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Last Night I Dreamed*

Last night I dreamt I went back to Manderley again.”

This opening line to a famous novel by Daphne de Maurier was one of my grandmother’s all-time favorites. I thought about it when I was searching for a first sentence about my most recent strange dream. So: Last night I dreamed I went back to Harrisburg…again.

Not my first return in a dream to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the now-defunct Evening News where I worked in the early seventies. In that strange other-world of dreams, old newspapers never die. I have returned more than once, and the trips were never as satisfactory as the reality.

I just couldn’t break through to find the kinds of stories that kept me on the front page back then. My old sources were long gone. New construction and re-routed streets had me lost and frustrated most of the time. You might ascribe this to the category of frustration-dream and let it go at that. But that would ignore its complexity and texture.

This time, the old newspaper had leaks in the men’s bathroom. The newsroom floors were out of plumb, the desks unsteady. They’d moved the copy desk. The unknown city editor in the dream was no happier to see me show up than the real-life city editor was when I kited in from the Bahamas, hired without his knowledge. The dream version resembled a city editor for another daily in another state that I got along with fine. But acted like he had a prior animus against me. He wouldn’t let me out of the newsroom to search for stories. He teamed me with one of those drunken losers every newsroom used to have, hanging on toward retirement while doing obits and rewrite.

This loser had never been there any of my previous dream visits. He told me he’d read a lengthy piece I wrote on one of my previous dream trips that was never published: it was still in the morgue and I ought to bring it out and dust it off.

I had written about a large but little-known lake up north, and mysterious goings-on around that lake. Peculiar experiments with hybrid fish, Fisheries Department employees who had gone missing trying to sneak past the armed security surrounding the lake, whispers of murder and worse. My alcoholic partner showed me recent news clips about a corpse that turned up when the lake level dropped due to a drought. Suddenly my backgrounder was hot news.

The city editor was furious when the managing editor assigned my old story page-one with a substantial jump. He sent the loser and me off in a company car to a suburb to interview people involved in searching the lake after the first corpse was found. We met one of the searchers at one of those old-fashioned summer bandstands with wrought-iron railings. Before we could settle down for an interview, a city cop showed up to arrest him for talking to the press.

The cop got damn near hysterical when he noticed the Colt Python .357 I was wearing on my belt. He accused me of carrying a concealed weapon. If it’s concealed how come you can plainly see it, I said. This is an open-carry state. (I didn’t know whether that was true but it sounded good.)

He said as soon as you put your sport coat on it is concealed, so I’m arresting you in advance for concealing it. I said, That’s ridiculous, they don’t do it that way in Arizona. He said, We ain’t in Arizona. So I showed him my special permit from the Pennsylvania State Police. That shut him up. I always got along with the State Police in real life. Evidently they still had my back in dreams.

The cop went away. We finished our interview and my partner (of course) was parched. He led me to a strange local bar he knew about. Stools ran along the sidewalk as well as the interior of an oval bar, where the bartenders served in both directions.

The patrons were eating hot greasy sausages, drinking boilermakers, and engaging in a grand debate about which term of derogation for a white man was as bad as “nigger.” Some opted for “honky.” Some said “Slovenian.” Each side pushed its view. I didn’t catch some of the terms, which may have been in the various languages that came to Pennsylvania to mine coal and smelt steel in the old days. A couple of black men seated inside had nothing to say.

A third black man came in jittering like he was on drugs, and shoved a cheap pistol in the barkeep’s face. The barkeep was a big guy with big shoulders who cursed him for everything but a white man; I thought he was a goner for sure given the druggie’s agitation. He was so big he blocked my sight-line to the gunman. My partner the lush was trying to hide under the barstool. He wasn’t alone in that.

It turned out Mad Dog, first black man to make detective on the city force, was one of the two quiet blacks in the bar. He stood up and drew his pistol in one smooth motion — he had the angle — and drilled the gunman right through the temple. God damn it Mad Dog you splattered him all over me, the hard-nosed bartender said. Call it in, Mad Dog said. We got places to be. His partner drained his stein and stood up. They came out of the bar and down the sidewalk.

Come with us, Mad Dog said to me, if you want some good stories for your newspaper. He was tall as me, light tan and lean, wearing a cheap ready-made brown suit that bulged over his shoulder rig. His tie had so many smears of color it looked like a painter’s drop cloth.

What about me, my souse partner said. You ain’t invited, Mad Dog’s partner told him quietly. The partner had on a charcoal zoot suit, a regimental tie, and spit shined two-tone wingtips. He was short and slim, black as coal, and exuded quiet self-confidence. The three of us walked away.

