The Interpretation of Dreams
BY BEN REED
In the summer of 1996 I moved to Austin with my friends Clay and Ted. We’d been close since we were kids, back in Houston. Technically we were from Alief, a suburb outside of Houston, but when you’re from a small place next to a big place, you get used to telling a lie that nobody minds hearing. The only time I ever told someone in Austin that I was from Alief it was to our landlord, when we signed the lease. Mrs. Jenny. She was white but always wore those bright Mexican housedresses. She looked at me sideways and said, Nobody’s from Alief.
We moved to Austin with the basic notion that we’d get jobs and party and take classes at the community college, then transfer into the university, but at the end of the first semester I was the only one who registered for spring. Ted said he had trouble waking up for class after his closing shifts at the sandwich shop, though really he was drinking with the girls he worked with after closing. When he told us he was dropping out, he said how rich it was that even at community college everything was still stacked against the working man. Clay talked about becoming a paramedic instead of getting a degree. He could take those classes at night. I offered to tutor them but they weren’t interested. They had assumed junior college would be about as hard as high school, maybe forgetting that we had not done particularly well in high school.
Rent wasn’t so bad. We’d found this nice older house near downtown, on a corner lot across the street from Oakwood Cemetery. We each had our own room and there was a big concrete porch we filled with old couches we picked up on bulk collection day and potted plants Clay stole from nicer houses on our walks home from Sixth Street when nobody was sober enough to drive. But money was a constant problem. Not long after we moved to Austin we were mostly eating at work, or at each other’s jobs, planning our trips around the free bus routes, and stealing toilet paper from public restrooms. Then the gas got shut off.
Things were always getting shut off. The cable company came for the cable box shortly after our trial month expired. Then we lost our phone service. Next the gas was shut off, meaning no heat or hot water, which wasn’t a big deal until after Christmas, when the nights in Austin sometimes got down into the teens.
That year I took a lot of walks in the big cemetery across the street. It was a good, quiet place to walk. When you got to the far side you were almost at the highway, practically downtown. I walked there so often that once I walked through the cemetery in a dream. It was one of those dreams that are so realistic that you have no sense at all that what you are experiencing is not waking life.
I was in the cemetery and it was autumn. The sky was white-gray and the trees were either bare or full of turning leaves. The strange part was that I found this network of shallow canals running everywhere. Like the cemetery had been built on the remains of some ancient civilization predicated on conveying water. These canals or aqueducts were a few feet wide and half as deep, lined with smooth gray stone. The water at the bottom was so still and clear and reflective that I could not be sure if the red and orange leaves I saw in the water were at the bottom of the canals or if they were still in the trees above me. When I woke up I remembered everything.
Sometime later I went to the apartment of a girl I worked with at the all-night coffee shop across the street from the university. She invited me over to smoke a joint and play records and when I got there I saw that she owned several hundred books—one entire wall was a bookshelf—including a hardcover encyclopedia of dream interpretation. She said it wasn’t hers so I couldn’t borrow it, but she gave me a pencil and some index cards to take notes on. As she rolled a joint I read that the symbolic presence of water in dreams could mean death, life, or rebirth, or renewal, or any kind of change. Context was important. The presence of canals—there was actually a listing specifically for canals—meant that I was wrestling with a decision, that I was considering taking my life in a new direction. Cemeteries in dreams denote progress, ironically, such as when a dreamer has recently terminated one mode of living in favor of something better. Similarly, autumn leaves might mean the dreamer has passed an important turning point. I read more and postulated that, because the water was remarkably clear, and because I could not tell whether the leaves I saw had fallen or not, that I was on the verge of understanding something about myself, but did not yet know if I was ready to become what this new knowledge would require me to be.
Or maybe it’s not that complicated, my coworker said as she sat cross-legged and barefoot on the carpet. She licked the edge of the rolling paper and said, Maybe it just means you live across the street from a graveyard, and you think about dead people a hundred times a day.
