(First fiction I’ve written in a long time –it shows)
In his dream, he was walking, alone, through the streets of his childhood home town. It was late, maybe two A.M., and the inky-blackness of night was interrupted by the electric glow of streetlights, lighting up front yards while leaving back yards dark and formless. It was cloudy enough for neither the moon nor any stars to reveal themselves, and it was quiet enough that he could hear the electronic drone of the streetlights, humming in monotone harmony, while darkness and dread pressed hard on his chest.
The small town and its streets were how he knew them as a much younger man, forty some years earlier, when he was still thin and strong, and when the town still had a personality, an identity, before they, both he and the town, would bloat and swell and fade until they’d become unrecognizable to each other.
As the dream was taking shape, in its beginning, he found himself about three blocks from the house he grew up in. He was walking away from it, each step taking him further away from the place where his Mom and Dad and brother were alive again, where their chests rose and fell as they slept in the silent comfort of home. He wished, he longed to be there, to be with them again, but he knew he had to do something first. He was unaware of what it was, but he knew it would be revealed to him as soon as he got to the park on the west side of town beneath the town’s water tower.
He approached the red bricks of the big elementary school that in the real world had recently been condemned and torn down but in his dream still stood. The streetlights here didn’t glow, the faint light they gave taken over by the thick darkness, and the steady drone of their hum replaced by the rise and fall of crickets. As he walked past, he could hear a faint murmur of kids, ghosts, rising from the abandoned playground from which empty swing sets and monkey bars rose up from the cracked asphalt against the barren black sky. He stopped walking and listened to the hum of the thousands of children that no longer existed, and he could make out the sound of his own voice as a child, faint and slight, inter-mingled with all of the others.
He walked on, crossing Main Street on the south side of town, where the stores and small businesses gave way to older and elegant homes, with stairways and framed-in front porches. He passed a church, Lutheran, and the memory of a Sunday school session from the age of five years, one of his oldest but most vivid memories, played in his head. He was dressed in his best church clothes, sitting on a bench at a table, where he and several other kids were coloring in a coloring book with multi colored crayons strewn across the table. On the wall, right above the table, a small, golden colored crucifix hung. His copy of the coloring book was open to a page that said “Jesus Died for Your Sins” above the uncolored image of Jesus on the cross, waiting to be filled in, to be brought to life, the same image that looked down upon him from the cross on the wall, the same image that seemed to be everywhere in the church, the same image that haunted him in the dark at night, before sleep, sometimes after sleep, too. He remembered having no clue as to what a sin was, let alone why anyone would die for anything he happened to have. He looked closely at Jesus’ hands for the nails his brother told him they hammered through to the cross, and he remembered thinking how much that must have hurt.
He looked north, to downtown, a four or five block long section of Main Street, itself just a three mile long section of state highway 45, where all of the storefronts erected to serve the small town stood. A pharmacy, a Ben Franklin hardware store, a locally funded bank, a lumber yard, a diner, a grocery store and three taverns, so you could get anything you needed, everything you wanted, without leaving the comforting confines of the small town’s borders. Even in the midnight cool, even when deserted and empty, downtown exuded an undeniable warmth and charm. He stood there for a moment, taking it all in, inhaling it, tasting it, sweet and tart on his tongue
He became aware of how tired he’d suddenly become, and that he was only three blocks away from the water tower. A gust of wind blew in from the north and filled his lungs with ice. He turned his collar up and started walking.
Main Street had always been the dividing line between the more and the less affluent sides of town. The east side was newer and more prosperous than the west. It rose a slight but noticeable level up to and beyond the town limits until it reached the gentle rolling pastures of the big farms that highway eleven winded through on its way to Racine, while the west side descended from Main Street until it reached its deepest depth under the water tower, where it began the slow and steady ascent to the county fair grounds and the industrial park.
As he began walking the dream landscape again, the difference between the two sides of town was heightened and exaggerated. As he entered the west side of Main Street, the descent to the water tower park was steeper, and there were no streetlights, no light at all, except for the faint glow of a flash light that suddenly appeared in his right hand. Even the crickets had grown silent and still, and the only sound piercing the blackness was the amplified sound of his shoes on the sidewalk. His vision adjusted as best it could to the ever thickening blackness, and he had to use the flashlight and his memories of epic one on one basketball games in the court in the park against his seventh grade friend Danny H to make his way. Buoyed and brightened by the sudden summertime memories, fifty years suddenly melted away, and he decided that tomorrow, after this thing was over, he’d call Danny up and challenge him to a game. Or maybe Joey M. would be home from his family vacation and they’d get their gloves and bats and balls and play 500 in his back yard. He felt a smile form on his face, and it felt good. It’d been so long since he’d seen his friends. He missed them terribly, and he found himself thinking about them, conjuring up their images more and more frequently in these days of pandemic and isolation.
He raised his flashlight and in its filtered glow he found the swollen metallic legs of the town’s water tower. They raised up and into the darkness above, but he had no interest in them now. Instead, he turned his light to the court, wishing he had the Spalding basketball his mom and dad had given him for his birthday in 1970.
Then he remembered why he’d come there in the first place. Using his flashlight, he found the picnic tables, exactly where he remembered they’d be. He started forward and he stopped and took one last moment, and he thought about how he’d wake late tomorrow morning, in his childhood bed in his childhood home in the summer of 1970, the days when he’d earned every minute of sleep in the energy he spent every day, the same energy that fueled his growing body and mind.
Finally, his light settled on the second of the three picnic tables. On top of it was a small, metallic, and shapeless hump. As he approached the table, as he got close enough, the hand-sized lump revealed itself.
It was a pistol.
Standing now in front of the table, it was a revolver, and picking it up he saw the safety was off, meaning it was ready to fire, and he finally understood what he was being asked, what choice he’d been given, what deal he’d been offered, and he remembered that his mom and dad and brother and Danny and Joey were all dead, and had been for some time now. If he took his own life, he’d be given access to the happiest time of his life and the people who he’d missed so much for so long. He took the gun in his hand and carefully put the safety back on. He held it for a brief moment before setting it back down on the picnic table. He turned around and rose out of water tower park like Orpheus ascending from Hades, refusing to look back at the west side.
He headed for home but the landscape had changed. Instead of brightly lit streets, he found himself in the dark, miles from his childhood home town and fifty years later. He was slowly awakening, his wife of 39 years sleeping beside him, with her back to him. He lay there, awake in the dark, thinking about his life and the unexpected sharp turn it’d taken 15 years prior, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He thought about life and death and his childhood, global pandemics and social distancing. He thought about everything until he became aware of his wife’s sleeping inhales and exhales, her body rising and falling with each breathe. He rolled over and put his arm around her waist, pulling her to him, realizing as he fell asleep that this was the happiest moment of his life.