Perchance to Dream by Gerald Budinski

The new night nurse stepped into the darkened room to complete her round of patients in the south wing of the fourth floor. She stopped short, remembering that this was where they kept the patient the orderlies called the veggie-man. All this patient needed was an aide to replace or clean receptacles and tubing. Yet, here was a respite of quiet and solemnity in a world of moans, labored breathing, and blaring TV’s. On a whim she went over to the window and opened it a crack, snapping and creaking the seldom-used hardware. It was the first truly sweet night of spring and even this poor soul might get some good from it. Sitting in dark silence she imagined something in him stirring.

~~~

Someone in Brady’s dream was saying: “Haven’t you been sleeping for an awfully long time?”

So what of it – isn’t it a weekend or something? He had just been having a fabulous dream and needed to get back to it. It was the dreams he craved. As a kid, his mother made fun of him, calling him sleepy head, and even now he slept late on weekends, ten o’clock sometimes. If he ever imagined a heaven, it would be an eternity of dreams.

“That’s very interesting; not dreaming but remembering, actually thinking,” said someone. Thinking meant awake. Then why didn’t he hear or feel anything? No, it was like sometimes you dream you are awake but really aren’t. Just the intermission break of a very long dream. How long though, is too long? It seemed like something like this had happened once before – sleep, interminable sleep. Appendix, wasn’t it? Every awakening was to the unbearable pain in his abs where they had cut through, and he would scream for the morphine that put him under again. Under – into the blackness that scared him because of the way it made time leap. It was these leaps in time that made him miss the wide-awake world where people said and did important things – somehow without him. Later it was the clammy, scratchy bed that made the dreams restless and ugly. But now he felt nothing, remembered nothing that could dissuade him from blessed sleep. Like, someone out there needing him.

“That was something he could think on later – please, just a few more winks.”

But it was only a short dream, walking in a garden, until something distracted him forcing him to think again. Something new – lilacs? He could smell lilacs and he couldn’t remember the last time he smelled anything at all. So it must have been this other thinking someone who asked,

“What was the last thing you can remember before going to sleep?”

A mindless chore with a stupid ending. Mowing lawn – no, using the snow-blower on the driveway and then getting frustrated by the icy mass on the apron and backing into the street for a good run at it when something momentous happened. A huge yellow monster obliterated the whole white world with a heavy thud, then he and the snow blower were tumbling end over end like in Dorothy’s cyclone funnel, everything spinning, tumbling, floating, never coming down, never wanting to come down. Then came the dreams, long and interminable, until now, dissipated by something new. The something sweet and rare that woke him was – lilacs.

This something with smells was terribly wrong. An injury without pain – thank God for that – but it worried him that there was nothing else in place of it, no tingling numbness, nothing. He could not hear or feel anything and as for seeing, it seemed as if he had forgotten even what caused his eyes to see. Open them! But how to do it? It was like every connection to the world outside his skull was severed. All but one – the lilacs.

He had something important to figure out here and he made a good try at it but thinking was very tiring and soon he began to see the floating things again, beginning with lilacs in large crystal vases tumbling, falling into a marvelous dream.

He was walking across a vast golden plain with several people, like the Western pioneers – wide hats and bonnets – but there were no wagons or horses, just people walking. To the right was a great river that could barely be seen below steep golden bluffs. They needed to cross the river but it was becoming an endless trek to find a suitable place. Somehow a long rope was strung across and he beckoned the throng to follow him, tight-roping fifty feet above the river until he, now alone, plunged downward toward disaster. Instead he landed softly on a sandy beach where there were birds and nests overflowing with eggs. Something to smell – scrambled eggs. It was morning.

He didn’t like this new dreamless state with smells but no sounds, sights, or feelings. After many cycles of dreams and scents he began to get pretty good at figuring it out – as good as any sniffing dog. Scents, fragrances, aromas, odors, smells, stinks, stenches – how many words there were, and how many nuances within? Certain food smells meant morning, others lunch, and others (not so pleasant) meant dinner. Starch and disinfectant could be a nurse coming in to treat him, if his assumption of a hospital was correct. In between the meals there were periodic smells that could be orderlies or aides but there were less frequent scents that he still had to decipher.

Something he did figure out frightened him. If he were in a hospital it had likely been for several months. Lilacs meant May and the most recent that his snow blowing could have been was March. Something significant always happened in February, which he couldn’t remember, but Christmas seemed fresh and vaguely special. He had probably been in this state since January.

