Writing the World
While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest.
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concernin’ myself and the first few friends I had.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Once I had three friends, Ted, Larry and Curt. They all died. Not at the same time and not in the same way, but they did die. It happens, and it did.
One afternoon years later, I was camped out on my bed in San Francisco listening to the rain. As it dripped onto the roof, there seemed to be a rhythm to it. The sound was soothing, had a cadence. As it meandered down the side of the building and dropped down onto the grass, it seemed to do a little skip of joy.
I slid through a wall and tumbled into a large, dizzyingly white room. Shocked to find myself there, almost blinded by the unnatural whiteness, I propped my back up against the wall and looked around. The room appeared featureless and empty, and while being so bright it hurt my eyes, it was somehow also shadowy.
I stood up and looked around some more and quickly spotted one lone bench shoved up against the back wall. Ted was sitting on it, hunched over, his right arm jerking wildly around. “Ted,” I cried and sailed through the ubiquitous whiteness towards him.
The minute I reached him, I knew something was wrong. His black and red plaid shirt and jeans presented a sharp contrast to the unrelenting whiteness around him, as did his wildly shaking shock of brown hair. The strangest thing was that, although he was holding a white tablet or slate and his hand was flying over it, he didn’t have a pen and the frenetic movement of his hand left no trace behind.
I slumped down beside him. “Ted,” I said. “What’s going on? What are you doing? I—I don’t understand.”
He didn’t look up or slow his frantic movements. “Charlene, it’s about time you got here,” he said, his voice the sound of cracking stone.
I jumped. “What? What?”
He made a sound that could have been a laugh.
My mouth opened, but I couldn’t speak. I pointed to the empty slate. “Ted . . . there’s nothing there.”
He made another sniffling sound. “I’m writing,” he said, his voice now strangely cool and low. “I’m writing the world.”
My knee jerked. I stared at the blank slate, at his racing hand, and finally at the wall I’d just tumbled through. “There’s no opening there anymore,” he said, still without looking up. “You can’t leave yet.”
“Easy. I read your mind.”
I’d become almost mesmerized by his flying hand, but suddenly a ripple ran through me and I jumped up and glared down at him. “Ted, we’ve been friends, it seems like forever. So please stop whatever it is you’re really doing and talk to me. I don’t know where I am or what the hell is going on.”
He still didn’t look at me. He did say, “Sit down. I’ll explain.”
I looked around again. There seemed no escape. I sat.
“I’m just gearing up,” he said. “So there’s not much to see yet. But look over there in the middle of the room.”
“Okay,” I said. “What at?”
He just kept ‘scribbling’ nothing, using nothing. I sighed, but turned around and looked. The floor was still blindingly white, but now I noticed some low-lying white bulges or ridges scattered across it. As I looked, first one pink spark and then another flashed up off one of the ridges. Two yellow sparks flew off another.
I jumped. Ted chuckled. “Like I said, I’m only getting started.”
Of course, I was impressed by that weird display, but I was frustrated too. I put my hand on his shoulder. “This is amazing stuff,” I told him. “But I just want to talk to you, not see a pyrotechnic show. It’s been so long . . . .”
There was a momentary hesitation in his fast-moving hand, a flicker in the room. “I know,” he said. “It has been too long, and I missed you too.”
His left shoulder, under my hand, sagged. His right hand started traveling again, this time so fast it soon became a blur.
“Dear old friend,” he said quietly, “what I’m doing here and what I’m about to show you are important, more important even than a reunion over coffee would be, as much as I’d love doing that.” Suddenly he jerked upright and exclaimed, “Watch this!” His hand did a flourish as if he were making a brush stroke across a canvas. Sparks exploded up the wall, blasted across the ceiling and dropped back down in a cascading waterfall. They prickled across my knee.
“What was that?”
“This is writing the world,” he said eerily calmly. “It’s not like doing writing exercises with Bill and George. Those, like all the writing done on earth, were nothing but practice. This is the real thing.” Suddenly the room was hung with heavy shadows. Through the large windows at the front of the room I saw dark billowing clouds. Ted bounced up, then down again. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” he exclaimed. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Rain pelted the windows so hard I was afraid they’d break. Then the rains were gone and, outside the windows, I could see mountains bathed in sunlight. My hands unclasped. I breathed. Fire blazed up and knocked trees over and tore them down the mountainside as if they were conflagrating dominoes. Then the fire fled as quickly as it had come and the rain was back, drenching the mountains in dark cascading streams.
