Bill Goodwin sends this short story, a summer reverie:
Dream in a Puptent
Sunday afternoons in Cheviot Hills…when the gumball machine dreams its fishbowl dreams in the locked hardware store and men slice at slanting gold light in the Rancho Golf Course (each *whack* swallowed without ripple into the great, wide eucalyptus silence)…those late afternoons when dogs on frayed leashes click along over sidewalk cracks and doves the color of instant cocoa lean and blink on high telephone wires, singing-down the day in sad voices like little threads of gray smoke…you might find a garden hose looping across a velvety green lawn to end in a great fan of silver fire.
The cold spray leaps up from Mr. Fox’s front yard and catches the last rays of daylight. Each diamond droplet ignites with a fierce brilliance too perfect for this world. The rippling aura betrays every slightest movement of evening air, dissolving at its outer limit into chaotic whorls of shining mist. Follow the arcing drops with quick rollings of your eyes and you’ll discover endless, fleeting patterns, gone in an instant yet frozen forever in your heart, like the sharp pain of love itself…
Let imagination penetrate that watery curtain, and on the far side you might find a childhood world too-quickly evaporating. A white house angles its melancholy sage-green shingles at the sunset sky. A tiny property of no great consequence, a mere atom of geography that yet keeps all years and dreams safe and everlasting in its rose-thorn coils and wasp-nested timbers. Skim past the warm, wide back driveway, chalk-scrawled and firework-burned, tickled by drifts of dry bouganvillea and stray rivulets of hot-rubber-flavored hose water. Pass the dry-rotting garage, humming with radio tunes, hiding plaster molds and messy mixings of glue and foil and latex, a peeling cranium of cans, cobwebs and army-cot sleepovers. The backyard? Leaf mold and apricot liquor. Over one wall, a neighbor’s camping trailer slumbers under a hoary avocado limb, over another peeks the work shed of old Mr. Schaffer. How many nights that shed’s roof proved a choice spot to lie, shoulder blades gritted into wet tarpaper, star chart held in one stiff arm and red penlight in the other, picking-out constellations tangled in a tall sweetgum tree whose branches are burdened by two types of stars: bright, cosmic fires and dark, prickly seedballs.
Evening gathers quickly as you drift low over chipped stepping-stones of unguessed decades, past shaggy mints and jasmines still concealing corroded childhood treasures. It’s the way with kids’ games. Noise and Riot one moment and the next, the silence of pyramids as the whirlwind moves elsewhere…
Onward the drifting. Darkness falls quickly here under the trees, the ivied telephone poles, the cinderblock walls. At last something shapes itself out of the shadows.
A crisp pup tent the color of green milk.
No light burns inside. Yet within the canvas womb a conversation is taking place. Unbelievably, I’m whispering away the dusk hour with Laurel Crawford, yearned-for love of all the seasons and shoe sizes from kindergarten to this very edge of Junior High and that ocean beyond, featureless in the glare from its rolling leagues and impossible, faraway horizon.
The time of open spaces is not yet come however. Our lives are still swaddled in familiar things. If the future is watching it stays silent, making itself known only as a confusing tickle that quickens random moments, like a snowflake or mosquito on one’s cheek which, brushed away, only returns again and again.
The dwindling light creates a dreamlike atmosphere in the pup tent, softening the contours of Laurel’s round face and chestnut braids. Her wide eyes and rose-petal lips float in a bowl of warm cream, her gingham dress is a mystery of midnight cloud. Our voices mix like woodsmoke in the dark. There is a faintly mildewy scent, touched with citrus and something else, an intangible girl-powder perfume, indescribably intoxicating.
“Do you ever wonder,” whispers Laurel, “what we’re doing here? What it’s all about, I mean.”
“All the time!” I confide (heart leaping–a soulmate!)
“I think it’s a mystery. The answer isn’t made out of thought…it’s something else.”
“What else is there?”
“I don’t know, exactly. But all we can think about is the past, right? The things around us are all the past, we only recognize what we’ve seen before. The part that’s alive and moving and mysterious is the future. That’s what we are! It’s like there’s this cold water flowing in, and we’re the little holes–you know, in a sprinkler–and the future comes right out of us, like drops of sparkling light! And it all mixes and swirls around in the air like mist, and finally settles down into the ground and is the past. And we keep waiting till it’s over to think about it, so we never get anywhere…”
Why am I talking like this? Why is it suddenly so important to spill out all my crazy stuff? Do I imagine she’s impressed? “You think a lot, don’t you,” says Laurel.
