Monday, October 10, 2011

FICTION: Dreems by Michael McCloskey

Cardeo Vasquez answered my questions about his young employee Charlie Dreems, who had disappeared some-time late last week, in a small back office of his treadmill and stationary bicycle shop. Looking enormous behind a tiny desk half in the shadow of a steel-gray filing cabinet, he kept pausing to apologize for the shot air conditioner or wipe sweat from his forehead as he told me, Yeah, yeah, always showed up on time, never late. Nah, he never said anything about family. At least not to me—didn't talk much at all. Quiet. We broke his balls about it, a little bit. Kid could sell a treadmill though, if that means anything.

I loosened my tie and pulled it down off my neck, wondering who set the dress code, and aired out my shirt. Sweat stains had formed at the armpits, drip marks down the sides.

“What about an address?” I said. “You have it in your paperwork anywhere, pay slips?”

“No,” Vazquez said. “I never, I was paying him under the table, cash.”

I nodded and looked down at the blank notepad page that I'd sweated all over.

“Humidity's supposed to break tonight they said,” Vazquez said. “Storms.”

“I heard that. Uh, what about a girlfriend, friends? Dreems. I know you said he hardly talked, but he was working good hours.”

“Thirty-forty a week.”

“Right, so did he ever have anybody, stop in to see him, something, that you can remember?”

Vasquez put his head back and shut his eyes. “You know what, he did,” he said, sitting up now. “Fuck was her name though?” He looked down. “Jesus Christ. Tip of my tongue, uh.”

“You ever talk to her yourself, see her?” I said. “Maybe you remember what she did, where she's from?”

“She used to bring him lunch, in grocery bags. One second.”

He took his cell phone from his pocket, chair squeaking as he moved, and called someone. That broad who was up Dreems's ass, the cookies, what was her name?—Shit, that's it, that's it— All right I'll talk to you.

“Lana Gates.”

I wrote the name down between sweat drops on the pad.

“No help on an address or nothing,” he said. “I'm sure she's close. Older broad. For him, at least.”

“All right, yeah. I'll see what happens with it then. I appreciate the help, really.”

We shook hands and I saw myself out into the main showroom, where Dreems's replacement was walking on a treadmill and pressing buttons for an older couple and the entrance bell was ringing, admitting people from the cardiologist's office next door. Outside, smelling the ocean, I overheard a couple of deliverymen talking, Yeah yeah, cause they think the little girl's psychic or whatever, and then the song's playing when he dies, you know?—probably some detective show on TV, but hearing the guy's voice, the accent, so clear and sudden in the shadows of the sidewalk.

Across the street I tossed my tie and notepad on the passenger seat of my car and stood leaning on the open driver's side door, looking up and down the little town's Main Street, when I realized I was standing across from a telephone booth on the sidewalk, against a storefront. “Shit.”

The booth had no door. I found no phone book. The phone was light weight and felt sticky on my sweaty palm like plastic. “The fuck?” I said and tapped a flat lifeless numberpad. I stepped out of the booth and shielded my eyes to look up at the blue and red letters ROARING TWENTIES DINER, feeling dizzy, the sun and heat all of sudden. I stood in the shade for a while and eventually used a passing teenager's Iphone to look up Lana Gates's address and phone number.

She lived on Royal Road in a development just outside the town's business district— ranch-style home, pale blue, plastic pots of pink flowers hanging off the front windowsill. When I told her my reason for coming, she said Oh? and, without asking questions, let me in and offered me a cup of tea, because she was just boiling water for a cup herself.

The living room looked old but fresh and clean, like the recreated home of some historical figure. I sat on a couch between tables that held lamps the size of small tents. Moments later a gray and white cat, Ellie, and a Toto dog, Ippy, whose names Lana told me as she set down the cups and saucers, jumped up and lay on opposite sides of me against my legs. Another dog, Pard, much bigger than Ippy, lay on his stomach in the kitchen doorway, droopy eyes looking up at me. “He's shy,” Lana said.

I'd never drunk tea on a saucer and was awkwardly taking sips picking the cup up and down as Lana told me of how she'd met Dreems. They'd started talking one day at a bookstore, and then Lana had gone to Vasquez's to look at treadmills for her father, where they recognized each other and talked again. She forgot exactly what happened after that meeting, but soon Dreems was visiting her at home, and she was visiting him at work, almost every day during the week.

