Dream On

Joe Ashby Porter



“Stop fidgeting. Don’t look away, we’re not there yet. Smile, it’s good to be alive. Here, have a sip of something to take the edge off. Kiki and me just need the little anecdote. Anyway your co-conspirator—name of?—has probably spilled the beans already.

“Not pliable quite yet? Nothing comes of nothing. How about a carrot stick while you can still munch?”

Down through the pines and picnic tables, beach umbrellas, a whinny, a feeble calliope releasing bubbles of a revenant waltz, plaintive and gay. Mild hazy morning, through the copse white sand winks, morning water. A swiftboat slaps across another’s wake, towing a bathing beauty waving and blowing kisses at the prone, the moppets with beach balls, a strapping volleyball sextet playing more for fun than victory, sand crabs peering out burrows, sand castles.

Kiki twiddles a thumbscrew on the cedar, reseats white baseball cap atop ropy dandelion locks, considers. Mid-twenties, pocked, businesslike.

Eritrean feist Koshal turns her way. “I’ve had the barracks to myself (or so I thought) these couple days. Like I say, insomnia bugs me in solitude and last night I hit a patch. I jerked off to no avail, ate half a granola bar, would’ve buzzed somebody where it was daylight except the cell needs charging. Finally I turned lights on, brewed a valerian and chased it with melatonin—anything stronger and I’m no good the morrow. It kicked in by the time I had lights out so I didn’t need to watch anything, just drifted off before I knew what was happening. Well before midnight, must’ve been.

“Good dreams, one about reading. A manifest for my childhood apartment, the building slated for demo, hand-typed carbon on onionskin, mostly illegible but you know dreams. I did read item, balcony chair, ‘aloud' although I may as well have been deaf as a doorknob. Pre-dawn I woke muzzy and reached for my glasses.” Gold titanium wire aviators, photosensitive lenses now half veiling the lusters. “Rickety bamboo table, the drawer sticks.”

“You often pull solitaire, Koshal? Ring me next time, I might be awake too. How long’s your post? First tour?”

“You guessed it. Two months. Thirty-seven in amphibious prior. Why’d somebody with your seniority choose this backwater?”

“Returning a favor. Nineteen days I can hack.”


“Sorry, classified. You were saying about the bedside table?”

“I was still half in the dream, trying to read the manifest. I leaned over and picked up my glasses by the right earpiece. I never fold them except to stow—why waste your life folding and unfolding? I had them a foot from my face when I noticed something on the left lens. Dust bunny, I thought. Then I saw it was a wasp, moving slow like it too was half asleep, but definitely alive, and on the near side of the lens. I set back down the glasses gingerly as I could and hightailed it to supply for a can of spray. My flesh crawls thinking about it. I’m not allergic but still. As I discovered ironing my jodhpurs, two windows down under an overhang a screen corner had come loose. They’d nested there. My friend must’ve been first hatchling out, and was resting up after her inaugural flight. I doused the nest—her sisters never even got to try their wings.” Koshal shrugs as if to say, us or them, flicks the tip of his riding crop across the toe of a boot. Patchy buzz cut, purplish lips, desert skin with a bloom like dust. “Did I say something?”

Kiki shakes it off. “I don’t often run into somebody your age who reads text. Me I barely can any more.”

Koshal nods. “Maybe I really can’t either. The most I could do in the dream was item, balcony chair. Who’s to say if I was reading or only recognizing? I had some reading in a foster home before they phased it out. Matron claimed you never know, things change.”

Kiki returns her toy to its enameled tray. “Insurance. Hard to imagine though.”

“But say she was right, rest her soul. Would I have a leg up, and would the social fabric be ready? It’s not like reading bodies or faces, or the sky, or palms.”

“Exactly where we headed here, Koshal?”

“In the dream for instance. Balcony, chair, what in the world was going on? Is reading roughly the same as talking? The more I thought, the more it seemed like when I looked at those smudgy scratches, and saw item, balcony, chair, it felt like my eyes were turning the scratches into words.”

Kiki smiles. “It’s like anything else, no? How long you had the tattoos?” Spangling down his left upper arm from beneath the regulation tee sleeve, fading blue confetti, a leafleting of itsy quadrangles and triangles, no pattern discernible.

“Lots ask. Now and again somebody wonders what might not be showing.”

“And takes your word?” She grinds something in the dirt out with the heel of her boot, hers polished as his.

Koshal hooks thumbs under galluses that bunch the cotton at his bony shoulders, his tee easier to launder than Kiki’s khaki blouson. He zones out, in. “Theoretically us nattering here could be miked and simulcast to throngs. In the day though, reading must have been a different kettle of fish.”


“Mmm. Imagine reading the blah-blah exiting my mouth this very minute.”

“How would that work?”