I grabbed Ted’s hand, felt a pulse of electricity there. Still it kept moving. “Stop,” I cried. “Please make it stop.”
It didn’t stop. I stared at the pelting rain, sure that at any minute, there’d be fire again. I covered my face with my arms and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shut those terrifying images out.
As I stood there, mingling with the sound of the rain, I heard a faint tapping sound. I lowered my arms, listened and looked around but couldn’t locate the source. I heard it again, louder. Then I caught movement off to my right, and saw Curt standing behind a glass partition/door that I was sure hadn’t been there before, dancing from foot to foot and tapping on the glass.
“Curt!” I stumbled towards him, tripped on the uneven floor and flew forward. He slung the door open. I landed in a heap. Somebody grabbed my arm and pulled me up. But when I was standing, it was Larry, not Curt, holding my arm and grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“Larry, it’s you. It’s really you!”
A thunderclap rumbled through the now-closed door. I shivered and turned gratefully back to Larry. He looked much the same as ever, slightly overweight, wearing his usual white shirt and jeans. “It’s so good to see you,” I cried and flung my arms around him. He felt soft and fluffy like a marshmallow or a soft-center chocolate. He laughed in his distinctive high-pitched voice, then grasped my hands and pumped them up and down.
“Don’t forget me, kiddo,” Curt patted my shoulder and chided.
I grabbed him. ”Oh no, I could never forget you, Curt.” Then I grabbed Larry’s hand and pulled us all together into a laughing hug.
Although Larry had changed very little, Curt seemed taller, thinner, and his hair was brown, not blonde. Yet some essence was the same and his eyes sparkled brighter than I’d ever seen them do.
“It’s been a long time,” he said.
“Way too long,” I cried. “And I’m so sorry I didn’t find out you were sick till it was too late.” I cleared my throat. “But I feel like I did see you in that dream I had just after you died where you kept saying, ‘I’m dead but I’m fine. I’m dead but I’m fine'.”
“Phht. That was no dream. That was me.”
“And this is no dream in the usual sense either.” Larry stuck his round face between us and jibed. “We are really here. But this time it was Ted who set it up.” A crafty look flashed across his face. “Curt and I butted in because we wanted to see you, and of course also to ‘save’ you from Ted’s histrionics.”
“And thanks for doing that too!” I laughed with real relief.
“I felt bad that we didn’t get together before I left earth too,” Curt said, “and also that I was kind of . . . unavailable for some time before that.”
I quashed my smile.
“I got derailed when I went to art school,” he said. “I mean, I had a blast making those movies, but I guess I got carried away with the praise and adulation.” His eyes looked sad. “And the worst thing was I let my old friends go.”
“I never accused you of doing that.”
“Oh, I think you did.”
Larry insinuated himself between us again and draped one chummy arm over each of our shoulders. “You know, Curt, I think we all did. But you were having too much fun to notice.”
Curt laughed. “Okay. You don’t have to rub it in. And I know now who my real friends are.” He shook his head and for a minute his eyes didn’t sparkle at all. “And I want to thank both of you for not being my friends back then.”
Larry turned to me. “I think what he means to say, not being the most verbally-gifted person ever created, is that sometimes not being a friend when a friend is screwing up is actually being the best possible friend.”
I kept staring.
“Larry’s right,” Curt said. “Sometimes that’s the only way to wake a person up, to get their attention.” He stared into the depths of the dusky room. “Sometimes you even have to die to get woken up.”
He clasped me in a hug. He felt more substantial than Larry had, but I felt like I was sliding inward into an empty place or into the center of a dying star.
I pulled back and looked at them. “I missed you. I missed you both so goddamned much.”
“And we missed you.”
I tried not to cry. “I—I, uh, so what are you doing now?” I opened my arms out and looked around that dark room that somehow also sparkled with points of amber light. “Here?”
“I’m painting,” Curt said. “I’ve gone back to painting which I should have stayed with all along.”
I looked around. Nary a canvas in sight.
“I paint here in this world,” he said. “Some of my work is over there.” He gestured into the dusky area behind us and I caught a fleeting image of a sunny room, smelled a whiff of oil paint. “And I still paint down where you are too.”
“I don’t. . .“
“Come on,” he said. “You do understand, at least somewhat. Since I got you into art, you must have some inkling of how that works.”
“You got me into art!”
