After the encounter with my weird uncle, I was hesitant to bring up anything remotely connected to the dream with another family member. But I did. Time has not been kind to Malorie, my great-aunt, but she retained the mannerisms and bearing of a 1940s starlet. My mom told me to share my dream with her, not so much because a ninety-year-old lady would offer a razor-sharp analysis, though neither I nor my mom, to be polite, were writing off that possibility. Really, the dog-in-the-forest mystery, as I was starting to call it, simply provided a conversation topic. Our little chit-chat, if that’s what I can call it, had more to do with my mom’s guilt for not visiting her aunt since the summer.
Don’t get me wrong, she loves my grandaunt Malorie, or at least thinks fondly of her, but she gets too upset when the subject of her mom, my grandmother, now deceased, inevitably comes up. The two sisters never got along. My mom once told me that Malorie always called Johann, my grandma, a Trotskyite. Back in the 1950s that was a declaration of war, she assured me. Nonetheless, I never believed my mom’s story.
Eventually I discovered that the real reason for their eternal sibling rivalry had to do with a man, but I never got the details. The way my grandfather used to pick his nose in public, almost nonstop, plus his antisocial personality—he could spend days watching reruns of Matlock and Murder She Wrote in his room at the assisted living facility—led me to conclude he could not have been the man in question, though for all I know he might have cut a more dashing figure in his younger days. So my mom sent me to Aunt Malorie as her proxy. Upon my arrival, her live-in caregiver, Ms. Monahan, poured us each a cup of black tea at my grandaunt’s insistence.
I went through the whole spiel, or so I tried. I’m running through the forest, fall down, get up, follow the pooch, and find the meadow. Aunt Malorie appeared attentive at first, but she soon tired of listening. She would stop me every few minutes with a random comment like “I like to place a sugar cube under my tongue to sweeten the tea as it goes down the gullet, but I can’t do that anymore” or, pointing to a frame on the wall, “Your cousin Linda painted that one.” I didn’t even know I had a cousin Linda. She would rattle off a bunch of names without any explanation, as if I knew who they were. This is what I feared would happen, but my mom insisted I visit my grandaunt since any day now she might “kick the bucket”—my mom’s words (!). I tried to explain to Aunt Malorie that I’ve been going around getting people’s interpretations of my dream, including pastors, psychiatrists, and politicians (this last group was poetic license on my part), and now I sought her view. I hoped she would be touched by my words. Instead, she told me about life before and after her hip replacement surgery. Finally, she concluded this excruciating soliloquy with another non sequitur. “Your great-uncle Charlie was a tall man like you. I’ve always liked tall men.” I took an extended sip of my tea to shake off the awkwardness of that statement.
My grandaunt’s responses to the story—to the extent one could consider them responses—merely reflected a stubborn preoccupation with her glory days. When I said German shepherd she mistook the words for Gary Cooper and launched into her experience as a showgirl on a Burbank studio when the famous actor was next door filming a scene for High Noon. Catching a glimpse of him in his cowboy outfit talking with the director must have been the highlight of her life. “He’s as handsome in person as he is on the silver screen.”
I had the temerity to say German shepherd again, undeterred and determined to talk about the dream. This time she went on about the first time she met Ernest Richmond Stein, the choreographer for many musicals in the late 40s. And for reasons unknown, the word forest reminded her of brushing up against Tyrone Power and his elegant first wife Annabella at a Bel Air party where my grandaunt served as a hostess girl. I soon discovered that any noun would trigger the name of someone she remembered from Tinseltown back in the day, even stagehands and key grips. Why didn’t my mom send my sister here instead of me? She’d be eating up this Old Hollywood lore! For my part, I don’t watch movies before 1970; it’s just a policy.
I chastised myself for wanting to be anywhere else in the world than at my grandaunt’s musty apartment, and yet at the same time I got a degree of satisfaction in performing a good deed. Still, had she paid attention to anything I said? Believe me, I make due allowance for an old lady’s meandering recollections, yet I found myself wondering whether her monomaniacal excursions into the past stemmed from dementia pure and simple or the residual effects of a life in pursuit of stardom. She was almost forty when she landed her first starring role in the sci-fi B-movie Dr. Mystery and the Robot Frogs of Planet Zorkon. She recounted her experience on the set, even alluded to a torrid affair she had with the producer, all the while demonstrating such a keen wit even for her years that I had misgivings about her dementia.
I looked at my watch and pretended I was late for someone’s funeral—a mistake. She went through a panoply of departed loved ones and the respective ailments that brought them to their death: heart disease, pancreatic cancer, emphysema, diabetes, loneliness, and the list went on. “My sister-in-law, Mary Charlene, your…now let’s see…that would be your maternal…hmm…maternal grandaunt, like me, but not by blood, sweetheart. Anyway, I say she died of a broken heart after Willy got swallowed up in that tornado.”
