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Friday, May 25, 2012

The Dreamings

Novel Ideas Dept.: Here's the start of something I wrote fifteen years ago, a novel titled The Dreamings that was inspired by a show at NYC's Asia Society of Australian Aboriginal art. In my book, one of the protagonists, Sidney, is a frustrated middle-class American who discovers a renewed sense of artistic identity when he oversees the installation of a traveling exhibition of such paintings, which occupy a world (and religion, and cartography, and so much more) of their own. Of the many, many rejections this book received from agents and publishers, my favorite was the horrified reaction of one agent who was terribly offended that the opening chapter had to do with peeing. (Later in the book, we learn that there's an Aboriginal myth that tells the story of a man who sees his mother-in-law so engaged and feels compelled to have sex with her, with disastrous results. This becomes a plot point.) Enjoy the first chapter.


THE SWEETEST SENSE OF privacy emerges after midnight, when traffic noise is stilled enough to reveal the plangent hum of distant streetlamps. The telephone is silent, the TV is dark: the living room is pleasant. But even finer and quieter, for Sidney’s purpose, is the bathroom, where he can ease through several chapters of a book while tending to his body’s equilibrium. He and his wife, Lynette, established a casual bathroom intimacy early in their relationship, an intimacy he later understood was a mistake. Not that the bodily functions were reason for shame or embarrassment — Sidney had no problem peeing at public-restroom urinals even when flanked by micturating men. He simply craved the few minutes of solitude a bathroom break provides, and now was forced to grab them at night.

A once-promising painter who let himself slide into complacency, thirty-five-year-old Sidney Marsh grew up in a comfortably middle-class environment that wrapped him in a cocoon of artistic splendor. His passion for art, beginning with the likenesses drawn by caricature artists in Mad magazine and evolving into a sophisticated appreciation of work both modern and classic, was fueled by easy access to Manhattan’s museums and a few notable artists. Sidney studied at a succession of schools and studios in the city. His Connecticut home was a short commuter trip away.

With so much art around him, Sidney assumed that his passion was universal. Who, after all, could fail to respond to late Turner with anything but awe? Who wouldn't find the enigma of the human condition glowing in the mock-peaceful faces of a Cassatt? From the acknowledged masters Sidney learned his footing; he also was lucky enough to grow up in a town that boasted a good museum of modern art, and he welcomed each new exhibition with the certainty that one day he, too, would hang in those halls.

And so he did, but with cruel irony he was there, as this story begins, only to hang the works of others. Neither his boss nor any of the museum's principals knew about his interest in art, never mind had ever looked at his pantings. Much of the stuff that comprised each new exhibition was intimidatingly good, and Sidney’s ambition ebbed. He spent less and less time at the easel. He came to a creative standstill. He had a job, though a frustrating one, and he might very well have let his spirit ossify were it not for a startlingly unusual exhibition that came into town. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Sidney's character was impressionistic. At close range he was a collection of colorful contradictions. Quiet enough to be judged shy or even ineffectual, he was inwardly buffeted by a middle-class mix of anger and fear. Neutral in his physical aspect — medium height, weight, build, skin boringly caucasian, hair and eyes boringly brown — he imagined himself unattractive while gratefully downing any praise that wandered his way. Like everyone suffused with self-consciousness, he embarrassed easily. And he was a private person who paid fanatical heed to the privacy of others not out of respect for them but, with self-absorption typical of Sidney, on his desire not to witness the potentially embarrassing.

This is why the following problem took on such huge proportions: Late one warm night, in the middle of the year, he entered the small bathroom only accessible through the bedroom in which he and his wife slept and discovered Ruth, his enormous mother-in-law, astride the toilet, noisily peeing. He drew back in panic from the horrible sight of an already unattractive woman revealed to a nauseous degree.

He gaped for a frozen moment before pulling the door shut and leaning, panting, against an adjoining wall. His wife, Lynette, stirred in her swaddle of covers to murmur a query.

Sidney said nothing. He doubted his senses. This was a nightmare. No; the ache in his bladder was real.

How long had Ruth been in there?  Why didn't she use the other, more accessible bathroom in the apartment?  The intrusion into his private chambers was also a concern. Had he been sprawled on the bed naked when she passed? It was a hot night and he tended when the temperature was high to roll out from under the blankets.

The blast of the bathroom faucet sent him back under the covers. He hid his head and listened during the sound-effects sequence that included flush, door opening, footsteps — and the closure of his bedroom door.