“Sometimes, yeah, I guess. When it gets to be too much I write it down in a little book I have. It’s all full of weird junk.”
Laurel moves closer, a wriggly motion terrifying and sweet. “That’s not what I mean, though,” she says, warm breath stirring the hairs at my temples. “I mean these little meetings of ours, here in your pup tent. What are we doing here.”
Seconds tick by. “Well,” I say at last, “I like talking with you. I think you like talking with me…”
“I’ve liked you for years. Ever since kindergarten. I think you know that, I mean I guess you know–you know…”
Laurel leans closer, her expression invisible in the gloom.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” she asks.
“Not really,” I stammer.
“I’ve never been kissed,” she confides. “But I think about it.”
“Me, too. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” Laurel teases.
We’re getting closer every moment, somehow, without my intending it. The edge of Laurel’s little finger is in actual contact with my leg. So close, her lips, pink-candy tongue and peppermint teeth. I start to form a plan of saying sometimes like now but suddenly it doesn’t matter. Because it’s happening–the kiss–like soft ice cream melting, and time and space vanish, and you could hear a pin drop in my heart, and out over the distant ocean the sun itself holds its breath.
After an eternal moment Laurel pulls away. Her smile dances the dark like a feather in a warm, black pool.
“You should have been bolder with me,” she says.
“I thought you liked Mickey Rotsler.”
“I did. I liked you too.”
“Maybe I was bolder! In some other world, I mean.”
A giggle. “You are so strange!”
“No, really,” I protest. “Maybe it’s like the sprinkler. Everything fanning out, all the time…”
“My mother believes in reincarnation.”
“Not me. Too simple! The truth’s gotta be stranger. Scarier, kind of. That’s what keeps us stuck in one world. Lack of courage. Never going out on a limb. Always checking on each other, wanting to be sure. Maybe everything’s imaginary! Life is just the one fantasy we all agree on.”
“Life isn’t a fantasy!”
“Why not? Being alive only means making choices, right? Not just sitting around like rocks. So you’re creating it, even if it’s just choosing whether or not to brush your teeth.”
“Better to brush,” says Laurel.
“Be serious,” I say. “Being alive means using your imagination, is all. Maybe fantasy is just the brave part of our imagination, the part that knows about the other worlds, and reaches out and feels around. Maybe every time we have a fantasy it’s true somewhere.”
“So Alice In Wonderland really happened? The author just sort of tuned in on it?”
“No, but maybe he put the story together out of little bits of truth that are each real somewhere. I don’t know how to put it exactly…”
Embarassed, I brace for Laurel’s laughter. But instead she kisses me again (the pup tent spins).
“I think it’s like a flower garden,” she says, pulling away. “All we’re doing is going along, planting moments. Some real, some just fantasy. We’re stuck in a rut, struggling along, unable to see into anyone else’s row. But while we’re busy with the dirt the things we left behind are growing, in ways we can’t even imagine, up toward the sun!”
“So maybe it’s enough sometimes, just to imagine a thing. Then at least a seed is planted. The picking comes later. Or the weeding.”
“Who does the picking?”
“God, of course.”
“So I’m in the mud, and God gets the flowers?”
“You are the flowers!” says Laurel. “Up into the light, that’s your real life! You just get distracted and forget. Like when you’re dreaming and there’s all these different people, and things going on, bad or good. But when you wake up, turns out it was all you! And you laugh it off. You take what you can use from the dream and go back to your life.”
“Mmm.” Laurel takes my hand in the dark, weaves her ivory fingers into mine.
“I like that idea,” I tell her. “It’s amazing really how we think about the same weird stuff. The exact same. It’s almost too much to…”
“Can you read my mind right now?”
I pull her close, wanting to pluck and smell the softness of her, of this strange, sweet union of spirits. But something shifts and the rapture is lost, gone in a fog of not knowing, and Laurel gone too–stolen–veered away into a place neither future nor past. Only a solitary boy remains to ponder the matter.
A boy who’s been alone in the pup tent all along.
–Bill Goodwin, Los Angeles, 2008