A waiter proffered a silver platter. At least it looked silvery. A variety of delicacies, most of which resembled a kind of psychedelic sushi, lay tantalizingly before me. I picked one that looked like a tiny tie-dyed donut, with the hole being filled with good old reliable spicy tuna, and dipping it in the soya, popped it onto a waiting tongue. The wine in my left had moved up for a sip. Everything seemed to be operating by remote control, my so-called self included. Even the sardonic attitude came free with some earlier purchase.
The room was filled with milling people. The cocktail party glide was in full force. Then I noticed the costumes. Very elaborate and varied. A guy that could’ve passed for Thomas Jefferson chatted amiably with a Beethoven look-alike. Two extras from a Jane Austen movie sported bonnets and baskets of wild flowers and looked about nervously. I approached them with a smile. Gay banter poured from my mouth like warm honey. I’d always liked a woman who would do me the honor of laughing at my jokes, but these gals would chuckle delightedly on cue. I wished I was a Mormon so I could marry them both. We were joined by a fatherly type just off the tennis court, clothes whiter then white. I watched respectfully, enthralled by their gleam. Edward Ryall was his name, and he shook my hand with, well, what can I say, old fashioned vigour. I gave my correct name in response, which rather neatly resolved an earlier dilemma: who the hell was I this time? A leather clad biker type that looked strangely like Driver shared a joke with a devoutly robed guru-type that could’ve been Eric’s double.
Edward formally introduced me to his nieces Swallow and Amazon. In the spirit of the moment I kissed their hands. I felt as if I should be asking them to dance, but as no orchestra prevailed upon our politesse, I bowed my head and asked to be excused. Their sparkling eyes were momentarily dimmed with disappointment. I scuttled over to the Eric look alike. He turned and smiled.
Well my friend, enjoying the party?
A sly grin that should’ve had a wink to go with it pulled me into its game. I uttered a compliance that assumed a friendly conspiracy. I didn’t know who we were duping, but figured I could dine out on it for weeks. Eric’s white linen suit alone would generate considerable interest. Eric seemed to pick up on my thought and assured me that my own maroon silk pajamas would surely be the coffee club’s talking point. I hesitated to look down just in case he was right. But the cool glide on my forearm felt familiar.
My attention was drawn over talking heads to a stage. Some sort of rock band seemed to be setting up. A bearded man with an electric guitar swinging at his waist saunter over towards some speaker cabinets. A high pitched squeal of feedback shot about the room. People turned to the stage, but there was a nonchalance to their expectancy that felt exquisitely timed. I wondered for just a moment if I’d wandered into a movie set. I twirled quickly, but alas, no lighting rigs or camera set-ups appeared to reassure me. Waiters were still circulating with little glowing goodies when my ears were assaulted by the opening chords from Beethoven’s Fifth. The guitarist was beaming and slashing at the strings in something that I’d like to call demented glee. I knew the piece like the back of my hand, but I’d never heard it played like this. The parts had been reduced to a skeletal necessity. A drummer and bass player appeared as if from nowhere and joined in seamlessly. Their combined efforts were outrageously exhilarating. Some sort of fancy light show was happening above their heads in mid-air. I guessed rear projection, but I was wrong.
I felt as if I was going to float up off the ground. I hadn’t felt like that since college. Back then it had been mushrooms that had made the offer to my disbelieving brain, but now it was the delirious logic of dream that deafened my skeptical resistance. I did, in fact, leave the ground some inches behind. As public actions go, it left me feeling relatively anonymous, although Eric did look up at me and wink, probably the wink I’d been waiting for earlier. The delayed wink effect, I suppose you’d call it if you felt so inclined. Eric did later, when I was unravelling the dream into its component threads. He claimed not to recall a single detail of what I’m about to tell, and by way of an excuse or an explanation, assured me we were all quite capable of independent action on other planes, and forgetting the whole shooting match later.
Vigorous disbelief from yours truly brought a reassuring hand on mine and a promise that it all would make much more sense later. I didn’t believe that either, but I still had this vivid scenario to scope out and settle somehow.
Back at the costume party/cocktail hour/musical soiree, I was still ecstatically floating to the pounding waves of electric Beethoven. A perfectly executed rampage that ended as suddenly as it had begun and left the room vibrating with all that familiar power and majesty. Well, familiar to me anyway. The musicians nodded to the rapturous applause and seemed to fade from sight. All I know is I turned to talk to the Eric look alike and they were gone.
