I just woke up from one of the most startling and prophetic dreams I’ve ever had. It was punishing in both content and length, having long, hyper-realistic and unnerving stretches where nothing much happened, similar to those found in a Michelangelo Antonioni film. I can’t help feel that there’s something profound to be learned from it, possibly answering the question “Is there a God?”
The dream begins with my going to see the new Muppet movie, presumably the one Jason Segel is writing. Since this film, titled The Muppets, is slated for release on November 23, 2011, this dream most certainly takes place in, and in fact may be a warning from, the near future. In my dream, the only theater that is playing this film is located at Cherryvale Mall (which in reality no longer has movie theaters) located just outside Rockford in Cherry Valley, Illinois.
When I was growing up, Cherryvale Mall was (and still is, I suppose) the premier mall in the Greater Rockford Region. When I was in college, a friend of mine from some weird small town that the people who live there probably have never heard of confessed that its inhabitants routinely drove an hour and a half just to go to Cherryvale. Both Cherryvale and, to a lesser extent, Colonial Village Mall were exclusively for the folks who lived on the east side (of the Rock River); the side of town which, if you were of a certain mindset (as I was), seemed to be exclusively inhabited by rich people. North Towne Mall and Machesney Park Mall were the people’s malls; malls for the working-class stiffs who lived on the west side, rummaged the bakery for day-old bread and watched network television because they couldn’t afford cable.
We always went to Machesney as my dad refused to go to Cherryvale. Though the malls had a nearly identical roster of stores, my father claimed that at Cherryvale they “jacked up the prices,” a belief he maintains to this day.
There was an element of distrust ascribed to Cherryvale by the working-class folk, like its sole reason for being was to pull one over on you. But there seemed to be a mutual respect inherent in shopping at Machesney: Thank you, JCPenny, for this affordable acid-washed denim jacket.
These days Machesney and North Towne are in pretty rough shape, as is the majority of the west side of town. And Colonial Village has been purchased by Heartland Community Church (aptly described by usachurches.org as a “mega church”), whose slogan is “A Different Way to Do Church,” which apparently means (a) in a converted mall where the pastors wear light-washed tapered jeans and loafers, (b) using those buzz-kill headset microphones that Sammy Hagar modeled on the “5150” tour (which, incidentally, Colin Quinn also wears in his latest HBO special, which is the sole reason I refuse to watch it), and (c) offering the particular brand of worship lenient enough to supplement “The Message” with embarrassing rap parodies or silly rock orchestrations possibly written in homage to Savatage mounted on the pulpit.
While Machesney and North Towne have had to settle for inhabitants like Great Clips, Big Lots!, and seemingly inaccurately—but disappointingly accurately—named restaurants like “21st Century Buffet” in a fashion similar to the way that your Aunt with crushingly low self-esteem had to settle for shacking up in a trailer park with your slob of an uncle—I know he’s not perfect, but my psoriasis and tooth decay don’t bother him—Cherryvale has thrived, and is the last mall standing.
And it appears space is at a premium there, because it is no longer sufficient to merely have stores; every inch of space must be taken up by kiosks and aqua-massage machines somewhat resembling a marriage between the Batmobile and William Hurt's sensory deprivation tank in Altered States. Here and there and everywhere, young hucksters with bluetooth headsets callously thrust hastily copied and jaggedly cut fliers at your person, advertising cell phones that seem not only shady but somehow dangerous, as if they are the methamphetamine equivalent of wireless technology, while some poor sap in a too-big, no-iron shirt and tie combination obviously sold together attempts to trip you up with an impossibly fast remote control hamster.
Call me old-fashioned, but unless it’s like a lemonade or something, I’m not buying anything from a kiosk. “Hey, I like your airbrushed shirt. Where’d you get it?” “I got it at the mall, in the area that used to be designated for people to walk. They set up like these little huts there, like the Ewok village. I also got these Family Guy pajama pants, a foot-long egg roll, a bottle of Vin Diesel cologne, a few body piercings, and this light-up dummy cell-phone that plays “E.T.” by Katy Perry and is filled with neon green kiwi-flavored edible paste.” They should identify this section of the mall on the directory as “Snake Oil.” It’s like you half-expect Jesus to show up (possibly in Crocs and brandishing a waffle cone) and angrily tear the place down in disgust—you know, like he does in Jesus Christ Superstar—and turn it into a Heartland or something. I wonder if optometrist Sanford Ziffthe, creator of Sunglass Hut, is celebrated and revered within this sect of the business community, as he is clearly its progenitor.
