NEIGHBORHOOD OF DREAMS
The older Mack got, the more he lived outside the house. Nothing against indoors. That was the place of breakfast, of sleep, of Miz Smitcher's hugging and kissing and scolding. It was a good place and he was glad to go back there when Ceese called to him at night.
But he grew up on the streets, more or less. Once school started for him, he'd go, and try to concentrate while he was there. But for him the real day was that morning run to the bus stop to hang out with the other kids from the neighborhood, and it started up again after school when the bus finally let him go in the afternoon. Summers were only different because he got to get lunch at the house of whatever kid he was playing with.
"That boy getting himself a powerful set of lungs calling out for you," Miz Dellar said one evening. Mack had eaten dinner with Tashawn Wallace's family, and Miz Dellar was Tashawn's great-grandma, about the oldest person Mack knew in person. Her teeth hurt her, so she only wore them at supper, and Mack liked to watch her put them in.
"He knows I always come home," said Mack.
"He cares about you, boy," said Miz Dellar. "That's worth more than a day's pay in this day and age."
"Day's pay for me is the same as a week's pay," said Mack. "Nothing."
"That's cause you lazy," said Tashawn. She liked Mack fine, but she always said things like that, dissing him and only pretending it was a joke.
"He can't be lazy," said Miz Dellar, "cause he stinks like a sick skunk."
"That means he's dead," said Tashawn.
"Do we have to have a conversation like this while people are trying to eat?" said Mrs. Wallace, Tashawn's mother.
"Mack's lazy," said Tashawn. "He doesn't do any work."
"I do homework," said Mack.
"Not so anybody'd ever know it," said Tashawn. "He always says he forgot to do it."
"No, I forget to bring it. I did it, I just didn't have it at school."
"Tashawn, let up on the boy," said Mrs. Wallace.
"Oh, that's just how Tashawn shows love," said Miz Dellar.
Tashawn made gagging noises and bent over her plate.
"Thanks for supper," said Mack. "It was delicious but I got to go or Ceese will think I died."
"If he smells you he'll know you died," said Tashawn.
"I wish you hadn't mentioned his smell," said Mrs. Wallace to Miz Dellar.
Mack stood in the doorway, listening to them for a moment. To him, conversation like that sounded like home.
But then, all the conversations in all the houses sounded like home to him. There was hardly a door within three blocks of Miz Smitcher's house that Mack hadn't passed through, and hardly a table he hadn't sat down at, if not for supper then at least for milk or even for a chewing out because he did something that annoyed some grownup. Some of those houses, he wasn't welcome at first, being, as they said, "fatherless" or "that bastard" or "a son of a grocery bag." But as time went on, there were fewer and fewer doors closed to him. He belonged everywhere in the neighborhood. Everybody working in their yard greeted him, even the Mexicans who did the gardening for the really rich people up on the higher reaches of Cloverdale and Punta Alta and Terraza. They'd call out to him in Spanish and he'd answer with the words he'd picked up and come and work beside them for a while.
Cause Tashawn was wrong. Mack worked hard at whatever task anyone set him. If a Mexican was trimming a hedge, Mack would pick up the clippings and put them in a pile. If one of his friends had to stay in and do chores, Mack would work alongside without even being asked, and when his friend got lazy and wanted to play, it was Mack who kept working till the job was finished.
At home, too, whatever Ceese or Miz Smitcher asked him to do, he did it, and kept right at it till it was done. Same with his homework—when somebody reminded him to do it.
That was the problem. Mack didn't think of any of the work he did as his work, just as he didn't think of any of the houses he went to as his house or any of the friends he played with as his friends.
If there was a job and someone asked him to do it, he did it, but he never remembered to do any of the chores Miz Smitcher or Ceese assigned to him. They had to remind him every time. Had to remind him to do his homework, and then in the morning had to remind him to take his homework, and if they didn't remind him to take his lunch he'd leave that behind in the fridge, too.
He just wasn't much for finding patterns in his life and holding on to them. He never thought: It's nearly seven-thirty, time to grab my lunch and my homework and head for the bus stop. He never thought: It's getting late, Ceese will be looking for me.
If Ceese didn't call him home, Mack would stay wherever he was till they kicked him out or reminded him to go home, and if they didn't ever do those things, well then he was likely to spend the night, lying down wherever he got tired and sleeping there until he woke up. That happened most often when he was playing up in Hahn Park, which crowned the heights above Baldwin Hills. The park employees were used to finding him when they came to work in the morning, and one of the gardeners warned him, "You best learn to snore real loud, boy, or someday I'm going to mow right over you and never know you was there till your bones get chipped up and spat into my grass bag."