I chatted amiably with whomever wandered too close to my elbow and accepted some more multi-hued delicacies from the bow tied waiter types, all of whom looked as though they could slip out back and return in seconds as, well, just about anybody. The whole place gave off this air of, I don’t know, impermanence, as though everyone had just donned a costume at the door.
Next up was a classical quartet. I say classical only because the instruments strongly resembled what I remembered as an oboe, a clarinet, a viola and a cello. The players were young, not more than twenty any of them, and shy. Eyes fixed firmly on their feet. Recent conservatory graduates perhaps. They played a medley of Beatles tunes, in arrangements that seemed to weave the original melodies into complex textures of layered sound so that only serious fans would recognize them. I hasten to point out that I would never have fit into that particular category but for the years of sublime torture practiced on me by my dear not-anywhere-near departed mother Amy, whose devotion to the fab four was equaled only by a determination to share that devotion with her only worthwhile son.
The overall effect was delightfully hypnotizing, and the room reached sleepily through its languorous dream for applause. The Eric look alike touched my elbow and lead me through the crowd to the garden, where benches appeared between bushes, beckoning to our approaching bottoms. Entranced by the costumed glide of the guests, I was much too happy to speak, but my companion cornered me with questions that I just could not ignore. The thing that really caught me was his neither of us will recall this tomorrow. When I queried his seeming certainty, he insisted that down there we’re filled with doubt and distraction.
And perhaps I would’ve forgotten the lot, had my bladder not conveniently beeped, bringing the costumed reveler back pronto to the bedsheets, bathroom and notepad in quick succession. It was 3:44am when I finished with the words on the page. But the customary amazement could not keep me awake, and I slithered under like a snake escaping the hot sun.
The predawn chorus called me back a couple of hours later. Mismatched images of mountains looming over deserts and classrooms cluttered with bicycles and wheelbarrows slowly receded as I mumbled through the motions.
I moved through the morning hoping that a meticulous attention to detail would keep the lid on my bubbling equilibrium, and it more or less did, but for this nagging sense that any deviation from the norm would cause me to honk like a goose and waddle out the room. Having no appointments until four, I found myself at Eric’s for an extended session on the couch of his greater understanding, to which I now fully submitted my insolent and ironic self. Well, it beat going to a psychiatrist.
I couldn’t tell if he was pleased to see me, or was just chuffed that his expectations had been fulfilled, but the smile that accompanied the cappucino told me I was more than welcome to stretch my legs on his couch. He shook his head and sighed as I reviewed the details of the dream. This had happened before, he said, with not one but several members of his Monday night class. Elaborate astral scenarios unfolding like plays in which he had a principal part. Yes, yes, they could be projections of worshiping devotees, they could be wish-fulfilment scenarios of people who really needed to get some kind of life, they could even be high functioning delusionals desperate for attention, but frankly he doubted it. We had a life there, we just had trouble recalling it.
Oh, I see.
Did I ?
No, not really, but I was willing to play along if it assured me some peer support when I was forcibly ejected from the dollar devouring consensus reality and rejigged with pills and therapeutic programs.
Well, I was not to fret about that; just be careful who I spilled the beans to. Would I have to join his cult and hold hands and chant?
No, there’d be none of that. Group meditations and past-life regressions was about as far as they went. Everyone’s idiosyncrasies were tolerated, sometimes even respected.
I laughed. Eric smiled and declared himself relieved: I was starting to look a bit serious there.
So he definitely didn’t remember this musical garden party we’d attended?
No, but he could recall bits and pieces of others in what sounded like the same location. And the music was always wildly inventive, sometimes in ways he couldn’t even describe to himself. No, I was not to doubt the roots of the experience.
Did he wish me to remain steadfast in my faith then? I said with a smirk you can no doubt see.
No, he wished me to retain a grasp on critical thinking but not to smother the issue with smug skepticism.
Keep the mind open to any possibility?
I queried the possibility that he was to be my guide and interpreter. That, he thought, looked highly likely, especially in the light of today’s revelations. I puzzled at this paradox of ignorance and composure. Eric told me I’d get used to it, and might even adopt it myself. In this line of work a posture was useful; a reminder that you were just an actor prancing about, spouting lines in different scenes and devising ways of tricking the director into exposing himself.