It wasn’t simple surgery this time, but something very serious. His sense of smell and rational periods didn’t jive with his worst conclusions – but the broken connections did. There was a terrible word for his condition, and its name was coma.

This frightened him because he recalled reading that the longer one was in a coma; the less likely one would be to recover. A coma, black dreamless sleep for months, brain dead. No – dream undead, a non-death of endless dreams

Yet his mind was far from dead! Being able to smell was new, so maybe connections in his brain were starting to mend. And right now he was actually reasoning – ergo sum! Or was this a dream as well? On the other hand, he had also read that smell was the most primal of the senses – even worms had it in their way. But this was what was frightening.

No one knew about his smells or thinking and they might just be waiting for him to die. They could even be helping the process along. A new smell – curry? – curry mixed with chemicals. A doctor? Was a doctor checking him? No, they must have been done with testing him long ago – but maybe they had to do it periodically. Could space-age electronics detect a worm thought? Even with the neuronal energy of a thousand worms -intertwined in swarming crowds? Crawly, wormy dreams. A universe of dirt, lovely moist dirt, onward and upward ingesting-expelling granules ever upward toward dry saving air – and danger. Emerging into dry loose sand and a scene in which a now human he was sitting on a very crowded beach.

On this beach were many attractive women but he chose to sit next to a pretty one for whom he felt a special attraction. She let him put his arm around her, and his face against her cheek, bare legs entwined with hers. The dream became sexually exciting, but that was nothing new. He often had erotic dreams. What was new was that now this woman that he seemed to love had a familiar scent, the smell of mild perfume, like lavender. And this scent could be connected with one of the regular mileposts in his sporadic waking life. This person was in the room right now – the lavender of Vera, Veronica his wife.

How badly had his brain been damaged that he could forget his wife of – how long? – fifteen years. On Valentine’s Day – the important day that he had missed. Lavender. His first lame line when they met was to compliment her on her nonexistent perfume, which is really that pretty soap that she still used now. Simple, wholesome, clean, yet somehow erotic. A wife and he a husband – but how close, how good? Had his dream reflected anything beyond a wrenching need? Yes, he felt it now, the something beyond – the need to care.

She was here, interrupting her life right now. He had really let her down: stupid carelessness – bam, brain dead. – or the nearest thing to it and by now she must be hating him. What was she doing right now? Watching, searching for signs of life – or reading a book and killing time out of a sense of duty? And yet here she was after four months of it. This was something to keep him going.

He was beginning to remember that they had a house, and a yard. He could picture it. Vera in sexy shorts watching him grill something. Kids were in the picture but only as a rapidly moving blur, impossible to focus. Standing by the grill makes him tired so he lies down on the grass. Vera takes a shovel and begins to cover him with dirt, laughing and calling the kids who also laugh and pile more dirt on. This shocks him into an awakening in which the lavender has faded.

Two days later Vera’s lavender arrived late in the morning blended with other new scents. Dominating for an instant is bubblegum which fixes the previous blur on Mandy, thirteen years old and still addicted to the sweet gunk. And there was another with it, a musky perfume too old for her. Then that receded a second blend came close, a medley of grass and dung tinged earth, evoking Timmy, who seemed to have an affinity for it. That and mustard. He pictured them each leaning for a kiss, then going to sit some distance away while their mother completed her ritual watch. Somewhere inside him there must be not only tears and a way to make them flow so the scents will stay. But scents are fleeing like the wisps that bring them – the loving medley moves close then far, then is gone for seven days.

After just seven cycles of meal smells he reckoned that her visits must be two evenings a week then again with the kids on Saturday. Sunday was a day of rest. The evening visits could mean that she had gotten a full time job. Vera had worked part time at the school only because she enjoyed it. He himself must have had a good job. A title came back to him – environmental engineer – but he couldn’t remember exactly what that meant.

Even if his mind broke through the mist, could he function? He could be permanently disabled or horribly deformed – something to be pitied then put out of sight – or both: a limp and faceless worm. A real man would pray for death.

Yet the seduction continued. Dreams of wonderlands, suppressed desired, cartoon fantasies and holy visions – all teasing at cosmic revelations.