When he did spend the night in the park, though, there was so much trouble at home. Tears from Miz Smitcher, real anger and cussing from Ceese. "We thought you were dead! Or kidnapped!
Can't you come home like a normal child? When I get home from work I want to find you here."
Ceese was even worse. "Miz Smitcher trust me to take care of you, and you make it look like I don't even look out for you. That shames me, Mack. You make me ashamed in front of Miz Smitcher."
"Maybe it comes from being abandoned as a baby," Mack heard Miz Smitcher say to Mrs.
"Maybe he's just like his daddy," said Mrs. Tucker. "Men like that, they don't ever sleep in the same bed twice."
Which made Mack think that Mrs. Tucker must know who his daddy was, till Ceese set him straight. "My mama was just imagining your daddy, Mack. Nobody knows who he is. But my mama sure she knows everything about people she never met. Just the way she is."
The only struggle Ceese won was teaching Mack that he had to use a toilet to pee or poop in every time, and not just when one happened to be close when he felt the need. Till that battle was finally over, Mack was as likely to squeeze a turd onto the sidewalk as a puppy was. It was only when Ceese made him go and pick up his turds with a Glad bag and carry them home in front of the whole neighborhood that Ceese finally got the right habit. "You nothing but a barbarian," Ceese told him. "A one-boy barbarian invasion. You a Hun, Mack. You a Vandal."
But it wasn't really true. There was nothing destructive in Mack. When he was little and Ceese tended him by building towers of blocks, it was Ceese who had to knock them down—Mack wouldn't do it. Not that he objected to the noise and clatter of the falling blocks. It's just that to Mack, when something was built, it ought to stay built.
Except for Mack's own body. With his personal safety, Mack was reckless. The neighborhood kids soon learned that he would take almost any dare. Climb up on the roof. Jump off. Walk along the top of that high fence. Climb that tree. Drink that murky brown liquid. One of Ceese's main jobs in tending Mack was to keep the other kids from daring Mack to do something truly suicidal.
It didn't always work out well. Mack was pretty deft for a little kid, but he fell off a lot of high places. The miracle was he never broke his neck or his head or even his arm. Sprained his ankle once. Lots of bruises. And cuts? Mack left blood scattered all over Baldwin Hills from his various scrapes and slices and gashes and punctures. Miz Smitcher made sure his tetanus shot was up to date.
By the time Mack was in school, though, the daring had stopped. Most of the kids realized that it was wrong to dare Mack to do stuff, because he'd do it almost by reflex, so when he got hurt it was their fault. And Mack gradually came to realize that he didn't have to do stuff just because people said so.
When he took those dares, it wasn't because he felt a need to prove that he was brave, or to impress the other kids, or because he feared being excluded from the group. He wasn't particularly aware of whether or not he belonged to a group of friends or not. Whoever was there, he'd play with; whoever wasn't, he wouldn't. If there was nobody around and he wanted company, he'd go off by himself until he ran into somebody interesting.
But by school age, he was learning not to do whatever came to mind. He was taking control of what happened to him.
It was because of those cold dreams. After he saw what happened to Tamika Brown, he'd feel a cold dream coming on and he'd try to get out of it. He didn't feel like he was just a watcher. But he also didn't feel like he exactly was the person making the wish, either. It was more like he joined on to that person, got inside them, and as he remembered the cold dream of Tamika swimming, it felt to him like it became real only when he began to wish for the dreamer's wish. Like he made it come true.
When he asked Ceese at bedtime one night, "Can one person make another person's wish come true?" Ceese's answer was true enough.
"Course you can. Person wishes for money, you give him a buck."
And that was the question for that night. By the next day, Mack had figured out that Ceese couldn't answer his question anyway. How would he know? Mack was the only one in the world had these cold dreams. Cause if he wasn't, then somebody else would have talked about it. They talked about everything else. "I had a cold dream last night and made your wish come true! You wished to pee, and I made you wet the bed!"
And even if he wasn't the one making the dreams turn real, he still didn't want to be there to watch them. Some of the dreams were ugly; some of them were mean; a lot of them he didn't even understand. And even the good ones—he just didn't want to know about them.
Because he always knew who the dreamer was. Oh, not during the dream, necessarily. But later, the next day or the next month or the next year, he'd run into somebody and he'd just know, looking at them, that he'd seen their dream.
