Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me.
I often hear characters in pop songs and in shows for the stage singing about their dreams. About how they yearn to turn their dreams into reality, if only, if only, and before it’s too late! Dreams of a better life, of romance, of finding themselves, of finding their true place in this crazy mixed-up world, yeah. Sometimes they’re daydreams and sometimes they’re nighttime beddy-bye dreams, and sometimes you’re not too sure. One thing’s certain: dreams seem roundly regarded as propitious, good, comforting, often thrilling, and helpful for pointing the way forward.
Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?
The way the story goes, if you can dream it, you can do it. To me, this is a fairy tale, but (or, therefore), audiences seem to enjoy these songs of tinsel and greasepaint, and so by this time we have many of them knocking around the old jukebox of the mind. Probably songwriters generally meant “envision” when they said “dream,” but “dream” fits the metre better and besides it has these mystical, dark-of-night overtones, inviting the notion that bright ideas and inspiration and even wisdom can come to us unbidden while we’re asleep and be applied to our waking life with a good chance of success.
I dream nightly, but almost never do I dream of anything I would like to see realized or replicated in real life, please no. My dreams are nonsensical, and they rattle me. As for any lessons they might impart, these tend to evaporate when I wake up, and a typical dream leaves little except a sour taste, a certain horror at what I’ve just witnessed, and sometimes, for a moment, the strong urge to patch things up between me and the people in my dream, as if it had been real: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t really mean to say such a thing . . . how can I make it up to you?”
I know why I dream and I know what the problem is. No matter how long and involved my dream seems to be, I’m convinced that I dream it all just within the few moments before the need to get up and pee becomes urgent enough to wake me up. It’s a pressure situation all right, and it causes me to have particularly rushed, complicated, pointless, distressing dreams, hurried housecleanings of the dark corners of the subconscious. But even while they’re going on, part of my mind tries to stand apart, tries over and over to make sense of what’s happening and explain the dream to itself.
Well. I happen to be a fan of railroads, especially old railroads, especially abandoned old railroads, where sometimes the bridges and tunnels and stations and freight houses have been left behind, slowly falling to pieces, and on certain days where the light is just right, you can stand on the old right-of-way and imagine the great engines thundering down the line, making the earth shake. And which is more poignant, more sweet/sour? The vision of the railroad in its heyday? Or the poignancy of the crumbled empire, the great scheme that’s come crashing down, the emptiness and the loss and the bitter wind that blows? So! Quite a few of my dreams end up involving railroads. In particular, for some reason, a frequent guest is the Central Massachusetts, one of the sweetest/sourest little rail lines that ever ran.
Here, now. Let’s imagine ourselves at Boston’s North Station in the 1950’s, as a shiny Boston and Maine Buddliner leaves for its nightly trip to Clinton, many miles to the west on the Central Mass. Ridership has been declining for years, and somehow it’s not surprising to see that the single car is as high and as wide as a regular one but shorter than a Nash Rambler, with room enough only for the driver, the conductor, and maybe four passengers. It slides out of the depot onto orange rails running down a blue cobblestone street (such history, such charm), and the cobbles are wet, glistening with silver suds, a sailor’s duds, a bag of spuds, them Crips and Bloods . . .
Steady, there. What better time than now to mow the lawn, wouldn’t you say? That would be relaxing, and would sure go a long way towards tidying this place up. Pull the cord and off we go! And so now I’m mowing the tall grass between the rails of the Central Mass., out in Sudbury or Hudson or somewhere, what a disgrace, they can’t even afford to maintain the ROW anymore. There’s a cool breeze but a blazing sun, and old sheds alongside the track, what’s in them, old hanging sliding doors faced with clapboards that have warped and sagged in the sun, and the paint, once a cheery red, has faded to a whisper of dirty pink. Yellowjackets furious in the dusty air. A signal can be seen up ahead, and it’s lit! It’s red up ahead, it’s always red up ahead, it doesn’t mean a train is coming, it means no train is ever coming. Red is the color of NO, of bankruptcy, of shame and failure and scandal! Beyond, a torn tornado is touching down on a concrete horizon and Tom Brady is there too, good ol’ Tom, so steady, so reassuring, rearing back with that football, about to let it fly, a calm gaze and an aw-shucks grin: “Don’t worry, Bub, I got you covered.” It’s my train now, my train (what train?). My train is full of butter, my train is full of asphalt, my train is full of musty old air and cobwebs, broken glass, scraps of paper, and, mainly, to be honest, nothing much at all. Nothing at all, just hot dusty air in each car, open it up and see, pick it up like Godzilla, shake it out like a Parcheesi shaker, out spills nothing.