I nodded, not wanting to contradict, but I said, That still doesn’t explain the canals.
In the mornings during the winter that our gas was off, I would stand in the kitchen wearing my socks and the clothes I’d slept in, smoking a Camel while I heated a stew pot half-full of water on the stovetop of our mustard-yellow electric oven. The pot, left behind by previous tenants, was one of those giant ones they use in cafeterias and prison mess halls, I imagined, and when it was two-thirds full of ice-cold tap water it took about twenty minutes to simmer. Then, I’d use oven mitts to carry the pot into the bathroom and set it down right in the tub, under the faucet, where I’d top it off with cold water. A full pot of warm water now ready, I’d undress quickly, step into the tub, and slowly pour a third of the water over my body. Then I’d lather up with my hands and a sliver of Ivory soap, and work shampoo into my hair. I’d stand there, waiting, letting the suds dissolve my grime and sleep. Then I’d pour half of the remaining water over my head, set down the pot, and work my hands under my arms and between my legs. Finally I’d douse myself with the last of the water, to warm myself and make sure everything was rinsed away. I did this every few days that winter.
Clay had been in the Navy until he got popped by a random drug test. He said I was taking navy showers. On ships at sea, he said, desalinated water is precious, so you have to get wet, scrub, and rinse off. He said taking navy showers was part of the continuing misfortune of being an enlisted sailor in the United States Navy. I wasn’t supposed to like it.
Ted’s responsibility was to pay the phone and gas. I was the electric and water bills, and Clay, who made good money as a waiter but had ruined his credit, deducted these payments from what we owed toward rent, after the long-distance calls had been attached to their callers. It was a perfect system that survived for about six weeks. Ted evaded our questions about how he had lapsed so badly on his share of the bills, but the circumstantial evidence was found lying on the countertops and enmeshed into the carpet and burnt up in the ashtrays. He’d been spending too much of his money on weed, and maybe other drugs, too, something Clay and I were guilty of encouraging. In Houston we had subsisted on Mexican ditch weed, but Austin had elevated our tastes. We were buying bud from people our parents’ age, who grew it in their living rooms and met us while their kids were at school. They sold us ziplock bags of intact buds so encrusted with THC crystals that they looked like little snow-dusted Christmas trees. There was also LSD, mushrooms, salvia divinorum. At a Halloween party in West Campus we bought a rock of opium the size of a jawbreaker, to which we all became at least a little bit addicted by Thanksgiving. At first we’d carefully sprinkle a little on our artisanal weed, but soon we were smoking little rocks and slivers of opium by itself, which required a special butane torch lighter we bought at the corner stone, the kind that puts out a hissing jet of blue flame. All this probably helps explain why it was so hard for my roommates to stay enrolled at the community college. I didn’t drop out but not long after the opium was gone I found myself getting up from my Chemistry class’s final exam review, three times, to go to the men’s room to dry the sweat dripping from my face and armpits, using those coarse, institutional brown paper towels. I thought I was coming down with something, but it was withdrawals. Just like in the movies.
Even if we were sympathetic to Ted’s situation, Clay and I couldn’t just drop the issue with the phone and gas bills. We had to walk to the payphone at the corner store every time we needed to make a call. And while I disagreed with Clay when he said that hot showers were the yardstick of civilization, I understood where he was coming from.
For a time, we simply demonstrated the absurdity of our suffering. Clay wore two sweaters indoors, and bought a pair of old wool mittens at the St. Vincent de Paul so he could walk around the house happily clapping his mittened hands. Whenever Ted spoke to me I’d breathe first before replying, as if cogitating on my answer, but really I was making sure he saw that my breath was almost as visible as the steam billowing from my mug of coffee. And I still took navy showers. As winter progressed, what I liked most about them was that nobody I ran into later knew that I bathed while shivering under a pot of stove- warmed water. I would ride the bus and walk around the city and raise my hand in class and people would look at me and listen to me as if I were a normal person.
