The first time she has the dream, it seems perfectly plausible—substantial and factual, with all its details consistent—but because she realizes she is dreaming she is not deceived; she is a well-off, educated young woman with a white-collar husband and a new pink baby, and she knows this is not happening in the real world she will eventually wake up to:
She is carrying a bomb.
This first time, the bomb is hidden under her coat—it is winter, there is snow on the ground and a nearby river is frozen over, a black surface, children skating—and she feels it, a weight she cradles in her arms, even though she doesn’t see it. The worst part is that she hears ticking, too loud to be her wristwatch, and she is afraid the bomb will go off. What a mess that will make! She thinks this, inside the dream, supporting the bomb under her coat, and she even remembers the story of the young Spartan soldier who hides a fox under his clothing, and denies the fox to his superior even as the animal is devouring his vitals. What a strange, erudite dream this is, and how relieved she is to wake in her own bedroom, to look at the nightstand clock and see that it’s time to feed the baby.
Sitting in the kitchen at six a.m., spooning pureed pears into her infant son’s cupid’s-bow mouth, she finds herself pondering not so much the dream’s action as the dream’s cold geography: the river, and the bare willows along the river’s banks, which she had forgotten when she first woke up. If only the trees had been cedars, it might have been the river behind the high school in her hometown. She wonders if any of the children skating might have been friends of hers, and she understands perfectly why each dream ends as it does: if any of them continues, the bomb will explode and at that very moment the world—not her life and not the lives of her grade-school friends or the life of the new pink baby—the real world will be finished, obliterated, over and done with forever.
One summer afternoon when she was ten, Maude Hamlin ate a chip of horse manure offered to her by one of the boys at the stables where they all took riding lessons. She couldn’t remember the context—whether it was Quaker Meeting or Simon Says or some other children’s game involving forfeits—but now, twenty-five years later, she imagined that what she had done that day established the pattern of her life.
“What did it taste like?” her daughter asked, and Maude realized she ought never to have told the story. She had only intended it as an object lesson when Millie came home from school crying about mean boys.
“I don’t recall,” she said. “It was so long ago.”
“I don’t believe you,” Millie said. She was a suspicious child. You couldn’t just tell her something; you had to prove it. “If I ate shit, I’d remember.”
“Yes, I suppose you would.”
“So what did it taste like?”
This was a difficulty with children. If Millie were an adult, Maude would simply say, “It tasted like chicken,” and then they would both laugh and move on to a new subject. The persistence of childhood denied such civility.
“I suppose it was bitter,” Maude said. “Bitter and dry and full of straw bits.”
Her daughter made a retching sound. “That’s so gross.”
“You asked.” She pulled a tissue from the box on the nightstand and dabbed at the tear stains on Millie’s cheek. “If you don’t want to know, don’t ask.”
She had told so many stories about “the boy” that she no longer knew the truth. Was it the same boy—“the horseshit boy,” her daughter called him—who came to her window one pre-dawn morning in February and scratched at the glass until she woke up and let him inside because the dark was so cold? Was it an entirely different boy, who cornered her one evening, just at dusk, behind the Edison School where the swing sets idled in a soft September breeze and the only sounds she remembered were the far-off rise and fall of a police siren and the scuffle of her feet across the schoolyard stones as she fell with the boy on top of her?
“How can you not remember the boy’s name?” her daughter—who was older now, and curious about sex —said to her. “It only happens once in your whole life.”
“I know,” Maude said.
She felt guilty about her ignorance, as if she had somehow deprived her daughter of a vicarious experience that might have proven instructive. But boys were bigger, stronger; you learned to expect them to do whatever they wanted. After all, what did their names matter?
I’m parked in a supermarket lot in Florida, a warm afternoon in March, when a Mercedes sports car pulls into the diagonal slot facing me. A young woman is at the wheel, and when she steps out of the car I “size her up,” as we used to say. She is tall and blonde, wears a white blouse that rides off her shoulders to display a skin golden-tanned and clavicles graceful as heron’s wings; her skirt is pale khaki, with a wide belt closed by a bronze buckle; I can’t see her shoes. She closes the car door, raises her keys in a half-salute that trips locks and winks sidelights. She pays no attention to me—probably she doesn’t even see me slouched in my seat—and strides toward the market. I watch her into the store. Her shoes are white and strappy.
Ten minutes later, she comes back to the car, carrying a banana in her left hand, the car keys in her right. That’s all she bought; a single ripe banana, and it’s not even in a bag. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m remembering a community-theater minstrel show in my home town, years and years ago. Fred Spicer, the prankster member of our town’s richest family, performed a song-and-dance called “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana”; the show ran for three nights in the town hall auditorium, and Fred brought down the house every night. I watch the woman unlock the Mercedes, slide behind the wheel, drive away, and all I can see in my mind’s eye is Fred Spicer, at the climax of his act, holding one end of a banana that really appears straight, until he takes his hand away to reveal the whole curved shape of it and the audience cracks up.
Robley Wilson is the author of three novels, three books of poetry, and six story collections. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction, a Nicholl Fellow in Screenwriting, and was for 31 years the editor of the North American Review. He and is wife, novelist Susan Hubbard, live in Florida with five unruly cats.