The dead can dream; I’ll tell you how I know.
Things had been quiet in Blue Mountain for so long that we had all come to mistake inertia for contentment. An entire autumn afternoon, for example, could be spent cataloging the images in cumulus clouds. They rushed over the mountain on their way to other, more important places, each with great mythic import. On October 9th I noted three minotaurs moving in the clouds. I made a list of their various postures. Doubtless a propensity for classical literature and a bottle of French pastis combined to color these perceptions. My time at the university had given me a love of mythology. My friend Dr. Winton Andrews had given me the pastis. Indolence had done the rest. I might have remained in that happy state of suspended animation for the rest of my life. I’ve heard or read that some people have that sort of luck. Alas, lazy autumn turned to bitter winter. On the 3rd of December, just before midnight, a total stranger came into my home and shot me as I slept in my bed. I died before the emergency medical team could find their way to my house.
* * *
But in that sleep of death, what dreams may come? To begin at the beginning, childhood is of absolutely no consequence if it’s handled properly. All normal childhoods are exactly the same as Tolstoy’s happy families: just alike. Unfortunately, my early years were handled as strangely as anyone could possibly imagine.
For reasons I can only guess, my mother always instructed me that it was impolite to tell the truth. In any circumstance, she thought she should make up something better. It was never a harmful lie. In fact, it was generally a lie that was meant to improve a situation.
She would say, “What a splendid looking dress!” no matter what the thing looked like. Or: “These are the most delicious Brussels sprouts I’ve ever eaten.” (Clearly the oxymoron of placing the words delicious and Brussels sprouts in the same sentence needs little comment.)
The worst lies were about me. “My son? He’s a fine, normal, average boy. We didn’t really name him Fever, it just sort of happened.”
I knew I was neither normal nor average. My IQ tested at 186; I liked the poetry of Wallace Stevens and the music of French Middle Ages at age eight; I had my first sexual encounter with a girl when we were both nine—it was wonderful.
I also may have had an angelic experience when I was eleven.
So while mother’s application of the word fine might have applied—I won’t judge that—the words normal and average seemed out of the question.
To be specific, the IQ test was given three times to verify its results, the nine-year-old girl’s name was Alisa; the angel had no actual form. My IQ has been a source of trouble for me ever since I was tested. I never knew what became of Alisa, her family moved away to New Orleans. The angel, on the other hand, visited me again—possibly.
I first met the angel in something of an unusual way. I had read that Einstein posited curved space by imagining he was riding the Universe on a beam of light. I wanted to try the same experiment. It seemed a most obvious occupation for a Sunday morning while my father was at church.
I remember quite clearly that I sat in a chair by the window in my room, staring out at the morning sun. I was dressed in my usual blue jeans and flannel shirt. The room was bare then, save for a bed, a desk, and a Currier and Ives picture of a sleigh being pulled over a bridge by two horses. Just as I was beginning to feel light-headed from shallow breathing and concentration, the images of ordinary reality faded and there it was: the angel.
I saw a face that was not a face and it said, very softly, “Do you recognize me?”
“No,” I think I said. “Should I?”
“No should. Just is.” I might have imagined that an angel would proffer that sort of language.
I tried to focus on the face, but it kept changing. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“We only have a moment together.” It hovered like a mist outside the window. “Look through the things in the box behind the clock on the mantel.”
It shimmered. “They’re in the box behind the clock.”
I dared not take my eyes away. “What am I looking for?”
Then the angel vanished.
Without hesitation, I flew down the blond wooden staircase that led from the upstairs bedrooms. In those days all the rooms downstairs were, in fact, one big room. Bronzed oak beams framed the entire place. The galley kitchen was small then, still to the right as you came in the front door. There was a stone hearth wood-burning fireplace to the left by the large picture window. The quilts on the walls always seemed like church windows to me.
I went straight to the clock on the mantel. Behind it I found a blue tin box. I didn’t even think to question why I’d never noticed it before. It had a forest hunting scene embossed on its lid.
In that box, I found the ingredients of several lifetimes.
The tin was old, nineteenth century, and had, I believed, once held candies. I opened it as if it were some sort of present. It contained mostly papers and letters, some photos—poems and documents—things that would prove quite puzzling for, really, the rest of my life.
The most baffling object in the box was a photograph. Just as I picked it up to examine it more closely, my mother appeared behind me.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
I jumped because she startled me. Whatever she lacked in verisimilitude, she more than made up for in stealth. She always had.
I spun around. She was wearing her print dress with the giant blue roses on it, and a black cardigan with a collar. Her feet were bare. Her hair was tightly coiled copper around her head. She was smoking a cigarette.
