Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vapor Trails

Vapor trails frame my childhood home. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I slept in my childhood home last night. I stopped there to catch a wink on my way back to Michigan from Cleveland. The house was dark and mostly empty when I arrived. No brothers or sister to be found. My mom had been gone nearly two years now. The only one left in the house was my dad, snoring loudly in his bedroom down the hall.

He told me he’d probably be in bed by the time I got there. He was right. I didn’t mind, I knew I’d be having breakfast with him at the local diner in the morning. His snoring didn’t bother me either. In fact, I kind of liked it. It was as soothing to me as the soft rumble of warm air being pushed out of the old furnace vent by the bedroom door.

The heat was a nice relief in the middle of a cold winter night. My old man kept the house a lot warmer than my mother did, that’s for sure. When we were kids, my younger brother used to joke that we could rent out our living room as a meat locker. He wasn’t far from the truth. My mother, who was in a perpetual state of menopause, kept the thermostat in our house routinely set somewhere between 58 and 60 degrees. Some days, if the light was just right, you could actually see your breath.

I chuckled at the thought as I took off my coat and threw it on the extra bed in what used to be the bedroom I shared with my brothers. My sister Dina had the other room to herself - puberty and gender pretty much guaranteed that arrangement, but I didn’t mind being crammed into a room with my brothers. We got along well because we all were equal parts mischievous and smart-ass

I pulled on my sweats and gazed around the room. It had changed quite a bit since the days when three adolescent boys occupied it. Gone were the posters of baseball players and rock bands. Much classier works of art had replaced them, all put there by my mother when she redecorated the room upon our departure. The bunk beds were gone too. In their place were two newer beds, both covered with fancy quilts and a menagerie of goofy country-crafty teddy bears. Hardly the teen-angst get-up my brothers and I had created, but still, the room felt pretty much the same.

The view out the picture window was just as I remembered. Facing north toward Lake Erie, the lights of the lime plant in Huron still shone as brightly through the crisp winter air as they did when I was a little boy and I was certain they were the lights at the North Pole.

The attic door in the corner of the room hadn't changed much either. It was still just as spooky as ever. So spooky that throughout my childhood, I made it a point to jam the end of my bed up against that door so it couldn’t be opened. When we were little kids, my mother informed us that a man had died on the roof while helping build the house back in 1926. To a kid that could mean only one thing – the man’s ghost was still in the house, more specifically, the attic! This meant there was no way in hell any of us kids were going to sleep at night unless the door to the attic was properly barricaded. Even now, as a 46-year-old grown man, that door was still giving me the willies.

My mom also put a bookcase in the room to try and make it look a tad more intellectual than it’s previous appearance. I’m not sure if a collection of books by Erma Bombeck and Dave Berry really did the trick, but it was a nice effort. More impressive to me was the fact that she had moved her album collection off the living room floor and into the bottom two shelves of the bookcase. The collection was nowhere near as massive as it had been in its heyday when it once threatened to take over the entire downstairs. My brother Lance, a professional musician, had sifted through and taken a fair amount of the collection, as had the rest of us, but it still was fairly large. It was nice that the albums were there, but somehow they seemed as out of place in the room as the kitschy teddy bears staring up at me from the bed.

It wasn’t all that late considering when I usually go to sleep, but I still crawled into bed – a much warmer, cozier bed than I ever remembered sleeping in before. Lights of passing cars crawled across the bedroom walls, just as they did when I was a kid. The sound of trucks downshifting on the Turnpike groaned in the distance. The furnace kicked on and off at perfect intervals and before long, I was sound asleep.

Crazy dreams of days past soon began to invade my slumber. Childhood dreams.

My body was lithe and my blonde hair flowed. I wore no eyeglasses, nor a shirt. My teeth were white and I was happy. I could run fast. Sometimes I could even fly. I was nice – a champion of all causes. Girlfriends from long ago began paying me visits. Not just one, but several, both real and imagined, until it became a full-blown lovers-of-the-past reunion. I even had dreams where I was talking about the dream I had just had while I was dreaming it - like a subconscious infinity mirror.

I was in houses I’d never been, meeting people I’d never met. One of my old college girlfriends introduced me to her husband. He was really short with a scarred face, and when I went to shake his hand, he extended a deformed, fleshy lobster claw in my direction, which I gladly shook. She had her hands full with three young kids, the youngest a two-year-old with curly blonde hair and a full set of grown up teeth speaking like a college professor, but wearing diapers.

Soon my dream shifted gears, now I was driving my car far out on a causeway in the middle of some lake, maybe Lake Erie. There was a bridge well off in the distance, but the road to the bridge was partially submerged in the water. Still, I pressed on. The wind picked up and began driving large waves over the road. I’d had this dream several times before, but not since my childhood. Now water was crashing into the side of my car, over the roof even. The car left the road and began to float, then sink. The clouds were incredible above me, a fiery mix of red and orange. I wasn’t scared, not even a little.

The next stop was a golf course that doesn’t exist. An impossibly difficult course I’d only ever played in my sleep. Three holes were all I’d ever gotten in, and tonight was no different. I played like a PGA pro for those three holes, but then, as always, the jig was up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tee off on the fourth hole. Suddenly doorframes were in my way and I couldn't get the ball to stop falling off the tee. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete my swing or even tee up the ball. Every golfer I know has this dream.

Next, I was back in school. My wife was there with me. It was the first time we’d met. She thought I was cute. I thought she was cute. It was strange because we were in middle school, but we were in our 20’s and we were way bigger and smarter than everyone else in the class, even the teachers. It was near the end of the school year and it was warm, so we skipped class and ran across the school lawn to a cemetery across the street, smiling and laughing the whole way. I felt no pain. My skin felt warm in the sun. I was young and carefree. I had no kids. I had no future. I had no past...

I woke up.

It was 7:30. My dad was already gone. I called him to see if he wanted to get some breakfast before I hit the road. He told me he was already waiting for me at the Main Street Café uptown. I made my bed, put the kitschy teddy bears back in their place and then got dressed.

My dreams stuck with me as I brushed a night’s worth of wool off my teeth and took a piss. Dreams always stick with me hard in the early morning – good or bad. When I was a kid I thought dreams were a glimpse into heaven. It was the unknown. A chance to visit places I’ve never been – a chance to do things I’ve never done, or could even do. I always liked dreams, even the ones that wake me up at 4 am in a cold sweat just as I’m about to get shot or stabbed. I feel alive when I’m dreaming. I like not having control of what’s going on. But these days I don’t sleep like I once did and my dreams aren’t what the used to be - except for last night, in my childhood home, when they were as clear and magical as ever.

I finished packing my things and headed outside. The sky was getting lighter, but the sun had yet to rise. Last night a million stars had occupied the space above our house. This morning, vapor trails crisscrossed that same space in an amazing pattern of man-made technological beauty. It dawned on me that a century ago, people weren’t lucky enough to see vapor trails in the morning light before they drifted off in the wind.

As I got in the car and drove uptown to meet my dad, my dreams became vapor trails too.