!~~! :) The Department of Dreams (: !~~!
By Mike Meginnis and Sutherland Douglass
m: You close your briefcase and tuck it underneath your chair, taking care to avoid knocking over your soup thermos (olive green) and you coffee thermos (black) (both warm). The man sitting beside you sucks deafeningly loud on a mint. He could have sat anywhere in the waiting room — most of the seating is empty — but he felt the need to be near you, it seems. His knee touches yours through his expensive slacks and your expensive slacks (black, with pinstripes). The receptionist calls a name that is not your name. No one comes to the desk. She calls it again. No one comes to the desk. The trouble with the way this room works is that it goes in alphabetical order, regardless of when you arrived, and your name is Zimmerman, and so whenever someone new comes into the waiting room you get pushed back. They handed you a number (26) but it doesn't seem to mean anything. You've been sucking on the number (cinnamon) for some time. It has shrunk into a smaller 26, and that is all that's changed for some time.
s: What does the man sitting deafeningly next to me--what does he smell like?
m: You lean in to smell him and he doesn't seem to mind. He smells mostly like the mint he is sucking but there is a strong, bitter undercurrent of vomit. (Before he vomited, you suspect that he was eating oranges, as the vomit smell has notes of corrupted citrus.)
s: The prospectus tucked under his arm--it appears different than mine (blue-white instead of matte black; block letters instead of cursive). Why can't I read what it says?
m: The trouble with the Department of Dreams is that they insist on documenting practically everything in spite of the fact that no one here — dreamers all — can properly read. If you think that you can read your own prospectus it is only because you know what you think it should say. The man's mint has been sucked down to a nubbin; he begins to chew what's left.
m: "Mizter Zimmerman?" says the receptionist, with emphasis on the Zs. This is her way of putting you in your place. (Her own name, according to a nameplate on her desk, is Mrs. Andrews.) Her hands type rapidly according to their own desires, mostly using vowels and punctuation. She tilts her head back to shift her glasses up her nose without slowing her typing. You can see, behind her, several dozen women at several dozen desks, in rows of two or three, also typing, their glasses at various heights on their noses, and sliding.
s: "I was led to believe that the Assistant Director would be able to see me today. Not only today, but shortly ... the message left with my service used the words 'special' and 'dispensation' ... Yes?"
m: "I can't speak to what you think someone from your service heard someone from this office supposedly say over the phone, Mizter Zimmerman," says Mrs. Andrews. "Nor am I liable. This is why we suggest that you bring lunch on any visit to our office: so that you can wait the appropriate and necessary amount of time." (Of course, you know there must be documentation of the phone call somewhere: according to Department policy, all conversations are transcribed as they unfold. Mrs. Andrews, for instance, must surely be transcribing your present conversation even as it takes place. If you could only get your hands on the transcript … and if you could only read it once you found it … )
s: "Ah. I see. Start to see better, yes ... you are telling me that you run a real ship-shape outfit here. Ship-shape from a-to-z." (She must be typing the smile on my face as either "crooked" or "strained.") "As your logo suggests: 'A Rational Understanding for Dreams.' ... good ... while I wait though: maybe you could point out to me the john?"
m: She uses her nose to point first at the man you were seated beside. After a brief silence, possibly awkward, she uses said nose to indicate the door through which you entered. "His name is John," she explains. "As for the toilet: out that door, take a right, and it'll be the third unmarked door on your left. The fourth door is the ladies' room. Try not to wet the bed." She types that she has been very helpful to you. John swallows the powder remains of his mint and now, for lack of something better to do with it, lets his mouth hang wide open. He is sweating on his prospectus.
s: I'm surprised by how long it takes me to reach the can (the head, she could have said--the facilities, the pissoir, the mack). In fact while I walk I have to force myself not to reverie--the children's museum installation that was built on a crank, that included multiple doors and rooms; you entered one and, without realizing it, some technician somewhere would turn and crank until, voila, the next door you were exiting led to the same passage from which you'd just come; this so terrified me that, for the next month, I was an inveterate wetter of the bed (could she have known from the background check or ... ?). Opening the bathroom door returns me though--it is a dazzlingly white installation that is more geometric shape than functional flushing heads--and I smell it again: Burnt orange. Vomited produce. I slip my hand in my pocket to check the state of my weapon.