He patted my arm. “What I mean is, I put the bug in your ear and steered you towards Manny’s art class. It worked out pretty well too, if I do say so myself. You’re almost getting good.”
He mock-punched my arm, his soft fist skimming off of it. “Actually, you’re doing pretty well. For a novice.”
My mouth twisted to the side. “But what do you mean you got me into art? How could you steer me to an art class?”
Larry raised a finger. “It’s a matter of dimensionality,” he declared. “You see, we have more dimensionality, that is more space and time, here than you do there.” He opened his arms out and the dark-ceilinged room seemed to expand. “It’s easier to manipulate and change things here than where you are, especially people’s actions, not to mention time—”
Curt elbowed between us. “Larry tends to over-intellectualize,” he said. “To put it in less pretentious terms, think about a canvas. When you paint, you can work on one corner or in the middle. You can use one color here and another there. You can do the whole painting on one day or wait a month and then go back to it.” He opened his hands out much as Larry had. “All that matters is that you, standing in your world of three dimensions, can work with relative ease in the two dimensions of the canvas.” He clapped his hands. “So we here in four dimensions—or however many dimensions there are—How many are there anyway, Larry?”
Larry held up four fingers, shook his head and shot me a ‘can-you-believe-this-guy’ look.
“So, okay, we here in four dimensions”—he shot Larry a look—“find it fairly easy to ‘paint’ reality in your world on the 3-D canvas that you’re living in. But when you’re actually in the 3-D world, like you are, you can’t move or change things, for shit.”
Larry clapped Curt on the back. “Don’t forget that I did some serious movin’ and shakin’ in three-dimensional space when I was down there.”
“Okay, okay.” Curt gave him another look. “Somehow, and I can’t imagine how, you were the exception to the rule that you can’t change things while actually swimming in the 3-D soup.” He grinned, obviously pleased with his metaphor. “It’s one of your special skills, Larry, sometimes annoying as hell, but at times almost impressive.”
Larry blushed. “What Curt means is that I’m a talker and a gatherer. I gather people together and get them talking. And I was good at those things even down on earth.”
“That’s for sure,” I quipped. “And I don’t have to be dead to realize that.”
They laughed. Larry snapped an invisible suspender. “Glad you noticed,” he said. “I did gather us together and stir up the pot back in Lafayette, didn’t I?”
“Boy, did you,” I said. “Everybody piling into your car and buzzing off to the Park ‘n Eat, the gravel pits, the old rotting graveyard, and always, always the Sweet Shop.” My forehead fell against his shoulder, apparently of its own volition. I sobbed, remembering those happy days of coffee, caramel ice cream and laughter that didn’t seem to have a clue how to quit.
“And even here Larry still matches up the craziest people,” Curt said. “Former garbage collectors and mathematicians. Soda jerks and ballet dancers. You name it, he gets them together some damned way, and they seem to get something out of it too.” Curt’s eyebrows raised.
Larry beamed. “Sure. What good is it if everybody’s on the same wavelength? How can they have any fun or learn anything that way?”
“And he still works at doing that down in your bailiwick too.” Curt still seemed a little skeptical about what Larry could do.
“Yup, Charlene,” said Larry, once again in in-charge mode. “For example, I nudged you into that writing group at the OLLI program and maneuvered that guy who’d started an online literary magazine before into that class you took, so you could get the magazine going.” He grinned proudly, knowingly. “Pretty damned clever, huh?”
“A little push here, a little nudge there. And voila ici. You’re in.”
There was movement outside the window. I’d been so engrossed in our conversation, I hadn’t noticed that, unlike the sky outside ‘Ted’s’ room, the sky outside this window was clear. I noticed now that there were objects floating down through the pristine sky: pink petals, yellow sunflowers. And tooling down among the flowers were silly-looking duck-like creatures with funny flat webbed feet.
“What are those?”
Curt looked outside. “All of them are my creations,” he said proudly. “Going down to earth. And those are Tweakies.” He pointed at the odd ducks. “Don’t ya just love the stuffins’ out of ‘em?”
“I love the flowers, especially the turquoise rose-like ones. But those duck-things—what beauty do they have?”
“None. They just go down to earth and wreak a little havoc.”
“Oh, as in tweaking things.”
“Charlene, you always were so smart.”