It all sounded very crafty but I wasn’t sure I was any farther ahead. Eric said drily that I might as well give that one up right now. For every question answered three more would pop up immediately.
Two steps forward and one step back?
And at least one sideways and another into the next dimension.
Would he care to give any examples?
Well my dream of the breastfeeding woman would do. So say it was a parallel incarnation as he thought it was. If there was one spiritual cousin like her why not others? Some texts called them soul extensions and claimed there could be as many as twelve. Was I ready for that?
I pulled a face which expressed my disinclination to adopt any opinion that might have to be defended later.
These same texts often referred to the source of these parallel incarnations as a higher self or monad, which was, apparently, some bright spark of divinity, ditched by the deity while just passing through, and left, like millions of others, to fend for itself in the solar system of its choice.
And how bright, exactly, was this heretical spark? Well, opinions differed because it retained the ability to shapeshift according to the perceiver’s expectations. But if a general consensus could be said to have been reached, it would have included the words omniscient, omnipresent and just about doubled over with compassion.
Could that get us burned at the stake, I wondered.
In certain times and places, Eric grinned, but not Canada in the new millennium.
Just mauled with mockery by an uncaring media?
Depends, if they think you’re reading Shirley MacLaine, yes, if they think you’re practising vipannasa meditation at some upscale ashram with someone who could pass for a Tibetan refugee, then probably not.
And why, oh master, might that be?
The old Protestant ethic at work, my son. Sweat, struggle and sacrifice garners respect. But sudden leaps of joy, particularly of the fashionable variety, are somehow suspect. Grinning’s only for those who properly suffered.
But for those of us who’d seen through the veil, if only for a moment, a cosmic giggle was definitely due. I think I was supposed to know what a cosmic giggle actually was. I suspected it was something more than an after-lunch chuckle at some auditor’s report, but did not push the point. All would be revealed in due course no doubt.
And what exactly were we doing at that reception/garden party anyway?
Having fun? Oh, I see. Nothing more significant? What could be more significant than fun? Well, he had me there.
A look at my watch left me no option: appointments beckoned. Eric stood to follow my departure. A gentleman at the door, he said I really ought to come back that night and hear about his retrievals. I could maybe be there by nine or so. Great, and could I bring some take-out Thai with me? Anything would do. Why of course, anything for enlightenment.
That’s my boy.
Work, of course, took on a slightly surreal cast. I lumbered through the motions like an old pro, providing information and advice on cue, all the while seeing myself as an actor impatient for the end of a much too successful run. The prospectives were Muslims, back when that didn’t mean too much other than ordained respect for multiculturalism.
The men moved seriously about the place and muttered to each other in what was likely the native tongue, but having mistaken an Iranian for an Iraqi just the week before, I felt happier not hazarding a guess. The ladies looked over the hotel sized kitchen with glee, one going so far as to gasp and clap her hands. But their bright eyes soon looked solemn; the big sliding glass doors looked out onto the leafy dark. Were there bears in the woods, they wanted to know.
I stood outside with the guys while the ladies appeared to use the facilities. Cigarettes were smoked and prices mooted. I tried to be diplomatic in my brief: the sellers were Columbians and seemed quite anxious to stick to their guns, ha-ha, but, of course, I would ask. We parted on handshakes and smiles. They piled into their big Mercedes and I pondered the possibility of a quick call to the Columbians. Carlos was there on the first ring; amazing. Usually several barking intermediaries were required. And suddenly the price was very negotiable. They must be Saudis he said. I wasn’t sure I said. He parped a new price and bade me call him in the morning. I assured him I would. The Muslims were still driving when I shocked them with the new low figure. Another, even lower, number was quoted. I noted it in my pad and said I’d call them in the morning.
