No one understands the power of dreams better than the old and the sick. They left him here twelve years ago, after the doctor said he had less than a year to live. Since then he’s defied all expectations, saving his own.
“I want to go home,” he tells the nurse every morning when they come in to wake him, check his pulse, and draw the curtains back from the window. They’ve never listened, even in the beginning, and he has long forgotten what he even means by home. The house on Grant Street has been sold, he was told by his grandson years and years ago. A family with children. The children might even be grown by now. He’s been here that long.
But home exists, somewhere, he’s sure of it. He knows because every morning he wakes with fresh hope, and after they dress him and spoon lukewarm oatmeal into his mouth, he sits by the window facing the flower beds and tries relentlessly to recapture his dreams. He dreams of real events, of past events that he can barely remember, and of things that surely never happened, not in this world or this life. They’re all tangled and piled in the dark fragmented space of his brain. And if he just sits and thinks long enough, he’ll know how to get there.
Sooner than he expects, shadows fall across the tulips and irises and then crawl up the sides of the house to the window. He’s left in semi-darkness until the nurses push him back into the dining room for dinner. They feed him overcooked macaroni and mashed potatoes with gray gravy and look away while he mashes them to soggy paste before swallowing. He sucks Kool-Aid through a plastic straw and lets them wipe away the mess when he’s finished. After dinner they push him into the TV room. They leave him staring at the blaring box in a stupor of half-comprehension for several hours. In the TV room, it’s impossible to concentrate, to revisit the snatches of dream he remembered during his day. He forgets and becomes like the others, a decaying conglomeration of limbs and organs, wasting air and waiting, wanting to die. He watches the pixelated figures enter and exit the screen in boredom, not caring about recent increases in government spending or flooding in Amarillo.
He hates it here, but he’s become used to the slow routine and the quiet hush of the half-dead. When he first arrived, he pushed the nurses away with weak arms, struggled against the belt of his chair, tried to stand on legs long overused. He screamed until he was hoarse, but refused to speak to his son on Christmas. He closed his mouth to the food and spat in the nurse’s face when she tried, gently, to pry open his jaw. He fought bitterly for almost a year. He even tried to die, hiding his medicine under his tongue until the nurse turned away and then spitting onto the floor. He’d screw his eyes up tight in the morning, looking for a hole to go through, a light to follow, a tunnel to slip down and out of this hellhole. It never worked. When March rolled back around with torrents of rain lashing against his bedroom windows, he stopped resisting and began to dream.
His first dreams were angry and terrible. He dreamt of storms and arguments with his wife in their first apartment, of throwing dishes and curses until the sounds of her sobs echoed in his ears after he awoke. He dreamt of the day his daughter, Lydia Sue, was diagnosed with the disease that would eat away at her heart until she fell gasping down the stairs on the morning of her tenth birthday. He dreamt of being in a classroom, his old classroom in Deerfield, of his classmates laughing at him while he tried to read out loud, stumbling over the words while they swam and ran away beneath his eyes. He dreamt of soup spilling off the stove, of bricks falling from the tops of buildings, of wars, of demons, of strange maladies and disfigurement. Often, he dreamt his son was trying to kill him.
But in his dreams he had arms that moved above his head. He had a set of legs that could propel him off his chair and around the room, out of the house and down the street. His eyes saw clearly, his ears heard crashing and yelling, and he could feel wind and rain and the strikes of others against his chest and cheeks. In his dreams, he was alive.
So he looks forward to the hour when the TV will be shut off and the residents will be wheeled back into their rooms, wiped clean with chemical-scented wipes and tucked into bed like children, thin blankets pulled up to their chins. Since he’s been there the longest, he is the last, and he has the room at the end of the hall all to himself. He’s seen nurses come and go, even liked and befriended some of them. He’ll open his mouth obediently while they swipe a soft-bristled toothbrush around his sore gums and shake his head when they ask if he’d like the light on. Closes his eyes.
Tonight he dreams of a train, moving quickly through mountain passes covered in snow. His daughter is on the train, making shapes from a piece of colored string, but he doesn’t stop to talk to her. He strides down the aisle, passing nurses and fellow residents from the nursing home, all of them playing with pieces of colored string. It’s a field trip, of sorts, but they don’t know he’s here. They can’t see him, and he’s moving forward through the train, though he doesn’t know why. He sees his wife up ahead, wearing the blue hat she wore the day they celebrated their 50th anniversary. She turns her head and smiles at him, and he slides into the seat next to her, taking her tiny hand. They look out the window at the snow cresting the sharp peaks, the ice flowing down in shiny rivulets over the rocks, the cold sunlight glinting off the train cars ahead, visible as they make a turn.
“It’s nice here,” he says to her, his wife, his Marianne. “Where are we going?”
“Amarillo,” she says, like this makes perfect sense. “I miss you.”
In his dream he nods, puts his head back against the prickly plush seat, and closes his eyes. He can feel the rumble of the train below his seat and feel her fingers caressing the sensitive valleys between his.
Then he is in a cabin, surrounded by old co-workers from the bank in Chicago. They are there for a conference, and outside he can hear the sounds of cicadas and wind rustling through the trees. The cabin is very much like the one they used to rent as a family every summer before David went to college, packing up the car with bags of potato chips and fishing tackle and driving six hours up North to sit on the shores of Lake Wiaste for a week. Marianne would always burn terribly in the hot sun, and she’d make poultices of the most awful-smelling herbs to lay across her stinging cheeks before she came to bed. David was like his father, and they’d stay out fishing in the direct heat of the day, sweat collecting in every crevice of their bodies until they could no longer stand it and would leap into the chilly deep blues of the lake. But neither Marianne or David is here now. He is alone, or rather surrounded by the nameless faces of people he’s forgotten existed with his waking mind.
“Johnny,” one of them says from across the room, waving him over. He stands and makes his way through the crowded room. Suddenly, everyone begins to clap. “You’re our best employee,” the man says, shaking his hand and handing him David’s old wrestling trophy. “We’re all very proud to have you with us.” Someone takes a picture. He only senses the flash.
The room disappears. He’s alone, in a cold room with only a thin blanket. The blanket has irises and tulips patterned across its surface, but it doesn’t keep him warm. He pulls it tighter around himself and looks for the door, but there is no door. Only a soft gray light filtering into the empty room from a grate high above his head. Panic begins to swell in his chest and he opens his mouth to scream.
It’s morning. The nurse pushes open the door, calls his name softly, and goes immediately to the window to allow the sun to shine across his bed and into his eyes. Her name is Constanza. She’s been his nurse for only a month.
“I’m cold,” he says, his dreams already racing away from him, hiding themselves in the corners of his increasingly useless brain. “It was cold.”
“Your blanket fell off during the night, Mr. Frederickson,” the nurse says reassuringly. “Would you like me to put it back on?” She opens the drawer with his clothes. “What would you like to wear today? It’s going to be very sunny. Maybe your son will come”
He wants her to stop talking. He was cold. But before that, a handshake. Whose hand? The smell of the lake, of dust and of spicy cologne. Snow. A train. Marianne.
“I miss you too,” he mumbles as Constanza leans down to button the last button of his cardigan.
“Good morning, Mr. Frederickson. I missed you too.” She straightens up, runs a comb across his nearly-bare scalp, pushing the sparse hairs back behind his ears. Grunts as she lifts him into his chair.
A familiar knot emerges in his throat. “I want to go home,” he says. “On the train.”
The nurse straightens up and smiles. “Yes, the train. Are we all ready for breakfast?”
She wheels him out of the room.