A young man began this story lying on his back, staring wistfully at a stationary ceiling fan on a cool afternoon. His back rested on an old bed, which was really more of a mattress, and his legs rested on an old stool he rarely sat in. Books about theories and stories sat on the shelf, recently unread. It was getting dark, but not very.
And in his hands, the young man had a silver guitar. It wasn't name-brand and it wasn't particularly expensive, but it was shiny, and when he strummed the strings they made happy sounds. Well, mostly happy. Sometimes his fingers messed up on their way to new chords, and no one in the building was happy about that. They let him know with heavy thuds and muffled sarcasm, and he took their criticism to heart. But of course he knew, it takes more than criticism to play a guitar.
So when it got just a little bit darker he swung up to his feet, ready to call it a night for practice. But before setting his instrument down on the stand, he couldn't help playing one last solo; a few pretty notes on a couple of strings, sliding and vibrating to nowhere in particular. It felt good, and it didn't sound horrible.
The young man smiled and closed his eyes as the strings bent softly under his fingertips. He might have thought, "if I were just a little bit better, this guitar could really sing." But you wouldn't know it, because he wasn't in the habit of saying things that corny to himself. The hope was in the sound of the guitar, that it might reflect those thoughts. With a little more practice, maybe.
"Seven thirty, seven thirty!" came the sound of a woman's voice, firm and flighty. "James, I swear I told you to be ready by seven forty!"
Jim was confused: most people didn't call him James, especially people he didn't actually know. But she stood there in his hallway, smoking a cigarette and tapping her smart phone with a vengeance. Her eyes were fixed to the screen, but she was clearly waiting for an explanation.
"Umm..if it's only seven thirty, don't I still have time?" His eyes lingered uncomfortably on her cigarette, questioning its presence in what was otherwise a very clean home.
"Not enough to get ready for the meeting with the label. You expect to go in looking like that? I swear." His shirt was slightly-mustard stained, true. But it was really good mustard, and besides, that didn't really seem like the big issue.
"I'm... meeting with a label today, huh?"
"Yes, some indie outfit. Maybe they won't mind if you're all slouchy, I hope."
"I'm thinking there might be a mistake here."
"The mistake," she said, extinguishing her cigarette on the clean white wall in a showy gesture of exasperation, "was not checking up on you at seven twenty five. Musicians, I swear."
"Well, I could hurry..."
"Don't bother, just go like...that, I guess. Maybe they'll like your grungy, alterna-whatever style."
"I can honestly say I didn't know that was my style."
"You could have fooled me, Mustard Stain. Now get downstairs! I swear, if you blow this meeting..."
"I'm going!" He didn't want to provoke her into swearing anymore, unsure of what it might lead to. But as he quickly stepped into his worn tennis shoes and made for the stairwell, the woman grabbed a hold of his arm. Gesturing with a new, unlit cigarette, she pointed to his room and said "aren't you forgetting something, James?"
Jim looked back, and figured she was referring to his silver guitar. He hurriedly packed it in his traveling case and rushed down the stairs.
Normally, the stairwell led to a common area, with a front door and street access. As strange as things were, Jim had no expectation that he would find anything different. But as things turned out, he had profoundly underestimated the magnitude of the strangeness he was experiencing. There was no common area this evening: only an empty reception room at a tiny office. Posters for hipster bands ringed the walls, and a fern drooped distressingly low in the corner. A pathetic air conditioner was breathing its last breath.
All of the developments thus far caused Jim a fair amount of consternation, and he would probably have turned around and gone right back to his room if the stairwell had not disappeared when he wasn't looking. He took a seat by the ailing plant, fiddling with the fasteners on his guitar case and wondering if he'd missed something important.
When Jim glanced up at the clock, he saw that it read three twenty. It was much earlier (or possibly later?) than he had believed, but from the shadows pouring through the tiny office windows it didn't look like much time had passed. Time didn't really seem to be passing at all, despite the determined tick-tick-tock of the hand around the clock face.
The thought occurred to Jim, at long last, that he could be dreaming. This wouldn't have been too surprising, as Jim dreamed quite often; more often than most people, most likely because he slept considerably more. The sudden awareness of dreaming usually caused him to wake up, but that didn't hold true on this occasion. The more he thought about it, the more he could feel the seat of his chair pushing up against him. The groans of the senile air conditioner seemed convincing enough. As for the fern, it was surely dying; a close look inside its planter box revealed a mat of dead leaves over dessicated top soil. He probed the dirt with his finger, but couldn't go very deep.
