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dan chaon

i wake up

I wake up along the side of the road where in a ditch there is a patch of mossy clover like a pillow. An old farmer drives by in a pickup and gives me a ride in it.

In the dream, a girl I'd almost once married called me on the phone. It was all very normal and un-dreamlike. I was surprised because I hadn't heard from her in years.

"Your mom asked me to talk to you," she said. "She's very worried about you. All of them are."

I said, "My God, Erin, I can't believe it! How long has it been? It's good to hear your voice. How are you?"

"I'm fine," she said. Her voice was businesslike but not unkind. "I think the real question is, how are you? What are you doing to yourself? You're a mess."

"Well," I said. I was a bit taken aback. She sounded so judgmental, and all I wanted to do was talk. "It's complicated, really," I said. "I'm going through some changes."

"I know," she said.

"It's not as bad as it might sound," I said.

I was almost awake by that time, and I heard myself speaking the words aloud, and I opened my eyes and stared at the weeds and gravel near my face. I couldn't even recall what state I was in. It might have been Kansas.

I say to the old man, "Are the crops good in Kansas this year?" and he moves his fingers lightly along the curve of the pickup's giant steering wheel. He doesn't look at me.

"I wouldn't know," he says. "I've never been there."

"Ah." The rhythm of the tires over the dirt road made my eyes heavy again, in the warmth and the smell of the defroster and the old man's silence. I felt my mind open and close like a camera shutter, my chin bumping my chest and then up again. I say, "Would you mind if I slept for a while? I'm real tired."

He says, "Go right ahead."

It would be nice to get back to that conversation I was having with Erin, but of course it never works that way. I close my eyes and put my balled hands against my belly. I always do this. I've tried to go to sleep in other positions, but I can't. I once had the thought that I must have had my fists curled up against my stomach when I was in the womb.

What happens when you start to dream? I wish I knew more about the functions of the brain. Chemicals control it, little flashes of energy traveling from nerve to nerve, other things that are complicated but I have heard of them. Still, we are who we are. No one really believes that thoughts are chemicals. When I was a child, I used to imagine that thoughts floated out of us, like a web trailing behind a spider. I pictured feathery, invisible threads unraveling from our heads as we walked. A dream starts out as a thought and then it begins to loosen and finally drifts away, unmoored, floating upward like an angel. If you were in a room full of sleeping people, these things would fill the air like the downy seeds of cottonwood trees. I used to feel heavy with all the thoughts I tried to keep ahold of.

I can hear the low, warm vibration of the truck in my dream, and I am vaguely aware of the soft smell of carbon monoxide which makes my head feel slightly larger, as if I am growing a cap. But I am not inside a truck.

In another life I might have been some sort of small heavy mammal, the kind with a thick pelt and short, nearly useless legs; you see these types of creatures sometimes in your yard late at night, when your wife and son are asleep and you step onto the back porch for a smoke, opossums, raccoons, startled as the porch light comes on, their eyes glinting, loping--jiggling--scurrying into the bushes, like a person on thorazine trying to crawl quickly. Their bodies are too slow and casual to express terror. They seem both comic and arrogant as they waddle into the shadows. But they are actually quite desperate. This is a part of the dream I'm having.

People may be looking for me, though I'm not sure to what extent or what resources they have at their disposal. I imagine that photos of me have circulated among the police--perhaps have even appeared in the newspapers back home--but I am sure that they all presume that I am dead. By this time they would have found my car in the lake, and there would have been a search of some sort--I picture deputies and volunteers and dogs combing over the area, looking for clues, and there is no doubt a strong suspicion that foul play is involved somehow. They will be looking for a body, not a living person. Maybe this is all a romanticized notion of what would happen, taken from television and mystery books. I really know nothing of police procedure.

I had taken the precaution of shaving off my hair before I abandoned the car, which altered my appearance considerably. For a while I was sure that everyone would make the connection between my disappearance and the car which I stole from the parking lot of the mall. I don't know whether they did or not.

But in any case a few days later I was in another state and I went into a bar. It was the type of bar I expected it to be, a local place, very rough, full of drunken workers. I might have once been nervous. But I was thinking of my idea when I walked into the dark and smoke. A television mounted up above the bar was showing "Entertainment Tonight," and I felt my cheek twitch in the way it does sometimes, half of my face pulling up a smile, involuntarily, when I'm being looked at. It was a little crowded. Almost everyone was a man--laborers, thick boots and flannel shirts and hard, sad eyes. They were aware of me.

