(NOTE: This “short story” was inspired by a dream I recently had. I usually stick with nonfiction, but the dream was so vivid that I had a crazy urge to be creative. Constructive criticism is welcomed!)
The orange glow on the table next to me shows 4:21 a.m. Another night of twisting and turning.
What a weird dream. What was it all about? Thick, liquid, yellow gobs of paint on a shifting canvas.
Can I reconstruct my dream painting?
I’m standing on the side of a country road, out in the middle of what looks like a field of golden yarrow. A vehicle slowly pulls up alongside me. Not so much a car, though. It’s more like an old wooden stagecoach contraption. Maybe I’m in the Old West.
The door swings open. The events play out like a scene from “The Twilight Zone.” I expect to hear “Come inside, Mr. Kurtz, we have something for you.” I push aside a creaky wooden door and step inside.
Smells like cedar. Who’s the guy sitting there with the beat-up guitar? A wizened little gnome, he looks a bit like Willie Nelson. There’s a pretty song humming in my head. It’s a song that I’ve always liked, but I don’t know the title.
“That’s always been one of my favorite songs of yours,” I blurt out.
I recall the subject matter: a torrid love affair, like something from an old, tangled, Scottish folk ballad. It concerns an intense relationship between a man and a woman. The end of the affair really messes up the man, and nearly kills him… or maybe does kill him, I can’t remember.
My impression – in the dream – was that the song was also a metaphor about living a full life. A life that has lots of experiences.
“Yeah,” the Willie Nelson-type guy responds with a crooked grin. “If that song doesn’t strike a chord, then you got a lifetime of empty floor plank under you.”
Empty floor plank.
He talks as if he hadn’t written the song, but that the song had only channeled through him. That he was just the song’s messenger.
Then I wake up. What startles me awake is his comment about the empty plank. I have a hollow feeling, like a vacuum has sucked out my guts. A feeling that, maybe, my own life so far has been nothing but an empty floor plank. I rub my eyes, then tell myself I have a full life, and a family that loves me. But the hollow feeling lingers.
Then I remember the melody of the song. It’s a tune called “The Old Laughing Lady” by singer-songwriter Neil Young. It’s a sleeper song off Young’s first sleeper solo album from way back in 1968.
The song melody starts with the sound of low, rolling thunder, then segues into a slow, jerky arrangement, a jingling keyboard, and a minor string accompaniment. There’s some acoustic guitar, but the guitar is more of an afterthought, as if Young is just toying with the strings. One middle section has a chorus of female moans that rise to a small crescendo, relax a little, then rise to a second crescendo, then abruptly halt.
It’s a strange musical arrangement. Perfect accompaniment to an equally strange dream.
The words of the song are intangible. As far as I know Young’s never elaborated on the song’s meaning, so maybe even he doesn’t know. I’ve always interpreted the song as being about obsession, or self-destruction, or even the grim reaper himself.
One of the verses goes like this:
Don’t call pretty Peggy, she can’t hear you no more
Don’t leave no message ’round her back door
They say the old laughing lady been here before
She don’t keep time, she don’t count score
Yellow lyrics for a yellow song.
At the end of the song, Young sings of “a rumbling in the bedroom and a flashing of light… There’s the old laughing lady, everything is alright.”
One last time, I sweep the bed sheets aside. Then I sit upright with my head dangling, and rub my eyes.
I start my daily routine. But the “old laughing lady” and the old stagecoach stay with me all day.
What else can I do but write it down?
(Painting at top “Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky” by Vincent Van Gogh, located in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Image in Public Domain)
(Cover painting of album “Neil Young” by Roland Diehl)