Here is a story. You should read it, because if you don’t then nothing will happen to you. Maybe something might happen if you read it, though–something good, or maybe something bad. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, or that you’ll love it, or that you’ll want to make babies with me afterwards. I really hope you won’t want to make babies with me afterwards, because I don’t think I’m emotionally responsible enough to be a father–not to mention I can list at least one person who would be displeased with that proposition (other than myself). All I can guarantee is that there are words, and if you read them, something might happen. And personally, I’d rather that a bad something happen to me than a good nothing.
Stepping over the broken glass from the porcelain cabinet and into the hallway, Mr. Roger Davis made his nightly emigration from the bedroom to the living room couch. This time, the argument was over whether or not she—Mrs. Davis—had the right to spend his money on sixteen pairs of shoes and a dress to go with each of them.
She hurled a sling of self-righteous expletives at him, only pausing to cut herself off by hurling the cups stacked on the nightstand table at Mr. Davis’ face, barely and begrudgingly missing. They exploded into the display case in the hallway behind him. As all their fine china shattered onto the hallway floor, soon to be ground into the carpet, he thought: Nobody is ever going to pick them up. He sure as hell isn’t, because he is in the right; and that woman certainly isn’t, because it’s like she has her period fifty-two weeks straight; and they can’t even afford a maid anymore because she won’t stop spending my money.
“Get out of my bedroom,” she barked. “Out, now.”
Roger didn’t even argue. He knew better than that. Still, he could not help but remember what his mother had said, about not going to bed angry. But he wasn’t going to bed, was he? He was going to lie down on the couch and watch television until 5:30 in the morning, when he had to get ready for work, and he was going to be distracted all day long because he couldn’t stop thinking about how much he hated her, and why he hadn’t left her yet. As he sat down on the leather sofa that she had bought on one of her myriad shopping sprees, an ugly piece that didn’t even match the interior—she bought it to annoy me, he thought—he imagined that it was her face, that he was releasing his manly flatulence into her Botox-laden skin. But it was not. It was still just a couch, and the couch was under the air duct, and to get to the AC controller he would have to walk past his wife and he could not do that, and so he bundled up in sixteen blankets and turned on late-night talk shows but before he could even hear the opening Fallon mono he fell into a oceanic slumber.
Then, the couch started moving. It grew legs and a roof and a set of wheels. Out of distance, he heard a horse neighing. The neigh woke him up; he pulled himself out of bed and looked around. He saw thatched roofs and grey skies, a grand juxtaposition from the modern skyscrapers surrounding the Davises’ townhouse.
He moved closer to the window and looked out. The street was paved with old-fashioned cobblestones, the kind he and Mrs. Davis had seen when they honeymooned in Amsterdam. There was a difference, though—these looked brand new and had a certain unearthly shine to them, glowing black even under the shade of the clouds. He could see his doppelganger reflected in them, broken by the uneven surface and the intuition of dream logic. It had a sad face, and lily-white skin to contrast with his phony spray tan. The faces, however, were not so different. In its hand he held a single sprig of rosemary, examined with morose resignation.
Roger snapped to life when the horse whinnied. He twisted his head to see what was the hullabaloo—when he turned back, his reflection was gone. The road degraded into a plain dirt path, dry despite the overcast weather and the fact that the people now gathering by the roadside to watch him pass by all had umbrellas. He recognized quite a few of them—his boss, and the barista at Starbucks, and even his college roommate. A dark dirge distantly danced. Disconcertingly, many among the crowd had joyfulness painted upon their faces.
There was person whose face struck him fiercely. It was that of his wife, the only one who wept for him—but as the carriage pulled up alongside her he realized that these were not tears of sorrow but rather liberation.
“Driver!” he yelled. “Stop the carriage!” And so the driver did.
He opened the door—blankets still wrapped around his steadily more frigid body—and made his way towards his wife.
She looked at him and could not answer. She pulled her black veil over her face and said, quietly, as if not wanting to be overheard, “He is behind you.”
Roger spun around quickly and saw the carriage driver for the first time. It was his doppelganger, still pale, and still holding the single sprig of rosemary, but somehow different. Roger discovered: his hand, which earlier existed sublimely, had started to decay. It was black and wrinkled; and the other hand, the hand without rosemary, the hand that the driver put on Roger’s shoulder, was just as black and wrinkled, the nails were just as long and yellow. It sent shivers down his spine.
“It’s time to go,” the driver said, his mouth liberated by time of pearly whites. He stumbled over his words a bit, as if he had not had to speak in a very long time, and his jaw cracked as he did.
There was something about the voice that Roger could not resist. He knew that if he did not obey bad things would happen—vague, fuzzy things that only happen in your nightmares. Was this a nightmare? Was he dreaming? The idea caught his attention, but before he could latch on he felt the driver’s breath on his face. He shuddered and his thought train careened into the side of a mountain. He got back into the carriage, and they drove off again.
Soon the people on the roadside started thinning out, and the road grew rockier and bumpier and a deep fog enveloped the only three souls left on the face of the earth: Roger, the carriage driver, and his horse. It occurred to him that he had never seen the horse before, and he was still not sure if it was real or only a figment of his imagination. But in dreams there is a certainty, object permanence not present in reality, where even though things have never been seen or heard or perceived in the slightest one is still aware of their existence through intuition alone. There was a horse because in his mind there was a horse.
They penetrated deeper into the fog, thicker than any of Roger’s sixteen blankets, until they were lost in an infinite garden of monoliths.
“Ho!” he cried, “what are all these—big things?”
The driver replied (his voice less coherent than before; Roger strained to understand), “These are the monuments of great men from epochs past.”
Roger thought. “Do I have a monument?”
The driver cackled a lightning-bolt roar, illuminating the monoliths and revealing them to be massive stone houses for the dead. “Do you want one?”
The rest of the ride was silence.
They arrived at their final destination, an open field on the other side of the graveyard. There was a pit in the ground and without even asking Roger knew it was his grave. The air around it seemed to beckon his name, even, and the earth pulled him towards it.
Before the carriage driver even had time to stop he was out and running towards the hole—not from a willingness to sleep evermore, but because of the shock of seeing his name carved into stones, birth, death, and a short list of accomplishments that included the items married thrice and loved never. It was shocking because it was the truth, and in reality no one ever spoke the truth. That was when he knew he was dreaming. He confronted the driver as to the nature of his reality.
The driver nodded. “Yes, this is a dream. A nightmare, in fact. So why don’t you just wake up?”
Roger could not answer that. He knew there was no reason to wake up. He knew that waking up meant more broken plates and heart medication and meetings with therapists. He knew that waking up meant facing reality day in and day out until the third Mrs. Davis left him one day living in the back of his car, not a penny to his name. He knew that this was his chance, his only chance, for happiness—happiness found only in immemorial sleep. He knew that once he woke up this dream would never come to him again, the dream where he watches his own funeral procession and he sees all the people happy to see him die. He knew that if he chose to sleep it would not be for their happiness, however, but rather for the happiness of knowing they would never be able to torture him again. So he reached out his hand to shake the carriage driver’s before his final surrender, but the intuition of dreaming stopped him, and he moved to his face instead, and tore off the driver’s façade, revealing a bare skull and eternal green eyes that would watch him forever. He knew, at that moment, that he was no longer dreaming.