He peeked out. The bathroom was empty. He swung his legs to the floor and sat up. His legs felt too long, an annoying and silly distraction when there was so much more just now to worry about. He usually looked underkempt and this latest annoyance only added to his aspect of roughed-up despair. Too agitated now for sleep, he pulled on a bathrobe, slippered his feet and padded down the hall into the kitchen, where he took a seat at the small, linoleum-topped table and contemplated punishment for his intrusive mother-in-law.

Beginning with a delightful image of Ruth fastened to a large plunger, rolls of fat ballooning between tight linen straps, lowered slowly into a bubbling cauldron. If the fiery fluid were, say, chocolate, it would be ecstatically appropriate, destroying her in a manner consistent with her excesses.

Like babbling. The woman nattered for hours on inconsequentials, her favorites being the deaths and disabilities of others. To silence which Sidney imagined a do-it-yourself tracheotomy performed with a Phillips-head screwdriver, severing the vocal cords en route.

No: that would only play into her preferred role as victim. And a speechless Ruth would be a dependent misery. She often promised to spend her dotage with Lynette, as if such were an honor. The woman wanted, baby-like, to be fussed over and cooed at. It was important, therefore, to keep her healthy as possible until a swift death removed her for good.

Making Sidney's reverie useless. He knew himself to be incapable of murder, and nothing else would remove this annoying cow of a woman any too soon. She was fat, but stayed much too healthy as she bloomed through her fifties. Ruth had achieved her identity of wife and mother in the era when such was a woman's pinnacle of achievement. In dress and appearance she was drab, clothing herself in pastel sacks and layering face and hands (and heaven knows where besides) in scented white powder, giving her the appearance of a dish of mashed potatoes.

She visited alone because her small, sallow husband pleaded ill-health to exempt him from accompanying her. “I can't ride in the car that long,” he whined, referring to the three-hour trip from Albany, New York, to the Connecticut suburb where Lynette now lived. Lately, Ruth was pestering her husband to sell the house and his failing fix-it business and move near Lynette. And she usually got everything she whined for. Making it all the clearer to Sidney that this woman had to die.

The apartment he shared with Lynette was on the second floor of an old carriage house, reached by an outdoor set of stairs. The steps were sturdy and guarded by a handrail. Perhaps a hazardous item left on the top step but one, flinging her violently down onto the pavement?  At first he could envision only the objects of film comedy (roller skate, banana peel) until a scene played on his mind’s movie screen in which a brown paper garbage bag, bottom moistened by a used wad of coffee grounds, exploded on its way to the cans below and littered the dark steps with a perilous shower of slippery shit: squashy tomatoes, squares of wax paper, the cylindrical shell of a shaker of grated cheese.

How to get Ruth out the door in a hurry?  Some unreasoning fear — thunderstorm, say, or rodent — might propel her. But the woman seemed frightened of nothing: she was a complainer, not a coward. Her maternal imperatives were mighty, and a phone call pretending to be from a hospital would get her out to the side of a supposedly wounded daughter. But if Ruth then weren't killed outright, the hoax would be revealed.

Sidney looked at the squalid little kitchen he and his wife had shared during the four years of their marriage, part of a squalid apartment rented for next to nothing thanks to a his job at the museum. Sidney worked as a handyman at a converted 18th-century church always in need of plaster or paint, and the owner, J. Donald McMasters, wasn't above snagging Sidney to work on the grounds, where McMasters displayed his collection of contemporary sculpture, or on the adjoining house, where the boss and his wife lived part time.

They spent most of each week in Manhattan but traveled to the suburbs almost every weekend. The museum's board of directors comprised a group of the similarly well-heeled. One of them, Roy Wolfram, a design artist at a New York advertising agency, was Sidney's landlord.

Wolfram's property included an 18th-century house used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War. From there it was a five-minute walk to the museum along New Salem's Main Street, a state highway that serviced the daily commuters and the weekending New Yorkers. Wolfram saw himself as a patron of the arts and gave Sidney a break in the rent when he saw the young man’s easel and canvases arrive.

