Ned's Dream

by David Hardin

Ned started the day differently than most, because every night Ned starred in extremely vivid dreams. In these dreams he always did very regrettable things. Whether they were criminal, or embarrassing, or just the kind of despicable that makes you uncomfortable being inside your own head varied from night to night.

While other people were flying or drowning in preserved peaches or perusing beanbags at Wal-mart Ned was robbing old women at gunpoint or making generous but ill-advised donations of both his testicles to science.

They were the kind of dreams that feel like memory for at least a few seconds every morning. So while other people were rolling over into slippers to find their coffee, Ned was stock still, breathless, waiting for sirens, or grabbing his crotch in curious horror.

Then this ritual shock would turn into the kind of relief that most people don\\'t ever experience, but Ned woke up to every single day. It gave him an optimistic view on life. Not some bow-tied cheeriness, the insufferable kind. Just the understanding that things weren't as bad as they could be.

Traffic, scalding coffee in his lap, taxes, were all blotted out by this low-key euphoria that lasted all day.

He would cement it with a few ounces of very economical bourbon, and start his day on the kind of major notes that blend themselves into a pleasant day-long melody.

Ned was a janitor. He didn\\'t like being a janitor because he didn\\'t give a damn how the floors looked at the Kent Manufacturing Corporate Offices looked. He liked it because it was a night shift. After all the suits had scurried away the place was his. Actual work only filled up one or two of the eight he he had to spend there to make a respectable timecard.

Ned was good at doing nothing. Not good at nothing, or for nothing, just at home with long stretches of time with no external stimuli.

The boardroom at night had very relaxing lighting, dozens of very comfortable chairs, and a view over the city. Every night Ned was chairman, feet propped up, mop dry, sipping his flask.

It suited him nicely. Somebody was giving him money to listen to the air conditioner shudder on and off, and he never brought his work home with him. His only work-related worry was figuring out how much brandy he could drink from the decanters in the boardroom without causing alarm.

EVerything about Gerald Babra was foreign to Ned. Probably the only thing they had in common was the hours they kept at Kent Manufacturing. This confused Ned, because Gerald was a suit. Suits left at five or six. Even the overachievers had cleared out by seven. But lately Gerald Babra persisted well into Ned's shift, clacking away in his cubicle and making carpeted treks to the water cooler.

It didn't bother Ned; few things did. Let the man type his reports and plod around in the back of Ned's mind with the air conditioner noise. Gerald Babra's work ethic didn't matter to Ned, but the intrusions in his routine did. He supposed that an imaginary sense of authority came standard with the worsted wool uniform of the business executive, but Babra's new interest in Ned's job was a problem.

Gerald wanted the trash emptied. He wanted the mirrors cleaned. Ned would be sitting in his leather executive throne, trying to remember what single malt meant and Gerald would appear in the doorway.

\"Hey, man. The big jug thing on the cooler is empty. Would you mind grabbing another one?\"

\"What's up, buddy? Think you could grab a broom and do something about the cake crumbs in the break room?\"

He always phrased these interruptions in Ned's routine like they were buddies doing favors for each other.

They were just favors, really. Ned was pretty sure that Gerald wasn\\'t his boss. He was pretty sure he didn\\'t have one. The entire Kent custodial department consisted of Ned and his janitor cart. Along with his sponge they\\'d given him carte blanche to polish and scrub as he saw fit.

The chain of command was a definite gray area, but Gerald had the suit and Ned had the mop, so Ned would shrug and go to it. That afternoon he\\'d killed three cops, and was actually being sentenced before he woke up. Sweeping didn\\'t seem like a big deal compared to the three consecutive nights he spent in prison last labor day weekend.

Before long Ned couldn\\'t even look forward to leather chairs and whisky. The busywork kept him occupied long after Gerald Babra had gone home. This particular suit had a quality the others didn\\'t. A sharp edge somewhere, something in his grin that made Ned comply.

And so no more naps, and after the scotch started tasting like pine sol he couldn't cart it around anymore. Ned had a job.

\"Hey, Ned. I just dropped the hole-punch, and those circle dealies are all over the floor.\"

Then he slapped him on the shoulder.

\\\"Now swallow, bitch.\"

Twice that week he dreamed about chasing after squirrels at a bird feeder. On his day off he and his great-grandmother, who he'd never met, planted a tree with a pale Malcolm X.

At work he couldn\\'t move two fingers on his right hand. He'd punched the horn when some guy in a Miata cut him off. When he left the place was sparkling, right down to the light fixtures in the CEO's office.

\"They look a little dusty, you know?\" the suckup had said. He was always running Ned into Michael Greene's office, polishing mahogany, straightening pictures. The bastard had to be getting credit for it somehow. Between that, the overtime, and this mysterious project that he\\'d shouldered all himself, he was an aftershave-soaked comet straight to the top.

If that was ambition, then Ned figured he\\'d always be a janitor.

On his birthday he saw that Miata in parked outside the dollar theater. He recognized the \\\"PrtyKty\\\" vanity plate, and keyed something unflattering on the hood. The woman who was gaping at him shut her mouth when he flipped her off.

He rarely remembered his dreams anymore. The last one had been about kittens.

\\\"Think you could grab the trashcans in Greene\\'s office?\\\"

Ned was watching his reflection beat the hell out of Gerald's reflection in the floor. Yeah, that's right. Gerald had brought in his own wax for Ned to use.

On his way home he had to go a different gas station for Pall Malls. He'd thrown the last pack he'd tried to buy at the attendant\\'s head when his card was rejected. He hardly felt guilty, though. Ned hadn't slept in two days.

And then one day Gerald was gone. Ned went all the way back to the corner office. His desk was empty, of him and the trophy wife pictures and the golph clubs. The \"Gerald Babra\" was off the door.

Ned mopped for a few minutes out of habit, but mostly he just got plastered.

He slept great when he got home, and dreamed about cops knocking on his door with a warrant. It was an old standby, and this one seemed real. One of those lucid dreams, where he could go and do and react like he was awake. He usually went out the window in a police-at-the-door dream, but he decided to let them in.

They cuffed him. It bruised his wrists. Since when could you feel pain in a dream? They were reading him the charges and his rights. Apparently he'd stolen a lot of money from Greene's safe. Ned was confused. He didn't know how to open a safe. He could smell the grease on the cop's gun. Why was this dream lasting so long?

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