Teddy Schreck’s Dreams
By John M. McNamara
Sitting alone in the farthest booth from the diner’s door, Teddy closed his black, Moleskine notebook and capped his fountain pen, the pearl and black Parker Duofold with royal blue ink, and then turned to watch the three young women sitting on stools at the counter. The one nearest him resembled his type more than the other two. Taller, lean and leggy, small-breasted, almond-shaped, icy blue eyes, understated makeup, and straight dark hair parted down the middle of her head; it flowed over her shoulders in a silky cascade. He studied her, reflected in the window glass beside him, avoiding direct eye contact for the moment. She listened more than she spoke. This one might be among the lucky few: seventy percent of beauty emanates from youth itself…a fact unappreciated by the young, who believe their appearance and not their character determined attractiveness. Growing older could refine this girl’s beauty if her comportment reflected her personality. Reminiscent of Grayson Eilers’ wife, Iris; they lived across the park from Teddy and his wife, Dee. Quite a beauty when she was younger, Iris, with a swimmer’s taut body; still attractive, even in her seventies. So contrary to Dee, with her untamed mane of fly-away brown hair, now gently graying, generously heavy breasts, and expressive brown eyes, who constantly questioned why he was attracted to her when she so defied his “type.” Teddy never offered an acceptable reason. His fascination with her remained intangible and undefinable, but certain.
Tonight’s entry in the notebook was his third, penned while waiting for his neighbor Bill Carothers, since Teddy began the journal…a suggestion he read in a magazine article about methods for keeping his mind sharp; studies at a British university indicated that writing longhand could forestall, or in some cases even prevent, the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Any deterioration in his mental faculties frightened Teddy. He valued his intellect and wit to the point of obsession in guarding against their decline. Dee’s parents lived in a retirement community in Davenport, Iowa, where they had lived all their lives…she and her brother were visiting them there now…and although they did not suffer from dementia, witnessing the gradual degradation of their memories saddened him. He hoped vitamins, herbal supplements, regular exercise, and longhand journaling would contribute to the preservation of his acuity. The notion of authoring a traditional diary did not appeal to Teddy, and he floundered for a while about what he could write in the pages of the notebook. Then one morning he woke from a dream…which he attributed to the power of subliminal suggestion…about writing a journal. Although within the dream the content of the journal was never revealed, the writing process so satisfied the dreaming Teddy that as he lay in bed and regurgitated the dream, the wakeful Teddy decided his subconscious had sent a message. From that day two weeks ago he recorded his dreams in the Moleskine notebook.
The tradition of Wednesday night dinner at Tammy’s Diner with Bill had begun nearly ten years earlier, when the former history professor retired. Teddy, now also retired, anticipated their get-togethers each week as a respite from nights of reading or viewing television in his recliner, as a reason to get out of the house. He and Dee had traveled throughout the country as well as abroad when they were younger, on abbreviated, intense trips that often left them fatigued from the pace of their escapes; now with the time and ability to visit exotic locations on more protracted vacations, they demurred, laughing at how they preferred staying at home. Bill’s non-judgmental attitude, an outgrowth of his profession, suited Teddy, and made the man an invigorating companion during their weekly chats. His broadminded approach to controversy balanced Teddy’s impetuosity; under Bill’s unintended tutelage, Teddy discovered his impulsiveness waning, his demeanor exhibiting more tolerance and acceptance of opposing points of view. Or maybe forbearance was another product of aging: recognizing the pointlessness of impatience. Teddy trusted Bill, felt comfortable confiding in him, and had told him about the dream project and his reasons for undertaking it. Bill had confessed to Teddy that he also worried about the deterioration of his intellect and had enrolled in a language class at the local community college. An article he had researched indicated studying a foreign language could produce the same results as Teddy hoped to achieve with his dream-writing strategy.
When the brunette at the counter laughed at one of her companion’s comments, Teddy directed his gaze toward her, willing her to notice him. He would smile if he caught her eye; most young women accepted the grin as a gesture without subtext: men his age presented no complications. Unlike Teddy’s youthful counterparts, who aggravated the women as they lurched through crude approaches, his demographic…men of their father’s and even grandfather’s ages…was identified by the women as safe, harmless, and in an even more exasperating light, as kindly. A pairing of him with the woman, achievable only in Teddy’s imagination, reminded him of his father-in-law’s lifelong joke about his wife: Tony and Francine Cochran had been born one day apart in the same Davenport hospital and he joked that in picking a wife, Tony had robbed the cradle, but he didn’t have to explore very far in the nursery to do so. About the same distance as Teddy from the brunette, he mused.