He was in a funeral parlor, people seated here and there but at the far end, where the coffin should be, it was pitch dark and nothing could be seen. An overly strong smell of flowers emanated from the alcove but he turned his back on all of it, afraid to even think who might be lying there. Then Vera came over and said she was dying of thirst. Could he go out and find a drinking fountain. He gratefully descended a very long flight of stairs leading to a corridor with identical iron doors that he knew he should not be opened because that was the place where they did the horrible things. He was forced to take a chance on one.

It was a beautiful room like the viewing parlor except it was full of people who were having a cocktail party, and so he stayed to have a drink. There was music and he was having a good time until suddenly there again was the sickeningly strong flower smell and his mother was shouting at him – to get upstairs where he belonged.

The new smell that awakens him is a strong perfume as worn by an older woman. Not new – his mother.

He must be a hardship for her as well. She had to come up from Florida like she must have after his accident and maybe several times since. Of course he felt affection and pity, but inexplicably also fear.

This unease was confirmed on Sunday – his mother and Vera together and both scents altered, soured. He was becoming as good as any dog at this, as he had already noticed when the nurses were having a bad day. As good as their own dog, Flossy. This canine psychic could sniff out false anger but lay low in face of the real thing. But she also knew if you needed a special lick when you were down.

He tried to concentrate and read something from the subtly deviating aromas but drifted back to the funeral dream. Now he was seated where he could see into the dark alcove and that the man lying there was his grandfather. He wanted to get up to pay his respects but his dog jumped onto his lap to comfort him, jarring him – awake.

The old man had lingered for many years with Alzheimer’s, draining his parents of funds, energy and at the end even sympathy. And his own father ended up being a burden as well. Dad collapsed one day – complications from diabetes – then vegetated for six months in a hospital before he finally died. After that mother had nothing left and had to move to Florida to share a trailer with her sister. He and Vera had offered to take her in but she didn’t “want to be a burden.” Since then mother’s entire life had been focused on allocating burdens. She was probably appraising Vera’s now. He couldn’t blame her really – she must be concerned about the kids.

His vague fear, like the enigmatic scents, materialized into terror. He recalled a conversation he had with his mother, she urging him not be a burden, not to linger. What had he said to quiet her?

But worrying exhausts one’s energy blurring entire days that weaving familiar dreams in and out of blackness.

He was in college and just realized he was late for a final exam. He runs through a frantic maze of an unfamiliar campus, just reaching the exam room as the hour strikes. No one is there except a middle-aged man who looks vaguely familiar. “Go where you belong,” the man shouts, and his mother appears behind him nods her head. The man pulls an object from his pocket, lights a match, and invokes a scent.

Strong perfume joined with something new. Something nutlike and sweet – tobacco! – the remnants of an almond scented pipe. So this must be his mother with some man. Was she finally dating? Fine, good for her, she was just in her late fifties and still attractive. Great place to bring a date! But who had the pipe in his dream?

His father’s family lawyer, who Vera did not like, smoked a pipe. It could be the lawyer, but it could just as likely be another doctor – a second opinion in either case. Worst of all there was no lavender to protect him.

The next day was an enfilade of changing odors. Deodorants, colognes, perfumes, and mints blanketing a host of natural ingestions and excretions – none with any connection to his past. Fear entered his limited universe with every unfamiliar odor. Each could be someone empowered to judge him and terminate his dreams. This olfactory inquisition exhausts an entire day before he is returned to his accustomed cell of scents with just one escape: sweet restful nothingness.

Black and dreamless sleep – like his life before the lilacs. Returning again? This must have just happened because the last meal he smelled was dinner and this one was dinner as well. What if they tested him during one of his black out spells – and if the black outs came more frequently and lasted longer? This dreamless sleep was something to be feared. Fear, like a centrifuge, intensifies the spiraling toward darkness.

Awake to fading breakfasts. How many days this time? Lavender and funeral flowers and pipe-smoke all together and then he felt – did he actually feel? – something like vibrations, perhaps at the sides of his skull. This happened once before and he thought it might be a loud noise; signals strong enough to leap barely severed connections. Noises that go with lavender and lilies. Vera and his mother were shouting.

Suddenly the familiar scents were gone but there were others that came and went so rapidly there was little time to fix on them – food, chemicals, floor wax, paint, rubber, wood – and there was only one interpretation for it all. He is being moved, of course, but why? It is time for his final exam.

When the variations end, there is only one enduring smell or rather a blend of several constants: vinyl, Styrofoam, and the vague burning scent of high currents surging through heavy metal.