We walked a good long way before Mad Dog indicated an ornate red door. We filed off the street into an unsuspected mall with small shops to either side. Everything was clean and neat as a pin, and it took a moment for me to recognize the general theme linking the stores: sex. Adult book stores first, then shops with pornographic magazines of breath-taking explicitness; shops selling fetish-wear and sexual toys, video stores…shops with scantily clad and buxom women outside massage parlors, gesturing for us to come in.

Mad Dog grinned and tipped his fedora; his partner just smiled and nodded. I tried to avoid eye-contact, which sent several of them into gales of laughter. Mad Dog, you done brought us a white virgin, huh?

Now y’all behave, this here is a gentleman of the press and we’re here on bidness, Mad Dog said. And we moved on along. Next came movie marquees, discreet neon and frosted glass and carpeted lobbies, the feature movies displayed tastefully in small windows. Everything was so quiet and refined that the graphic posters came as a visceral shock.

You sure this is the place, Mad Dog’s partner said.

Oh yeah. He led us into the second movie lobby on the left. Our feet sank in the thick carpet. A grossly fat Negro wearing a blinding white shirt, with purple suspenders holding up his tuxedo trousers, came out of the ticket booth. He splayed a wide pink palm. Diamonds glittered on his fat fingers. Mad Dog walked right into him. If he hadn’t moved, he would have walked over him.

Y’all got a warrant?

Sh-h-h, the partner said. Don’t rile up Mad Dog.

Mad Dog came to an unmarked door and opened it. A naked Nubian princess lolled on a pink coverlet. You ain’t my regular four o’clock, sugah, she said — but I’m not complainin’.

Mad Dog tipped his fedora and grinned before he closed the door and marched to the next one. A blonde pale Nordic dish on a sea-foam blue coverlet, nodding her head to music only she could hear. She looked up blankly. Mad Dog tipped his hat and closed the door. The fat Negro came behind us dithering. You’re disturbing the girls dammit, they won’t be worth shit for the afternoon trade.

Mad Dog spun like a big tan panther. You talkin’ to me?

Oh man, his partner said. Now you done it.

Get this nigger outta my face before I shoot him, Mad Dog said. I ain’t shot but one today so far and I’m getting cranky. His partner grabbed the proprietor — to hold him up when his knees buckled as much as to escort him — and took him back down the corridor. I stayed with Mad Dog.

The fourth or fifth door — I lost track — opened on a scene so different from the others that for a long heartbeat my brain couldn’t interpret what I saw: a sleazy apartment-like living room with an old television showing kiddie cartoons. Trash all over the floor, food moldering on plates. Old rump-sprung furniture jammed together in a haze of cigarette smoke.

And children. Toddlers, four that I counted at first glance; unbathed, dirty, food stuck to their clothing, one sucking on a dirty bottle. One adult — a soft overweight blonde sprawled on a couch, eyes shut, a grungy nightgown rucked up around her hips. Her eyes popped open when Mad Dog slammed the door back against the wall. Vacant stare, just like the prime blonde back down the hall.

The kids, though — Mad Dog, they shrilled. They were all over him, clinging to his legs, reaching for his hands. His partner came back from disposing of the proprietor and let out a soft whistle. Well you was right, partner — as usual, he said. Mad Dog squatted down to the kids, took off his fedora and planted it on the oldest one’s head — she was probably five. The man I’d seen calmly shoot a robber to death an hour or so ago was cooing baby talk.

What the hell is this, I asked his partner.

Mad Dog made a promise to their daddy, he said.

Meanwhile Mad Dog was asking the girl wearing his hat if they had a telephone. Uh huh, she said, in the other room. He looked up at his partner: You know who to call. I do, the partner said, and went with the little girl. When he came back, he said there’s a back way out of here, opens on the alley.

To the little girl Mad Dog said gather your siblings up, child. If they got a special toy or anything, get it. You ain’t coming back here.

The blowzy blonde rolled her head to the side. What you doin’ with my kids, Mad Dog?

Takin’ ‘em.

They’re a handful, she said with no affect at all.

Not your handful, Mad Dog said. Not no more. He picked up the two smallest, one in diapers that didn’t look clean. Can we clean up a little, the girl in the fedora asked him. No need, he said. Where you’re going you’ll have all day to take baths and try out clean clothes and eat good food.

Okay! She gave a little skip. When?

