Dr. Wexler had the nightmare again.
It always began the same way, with Wexler dreaming he was in his tiny shared office at Viceroy College. In the dream, Wexler dozed in front of his black laptop screen how strange to dream of sleeping somewhere else he would think later.
In the dream, Wexler startled and opened his eyes behind his Warby Parker glasses and watched a piece of paper descend, like a wounded dove, from the dirty drop ceiling. In every version of the dream, the paper always landed on Wexler’s lap. So light, that the Humanities professor couldn’t even feel it through his starched slacks.
The paper had no name or letters of any kind. The only feature was a pinky-sized smudge in the bottom right corner. The mark was the color of rust or maybe dried blood.
The gray flesh around Wexler’s eyes twitched as he lifted the paper off his withered legs and placed it on top of a pile of old school bulletins, ungraded term papers, and car wash coupons.
As soon as the paper settled, another appeared from the same spot on the ceiling above Wexler’s unkempt nest of graying hair.
Again, it landed on Wexler’s leg, and again he placed it on the desk, yet more and more pages rained down. Until finally, page after white anonymous page covered the desk, laptop, carpet– even Wexler.
Wexler tried to stand up, but the crisp paper edges sliced into his fingers as he tried to swim through the sea of paper. The pages filled the room from floor to ceiling, and to Wexler’s dismay more kept appearing.
This was the point in the nightmare where Wexler woke for real in a cold sweat. He put his hands on his bare knees under the sheets and focused on the coolness of his dark bedroom. The air conditioning kicked in to spit a gust of air through the dusty vent as Wexler’s wife Edna, mumbled something incomprehensible and turned over on her side.
Wexler’s pillow was moist with sweat. His heart strummed a thumping beat inside his hairy chest. He suddenly didn’t feel like being in bed anymore.
Wexler rose and donned the robe Edna had given him on his fiftieth birthday. He remembered taking it out of the box as Edna cupped her hands in prayer-like anticipation. He tried it on for her and she clapped — pleased with her purchase. The robe made Wexler feel very old.
He padded into the bathroom and flipped on the light, which popped as the bulb burned out, plunging Wexler into darkness again. He cursed under his breath. And fumbled to find the flashlight in the cabinet below the sink. Holding the flashlight under his chin, he looked at himself in the mirror. The angle of the flashlight beam exaggerated his facial features to monstrous proportions. He flipped the switch and listened in darkness to the song of the frogs outside the bathroom window.
He walked past the bedroom into the laundry room which he had turned into a corner home office. His fingers found the key taped under the desk and he opened the drawer that held a wooden chess piece and a large spiral-bound manuscript.
Printed in Courier font across the top page, Untitled By: Harmon Wexler
He remembered something his college English professor had told all those years ago after reviewing a less than impressive poem, “Someday, you’ll have something to say.”
Those words would pop into his mind from time to time like a distant echo. He’d hear them at the breakfast table sipping orange juice and fighting off a hangover from the faculty party the night before, or on the beach with his family chasing after his daughter with a pale of salty water — even after he and Edna would collapse in a mass of limbs and sheets post lovemaking. Although, those days were mostly in the rearview.
Now, nights were mostly quiet restless times. Wexler would wander through his big empty house, listen to every creak of his bare feet on the staircase, or step onto the front porch and look at the moon with complete indifference.
This night, like so many others before, Wexler watched the sunrise through his kitchen window with red, bleary eyes. In twenty minutes, he’d be back on campus shuffling to his first class.
“Harmon, step in here. I need a word,” said a low baritone voice from a large corner office.
Erickson had recently enjoyed a promotion from “interim dean” to full-time status. He was twelve years younger than Wexler and still in great shape.
His position as Dean of Humanities had afforded him a fresh smugness along with the designated parking space closer to the building.
“I’m giving Romantic Poetry to Greer next semester,” Erickson said to Wexler, shooting a longing look at his Callaway golf bag that was propped against his bookshelf.
“I’ve always taught that class,” Wexler said, but he knew protest was pointless.
Dr. Greer was a windbag with a thinning ponytail and a wispy mustache. He and Erickson belonged to the same club.
Wexler wondered what he’d tell Edna. She had always warned him that if he didn’t publish something soon, he’d be put in a waste bin.
He remembered reading something about Starbucks giving their employees health insurance. Maybe he could learn to make lattes?
“Oh, and one more thing,” said Erickson, avoiding eye contact, “all non-tenured professors are up for review this month. I’ll need you to fill out this form and return it to me by Friday at the latest.”
Wexler’s stomach felt sour. He slapped a post-it on the door of his canceled class and moped over to the pub across the street.
