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"Mr. Spangles," short story excerpt

Monday 1/9/23

Circumstances in dreams hit you a different way than circumstances in life, even when they’re the same.


With life you’ll accept almost anything as having happened to you. No matter how unlikely the chances are, once the event has occurred, the event has happened. The reality of that event settles into you. If the event mirrors another event that had also seemed unlikely, you accept it, because the accepting is done for you.


I think it would be harder to accept a flipped coin coming up tails fifty straight times in a dream than it would in actual life. Not that a dream isn’t actual life. It’s a part of it. But that coin, when we are awake, would seem less negotiable. There’s only after, and with after, there is only acceptance. Or else you fall behind, because you don’t get started again.


For a long time now I’ve had a dream where life brings me to the house in which I grew up. My family moved away from this house when I was a child. That would have been decades ago.

The same people who bought the house have lived there ever since then. I thought of the house as palatial. A house that was the utmost house in the manner you couldn’t want for any more or any other. A house that met all of a family’s needs. Not just my family—any possible family.


My mom has spoken about how small that house of ours really was, and recently she told me that we were living paycheck to paycheck, and there was no money in savings. That made me think about Christmas differently. Christmases from way back. The hockey camps I went to. Hockey equipment. Bikes.


I like that the house has worked for a different family for these intervening decades. When you live in a house that long, there’s a pretty good chance that someone in your family will die in it, but you’re okay with this.


You’ve allowed the house to be a part of the entire scope of your life, which includes death. It’s a great honor for a house, if you think about it. The trust that has to exist.


In my dream, I take this house for mine. I choose it, though with some reluctance. It’s the only one—the only shelter—that is available to me. I don’t choose it so much as everyone is getting lodgings, like they’re being assigned, and this is the house that came up for me in the lottery or whatever the system is. Or there is a storm and I just happen to find myself outside of this particular house, which is now abandoned, and I have no choice but to go in for the night.

The house represents the last time I was happy. We moved when I was eleven. When I think about being happy again, I think about when the term last truly applied. I call my former happiness to mind so that I might envision future happiness. In that regard, this house and my time in it has never been significantly removed from my thoughts. Distance is at a minimum, in the non-miles sense.


Who doesn’t think about being happy every day and what it would take to get there?

People who will never be happy, I’d say. They’re something else. Settled in. They won’t go that far up, and they won’t go that far down. Sounds easier.


This dream happens a lot. The house is always empty. The wallpaper is the same. It’s not faded, but I am conscious in this moment that it was never particularly bright. A wallpaper trend of the time, which I accept in the here and now of my dream.


I touch the walls with my fingers, the backs of my hands, the center of my palm, the base, the balls at the top. I touch the floors in all the same ways. I run my hands along everything. The counters. I go into every room, saving mine for last. It’s going to hit me so hard, that room. I have to sleep somewhere in this house on this night. I have the option for multiple nights. No one owns this house. It’s between things. Often in these dreams, I stay for longer than I originally intended, when I needed to be talked into going back in.


There is no one I can see who argues with me to take this course that I do, but I know that I’ve been persuaded. I listened to an argument. I heard someone else’s points.


“Where else are you going to go? This is what’s available right now,” I think. “Coincidence is a mother.”


This house had woods behind it. The house still does. I had a wife and she and I drove out to this house and I bet she thought it wasn’t much and didn’t understand why I wanted to go on another Saturday. Not just the once—it was probably five times.


I had this idea that we would walk up the driveway where I used to try and hit a Wiffle ball over the garage, and we’d knock on the door, though I would lead the way, as if my knock contained the sound of years and the knowledge of happiness itself. Of getting it. Of being in on something. What’s the secret knock, the secret word, my friends and I would ask each other, in the event that a fort was involved in a portion of one of our days. No one says happiness, do they? But there’s a case to be made, no matter what the actual knock or word might be.


A representative of the only other people who’d lived in the house that me and my family had lived in would present themselves to me and my wife. If they were wearing an apron because they’d been baking, I would have thought that was fine.


I’d say that I used to live there, that my family sold the house to you, so we kind of know each other in a way, and would it be okay for me and my wife to walk through the woods behind the house and go to the brook?


My knowledge of the brook’s existence would establish my legitimacy. Proof that I was no mere faker, no Saturday Johnny who just wanted to romp in your backyard woods. The brook is about a mile into those woods—a little less. I spent a lot of time walking to that brook. The water was never very high—only inches deep in most spots. It barely covered the pebbles on the bottom. Still, something had made them smooth.


I was shocked the time I saw a rainbow trout—a big sucker—half in the water and half out—breathing through one set of gills while the one facing the sky pulled away uselessly at the air, trying to get something from it that just wasn’t there.


“How on earth did you get here?” I thought.


I looked around me, as if it were a prank and the doer was about to leap out and shame me for my gullibility. This trout had been planted. Someone had transported the trout from somewhere else and dropped it into the brook. But to fool whom? Me? Who else came here? Were there spirits? Was this an offering?


That trout legitimized the brook to me as nature. Up until then, it was a spot in a hollow you could walk to behind our house. Now I kept my eyes open for beaver, foxes, prodigious snapping turtles that I never saw.


I pushed the trout over the surface of the brook, such as it was—a current against the bottom of my sneaker—hoping I wasn’t scraping its skin too much on the pebbles, but as I said, they were smooth, and I successfully transported the trout into this one deeper pool between the roots of a tree that extended from the bank and into the water.


The trout floated for a few seconds, then smacked the surface with its tail, and began to swim in slow circles. I had a feeling it was going to die there and I didn’t want to watch. Or, if it wasn’t going to die, that it’d be less encumbered in freeing itself without my gaze.


“You got yourself here,” I said aloud, while thinking, “Now get yourself out.”


The next day when I went back, the trout was gone. I called him Mr. Spangles after the fact, because I had learned that word at the beginning of the school year that had just started, and the trout’s skin spangled, which is how I had first noticed it.


The brook was in a darkened spot, which meant you were more apt to notice light, but light had a harder time staying there. It felt cooler, too, down by that water than it did on the path that led up to its edge. The spot seemed to fit. Whatever that meant. Because how can a spot not fit? It’s a spot. But some spots do seem to fit more than others. And while I knew that a trout has scales and not skin, that still felt like the proper term with Mr. Spangles.



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