She gave off the same feeling as the room. In a long white house dress with a black stripe around the waist, proper holding the cup and saucer in her lap, she looked older than early-thirties, yet on closer inspection I realized how pretty she was, beautiful even—an elegant glow about her, with hair like Gene Tierney's in Laura and a hint of a British accent.

I was peeking at my sweat stains and trying to smell myself without her noticing when, having finished her story, she said, “How did you know to look for him?”

“What do you mean?”

“It wasn't in the papers, I don't think. Television. How would anyone, um, know he was gone?”

“That's why I'm looking for him, cause he's gone,” I said.

“I see.”

She looked away and down, suddenly solemn. After a moment I realized she was listening: a radio was playing in the kitchen. “He hated this song,” she said.

“The World Really Stinks, But Nothing Will Stop Me from Being Optimistic”: James Guvner's number-one hit for weeks—a semi-acoustic tune, with some reggae in the beat, that stations played at least twice an hour.

“I think I hate it too,” I said.

She smiled, touching the handle of her teacup. “He said he could never think straight when he was here.”

“Oh, real—did he uh, say, any reason why?”

“I don't know.”

“Were you having. Was it a sexual relationship, you had?”

She twitched, making the cup clink on the saucer. “I won't answer that,” she said. “I won't.”

“I'm sorry.”

“We were. At least twice, you know, two of the days we saw each other. At the beginning.”

“So you guys weren't, you haven't been seeing each other a lot lately, recently?”

“Less and less,” she said. “Once a week, here. I went to see him at the store. When he wasn't leaving early to see her.”

“Her, you said?”

She turned her head, as if to shake off the thought of this person, but was looking at me again as she said, “Georgia Merkelwhip.”

“Georgia Merkelwhip? The actress?”

“Yes. You've heard of her?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I uh, I wrote a paper about her, actually. For school once, a film class.”

She had broken into starring roles in the late-forties, a tall beauty but full in the hips with big dark eyes. At nineteen years-old, she had held her own alongside many of the first-generation male stars whose careers were winding down and who said, in later interviews or speeches at AFI events, that young Georgia, with her fluid movements and smooth voice and professionalism, sparked their second wind, albeit briefly in some cases. My professor had built a portion of the syllabus around her because she lived in the county, in a house of many sections off a curving road, behind a gate, that we passed in high school on the bus to baseball games. She had spoken at the community college the year after I had left.

I said to Lana, “You don't think they were. They couldn't have been…”

“I think those days are over for her.”

“I guess they were friends, then. If you say he was going to see her a lot.”

“I guess so.”

I pet the cat next to me, making her purr and curl and push harder against my leg. The dog had rolled away on his side so only his feet touched me.

“He never used the bathroom here,” Lana said. “Not once, I watched him. And he was here for hours, sometimes.”


We stayed silent for a while until Pard stood up in the kitchen doorway and stretched, squeaking—picking up on his movement I said, rising, “I should go. I, I'm taking up too much of your time.”

Lana leaned forward, put her cup down and reached over to open the drawer of the lamp table next to her. “Take my number,” she said, moving things in the drawer. “I have a card. I do embroidery, independently.”

At the door, as I looked over the card again, she said, “You'll give me call, if you find anything? Either number's fine.”

“Day or night?” I said.

“I—I guess so. If it's not too late.”

“Okay,” I said and left.

I drove through an open gate and passed an empty servants quarters and then was walking up a long gravel path to where she stood looking at a patch of blue and white flowers, in gardener's gloves, a dark purple dress blowing around her legs above a red rose tattoo on the ankle, a wide straw hat on top of long gray hair. Even with her eyes in shadow I sensed she knew why I was here. She lifted her chin, a hand on hip, semblance of a smile on her lips, to greet me.

“You knew Charlie Dreems,” I said.

Now she did smile. “Yes,” she said, as if remembering. “Charles. Chucky.”

“You called him that?”



“I'm Georgia, if that helps any.”

I smiled. She smiled and laughed. I laughed and looked away.

