Here’s the thing with dreams—and I’m talking about the kind you have when you sleep, not the kind where you’re finally learning to surf when you’re fifty: they’re carefully tailored to the only audience who will ever see them, which is you. So I’m not big on telling people about my dreams for that reason.
That said, there’s this recurring dream I have. It comes around every couple of months or so, but I wish it were more often because it’s awesome, and when I wake up from it, I lie there for a few moments, wishing I could reenter it. In this dream, I’m at a familiar place. Often it’s my grandma’s house.
Her house was tiny. It always smelled like quilts and oatmeal cookies and that musty odor when you first turn on a window-unit air conditioner after winter. It had a cellar that smelled like cold dirt even during the summer, where she kept store-brand cans of creamed corn, jars of home-pickled dilly beans, and two-liter bottles of Diet Coke. In my dream, I descend into the cellar. I find a door leading to a passageway. I go in. I follow it for a long way; it’s cool and dark, and I’m not afraid. Eventually it opens into this grand, palatial, brightly lit marble room. There are columns and fountains, and the air smells like flowers. I push forward and find room after room. It’s all grand and glorious, beautiful and perfect. It’s not what you would expect to find.
But there it is, and for those few minutes (I’ve heard that dreams are never more than five minutes long, which I totally don’t believe, but whatever), you get to experience the most unexpected grandeur, running like a rabbit warren under my grandma’s little house in Jackson, Tennessee.
And then I wake up, the thrill of possibility and discovery drifting upward off me like steam. It’s such a delicious feeling. Just stay a little longer, I say. But it doesn’t.
Yet another reason it sucks to tell people about your dreams is that then they suddenly become amateur dream interpretation experts: [Nondescript German psychiatrist voice] Well, you see, when you were riding that bicycle made out of fish sticks while wearing an adult diaper, it symbolizes… . That you’re afraid of failure. That you’re filled with seething rage. That you’re afraid to become such a grown-up that you no longer call fish sticks “fish dicks.” Who knows?
But dreams are their own universe. They exist in you, and you’re the God of that universe, so no one can tell you what they mean. You have to figure it out, assuming dreams have any meaning at all, which I think they only sometimes do.
This dream, though—the one about finding all the hidden rooms—I think it does mean something. I think it means there’s something great inside me, something extraordinary and mysterious and undiscovered.
That’s a thing I tell myself. It’s a thing I believe.
I love mediocre people. The ones who try their hardest to make something beautiful, something great, something that someone will remember and talk about when they’re gone—and they come up short. And not by a little bit. By a lot. They’re my people. We laugh at them, but you really have no choice in this life but to believe with all your heart that you’re extraordinary. You have to hold this conviction against all evidence to the contrary. Living is too sad otherwise.
I wonder sometimes if I’m really the mediocre person I think I am, because probably one of the deals with being mediocre is you don’t realize you are. In fact, I bet you’ve got to think you’re better than everyone else to attain full mediocrity. Some of these movies Josie and I watch? They must be the product of a megalomaniacal mind. Any self-awareness at all would keep them from being put out into the world. Bad monsters. Nausea-inducing (and not in the good way that you want from a horror movie) camera work (bonus points for obvious attempts at “artiness”). Bizarre, tossed-off romantic subplots that are often more terrifying than the threat at the heart of the movie. Nightmarish musical interludes (the more whimsical and unrelated to the plot or theme of the movie, the more unnerving). Abrupt, anticlimactic endings that look like the money ran out before the story did.
I feel this obligation to bear witness to all of it and give others the chance to also. A duty, I guess. Here, this is the work of my brothers and sisters in garbage. Remember them and what they tried to do.
I also love mediocre people because we’re always getting left behind. When someone leaves you, maybe you get a reason and maybe you don’t. I don’t know which is better. If you get a reason, I guess you can work on improving or something. So that the next time you don’t get left behind. That probably works better with boyfriends and girlfriends than with dads. You only get one dad, and if he scoots, it sorta doesn’t matter if you get a reason because it’s not like you can work on it for your next dad. I don’t know why Dad left. I don’t think it’s because either Mom or I was mediocre. He loved mediocrity as much as I do. At least I think he did. All the movies were his. Or his and Mom’s.