How do you get out of a dream? It's not like you could make yourself wake up. Even in his own dreams, whenever Mack dreamed of waking up, it turned out that the waking up was part of the dream. He could dream himself woken up three times in the same dream and it didn't happen.
And it's not like he did his clearest thinking in his sleep. He'd be in a cold dream but he wouldn't say to himself, This is a cold dream, I've got to wake up—heck, having that thought would mean he already had woken up. Instead, he just felt a strong desire to get out of there.
So in his dream, instead of waking, he'd start running.
And then a funny thing would happen. Instead of running, he'd be riding in a car. Or an SUV or something, because regular cars couldn't drive on such rough roads. He always started out on a dirt road, with ragged-looked trees around, kind of a dry California kind of woods. The road began to sink down while the ground stayed level on both sides, till they were dirt walls or steep hills, and sometimes cliffs. And the road began to get rocky. The rocks were all the size of cobblestones, rounded like river rocks, and the vehicle hurtled along as if the rocks were pavement.
He always knew that they'd done it again—him and whoever it was in the vehicle beside him.
They'd missed the turn. They hadn't been watching close enough.
So they backed out—and here was where Mack absolutely knew it wasn't him driving, because he didn't know how to back a car. If it was a car.
Backed out and headed down until the canyon was wide enough that they could turn around, and then they rushed along until they found the place where they had gone wrong. When the road reached the lowest point, there was a narrow passage off to the left leading farther down, and now Mack realized that this wasn't no road, this was a river that just happened to be dry.
The second he thought of that, he heard distant thunder and he knew it was raining up in the high hills, and that little trickle of a waterfall at the dead end was about to become a torrent, and there'd be water coming down the other branch of the river, too, and here they were trapped in this narrow canyon barely wide enough for their vehicle, it was going to fill up with water and throw them down the canyon, bashing against the cliffs, rounding them off just like one of the river rocks.
Sure enough, in the dream here comes the water, and it's just as bad as he thought, spinning head over heels, getting slammed this way and that, and out the windows all he can see is roiling water and stones and then the dead bodies of the other people in the vehicle as they got washed out and crushed and broken against the canyon walls and suddenly...
The vehicle shoots out into open space, and there's no cliffs anymore, just air on every side and a lake below him and the vehicle plunges into the lake and sinks lower and lower and Mack thinks, I got to get out of here, but he can't find a way to open it, not a door, not a window. Deeper and deeper until the vehicle comes to rest on the bottom of the lake with fish swimming up and bumping into the windows and then a naked woman comes up, not sexy or anything, just naked because she never heard of clothes, she swims up and looks at him and smiles and when she touches the window, it breaks and the water slowly oozes in and surrounds him and he swims out and she kisses his cheek and says, Welcome home, I missed you so much.
When Mack got old enough to take psychology, it was easy to guess what this dream was about. It was about being born. About getting to the lowest point, completely alone, and then he'd find his mother, she'd come to him and open the door and let him come back into her life.
He believed his dream so much that he was sure he knew now what his mother looked like, skin so black it was almost blue, but with a thinnish nose, like those men and women of Sudan in the African Peoples book at school. Maybe I am African, he thought. Not African-American, like the other black kids in his class, but truly African without a drop of white in him.
But then why would his mother have thrown him away?
Maybe it wasn't his mother's idea. Maybe she was drugged and the baby was taken out of her and carried off and hidden and she doesn't even know he was ever alive, but Mack knew he would find her someday, because the dream was so real it had to be true.
And that was fine with him. Because the cold dreams he couldn't get away from, he didn't like the way they came true. It was like somebody always turned the granting of a wish into a dirty trick.
So the last thing he wanted was to have his dream of escape turn into a wish, too. He didn't want any such trick played on him.
Though he did wish he knew who it was in the vehicle beside him.
Such was the landscape of his dreams—the same road every time, the same canyon, the same lake. And he only got there when he was fleeing from someone else's deepest wish.
Was that the water that chased him down the canyon? A flood of other people's desires?
Their desires were part of his map of Baldwin Hills. He knew the streets, he knew the houses, but it wasn't by the addresses or the names. It was by a memory of the dreams that came from there.
There was Ophelia McCallister, a widow who longed only to be reunited with her husband, who had died of a heart attack right after he completed a merger that left her wealthy. Mack hated that hunger of hers, because he dreaded every way he could think of for her wish to be granted.
Same with Sabrina Chum, who hated her huge nose and longed to be rid of it. And his own friend Nathaniel Brady, whose conscious dream of slam-dunking baskets was born, at the deepest level, of a wish to fly.