A truck horn sounded out back. Right now, Mad Dog said. To me: can you carry one? Whisper needs his gun-hand free in case that fat nigger comes back with a sawed-off. So I picked up a little mixed-race boy in ratty shorts that smelled like a backed-up toilet. The little girl led out and Whisper followed us, backing, his eyes on the corridor door.

Nothing happened. There was a beat-up old pickup truck out back with a canvas tarp on bent rods like a Conestoga wagon. When I got to the tailgate after Mad Dog deposited his two, I saw the bed was covered with a mattress cleaner than anything in that apartment. The girl clambered in. You gonna ride back here with us, Mad Dog? Mad Dog: I wouldn’t ride anywhere else. He took my burden and handed him in, then levered his lanky frame up and in, and sprawled. The kids climbed all over him. Whisper was still watching the door. You ride up front with me, he said. Get in the middle so I can shoot if I have to.

No shooting was necessary. We trundled down the alley and away, me trying to find places for my knees around the floor-mounted gearshift. The driver was a black man as big as me with rippling biceps in a dirty T-shirt. He smelled like coming off a bad bender; rum sweat like I remembered from the Bahamas.

We drove out of town a long way into the country on back roads. When the driver stopped to relieve his bladder, Whisper said he’d move to the middle to give my knees a break. After a while the rumble of the big tires made me nod off a little. I came back to awareness when the truck turned onto a graveled road.

A big old house was set well back in a grove of oaks. We drove around back and were greeted by an old black couple who looked like somebody’s grandparents. Mad Dog handed the children out one by one as the old woman tsked about their condition. Whisper and I stood around in the yard with the truck driver while Mad Dog and the couple took the kids inside.

Mad Dog came back out and said supper’s on. Nothin’ fancy but it’ll hold us. We went into a big farm kitchen that smelled just like my childhood. Black-eyed peas and collard greens; slabs of corn bread and golden country butter to slather on it. Pitchers of iced tea. And a huge pan of boiled peanuts, soft and salty. I dove into the peanuts but passed on the hog jowl. Not the usual fare for a white newspaper man, Mad Dog said. I grew up in the South I said; this is just like home, but I didn’t like hog jowl then either. Pass the cornbread please. Whisper allowed, You’re okay for a white guy.

The little old lady came back still in a state of what my grandmother would have called high dudgeon about the condition the children had been in. She’d already bathed and clothed every one of them and put them to bed. The ones that needed them had bottles with milk fresh from her own cows. The others had home-made cookies to hold them until their supper later. The lean-muscled old man, who resembled Mad Dog without the dangerous aura, said they would all be just fine here, even if they had to stay until they were grown. Mad Dog stood up and hugged them both.

Do we need to be on the lookout for anybody trying to come take them back, the old man asked Mad Dog.

Over my dead body the old woman said.

It could come to that, the old man said, if I run out of .30–30 shells.

No, said Mad Dog. It won’t. I’ll make sure. The way he said it gave me a chill. Whisper just smiled. The old lady brewed up some campfire coffee on her old gas range and we sat around in the yard talking about nothing in particular as dusk came down. Mad Dog produced some thin evil-smelling cheroots and passed them around, and we smoked and drank chicory coffee and listened to the sounds of happy children attacking their supper like locusts.

I guess you can’t write this story, Mad Dog said; it would get the children taken away. I said I thought a fine story would be the hidden sex mall right downtown and he chuckled and said good luck getting that in the newspaper.

When our cheroots were smoked down and the coffee was gone it was time to leave. I was suddenly very sleepy and volunteered to ride in back on the mattress while the other three sat up front. I didn’t really sleep, just dozed with a thousand images flickering through my mind about all the other times I had visited this strange Harrisburg in some other dimension the waking world had never seen. None had come close to this adventure. Drowsily I thought I might be getting ready to make the transition back to the faraway and surreal waking world.

Before that happened, I felt the truck leave the pavement again and go jouncing down another graveled road. We hadn’t been traveling nearly long enough to reach Harrisburg. When it stopped I crawled to the tailgate and saw another large house full of lights that gleamed on cars in a rough parking lot. Big-band swing music emanated from the house, with a wailing saxophone riding the rhythm. Whisper appeared at the tailgate.

Mad Dog’s gone straight ahead in, he said. Man ain’t afraid of god, man or the devil. Horace went to the back door with his sawed-off to cut ’em off if they try to run. I gotta go after Mad Dog. Best get out and find you a spot. There’s gonna be shooting.

Almost as soon as he left, the first shots came from inside the house. Bangbangbang like that, then bang, and bang. I couldn’t seem to help myself; I gravitated to the big window on the side of the house.