“Stay as long as you like,” she said, pulling off her gloves and turning toward the house, gesturing for me to follow. “You can look at the room. I'll make us something to eat.”

The room was in the backyard, beyond the swimming pool in a hut with a cloudy window above the door. Georgia only pointed at it from a distance, said “It's open,” and went away around the house. I listened to the swimming pool gurgle and insects chirp and then moved toward Dreems's hut.

Appearing smaller on the inside for its contents—two rolling chairs, a folding table, two desks opposite each other, on one a computer, mini-printer and stacks of printed pages, and on the other notepads, pens and loose-leaf pages of notes; a three-piece stereo on the floor in the back corner; and filling nearly all other free space stacks of books, CDs and DVDs—the room was dark and close and smelled of plants. I propped open the door with a chair, spreading light. On one wall hung a cardboard poster for Black Ice, 1949, in which Georgia Merkelwhip plays a young widow who survives the car wreck that kills her husband and eventually cracks under the pressure of her detective brother-in-law to admit she yanked the car off the road in the heat of an argument after the company New Year's Eve party that night: an alternate promotional cover with Georgia's face large at the front-right, looking nervous but deceitful, next to the silhouette of a car taking a curve. I sat on the other chair and rolled to the computer desk.

Dreems was writing a story that began

Whoever wrote the New Testament cut out all my best lines, like when I told that big Roman to go screw when we went dancing in Damascus for my birthday—you should've seen this guy's face—so I decided to put down the truest narrative possible pertaining to the roots and development of my following.

and went on to retell parts of Christ's arrest and persecution, how Pilate originally fined him the modern-day equivalent of $250 and dismissed him, how Christ and the apostles arranged private meetings to request crucifixion. But the story never ended, and neither did any of the dozen or so others except for one—a short piece about a car drifting onto the shoulder of a dangerous road, striking and killing a man on a bicycle, and then another car striking and killing the man's wife as she erects a memorial at the spot of the accident.

Dreems was even writing a long essay with a feminist slant that analyzed the portrayal of childbirth in sitcoms. The comfortable cliché of a woman in labor displaying more calm than her leg-weary and fainting husband, Dreems posited, exaggerates a woman's strength to belittle it under the surface. He tied this hypothesis into a separate essay on the Purely Penis Perspective Theory of Men and Childbirth, an analytical approach in the early American Psychology mold of William James, which he had only just started.

Atop, between and beneath these papers I found scores of losing racetrack tickets—and when I turned away from the computer desk to the stacks of books, I found that Dreems was using the tickets for his reading, too: as traditional bookmarks in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (3-5 exacta box) and A Moveable Feast (exacta 4/1,8,9), and as reference stickers in Ulysses, in which he'd apparently marked off all of the pages that mentioned the Gold Cup races.

I was sitting at the other desk looking through the writing pads, mostly fragmentary notes for what I'd just read, when Georgia Merkelwhip said, “The poster was his idea.”

I looked up at BLACK ICE A new kind of thriller on the wall in front of me. For a moment I stared at the poster, sweat in my eyes and feeling dizzy. I turned to where she stood in the doorway, hat off to reveal a part in her hair, same as in the poster—and the eyes, still dark.

“It was his, actually,” she said. “I never kept any of that stuff.”

“Any reason?”

She exhaled and brushed her hair off one shoulder. “Who knows. I put the food out, if you're ready.”

We ate in the sun room, sitting across from each other at the smaller of two tables. Georgia had added chopped clams to leftover tomato sauce and served it over linguine with bread and butter on the side. She mostly watched me eat, smiled when I said, “It's delicious, real good,” smiled again when I spilled soda on my shirt, and exaggerated preparing herself to talk—pushing her plate and cup aside, leaning forward with her elbows on the table—when I'd finished eating and was holding in burps.

“So how did you meet, you and him?” I said.

“It could've been in one of my movies,” she said and paused, as if remembering. “He wrote me a fan letter.”

I laughed. “Really.”

“Yeah. First one in, at least five years, maybe ten. I don't think he, he couldn't believe it when I invited him here. His face. Seeing it was only me and, most of the time only me. I think people see all the little huts and garages and think it's I don't know, like a fortress. A finely-tuned operation.”