Generally speaking, he didn't believe in lucid dreaming. There wasn't any particular reason for that; he had of course heard plenty about its pleasures and benefits from friends and articles of uncertain origin. But he couldn't recall that it had ever happened to him before, and the idea of being fully conscious in a dream just didn't seem very plausible. Wasn't it more likely that lucid dreamers simply remembered their dreams more clearly than usual, and rationalized the experience after the fact? A dream was a dream: if he were actually dreaming, then he knew his body must be lying down, his eyes closed, appearing utterly unconscious to anyone who happened to see. But he felt conscious enough.
"If this is a dream," he said slowly, "I can probably make something out of this guitar." Opening the fasteners on his case, he considered that it probably was a dream, because he really wasn't in the habit of talking out loud to himself. But the guitar was more or less as it usually was: silver, and shiny. When he strummed the strings, they still made happy sounds. In fact, they sounded very happy; without really meaning to, he'd unleashed a fresh stream of pop chords, tumbling off the neck like a springtime romance. They weren't just happy, they were ecstatic. "This is a good dream," he said, keeping the joyful beat with the stomp of his shoes.
The air conditioner finally gave up the ghost, and the dying fern seemed to sag in mourning. But the clock kept ticking and Jim kept playing, until the office doors unexpectedly flew open. A busy looking man poked his head through them, wearing big glasses and an ironic tie.
"James, I told you this wasn't an audition. Get back in here, the contract's all drawn up!"
It was only natural to follow the man in, but Jim hesitated, momentarily disoriented by the interruption of his song. This man seemed like some sort of authority; by dream logic, he was probably supposed to follow that authority without question. Then Jim thought about testing the limits of this lucid dream experience. Rising up to his feet, he pointed the neck of his guitar toward the busy-looking man in an impromptu pose of defiance.
"And if I refuse?"
The busy looking man stared blankly for three seconds, then turned around and retreated briskly into his office. "That sense of humor's going to be great on your records. I'm sure of it."
Slightly embarrassed, Jim put his guitar back into its case and walked through the open door, closing it self-consciously behind him.
The busy man's name (as Jim could see from the sign on his desk) was Montana Market, and he was highly distracted. Even as he pushed the contract across for Jim to sign, he was focusing intently on a real estate flyer that advertised mansions in Boca Raton. The rolling hills of grass and palms were certainly very attractive, but Mr. Market had not even handed Jim a pen.
Outside the office, Jim heard the air conditioner dying. Again. "Mr. Market?"
"What is it?"
"I think I'm going to need a pen."
The mogul never took his eyes off of Boca Raton. "Oh really? Did you need one this morning?"
"Not that I remember."
"Well then, I don't see why you'd need one now. I never find I need one, myself." Market's cigar smoke floated lazily over affluent Florida, and Jim could not recall when it had been lit.
So Jim sat there a while longer, glancing first at the contract, then Montana Market's ironic tie, then back at the enigmatic contract once again. He couldn't really concentrate on reading it. The smoke from the cigar smelled like fine dark chocolate, but Jim could feel that somehow, it was contributing to the air conditioning's third and most violent death yet. He wanted to stop it, but couldn't see how.
"Maybe I can dream it signed," thought the young man, for all the world to hear.
"Maybe," said the mogul, drowsily, "they'll have gators bigger 'an boots."
"I could use some gator boots."
"I could use a mansion in beautiful Boca Raton," said a voice from just behind Jim's ear. It was his erstwhile manager; is that really who she is, he wondered? "Now sign the contract, James, your show's in twenty minutes." She walked slowly around the two of them, and the mogul turned away from his previous obsession, resting his feet on the desk. She seated herself on his lap, and began tugging suggestively on his ironic tie.
Jim was sure that somehow, this was all wrong. Wasn't this the sort of thing that got an artist screwed out of their royalties? A manager really shouldn't be in bed with the label, he thought, taking special care to keep it to himself.
"You found us a smart one, Ms. Bette," whispered Montana Market, his hands wandering inappropriately up the length of her thigh. "He'll figure out how to sign the contract pretty soon."
"Is...this part of my contract... Ms. Bette? I have to figure out how to sign it without a pen?"
"Oh yes," she giggled, "always bet on the smart ones." Jim thought the mogul might have been tickling her, but she could just as easily be laughing at some joke on her smart phone. It lay resting on Mr. Market's bare chest, and Jim found himself wondering just where that ironic tie had disappeared to.
"Ms. Bette, are you really my manager?"
She laughed out loud, turning her head to be certain he got the point. "What on Earth gave you that idea, Mustard Stain?"
Jim was increasingly annoyed. It wasn't so much at the behavior of his hosts; he'd only just met them and didn't think it right to judge. But he could feel himself losing control of what he thought was a lucid dream. That didn't seem right. The impasse was uncomfortable, especially as he watched the two figures who seemed to know more about the situation become increasingly interested only in each other.
How to sign a contract without a pen? And suddenly it hit him, in a moment of true lucidity. Reaching into his pocket, he found a sharpened pencil. Whether it had been there all along or not, he couldn't say, but he cheerfully signed the document, eager to move along. "I hope it's legal like this," he said, trying to catch their ears with his tone.