It looked like Mad Dog had walked into a poker game in the parlor. He was standing spread-legged at the door, a gun in either hand: his service .38 in his right and a chromed 1911 Colt in his left. There were bodies on the floor, and men crouched behind furniture clutching pistols. One would reach over the sofa and fire blindly toward the door. Mad Dog didn’t even flinch.

I saw movement behind him: Whisper drifting down the hallway to his right, flanking the room. Guns exploded back there. Mad Dog didn’t flinch. He turned like a left-handed duelist and sighted along the Colt; the next time a gun hand popped up, he was ready. A burst of blood and bone fragments; an anguished yowl of pain. The hand vanished and the pistol dropped on the sofa.

Mad Dog was striding forward now, closing on the cowering men. One jumped up shooting. Mad Dog gunned him down. Then he was behind the couches, shooting down at men who shot up at him, a vicious exchange that lasted seconds. He never flinched or wavered. His was the last shot, into the cowering man with the destroyed hand.

He started for what must be the kitchen. A shadowy form came through a side door. A gun banged behind the figure and it fell. Whisper came through thumbing cartridges into his revolver. They moved into the kitchen and I followed along the porch. Out back I heard the heavy double-boom of a twelve-gauge: Horace closing the back door.

When I peeped around the corner, Mad Dog and Whisper were on the back stoop reloading. There was one body back there, torso blown ragged by a double charge of buckshot. Horace looked a little ill. You done good, Mad Dog said to him. Whisper was looking up at another house that had been hidden by the first one. Let’s get it over with Whisper said softly. They walked that way. Horace saw me and smiled kind of weakly. Then he just…sat down. I went after the other two. Either their ears were deadened by the gunfire or they knew it was me. They didn’t look back.

The second house had a wide deck upstairs, shadowy men sitting on it, frozen in awkward postures. I saw motion on the roof to the front of the house: a man crawling out of a dormer window with a rifle. As soon as he saw the two approaching, he brought up the rifle and braced it on the side of the dormer.

At that range I didn’t see how he could miss with a rifle. So I drew my six-inch Python, held for center mass, and double-tapped him. All in less time than it takes to tell. He melted onto the roof and the rifle clattered down. Unlike the movies where men shot on roofs tumble acrobatically off, he kind of oozed down and slid over with a sodden thump.

Mad Dog never flinched. Whisper spun at the sound of my shots and spotted the falling man. He grinned back at me. Not bad shooting for a white boy.

Mad Dog? It was a voice from the deck. Mad Dog is that you?

Nobody else but, Mad Dog said. Your goons is all dead. Them children is safe. Long as nobody tries to find them, we’ll call it even and I’ll let the rest of y’all live.

The man who had spoken came to the railing. Hell, Mad Dog, us bosses don’t even carry a gun, he said. Too easy to get arrested for it. If you keep on, it’s just plain murder.

You ain’t listening, Mad Dog said. I’m calling it even. But this is just a taste of what’s yours if you ever again mess with them children.

This guy looked like a central-casting call-up for a Mafia don. Beefy, thick, dangerous as a cobra even in resort wear. He didn’t look the least bit afraid. What children, he said. None of us are interested in children, Mad Dog, no matter what their daddy told you.

Keep it that way and we’re even.

What about my men?

Bury ’em. And find yourself a better grade of gunsel. Mad Dog turned his back and walked away. Not Whisper. He sidled, keeping his pistol ready. So did I, having dealt myself in, with no idea into what. Mad Dog patted me on the shoulder as he walked by. Let’s go home, Mr. Reporter; a bait of collards and peas surely sharpens a man’s shooting eye. We’re gonna have us some fun around Harrisburg town, you and me.

But we didn’t. We collected Horace, who had lost his own bait of collards, jowl and peas after he scatter-gunned the thug, and left. I took the mattress again for the ride back to Harrisburg. This time I really went to sleep, thinking how to write a story about the hidden sex mall. When I woke up this time, I was back in the so-called real world, and had to pee.

After doing the necessary I came straight here to attempt to record my dream, and wonder at it. I know there are nuances that slipped away before I could capture them. But the dialog is almost like dictation. I’ve seen plenty of action-adventure movies but none like my Harrisburg dream.

Can’t help but wish Mad Dog and Whisper were creations of my conscious mind, equipped with an entire backstory and enough plot to fill a novel. I supposedly am a writer, after all. But this was all my unconscious brain gave me.

*A file from 2014 I ran across organizing disk space. So this “last night” was eight years ago

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.