It was still early, so the place was deserted, except for the student bartender and two baseball caps who seemed as if they had been there since the night before.
The bartender’s edgy beauty struck him as he entered the bar. She had straight black bangs across her smooth forehead, a slender nose and full lips that made her appear to always be on the verge of blowing out a candle.
Wexler ordered the pale ale, tipped the bartender two singles and hunched over his drink like he was peering into a microscope.
“My friend had you,” the bartender said, her voice an octave lower than Wexler had expected.
“She took your class. Romantic Poetry, I think?”
“Oh, right,” Wexler said, trying to sound upbeat. He stared at the tattoo (a bird’s wing) peeking out of the bartender’s v-neck tee.
The bartender noticed his eyes and turned away to clean pint glasses.
“Do you have a pen?” Wexler asked her.
She faced him again and offered a red ink pen. Someone had chewed the dimpled end.
“I just remembered something,” said Wexler. The bartender shrugged and went back to making tiny circles with a towel on the mouth of a pint glass.
Wexler hadn’t felt like this in years. He pulled the cap off the pen and started writing on his hand. When his hand could fit no more of the red ink, he hopped off the stool and jogged back to his car, rifling through his bag for a loose-leaf notebook.
It was too warm to sit in the car, so Wexler walked into the quad and sat on a bench by the fountain.
The words were flowing out of him so fast he could hardly write them down. His cellphone buzzed in his pocket, but he ignored it and kept on writing — even though his hand cramped.
By the time the sun started to set, Wexler had filled the entire notebook. He flipped back to the beginning and read the first few pages. A lump formed in his throat. Was this it? Did he finally have something to say?
A skinny guy with short dreadlocks approached on a skateboard and Wexler jumped into his path on the sidewalk.
“Read this please,” he said, tearing out the first page and shoving it under the kid’s nose. The guy took the paper and did as he was told. Wexler breathed heavy while he watched the kid’s eyes scan down the paper.
“This is good, but what is it?” Said the kid.
“Never mind. Thank you,” Wexler said, grabbing back the paper. The kid hopped on his board and rode away.
Wexler’s phone rang again. He checked the caller ID. It was Edna. She had called five times.
Wexler walked back into the Humanities building among the few night classes taking place.
He went into his office and grabbed a roll of tape from his desk. On the first page of his writing, the one the kid had just read, Wexler wrote his name in black Sharpie across the top.
Next, he made his way down the hall taping the pages in sequential order to the wall. When he reached the janitor’s closet at the end, he began taping pages to the opposite wall, working his way back up the other side.
In a few minutes, he was back where he started, staring at his manuscript that now covered the hall like peeling wallpaper. A few pages even covered Dean Erickson’s door.
Wexler had a jaunt in his step as he fled the scene and breezed through the thick double doors into the night.
The porch light was on when Wexler burst through the front door.
“Where have you been?” Edna said. Standing in the kitchen with her hand on her aproned hip.
Without saying a word, Wexler walked up to his wife, raked his hand through her curly hair and bent her back for a long hard kiss.
“You’re crazy,” said Edna, “go wash up for dinner. I made a lasagna.”
Physically exhausted as he was, Wexler knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep the moment he pulled the sheets up to his chin. He slipped out of the bed while Edna was in the bathroom and walked over to his desk in the laundry room. Without saying goodbye, he grabbed the manuscript from the desk drawer, tucked it under his arm and disappeared into the night.
The sun was up by the time Wexler returned to the bench by the fountain in the quad. The last few hours had been a blur. The manuscript, mostly blank the night before, was now filled with words. Bold words. Honest words. Dangerous words. His words.
It was Friday morning. Wexler had no classes to teach. He entered the Humanities building and went to the hall where his pages were posted. To his delight, the hallway was filled with students reading his work. Some pointed to passages and discussed them with their friends. Others pulled out their phones and took pictures of the pages.
Erickson stepped out of his office. His door was now clear of the two pages that were taped there.
“Oh, good. Wexler. May I have a word with you?”
“No, you may not,” Said Wexler, spinning on his heels and running the other way.
He stopped at his office and kicked the door open. He jumped onto the seat of his office chair and stood tall so that his head almost touched the ceiling.
With the flourish of an orchestra conductor, Wexler tossed the pages of the manuscript he had been carrying into the air.
The papers caught the air piping through the vents and spiraled around him like a vortex of white.
Erickson and a few curious faculty members arrived in the doorway to find Wexler standing on his chair, laughing at the ceiling as his words rained down on him.
Dr. Greer, the professor assigned one of Wexler’s classes for the following semester, picked a paper off the floor and started reading. His eyes grew wide with astonishment as Wexler’s laughter echoed down the hall.