After the gas got turned back on, I stopped taking navy showers. For one thing, it was late March, after the brief seasonal twilight in Texas between peak winter and full spring, and already the coldest water that came from the tap was sixty-eight degrees. The whole operation of normal showering felt wasteful and self-defeating, and afterward I felt less clean, but without the cold my previous ritual became pointless.
Ted had picked up some barback and door shifts at a club during SxSW and paid the entire amount we owed for the gas and most of the delinquent phone bill, announcing this like it was an act of benevolence, even though we also had to pawn our TV-VCR combo to cover the reconnection fee.
We drove to H-E-B in my dad’s old Lincoln to pay the phone bill and do some shopping. As we pulled back up to the house, we could hear our phone ringing. Clay laughed and said, That thing’s been off so long I forgot what it sounded like. I put the car in park and said, Wow, that was fast. Ted scoffed and said, Someone somewhere just presses a button. It’s not like a guy has to climb the pole and splice the fucking wires. I couldn’t tell if Ted thought I wouldn’t know this, or if he meant that switching on phone service required so little labor, it was absurd that we were forced to pay a fee.
I ran inside and picked up the receiver. Andy Zurn, a guy we knew from Houston, was calling from Dallas, out of the blue. Andy said, What’s so funny? I told him how if we hadn’t just paid the phone bill, like, an hour ago, he never would have gotten through.
For a long time when I was young I was bothered by a commonplace expression: There is no such thing as coincidence, or, There are no coincidences. If this expression reflected a widely-held and indisputable public truth, it was one that had never been explained to me.
For example, I would hear my mother say on the phone to my Aunt Kathy, Oh, Kath, before I let you go, let me tell you something. You know how with everything going on with the car this week I wasn’t able to pick up the cleaning? So Mike ended up wearing that Hawaiian shirt of his on his service calls. Yes, the red one. No, not Birds of Paradise. White hibiscus. Yeah, his barbecue shirt. Don’t—No, in the Philippines or Hong Kong or something. Before my time. Yeah, he thinks he looks like Magnum P.I. Anyway, because of that shirt he got recognized downtown. He heard somebody calling his name and it was Ron Bellinger. They were on the carrier together in Vietnam and now they’re going to Galveston to fish this weekend.
And I would hear my Aunt Kathy, smoking her own Benson & Hedges on the back porch of her yellowbrick house in Missouri City, loud enough for me to overhear five miles away in Alief, You know what they say, Judy: There’s no such thing as coincidences.
I always thought our family didn’t believe in fate. Growing up, my sister and I were encouraged to wish and throw pennies into the fountain at the Galleria, and if we spilled salt we would throw some over our shoulder. But all this was at least a little ironic. We didn’t go to church and we weren’t superstitious. We didn’t pray at night or say grace before dinner. My sister and I, the only two children in our neighborhood not to be baptized, were told to tell people that we were spiritual but not religious, and that beyond this what we did or didn’t do was nobody’s business.
Another example: When Baby Jessica fell down a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987, we were as glued to the television as the rest of the country. But when my mother called Baby Jessica’s rescue a miracle, it was because this is the language you use in dire circumstances when a good outcome happens despite high improbability. Had Baby Jessica died twenty-two feet underground, or in the course of her extraction, we would have cried and agreed that it was a tragedy, because this is what you say when something is horrific or sad, and pointless or unjust. In either event, the term for an infant crawling into the mouth of an eight-inch-wide well shaft is a freak accident, an expression that is self-explanatory, unless you want to blame whoever left the hole uncovered.
Andy Zurn had called us from a payphone at Union Station. He was about to get on the train. Andy was moving back to Houston, to live with his dad, but hoping to crash in Austin for a few days. I said, Yeah, sure, of course, no problem. I didn’t ask my housemates because everybody liked Andy. After he said Thanks and hung up we vacuumed out the couch and found a clean extra blanket and made sure there was a fresh towel in the bathroom, but then Ted used it after a shower. Are you serious? I said. What? he said. Just throw it on the porch. It’ll dry out.