“Never mind how, girl, think if.”

“You mean reading lips?” She moistens her crinkly metallic ones.

“No, reading the actual words we say. I say item, balcony chair, we look at it and read it like in the dream. It wouldn’t exactly be hearing. We both hear the fitful calliope as with one pair of ears, whereas if we tried to read something together, say item, balcony chair, you could be scrutinizing one part and me another. The closest we could come to reading with one pair of eyes—or one eye, what a reading pair amounts to so far as I can see, if you factor out depth perception. . . .”


“Couldn’t make it work. I kept seeing an insect’s compound eye. Dead end, really.”

“If not worse (only kidding). Talking heads must still read though, and surviving pockets punctuate the logosphere. Some Chinese, I hear.”

“Check, come to think. Cultural piety?”

Kiki wrinkles her nose. “Pleasure even. I wouldn’t discount pleasure. Some of you youngsters go, ‘I may not know everything but I bloody for sure know what lights my neurons.’ Yet some of us who’ve clambered up another rung or two suspect there may be more pleasures than we’d dreamed of. As with the obverse.”

Koshal smiles. “Take me with you.”

“Well, people talk about aches and pains as if the board had only two keys, with maybe a volume knob. We know better. Speaking of volume, what’s that barking up the hill?”

Koshal kneads his chin. “Rage dog? Sounds to me like it has grisly teeth.”

“Male or female?”

“Sheesh, Kiki, is this entrapment?”

Kiki leans back to fluff her saffron locks. “I was wondering whether canids make voice gender calls like we do.”

“You’re a card. Okay, to start, pitch must correlate with size and so with gender, breed of course constituting the joker. Did you have larynx work when you yourself switched?”

Hang on. What’s this?

“Then, five years back, a universe ago, you were on your own with voice or at best you got coaching. More a problem with FTM. My GP calls current procedures foolproof, and says insurance should cover. If not I could swing it, but I like how I sound as is. What’s your verdict?”

“To be honest, a low voice in a woman turns me on, personally.”

“Not a chirp freak, you?”

“Which were you, ID or vector? I’m curious.”

Kiki takes a deep breath, weighing, recalling, stony-faced. From lowered eyelids she flashes a subliminal flicker of the emerald isle. “Guess.”

Koshal swallows, sifting odds and stakes.

For an instant all the time in the world opens, a sheltered Sans Souci to drift in from amusement to amusement, the roulette all play, all anodyne and free.

Kiki says, “Never mind, I’ll sing. With me it was total vector, totally. I oriented toward men like true north from the first stirrings, so never any question about redirection, no above-the-neck work. It was like, we can solve this conundrum by switching either end of the vector, except that there was this asymmetry (isn’t there always one): while the object end was a simple binary, my end had a trick door because I could don either gender and still stay me underneath. Does that make sense? Anyhow, this cookie never envied parenting, so we passed on womb implant. Just the basics.”

Koshal’s bemused gaze slips to the tabletop.

Kiki shakes her head. “Luckily the hands didn’t require work—proleptic, the surgeon called them. Feet a different story but there too I counted myself lucky. Headed my way, reductions were far less hassle then. Still are, I hear.”

“Ever consider reversion? Last month I caught a segment about gender future, a pundit mouthing how in a decade home changing rooms will obviate hospital visits.”

“I don’t see retracing my own steps any time soon. Oh, for the endgame I might scuttle gratification and go out where I came in, for old time’s sake. I took the surgeon’s advice about storing the external plumbing in case stem cell didn’t fly. In the odd dream I’m a laddie still, though invariably distaff in erotic ones. In many though I no more have definite gender than definite attire. I’ll bet you weren’t processing your item, balcony chair in any gender-specific fashion.”

“Let’s think.” Behind shaded lenses his eyes lose focus, as does his whole face, having shed a sociable mask, breathing slow and shallow, hands splayed, fingertip pads, thumb edges and palm heels forgotten on the cedar. Kiki, elbow on the table, leans to cup her eyes in a freckled hand as from tact, or to offer heart with a posture of ratiocination. Koshal says, “It’s true, I suppose. And I can’t even say whether I was in uniform. Snow had fallen out across the isthmus. A city burned and smoked in the distance. I could make out a huddle of five or six adults and a child, refugees advancing midway through the fog. In the perspective the flames and smoke of their city floated above them like a group hallucination. No sound—the snow, and the dream deafness. I had forgotten it.” Recovering, he cracks knuckles. “Where were we?”

Kiki nods. “Everything’s anecdotal. It’s an anecdote we need after all, a name and a childhood anecdote, and we get what we want sooner or later, don’t we?” Winks at him, jiggles the rucksack, her bag of tricks the mind shrinks from.