I blushed. “Thanks.” I heard the Tweakies quacking, and that sound reminded me of other sounds, the crackling of driving rain, exploding fire. “So what about Ted?” I frowned. “There seems to be something wrong with him.” I stole a look at the glass door again, but couldn’t see through the dark reflection.
Larry put his hand on my arm. “He feels a fool for allowing himself to be overtaken by his proclivities and desires and ending up dead. So he’s overcompensating and writing without stopping to make up for wasted time.” A hint of doubt cast itself over Larry’s eyes. “Or so he says.”
I squinted through the darkened glass again and caught a glimpse of Ted still sitting there bent over, hand flying. “But you guys are doing so well. Why isn’t he?”
Curt shrugged and Larry looked even more serious. “Sometimes it takes time,” he said. “Dying a violent death is traumatic.”
“He’ll be okay,” Curt said. “In time.”
“Well, I assume I have to go back sometime—I’m not ready to stay here permanently, no offense to you guys.” They didn’t crack a smile. “Anyway, when we’re through talking, although I’ll hate to say goodbye to you, I guess I’ll just leave and see Ted . . . some other time.”
They shook their heads. “No, he’s the one who brought you here. He has things to tell you. You can’t go yet.”
My back was suddenly up against the glass door. Strange sounds were seeping through. “What do you mean, I can’t go?”
Larry waved his hands in an ‘it’s-okay’ gesture. “Yes, sadly, at least for us, you do have to return.” His face looked closed off suddenly as if there were something I couldn’t/shouldn’t know. “But it’s been fantastic seeing you. And we’ll meet again, but of course only at the exact right time.”
“Hey, what do you mean?” They began to fade away and look grainy, and I saw darkness through them. I waved frantically. “Come back. Come back.” They just smiled a little tepidly, and with a burst of darkness speckled with amber light, were gone.
That room slipped away along with them and I fell backwards through the partition and landed on the floor in the white room. I pulled myself up and, seeing little choice, picked my way towards Ted.
He was still writing frantically and still didn’t look up when I sat down. So I peered around the room and outside too where there was now driving snow. I waited some more, then said, “Ted, I’m here, so cut out the ‘writing’ and tell me what’s so damned important!” No response. “It was good seeing Curt and Larry. I’ve really missed them.”
“They missed you too.” His voice was so low and gravelly, I jumped.
I tried to keep it going. “We had a good talk. So . . . so could you and I please talk some too?”
He laughed and the bench vibrated. “I’ve got something to show you and something to give you. And then you can leave.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. “I didn’t—”
“Got it: you read my goddamned mind.”
He chuckled again and, as he did, outside the snow whisked away leaving only a pale blue sky traced with paler clouds. “Here we go,” he said.
I clutched the edge of the bench and stared out the windows. But this time it wasn’t the view outside that changed. In the center of the room, some of the raised floor-tiles twisted up and around to form the back and sides of a building. The front of what was obviously an office building was left open and exposed, and I could see people working on computers and talking on phones.
“Look up on the top floor.” Ted broke me away from staring.
A man was sitting at a desk. A woman was balanced on the edge of it talking to him. She wore a knee-length skirt and her pale legs dangled over the side, bouncing a little as she laughed. “I see them,” I said.
“Those people have been working together for quite some time and are attracted to each other but have never gotten together for as much as a drink outside of work.”
“O-kay.” Had he really brought me here and fabricated an entire building just to show me the beginnings of an office romance?
“You bet your sweet petuti, I did,” he said. I jumped. “Now look at those two guys sitting at computers on the bottom floor.”
The men were squinting at their computer screens, looking bored. “Got ‘em.”
There was a shudder and a shake on the bench and in the room. The ‘building’ jerked back and forth. Computers and plants flew; desks and people followed. The structure collapsed in on itself, and soon there was little to be seen except flying debris and clouds of dust.
Behind that dust I heard screams. I flew off the bench and ran towards the building.
“Stop!” Ted yelled. “You can’t save them and, what’s more, you shouldn’t try.”
I sent him a scathing look but sat back down. “But if this is real in any way, we have to--”
“No! Just look for those four people.”
I hated this. It seemed cold, sadistic. But I looked and immediately spotted the man and woman half-buried under rubble. She was moaning and he was telling her, “It’s all right, Mimi. We’ll be okay. I’ll be with you.” Somehow I knew her leg was crushed.
The two men were easy to locate too. One lay with his arm dangling out a broken window, the other was bunched up against the side of the window frame, and was very still. I knew they were both dead.
