"Tell us another one, Petey!"
Petey looked up at the raging stars overhead and took a deep breath. "In the future, this whole valley will be covered with houses, some costing millions of dollars."
"How much is a million dollars, Petey?"
"That's one thousand $1000 bills," replied Petey, amongst whistles of disbelief. "The houses won't be like the little cabins we have now. They'll have 10 or 12 rooms, and maybe just one or two people will live there. Not only that, but they'll be heated in the winter, without coal or wood, and air conditioned in the summer. Air conditioning is when cold air blows out of a vent in the floor, so even if you'd be sweating bullets outside, you can come inside and become chilly enough to put on a jacket."
Laughter erupted. "Tell us about the carriages again." Pete told his cohorts about the roads and the cars that would fill them, so many cars that they'd jam up and be unable to move forward in traffic. He told them about gasoline and how much it costs and how it was extracted.
It was like this a lot of nights. Sometimes there would be more interesting things to talk about, especially if one of them was courting a woman, but there just wasn't a lot going on in the high plains. After a day of cattle ranching, the hands would gather round the outdoor fire, eat their supper, and talk. Invariably, Petey would be requested to tell his tales. Petey was sure no one believed him when he talked about cities and cars and all that the technological future would bring, but at least it was entertaining.
It was pitch black in the windowless bunkhouse when sleepytime approached. Petey watched the bits of light from his eyeballs dance around for a bit, and just a moment later, he was waking up, refreshed as though he'd been asleep all night. He stretched out in his luxurious king-sized bed. His wife slept only on satin sheets, and he thanked her peculiarities every morning. He switched off his alarm and hopped into the shower, as hot as hot could get. He pulled on his suit, grabbed his coffee and a nutrition bar, and hopped into his car for the long morning commute. He switched on the radio to hear the pundits endlessly arguing the benefits of one narrow viewpoint over another.
Peter had been doing this his whole life--switching from one life to another in his dreams. He wasn't sure if he was a 21st century man dreaming of life in the old times, or a 19th century man dreaming of himself in the future. Both lives seemed equally real to him. He hadn't told anyone about it, except Jimmy Malone in the 4th grade, who promptly beat him up. It sounded crazy, so whatever. He just lived his life. He knew he was sane no matter how crazy it seemed.
Peter was a senior analyst for a successful company, with a window office near the top of the building, and two secretaries. He was well respected and well liked, pretty unusual for a business executive, but it wasn't in his nature to be cut-throat. He rose to the top (or near it) because he was a really darn good analyst. At the end of his work day, he made the long commute home and arrived just in time for dinner. Lorraine, their cook, always made delicious meals. He sat down at the table with his wife and two lovely children and caught up on their day. His wife was an avid tennis player and flower gardener. His kids were growing up, now ages 8 and 11. The oldest wanted to be a fashion designer and the youngest a fireman.
He put his kids to bed each night with a story. His wife was suprised he wanted to take on bedtime, but really, it was about the only time he ever saw them. And he loved his kids. "Tell us about the stars, papa!" He told them about the Milky Way, so bright it seemed you could reach up and take a drink. He told them about the plains so quiet you could hear the wind rustling the grass. "What did the water taste like?" His youngest always seemed to ask this question, as he was sensitive to tastes. "The water tasted like nothing, and it was clean and cold and quenched your thirst, no matter how long it had been since you last drank."
The kids were kissed and tucked and the lights turned off. Peter switched on his alarm clock and cuddled up with his wife on their satin sheets. Soon enough he drifted off and woke up to the sound of Cookie, beating on a pan. "Up with you lazyhead layabouts! Time for grub! Get a move on!" And so began the morning on the cattle ranch, physically hard and demanding work, but work he enjoyed no less than analyzing.
In fact, with all the amenities and physical comforts of modern life, he really couldn't say he enjoyed it more. There was something about working his body, about experiencing cold and heat, about being actually hungry when he sat down to a meal, about drinking cold water from a spring, about seeing countless stars at night--he felt a freedom in this daily life that he didn't get sitting behind a desk or a windshield. Peter wondered if ever someone had tasted beef freshly butchered if they'd ever eat modern factory meat again. He wondered if anyone saw the stars in all their glory if they would not smash every street light they could. He wondered if people used their bodies to meet their daily needs if they would ever submit to sitting behind a desk. If not for his kids, and yes, hot showers, he preferred his old time life. It made him feel alive.
And still, it didn't get boring. When he was younger, his life was not so purposeful. Often, he was having a wild and crazy time in one life while he was buried in routine in the other. But now he had a routine in both lives, and he was okay with it. He knew at some point, he'd get bored and would have to switch things up, but for now, he got a lot out of the experience of both lives. He felt he was living quite fully in the moment, and that awareness made him feel alive.
