Dreamdate

Enward stood on the shore and contemplated the blue-green line where the ocean met the sky. The sound of high tide rolling in wrapped around him like an extra blanket, until this reverie was interrupted by the arrival of a little blonde girl wearing a little white dress. She had been playing, unattended, in the parking lot, and he silently noted her runny nose and bloody knees.

“Hi there,” he said. “Where’s mommy? Where’s daddy?”

In response, the girl grasped his hand and led him down the beach.

When she stopped to look at a dead duck covered with seawood, Enward thought he should say something. Tell her it’s asleep. Tell her a story. But why? Shouldn’t she know that birds die, as other birds kill to stay alive? “If you were my offspring,” he told her, “I’d tell you these and other bad things, at the risk of them invading your dreams. So you’d never feel betrayed.”

The girl didn’t respond. She brought him to a blonde woman wearing an off-white dress and dark sunglasses, then she ran back to the water’s edge.

“Is that your child?” Enward asked.

“This is a private beach.” She nodded at a sign that said the same.

“Sorry,” Enward said. He started to turn away.

“She’s my daughter. Her name is Maria.”

In the distance, the girl lifted a jellyfish by the tail and did a little dance. He turned back.

“Mine’s Enward.”

“Edward?”

“Enward.”

“Interesting! I’m Susannah.”

“Mind if I join you?”

Susannah shrugged. “I don’t mind.”

Enward dropped to his knees. “Do you have a match?” he asked.

“No.”

They studied the movement of seagulls circling overhead.

“I’ll be your match.”

Susannah groaned. She fixed her gaze on Enward’s face. “Cute,” she said.

Other than heading for Susannah’s beach house, they devised no plan, though each made unstated assumptions about the near future. Once they were inside, Susannah put Maria to bed. Edward checked out the bookshelves, then the inside of the refrigerator. He saw no sign of housemates or a love interest.

He opened two beers on the butcher-block table in her kitchen and carried them to the living room. Then he turned on the radio and heard what sounded like improvised music: saxophones, muted trumpets, marimbas, organs, bells, conga drums. He sat on the sofa bed, avoiding the springs poking through its slipcovers, and noticed a framed black-and-white photograph standing on a mantel across the room. He couldn’t decide whether the figure in the photo, a rotund man wearing a tuxedo, was a bad likeness of Elvis or a good likeness of Orson Welles. Or Truman Capote?

What’s the difference, he concluded. Dead men. Legends. Geniuses even. Dethroned kings. Dead men.

Susannah joined him on the sofa. Enward handed her a beer and lifted his bottle to toast. “Great music,” he said.

Susannah frowned. “I’m not sure this is a good idea, Enward.”

“I’m not either.”

“I mean your being here.” Susannah shifted in an effort to get comfortable. “Who sent you?”

“Sent me?”

“Why are you here?”

“In Arcane?”

“With that ridiculous name.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Why you’re here?”

“Why my parents named me Enward.”

“Are you here to find something?”

“No.”

“To find someone? Me?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. No, not really. I’m here to lose something.”

She laughed. “You’re not alone.”

“This is a beautiful house, Susannah.”

“It’s mine and it’s not.”

“Like Maria?”

“She’s mine. I don’t like to own things.”

“I see. Well, you must love living on the water.”

Susannah looked away. How long had it been since she’d had any fun? The years, the names, the dates had gotten blurred. And the words? “Seeing someone like you here sure brings me back to reality.”

Somewhere near, a pool stirred. Enward drifted with the current. Someone you like here?

Late the next morning, Enward pulled on his jeans and T-shirt and switched on the television. Susannah, robed and turbaned, fresh from the shower, stepped in carrying two cappuccinos.

“Great movie,” he said as she handed him a cup.

Double Indemnity. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.”

“You’re good! I would have said Billy Wilder.”

“Who?”

“The director. Also did Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment.”

Susannah shrugged, spilling her hair about her shoulders, then draped her turban over Enward. He uncovered his head in time to see a smile leap across her narrow face, beaming under her cheekbones, leaving shadows in their hollows. On the screen, a series of dissolves brought MacMurray to his darkened apartment, where he stood before a brightly lit window, smoked a cigarette, and watched the rain.

When Susannah entered the bathroom, Enward wrapped her pillow around his head. He took in the scent, an unforgettable combination of fresh air and fresh earth. Like a dog in its element, he buried his nose.

MacMurray paced, the camera following his movement, as Susannah returned. She stood before the full-length mirror and ran an index finger along the few lines in her face. Enward watched her take inventory, casting her in his imaginary movie. In darkness, MacMurray opened the door: a flesh of light from the hall, then Stanwyck revealed, aglow from behind.

After an embrace and drink-fixing business, MacMurray joined Stanwyck on the sofa. They established a rapport, and the conversation turned to murder.

Enward said, “I could live like this.”

“Dream on,” Susannah replied.

“Dreams are what you make them.”

“I bet you believe that.”