My head fell into my hands. “This is awful, Ted, Why do I have to watch this? Why?”
“I need to show you,” he said and his voice was tight, I could only hope with regret. “Mimi and Chuck will get through this. They’ll get married and, despite the fact that her leg is gone, they’ll both be better off than they were before.”
I stared at his hunched-over back. “If in any way this is real—and even if it’s just some weird . . . demonstration—surely there was an easier way for them to be brought together than this.”
“Easier but not better.” His voice was eerily gentle. “They have lessons to learn—like we all do—and now they can learn them.” He paused. “Better to lose a limb than to lose your way in the dark reaches of the earth.”
Suddenly the building flicked away. As it did, I saw movement outside the windows. The sky was still blue and placid but now misty traces that didn’t seem to be clouds were swimming up the sky. “What’s that? What are you doing now?”
“Not doing anything. Those are the forms of the two men killed in the quake. They’re coming back here, back home.” His voice caught. “They were finished on earth. One had grown stale and needed replenishment. The other had just stopped drinking after ten years and he’s been saved from falling off the wagon again.”
I sat, stunned, watching the wispy figures moving upward. Other forms followed quickly behind. I didn’t need to ask what they were or where they were coming from.
“Okay, I’ve shown you everything I can,” he said. “It’s time to give you a gift and say goodbye.” He stopped writing, shook his hands out and sat stiffly up.
“Ted, Ted.” I grabbed his now free hand. But looking into his face, I flinched. His eyes were dark and sunken, and his chin was oddly elongated. “What—what happened to you? What’s wrong?”
He took my right hand with his left. His hand shook. “As Curt and Larry told you, when you die a violent death, it takes time to recover.” He’d been stabbed to death on a dark Juarez street. “But that terrible death wasn’t the worst thing,” he said. “Worse than that was the fact that I allowed myself to get into a situation where that could happen. So it was the impending death of my psyche that led to the actual death of my body.”
He looked at me. His darker-than-ever eyes seemed to be sinking back and also drilling in. “As you know, when I retired, I smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, left my house in a clutter and spent most of my time chasing Hispanic men in search of the magic and vibrancy of the Hispanic culture. And finally I took it one step further and moved to Juarez.” His head sagged. “Bill said I dumped my old friends as I pursued the chimera of love and sensuality in another culture, and I suppose he was right. Still, for a short time, I actually found what I was looking for.” He sighed. “And even when I’d been there awhile and should have begun to wake up from my ‘dream’ that everything and everyone in Juarez was perfect, I clung to my illusion.” There was a gurgling sound in his throat. “And then those two guys jumped me.” He sighed again. “So it was good that I was killed. Sometimes getting yourself knocked off is the best way to wake up.”
Something dark stabbed into my throat. I stared into his anguished eyes. “No, it can’t be. Curt said the same thing, but it seems so harsh, so cruel.”
His mouth turned up in a half-smile. “I should have stayed in San Francisco and done the writing I needed to do and spent time with you and my other friends.” He shook his head. “I already had the cake, although I didn’t know it then. But I wanted the sweet colorful frosting and ended up choking on it, choking all the way to death.”
“Oh, Ted.” I reached for him, buried my head into his shoulder and cried. I felt him choking, crying too.
“So now I’m spending as much time as I can writing,” he said. “And it helps. You, on the other hand, have always been writing and what’s really amazing is that you go to that deep well of the imagination and bring stories back.” He paused. “That is, you come over here and get them.”
He sat up and took my right hand in his right hand, the writing hand. “So since you tried so hard to get me back on track, and mostly because you’re my friend, I want to give you something that will make finding those stories and bringing them back a little easier for you.” He smiled and his face lit up like the happier Ted I used to know. “That,” he said, “and a little something more.”
He squeezed my hand. I looked into his strange eyes. He smiled a knowing smile, and I jerked awake, rain pummeling the roof above my head.
I lay staring into the semi-darkness around me. After that dream, or whatever it was, my room looked strangely grainy. It didn’t help either that the rain was still driving down. It reminded me of Ted’s room with the rain outside it and I worried that maybe I hadn’t made it all the way back. Trying to shake that idea away, I got up and dragged myself to the door: I was supposed to meet Ruth at five and I was already late.
Ruth waved at me from the back of the restaurant and I hurried gratefully through the warm room. She got up to greet me, blue eyes large and happy behind her glasses. “It’s great that we can now come from our respective homes to meet for dinner,” she said, “instead of me being just a visitor.”