The big cottonwood was by far the largest tree around. Trees didn't really get very big here, even when they got old and even when they were creekside, but this one must have tapped an underground reservoir of water. It was huge. Petey sat down under it and rested, a rare treat for a cattle man on the plains. He stared up into its canopy where the blue sky didn't peek through. It felt so very alive to him.
Petey imagined himself hugging the tree like he hugged his wife, with an appreciation that he was alive at this moment. He felt the tree hugging back. He felt energy flowing through him, down through the ground, back up through his body, up through the canopy and to the stars above, and back through his body again. Pete didn't consider himself a hoogey moogey kind of person, but he had made a commitment to himself long ago to be honest about what he experienced and felt, and he could deny these feelings of connection no more than he could deny his double life.
It was coming back from a lunch meeting that Peter noticed the cottonwood. He crossed the heavy street traffic and stared at it in amazement. He had worked two blocks from this park for the last 20 years, but had never walked through it. As he got closer, he realized it was indeed the same tree, ever so much older, but definitely the same tree. He said hello and imagined himself hugging the tree. He was sure he looked crazy, but yes, in his designer suit he looked up into the canopy of the tree and cried as it hugged him back. Never before had there been a connection between his two lives. He began taking his lunches out of the office and sitting under the tree. It wasn't as easy to visit the tree as a cattle man, but he did as often as he could. He felt that, for some reason, this tree and this time were important. This connection had been made, and he rested on this thought to see what might come of it.
It was after taking his kids out to see the stars and being able to count them--yes, there were 23 visible stars in the city sky that night--that Peter got thoroughly fed up with civilization. He felt if people understood what they were giving up to be physically comfortable, for the short-term, that they would choose differently. It wasn't just not being able to see the immensity of the stars. People were trashing the living biosphere that supported humanity! And yet, he drove to work each day, analyzing what decisions needed to be made in order to keep his business successful, i.e., making shit tons of money. He drove his car just like the rest of them. And he knew better.
Peter sat down under the tree and thought some more. What could he do? He was just one person. "Dream," his mind answered. Or the tree answered. Or the universe answered. And yet, dreaming was something he never did. As soon as he fell asleep, he woke up in a different reality. Of course, he had entertained the possibility that he was always dreaming, just going from one dream life to another. But things were too orderly and predictable, too concrete in either life to be a dream. He was never able to fly, no matter how hard he tried. Dream? How could he do that?
Petey imagined himself embracing several other trees, all the biggest ones he could find on the plains. He tried to figure out their placement on the physical landscape so that he could find them in his modern life. It was difficult when one landscape was filled with natural landmarks like trees, streams, and such, and the other was a grid of streets with concrete and glass monuments.
One tree, another cottonwood, caught his eye in particular. It wasn't nearly as old or as big as the other, but it was--how could he define it? It was special for some reaon. It appealed to him; he resonated with it, and when Petey became Peter, he took off one weekend to try to find it. It was ridiculous trying to match the physical landscape in that part of the city, as there were no parks, and no trees had been alive for more than a couple of decades. He walked around and around, and still couldn't figure it out. If only he could manage to bring his gps to his old time life!
Finally, he stopped and stood still. Instead of looking with his eyes, he tried feeling with his body. He walked on the concrete, intensely aware of the ground buzzing beneath his feet. He stopped in front of a bank. This was the place. He looked up at the towering edifice in disgust. He preferred the tree over this monument of planetary destruction. He closed his eyes and felt. Yes, even with all the time that had passed, he could still feel the tree. Peter imagined hugging the tree and felt it hugging back; he felt it intensely, as much as he did in his old time life.
When Peter opened his eyes, he could barely believe what he saw. The bank was gone and there, yes there in front of him, stood the tree. He could swear it was smiling. It was much older and bigger, and the lot whereupon had formerly stood the bank was now a park. He sat on a bench under the tree. This felt right. This felt like it had always been here, even though he was positive a few moments prior a bank had dominated the scenery.
Peter had made it a cornerstone in his life to always have a foot firmly planted in reality when crazy things happened to him. In his life, he had to do this, or he would have given himself to insanity long ago. Had there really been a bank there? Yes, he remembered it and the disgust it evoked in him. Was there really a park now? Yes, he was sitting in it. Did he somehow change reality? It would seem so, wouldn't it? Was he dreaming? He had no idea how to answer that question of himself.
Tune in tomorrow to read the rousing conclusion!