Ms. Bette took a moment from giggling into Mr. Market's chest to grab the paper and read his leaden signature. "Brilliant work, James!" She laughed again, turning back to the mogul. "You were right, he is a clever one!"
"Cathy," mumbled the distracted label man, "if you'll buy me those shoes I told you about, I'll buy you that boob job, and the world's tiniest black bikini." And from one moment to the next, Cathy Bette suddenly had both of those things, and could not have looked happier. Incidentally, Jim noticed that Montana Market's feet were now clad in a shiny pair of alligator boots, roughly the size of luxury speed boats. The workmanship was immaculate.
Jim frowned. "I increasingly feel as if this is not my dream anymore."
"No, James, I'd say your dream is out there." She indicated over his shoulder. He turned, and somehow the office door was open to a paradise of humidity and opulence. "Somewhere out there, anyway. First you'll have to get out of Boca Raton. Now go, find your dream," she said, fiddling with an e-mail on her smart phone while Montana Market completely lost touch with reality, "or I will never forgive you, Mustard Stain."
So Jim stepped out of the office an into the wild suburbs of Florida. Guitar case in hand, he scanned the scenery for a bus or a taxi that would carry him to his own dream, whatever that meant. He remained fully conscious of the changing nature of the dreamscape, but that precious quality of lucidity remained outside his grasp. There was no bus, no taxi, and no obvious means of introducing one to the dream. Because it wasn't his?
And then he found himself walking, and found furthermore that it seemed like the right way to go. Down the row of tacky houses, past three cul-de-sacs, seven palm trees and one well-fought basketball game, and around a street corner he went, and suddenly it didn't look much like Florida anymore. In fact, before him stood the familiar marquee of Bruno's Bar and Indie Theater.
It was his dream to play Bruno's, after all. He was sure of that. Ever since that night, three years before, when he'd ordered that rum and coke. It had spilled out of his hand for no good reason at all, drenching the lap of a burly, ill-tempered stranger. The resulting brawl somehow consumed upwards of twenty patrons, but left Jim mostly, miraculously unscathed. From that day on he'd wanted to play Bruno's, if only to prove to that burly stranger that he was more than just a "weaselly little bitch."
But would the stranger have the last laugh? Jim squinted to be sure, and concluded that first impressions were true: the marquee proudly announced the one-night engagement of the up-and-coming star, Jimmy Jim Stain. Never having called himself by that moniker (or heard another use it to his face), he asked the bouncer if there'd been some sort of mistake in the billing.
"Not on our end," said the bouncer, who bore an uncanny resemblence to the burly, ill-tempered stranger, though he wore a more outrageous mustache. "That's the name the promoter told us to run."
Things were not much better back stage, as the count to show time rapidly decreased and the strings of Jim's silver guitar bristled at his clumsy attempt to tune them. "Soundcheck was great, Jimmy!" called the stage manager, "I know you're going to break their hearts!" But Jim could not remember soundcheck. He could not remember ever seeing the stage manager's face before, or his ridiculous patchwork suit. And he could not remember how to play guitar.
The dream was changing faster than Jim could keep up. He drank three cups of bitter coffee that appeared (piping hot) out of God knows where, but not one drop of caffeine could calm him down. "Is this lucid dreaming," he asked the dark red curtain that draped inches from his face, "or just a pants-wetting nightmare? Oh God, it's another one of those, isn't it!?" Must the show go on, or would it end if he just woke up?
And as the curtain parted, and the audience clapped with uncommon enthusiasm, and the lights reflected off the silver body of his guitar, Jimmy Jim Stain knew that it really would all be over if he just woke up. But in that moment, the true lucidity came back to him. "If you let it," he found himself saying into the red hot microphone, "your guitar can really sing."
He led the set with an original composition, a mid-tempo song he couldn't quite remember writing, but felt confident he knew every word:
"You can play the same old chords on my heart,
You can sing me songs about pearls and rings,
But sooner or later, you know I'm a-get smart,
And you'll have to buy yourself a new set of strings."
You can sing me songs about pearls and rings,
But sooner or later, you know I'm a-get smart,
And you'll have to buy yourself a new set of strings."
The chords flowed freely from his fingers to his frets, with a fluency that would have startled him if the sum of the experience did not leave him so happy. It was not a caricature of rock n' roll success, a thunderous breakthrough into packed arenas and hedonistic after-parties. That was not this dream; in this dream, Jim was in control, Jim defined his own success. The crowd loved him, but with gentle affection and warm appreciation for his craft. They applauded for each new song, called for an encore, and he even thought he could hear a few tender voices singing along to his version of "Smokey Mountain Rain." And for the first time, Jim really felt he'd played it well.
