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Terrible Things

by Joan Shaddox Isom

It's night time. I'm trying to fall asleep, but my Terrible Things Scenario has kicked in.

A giant asteroid is approaching earth. It will hit five yards from my house but I'll be miraculously saved, only to endure attacks from hordes of hungry and thirsty people who want my last piece of bread and the little water I have left, actually a half cup or so standing in the cats's bowl. I don't have a cat, but in this scenario, my daughter has left her two felines with me.

A moral dilemma is upon me. Shall I keep the doors locked and stay inside with the cats, sharing with them the last water and food I have, or shall I let in the mob and watch them tear me and the cats to pieces as they fight over the bread? (They will spill the water in the fracas, so that's a moot point.)

The Terrible Thing Scenario switches abruptly to an airplane: I'm at the controls trying to land it. It used to be a single-engine plane, but in later years it has changed to a Lear jet, the kind rock stars own. I don't know what's happened to the pilot. Maybe he had the fish for lunch. Maybe it's a heart attack. It's bad enough that they expect me to land the plane, but to complicate matters, my husband is on the radio giving me instructions. Never mind that he hasn't flown a plane in his entire life.

"Push the button under the top one," he tells me. Why he doesn't just say "Push the second button from the top" is beyond me. But we don't communicate well. He is a practical man who rolls engineering terms off his tongue like an anteater flicking insects — when he's a mind to. Mostly, he's the silent type. When he asks me to help him lift or carry something (he's been remodeling the house since the day he finished building it thirty years ago), he never tells me where we are going with it, nor when we are going to put it down. This is annoying. I don't know whether to get ready to turn left to the kitchen or right to the deck; neither do I know when to start getting my toes out of the way. But now, he's telling me everything.

"Lift your left flap!" he commands.

"Which flap? Is that the button by the red and white thingie?" He's getting exasperated. "I said, your left flap!" he shouts. Our daughter, the psychotherapist, would tell me it's now time to turn off the radio and figure out how to land the plane myself. She could never communicate with her father when she was younger, but lately I note the two of them are getting closer verbally. In fact, she may be turning into her father, but I can't deal with that stark possibility right now. I have to land this darn plane. Just as I'm ten feet from the ground and haven't figured out which button controls the flaps, the Terrible Things Scenario switches once again ...

We're at war. Our town is surrounded. An entire platoon of enemy soldiers comes to my house and demands to be fed. I go to the kitchen (after all, they have guns pointed at me) and check my larder. What to make? My practical side says open all cans (a bit difficult with a rifle in the ribs, but I manage) of vegetables and dump everything into a big pot, pour in some chicken broth, heat the mixture up and float some raw eggs in it. Get out all the old, freezer-burned bread, the pita that's been in there since my niece visited three summers ago, and find the crackers, even the ones that taste odd and maybe have weevils in them. After all, we're not talking crepes and mimosas here. Throw everything on the table and pray they are so hungry their taste buds will accept anything. Just as the officer in charge tastes the soup and I wait breathlessly for him to give a thumbs up or thumbs down sign, the scenario changes once more...

Do other people have these fantasies? And what is the meaning of them? Why do fragments I see on television or read in the news stick in my head, to be pulled out at bedtime and used as tools of torture?

Like the tsunami fantasy, in which a giant wave produced by a meteorite that falls in the ocean creates a wall of water tall enough to swoop over the Rocky Mountains and engulf us. (No longer can we flat landers count on these heretofore insurmountable peaks to protect us.)

Am I punishing myself because I'm too comfortable in my bed with the clean, crisp sheets, the shaded lamp, a night stand with fifteen unread books, and a cup of hot, strong tea when I could be out helping the homeless? Or might these ludicrous half-awake nightmares be a way for my mind to deal with the real life terrors that confront me — us — each time we get out of bed in the morning and turn on the television or look at a newspaper? Imagining myself trying to land an airplane or being commandeered to act as a short order military cook is laughable in the clear light of Anne Curry's morning news when I'm listening to people tell about real terror in real time.

Looking for causes, Guilt usually surfaces as a reason for just about anything in my psyche. After all, I was brought up in a region and a time when everyone's elders, from the grocer to the mailman to the first grade teacher (it was the forties — forget separation of church and state) all made it their business to convince us just how evil we all were. Permanently etched inside my head in lurid color is a tract someone brought home, probably from a chance encounter with one of the transient, self-ordained preachers who seemed to always be wandering the back roads in those days. On the front is a scene depicting two groups of people: one is made up of clean-limbed beings, clearly the chosen, looking pure and radiant as they swan upwards towards the light and a beautiful angel. The other is a group of grotesque, twisted beings who are slogging their wretched way down toward a roiling river lit by phosphorescent fire( and I knew full well who was under the surface). Thankfully (or maybe not) the scene didn't continue past the first leg of the journey. One was left to imagine what happened next.

Maybe because I'm a visual artist who works with color, or maybe just because I've been blessed (or cursed) with an extra vivid imagination, my actual dreams — once I finally nod off in the midst of some Terrible Things Scenario — would rival the Extreme Homes show on the Home and Garden channel. Every night it's a different house, more bizarre than the one before. Sometimes the kitchen is on the roof; sometimes the house is on rollers, like a giant Humvee, at home on land or water. I'm the decorator, usually on a six-hour schedule and a slim budget. Picking up paint at discount stores that carry fire sale items and hiring painters who, once they arrive, rip off their coveralls to reveal that they are mimes in leotards who produce a play within a play as they work is just a hint of what I endure. Plus, the paint is never, ever the same hue as the sample.

But by far my most disturbing, most common dream is this: I'm thirty-six years old and stuck in the eighth grade. For some reason, I can't pass on to the ninth. I'm driving a car, trying to slouch down and look younger. Everyone else is twelve or thirteen and riding scooters, probably Razors, and wearing cool clothes from The Gap. I'm wearing my mother's house dress and apron. I ask the principal, Mr. Olson, to figure my credits. He does, but I'm always one short. I drive home over a mountainous road of endless switchbacks that I've traveled so many times, and finally it occurs to me: Mr. Olson's face is the spitting image of Kafka's.


Joan Shaddox Isom is the author of The First Starry Night (Charlesbridge) and coeditor of The Leap Years: Women Reflect on Change, Loss and Love (Beacon Press). Isom's fiction, poetry and plays have won awards, and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including anthologies. Of Cherokee descent, Isom lives near Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
©2004 Joan Shaddox Isom for SeniorWomenWeb
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