I was glad to see her, but I was still somewhere in limbo between dimensions. “It is great.” I tried to sound like I meant it. “I’m so glad you were able to move here finally.”
Her eyes still sparkled. “It was serendipity,” she said. Her kids had both moved away from Seattle where they all lived and, almost simultaneously, our mutual friend George’s roommate had moved to Texas.
An image flashed through my head of Curt standing in front of a canvas, dancing and humming and tossing gobs of paint here and there, now and then. Larry shot past, driving a packed car, everybody in it yelling and waving.
“I took a nap this afternoon and had this weird dream, and it just came tumbling back.”
“So what was it?” She wiggled the menu at me to start dishing.
“It was about Curt, Ted and Larry . . . in the afterlife. And it was so realistic, I felt like I was really there.”
“Sure. But first I want to hear about how it’s going with George.”
We talked about that while we ate and, as we did, I could still see Larry bustling people around and Curt adding features and people to his canvas in any way, anywhere, at any time he wanted. I glanced at the people at the next table. Might Curt have added them to this tableau for background color?
“So tell me about the dream.” Ruth interrupted my wild thoughts.
“Well, Curt was painting, Larry organizing adventures and Ted writing the world.”
“‘Writing the world,” she mused. “What does that mean?”
“I’m not quite sure.” I explained as well as I could. “And the earthquake was the worst. All those people maimed and dead. It was really creepy seeing the spirits of the dead wriggling their way up through the sky like giant tadpoles.” I shuddered.
Ruth grimaced, but then surprised me by pulling out her smart phone. “Okay, there haven’t been any major earthquakes in the U.S. today,” she said. “So at least it wasn’t a precog dream.”
I laughed. The couple at the next table laughed too and leaned towards each other as if sharing some big secret. Could they really be props from Curt’s version of Central Casting?
Back home things were more usual, expected. I sighed in some relief and switched the TV on, but Ted’s words that he was giving me something to make writing easier swam through my head. So I flicked it off again, lay down and closed my eyes to try to write and see if anything about doing that had changed.
There were two ways that had evolved over the years to get me started on a story. One was that a first line would pop into my mind. I’d know it was a line rather than just a stray thought because it jumped dramatically into my head and, once there, kept bugging me. I’d repeat it over and over to myself, hoping another line would follow to get the story going. This would go on for days or weeks until either I found the story or the line flitted away.
The second method was that an image would pop into my mind. The same ‘principle’ applied as for the line. I scrutinized and squinted and fought with that image until it either turned into a succession of images and then words, or faded away.
The latest image I’d gotten a few weeks ago was a ‘picture’ of a man standing in a room full of orchids and looking bored. During the time that image had been pestering me, I’d scrutinized the man’s face trying to get a read on him. I’d examined the flowers to see if there was anything about them besides their obvious beauty that might reveal something. I’d even tried to see outside the flower shop. Despite all my efforts, that image remained stubbornly static.
I brought that image into my mind now. There was a hushed sound, whether in my mind or in that room where the orchids were, I wasn’t sure. As I watched, the plants rustled and energy pulsed through them. The man smiled. He grinned. He doubled over in laughter and tumbled to the floor.
I saw it then: that orchid-image represented the end of the story, not the beginning. The man had inherited this orchid shop in West Los Angeles. He wasn’t a flower person, let alone an orchid man, in fact found them odd and exotic. But now, standing in that room, as the rarified energy of the orchids swam around him, realizing that those flowers thrived and bloomed without benefit of soil, he also realized that he too was strange and exotic, but also valid and real. For him it was a mini-revelation.
I laughed and in my mind’s ‘ear, there was rougher laughter: Ted.
I laughed some more. I knew I had a lot of work to do to get the story that led up to that final moment, but I knew too that I’d be able to do it and it would go faster now. More importantly, I realized this new ‘method’ of seeing did spell a change.
At some ungodly hour, the phone rang.
“Turn your TV on!” Ruth cried.
“What, Ruth? What?”
At four AM there’d been a 7.4 earthquake a few miles north of Burbank. Dozens dead. Hundreds injured. “This is terrible,” I screeched. “My God.”
“I know,” she breathed. “And of course I just had to declare it not to be a precog dream.”
Something rushed through my head. “Okay, there was an earthquake, but it didn’t happen during the work day—like it did in my dream.”
