Dancing With Lightning: Chapter 1

Dancing With Lightning: Chapter 1
Photo by Pablo Clemente on Unsplash

After a lifetime of transience with his now estranged migrant worker parents, Dave Copersmith wants nothing more in his adult independence than to settle down with a permanent job, home, and his own family in Denver. But owing to the severe handicap of a childhood brush with lightning that has scrambled his nerves, severed his ability to dream, and initiated a dangerous habit of sleepwalking, his ambitions remain elusive. Waking up in Mexico City from his longest sleepwalk ever, stealing dance lessons with a telescope, and pretending experience with diapers don’t help his cause. When the final indignity of losing his apartment to the new landlord’s aged mother threatens, he promptly infiltrates her senior living center with an alias and an unformed agenda to keep her at bay.

With a subconscious boost from movies as dream substitutes, the combined impact of these spirited misadventures forces him to accept the relationships he’s worked hardest to avoid and possibly provides the keys to realizing his long-tendered desires.

Gaming, singing, dancing, instrumental music, and unnecessary journeys are the five most abhorred vices.

-From The Laws of Manu

India, 200-400 B.C.

Chapter One
Unnecessary Journey #352

Banged up but still breathing, the exhausted vagabond kept his eyes jammed shut. Whatever twisted coordinates his loose feet had landed him on this time, he wasn’t ready to face. The excuse for a mattress he lay on had corrugated his back muscles into a wreck of knots. The air in the room was musty and unseasonably warm. He could feel the claustrophobic lean of all four walls without looking. As usual, well shy of paradise.

He’d skipped town again on the nod. Three winks short of a real night’s sleep, his subconscious had gone inside out, unraveled like a fat rip in a parachute. In short order, his spiking delta waves had stood him upright, and he’d surfaced somewhere beyond the city limits, tripping blind as a newborn. Nobody punted a sleepwalk like Dave Copersmith.

He licked his upper lip and then pinched at his nose. Sure enough, the telltale residue of dried blood where it had run just before takeoff. His mouth wore the tang of metal, and his throat had gone stone dry. His tight breathing made him guess that new altitude was clamping his lungs. Or he’d just blacked out for longer than usual.

He pushed his aching body up to a sitting position on the unfamiliar bed. He would play detective after taking on water. A peek at the floor of the dim cement cubicle revealed a pair of blue flip-flops about the right size parked next to his mound of clothes. He slipped them on and made his way, tightly blinking, down a long, skylighted hallway toward the echoing water of sinks and toilets. The walls were painted chest high in a duck’s-foot orange, and a putty beige finished them up to the ceiling. Simple, but vaguely exotic.

Clutching his trusty compass, Dave was certain of only one useful fact—he was shuffling east from some tiny fleabag room—but he was still grateful on two counts. He hadn’t killed himself in the course of his latest noctambulation. No harps, anyway. No barbecued extremities. And lingering in his memory to savor for the rest of the day was a hazy trace of crayon-scribble visions from the trip. Something with wings, frozen midair. A swarm of yellow beams like thick night traffic. A puff of green smoke clouding a face.

When he finally reached the high-ceilinged lavatory, he tried lifting an eyelid, but the late morning light was bouncing off every surface of the shiny room at once, zinging from the chrome fixtures to the high gloss of the azure wall tiles and prying at the firm squint that guarded his heavy head. He found a sink and shoved his face under cold running water. He was back. Not lucid enough to say where, exactly, but all in good time. First, he would take a look around in more reasonable light, ask a few questions to orient himself, plot his location accurately. Considering it was still early, he was pretty sure he could hook it back to Denver in time for his Sunday evening shift at the theater.

A young man brushing his teeth two basins away cheerily mumbled good morning with a German accent. The voice returned another amp of consciousness to Dave’s beleaguered brain. His first clue. He peeked once again at the ceramic environment, then at the teenage German to his right smiling away in striped boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. A foreigner in a communal bathroom. Behind them, the hiss and drip of the showers. Back down the hall, the meager box he’d woken up in.