When I was younger, I rarely went to Cherryvale. In fact, I felt like a traitor when I was there, as if I was a budding socialist at Wal-Mart comparison-shopping for an army jacket. But I remember it well, and this dream version of Cherryvale was the version I knew in my youth; a little more spread out, containing a Walgreens and a movie theater.
I was with my brother; we purchased our tickets from the box office, removed our shoes (of course!) and entered into the theater. The inside of the theater was some sort of outdoor café on a hillside whose sole purpose seemed to be to prop up the huge mansion on stilts there. It was nighttime, and the fuzzy yellowish light emanating from the mansion's countless windows was barely adequate to guide us to a black steel patio furniture set where two gentlemen were seated, playing cards. Upon taking the only vacant seat I realized that my brother was gone, and that one of the guys playing cards was Dr. Dre.
Wow, it's Dr. Dre, I thought. I had to say something, as I was now seated at their table and it would be weird to just sit there in silence. “So,” I asked him, “what do you think about this Muppet movie?” He laughed, said, “Man, I don’t know,” and took a hit from a curious-looking blunt. Dr. Dre, you’re not so tough, I said to myself, before Dr. Dre took another hit from his blunt without passing it along. You're also stingy with your pot, I thought.
I looked at his blunt a little more carefully, and realized that—I assumed as a high-caliber take on rolling a joint in grape-flavored Swisher papers—he had rolled his blunt with actual grape leaves. That’s some Roman Empire-type shit right there, I told myself. “Yeah, well,” I said nervously, “they say this new Muppet movie is pretty good.” Dr. Dre laughed dismissively and said, “Man, I’m just here looking for beats.”
Hmm, I thought, a true professional, always on the lookout for beats, even while at a screening of the new Muppet movie!
At that, an air raid siren went off and searchlights haphazardly began spewing mammoth cones of unfocused white light in every known direction. Everybody started screaming in terror and running tentatively, then assuredly. I too ran, flailing my arms and feeling my heart threaten to rupture the veins in my neck, all the while screeching like Alfred Molina does in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he is assailed by the remains of Forrestal. We—by now an enormous mob of hunted game—splashed through a shallow body of water before settling into what appeared to be a church basement.
People were calmer now, some sitting on the floor, others in folding chairs. I could hear the unspooling of film reels and the flicker of a film projector, but couldn’t locate it or see any projection. Just as I was thinking this, we were besieged by a modestly sized but enormously frightening projection of the bust of a perhaps wooden character wearing, presumably, tails and a Victorian cravat, looking like a mix between Andy Serkis and Crispin Glover in Willard, with jet-black, slicked-back hair and black marble eyes. Almost instantly upon appearing, he gurgled, “Fellow Martian-mallows, blerg ... hack ... marack ... balak ... takk ... gock ... tilk ... brack,” while an all-too-real tongue slobbered around on his chin, and a greenish-tinged motor-oil-like substance oozed from his wooden mouth in amounts both disturbing and improbable.
Holy fucking shit, I thought. This is the new Muppet movie?
The projection stopped abruptly, the lights went on, and all of the church basement dwellers—unnervingly calm now—started collecting their belongings, gently, gently, and filing out the double doors leading to the Cherryvale Mall Theater lobby.
And that's when I realized, Hey—this isn’t the new Muppet movie! This is some sort of program designed to brainwash people—by using this strange form of organized religion— into never leaving the mall! But it didn’t work on me, for some reason.
Now I knew what I had to do: break the fuck out of Cherryvale Mall.
But it wasn’t as dramatic as all that. It was actually really, really boring. I wandered around the mall under an umbrella of the echoes of the people who hadn’t yet screened the new Muppet movie covering for the lack of noise coming from the mutes who had been brainwashed, forced to roam without purpose in service of an unknown type to an oil-spewing wooden puppet of some sort with a loose religious affiliation of unknown denomination.
As I walked around the mall, I noticed I was barefoot, but I wasn’t about to go back to the movie theater to get my shoes; there was some weird, shady shit going on there. I moved slowly, suspiciously around, trying to find a way out. But before I could locate an exit, I noticed a Coconuts—the now-defunct music store recently acquired by the soon-to-be-defunct FYE—and they were having a going-out-of-business sale!
So I spent a long time roaming around in there, looking at posters (I remember one was of Cinderella frontman Tom Keifer), and thinking, Who on earth is going to buy this shit for $7.99?
After deciding that the clearance prices at Coconuts were more expensive than the full prices charged by online retailers, I resumed looking for a way out. I located an exit, but it looked tricky to navigate, as it was a winding corridor leading to a loading dock and appeared to be guarded by the dude who fired the death star ray that blew up Alderaan in Star Wars.
