later, he throws two leather bags into the back seat of the black Saab turbo; opens the garage door from the driver’s seat and backs out, leaving the garage door wide open. “The house says good-bye,” he thinks. He raises his hand to wave. He looks behind him and backs out of the driveway, screeching a J-turn into the street. He lays rubber for a quarter mile. Stops. Checks the rearview mirror. “No signs of smoke,” he says out loud. Before he left, he set the pile of chair on fire.
Cruising west on State Route 64, he imagines telling this tale to a woman in a black sequined dress; but settles for a 19-year old, grease-smudged, truck-stop waitress over coffee and a piece of pie. He tells her how he rolled a cigarette from some stale tobacco mixture stashed in a drawer; how the rolling paper felt dry and crinkly like cicada wings between his thumbs and forefingers. He tells her how he thought of mountains as he licked the cigarette closed and lit a match to dry the wet side. He tells her how he smoked his first cigarette in a year and just kept lighting and dropping matches until the chair pile caught fire; how he let it burn, called the fire department, and laid rubber for a quarter mile.
* * *
It isn’t until he crosses out of western Kentucky into eastern Indiana that he realizes his life in the house with his wife was oppressive partly because there was no decent music between them – no common soundtrack linking the memorable bits of their compartmentalized lives. The strains of Vivaldi or Bach’s 5th Concerto in E wafted through the house every morning before breakfast like an over-filled balloon ready to pop. She thought it was calming and bright – morning music to match the sunbeams raking across the yard and into the kitchen. Classical violin concertos and Bach, particularly Bach, set his teeth on edge.
The Saab shoots west like a black bullet. Harry’s foot is heavy on the accelerator. He belts out the chorus to Bap Kennedy’s Mostly Water.
Shout all you want, I doesn’t matter
Don’t you know that I am mostly water
Seventy percent, don’t worry about the rent
The rest of me is finding it harder
The loping rhythm of the song and the lilt of the pedal-steel guitar lift his heart for a moment. He sings a verse and plays air guitar for a few seconds, steering with his knees. He unbuttons his shirt in the reflected heat inside the car and lets his head fall back against the headrest. He should have recognized her penchant for cool, high-pitched, classical tunes as a warning that their passion would always be banished to the Netherlands, somewhere between the wafting Bach and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Voodoo Child. A bead of sweat trickles from behind his knee down into his sock. He imagines driving all the way to summer, leaving the Saab in a steaming heap by the ocean.
He turns his head to scan the greening landscape, thinking he should stop the car, get out, and walk the thawing earth – savor the trip, the time. Instead, he whizzes across the Indiana hills at seventy-five miles every hour as if pushed from behind, fleeing the suffocating softness and sentimentality of the South with a vengeance even he does not recognize. Ejecting Bap Kennedy from the stereo he plugs in the Statler Brothers and cranks the volume.
It’s good to see you
I must go, I know I look a fright
And you know my eyes are not
accustomed to this light
He remembers how she despised this song as if the Statler Brothers had betrayed her on some deep personal level, causing much shame and embarrassment. She always said that Statler Brothers music reminded her of fat men in polka dot shirts and greasy polyester pants living in motels and driving low, wide, beige cars made in the 1970s. She cringed when he played their songs. He imagined her capable of chasing him around the house, brandishing a rolling pin, her hair in curlers, face in a mud pack. Harry decides to drive without sleeping until he crosses the 100th Meridian and the harsh, spare landscape that he seeks rises tough and limitless directly in front of him.
And my shoes are not accustomed
to this hard concrete
So I must go back to my room
and make my day complete
A green highway sign blurs by on his right. Doolittle Mills, 1 Mile. “Where the hell am I?” he wonders. Veering off the highway, he stops on the shoulder to check the map. “Doolittle Mills…Doolittle Mills…here it is,” he mumbles, tapping the map with his finger. He takes off his sunglasses and rubs his face. Shielding his eyes from the sun with the back of his hand, he squints at the countryside beyond the road. Rolling hills. Bare trees. Clusters of small houses. A shopping center squats on the horizon. “Way to go Ohio,” he says, quoting the Pretenders. “But this is Indiana,” he reminds himself, returning to the map. “And just where does Doolittle Mills fit in the scheme of things?” He traces his finger along the black line marking I-64. Doolittle Mills sits squarely between a town called Carefree and another one named Siberia. Harry runs his hand through his hair, shakes his head, and chuckles.
Putting his sunglasses on, he wads up the map and tosses it into the back seat. He rolls back onto the highway, accelerating to seventy-five in seven seconds. A black crow, attracted by the glint of late-winter sun on the roof, flies above and slightly behind the car.
Amy is an independent journalist and photographer who also writes fiction. This story won honorable mention at the 4th Biennial Readers Festival Writing Contest in Grand Junction, Colorado in 2001. An older piece, she’d like to add to it one day.