He was ready to guess that the new adventure had spun him a few miles outside Denver. Maybe one of the resort towns to the west, like Indian Springs or, god forbid, as far as Glenwood, though his muscles hardly felt like they’d been dipped in the therapy of hot mineral water.

The friendly tourist tried again in Spanish: “Buenos días, señor.”

Dave took his time. His dark hair and complexion had mistakenly tagged him as Chicano before. And foreign ethnicities. Italian he got a lot. Basque once in a restaurant in northern Nevada. He blinked in reverse at the mirror and glimpsed a spectral version of himself. The hieroglyphic wrinkles from the bedsheets had added ten years to his cheeks. He could be anybody he wanted. Whoever he had to be. “Yes. . .good morning,” he answered in froggy-throated English, aiming for Egyptian by thieving a little of Omar Sharif’s clipped delivery. “How are you?”

“Better maybe than yourself, if you don’t mind,” the kid responded in English, smiling broadly. “Just kidding around. It looks like last night was a good time for you.”

The familiar futility of clear morning thought careened through Dave’s belfry. He could only suspect what had passed the night before, the masked potential vibrating uselessly in his dulled imagination. He knew he’d gone well beyond the block on a sleepwalk. The severe muscle aches confirmed a longer than normal excursion. He regained enough sense to pretend he was in control. “Every day is a good day when you’re on vacation, don’t you think? How about yourself?” he added with a groggy nod, his vision still half cloaked.

“Certainly. I love Mexico City. Do you come here a lot?”

Dave forced one eye as far open as he could against the thick sunlight. Had the kid said Mexico City, as in Mexico the country? “Hnh?”

 Udo Kirchhof tried again for a simple exchange as he began drying his hands. “Do you come to Mexico much? Oh,” he said, catching himself, “did you think I mean El Gallo Socratico?”

“El Gallo what?”

“The hostel we are in. Do you come here or to Mexico much?”

Dave ignored him and went straight to the window to see out. Sure as smoking hell, there he was 20 degrees latitude and 1,700 incredible miles south of home with an expansive second-story view of the great, bustling Mexican capital spread out before him. Unlike the late autumn landscape he’d just left in Denver, the city was full of leaves and flowers. Black and brown birds with shapes he didn’t recognize coursed lazily between trees in the temperate morning air. Narrow stucco apartment buildings in bright pink, yellow, and aquamarine decorated the dusty gray streets. He opened the window, and in rushed the rapped-up whine of a dozen Volkswagen Beetle engines in green taxis. Directly below, he could see the workweek scurry of pedestrians dodging each other’s beelines on crowded sidewalks narrowed further by tarped vendors’ tables full of steaming food, batteries, clothing, and used books.

Dave Copersmith closed his eyes again and counted to one. No mistake. The ruins of Tenochtitlán lay everywhere underfoot. He’d really cocked the slingshot this time. His tendons ached behind the knees. Even for someone who lost his mind on a regular basis while the body took over, it was overwhelming to discover himself at such a distance. Never had his subconscious rambling taken him farther than a couple hours’ drive from home, and now here he was like a message in a bottle at the southern end of North America. He turned to ask the German what day it was, but the kid had given up on a conversation and left.

Dave closed himself in a toilet stall and sat down to hang his head in private misery. With a sudden dead and rotting certainty, he knew that one more job was past tense. The part-time gig at the Mayan Theatre was no sweat, but this latest disappearing act would most definitely end his tenuous baggage handling career at United. To his sleepwalker’s ticker tape of lates and absents, he’d have to add inadvertent foreign vacation. The timing would also mean another late rent payment and the end of his current landlord’s charity. Mexico would be one very heavy balloon.

From abashedly deep experience, he could see the fallout radiating to every corner of his frayed existence. The last domino to topple would be his girlfriend, Meredith. He would most certainly be fresh out of a love life when he finally crossed the Colorado border again, but he knew he had to make the call.