Professor Williams's deep hunger to have his poetry read far and wide seemed harmless enough.
But Mack knew better than to think that any longing in a cold dream could be fulfilled without some evil twist.
Like Sherita Banks, who simply wanted men to desire her. Didn't she know how easily such a wish could be granted without magic? It didn't have to be longed for, inviting the perverse joke of whatever malevolent force ransacked Mack's dreams and destroyed his neighbors' lives.
It was like that fairy tale Ceese read to him once, about the fisherman who caught a fish that granted him three wishes. Without thinking, he wished for a big pudding. And when his wife scolded him for wasting a wish, in fury he wished it would stick to her nose. It took the third wish to make it all go away.
When Mack saw Sondra Brown pushing Tamika in her wheelchair, with all the pads and straps and braces that held the girl's spastic body upright, he thought: Where's the third wish, the one I can use to undo it all?
After Ceese and he watched the DVD of Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Mack walked around for weeks, whispering to himself whenever he wasn't paying attention, "Fourth wish and all is gone."
Would "all is gone" make him healthy again, back to work but so busy he was never home to see his lonely little girl? Or would it simply let him die, granting his heartfelt wish, so deep that he never saw it himself, certain as he was that he believed that Jesus saved his life in that accident for a reason.
It's not Jesus, Mr. Tyler. It's the sick dreams of the son of a grocery bag, who ate at your table and didn't mean to let this happen to you.
Mack saw Romaine at school all the time, and he kept thinking, Why did you have to come into my dreams so often? I tried to get away from your longing, but I can't resist a dream like that forever.
It's not my fault.
And, underneath, the truer belief: It's all my fault.
Yet when he left his neighborhood, haunted as it was by all the wishes Mack had dreamed, he felt vaguely lost. Going north on La Cienega or La Brea toward the freeway, or eastward to the failing mall and the increasing poverty, or south into the land of oil wells, the buildings seemed emptier and emptier to him. Still plenty of people, but they were strangers who had never hungered in his dreams.
Much as he dreaded the cold dreams, at least he knew the dreamers.
And so the years passed. To an adult, his childhood would have seemed idyllic. Like something out of Dandelion Wine. Freedom all summer, friends to gripe with about school. Adventures in Hahn Park and in the rough woods above the runoff pipe or scrambling up the wild brush of the hillsides.
The older he got, the more freedom he had—even though he always seemed to have all the freedom he wanted. Ceese graduated from high school and then college and by then Miz Smitcher knew there'd be no point in replacing him. The whole neighborhood looked out for Mack now.
Mrs. Tucker, Ceese's mom, kept talking about how it was time to move into someplace small, since the last of her kids was gone, but she was still there day after day, year after year, whenever Mack stopped in. Sometimes Ceese was there, but not often; he was busy all the time now, working for the water department doing some computer thing while he went to graduate school to learn engineering. Mack was more likely to run into one of Ceese's older brothers, who always seemed to be recently divorced or freshly out of work or coming over full of advice about why whatever Mrs.
Tucker was doing, she was doing it all wrong.
And Miz Smitcher was older, too. It was a thing that Mack only noticed from time to time, but he'd look up at her and see that there was steel grey in her hair now, and the skin of her face sagged, and she groaned more when she got her shoes off; and she had enough seniority that there was no more nonsense about late shifts, unless she was filling in for somebody.
Mack never tried to put a word to what he felt for her. He knew she had taken him in when he might have been put into foster care. And even though it was mostly Ceese who raised him when he was little, he knew he was attached to her in such a way that he would never leave her, would never want to leave; no matter how old he got, no matter how widely he roamed the neighborhood, he'd come home to her.
There were times he even wondered if she had conjured him up in her own cold dream. If he just magically appeared at that drainpipe at the hairpin turn of Cloverdale, swept out of his real mother's arms and into the place where he would be found and brought to Miz Smitcher, exactly the way Tamika Brown had been pulled from her sheets and plunged into the waterbed beneath her sleeping parents. In answer to a wish so deep that it could not be denied.
He knew her cold dream, too. It was of herself, lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by the very same equipment that she monitored for strangers. Nurses and doctors moving around her, murmuring, none of their words meaning anything, because the only thing that mattered was: When she opened her eyes, there was Mack Street, a grown man now, holding her hand, looking into her eyes, and saying, "I'm here, Miz Smitcher. Don't you worry, ma'am, I'm here."