Glancing at his phone to check the time, Teddy remembered from his college days a commandment about students in classes waiting for tardy professors: wait five minutes for an assistant professor, ten minutes for an associate professor, and fifteen minutes for a full professor before assuming any class was canceled. Bill had joked that full professors had established the rule to accommodate their habitual lateness, prompted in his experience not by stereotypical absent-mindedness, but by arrogance about the value of a professor’s time versus a student’s. Usually a punctual man, this evening Bill lagged, but Teddy didn’t mind as it afforded him additional time to daydream about the brunette. He imagined her name was Lisa, because of the elasticity of the sound it made when whispered. Besides, he had arrived early to complete the entry in his notebook. When his phone chimed with a text message notification, the brunette glanced at Teddy and he smiled at her. The corners of her mouth arched upward slightly and then she turned back to her friends. The message, from Dee, said she would call later that night...her parents were doing well, and she and her brother, Dennis, would be driving home tomorrow. One more night alone; he missed her. He and Bill had discussed the obtainability of alone-time within their marriages and judged one another to be fortunate…both their wives valued the significance of solitude. Dee guided two book clubs devoted to reading biographies and young adult fiction respectively, and served on the board of trustees of the Laurel Woods Library. Margaret Carothers, a former academic like Bill, maintained an anonymous blog which she exploited to incense religious zealots by itemizing examples of what she considered the destructive influences of religion in worldwide cultures. She labeled herself a fulfilled atheist and preached ethical secularism, all with a grandmotherly equanimity that beguiled even the most inflamed antagonists. She joked that her anti-religious proselytizing would not dissuade many true believers, but they would by God…and she would chuckle at the appropriation of their expression…hear her arguments. Teddy and Bill appreciated that their wives pursued interests independent of their husbands. Other retired couples they knew discovered relentless companionship stressful, especially if the wife had been a homemaker or stay-at-home mother and the husband had planned no post-career activities to occupy his time. Fortunate and lucky, Teddy and Bill affirmed.
Bill entered the diner and the three women at the counter fell silent and studied him as he passed occupied booths on his way to join Teddy. Their conversation resumed as Bill settled across from Teddy, unzipping his windbreaker, removing his cellphone from an inside pocket and then setting it on the laminate tabletop. He scratched his thick, white mane, a source of envy for Teddy, whose hair had thinned and receded in his forties, leaving him with a widow’s peak above a high hereditary forehead. He attempted to offset it with a beard, which he kept closely trimmed, hoping it made him appear younger than his sixty-three years, but when he assessed his image in photographs these days, Teddy grimaced at the expanse of bare head above his eyes, and Dee often chided him that the beard actually made him look older, not younger. In contrast, Bill’s hair often fell forward into his eyes, necessitating a swipe of his hand to wrangle it back into place.
“Sorry I’m late,” Bill said, raising his hand to signal the waitress for his customary tea. “Maggie wanted me to read a response she got to a recent post. Much uglier than the others.”
“When you poke a hornet’s nest,” Teddy replied.
Bill nodded and reached forward to tap the Moleskine. “How’s your dream journal?”
Teddy frowned at the term, which connoted to him random jottings. “Three entries now.”
The waitress, Annie, arrived with Bill’s tea, a green and mint blend. “The usual for you boys?” she asked.
Teddy grinned. He and Bill had explored items on the menu when they first began their weekly dinners. But over time they settled into a routine: Bill ordered chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and Teddy the chicken fingers with fries. Guilty pleasures.
The waitress chuckled as she retreated down the aisle.
“Are you transcribing your entries into your computer?” Bill asked.
“What if you lose the notebook?”
Teddy glanced at it on the table. “I’ll just replace it, I suppose.”
“And everything you’ve written will be lost.”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying.”
“You regard it now as a mere exercise, but after you’ve written a dozen or two entries, it’ll emerge as something more meaningful. Something you won’t want to risk losing.” Teddy lifted the teabag from his cup, nestled it in his spoon and wrapped the string around it, wringing the last of the liquid from the bag. “Like Maggie archiving her blog.”
“I’m not intending it as therapy, Bill.”
“No. Of course not. Nothing so formal. But as insight, well, imagine the possible revelations.”
“As a purely academic exercise, you mean?” Teddy teased.
Bill raised his hands in surrender. “Occupational reflex,” he conceded.
“Wouldn’t an aspirational journal be more valuable to an historian than documentation of fantasies?”
Bill mulled over Teddy’s question, then pointed an index finger at him. “Excellent suggestion. Are you considering that as well?”
Teddy laughed and stroked his beard. “Then it seems like nothing more than a diary.”
“Perhaps in form but certainly not in intention.”
“Are you offering your services as a biographer?” Teddy sat back in the booth as Annie approached with their meals. She placed a plate before each man, smiling, and waved at another customer sketching a “check” in the air with a phantom pen between squeezed fingers.
“Anything else, guys?” Annie asked.
“We’re fine,” Bill said. “Thanks, Annie. No offense,” he continued, turning his attention to Teddy, “your life is no doubt gripping, but you know I’m already researching a new book.”
“I know,” Teddy drawled, dipping a chicken finger in salsa, Annie’s suggestion as a substitute for barbeque sauce. Teddy had liked it instantly.
“A mix of the two would be interesting, Teddy,” Bill said. “Record your dreams you have now, but catalog the aspirations you had as a young man and how you’ve fared in achieving them.”
“A report card?”