Behind the hostel’s desk, a clerk with wet-combed hair was bobbing his head to a portable cassette deck that blasted a Mexican cover band doing John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me.” When he noticed Dave, he turned it down. “Sorry. I get tired from practicing English with the lesson tapes.”

“That’s okay.”

“Yeah, Italian is a lot easier, but I like the music more instead. You had a good sleep, yes?”

Dave cracked his neck and rolled his still-tight shoulders. The shorter the answer, the faster they could get to his next order of business. “Yeah.”

With the clerk’s help, he made the call to Meredith but didn’t get any further than an answering machine message composed expressly for him, and apparently, recorded only a few hours after the very last time his sleepwalking would stand her up. He was curtly informed that a box of his excommunicated belongings would be waiting on his doorstep when he got back. He tried to picture its contents. Toothbrush, razor, shaving cream. Extra running shoes and shorts. The black-and-white strip of their recent machine booth photos together would surely be coming off the refrigerator, along with the love note postcards he periodically sent her, though these were all more likely to be the ashes covering everything else in the box.

Another potential fiancée, another casualty of his frequent flying. Keeping girlfriends in the maelstrom of his crazed life was like lighting candles in a hurricane. Truth was, he and Meredith had been skating the thin stuff for a while, and he’d simply let hope obscure the details one more time. It had become his fate’s refrain, spinning by like an old home movie that repeated the same scenes of heavily rehearsed ineptitude: the encouraging comfort of a stable address, a solid relationship within reach, before. . .poof—domestic ambition snuffed again.

Among survivors of lightning strikes, a few victims bear physical injuries that are obvious enough to earn an automatic measure of sympathy. Nobody argues with a lost limb or partial paralysis, motor and speech problems, the blown eardrum. But the maddening variety of invisible scars carried by most of the walking wounded, including Dave Copersmith, practically ensures the transience of careers and relationships. Hypertension, irritability, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome. Panic, insomnia, restlessness, fatigue. To one degree or another, Dave suffered them all. And owing to acutely reduced activity in his sympathetic nervous system, his personal laundry list of symptoms extended even further. Diminished taste and smell, memory blanks, migraines, dreamlessness and, the centerpiece of his mangled neurology, sleepwalking.

The last condition was chronic and peculiar enough to break a lot of camels’ backs. Outside of family, people tended to see his spontaneous vanishing acts as a serious liability and of dubious pathological origin. Professional help was hardly shouting from billboards. Medically speaking, he was still very much flying solo.

Back in his room, Dave sat on the lumpy, rocks-and-marshmallows surface of the bed, still stunned that he could’ve outdone himself in such grand proportion. He shook loose the needle of his pocket compass till it tottered in the direction of the upper pole. The bed was laid east-west. He looked north toward home. Way north.

At this point, routine dictated that he try cranking up his memory, in spite of the formidable post-flight amnesia, to determine where else he could possibly have been, what might have happened. He was not the few blocks removed from home that described his childhood trips. He hadn’t gone the couple of miles that began to mark the sleepwalks of adolescence and adulthood. Far cry, Ulysses. The homemade neighborhood maps of his youth would have been useless. A Colorado road map would be another state and half a country off. He needed an atlas to find himself this time. At least it hadn’t landed him in a foreign jail. Not unless he was just a few steps ahead of la policía. He considered leaving the hotel in disguise just in case.

First, he lay back on the bed and covered his eyes with his arm, trying to rewind the events of the previous night. He sucked hard on a square of peppermint Chiclet gum and bore down with the effort to recapture a sliver of his most recent hours. Even if the marathon sleepwalker couldn’t count on his mind to retrace the initial steps with real certainty, it was easy enough to guess, as a soon-to-be-former-airline-employee, that he’d started out at Stapleton International waiting for employee standby room on a United flight to Mexico. He pictured himself near a gate reading a paper. Leaning into the lounge chair, bored by time like any other passenger. There went the harried travelers in topcoats rushing down the concourse with their wheeled luggage. So far, so good. A counterfeit souvenir was always better than no placebo at all.