Someday I want to ask him why.
“New pants?” I ask as Delia gets in my car.
“Yep. Seven bucks on eBay, not including shipping from Slovenia.”
“For seven bucks?” Delia starts sniffing the air like a bloodhound. “It reeks in here.”
“Whatever, weirdo,” I say.
“It’s, like, kerosene-y and skunky.”
I sniff so hard I get light-headed. “Nope. Nothing here.”
“Is it Buford?” Delia says, casting a glance at the back seat, where my basset hound, Buford T. Rutherford B. Hayes, is sprawled like a tan garbage bag of dog Jell-O, looking doleful. Looking maybe even a bit more full of dole than usual, sensing he’s being scapegoated.
“Buford is innocent before God, Delia Wilkes. How dare you? And why would he smell kerosene-y and skunky?”
“Because he has, you know, flaps. And he’s farty.”
“Well, one, I gave my farty, flappy dog a bath like a day ago. And two, I know his bouquet, and it’s not so chemical-y.”
Delia sniffs again, harder, closing her eyes. “So you can smell it.”
“Yes, Hannibal Lecter, I can now,” I say. “My car smells like a gas station that hosted a skunk orgy. I get it.”
Delia says nothing but lifts one of her black-vinyl-clad legs to her nose. She sniffs a couple of times, drops her leg, and looks out the window silently. Guiltily, if we’re being honest. A tiny smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.
I pounce. “Oh ho ho! What did you discover?”
“Nothing.” The corners of her mouth lift a little higher.
“Has the stink hunter become the stink hunted?”
“I want you to know that this smell is not issuing forth from my ass.”
“Issuing forth? Who says that?”
“I’m just saying, my ass is clean.”
“Don’t give me a skeptical mmm-hmmm. These pants didn’t smell when I opened the package yesterday. It’s like a heat- activated funk.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” The AC in my Kia Rio definitely isn’t keeping up with the late-April heat. It feels like spring stumbled while carrying a load of summer in its arms.
“Seriously,” Delia says. “How do you de-reek vinyl pants? Run through the car wash while wearing them?”
“Are you even sure they’re vinyl as opposed to skunk leather?” This whole situation is so quintessentially Delia. If you told me that Delia had ordered a pair of pants off eBay for seven bucks, I would assume that they’d arrive smelling like cyborg sweat. It’s the kind of luck she has. One time she found a spider in a banana. As in, she opened the banana and boom—spider.
We pull up to a red light. The driver next to me gives me a long stare. Fair enough. It’s not every day in Jackson, Tennessee, that you see two girls dressed like vampires—wearing red-lined black capes—driving down the street. We’re both also sporting some dramatic makeup because we don’t have time to apply it at the studio. Arliss runs a very tight ship.
“By the way,” I say, “don’t you owe someone an apology?”
“Sorry for accusing your car of smelling.”
“No.” I turn back to Buford and nod. He glances up with a hangdog expression. I think the word hangdog was invented to describe expressions like Buford is giving me, because he literally looks like a dog that’s melting off a hanger. “Him.”
Delia turns back and grabs Buford by the jowls and scratches his head and neck vigorously. “Oh, aren’t you a good boy and not a stinky boy. Auntie Delia’s sorry for saying that you smelled like a skunk soaked in kerosene when it was Auntie Delia all along.”
He whimpers and lays his head back down on the seat. He hates us both. I mean, we basically torture him . . . but in a loving way? Is that a thing? He’s like four hundred in dog years, and he’s profoundly over our nonsense. He never signed up for this. I try to tell him Mama loves you with my eyes. “Can you even imagine the assault you’ve been mounting on poor Buford’s nose?” I say to Delia. “His sense of smell is a million times better than ours.”