m: Your weapon is as firm and heavy as a man of your age and habits can ask. You see shoes in one of the stalls but the shoes have no feet, no ankles, no pants. One of the weirdly shaped sinks has been left running, but thankfully the pipes are clear and it isn't overflowing yet. It occurs to you that John has probably stolen your soup thermos, if not the coffee one also. There are flecks of orange peel in the grout.
s: I can't help it I've got to check: the stall with the shoes. The stall door unlatches easily. And there is indeed no man, no person attached to the size eleven or twelves (a fair sight nicer than the ones I walked in on there's no doubt). On the back of the tank, though, is an unusually deep briefcase. Before I can move to open it, I hear and smell him behind m: "Ahem. It is a happy meeting for us here, I think. And you have a leg up on me, as that Zara Andrews person told you my name. I am surprised that you didn't ask her whether it was my first or sur (I would have). Perhaps now you would rather ask me about the briefcase you see. Or simply turn around and share a cup?"
m: You notice that the shoes are tied with double knots. John closes the stall door behind himself. There is little enough room that you have to turn around and sit down on the toilet. Your very small feet slip easily, with their very small shoes, into the larger, nicer shoes. There is still a little room; the shoes feel loose, but moist and warm, as if they have their own ecosystem inside them. "Zbigniew," you say. Meaning that this is your first name. "We can share a cup if you like but are you sure that you can keep it down?" The briefcase's cold, steel buckle against your back.
s: John does an exaggerated nod, his head forward and into yours until your two noses touch, a kind of curtsy with his upper third. "Your concern for me is exactly what I expect." Without moving much back from your nose, he extends his arms around you, wriggles between your suit and the case. You hear him with the buckle fiddle, jangle, unclasp. You hear him manipulate what must be its contents, the sound of dull plastic, oversized buttons, some sort of metallic slot. "It is good that you found your home so quickly in those shoes. For as long as you keep them on, you will be an, ah, 'free agent' so to speak. You will be able to move around this office with relative impunity. All of the sensors with which the floor is equipped--they will all be jammed by the chips in your feet. You will need them if you decide to carry out what I ask. ... Perhaps not ask--too strong a word--really, I merely, suggest." His face softens into a clown, some buffoonish sad sack. "Of course the medium for my suggestion is not written (tut tut, and poor poor us) but video. Tape. An old technology, but one not very much tracked. The Assistant Director couldn't spell VHS..." A loud clank behind you and the frontloader must be done. "Please I do ask this: Close your eyes until you hear me exit the door. Then please, at your own leisure, watch the tape."
m: You close your eyes. There is a long silence during which John leaves the stall. Some time later, you hear the sound of his leaving, and then the sound of his absence. You open your eyes. The whirring television screen embedded in the top half of the briefcase's shell shows an image of a horse with a flat back. The flat back is set like a table, with salt and pepper shakers, napkins, and a plate of sliced bread. The horse's eyes are closed and its mouth is rimmed with froth. The horse is orange and so is the sky. There is a cactus beside the horse with a belt around its middle. The belt is too tight. The video is playing but the image is still. And then it changes:
s: You see--I mean I--I mean I see. (See this is the problem, and why I hoped to bluff my way into the A.D.'s office today: The current shape that my peculiar dream state has been taking. It had become almost unusable in a professional context. No longer properly bridled. No longer appropriately under a rein. My dream state drifting in and out of me. Seeming to be, also see, myself in all three povs. At will and at wanton--to every possible, wrong extent ... I have heard this happening to other dream-staters, at this point in their careers. I have heard of this happening ... on a horse ... on a ... ) I can't find a pause button--if I could pause I would have the time to read the image through--but it changes:
m: There is a dog on the moon. The dog is large even for a moon dog. It is digging for a bone. What it is finding instead is a head of broccoli. The broccoli is turning stale and brown. The dog's fur, also, and brittle, for lack of air. The broccoli is fractal. You are receiving John's message. It is all beginning to make sense. The image changes:
s: This time it is both the first two and not; and I am there: I am sitting in oversized tightly wound wicker furniture. My seat is angled so that I can see out of doors, onto a veranda--out further to what appears as a baked and withered Pampas. Lowlands no longer fertile, no longer verdantly coating more than 750,000 square kilometers down Argentine way. (No longer moist despite the regional heat--nor vibrant despite the strain placed on its ecosystem by the Earth.) Very far away, nosing in and out of what seems to be the last plants, mid-dying off, I can see an enormous wild dog. Before me--back in the room--is the platter of food, a pewter horse platter they are known as: It is set like a table, with salt and pepper, broad napkins, a plate of spiced bread. (Someone, perhaps the indentured head chef of the house, struck with a moment of whimsy, has sprayed a fresh creme froth along the platter's rim.) I hear someone clear their throat and suddenly realize he is seated across from me, the assistant A.D. He is squeezing a cactus colored wineskin: "Would you like a drink?"