Defeated, I wandered around for what seemed like hours, barefoot and window shopping, all the while aware of the slow-boil in my stomach waiting to either erupt in a full-on panic certain to cause my sudden death or dissipate and permeate from my pores when my current situation was resolved. I had to do something. Now was the time for action: I needed to retrieve my shoes.
So I journeyed back to the theater, arriving just in time to see a new batch of freshly converted zombies exiting the theater. I walked up to the guy who was hunched over the concession stand counter where he was working—I’m pretty sure he was a young Ernest Borgnine—and asked him if anybody had turned in any shoes to the lost and found. It was at this moment that I realized that (a) I had not only left the pair of shoes I was wearing behind, but also a brand new pair of shoes I had bought earlier from Sears, though I couldn’t remember what they looked like, and (b) there were no concessions for sale.
Without looking up from the crossword he was doing in the artlessly folded newspaper section he was holding, he mumbled “baahhh” and motioned over by the wall, where I saw a horrifying, mountainous graveyard of mismatched shoes. Are they killing people for their shoes, I wondered.
Of course, I realized. They’re killing people for their shoes!
"Thanks for your help," I warbled nervously to young Ernest Borgnine, who now looked up from his crossword with suspicion and picked up a phone from behind the counter. Why did I come back here, I asked myself. And what happened to my shoes?
Now there was no option: I had to accept the search for my missing shoes as a lost cause and make my escape through the exit I had seen before, knowing it was going to be the most difficult thing I had ever done. How would I get past the menacing guard?
I sprinted through the mall, whizzing by dozens of poor saps doomed to roam the confines of Cherryvale with no purpose (for all eternity?) before snaking my way through the dingy white corridor while fluorescent lights and cheap drop-ceiling tiles took turns soaring over my head until I reached the door to the loading dock and smashed it open. Still running, I saw, parked in the loading dock, a delivery truck for what appeared to be a cheap Doritos knockoff called “Shock-itos,” and I remember thinking, Wow, that’s pretty lazy.
And then there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dreaded guard, unwavering in his battle stance and resembling a jet-black salamander, menacing and sleek, ready; his sole purpose being the prevention of the very type of escape I was attempting. His rigorous training in this capacity would make him a fierce competitor indeed. The battle would surely be intense, victory only awarded to he with the most endurance and tolerance for pain.
I ran up to him, pushed him, and he fell over.
I hopped in the truck, where my brother was waiting. He started the engine, and we took off from the dock. I wondered if there were any Shock-itos in the back.
There was a really old, boxy TV mounted on the dashboard—obscuring roughly 75 percent of the windshield—showing what looked like outtakes from a film: Brittany Murphy’s smiling, tears streaming down her face as she is reacting to hearing news over the telephone. As the romantic score swells, she starts shaking and crying harder, quivering,“I’m so glad that everything is going to be all right.” “And cut!” an off-screen voice says before Brittany contends, “I can do it better.” The off-screen voice says, “OK. Roll film, sound, and ... action!” and the whole scene plays again.
So sad, I thought, that Brittany Murphy's last film is this bullshit Muppet movie. I rip ped the TV off the dash and threw it in the back, where the Shock-itos presumably would be.
It was very dark outside. We squealed out of the dock and, despite our best attempts to break the sound barrier, puttered out of an enormous parking lot jam-packed with cars (after all, people were coming into the mall without leaving) as my brother relayed that the tires were nearly bald. “They must smooth them out,” he said, “so nobody can drive fast.” This isn’t over, I thought. We made it out of the mall, but if they don’t want us driving fast, their grasp must reach beyond the confines of Cherryvale.
My brother was driving down a gravel road that led out of town—and danger—as fast as he could, though the truck was weaving around a lot due to the baldness of the tires. If we can just make it to the border, I thought, we'll be free. Up ahead, we saw a makeshift little shantytown to the right, and the glow of torches coming into the road. As we neared the glow of the torches, they were revealed to belong to a group of Amish people forming a human blockade at the border.
“We are but a simple people,” one of them shouted as we approached. “Please stay and join our community. We need your shoes!”
“Go! Go! Go!” I shouted, as my brother slowed down. "Run them down," I commanded, as the truck slowed. “What are you fucking doing?” I was screaming now. “Run them over! Run them over! Run them over!”
And so here I am, awake and now alert, with the urgent feeling that I have just experienced something revelatory subdued and shrunken to almost nothing, saddled with the knowledge that I would fervently condone running over a human blockade if it meant escaping to Wisconsin.
. . . .
The next evening, according to my wife, I woke up in the middle of the night and said, “Cookies. Tee-hee-hee. Um-num-num-num-num-num-num-num.”
“Brent?” she said, but I was still and smiling, awash in the luxury of unmemorable sleep.