Andy’s train came in a little after six, and we all went down to the Amtrak station together to get him. The last time we’d seen him was right after we moved to Austin. He had come up from Houston with his girlfriend to see a Butthole Surfers show at Liberty Lunch. That summer Andy was doing masonry work and he was tan and more muscular than a gym rat. Less than a year later he stepped out of the aluminum train car looking pale, thin and wild. He had a beard and had grown out his hair. He was so thin that when he took a picture of us with his little Kodak camera his arms came halfway out of his coat sleeves.
We drove Andy around the city and then went home to have a few beers on the porch. When he saw the cemetery across the street he nodded with approval. He said, Nice place. Quiet neighbors.
Later I drove us downtown to see a band we knew at Bates Motel. Then we walked to The Black Cat for two-dollar Lone Stars. It wasn’t busy there and we found a free table upstairs. Andy told us he’d gotten arrested while partying in a motel room up in Denton. He got his dad to bail him out but then he missed his court date. His dad was going to help him out again, with the lawyers and everything, but Andy had to come back to Houston and work full-time at some used computer shop his father was invested in. Andy said his dad was trying to become the next Michael Dell or something, but it was better than jail.
At some point Andy said he was beat and that he was going to walk back to the house. I offered to drive him, but he said he needed to stretch his legs. He told us to stay and have a good time. I gave him my key and we made sure he had good directions. Then we went to Emo’s, where we knew the door guy, who let us in for free.
A little after two in the morning we got back to the house and found Andy unconscious next to the bathtub, a hypodermic needle hanging out of his forearm. He wasn’t breathing and he was blue. Clay was the only one who knew CPR, because of the Navy. He pumped on Andy’s chest and gave him mouth-to-mouth. On the floor I saw my lime-green Bic lighter and a bent spoon that wasn’t one of ours.
Andy hadn’t twitched or even rolled an eye by the time the paramedics arrived. The backs of his hands were still stamped from the two clubs we’d taken him to. The paramedics gave him a shot but couldn’t revive him. I looked around and didn’t see Ted. Later he said he’d put all the drugs and paraphernalia he could found in the house into his backpack, which he then stashed in the carport, zipped inside the lawnmower’s collection bag.
The first cop to arrive at our house told us to sit on the porch and wait. We weren’t allowed to talk to one another. More cops showed up. The headstones across the street flickered blue and red, and some of our neighbors came out of their houses wearing bathrobes, trying to see what was happening. Clay said, Mrs. Jenny is going to evict us. Ted said, She can’t, we have rights. We can sue. Clay told him to shut up and Ted said Why? Why do I have to shut up? The medical examiner wheeled out Andy’s corpse in a black rubberized body bag, fastened to a chrome gurney with bright yellow straps. The man bent at the waist and shoved Andy into the back of a white cargo van labeled TRAVIS COUNTY.
We were interviewed separately on the front lawn. I was the last one to talk to the detective. I told her that we didn’t do heroin and that we didn’t know if Andy had gotten his drugs in Austin or if he’d brought them with him. I said we probably drank too much beer but that we knew better than to mess around with drugs. Heroin, I said, shaking my head, as if pronouncing the name of an obscure element, or something I only knew about from TV.
Andy’s dad visited us. Mr. Zurn wasn’t angry, just sad. He did not seem stunned or surprised. Mostly he wanted to talk about us even though we hadn’t spoken to him since we were in grade school. He wanted to hear about our plans, and if we were on good terms with our families. He asked me about my classes and what I planned to major in after I transferred.
Before he left, Mr. Zurn asked us if he could see the bathroom. As always, the iron tub was dirty, stained with soap scum and calcium from the hard water, scuffed where I’d set the stew pot all winter. The tub was white but all the surrounding tiles were pink. Mr. Zurn looked down into the tub for a long time, even though his son had died on the floor.
What are all the scratches from? He asked.