“I didn’t hear you.” I tried to hide the box, but it was no use.
She stood over me. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’”
“I’m looking through the things in this box,” I answered calmly, “as would seem to be obvious.”
She stared down at me. “Don’t you get smart with me, buster.”
“I’m not getting smart with you, Mother,” I sighed. “I already am smart. And please don’t call me buster.”
“How about if I call you Smart Mouth?”
“Call me whatever you want to. I can tell a puzzle when I see one.”
“A puzzle?” she asked.
I held up the photo. It was an ancient sepia image of a young woman in a bar, smiling for the camera. On the back of the photo it simply said, “Lisa, 1923.”
My mother looked away. “What is that?”
“Oh, I have a feeling you know what this is.” I moved toward her. “It says ‘1923’ on the back, but that’s a picture of you if I ever saw one. You weren’t born in 1923. Your mother wasn’t even born in 1923.”
“That’s not me,” she said weakly, using the same inflections she always employed when she was making things up.
“I don’t see how it could be.”
“What do you want?” she sniffed.
“An explanation would be good,” I answered.
She let out a sigh that I would remember for the rest of my days. In it I could hear all her heartbroken, impossibly gargantuan disappointment—in me, in my father, in an entire world that had not given her the things she richly deserved: normalcy, comfortable economics, and an escape from Blue Mountain. But all she said was, “I’ll get the letter.”
She went up to her room, and came back out a few moments later carrying the letter as if it might explode. She handed it to me and turned her back. I thought she was being overly dramatic, as she was always wont to do.
It was a plain envelope. It was sealed. On the front were the words For Fever in keen script. Just touching the envelope somehow made my fingers feel strange.
I opened. I unfolded the paper inside. I read.
If your mother has given you this letter, you must already suspect something. You’re looking at some of the photographic evidence. Maybe you’ve had an angelic visitation. Don’t be alarmed. Everybody has those. If you decide to pursue this matter, you’re in for quite a ride. If you find out who the woman is in that photograph, your life will change. Doesn’t matter. Everything you think you know in this life? None of it is real.
It wasn’t signed.
I looked up at my mother. “Who wrote this?”
She still had her back to me, but I thought she might be crying.
“Did my father write this letter,” I demanded, “or my grandfather?”
“You don’t know the person who wrote this letter,” she mumbled, “yet.”
I set the letter in the box with the other foreign objects. “Are you crying?”
I took a step closer to her. “Why?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Then why are you crying?”
Her voice got stronger. “Don’t do it, Fever. Don’t chase after answers to these things. Forget all about it. Just stay around Blue Mountain and maybe work with me and your dad in the show when the time comes for you to earn a living. You leave here and go out in the big world: you’re just asking for trouble and heartache. You look for answers to this particular riddle, and you’ll find out things about people—about the whole human condition, in fact—that you don’t really want to know. You don’t really want to know just how awful everything can be.”
I blew out a little breath. “That’s just the sort of thing you say that eggs me on.”
She turned. “What?”
“Maybe you don’t realize it,” I explained, “but when you say something like that, it makes me want to do the opposite.”
She stuck her neck to the side. “What are you telling me?”
“When you say ‘no,’ Mother,” I explained exasperatedly, “it only makes me want to find out what ‘yes’ is like. You drive me crazy!”
“Don’t pay any attention to this mess, I’m telling you!” Her voice grew shrill. “Why can’t you just stay an ordinary human being?”
“God! You have to realize that when you refer to me as an ordinary human being, you are engaging in what’s called ‘wishful thinking.’ I’m about as ordinary as wings on a turtle!”
“And?” She narrowed her eyelids. “You never heard of a turtledove?”
“God, God, God!” I looked away. “If you aren’t the most exasperating person I’ll ever meet, I don’t want to go on living.”
“I see.” She wagged her head. “And you call me overly dramatic.”
“Where do you think I get it?”
“Brother!” She tossed her hand. “You can’t blame everything on me. Some things you’re just born with.”
“Do you see why you make me crazy?” I rolled my head trying to untie some of the knots in my neck. “Do you see what you’re saying? Whether I learned it from you or I inherited it genetically, it still comes from you!”
“You blame me for everything,” she said again, feigning weakness. “Well, fine, then! Go on! Chase the ghosts for all I care. Be a freak!”
And at that—and I recall this feeling quite clearly, even as an adult—my entire body and mind relaxed. With a miraculously bizarre sense of what I was soon to learn could be called déjà vu, I answered her challenge.
“Well,” I announced, “it’s good to know my true nature so early in life.”