Welcome to the new Mississauga. Used to be all you had to contend with was little white Oakville wannabes posturing about their ancient Port Credit connections and snotty Lorne Parkians palpitating over the presence of nouveau riche Catholics to contend with. I’d found that discreet Anglican diplomacy with a touch of yachting hauteurs used to work a charm, but not any more. The white guys now were often Hell’s Angels’ front men, their accountants or investment counsellors. The young guys who scammed out of high tech before the crash usually couldn’t even be bothered buying and looked like they’d be happy in some strip mall warehouse space as long as it had bitchin’ sound system and enough dusty concrete to throw up a pyramid of pizza boxes while they devised ever more intricate ways of screwing Microsoft or the Pentagon out of a few more million. Although to be fair, I did unload a lovely piece of square footage looking out high over the Credit ravine north of Burnamthorpe to a smart young lad, his pregnant sister and her drug dealer boyfriend, who kept deeking into any of the many bathrooms on offer to smirk into his cell. Neil kept talking investment for a rainy day as we looked out over the brilliant fall colours, and turning to smile at Amanda, her right forefinger forever hooking her oily hair behind her ear as her left more or less sat on her immense looking nine pounder still pleasuring himself inside the amniotic sac.
The Thai place was hopping and I had to wait a while for my order. I sat on one of the chairs carefully provided for the temporary detainees and watched as several human dramas unfolded. I was just starting to take sides in the latest when my little bags arrived. In a few moments I stood at Eric’s door, packages I hand, while he loosened my tie. I thanked him profusely. Always been a buddy that Eric. Still, with a life like mine, a little humour could never go far wrong.
Why couldn’t I be something normal, like a gambler or boozer, or maybe molester of young boys? Why did I have to shoot off into space every time I succumed to sleep? It just wasn’t fair. Eric, of course, wouldn’t hear of this. I was privileged, he said, tossing me a fork and opening a brew. Couldn’t I see I was one of the chosen? It sounded terminally new-age. Chosen for what? To experience multi-dimensional realities and report back to the rest of the crew. Might that crew include mental health professionals and employment counsellors, I wondered. Because if it did, I wasn’t willing to file my report. Eric grinned as he chewed. They used to hang people for having this much fun, dude.
He burped and answered his beeping cell. It was Clea from the group and she wanted to talk to me. Well I never. Psychic I guess. Yeah, she had a hunch I’d be there. And she’d also had a vision that I was a messenger and would need some support, support she felt obliged to give. I’d been called she said. Her husky tone was the result of a chill and I was not to misinterpret. Well certainly, I lied, looking backwards in time to her snakey exit from my mobile office a few nights back. There’d been something about her receding smile that’d made me want to salivate. I thanked her for her concern and said I get in touch when I figured out what I needed. She reminded me of her number and suggested that I listen very carefully to what Eric had to say, that he was much more than just an old friend. Then she apologized for being so pushy and fluttered a goodbye.
Eric smiled when I told him. Yes she was psychic and really meant well. I was not to worry; she wouldn’t gobble me up. I’m supposed to be relieved, right? So, retrievals, fill me in.
Basically it was helping dead folk move on.
And they couldn’t do that for themselves?
Some could, a lot couldn’t.
The reason being?
Confusion , reluctance, anger, fear. Stuff like that.
I imagined guys in raincoats with the collars up, smoking and looking distracted. Like some angst filled European movie from the sixties. Eric laughed and said maybe, but the types he’d met were much more regular day to day fellas.
Like that hockey dad from hell who was currently guesting on the front pages? Or that gal who torched her condo trying to kill the kids she’d lost custody of? He laughed again, refining his indulgence into a chuckle, no doubt for my benefit.
Rick the bouncer was mentioned. Did I recall the case? Knifed a few weeks back for bouncing the wrong guy. Or so it seemed. The cops were still separating the folk who hadn’t seen nuthin’ from the patrons who got squirted with blood in the scuffle and who were demanding 24 hour protection for their testimonies. Well, Eric went out looking for him, just after the funeral was mentioned in the papers, and found him no problem. Hanging around angry, angry at his assailants, training daily to take ‘em on and beat ‘em. Fighting mad basically.
Didn’t see he was dead then? Was that it?
Well, yes and no. Knew he’d been stabbed but didn’t get it as he felt much more alive then ever, could see himself as he was, as he knew himself, and knew, just knew, that next time he wouldn’t waste his opportunity, he’d waste them. But of course he couldn’t. He’d already been in the holding cells with his tormentors and couldn’t do a thing. One of them was a bit psychic, and kept swatting at him like a fly.