His brief reverie was interrupted by a scene out of the movie My Life as a Dog, which had been screening for the previous several weeks at the Mayan. With the assistance of a playful adult, the kids in the film had rigged up a kind of spaceship suspended on a cable high above the street, looking to Dave like a crude prototype of a Tilt-A-Whirl car at Lakeside Amusement Park. Gravity gave them rides from the top of a barn to a tree on the other side, but soon the ride became stuck in the middle of its flight path. The kids had to be rescued by ladder.

Dave shook off the static of the film’s images and aimed at his personal journey again. He heaped his mind’s eye with more of the standard elements of commercial flying. The details in familiar ship shape. Now boarding rows. . . . Ticket check. Turning the blind corner in the loading dock tunnel. Greetings from the flight crew and settling into a seat. The tiny stir stick with the coffee.

Though he’d never made the trip while awake, Dave had heard that, on approach, you could watch the softened amber lights of Mexico City’s streets glowing beneath the canopy of smog for what seemed like half an hour of gliding over the embers of a massive wildfire before you finally landed. As if the famed omens that had visited the last Aztec leader, Moctezuma—tongues of fire, lightning bolts, and the great comet—had swept through the city, burning it to the ground before Cortés’s return. The Conquest derailed at its inception and kept at bay for another four centuries.

Dave listened to his busy imagination for the sound of jet wheels squealing onto the runway at impact. It came on cue. But just as quickly, he was plunged into a pure and palpable dark that lined his brain like a collapsed cave. He’d never been to the Mexico City airport before, never heard it described, so he had nothing visual to draw from. With no frame of reference, the memory factory came to a grinding halt.

So, what then had followed between there and the hotel? Where else had he gone, and what had he been up to for so many hours in a foreign city he’d never visited before?

His back and arms were intensely sore. The fact that his palms were lined with cuts finally met his attention. Such wounds healed with miraculous speed on many lightning victims, including himself, but their origin had him good and spooked. Once he acknowledged them, they began to sting. Without thinking, he spit into his hands and rubbed them together lightly until the saliva touched all the open cuts. Then he blew cooling air across both hands. Tree shadows under streetlights beckoned the corners of his reminiscence, followed by flashes of bright, solid color that shot by his mind’s eye in quick succession, obliterating his true surroundings. First, a brilliantly polished gold curtained his eyeballs, then a heavy cobalt blue that seemed to draw his whole body up against its impenetrable surface. Invisible night rain soaking a forest of black trees. A smear of blood streaking a wall.

His curiosity wound up, Dave gritted his teeth and held his breath, his battered recall flailing at the impossible again. Once in a rare while, these handfuls of chaotic images blinked in and out of view like spiteful fireflies, teasing his thirst. But never for long.  The predictable well of nothingness rose around him. No more impressions, no insights. Nada. Only the menacing fear of the unknown that wrenched tighter into the back of his skull as he struggled for a sense of the missing hours.

Thoroughly spent, he gave up.  Straining for real illumination was useless. Dave Copersmith hadn’t seen clearly into his nights since the ozone-laced afternoon in eastern Washington when his childhood had been cleaved neatly into two unequal parts. His own bout with lightning had not been the intangible portent that visited Moctezuma’s dreams. The jagged, flaming blade from the heavens had reared back and slung itself to Earth with all the furious and real energy of the sun. And where it found him, his nightly connection to the stars was impaled and left behind for good, gutted and fried like dinner for an angry god.

About the Author

Ran Diego Russell

Ran Diego Russell’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in the journals Witness, Spillway, Tar River Poetry, Oyez Review, The RavensPerch, and many others. His itinerant childhood rambled throughout the deserts and foothills of the Rocky Mountain region. Prior to his teaching career, he worked as a ranch hand, construction laborer, fruit picker, and truck driver. During his non-writing free time, it’s all about jazz bass, carpentry, and serving the Border collies’ energy.