“Don’t you? Why don’t you?”

“Boy, you haven’t a clue. Boy! How old are you, anyway?”

“Old enough. I’m another lonely, old eccentric in Arcane.”

“You’re a babe in the woods.” Susannah turned and, for a moment, couldn’t recognize the young man prone on her bed. “Watch out some wicked witch doesn’t eat you alive.”

Enward smiled. He thought he understood: She was just being cynical. Susannah frowned and shook her head. She had been around, gone places, seen things, known people. They were not always the nicest people.

As the camera tracked backwards, Stanwyck wept against MacMurray’s shoulder.

That afternoon, tied to Maria by a thin white rope, Susannah returned to find this note, scrawled by an unsteady hand and taped to her back door:

S.,

Kissing your neck was like taking two steps into the ocean.

E.

Beneath it, in a larger, cruder hand, which Susannah recognized immediately and with much anxiety:

Whore,

The thought of your mature form embraced by his tawny, well-contoured arms gives me something more corporeal than pause. Stirred, I conjure visions of the secrets once passed between us. Biology, wicked taskmaster!

Susannah thought, The story of my life would make a very dull movie, really. It would be one scene—two scenes—repeated over and over.

In a photo from this time, taken in either a bar or a paneled basement, Enward and Susannah seem joined at the shoulder. He looks drunk. She looks at the camera. Neither appears overjoyed at being captured in this pose at this moment. Susannah tries to generate some enthusiasm and Enward retreats, his body stiff, his eyes inexpressive slits, his consciousness bound between tight lips. One of Susannah’s hands is in motion, heading left, toward Enward’s heart perhaps. This gesture remains unreflected in her eyes, which open out toward the viewer. She could be his lover or his mother; her intentions are bold but ambiguous.

And his?

To provide daily reminders that life must not become a deal or compromise.

To choreograph her sleepy asides.

To make music and video of her lips and lashes, he lived.

She smiled when he listed these things.

He listed them often.

She laughed at his dreams.

He assumed too many things.

In one of his dreams, Susannah became pregnant. She looked round and sensual in a big lavender dress decorated with irises. It was quite unlike her, to wear such vibrant colors. Despite his knowing the child was another man’s, Enward proposed. He pictured her other lover coming apart like a cheap plastic toy, insufficiently glued, sucked dry by time.

Meanwhile, Susannah’s happiness, her fulfillment, killed him. As she crossed legs no longer welcome to him, moved lips that had kissed some satisfactory substitute for him, all but leveled a weapon at him, Enward knelt. He was resting on one leg when Susannah slipped past, the folds of her dress whipping his nose, all of his struggling, shouting, promising in vain.

Rotund men in semiformal evening clothes appeared out of nowhere. Though they nabbed Enward and pinned him to the floor, they were after the dreamer. They wanted what he knew, which was all that he had. When he saw Susannah lost to him, the dreamer died, and Enward died with him, the hurt the same, the pain as palpable as the dream was real.

A torrent of feeling had erupted within him when the phone rang. Enward tossed off his little comforter and jumped up to answer it.

“If you love me you’ll get over here right away,” Susannah said.

“I do. I mean, I will.”

Click. Enward called back, but got no response. He dressed and set out in grim silence, knowing the odds were against her being home to greet him, given her tone, given his premonitions. Headed into a storm, he picked up a pizza with everything on it—her favorite—and hailed a taxi.

From without, Susannah’s beach house looked deserted. Enward found the front door locked, but the back door had been forced open and nearly hung from its hinges, thin grips in crumbling plasterboard.

He stood in the kitchen and called her name. Then he called again and scared himself, his voice echoing off the high ceiling. Wind blew against the windows, which rattled in their ill-fitting frames, as he passed through the living room and entered her office. On the desk were keys, maps, coffee mugs, paperbacks, freshly sharpened pencils, and a razor blade. In the top drawer were two missives, one his, one suspicious, smeared into Rorschach blots, in both of which he saw horned heads.

My life, she had said, is a living hell.

On a hunch, he opened the bathroom door. He slowly bent around to peer inside, then discovered red-orange candles flickering. Naked in the tub, wrists intact, Susannah stared at a point in some imaginary distance. She had been swigging gin from the bottle.

Enward closed the door and knelt on the tile. He gently placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t,” she said.

“How can I help?”

“You can’t.”

“Where’s Maria?”

Susannah shot a quick look at his eyes. She reached for her robe, and he handed it to her. She drew a slip of paper from one pocket and handed the note to Enward. He read:

If you were to change your name back to mine, would it sound the same? Would it mean as much? Would we? How I would love to leave that other business behind.

“What is this, Susannah?”

“Turn it over.”

He did. He read:

But I’m afraid, contacts made, contracts signed, fates have been sealed. I took the girl. You left only that door ajar.

His skin a delicate shade of gray-green, Enward dropped the paper on wet porcelain. The note blurred and curled. “Who wrote it?” he asked.