“Time’s on our side. But how’s about us grab lunch at the mess after?” See where that leads. He’s probably curious and still young enough to tally notches, and she’s been around the block a few times.

“Great. What’s featuring?”

“Wagtail sloppies? Hang on.” He nudges the stem of his wrist pod.

“Don’t bother. I like surprises. What are you scheduled for in the PM, same old same old?”

“R and R. You?”

“Ditto if you can believe it. I was thinking of grabbing a nap, but I don’t know.”

Mild breeze up from the water stirs catkins that soon will hang motionless again in the granular light. This or that sage must advise restraint or bondage when you run out of alternatives.

“Check, Kiki. Bring me up to speed here now. Are we after a particular anecdote?”

“Check, a child’s pain, bright then throbbing.”

Behind the ridge something big, a tank, grinds into motion across what sounds like a graveyard of compacted blog detritus, rumbling along the limit of earshot. Kiki and Koshal, a job to do, not remotely curious about the value of the info in question or why it should be withheld. Does this picnic table regularly host these procedures, or might a whim have brought Kiki with her enjoyment of surprise out here from the keep just for this morning? As for conspiracy, surely any most glancing and absent contact could qualify. Wit’s end.

“Did you mention, Kiki, where you swan off to next, leaving this poor duckling learning ropes without you?”

“Silly goose, you’ll be fine and dandy. I applied for a subcontinent metropolis. Tiger cages, maybe learn belly dancing for once in my life. Babar.”

“The elephant-god? You have a thing with him?”

“Elephants more—matriarchy, memories. Ever watch one?”

“Couldn’t pay me. It’s football, slapstick, porn, true life adventure, tavern poker, disaster when I watch. But say, how long did you pull rookie placement?”

“Moot. That was a different point in time. You keep your nose clean and you’ll shuttle through before you know it. I already feel some primo rec shaping up in my report.” His eyes light up. She continues, “If everybody plays cards right, right?”

He nods.

She chuckles. “You won’t believe this, but we could even cross paths later. Accounts miscompartmentalize, ephemeral links slip through the sieve. Information itself devolves.”

“You’ve hooked up with operatives?”

Kiki shakes her head. “I say yes, I have to ice you.”

“Okay, but listen: remind me what character was. The game room has a rack of manuals that have been gathering dust years. I slotted one to see if the protocols still worked. Sure enough, sort of.”


“I couldn’t figure was it malfunction or filtering. This hyper-authoritarian twit in camo was huffing through his Power Point on subliminal interrogation, twilight sleep inquisition and so forth.”


“When I ejected, he was handing down something like, don’t discount characters. Did they carry over from text culture?”

“We could check webs. To be perfectly frank though I seem to recall some graybeard referring to a subject’s MO as character. Let me run a search with my clearance.”

“Take no risks. Just idle curiosity, like. You bring aprons?”


What they require in this post-informative realm could hardly be any set of white-hot facts. Extension of control rather. The co-conspirator (and incidentally how does such a one differ from a mere conspirator?) might have co-conspired to set this noon’s mess menu, for all these two care, and they would barely register the shame or pathos of an anecdote of a four- or five-year-old, white rumpled shorts and tee, striped lemon and orange socks, white leather hand-me-down buckled sandals, between the clean window and dusty forsythia, midsummer, warmer and more innocent despite equal mayhem, our current background whine not yet risen, legs like sticks. Not at the farthest reaches of the last age’s most rarefied conspiracy theory might one pin down a calculus adequate to cranking out the name of a single accomplice. Complicity floats free in the eye of the inquisitor. Kiki with her awkward Adam’s apple and saurian Koshal themselves could qualify, if only by virtue of this matutinal outing, the tray of pliers and drill bits that may never before have seen the light of day. Kiki unhasps the pebbly vacuum-formed carrying case beside her on the bench.

“I was wondering, Kiki, was interro your top choice? Or am I overstepping here?”

“What’s riding on it?”

When Koshal shrugs, under the impassive cotton his thin shoulders slide toward his neck, a young raptor folding wings. “Whatever you say, within reason. Off the record in any case.”

“Hmm.” A cicada sings in a near pine.

“Also, whatever you claim, you’re scot-free. No verification procedure.”

“Fair enough. Okay, truth without reprisals, and we decide my reward after lunch. Ordnance supply headed my list—as a lad I was one of those busybody collectors—then entertainment, interro third, then high altitude beamsmanship as I recall. Secretly I was pleased when number three fell out. How’s about yourself?”

“Choice had been discontinued. Buddies commiserated but I thought hey, a job’s a job, and there are worse ones. No problem so far. With some subjects I really get into it.”

“Present subject?”

“We’ll see, won’t we.”