But Sidney's stalemated artistic career was now stored in the attic of the former rectory that adjoined the museum. He had good intentions of getting back to work on his paintings one day, and mentally created spectacularly-colored tableaux that only needed to be captured on canvas. He was sensitive to the landscape around him, delighting in felicitous mixtures of natural shapes and lighting, mentally challenging himself to design such scenes in a still-life. Even an oppressive early morning like this one had its pleasurable features, such as the little wash of almost-August daylight that outlined the night-grey hills, complemented aurally by the squawks of morning birds. Sidney stared out the kitchen window and felt suddenly exhausted. And all the more in need of taking that piss.

The apartment had the luxury of two bathrooms: the unit off the bedroom was an afterthought of only commode and sink, but a bath or shower could be taken in the room that adjoined the kitchen. Sidney dragged himself there and emptied his bladder. What used to be a process of pee, shake, and go had been lengthened by age into a ritual that included a long start and an encore of stray droplets. He was forced to dab the end of the damned thing with toilet paper and still he anointed his hand.

He flushed. Ruth's problem was revealed when the amber water welled up and poured over the sides of the bowl. He jumped back to protect his slippers and watched the waters flow to the walls and vanish, no doubt to rain on Mr. Wolfram's similarly-colored Mercedes, parked below.

The bathroom is a secret tyrant whose power is felt only when it’s denied. Dreams aren't actionable and he had raised neither voice nor fist to Ruth; still, he felt humiliated by his anger. The poor woman had been forced by biological necessity to creep through his bedroom . . . but how did she know the toilet out here was plugged unless she herself initially clogged and flooded it?

The sneaky shrew. Leaving the problem for someone else to discover. He walked to the apartment's only entrance, the door off the kitchen, and contemplated the spot below where Ruth's mangled, bloody body would be found after the accident.

Sidney was an accomplished dreamer who provided a complete mise en scene for his action, moving his characters consistently in character. His sexual fantasies, therefore, were elaborate but pedestrian scenarios in which a credible courtship was first imagined. Women didn't wantonly approach him in life; why should they be expected to do so in fantasy?

The necessity of keeping his dreams in line with life's realities was demonstrated during his adolescence when he daringly allowed himself to picture a beautiful but inaccessible classmate named Marie as his seductress, in a carefully-crafted scene that placed her in his bedroom during an evening when his parents were away.

Once there, Marie removed her clothing with excruciating alacrity, revealing herself to be so blindingly gorgeous that he was unable to imagine the picture. He mentally substituted a favorite Playboy centerfold.

Their coupling also was a wholly imagined act to which he assigned the physical sensations of the masturbation that accompanied it. The excitement of it lingered long after he'd towelled away the evidence, and when he next saw Marie in school he boldly greeted her at lunchtime and attempted to sit beside her.

“You can't sit there,” she told him. “That's my boyfriend's place.”

He was crushed. And frightened by the power of a dream that allowed him to act so rashly. From then on he was persuaded to keep the images in check, and such discipline undermined even the pleasurable scenes of his mother-in-law's destruction.

And caused his fantasy willy-nilly to go on to the arrival of ambulance and police and subsequent investigation. Even the sight of her ruined body was difficult to keep in mind: he really wished nobody that kind of physical harm.

What shocked him next was the sensation that arrived as replacement. He felt pity for Ruth, even a twinge of tenderness. Her unattractiveness became fascinating. Having never had any physicial contact with her, spurning even brief kisses of polite greeting, he imagined her defining characteristic as softness, made all the softer by her extra weight. He pictured her in the poncho-like nightwear she preferred, and was startled as his imagination dived beneath that garment to contemplate her in her altogether, the freckled white of shoulders and throat swelling into the gargantuan bosom that had given first nourishment to his wife. How wonderfully pliant those breasts must be, settled with age into a spongy magnificence! And then more of that ivory softness taking him over the mound of belly onto the Mount of Venus from which the explorer could contemplate the valley of pleasure below . . . .

“Good God,” he said, startling himself by speaking aloud. He switched off the fantasy as a wave of guilt crashed into his imagination. He cleared his brain by considering the morning. Sneaky dawn was lighting trees and rooftops now and the birds chorused with a full-throated roar.

He could steal another two hours of sleep if he slipped back into bed, and he imagined himself snuggling against Lynette, lulled unconscious by her warmth as he pretzeled against her.

This dream was pervasive enough to put him under. He slept, sitting, at the kitchen table, head tipped comically to one side, and was awakened by his wife when she rose two hours later to prepare breakfast.

“What the hell were you doing sleeping here?” she asked, but he was unable to answer. His head and neck were paralyzed in pain. ■

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