“I uh, I understand why. I thought the same thing.”


We looked away from each other, easing into our chairs. I looked up again.

“What was up with all the tickets back there?” I said. “Losers, I guess. From the track.”

“He liked the track. Probably too much.”

“You went with him?”

“He took me to the live racing once. What're those over there, trotters? Only once. He didn't like that I bet birthdays, anniversaries.”


“He tried to teach me to handicap, the program. He would bring it here, like we were gonna work on it together... I feel like I'm talking about one of my grandsons, when they were little. Great grandsons, now. I guess he just gave up eventually. I left the handicapping to them.”

“Them, you said?”

“The two of them. He had a friend there. A professor, he said. A name, apparently. Robert Chandler. Bob. He mentioned him a lot, only reason I could tell you the name.”

“Older guy, or…?” I said.

“Another oldie. Like he wanted to die twice, Charlie. Three times. All these seniors around.”

“So that's what it was kind of like with you and him, grandparent grandson.”

“I don't know,” she said.

I noticed the slightest change for the sadder in her voice, her expression, and crumpled my napkin to fill the gap.

I said, “He lives around here, this professor?”

“Yeahh, I think so, actually. I'm trying to think... I could look him up for you, on the computer. Or you can. Obviously. You should be able to find something. A start.” The hint of a smile returned—straddling girlish and mature, like in the movies. “I feel like I'm reading lines again. I don't know. Anything else?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “How'd they ever give you top billing with a name like Merkelwhip? Marilyn Monroe was what, Mortensen? And they made her change that.”

“When you give a blowjob like me, you don't worry about names.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said, looking away.

“What's the matter?” She was laughing.

Robert Chandler was Professor Emeritus of Baron Angole Literature in the Dana and Molly Nirdlinger School of the Humanities at the county's lone and prestigious university. He had published scholarly articles and spoken at conferences for decades and had published one longer work, The Jungian Critic, and a book of short stories and poetry, Mandala, My Lovely. On Dreems's computer I followed one website to another and found an address a short drive from Georgia's house.

One of Chandler's sons was backing out of the driveway in a pickup truck, bungee cords hugging an armoire in the bed of it, as I was pulling to the curb. He stopped long enough to say that if I wanted to see his father, I could visit him at the Baher Clinic around the block. They won't give you any trouble, long as he recognizes you. Worst comes to worst say you're me. Gesturing to the back of the truck he said, He was holding this for me, and then took off. So I drove out of the development and down a longer road until I came upon the side entrance of a plaza with CLINIC on the sign among its list of businesses.

Baher Rehab was a temporary residence for alcoholics and depressives, most of whom, according to a square notice on the front window, checked themselves in, proving the clinic's welcoming atmosphere. At the front desk a pretty receptionist in white smiled when I asked to see Bob Chandler, as if she recognized me, and turned to call to a co-worker, who was standing outside a room in the white hallway beyond, that someone was here to pick up Bob. “You can wait here,” she told me.

I turned away from the desk and stared at the empty waiting area. The setting sun was shining onto the chairs and hardwood floor. Bob Chandler was emerging from the back hallway, slippers shuffling, thin beneath a baggy white T-shirt and sweatpants, thick head of white hair blending in with white stubble on the cheeks. He nodded at me and then looked down at the receptionist. “Why would I expect one of my sons?” he said.

“I'm starting to see a pattern,” she said.

When he looked at me again, he squinted and said, “Oh, shit. Who are you?”

“I'm here about Charlie Dreems, professor,” I said. “I have some, questions for you.”

“Professor, yeah. I like that. Good enough,” and he signed himself out.

Flicking cigarette ashes through a crack in the window as we turned out of the plaza, Chandler said, “I saw him uh, Saturday night. Afternoon. Late afternoon. We went to the simulcasting usually, Saturdays. I had a load on though. He knew better than to drag me to that shithole.” He coughed into his hand. “I checked myself in over there the next day. Walked, these fucking things.”

“So he went himself that night, you think?” I said. “Dreems?”

“I'd say so. He wouldn't waste all that studying.”


“He got the program in advance, for whatever day. I used to tell him do like me, you handicap one at a time while you're there. Drive yourself crazy hunching over the stuff late at night. Imagine days to second-guess? I change my mind ten times standing on line to bet the fucking thing. Do what you can, whatever happens happens.”