Susannah stepped out of the tub. She pulled on her robe and tightened the belt. “My husband,” she answered.

Between gulps of gin, Enward fought back a crushing disappointment. It passed down his throat like a second Adam’s apple. “Who has custody?”

“No police,” Susannah said. Elbows on the butcher-block, she lowered her head to a steaming cup of coffee. Then she looked up and laughed bitterly. “On moonlit nights when the wolfbane blooms, he becomes the authorities.”

“What’s his name?”

“Wallace.”

“What’s his problem?”

“Madness. A congenital illness. There was inbreeding in his line. Lots of trouble in those genes.” She laughed again. “That would be Wallace, to have such determined sperm. I need you to help me, Enward.”

“Find her.”

“Yes.”

“And bring him to justice.” He looked down and fingered beads of moisture on the heavily nicked table. He tried to write his name, but only made it as far as En. “I’m no private investigator, Susannah.”

“But this is war, man. It doesn’t matter who’s in, who’s out, who fired the opening shot. You’re here, and my side needs all the support it can get.” When Susannah bit her lip, hair rose on the back of Enward’s neck. He had to commit; something as yet undefined but bigger than the two of them was at stake.

Like the lining of a form-fitting coffin, the sound of rain beating on the roof wrapped around him.

“He’s in the underworld?”

Susannah hesitated. “He’s an entrepreneur.”

“Meaning?”

“He’s in business for himself.”

Susannah studied ash-gray clouds backlit by an orange-neon setting sun. The color combination shifted by the second, as the clouds turned into dirigibles, glittering ember-zeppelins, inflating madly across the horizon. A Seurat in motion, becoming a Pollock, culminating in a Rothko—a Jasper Johns, she was sure, out there somewhere—uncountable dots dotted, blotted, and blinked out, bleeding light as they died.

She mentally recorded this moment and her relationship to it. To the seascape. To her daughter. To the imported coffee brewing on a Sterno burner.

Bring on the dirge, she thought. I’m ready.

A week had passed, and the beach house felt unspeakably empty. Not just the patter of little feet was missing. For Wallace had come, with stealth, with malice, in the night and carted away nearly all the contents of the house.

Now Susannah and Enward faced off across the butcher-block. That grinning, malevolent beast remained. Despite her growing powerlessness, Susannah couldn’t help but admire its craftsmanship.

She had received an obscure ransom demand:

I grow weary wearing your clothes. We could live on the goods I’ve stolen. Susannah, leave him.

“The devil,” Enward said.

“Close,” Susannah answered. She watched the last bit of orange light surrender to the encroaching darkness.

Enward had also received an unsigned missile, which arrived in a plain white envelope without a return address or postage. He pictured the hand, the slot, the drop, with a shiver. Inside he found a single sheet of 8½- X 11-inch white bond. The message, written in black ink by a child’s hand, read:

Remember me.

He and Susannah clung to their notes as though these letters were Maria’s hand.

He thought, Funny how good limbo looks now, in the fall.

She thought, How long till a note fades away.

Sparks rose between them, setting fire to the wallpaper.

They couldn’t turn back. It would have taken too much work. Anyway, they wouldn’t have if they could have.

Of course, the world as we know it doesn’t end in a day. We don’t wake up one morning to find our daughters kidnapped by their transparent fathers and our beach houses picked clean by the very same vermin. Maybe the kitchen tables that never move or change, however sinister they seem, make up for foundations swept away in the night.

“Hello,” he said when Susannah answered. Two more weeks had vanished. The search for Maria and the case against her father remained at a standstill. “It’s the love of your life.”

“Wallace?” She sounded drunk.

Fun over, match ended. A draw, no decision.

Wallace had called half an hour before. In exchange for a glimpse of Maria, Susannah had agreed to meet him at the harbor. She thought maybe then and there, or later, on his yacht, Wallace would finish the job. Maybe she could convince him to stop. Maybe she’d stay, spend a lifetime bound by hallucinations, considering head-on collisions that would never come to pass. She heard the hum of the taxi and the honk of its horn. She looked at the letters tacked to the wall in that empty shell she’d been calling home: bad photocopies of another, better, and simpler time. “I have to go.”

“Wait.”

“Thank you for everything, Enward. I mean that. Take care of yourself. I have to take care of business.”

Enward arrived at an abandoned beach house. Inside, he found no sign of occupancy. No notes, no holes left by thumbtacks, no empty liquor bottles, no pizza boxes, not even the butcher-block that was still, in the ghostly silence, related to every word passed between them. He pictured Susannah and Maria sitting on some faraway beach, warming their hands over a small bonfire. Behind them stood a grizzled behemoth, a misshapen Elvis, Orson Welles, or Ernest Hemingway.

As night fell, Enward left the house. When he reached the waterline, he started to run. As the sound of the surf pounded in his head, Enward felt like the embodiment of dispossession, returning to his childhood home after an inexplicable and unpardoned absence.