“He’s fine. He probably likes it. Dogs eat their own puke.” Delia’s phone buzzes. She pulls it out like it’s a live cicada in her pocket, stares at it for a couple of seconds, and puts it away with a faint sigh. Probably her mom having some weird deal. By now, I know better than to ask. But I do anyway. “Your mom?”
Delia usually has an air of nervous good cheer before we film, but the good-cheer part flickers from her face like a lightbulb not screwed in all the way, leaving just the jittery energy. “Waiting on an important email.”
Delia is not the important-email type. “College stuff ?” (She’s also not the college type. More like community college, which is where she’s going.)
She shakes her head. “My dad.”
“He get in touch with you?”
“I saved up and hired a PI to track him down.”
“Seriously? You walked into a PI’s office like an old-timey dame?”
“No, I emailed her like a new-timey dame. She’s supposed to get back to me today.”
“Do you not have an aunt or an uncle or something who knows where he is?”
“His dad died when he was a kid. His mom died when I was like three. I think he has a couple of half siblings that not even he knew. We’re not in touch with any of his aunts or uncles. I’d have had to hire a PI to track them down.”
“Wow. So… .” I’m pretty surprised, honestly. Delia isn’t what you’d call a go-getter. Her grades suck. She skips class a bunch. Starting this show was the most motivation she’s ever displayed. Tracking down a long-lost dad is very proactive for her.
“Yeah. But talking about it is making me nervous. I’m not a TV natural like you. I gotta concentrate.”
A few seconds of charged silence tick by.
“Speaking of doing TV professionally, get this: my mom tells me she’s been in touch with this friend from law school who works for Food Network, and apparently they have offices in Knoxville, and she told her that she could get me an internship.” Even as the words leave my mouth, I regret them. Just because a segue is natural doesn’t mean it’s a great idea. That’s probably a good thing to keep in mind if I want to make it in TV.
Delia stares at me. “When would you… .?” She trails off.
“I don’t even know if I want to do it. It’s TV and it might be a good start to my career, but I’m not sure about Food Network.”
“So it would be—”
“During the school year.”
“But aren’t you still planning on going to UT Martin?”
“Yeah.” I feel a strange twinge of something as I say it. I can’t quite identify what it is. Like I’m lying, but I’m not.
“But you still haven’t committed to UT Martin. Like formally.”
“I have. But I also committed to UT Knoxville.”
“Is that even allowed? Committing to two schools?”
“I mean, I think it’s definitely frowned upon. But the deadlines were coming up and my mom wanted me to see what she could do with the internship thing before I really committed to a school. So now I have until fall to cancel on one of them.”
“If you don’t go to school around here, we can’t do the show.”
“What if you came to Knoxville with me?” I should cut this off. I can sense Delia’s panic. This is a terrible time to be discussing this. Not that there’s a great time.
“We already know Knoxville public access isn’t into the show. We’ve tried like fifty times to get them to syndicate us.” Her voice is rising and brittle.
“What if I came home on breaks and we recorded a bunch of episodes?”
“No way would Arliss be up for that. And my work schedule wouldn’t allow it.”
There’s a moment of awkward silence.
“We’re a team,” Delia says. “We’re way better when we do the show together. I need you.”
“Okay, I told you. I’m going to UT Martin. Don’t freak out.” I’m pretty sure I’m not lying to Delia, but I’m not 100 percent sure. More like 95 percent. Or 94 percent. Or 94.7 percent.
“I’m not freaking out.”
She is unequivocally freaking out.
The light turns green. I give the driver next to me a curt nod before driving off. He stares straight ahead.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Jeff Zentner. All rights reserved. Jeff Zentner is the author of The New York Times Notable Book The Serpent King, as well as Goodbye Days. His third book, Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee, will be published in February 2019. He is the winner of the William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, the International Literacy Association Award, and the Westchester Fiction Award. He lives in Nashville.