In retrospect, I wonder how I must have looked to them. The group of young toughs whom I approached seemed to draw back as I came near to them, and one could see the confused, boyish earnestness beneath their loud talk and flushed, beery grins. I had to take it easy, I thought, coming toward them in the attitude of someone walking up to a stranger's dog.

"Hi, fellows," I said, and not one of them answered. So, I simply plunged in. "I need to get my nose broken," I said. I reached in my pocket and withdrew a crumpled bill. "I'll give twenty dollars to whoever will help me out."

They looked at one another. There were four of them, probably all in their early to mid twenties, house painters from the look of their clothes and skin. Their shaggy hair was flecked with white paint--a few strands, here and there, gummed together and stiff--and their hands and foreheads were freckled with it.

I smiled--gently and, I thought, sanely. "I realize its a strange request," I said. "What if I made it fifty dollars?"

"Are you some kind of fucking freak?" said one, a heavy-set blond whose looks were somewhat reminiscent of those first-grade reader pictures of Dutch boys, walking among windmills and tulips in wooden shoes. He glowered at me.

"Let's say a hundred dollars then," I said. "I can't go any higher than that."

Another, pocked face beneath a straggly beard, said, "Why don't you break your own dang nose?"

"I would," I said. "But I'm not sure how to go about it."

The five of us gathered in the alley behind the bar and I stood up against the wall with my jacket behind my head as a cushion. I had bought them several rounds of shots, in addition to the hundred dollars, but still they were doubtful. I hinted to them that I was being pursued by some criminals. The liquor, and my vagueness, seemed to fire their imaginations.

"Are you sure you want to do this, man," said the bearded guy, who had wrapped his handkerchief around his knuckles.

I closed my eyes. "Yes," I said. I imagined I was asleep on an plane, buoying above the rush of air and velocity. "Yes," I said, "do it. " and I waited peacefully for what seemed like a very long time, so that I almost believed they'd left me and I almost opened my eyes when his fist connected. I was surprised--not by the pain, which I expected, but by the very vivid, lightning-like, glowing tree that branched through my brain at the moment of impact, and which still remained, hovering in front of me when I opened my eyes--the way a ghostly circle of light will bob in front of you if you look directly at the sun. There was a great deal of blood, and the boy who had hit me kept saying, "Oh, man, oh, man, that hurt, Jesus!" and another one of them untucked his shirt and ripped off a piece to give me to stanch the blood.

This reminded me of a time when my son and I were trying to fly a kite in the park and a young man who had been watching us from the distance came over and explained that a kite needs to have a tail, which I had forgotten. We searched around for a while, looking along the edges of the field for a bit of rag, and after a minute or two the young guy said, "Oh, what the hell, " and cut off a long strip from the bottom of his t-shirt--just like that--with a pocket knife. I recall feeling a little shocked. "You didn't have to do that," I said, but he just shrugged, and we knelt down, the three of us in the grass, to work on the kite. I remember being impressed because I honestly had never realized that if I wanted I could rip my shirt on purpose and there would be no repercussions. Maybe that's where the whole thing started. Later, I dropped a glass on the floor, for no reason except that there was a certain type of feeling, and then another time it was a kitchen chair which amazingly broke easily into pieces until I was holding nothing but two twigs and shaking them against the floor, and one night in the garage I went after the hood of my car with a hammer, maybe five or six times, as hard as I could. There was an echo and a creak as the metal bent inward and in the morning I told my wife that there had been an accident of some sort and she wanted to know what had happened and I said I didn't know but I would call the insurance and take care of it. I felt a little flushed.

The old man wakes me up when we get to the interstate and he lets me off at a truck stop.

"This is as far as I can take you," he says. He doesn't say anything else, but he looks at me for a long moment, and I touch the bandage on my face, smoothing the adhesive against my skin. I smile.

And though he doesn't smile back, though he doesn't look at me kindly or even curiously, I touch his hand--just for a moment. It strikes me suddenly that he has taken an unexplainable risk. My clothes are beginning to smell bad, and my nose is still swollen grotesquely. I have also added a scar along one side of my cheek, which I put there one evening with a razor blade. What would possess him to pick up a person such as me, I wonder; does he think of himself as taking a chance?

"Thank you," I say, and his eyes hold me for a moment, grim old eyes with a flicker behind them.

"Take care," he says.


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