She seemed to consider that. “That’s true. So maybe it is just some crazy coincidence.”
After we got off, I watched some more. Suddenly the TV anchor said, “According to the USGS, this fault line was not the San Andreas, but a previously unidentified one. The epicenter was in the town of Orchid Valley, just northeast of Burbank.”
I had a fleeting image of that man bent over in his store full of blindingly colorful orchids, laughing. There was a crackling sound and a gravelly voice whispered, “Stop being so afraid and get going.”
That afternoon George called. “Darlene’s in town for a few days and I wanted to invite you over to dinner tonight.”
“Darlene! What a surprise.”
Darlene was George’s former girlfriend and current friend. She lived in Oregon with her husband Andy. Andy had serious health issues, so it was always a challenge to arrange care so she could come down.
I needed time to reflect on the crazy concept of whether I’d somehow turned into Ted and done some actual damage to the world, and the last thing I wanted was to spend the evening socializing. But I couldn’t think of a way out. “Sounds good,” I said. “What time should I be there?”
When I arrived, Ruth and Darlene were setting steaming plates of food on the table. George greeted me with a tilt of his head. He looked cheerier even than he’d sounded on the phone.
We sat down. Ruth and Darlene had never met before and I wouldn’t have thought they’d have much in common, but as we ate, they discussed everything from child-rearing to Catholicism—they both had kids and were raised Catholic.
As they chatted, an image of Larry standing at the front of a room full of people gesturing them to shuffle around in their seats flashed through my head. I jumped: could Larry somehow have planted Ruth and Darlene in the same place at the same time because, in some quirky way, they would benefit from each other’s company?
Curt was in my mind too now, jabbing his finger at the Tweakies floating past his window. The scene shifted and the Tweakies were lighting down on the grass in our world. They scrambled up and, duck-faces filled with trickster-glee, waddled off to tweak mischief on hapless, earthbound souls.
Ted was in his room, sunken-eyed and writing. “You can do the kinds of thing we’re doing here, down there,” he told me. “Just rear back and let go.”
I was back in the room then and there was a piece of apple pie sitting on my plate. I took a bite and looked around. Darlene and George were sitting close together. She was resting her hand on the back of his chair. Something heaved up my spine. My eyes squinted at Darlene almost of their own volition, and I blurted, “Darlene, why do you come down here so often when it’s so hard to arrange, unless you still have feelings, more than only friendship, for George?”
My leg bumped the chair leg. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude and it’s none of my business anyway. Damn.”
Darlene and George both looked down. I opened my mouth to apologize again, but Darlene raised her head and said, “You’re right, Charlene. I’ve been trying to tell myself that it’s only friendship. But—but I see now that there could be something more.” She looked at George. “We’ll have to talk about this, if for no other reason than to clear the air.”
George gave her a squinty look. “You’re right, Darlene. We should.”
We were all quiet then. But after that blunder or bombshell or whatever it was, I was in no mood to stick around. I glubbed down my pie and left.
The next morning I apprehensively turned the TV on. Both the death toll and the number of injured had skyrocketed overnight. Over and over, the broadcaster kept mentioning Orchid Valley, and over and over, I cringed.
Years ago, when I got seriously into writing, because I was working and short on time, I’d developed that shortcut of reaching out into nowhere or I-don’t-know-where to drag stories back, and, of course, I thought I was just messing around in the nether reaches of my own head. But Ted or his dream-counterpart had insisted I was pulling those stories back from where he was. So now that he claimed to have given me a boost to help me find those stories, and the very next day there was an earthquake in a town with a name—Orchid Valley—way too close to something critical to my story, I couldn’t help but worry that, weird though it was, my stories might actually be influencing or even causing things to happen, and not nice things either.
“I’m not going to finish writing that damned story,” I declared to the empty room. “In fact, I’ll never write again.”
That night I dreamed I was sitting on a table at the front of a classroom. Curt and Ted were lounging in desk-chairs facing me. Larry was at the back of the room, tapping a whiteboard with a pointer.
“Your life is boring,” Curt shot at me.
I bumped around on the desk. “What do you mean? I write. I paint. I have friends.”
“Ha!” Curt said. “You’re boring because you want to have it both ways—that is, live a normal life and also write. But on some level you realize you really want to write the world like Ted does. And that is all you want.”
Ted was wearing all black, and then there were those eyes. “As I keep telling you,” he said, “you can write the world now, here, while you’re in it. If I didn’t think so, I’d never have bothered to drag you over and show you how.”
