Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Dreaming of Locusts

Friday night was a great deal of fun. Last night was very, very difficult. And then finally, exhausted from want of sleep and the fatigue incurred by trying to be a good friend to someone struggling with various demons, I went to bed last night around 1AM and slept nearly twelve hours. I awoke recharged, a bit astonished that I had remained asleep for the full run of an entire half-day, and still reeling in the grips of the closest thing to a nightmare I can remember having.

Typically, I avoid the word "nightmare" because I find myself transported time and again by dreams others might find unpleasant, invigorated, challenged by the act of decryption, not in the overwrought Freudian sense but proceeding from the simple belief that dreams are where our mind exorcises its troubles and exercises its most prevalent preoccupations. How can one fault that enterprise, disregard it, write it off? I can't, and I have a broad-based patience for whatever slithers out from beneath the rocks my subconsious mind chooses to roll over in the darkest hours that precede dawn.

I wish I could remember more.

It's nighttime in Bloomfield, that much I know. I am with my friends, my closest friends and those I see most frequently, my party friends, my Pittsburgh friends, the diminished remainder of those friends to whom I owe my decision to attend law school in Pittsburgh when better schools in far away locations beckoned, and we are piecing together an evening out, but we are scattered, diffuse physically and with regard to what we intend to do. Some of us are at a house that, while unfamiliar to me, seems to belong to someone central to our group, as we are all passingly comfortable inside and out, and treat the home as our own. Outside there is a terraced back yard. I seem to be moving back and forth, inside and out, without any clear intention or guiding principle. We're drinking, but not heavily; everyone is composed. It appears to be turning into one of those evenings that pass with us never entirely leaving the phase in which we aim to decide to do something; evenings we end up passing in someone's livingroom, the clock ticking, the shows on the television changing according to their own unaccountable whim, waiting for someone to suggest an activity interesting enough to draw a quorum. Intransigent nights, some of which end up being among the best nights, the most intimate.

Things fracture on this occasion though, and suddenly, somehow, fewer people are at the house, some of the group evidently having gone to Sharp Edge, a tavern at the southeast end of Bloomfield where it borders East Liberty. Others remain, and the clock has tolled past 11. Somebody recommends the Castle, a nearby Bloomfield institution, a boxing bar qua Shadyside service-industry after-hours hangout that years ago we used to frequent regularly.

I suggest that it's been so long that we might not be able to get in. The club, in virtue of its odd location in a brownstone cheek-by-jowl with residential houses in a densely sleepy neighborhood off Liberty Avenue, is guarded by a doorman, and only people who are recognized, who are known to the staff, typically are admitted. Or so it was a couple of years ago; perhaps now entry has been democratized. I sort of doubt it. Anyway, I note that, at best, only a few of us will be recognized, and only then if the staff hasn't turned over completely. Even if those few might gain admission, serious questions remain as to whether our diminished cachet would suffice to gain admission for the several non-Castle veterans in our company, who would, in effect, be guests considered in light of us.

This idea, as so many others have before it, fizzles for whatever reason. Then everyone disappears.

I begin to walk the mile or so to the Sharp Edge, in search of companionship and a beer. Bloomfield is darker than usual, but Liberty Avenue is in fact more crowded than usual, looking more like Walnut ot Ellsworth Avenues in Shadyside of a Saturday night. I shouldn't even be on Liberty; there are quicker ways to walk from where I've been to Sharp Edge, but here I am just the same.

A crowd approaches, and I recall that this is the annual weekend when a rather frightening, apocalyptic Christian cult takes to the streets. It's a cult, I recall, I've run-in with before. I see a pack of them, denoted by oddly white-trimmed outfits, festive and raucous, approaching on the sidewalk, and eyeing me voraciously. I am afraid, looking for a way to escape their path. No opportunities presenting themselves, however, I brace myself, admonishing myself for my surely irrational fear.

Until I am surrounded by them, their white-haired leader or deputy sneering hungrily at me, their words blurring together and my body being pushed steadily towards an unmarked doorway I've failed to notice, which opens like an incandescent mouth prizing the night-blackened brick wall in which it is set. Inside is frenzied activity, light -- and is that flame?

I don't know how, but I realize they remember me, that I represent for them unfinished business, that I never should have left the house on such a perilous night, that my error may have been fatal, or maybe -- just maybe -- even worse.

My escape is something I cannot recall, but I find myself free of the mob, adrenaline-stiffened with the knowledge that they are not done with me, the cultmembers, that they are hot on my heels, that I must go to ground if I hope to survive the night unharmed. I make a phone call. A sympathetic friend picks me up, but he will not be able to help me for long, we both seem to understand.

I call another friend, someone from outside my pack of long-term, most intimate pack -- a colleague, in fact, married with children. She agrees, amazingly, to meet me at a designated location and to aid my flight.

The cult is only dangerous during this one weekend, I seem to understand: if I can disappear for a few days, get out of the city, I can survive. Like locusts, however, their few days' reign leaves in its wake swaths of carnage, and I will be counted among their victims if I cannot escape.

My friend arrives, and wrests me from the sudden apparition of the cult leader, who is on a porch at the rendezvous address. Although he makes no effort to restrain me, his words are narcotic, laden with danger and the promise of ultimate prevalence, absolute confidence, serpentine, sibilant self-assurance. I cannot win. I am fighting destiny. I must accept my fate, give myself over to my pursuers, have faith that the outcome is nothing like I have imagined, and inescapable in any event.

My friend, however, is having none of it, and she drags me away, my eyes unflagging on the leaders', my heart racing in strain against the competing imperatives of abject, exhausting flight and weeping submission. I am nothing without my rescuers.

She installs me in her car, and, my head evidently cleared, I explain to her that I need safe transit out of Pittsburgh, far away from the stalking ubiquity of the cult, where I can evade notice. They will pursue, but only in the city have they the resources to unearth me. They lack the numbers to successfully find me in the breadth of the state, the region, in just a few days.

Next I know I am waking in her car, in Reading. We go to a restaurant, where two rock-climbing acquaintances also have sought a meal. One seems sympathetic, good-natured, but the one I know least, having only seen him on the trail a couple of times, eyes me, hirsute and inscrutable face, like prey. I hear my friend on the phone with her husband, attempting to explain the necessity of her absence, the danger to me; from what I can discern, he's having none of it, and I want to take the phone, assure him that my only motive is survival, that his wife's action, in every way, is a rescue. Nothing more.

But still, the climber watches me, makes little effort to participate in the strained small talk I am exchanging absently with the more familiar climber: dissonant exchange regarding rock conditions, climbing areas, goals achieved and newly established, the eternal unfolding of new challenges in an open-ended sport that knows nothing of true satisfaction, like a road unfolding indefinitely.

My friend is no longer on the phone, the climbers have left, I feel safe. And I awaken to Sunday morning, shaking, moist -- but even so invigorated. I remain utterly thrilled that my dreams have regained their import, and have become, instead of the dull continuation of my day they had been for the preceding year, the host of new nightly adventures, redeeming my sleep time in the way that the endless variety of an ever-startling world redeems my waking hours.

And I am happy for the many wonderful friends who populate my many peculiar worlds, waking and sleeping.


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