Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together.  His fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Birmingham Arts Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Minnetonka Review, Main Street Rag and in numerous anthologies including Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia.

The Dream Worker

                    “…work carried over to dreams is one of the darker sides of our living.” – Dana Wildsmith

Sheila spread an extra blanket on the bed they now shared.  It was faded red, the cotton worn from years of use by his mother. He remembered this same woolen blanket as the bold color of the summer wax plants he stocked in every newly landscaped flower bed.  He had left it for the past year closed up in his mother’s room, one of her many belongings he had been unwilling or unable to touch since her death.  Seeing how it had lost its color made him ache for so much else.
        “Don’t tell me you’re cold in the middle of July.” He said this instead of asking why she had gone into his mother’s bed room, instead of asking what else she might have pilfered there or otherwise disturbed.
        “I need an extra cover.”
        She squeezed lotion from a tube and applied it to her arms and legs.  The sugary scent of apples seemed out of place in this same room he had occupied since childhood.  Ander looked Shelia over.  Her skin glistened as if she were fresh from a new mold, the proto-type of someone’s ideal woman, his own ideal woman.
        He wondered why she was with him, why she had settled on him when she was so beautiful and so much smarter – smarter than him, he was sure – and could have any kind of future her daddy could buy.  She wasn’t trapped in this house with his memories and his burdens.  He looked at his calloused hands, the skin peeled and worn where his flesh joined every day with his landscaping tools.
        “I’m burning up.”  He pulled off his shirt before getting into bed.  His shoulders and arms were dark as hickory wood, having suffered the sun again all day.
        “I’m not cold now, but it gets cold by morning.  You get cold too, or you wouldn’t cocoon every night.”
        “I don’t cocoon.  I don’t even know what that means.”
        “Anderson!  You do so.  Every night, you pull the blankets off me, and I wake up cold.  You flail around half the night until the blankets are all gone, and then you curl up like a caterpillar.  You roll around in that ball, and I wake up and think the metamorphosis is finally complete.”
        He wanted to argue with her, but he couldn’t.  Since childhood, Ander’s sleep was always a restless, unsatisfying affair.  His mind, when he should have been recharging, instead repeated like a record player with a deep scratch across its grooves.  It was as if his brain, or maybe his spirit, was compelled to continue the previous day’s activity wherever the real Ander had left off.
        His mother called this inexhaustible force his dream worker.  On the mornings after these evenings of restless sleep, Ander reported to her about how he had toiled.
        “My dream worker cleaned my room all night long,” he would complain at the yellow table in their kitchen over bowls of whispering Rice Krispies.  Or, his dream worker might have painted the front porch railings, washed the good blue china, raked under autumn oaks with a never-ending supply of raining leaves.  Always, the dream worker spent his nocturnal life performing the same tasks as Ander did.  Now, he aerated brown piles of wood chips at the nursery in his imagination.  He planted white geraniums until his back hurt from all the bending.
        New experiences were especially prone to be repeated in the nighttime hours.  The night after he and Sheila picked blackberries, he repeated the movements in a patch in his mind.  This imaginary field was overgrown with the prickly stalks, many of them so full of the fruit they hung limply toward the ground.  Ander picked blackberries well into the light of morning.  His hands ached when he awoke, and he expected his fingers to be stained again with the crimson juice.
        The dream worker was an industrious fellow.  He was the kind of worker Ander wished he could be, moving forward always, even when the sun beat the life out of him.  The dream worker didn’t care about the temperature or his tired muscles.  He didn’t worry about what new movie was playing or where there might be a cold beer.
        The dream worker, though, had also been affected by the news of the child Sheila carried.  Since that night, Ander’s dreams had been altered as much as his daytime life.  Now, when the lights were out, Ander’s spirit searched for food.  He wandered in the blackberry patch still, but no longer did the stalks bend to the earth with their fullness.  The fruit was now picked over.  Or they were too far away to reach.  Their thorns grew larger and became aggressive, protecting their bearings.  No matter the challenge, though, the dream worker made every attempt, his energy reinvigorated by the need to feed his dream family.
        Ander folded the covers off his side of the bed.  He still felt the heat of the day inside him.  He was sure it radiated off him.  He fell down into the fresh scent of laundry soap, turned his back to Shelia, closed his eyes and waited for the darkness to come over him as he knew it was destined.