m: "If you think that I can keep it down," you say. You offer your martini glass and the A.D. empties half the 'skin inside it. The liquid looks like water with a touch of milk (mostly clear, only slightly fogged with white). "I believe in you," says the A.D. "And in these times, that means everything. My stock has risen in the Department." You sip the liquid. It smells like oranges and chocolate. The A.D. pours some for himself as well, and takes the spiced bread from your plate. He carves it into quadrants, eats the southwest. "I don't mean to brag," he says. There is candlelight above your table though there are no candles. As he speaks, his left eye's brown iris grows and the right eye's iris shrinks, until they are the same size, and then until the left eye has all the color and the right eye has none (like a cassette tape).
s: In the bathroom I hear the clack-clack of the tape finishing, still whirring the attendant TV though there's only pixelated clumps filling the screen. The sound reminds me--or maybe better to say: reintroduces to me--that the scene on the tape actually happened. A fortnight ago. I had been summoned by the A.D. to his vacationing spot, to discuss an exclusive contract--no more alphabetical waiting, no more agreeing to let overbearing secretaries, and actuaries, and wait staff do anything but serve, serve the newly important position that would be taken up by me ... but something had happened ... intervened ... try to remember ... I say as I refuse the wine, chuckling: "Of course you know my weaknesses from way back." The A.D. fixes me with the blanched eye: "Indubitably. Which is why I feel I can be totally frank. Which is why I think that what I'm offering is more than gracious--the fact that I know all of your deficiencies and yet still would ask you to be my right-hand man ... but you have not yet said whether you will agree to my single, special request."
m: You recall the request. He wanted you to become sole host to a certain nightmare. The nightmare was one of his own creation. He regretted its creation immediately but recognized his responsibility: he must contain the dream. He has refused to describe it, and you have stopped asking him. He will only say that it is "unpleasant," that "You will surely not enjoy it." If you would take the dream, then he would lift you up out of obscurity. He ate the southeastern quadrant of the bread. The big dog tried to howl but it had no voice.
s: "I will." He continues to chew. He does not immediately shift his gaze, which has sunk back down to the platter. There is suddenly much smacking of lips. "I'm sorry--what did you say, Z?" "I agree. I only came here to tell you that." The A.D., still seeming to restrain himself, still seeming to contain what I know must be glee, he carefully sets his utensils back on the platter. (I notice, as light glances on them from off his knife, that the last two quadrants seem to blink; almost electronically; almost LCD.) Though I expect him to leave his chair so he can retrieve the nightmare, he instead pitches his body forward. As he does, his arms crook--begin to reach (like counterweights) with clutched hands and at the small of his back. He wriggles something between his back and the chair as if it needs dislodging. Once it's out, he presents it to me like an award, a token, a prize. It is a segmented white mask. Frighteningly geometric. Draped behind it and around it black matte fabric. Protruding out of its eye slits is a kind of abbreviated mantle, or maybe headdress: Made out of attenuated copper and wires and stanchioned clasps. They rise fan-like, exaggerated eyebrow-like, in a sweep up and over the mask's forehead. Across the forehead, "written" in picts that you can read even through the mesh, it says: I-N-T-E-R-F-A-C-E. "I am so relieved to hear that my friend. Please do not hesitate. Put it on."
m: In the bathroom, you push your face against the television screen. As your skin approaches the screen you feel a powerful warmth: the light and what it sheds. Then, when the tip of your nose touches the screen, you find it cold, but also pliable, and it accepts your face (the screen does) until you are embedded back to your ears. At the table, you push your face into the mask. Your eyes feel as if they are being sucked on by a gentle vacuum. Your hands instinctively clutch at your cheeks. (But these are not your cheeks.) You are aware of your existence on three separate but related levels: your body seated on the toilet, in the overlarge shoes, face enmeshed in the screen; your body seated at the table, head captured by the I-N-T-E-R-F-A-C-E; and your body as your mind imagines it in the void of a forming dream, i.e., as a projection, translucent and weightless but neither numb nor without desire. In fact a product of desire. In fact a need personified. You feel the nightmare like a tongue in your ear.