I signaled to Ms. Monahan to get my overcoat. If I got anything from this discussion, it was that my great-aunt was still living her dream everyday. I’d be more accurate in saying she lives blithely in her own bubble, but at her age I can’t blame her. At first I felt guilty for leaving earlier than planned, but as I motioned with my body language it was time for me to go, she broached the subject of my grandma in unflattering terms. I recognize an exit cue when I hear it.
I mentioned the dream to my next door neighbor, Frank, but he had the audacity to accuse me of lying about the whole thing! He took almost every word as a subtle attack on him and his family. Ironically, I had hoped to patch up our differences. My wife Karen and I thought that sharing the dream and getting his take on it would open up a friendly conversation. I’ve never understood where he was coming from, but in spite of our squabbles over the years I wasn’t expecting him to respond with such hostility. I was becoming quite upset myself; serendipitously, the martinis Karen had made for me that afternoon likely helped keep me level-headed. I’m generally a peaceful guy. Only violence toward children and false advertising can make me violently angry.
Everything in my story Frank perceived as an attack. The German shepherd, he maintained, was an oblique jibe at Spencer, his Doberman, who dug up our rose bed last year and shat on Karen’s garden gloves. And the bit about the meadow was me grumbling about the leaves he blew onto our lawn last year. He swears up and down he didn’t do it, but Karen saw him from our upstairs bedroom window.
My fall over the log, to his mind, was a circuitous complaint about a house party that, he admits, got a bit out of hand. He claimed he had no clue his boss would bring his own bottle of Southern Comfort, get wasted, proceed to prance around the yard like a buffoon, trip over the lawn chairs, and finally plunge into the pool fully clothed. The dried vomit running from our hedges to the mailbox, Frank confessed, belonged to his son Josh who had recently returned from Iraq. For what it’s worth, we’ve never said anything about the party, probably because it occurred during our trip to Florida. But that didn’t matter to Frank, who could feel slighted at the drop of a hat.
The tall pines in the dream, he insisted, served as nothing more than a thinly veiled reference to the large redwood lattice that he set up last summer. He presumed the leafy structure had made us upset because it blocked our view from the park located cattycorner from us. He couldn’t be more wrong on this one. Karen and I once remarked that the saving grace of living next to the Palmers—Frank and Patty—is during springtime when their red and purple bougainvillea are in full bloom. Likening the forest pines to the lattice was a stretch, only revealing Frank’s predisposition to flare up at anything I would say to him.
Speaking of trees, Frank did not neglect an opportunity to remind me that the roots of our Jacaranda was turning up their brick patio and would burst the water pipe. If we didn’t pay for the tree removal soon, he would call the fire department or file a complaint with the water and gas company. I didn’t want to get into it with him, in large part because I’ve had pangs of conscience about the last time this perennial grievance came up. Contributing to the cacophony of a growling dog and screaming wives, Frank and I started yelling at each other over the fence, even banging on it to hammer home our respective points. Judy, our neighbor in the other direction, later told us that she got so scared upon hearing the ruckus and not knowing who it was or what was happening, she considered calling the police. I never use the F-word unless I’m really angry, something startles me, or I want to ridicule someone. When Frank gave me an ass-chewing about the Jacaranda, these three things came together in a perfect storm, and I had to put him in his place.
But as I say, I feel bad about the situation, and not merely for my harsh words. When Frank and Patty went on vacation to Peru, I made a point of peeing in their pool at least once every day, but not before subduing Spencer with a piece of steak or hamburger meat. Karen gave me a hard time when I told her about these secret missions, but she changed her mind a week later. Judy informed her of the unkind comments Patty made about the macaroni casserole Karen had brought to the Fourth of July shindig. According to our gossipy neighbor, Patty also remarked that Karen fancied herself a rich glamour girl driving around in her new Camry. After getting these unflattering tidbits of gossip, Karen practically ordered me to continue with what we would fondly call Operation Urine. Looking back in retrospect, we now agree it was probably wrong to pee in their pool, and we’re glad I reconsidered leaving behind something worse.
As for Frank’s position on the dream, it might be a figment of my imagination, but it’s no falsehood. Nor is it merely a ploy to criticize him, his dog, or his stupid party. But sometimes even A-holes can unknowingly provide food for thought. Of course I’d be aware if I were lying about the dream, but what if somehow I’m deceiving myself? Self-delusion had never seriously occurred to me as a possible explanation for the dream until now. Secondly, of all the people I would consult, only Frank had an explanation for the leaves at the end of the dream, albeit a bogus explanation.