“Sounds easier that way,” I said.

“How'd you know he liked to gamble?”

“I just came from uh, Georgia Merkelwhip's house.”

“No shit,” he said. “How's she looking?”

“Uh, not bad at all, actually.”

“I never saw her, outside the movies. Lives right up there... I could still muster the energy for that, Christ. Fuck how she looks.” He flicked the cigarette out and rolled the window up. “I was in love with you, honey,” he said, gazing through the windshield.

I was laughing as we pulled in front of the house.

“What, you wouldn't?” he said.

“You know, if I had the chance...”

We sat for a while. Chandler put his hand near the door handle but was gazing through the windshield again.

“Charlie,” he said. “Fucking kid had a brain. Real smart, or seemed it. Working at a fucking what, uh, selling jumpropes. About as good as the school bullshit I guess.” His eyes were watering. “Selling trampolines praying to hit a Pick-6. Yeah.”

He pulled the lever, pushed the door open wide and said, “That it? I appreciate the lift.”

“Just one thing,” I said. “What kind of car did he drive?”

“I don't know cars. Little black thing. Little bit like this.”

I nodded. “Thank you. Really.”

He swung his legs out, grunting, and faced the house. “Time to take inventory,” and he pushed out of the seat.

In the side parking lot of Colonel Raceway, dead tickets skipping along the pavement around me, I found Dreems's car, among a few others, and looked in at the pile of old race programs on the back seat. I pulled open the passenger door, which had never caught on the lock.

The only Act. The only scene. Barney's Room inside Colonel Raceway on Saturday night, during simulcasting. At the rear of the stage, tellers behind wagering machines work through lines of bettors that extend a good way onto a square of parlor floor. A row of black TVs, back to the audience, hangs down over center stage, above where the parlor floor gives way to carpet on which patrons sit at small black tables, programs open in front of them along with tickets alive or dead—and among them CHARLIE DREEMS—early twenties and thin, in a T-shirt and beige pants—sitting between two empty tables. He holds a ticket in one hand at his knee and is gazing out a window that usually looks onto a dark racetrack. Tonight, he is gazing out at the audience.

A few minutes of stirring conversation among the people: I threw that horse out, let him beat me—I put 9 on top of ALL ALL, who the fuck knows—The guy told them, you have to refinance or lose it, plain and simple. Gradually a small crowd gathers in front of one TV. DREEMS looks over at the TVs, down at the program, and then rises and joins the crowd. He stands just off to the side, close to the TV, quiet. The people watch the race. They say,

Fuckin horse is lame Fuck outta here with this shit Horse won't make it to the gate Bullshit, early speed, yeah Tuck this fuckin thing in, Sears There's a spot, there Hung Fuck Gotta float Crawling to the fucking half Five, five Fifty-six Move with this horse, George Fifty-five and four Putting them to sleep Five, five He's staying in Look at this piece a shit coming out now Stuff it up He's staying in with this fucking horse Fuck is he waiting for? Who comes out with this piece of shit? Un-fucking-believable Mon with this fuckin four now

Programs slap on knees; feet stamp.

Keep him up Stay there Mon with this fuckin four now Stay there Look at this Mon with this fuckin four Stay up Six, six, six Piece a shit fucking thing Rat Six, six-eight Rail No Six-eight—ahhhh

Most of the crowd disperses. DREEMS waits a moment for a path to clear. He walks away, still clutching the ticket and looking around, and exits stage through a door on the right. PHIL watches him go.

He has been squatting against a wall next to the teller stations at the rear, stage left—a man in his late-twenties in a white T-shirt, yellow sweat stains at the armpits and neck rim, and denim shorts. Now he rises and moves quickly, glancing toward the door at stage right, to Dreems's table. He flips through Dreems's program as the audience notices a growth of reddish-blonde stubble on his sunburnt face and neck. Having stopped at a page and marked a spot with his finger, he removes a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and for a few moments compares the program's contents to that of the paper. He turns away from the audience.

PHIL: Sam.

SAM is walking back from placing a bet, looking down at his tickets.

PHIL: Come mere a second. Take a look at this.