s: The tongue in my ear points me further on--encourages me like a hitchhiking thumb (through the mesh-like tongue I can hear sounds all three: a bathroom sink erupting suddenly on; the painful inside braiding of R and G and B; A.D., the next quadrant poised before his parted lips, sing-songing like a savant: "Going my way? Going my way? Yum-yum..."). It is very hard not to release control of my pants--not to wet whatever tripartite sheets I'm stuck in the middle motion of. (I did not imagine that this would be the dream. What should I imagine could be the dream?) Describe the desire to me?
m: What you want is a body. You want to exist. But you don't want the body you had. You want a larger body. You want it to be strange, with extra mouths and teeth. You don't know why you want what you want. This is maybe the frightening part: to want and want, almost to the point of willing your want into the real, without knowing why. You cannot describe the appeal of this body. You cannot even know it for yourself. But you want to bite with your stomach and your hands. You want to tower and bloat. There is a little bush on a hill in the distance. You don't want to be near the little bush or the hill. They are hideous to you. You keep floating further away into the void. But there is nothing between you and the little bush on the hill. You can't stop seeing it, though it is very small now, and now very smaller. And how you ache to have a tail. And how you want to shock your mother with everything you have become.
s: "Sock your mother" is what I think I hear the A.D. say "Sock her especially with that prehensile thing." Extra mouths and teeth and snatching stomachs are surely possible, I hear him say, if one can find himself the right housing. "The right frame." Then: "You understand the procedure well enough that I don't have to explain it, yes?" Also: "You realize that this expanding of wanting, of senses is the very tower that you'll have--though once you have it you won't desire it anymore as the thing--the many mouths snapping up and down like windows ejecting out their desires on drafts; your stomach the stopped-up anchor keeping you from floating away from your now prime materials: brick mortar, much rebar, hot hot concrete. (The little bush that distracted your desire so will no longer be seen.) ... how to house, and manufacture, and accessorize, and theorize all the world's added up dreams? How to build the right babble into a tower, a tuning fork, for all our competitors to see? I suspect, Z., that you now realize where you come in. This impossible stressful overhead no longer a nightmare for me..." I want to answer. The TV blinks like a cursor inside my eyes. I do want to answer.
m: Little people milling in your body. Little people waiting in a waiting room. You shade them. You cool them. You guide them from one room to another. They shuffle. They shake hands. They study themselves in your mirrors. Sometimes a person disappears. It doesn't happen often. Later they come back. They do not say where they were or acknowledge the question, if anyone asks. You don't know what you do with them but want them. You house their odors. They staple paper to paper. They spit into trash cans. The A.D. has an office in a floor no stairs or elevators reach. The office is the whole floor. One desk at its center. One desk, alone, and concrete floor. You have plentiful parking. Cars for miles.
s: That is it exact. When I do, in this state, dream my own dream (seldomer and seldomer), it is this: Climbing a mount of granite steps like a lost civilization's temple zig (stuffing shirt tails back in pants some sheets, trying very hard to feel my cheeks). The larger Department of Interzone LLC is before me again. Same weather as I've seen it before, this morning, after the thing; hot as hot on Pampas can be. Same dry-caked doorman refusing entree. This time though I don't waste time--don't assume I am some little man who deserves no attention, just condescension, not a mover or shaker or serious maker of hay. I rudely brush the doorman aside and latch on to the intercom behind him. I announce myself boldly, brusquely--I am here for my appointment Dept. of Dreams. For some reason though there is no answer, no Mrs. Andrews to deign to let me up in the service elevator that opens on the enormous reception hall, full and wall to wall like I would expect it, with better applicants than me. No. Instead: Leaning heavily on the button to keep the channel open, there is only: zzzZZZZzz ... zzzZZZZzz ... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Bio: Recipient of DIAGRAM’s Innovative Fiction Award, Sutherland Douglass’ work has also appeared in The Collagist, Fiction International, Uncanny Valley, PANK, H_NGM_N, trnsfr, Emprise Review, Sidebrow, and Fringe. He has been a finalist for both the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency and Black Warrior Review’s fiction prize. As a little Sutherland, his favorite Choose Your Own Adventure was Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?. You can see him read here.