“Nothing so judgmental,” Bill said, cutting into his steak. “But I like the play on words of ‘dreams.’ Probing both hopes and fantasies. Aren’t you curious about your intuitions?”
“I’d hoped to be older before I plunged into full-fledged hindsight. You know, closer to your age,” Teddy joked.
“Perhaps I’m projecting. But wouldn’t it be a waste of time if all you do is record your dreams without interpreting them, without investigating their context and their implications?”
Teddy chewed with deliberation and studied his friend’s face. “That exceeds the scope of the original project,” he chuckled. “You’d have me change horses in mid-stream.”
“Not change horses,” Bill said, compressing his lips for a moment. “Change streams.”
Both men laughed, and Teddy noticed the brunette glance in his direction. He dipped his head toward her.
“It’s intriguing,” he admitted.
“Think about it for a while,” Bill said.
The two men strolled toward home along Ridge Avenue, which paralleled the railroad tracks; they paused their conversation at the Gadsden Avenue crossing, thrusting their arms toward the sky with their legs spread wide apart, each like a human X, screaming as the commuter train thundered past them…an impish ritual they adopted years earlier to release primal energies. After the warning bells ceased and the gates rose, they guffawed and continued north to Allandale Road, which looped around Iske Park. They lived across the grassy, tree-lined park from one another, Teddy and Dee on the south side in a clapboard bungalow, Bill and Margaret in a Queen Anne with a deep, wrap-around porch and a hexagonal turret dominating the western, street-facing corner, prompting neighbors to label it the “Tower House.” When Teddy left the diner, he had brushed his arm against the brunette’s purse strap, dislodging it from the back of her stool. The young woman had reacted instantly, swiveling, prepared to confront Teddy, who had apologized for his clumsiness, retrieved the fallen purse, returned it to her with another smile, and then continued down the aisle toward the door. He cared little about the reaction he provoked from her, only that he left an impression.
His cell began to chime as soon as Teddy entered his house. Dee knew his diner-night schedule and timed her call precisely. He dropped his keys into the glass bowl on the mahogany Pembroke table that had belonged to Dee’s grandmother and answered his phone.
“Hi, Sweetie,” he said, crossing the living room and lowering himself into the leather recliner between the two windows on the west wall.
“Hey, you. We’re in for the night,” his wife said.
“As am I,” Teddy replied. He savored her voice, hearing it awakened another of what he called their “moments,” instances of unexpected, calm fulfillment that overcame him, that abruptly suffused him with spine-shivering contentment.
“What did you boys talk about tonight?” Dee asked.
“Bill thinks I should expand the journal project to include aspirations from my youth. Play on the meanings of dreams, I suppose. Oh, and that I should transcribe it to my computer.”
“Hmm. What do you think about that?” Teddy heard her softly chewing.
“I don’t want it to become a ‘what-if’ record,” he said. “Looking back and examining all my unfulfilled dreams.”
“And what would those be?” Dee asked, adding mischievous emphasis.
“See,” Teddy retorted. “What a pointless exercise.” He chuckled. “How are your parents?”
“For two people in their nineties, they’re inspiring,” Dee said.
“I sense a ‘but’ in that tone of voice,” Teddy said.
“It’s grueling to see them so frail.” Teddy heard his wife’s deliberate inhalation and envisioned a cheerless expression on her face. “Dennis is being so much more stoic about it than I am.”
“You’ve always been more sensitive than him.”
“That’s not it,” she responded and then paused. Teddy gazed across the room at the archway to the dining room, the walls lined with framed family photographs. “He’s just not showing how he feels. I know it’s tearing him up to see dad so…breakable,” Dee continued. Teddy recalled the brittleness his own father acquired before his death from cancer.
“Maybe he’s afraid of projecting,” Teddy offered.
“Yeah, maybe,” Dee said. “He spent so much time trying to earn dad’s approval.”
Fathers and sons, Teddy mused. He had avoided those prickly episodes through two daughters, although they had spawned distinct anxieties, evoking within him a sheltering instinct sons might not have aroused. He understood men, their compulsions and their appetites…the brunette at the diner and his facsimile of a younger man’s strutting for attention…those urges ebbed but never vanished. Teddy’s relationship with his father had followed the conventional path: childhood admiration bordering on adoration until the arrival of his teens, when everything shifted and he had striven to distinguish himself from the man in every discernable characteristic. He had embraced opposition for the sake of differentiation in his search for identity and independence. Looking back at those juvenile efforts to validate his individuality, Teddy recognized how all he had proved was his own unoriginality. He remembered his father’s sixtieth birthday celebration, when the two men sat alone in the backyard of Teddy’s childhood home, stubbornly avoiding any reconciliation of their skirmishes, their conversation stymied by a fine single malt and Teddy’s lingering hostility. Two years later the cancer devastated him. Teddy now was older than his father had been when he died.
“Presaging,” Teddy said. “Projecting.”
“Probably,” Dee said and the laughed. “Listen to our alliteration.”
“Are you getting an early start in the morning?” Teddy asked.
“Yes. We should be home by noon.”
“Good. The house is so empty with you gone.”
“I miss you, too, Teddy.”