Brady had an MRI once, for a rear end whiplash that fortunately turned out to be only just that. He should be grateful that he cannot see the claustrophobic coffin chamber or have to endure the ear and mind shattering noises. But these missing sensory tethers could be his downfall. He had read a little about the brain. There were sections for receiving sight and sound but as in a computer there were also separate segments for processing the inputs from the senses. Fascinatingly, subjects of experiments could concentrate on imaginary sights and sounds and the machines could not tell the difference. He had to use that phenomenon as his final hope. That and the vibrations.

But this is some new test with no vibrations. There were so many now – PET, MEG, FMRI – all meant to peel away the secrets of his brain. He preferred the MRI. He focuses all his energy to imagine that he is on an old prop airliner on a rough flight where it is impossible to sleep. Create some fellow passengers, count them, name them! After a while Vera is there to help and whispers “Look at that funny looking man over there. Isn’t that crazy Jesse from the Stop-n-Shop?” Vera floating in a flooded shop.

He wills himself awake. He remembers reading about the tests and how they worked. Each sequence of sonic pulses formed a layer in an ever-building three-dimensional image. Like slices of an orange that when reassembled form the original organic sphere, all this carefully timed. A clockwork orange which is very good book and he tries to remember the plot, but now Vera is slicing oranges and they look so tasty and the stewardess is serving old-fashions and the orange slices will go nicely but the pilot is walking the aisle handing out test papers.

Black sleep! Maybe for days. But just before waking he had been dreaming: an enormous picnic – tables in rows across acres of parkland loaded with tons of food but masses of people lined up so deep that he can’t get close enough to take any. He had often dreamt of food before but the dream maker had always satisfied him. For the first time he can remember, he is hungry. And thirsty, very thirsty.

Of course that is how they would have to do it – just remove his feeding tube and wait. The hunger has already weakened his mind and he would very much like to sleep but the emptiness within is beyond uncomfortable, and now the familiar smells are entering the room. All of them: Vera, his mother, Mandy bubblegum, what must be Timmy in his own cologne masking mud and antiseptic. Also something new; a faint odor something like tobacco but not, something sweet and somehow soothing and frightening at the same time. The scent brings up a memory of somewhere dim, candles, bells tinkling. The smell is incense; perhaps the remnants on the priest’s vestments are from a funeral. How fitting – the priest is here to give him Last Rites.

Today the lavender and lily are tainted with salt and Vera’s aura is absent the anger that kept his hopes alive. He should prepare himself. Maybe he should pray. God, where is my bright tunnel and mystic guide? Instead of a hovering view of my mourners, only sniffs.

Give me just one last sight of Vera and the kids – if only in a dream.The blend of scents drift away and he is left with one: Doctor Curry with a hint of musk.

Will he deliver the coup de grace? Thirst asserts itself into a discomfort that borders on pain but all is submerged in an overall sense of weariness. Weariness, which will lead to sleep, perchance to dream. No! The thirst begins torment in his soul toward something new – anger.

This is not fair!They are assuming he is an unfeeling vegetable that can be left to die on the vine with no consequence except to wither and free the stems for more. He is a thinking, feeling, suffering being. A condemned murderer would be given more consideration: quick and painless, with every care taken for consolation and comfort. Against every natural inclination, he refuses to just drift off. He is tired of sleep, sick of dreams, and rejects a heaven of perpetual fantasy.

Goddamn you, doctor curry-breath cheap musk drenched vine-picker, counting dwindling pulses while you hope for an early dinner!

His universe explodes in a torrent of blinding light and the now very visible doctor’s drumming on the metal bed stand is like a stomping bugle corps. And most blessed of all is his itching – burning, marvelously living flesh rebelling against rough sheets that torment his back and legs.

“Mrs. Donner, come quick! It is a miracle!” shouts the doctor in a magnificent basso voice. He happens to be West and not East Indian, as Brady had imagined, but his call is more beautiful than any aria.

In preparation for he knows not what, he touches his face to find his jaw intact, although his tongue has found no teeth. More importantly he confirms that he does have an altered but totally complete nose. He is able to turn his head, just in time to greet Vera who is leading the pack into his room, screaming crying laughing sobbing through a tear drenched grin while a strong flowery smell hovers somewhere out of sight.

Brady decides to test his voice and croaks, “I still love that perfume.”

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