The ping pong ball

California afternoon_photo by Wendy Jo carlton It was the dream the old man had before. The one with the river and the floating that felt so damn good. Beneath his body was a rubber inner tube and his arms and legs hung lazily over the sides of it. On the side of the tube was a cartoon of a smiling big-headed rat twirling a lasso. “The rat must be my guardian angel”, the old man thought. “Could be worse”. Then below his wet backside, in the clear cool water, he spotted, only for a second, amongst the river rocks and fallen branches, a white rosary swaying with the current.

The old man grew up Catholic, and even though he hadn’t stepped inside any kind of church for 50 years, the rosary still snagged him as something precious. It needed a pair of hands. He tried to stand up but his feet couldn’t touch the bottom, and the river was moving too fast for him to swim against backwards. He held his breath deep and stuck his head under the water to get one last blink at it, glowing and yessing at him like a blessed hula. But then the river curved around a bloated bluff of Willow trees, and beyond them was a parking lot full of cars.

The old man climbed up the river bank behind the VFW Hall and tied his raft to the bumper of a white limo. He saw his reflection in the windows, soaking wet and older than he felt, but still with a full head of dark hair to brush back. By the time he crossed the hot parking lot, the steam coming off of him made him look freshly pressed. He felt that the ping pong ball was somewhere inside the building. He could smell hot dogs and buttered popcorn and knew what was going on in there. Bingo. Even though he only loved the Mother Mary part of Catholic, the forgiving, blue-green part of it, he remembered what the nuns had taught him, about the mystery of numbers.

The old man entered the hall. Even with the ceiling clumped full of air conditioners blasting full force, the thickness of the cigarette smoke nearly gagged him. He coughed until his eyes teared up, so when the jittery skittery ping pong ball rolled right in front of him, it looked like he was crying with joy. The players did not look up from their cards because this was the the final game, the jackpot. But the caller did glance over, just in time to see him place the ball in his mouth and sprint out. The old man worked in the Senior Center for going on 6 years. He hadn’t lost a ping pong ball yet. He was happy there was something he was good at. And each time that beautiful, half-blind Sandra Kolenda flicked one out the window, it was another chance to show off his fantastic way with recovery.

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Ellen Burstyn on my way to Kathy Bates

In the dream, Ellen Burstyn had very short hair from the 70’s, like Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing a faux David Bowie in the Todd Haynes film Velvet Goldmine. But Ellen was sexier because Ellen is sexier. Ellen was standing waist deep in water in the middle of a living room. It was nighttime and there was a fire in the background in the fireplace but we could see through it into the kitchen, where a glass bowl full of fat strawberries sat on the counter. Kathy Bates walked into the frame and started cutting the strawberries up and I watched her pop a few into her mouth. She turned and looked at me through the fire and gave me a warm smile, the kind that makes me feel seen and appreciated, the kind I know no one else in the room has noticed except for us, the kind that makes me want to kiss the person giving it to me immediately, because it is so genuine, generous, that I must move fast and seal it with a kiss, because joy requires it.

As I waded near Ellen Burstyn to get to Kathy Bates mouth, I noticed her colorful gauze smock floating on the surface of the water and I thought to myself in the dream, “like Ophelia”. Ellen’s fingertips grazed my leg beneath the water as I passed and I swore I heard her say, “Same time next year.”

Chocolate sight for a mountain seal


In the dream there was a large ocean creature hoping to be acknowledged as the first true centipede rising up from a deep clear green pool of water that was shaped into a curve, more like a circus peanut than a smile, and we came upon it as we climbed the side of a Swiss chocolate mountain crag. It had been raining for days, and the wet chocolate mountainside was so dark and bittersweet that it made everything else seem light and lemony surrounding it. So too this green pool of cool water, whose smell rose up to our noses as a lemon-lime soda, clearing our sinuses and changing our thoughts of failure into the feeling one gets at the top of a roller coaster, 360 degrees of a moment of no up and no down.

We could hear the seal before we could locate her, our vision blurry from the thin vanilla oxygen. We heard her thick clay grey nose breaking the surface of the water softly, firmly. She was there in a smaller pool of milky water that was connected by a shallow channel to the pool with the ocean centipede in it. She steered mightily in the opposite direction but the pull of the channel was very strong. We were too far away to be of any help, so we stood there licking the backs of our hands in delicious prayer for her, humming and licking until the seal was safely somersaulting on the other side of a pile of timberweed. Since the way we had come had already started to slough itself off behind us, our only hope for getting back home was walking closely past the dark ocean centipede creature, treading water there by the side of the pool like it had nothing but time.