My train now runs out along a very tall earthen embankment, high above a green valley in the countryside between two forgotten station stops. Up in the air my train makes its way, shakes its way, and blows its whistle and it sounds both like a whistle and a Fats Waller record, oh mercy! I’m on the train, up upon this mountain of earth, and I’m also down below it, looking up, it’s a picture postcard, a turn-of-the-century colorized postcard, soft pinks and yellows in the sky, and it is very sweet and stirring and what a cozy time we’re having and it’s my train, which would make me very old by now. What is this place? Where do I live? Where shall I live?
Steady, there. As it happens a house is for sale (it’s being auctioned, really) in Wayland, a nice town, a posh town. We arrive there on a perfectly fine, sunny morning to meet with the realtor, and at first things look OK. It’s a tall two-story, wood-frame single-family on a slight rise, almost completely surrounded by a monoculture of tall, leggy, straight-up white pines. It’s cooler underneath the pines and the light here is dim, the ground is soft with a carpet of fallen needles. Nee-dullsch. Above us the house shines in the sunlight, its gables and dormers (so many dormers) looking monumental, and, through the regimental stands of tree trunks, a bit surreal. We walk all the way around the house without coming nearer to it, as if assessing it in a virtual way.
Unsurprisingly, the property backs up to the Central Massachusetts (the cab of a rusty engine that is shuffling by can be seen just over the berm that obscures the rest of the train). Also, an old canal is back there too, parallel to the railroad. Dead trees lie in the stagnant water, rotting. Such history! Such charm! But now we come around to the front of the house where there’s a grand stone staircase leading up to the main entrance, and a woman is there, slumped on the steps, and something is very wrong, she is weeping, ranting, shouting (barking!) at someone, maybe at us, though she seems not to see us (where’d the heck that realtor get to?). Maybe she’s a tenant? Or maybe she’s the soon-to-be former owner and is even now being evicted from her own property? She’s very upset! Her face is a rupture of angry tears and flushed skin and sticky-looking spittle, there’s something streaky red in it, ghastly; she is beyond using words and is just wailing, moaning, hawking, spluttering.
We back away and scurry around the side of the house and immediately forget the woman on the steps. Here, we begin to see why this house is being auctioned off. There are other buildings here, just beyond the property lines, and in the bright (harsh) (glaring) sunlight they show up excruciatingly well. Before us is a burned-out brick carriage house with pitted, once-fancy limestone pillars (where are the horses, where are the old jalopies, what’s become of them, what has happened here?). And over there are some squat industrial buildings, workshops-like, more recent perhaps, abandoned, sooty, disheveled, with ragged tar paper flapping, rubbish of every kind tangled up in the dead grass, overgrown brush, all thorns and burrs, and rusty barbed wire in loops and whorls, and crudely painted signs warning “Keep Out — Trespasing Prohibted.”
Who would ever buy this house, under any circumstances? Oh, and, by the way, what house? The wailing and shouting have stopped and I turn around and the house and the pine trees are gone and I am alone. But the railroad track remains, so suddenly I am walking (west) along it in a headwind. I walk for hours. I pass by scenes I recognize from picture books about old train lines, and I pass by scenes from no old train line ever. I come to the black mouth of a tunnel and it is late in the day now and I am shivering and hungry and except for the rail line I am lost. I can’t go back, and the wooded country rising steeply to my left and right is obscure in the dusk and appears to be wilderness, with a covering
of snow, lacking roads or trails or buildings or lamplight, so onward I go.
I am running now, stumbling and tripping. The ballast cuts my knees and hands. I can see a headlight coming (and you could certainly see this coming) behind me and the air shakes and the ground shakes and I am trapped and my legs have turned to noodles, there is nowhere to hide, nowhere I can climb to or crawl, it’s cold, hard, a choking smoke, a ruthless machinery, a cage of rats,
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