by Joseph Keckler

My dreams are big budget affairs now: elaborate sets and costumes, huge casts, special effects, endless locations. They are vivid and artless, with choreographed violence. In the custom of dreams, there are no plots, but there is always the feeling of a plot.  In one life, I’ve been locked in my apartment for months, yet in the other, I’m off having every familiar adventure, incarnated in various genres.

Earlier this week, I found myself in the penthouse of a shabby New Orleans hotel. I was wearing fur and a gambler hat with a feather, waiting for my mother. When she eventually arrived, the woman at the front desk urged her to stay as long as you like. The woman gave this line a hushed emphasis, as though she hoped not only to be in a movie, but also to be foreshadowing some grim fate that would later befall my mother and me. Another night about twenty-five “bad guys” with assault rifles took my friend into the classroom of an abandoned high school. Oh no, were they going to kill her? “Don’t worry about that,” assured another friend, “the writers wouldn’t have written it that way—it’s against the rules to eliminate a main character at this point in the story.”  You see, the people in my dreams have begun to act like they’re acting. They can step out of the story at any time and so can I. No matter what startling twists and turns or high stakes scenarios unfold around me, I know it’s all a show and I never wake up terror-stricken with a racing heart. On the other hand, I’m perplexed: my unconscious has become self-conscious, like a performer overdoing it, egged on by the cheers of the crowd. An air of mystery has dissipated.

I had a sci-fi dream with Buddhist overtones, about life being artificial, a simulation probably. A voice kept telling me if I stopped participating in the illusion then it would disappear. “Or, if you keep staring in one place that no one would ever stare,” it explained, “you will see the scaffolding.” I kept waking up for a few seconds and fixing my suspicious eyes on the laundry bin, hazily trying to obey the voice’s instructions. But the skeleton of reality did not reveal itself.

One night I dodged machine gun fire in the Emerald City. One night a brother and sister I know were in skin-tight body suits and red lipstick, gazing through electric white eyes, pressed shoulder to shoulder like horror movie twins as they slithered backwards up a sand dune. (Hi.) One night the world was underwater and one night a god came down and told us that handwashing and wearing masks were the rituals we must perform as part of a new religion.

There was a dream that was not cinematic, but it took place at the movies. I’d stepped into the lobby of my hometown theater, where tickets are still three dollars. But in an instant, I started worrying about the contagious virus, since the place was crowded and everyone was zigzagging around, advancing in clusters, just as they normally would. So I turned around to go back home, and as I did I noticed a traveling exhibition was being installed here in the lobby. 

Someone on a ladder was stringing a netted canopy from the ceiling. Others were building enclosures and small labyrinths. Ghoulish effigies and automated Halloween figures had been positioned in dark corners, presumably to startle visitors later, catch them unawares.  And on the walls was a patriotic motif: red, white, and blue stripes and stars, chalky and agitated like a Leon Golub painting. Golden eagles had been stamped throughout. The eagles were perched and watching and looked like hieroglyphics, locked into a rigid geometry. A podium stood in the center of the room and a nearby sign advertised a string of upcoming events by a famous prophet-like orator.

I understood now that this was the new center of life: not the movies, but the popcorn-littered antechamber and the elaborate yet ramshackle assemblage it would now host. Yes, it was time for a reckoning in the lobby. Because the lobby was suddenly everything: a carnival, a revival tent, and a trading floor of beliefs, fears, and ideals. America as a haunted house—I could come back, it was opening soon.

Joseph Keckler is a singer, musician, writer, and artist. He performs widely and has appeared at Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, SXSW, Miami Art Basel, and Centre Pompidou. Keckler is the author of Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World: Portraits and Revelations (Turtle Point Press, 2018).