Fiction ยท 10/24/2012

An American Dream

The blast of cold air blew through our office and unmoored the various collected memos, contracts, loosely-held Post-It notes, food menus, and business cards, so it looked like a ticker tape parade, or anyway, it looked like our idea of a ticker tape parade: none of us had ever seen a ticker tape parade. None of us had ever seen ticker tape.

“Jesus!,” someone shouted. Then another: “Jesus! Jesus!”

One of the employees had climbed out his window and was now balanced on a ledge he shared with three skittish pigeons.

I didn’t even know the windows opened this high up.

Somehow it fell on me to talk him back inside, maybe because I am the designated fire deputy, or maybe I was designated as the fire deputy for the same reason that I was now being chosen for this task — a reason which has never been made clear to me.

“Doug,” I called out.

Nothing in my background as a copywriter had specifically prepared me to help in situations such as these.

“Doug, why don’t you come back inside?”

He didn’t answer. I’d expected him to look like a crazed person out there on the ledge, but he didn’t. He looked collected, all things considered. The pigeons, too, had settled down, acclimated to the idea of him, and the four of them perched there, Doug and the three birds, as if resting, or admiring the sunset, or waiting for the train.

“Doug,” I tried again. Was it normal to keep saying a person’s name in these instances? I did it naturally without planning, and wondered if it was residual muscle memory from some mandatory management training session. “Is everything okay? You want to talk?”

“Oh, hey,” he said to me, as if noticing me for the first time, as if we’d bumped into each other in the kitchenette while fetching coffee.

“What are you doing out there, man?”

A pigeon started pecking curiously at his leg, and he shooed it away till all three birds flew off, flock mind.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked him.

“I’m good.”

“Come on, it’s winter out. Why don’t you come back inside?”

“I don’t want to go back inside. I don’t want to go back inside ever.” He looked at me, and I noticed he was sweating. “I don’t want that life anymore,” he said, and he shivered, maybe at the thought of staplers and khaki pants and action items, or maybe just the cold air.

“Okay. That’s okay. You don’t have to. I mean, why don’t you come back in, and then you can have any life you want. Start over. Have an adventure. Start fresh. It’s the American dream, right? No matter what you think, you can come back inside and then have any life you want.”

I helped him climb back through the window, and then security helped him out of the building, and then the police helped him to the hospital, and after three days under observation the hospital released him into the care of his parents, which, if you ask me, is enough to make any grown man a suicide risk.

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Doug’s parents lived in a suburb of Cleveland. He stayed with them for one week; He cleaned up their basement, breaking down the cardboard boxes they’d been accumulating with the purchase of each successive electronic device: the VCR box under the DVD box under the TiVo box under the box for the plasma TV; it was a sculptural timeline of the forward march of technology, a micro view of the history of man, as seen through a decade’s worth of packaging materials for consumer electronics.

Doug started rereading some of the books he’d kept from his college years, Russian literature and French poetry and economics and music theory and the history of Japan. He had open copies of a dozen books and seemed to want to read them all concurrently.

Then, at the end of that week, he disappeared, leaving twelve open books, a vacant corner of the basement where cardboard boxes had been piled, and no note.

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The next we heard, Doug was crossing the Missouri River in a Conestoga wagon, en route to Nebraska. He meant to grab himself some acreage and some cattle, and work the land till the dust had caked with the sweat on his skin. It’s honest work, he said, and I’ll sleep as well as I ever have.

And we might not have heard from him at all after that, except that some time later he sent a note that his beloved wife (for he’d married) had died from a fever, and with nothing but sadness keeping him where he was, he packed his things and set out for California. “The air is like oranges,” he wrote.

Once arrived, he built an oil derrick by hand, and before long, he was slick with wealth and petroleum; but he knew no matter how much prosperity he drilled from the ground, he would never get his wife back; so he traded his claims for a chest of gold and a seaworthy sailboat built in the Chinese style, and he aimed the boat toward the setting sun, and disappeared again.

Next we heard from Doug, he was missing his right leg from the knee down. He’d lost it fighting a civil war, “to help take back for the people that which was rightfully theirs.” Where?, we asked. What country? But the color fell from his eyes. “The wrong side won, and the country I knew doesn’t have a name anymore.”

A publisher made a book out of Doug’s journals from the war, and it became quite famous; but Doug himself had moved on.

We lost him for a while. We heard he moved up north, that he’d remarried and had children, that he’d returned to the city. Sometimes one of us would claim they’d seen him on the street, or at the museum, or stepping into an elevator. We heard he was involved in a real estate deal, had a venture in medicine, heard he had learned to harness the power of the sun. We heard he was building a rocket ship with his daughter. No one knew for sure. Everyone wondered, but then, everyone forgot, too.

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I was at work. I’d done well for myself. I had a corner office with pictures of my family on the desk. I had someone to answer my phone calls, and when I did take a call, I was loud and warm and gregarious, and people were almost always happy to speak with me.

Things moved forward as they should.

But on this day, for some reason, I felt a little flushed, and muddy in the head. “Please hold my calls,” I said to the person who answers my phone, as I laid down on my office sofa. “I’m going to try and sleep this thing off.”

When I woke, there were loose papers tossed around my office, and a cold wind ripped in through the window. I didn’t even know the windows opened up here.

Doug was there, sitting on my window ledge. “I made you some tea,” he said. I took it, and, edging out the window, sat down next to him. “Doug! How are you? Where’ve you been?”

Breaking horses.

Splitting atoms.

Striking gold.

Doug was silent. Then he spoke.

“There’s nothing about the world that you don’t know already in your dreams, when you’re five. There’s nothing to accomplish, no satisfaction that you haven’t already achieved during your first kiss, and every kiss after that, and when you’re holding your first child, and every child after that. There’s no adventure you can’t have, if only you let yourself. Reality is more real than you think it is. That’s the American Dream: you can have everything, because you already have everything inside you.”

I couldn’t feel the cold at all anymore.

“This time,” Doug said, “why don’t you come with me?”

And I did.

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Christopher DeWan is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles. Learn more at ChristopherDewan.com.