And how did Eric know all this? By chatting with him apparently. That and empathizing, which often gave you pictures from the person’s mind, memories and such. And it all happened quickly, whizzing by on fast forward. Just what happened exactly, I wanted to know.
Eric looked a little cheesed with me, like I was a kid that kept saying why. He projected his consciousness into the dead person’s psychic atmosphere and interacted with them, interacted in a way that could best be described as telepathic. Did he see things like people, buildings and landscapes? People yes, buildings sometimes and landscapes often, but a bit fuzzy and in the background. Some of the others in his group, though, could tell you the kind of buttons on people’s shirts. Eric was better at picking up subconscious thoughts. They’d just appear in his mind as he was chatting with them, trying to get them to move on. Things like bits and pieces of their childhood, their long held resentments, love for a pet dog.
And what was this moving on stuff? Just getting them interested in the afterlife proper rather than hanging around their old haunts on earth. With Rick he’d just asked if he’d like to take a quick look around. He’d been amenable, but a bit leery of holding hands. Macho, you know. But if you didn’t hang on to them somehow they’d never make it. You had to drag ‘em along with you.
And did they like it when you got them there? Usually, but not always. Some stayed cynics, and refused to believe the evidence of their eyes. They preferred to think it all a dream, and in a way they were right, but not in the way they thought. It was a dream, but a consensus reality dream, just like the ones here on earth. Societies only function because everyone believes the rules. Whether they obey them or not is another matter, but everyone believes in them.
I’d heard Eric rant this way before, and felt it wiser to not engage him on this woolly thinking for now, but to let him blather on and pick out the diamonds from the dross myself. Well, I was to see that the astral planes were all consensus reality dreams, places where the group mind programmed the group think. I just had to say something about the collective unconscious. Even I knew no new age chat was complete without at least one Carl Jung reference. Yes, yes, Eric muttered, the group mind is the collective unconscious.
With Rick he’d just asked that a black man come out to meet them, and sure enough, a grandfatherly sort appeared and took the young buck off his hands. And where were they when this occurred? In a spot the cognoscenti called The Park. Is this where they always go? No, but it is very handy in its cross cultural appeal. But there are many reception centres on the astrals immediate to the physical, each one concocted to console particular tastes. Several were just like resort hotels on the Muskoka lakes. You’d come in for as landing and people would be playing beach volleyball and tennis.
Come in for a landing?
Yes. It was quite possible to just appear, client in hand, out of the blue. But Eric loved the splashy approach, slanting down from the sky, the zoom or the drift, depending on your mood of the moment, though he had to admit, it was only once in a while that necks would crane in surprise. Did I perhaps recall the young mother who jumped in front of the subway holding her baby a few months back?
I didn’t, but when he mentioned the name the lurid headlines boomeranged back. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the boomerang. Eric had been in the midst of his fascination with newspaper cases. When he’d started out he’d just placed himself in the hands of guides, usually unseen apparently, and let them do the choosing, the rationale being that the guides already had a waiting list of the lost, angry and confused that needed that special kind of boost that only a physical could give. But after a few months of following orders, Eric, like most trainees, got a few ideas of his own.
The bouncer Rick had been one of the first, and then this subway jumper gal. He’d either found or been taken, the process was so fast as to be almost instant and thus very hard to figure, the poor demented creature running up and down in a dark gloomy place shouting I’ve killed my baby! I’ve killed my baby! When he asked her why, and it seemed as good a tack as any, she said So he wouldn’t have to die. Nonplussed, he tried to calm her down; she slithered through his hug down to his feet, sobbing and begging for mercy. He immediately raised her up and tried to shake some sense into her. The whole thing made him terribly uncomfortable but he wasn’t sure what else to do.
He told her she wasn’t evil, but was suffering from an organic condition brought on by giving birth, and hanging around all those depressed people at work didn’t help any. Then she seemed to relax a bit, saying that there must be an afterlife after all cause here I am and here you are and I deserve to die type thing, still not making much sense, but suddenly very keen as soon as he mentions the afterlife. Keenest he’s ever seen, actually. Usually they’re reluctant at the very least. Will she see her baby, she now wants to know, all bright eyed. Eric gives her maybes and reassurances, puts his arms around her for the shift, and he can tell she loves being hugged, likely the family’s not the hugging sort, you can always tell these things, bits of their emotional and psychological make up peel off like old dry paint. In a thought they’re at this Park again, and Eric’s friends Brian and Cathy meet them. He introduces her, Hi guys this is Susan just arrived from Toronto, and as they’re all old hands at this game, it rolls smoothly, with Susan talking immediately to little Eric, Brian and Cathy’s adopted child. You can’t actually have children in heaven, but you can adopt them. There’s plenty of dead children just like there’s plenty of dead everything else. Up there it’s just a way of life, says Eric with a grin.