Larry tapped the board. “You can do it, Charlene,” he said. “If I could do my thing back in Lafayette, you can do yours here.”
“But—but I’m afraid.” I saw it, saying it. “I’m afraid I won’t do it right and will be a failure or, even worse, that somehow it will work and I’ll hurt people like maybe happened with that weird orchid-quake.”
“Ha!” they all exclaimed together.
“What do you mean, ‘ha’?”
“You know you want to do it. You don’t like being a chicken, or like your current boring life much either.” Curt obviously wouldn’t let that idea go.
“I’ll help you,” Larry said, slumping down into a chair. “I’ll do everything I can.” He waved the pointer through the empty air and smiled.
“And you won’t destroy anything or anyone that doesn’t need to be destroyed,” Ted said darkly, grinning even more darkly.
“But I want to help people by being kind.”
They laughed, toppled off their chairs and rolled around on the floor.
Again the phone rang way too early. “Hello. Hello.”
“Sorry to wake you.” George laughed. “But I’ve been up all night talking with Darlene and we lost track of time. But I wanted to tell you how glad I am that you blurted that out about the two of us the other night.”
I made it up into a sitting position. “Well, I shouldn’t have.”
“Nah. You should. Somebody should and I appreciate that you had the guts rather than being overly polite as you usually are.” He paused. “And it feels good to own up to my feelings. Darlene says the same.” He paused again. “I don’t know yet what our relationship is or where it’s going, but I feel like some heavy weight has been lifted since I’ve been able to open up.” His voice pulled in. “So thanks again.”
“I can’t believe it,” I muttered, still mostly asleep. “I’ve been feeling guilty and you’re thanking me?”
He laughed again. “I’ve got to go. Darlene and I are going out to breakfast—or is it dinner?—and talk and talk and talk.”
That afternoon I went to Mountain Lake Park and sat on a bench, and thought and thought and thought. I reached no stunning conclusions. The best I could come up with was the fairly obvious observation that, even forgetting about the dreams and the unusual snatches of conversation that could have been the products of my over-active imagination, the indisputable truth was that everything ends. So whether I did nothing or attempted with writing to create something or even to change things, things—that is the world—would change anyway. Earthquakes and floods and fires would continue to happen. People would still be born, and they would also eventually die.
I got up and started home. I’d gone about a block when I encountered a boy of about five hurrying towards me, wearing a big smile and managing to look cherubic and mischievous at the same time. Reaching me, he reared his head back, blew a blast of air through a bubble pipe and sent a shower of bubbles at my face. “Gotcha!”
I did a skip. Bubbles cascaded down, falling on me and on the sidewalk, bursting with little liquid pops. The boy’s mother came hurrying up. “Jody, you’re getting this poor lady wet.”
I looked at the unbelievable grin still plastered over his gotcha-face, and I started grinning too. “It’s okay,” I told her. “I don’t mind. In fact, the experience has been . . . almost enlightening.”
She grasped Jody’s shoulder and smiled.
I did another dip. “Tweakies,” I screeched. “Goddamned Tweakies!”
They had passed by, but she turned back. “What?”
“Sorry. Sometimes I talk to myself.”
“I do too. But I get away with it by making like I’m talking to my son.”
I was really grinning now. Jody’s glee had infected me.
“So you’ll do it?” someone who wasn’t present said.
“We knew you’d come around.” That had to be Curt elbowing Ted away.
“We can’t reveal much.” Larry got in too. “But we can say that there’s a universal principle or ‘rule’ that for anything you dream up to change things, it won’t have the slightest effect unless it’s a good idea.”
I stared up into the seemingly empty branches of a nearby tree. “What?”
“And we approve.” They were all there now, floating in the air, nodding solemnly.
“That is a most astounding law,” Larry added. “It keeps us from worrying we’re doing things we shouldn’t, and would never want to, do.”
“It is a relief,” Ted interjected. “But you still have to work your ass off to try to make it real.”
Yes, Ted, I get it. I really, really do.
I figured it was fruitless to ask them whose rule it was or who enforced it, much less, how. Seemingly, most of the things I should know to do this writing-thing right, I couldn’t or shouldn’t know. So I just smiled and thought of Jody and his menacing bubble-Tweakies, and trucked on home.
And there in the dusky-darkness of one world, I sank down and began to write another.
About Charlene Anderson
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