At that she gave up, ascended the stairs a bit like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, went to her room and put on the Frank Sinatra record of “Angel Eyes.” It was a deliberate dig at me. She thought I ought to be more religious, more normal, more outgoing—all qualities that she seemed to think Sinatra embodied and I hated. Sinatra was a good American; I was a bad boy.
I knew, even then, the heartbreaking aspect of my mother’s desires and accusations, lies and foibles, disappointments and fears. They all stemmed from an attempt on her part, in the younger days, to escape Blue Mountain. She and my father had both been born in our little hamlet, but had once wandered away—in 1961—all the way to Atlanta. They always told me that they had taken a journey toward spirituality and a dynamic sense of purpose, something that everyone had then. Kennedy was in the White House, Civil Rights were on the move, young people were speaking their minds—the world was changing for the better and forever. By the spring of 1963, everything in America was moving in the perfect direction. The country was filled with beautiful young people. Their ideology was beautiful. Even the president and his wife were beautiful. Everything seemed to be headed into the light at the center of the greatest century in human history. That’s how it felt.
Everything was opening up. Even the interior of the White House was revealed. Previous first ladies had been shy about the decor of their four-to-eight-year home, but Jackie Kennedy took everyone on a tour of the place—on live television! She showed everyone the young White House, where their president and his smart, beautiful wife lived.
In that year, 1963, my parents were crusaders. They helped to arrange a folk-singing extravaganza on the steps of the Atlanta Capitol building. They were already gearing up for Kennedy’s reelection. They were Young Democrats. They had convinced no less than Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez to perform.
Every song was the hammer of freedom. Every word was the bell of justice. Every glance they shared was a song about love between brothers and my sisters, all over this-a land. The feeling in the air that spring was that all human beings could, with very little effort, change the world for better, forever, and very soon. They felt it was the most exhilarating sense of power and change ever known to humankind.
Then, autumn came.
The president—the young beautiful president, the president that would live forever, the president that gave everyone a feeling of freedom and forward-moving idealism—was assassinated on national television. The gun exploded, blood erupted; they saw the skull and brains fly everywhere. President Kennedy lay dead in a Lincoln Continental.
Also that year: Robert Frost died. Jean Cocteau died. Edith Piaf died. Pope John XXIII died. A hurricane in Eastern Pakistan killed twenty-two thousand people. The entire world had a shocked sense of loss. Suddenly all the events of life seemed greatly random and inexplicably cruel.
It was no coincidence, my parents believed, that the popular American drug culture got a significant boost after the Kennedy assassination. If the icon of hopes and dreams could be shot through the head right in front of you, it was understandable that you might want to search for alternate realities, other possibilities; any means of turning away from the things that you saw.
My parents’ choice—their act of turning away—was to go back to the strange carnival life they had known only two years earlier with their odd traveling show. They went back to Blue Mountain and resumed their deeply unusual lives. My father was a world-class magician and my mother was his hypnotically beautiful assistant. Together they were mesmerizing onstage, largely because they seemed too ethereal—as if they weren’t entirely of this earth. They picked right up where they had left off, almost as if their dream of a better world had never happened. The Ten Show, as it was called, turned out to be their calling. Once they came home, they never looked back.
These events explain how I came to be born in Blue Mountain, not a more metropolitan clime, the product of strange parents and lost hope.
Whenever they told me these stories—and most of them came from my mother in her cups—I always had the impulse to tell them that they had not been paying attention. I thought they should have realized that no one could alter reality. They couldn’t, as they’d dreamed, ever eliminate war, hatred, racism, sexism, governments, systems of economics, foundations of education, and all strife—not just by loving. I tried to explain it to them, at age eleven. I gave them the salient facts: (a) color television had become the single most popular form of entertainment in the world. After 10,000 years of human folklore, oral traditions, stories passed from person to person with great reverence, suddenly came television. Human interaction was quickly being removed from the process. (b) It’s not possible for the human mind to hang on to a beautiful vision indefinitely. That vision changes in a very short time. Everything changes. It’s a key function of the human psyche: visions are meant to fade. (c) No one can alter reality. All you can alter is your own perceptions—and not even that very well.
Which brings us back to the angel. It was very clear to me when I saw the angel that God was in everything. For months after that experience I could see His Light emanate from trees and rocks and hills and plains and water and air and most of all from the glorious, loving, all-embracing countenance of every human being around me. We were all very obviously one in God, I thought: safe, blessed, and free. It was the most beautiful vision of life that anyone ever had.
But it passed.
Copyright © 2011 by Phillip DePoy