DREEMS returns through the door at stage right, ticket still in hand. PHIL notices and walks away from the table. He shakes his head at SAM, and they drift to a TV on the left, cross their arms and gaze up.

DREEMS has walked to the far right end of the teller stations.

DREEMS: Vinny.

VINNY, the head teller, probably in his fifties and bald to the skin so the stage lights shine off his head, lifts his chin and walks over, as Dreems leans on the flip-down counter on his elbows.

DREEMS: Take a look at this.

DREEMS shows him the ticket.

VINNY: What is it?

DREEMS: It hit.

VINNY: Yeah?

DREEMS: Seven-to-two, sixteen-to-one, twelve-to-one, twenty-to-one...

VINNY: How much it pay?

DREEMS: I didn't even look.

VINNY looks out over the room.

VINNY: Come upstairs. I'll get you started, the forms.


Later, off-stage, Charlie Dreems walked through warm night with his head down and entered the side parking lot, leaving the dark racetrack and bright building behind. He heard one, two voices somewhere in the near-darkness as he moved toward where his car waited among empty spots. He was steps away from the passenger side when someone called his name.

Dreems turned. Phil was walking toward him, visible in the glow of the highway beyond— “Charlie, right?”

“Yeah,” Dreems said.

Dreems saw Phil at the track all the time but had never spoken to him. The head teller Vinny had once told Dreems that Phil was living in his car behind a K-Mart and stayed at the track every day from opening till closing to write down the results and scratches for every race at every track so he could look through the Dumpsters at night with a flashlight to find any winning or refundable tickets people had thrown away during the day: Fucking kid's a mess. Real sin.

“Yeah, I see you around,” Phil said. “How'd you do tonight, anything?”

“Uhh, not bad,” Dreems said. “Broke even.”

“Yeah. Listen, come get a drink with us.” Phil gestured over his shoulder to where Sam—a friend of Phil's since little league, Dreems had overheard Phil telling someone once—stood leaning on the half-open door of an old white Pontiac.

“Oh uh, where at?” Dreems said. “I was uh, going to see someone.”

“Oh uh you gotta, you’re, you gotta be somewhere?”

As a car door shut and an engine started, Dreems said, “Yeah, I was on my way, I gotta—”

“Fuck it,” Phil said. “Get a drink. Around the corner.”

The Pontiac was inching toward them. Phil was staring at Dreems, expression blank.

“Place right over here?” Dreems said.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Want me to follow you?”

Phil glanced over his shoulder as the Pontiac stopped behind him. “We got you. We'll drop you back. Hang out. Couple hours.”

“Let me just,” Dreems said, turned to his car and unlocked the passenger door. He heard Phil walking around the Pontiac and felt the money in one pocket shift. He opened the car door. He waited with his hand on the door handle. He thought. He looked over at Sam and Phil in the car. They were staring at him, waiting. He let go of the door.

Then Dreems was sitting in the backseat behind Phil, air musty and hot, and the radio was playing a James Guvner song as Sam untangled wires and said Fucking thing to an Ipod in the cup holder, and the car was moving, on the highway and then off the highway, down a dark road along the far side of a farm, high grass weeds and dust on the shoulder and then stable fence.

Some millionaire lawyer owned the farm. Ken, Italian last name. Owned horses. People at the track talked about him, his farm. Over a hundred horses and he's still got too much room over there-- How many acres is it?-- Never even seen a horse on that back side-- and then the car stopped and Sam pushed up the gearshift.

Turning his head toward the driver's side, Phil said, “How much you got, man?”

Dreems waited for a long moment. “What?”

“How much you clear?”

Then Phil reached back and grabbed Dreems's arm, dug his nails in, turned and leaped on top of Dreems, pounded Dreems's neck with his forearms, breathing on Dreems's face, smell of body odor like sour orange juice, forcing his weight down as Dreems tried to push away, taking one roll of money and then another. Dreems felt the gun in the waistband of Phil's shorts—“No, take—ah, fuck!”

And Phil opened the door, and pushed him out, and shot Dreems once through the back of the head, the force of the shot sending Dreems away from the car where his body, limp, blood spraying from the head, fell into the high grass creating a cloud of dust.

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