The three of us agreed we weren’t going to go back to Houston for the funeral but then Clay changed his mind. He asked me to drive him down, and I pointed out that the tags on the Lincoln were expired and the brakes were basically done for. Clay called Southwest Airlines and reserved some cheap flights, but I lied and said I couldn’t get my shifts covered at the coffee shop. The truth was that I didn’t want to go. The three of us had agreed that we bore no responsibility for Andy’s death, but privately I had my doubts.
The all-night coffee shop where I worked was called Insomnia. We played Fela Kuti and wrote pithy messages on the tip jar. Our customers were mostly college students and professors. They would recommend books and movies to me and sometimes I felt like I learned more at work than in my classes.
The night of Andy’s funeral I took a break during my shift to have a cigarette with two of the regulars, Alex and Juanita. I told them what had happened with Andy Zurn, finishing with the central irony that if we hadn’t gotten the phone turned back on, our friend might still be alive.
Juanita made the perfunctory condolences then said, But that’s not irony. She was pretty, a graduate student in the history department, and possibly the smartest and most intimidating person I had met at that point in my life. She said, What you’re talking about, it’s like that Alanis Morissette song, where she lists all these things that are supposedly ironic, but they’re really just coincidences.
There’s no such thing as coincidence, Alex said. He stubbed out his cigarette in the black plastic ashtray. Alex was in the architecture program. He wore a pony tail and pretentious wireframe glasses with hexagonal lenses, and he was going to walk Juanita back to her apartment even if it meant he had to wait until four a.m.
I asked Alex if he meant that all things happen for a reason and he said, No, it’s just an expression. Like a famous quote, or whatever. I asked him who said it. Alex thought about it. He said, I’m not sure. Freud, maybe.
No, Juanita said. You’re confusing two different things. Freud said there are no such things as accidents. It was Carl Jung who said that coincidences are not imagined but real.
Juanita said Jung wrote that crazy coincidences that seem to defy probability are not just happenstance. But it’s not fate, either, she said, Not exactly. It’s a case of hidden causality. The connections are subterranean. I asked her what I should read if I wanted to know more but she smirked and said Don’t bother. It’s pseudoscience. You may as well go have your palm read.
Maybe the Alanis Morissette song is ironic, Alex said. Maybe that’s the irony. That all her examples of irony aren’t ironic.
Juanita rolled her eyes and smiled at me. She said, Well wouldn’t that be convenient.
The night Clay flew back from Houston we sat on the porch drinking cans of Lone Star while he described the funeral and how it had felt, and who he had seen, and the different things he’d been asked about Andy. He was still wearing his wrinkled suit and tie. Clay said there was no casket because the body had already been cremated, and that the framed photograph of Andy at the funeral home was from ninth grade, the last year he’d bothered to show up for picture day. Clay also told us about his motel room, and how he forgot to hang the Do Not Disturb card on the outside of the door and how the maid let herself in while he was shaving, still naked and drip-drying from the shower. The prickling, electric moment when he was caught standing naked between the wide-eyed maid and the open door. The maid screaming and Clay knowing he should move or cover himself but still just standing there with his mouth open, stoned and confused, Like a deer in my own headlights, he said. I laughed along, but in reality I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what was so funny about the story.
Much later I went to bed, drunk and probably stoned, thinking about how blue Andy had been when we found him next to the bathtub, and what his skin had felt like. And I thought about my own death, and what it would be like, and who would find my body, and where, and what would be said about me after. Before I fell asleep I decided that the story about the maid and Clay in his motel room didn’t mean anything because it wasn’t really a story. It had a situation and characters and all the elements of a story but it wasn’t a story because nothing had actually happened.
Ben Reed’s short fiction has previously appeared in Pank, Seattle Review, Big Fiction, West Branch, and online at Tin House. His nonfiction has been published by Southern Humanities Review, The Texas Review, and online at The Millions. His short stories have won The Texas Observer Short Story Contest, the Avery Anthology Small Spaces Prize, and the Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. Ben is a senior lecturer at Texas State University, where he teaches literature and creative writing.
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