I grin and chuckle myself, snug in our little conspiracy of psyche. That’s Eric’s phrase, but he said I could use it. Eric says he’s not sure which is the original conspiracy: that of those who can see into the other worlds and spend their days in death-defying wonder, or that of those who deny the knowledge to themselves and others and spend their nights rationalizing doubt. My brand new guru thinks it’s funny how it’s always those in the rigor mortis of rationality that call us new-age nitwits. I think I’ll have to be a new-age nitwit for a bit longer before I fully grok the gravity of that.
But there’s no denying I’m fascinated with all his retrieval stories. He’s been at it a couple of years at least, and has a fund of yarns to warm up any winter night. Next I get the murder-suicide marriages. He took an interest a while back, and you know they’re all different. There was one guy up by the lake who just wanted to show them a thing or two. Them was his wife and daughters, who didn’t seem to give a shit no matter what he did. He just offed himself and left them to clean up the mess. Almost too self-satisfied to even feel unworthy of heaven. Then there was the East European guy in Guelph who whacked the lot: wife, baby and the kids, all to protect them from some ravaging world at the doorstep. Full tilt paranoia maybe, but he still had the presence of mind to ask if there were any of his race in the afterlife, because he just wouldn’t feel comfortable with any others. This with them all standing feet from their bloodied corpses. The family didn’t seem to know what else to do, so they just huddled around their lord and master. Eric whisked them all away and handed them over to another reception committee.
Around eleven we reached the famous names: apparently it was best to go just after the memorial service. Before that they’d just be hooked by the mass of mourning emotions. Literally hooked: couldn’t get away. In the other world, thoughts and emotions ruled. Trudeau was his first. Why not start at the top, I said, don’t be bashful. Well yeah, that was his take on it too. And he met up with the former prime minister as easily as anyone else.
It was a world of thought he reminded me: think of something or someone and you were there. Only your doubt would hold you back. And you know, he was just as you might expect him, urbane, witty, charming. Every bit the zen master diplomat. Though the son’s death in that skiing accident had certainly cracked his reserve. Another bit of groking apparently. Eric just felt it ooze out of him like breath or body odour. And couldn’t it be just part of his expectations? Hell, we all knew. Yes, it could have, but there was a subtle difference in the perceptions that he couldn’t quite put his finger on but was nevertheless there. In that situation you just feel things from people. Also he felt a thought like this: wouldn’t it be fun telling Margaret about this.
And if that wasn’t enough he’d run the same thing by Mordecai Richler a few months later, and it had worked just as smoothly. After a bit of cordial chit-chat and some comments on Eric’s good Scottish name and good Scots generally, Eric was trying to explain the different levels to him when Trudeau showed up at his shoulder, ready to take over. Eric did his bit about two great Canadians and what a pleasure it was to be of service and then somersaults backwards and disappears. Loves his exits, does our Eric.
I ask a few more trying-not-to-be-skeptical questions and am duly informed of my insufficient grasp of the matters at hand. Eric’s been imperious since high school and I’ve long since learned to loosen my tie and lean into it. As I drive home I ponder the full meaning of adrift. Anchorless, rudderless, sails torn and tattered, calm sea stretching to the horizon on all sides; nothing to do but stretch out in the sun and wait for a storm to take me. But take me where? Another bloody dream I’ll bet.
There were two messages blinking away. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. My mother said she missed me and wanted to know why I hadn’t called. In the background I could hear the clink of glasses and my father calling Don’t listen to her she’s pissed and people laughing. My wife wanted me to come and pick her up at the Milton jail. She said she was serious and that it was then eleven-fifteen. I looked at my knock-off rolex: it was twelve-o-three. Shit, I guessed I’d have to go and miss that bloody dream after all.
Chapter five coming in a week!
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