Kiki reseats her cap, combs fingers through her locks, shaking them as if to free herself of a thought. “You’ll likely develop preferences, or discover them, like discovering sex. And they can change. In the beginning I favored stud muffins for access to their bodies, but something was missing. Even when we went the electric route, I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Eventually I started passing off those assignments.”

“Leaving a bit of a trail, no? Nobody volunteered you for counseling?”

“That’s all a myth, Koshal. Any job, you can induce somebody to do it.”

Up through the underbrush troop jocular surfers bonded in their globe of entitlement, pukka necklaces, splayed toes, past the entrance to this clearing without a glance. Past and gone, the gray sea air already muffling their laughter as it must muffle entreaties and cries.

Koshal converses. “You prefer broads?”

“No gender preference tracks overall in this stage of my life, although I do have the passing yen or reluctance. Never tried children, too specialized. In fact lately I seem to lean toward oldsters, and other damaged and infirm folks. Maybe they make me feel I have a leg up.”

“Ever have a subject expire?”

“They wish. No, not with the technology and meds.”

Bemused, a child watches an auburn wasp try to walk up glass from the wood window-frame. It takes a step or two with each of its six legs, wings whirring. Its tiny feet, if that’s what they are, find some purchase, but only enough for it to climb two body lengths before slipping back to the frame. A chair has feet, mountains do, why not wasps?

The question why the wasp should have determined to climb the pane instead of flying to its destination barely stirs in the child’s mind. No more does the question enter the wasp’s mind, such as it is.

The wasp would have better traction had the pane not recently been washed with vinegar water and wiped clean with flannel by Mommy, claiming archaic newspapers had served better. The child watches the Sisyphean labor, no evidence of fatigue setting in although surely before dark the single-minded insect must give up the ghost and leave its perfect body on the blistering sill, legs in the air, like the relic of a darker cousin the child has found on a different windowsill weeks ago.

The thought dawns to give the wasp a boost. Never stung, the child still knows of the danger of these creatures, and yet surely it could not take amiss the pad of a forefinger eased up between hind legs like a moving wasp chair making its presence known ever so gently before it begins a lift. But the wasp misconstrues, or stings before thinking, and abandons its climb to make itself scarce through the forsythia as if hiding from its error. Unprecedented pain flashes in the amazed child’s finger pad and throbs down the finger now clutched in the other hand as though it might otherwise drop off, as the shrieking and weeping victim tears through shrubbery, up steps and indoors for what anesthesia a parent can offer, what explanation.

The moral? Must anecdotes have them? Must episodes, stories, events, people? Do morals have morals? When is a moral not moral? Do chickens have lips? Does a reader read? Did past hobbies elicit greater loyalty? Are morals lessons to be taken to heart? Do knowledges behave like allergens?

Out her bag of tricks Kiki slides disposable transparent vinyl folded hospital gowns, and hands Koshal his. They themselves may not be quite sure what they seek. They may be fishing—but that way madness lies, that among many. Kiki doffs her baseball cap, plumps dandelion mane into a scrotal snood, tells Koshal to summon the refuse crew with his wrist stem. Up through the pines a whiff of suntan oil and roasting peanuts, and the chirps and wheezes of the demented calliope.

Kiki lifts out of its case a compact lightweight chainsaw, and tells Koshal to steady subject’s head. Koshal complies, no hint of reluctance. His light grip feels strong enough to scissor the cranium like an egg-topper. Kiki rests a fingertip on “On.” At last she looks this way, gimlet-eyed, prepared to administer a thousand wounds so expertly that each is more dreaded, hurts more, as long as necessary and as slow.

“Think again. Say, Koshal, if you don’t mind digging into a lady’s purse, root around in my bag of tricks there for the gag. Blue hard rubber ball, yes, pop it in—we can retrieve it and rinse it off. Funny isn’t it, how since text we read in, out, whatever it takes. Minds? Legible as faces, all there in black and white when you know how to look.

“Usually you’ll terminate with less fuss but it’s good to know how to make the odd example. Plus a retro turn can clear memory pipes, reprise or even conjure up gobbets of cultural lore. Here we may feel jihad reach out to the Terror, they link arms with Borneo and more, much more. A scrim of speculation about lingering consciousness—blink if you read, quick. Also, just between the two of us, this procedure tests your mettle, but not to worry. I’ve been around the block and you’ll sail through, five’ll getcha ten.

“This won’t take long. No need for the thousand wounds when we have our little anecdote of the ungrateful insect. Nor need I top this egg. I’m about to release the whole sucker from its stem, with my freckled fingers. As for pain, there’s a bit of tradeoff. Natural anesthesia kicks in along with paralysis even before push comes to crunch. Ready steady there, Koshal. Incidentally, ‘co-conspirator’ isn’t redundant. There the prefix betokens ‘other,’ and don’t worry your pretty, we have that one nailed too. So, here goes.”