"Sweet lucidity, where have you been all my life?"
The positive vibes followed Jim back stage, and enveloped him once again with every back-slap and raised bottle as he made his way to the bar. The passage of time was still erratic, and though he seemed to recall having played thirteen songs, it didn't seem like time had passed for more than two or three. Bruno's Bar and Indie Theater was sadly deficient in windows and oddly deficient in clocks, leaving precious few indications of time. It was always dark in a bar like that. But Jim felt good, and wanted the good feelings to last as long as liquor laws permitted. "I'll have a rum and coke, please."
And for a while, that was the dream too: drinking a rum and coke in peace at Bruno's, his consciousness steeped in happy details. The fake gaslamps that looked like real gaslamps in the shadows made his drink glow like a magic potion. The air conditioner was alive and robust in health, keeping the room crisp and cool despite the abundant human bodies. Music filled the theater and danced along its walls, quiet enough to permit conversation but loud enough to hold its vital edge. Everywhere, beautiful men and women shared stories and jokes, laughing into each other's eyes. Jim neither envied nor resented any of them. He felt much too good.
After a while, he noticed the presence of a woman at the bar, next to him. He did not know her face, but she wore the same patchwork suit he'd seen on the colorful stage manager before the show began. The greens and purples of her costume practically required the attention of every thinking person, yet somehow attracted none of them. Without quite knowing how, Jim had entered into conversation with her.
"That was a good show, man," she said, taking her drink from the bartender with an experienced smile. She had a rum and coke as well, though it didn't gleam like Jim's did. Nothing really could. "You really broke their hearts out there."
"Oh, I'm sure their hearts will be fine in the morning." He was getting cornier with each passing sip.
"Of course, it wasn't really the grungy, alterna-whatever style we were expecting, was it?"
The phrase stuck in his craw, and it seemed like the room had risen a few degrees. He looked at her, halfway hidden by his glass. "Umm, I don't want to sound forward, but can I ask you a personal question?"
"If you must," she replied, eyebrows intrigued.
"Is your name Cathy Bette, by any chance?"
"As chances are, it is not, " she laughed into her second drink. It glowed no brighter than the first. "You don't really think I look like her, do you, Jimmy Jim Stain?"
She didn't, but Jim thought it was hard to be sure, all else considered. He didn't regret asking, at any rate. He tried a jolly affectation. "To be honest, you look more like Cathy's clown."
She smiled the same experienced smile. "And you look like you ought to be the tiniest bit more careful when you eat sandwiches. Oh, don't be sad," she said, as warm embarassment spread across his cheeks. "You aren't a hundred per cent responsible for everything you do tonight. I'll give you thirty percent for the shirt, anyway."
"Maybe." Silence seemed wiser.
"Those songs, though, I'll have to give you credit. You really came through back there."
Jim looked back at the theater stage where the lights had felt so much like love, and smiled in spite of his shame. He realized then that he'd left his silver guitar behind the curtain, but it seemed alright for the moment. "I'm just trying to live my dream. Or dream it, anyway."
"Do you mind my saying," she intoned, "that your dream comes across as a little modest?"
"No, I don't mind it," Jim said, though in truth he was a little annoyed. "But you know, I've been trying to keep this dream on track all night, and it's not exactly easy."
Her smile came more naturally now. "I guess the success hasn't gone to your head, not too much anyway. You're right, you know. It's hard work to dream something right."
Jim tried to set his glass on the bar, but found that both were gone. Instead of Bruno's Bar and Indie Theater, the setting was Grady's Restaurant. The food was upscale and the upholstery expensive. "Tell me about it," he sighed.
"Your name isn't really 'Stain,' is it, Jim?"
"No, thank God."
"A name's just a name," she chuckled. "What kind of name is 'Grady's' for French cuisine, after all?"
"I guess in some small way, I've always wondered." He tasted a bit of what he assumed to be escargot, and found it tasty.
"Compliments of the Chef," announced a stentorian waiter, as two of his comrades appeared to present Jim with the case containing his guitar. For a moment, he could only wonder why.
"Don't worry, don't wonder," said the woman in the patchwork suit, dabbing her lips with a serviette. "A dream's a dream and no matter what any one says, it's still a dream. But real life's the same way, if you think about it."
He looked back at her, and considered for a moment whether she was not in fact wearing an elegant evening dress. "I can't disagree, but I could do with a little more control."
"What we all couldn't do," she replied, thoughtfully. "But for what it's worth from me, I think you have as much of an opportunity as anybody else. Keep practicing, and maybe work on being a little less corny, and you'll play Bruno's again some day."
Nodding absently, Jim found that the silver guitar was in his hands once again. He strummed a few chords. They weren't much, but they sounded pretty good.
"And look at that," she giggled, "your shirt is clean!"