Here’s a dream song, all right. I know that some people’s dreams, and people’s psychological intricacies as well, are endlessly interesting to themselves, and they love sharing. Especially if they’ve ever been in therapy, then look out. I learn a lot from my dreams, and I had a powerful, life-changing dream once that I shared too much. Telling it for the wrong reasons robbed it of much of its power. If I ever extend a dream to someone else now, I enforce the twenty-second rule.
This dream takes place on the grounds of a “lunatic asylum.” I’m glad that phrase has gone out of use. When I was a kid, living just east of Louisville, ’67-’69, on a clear day from our treehouse, we could see Lakeland Asylum a couple miles off over vast stretches of cornfields, officially known as Central State Hospital, formerly the Central State Asylum for the Insane. We knew it simply as Lakeland, the mental hospital. The buildings were razed in the 1990s and a state park was established on the site, but it was a fully operating hospital when we lived there. The park is okay, I guess, but the rest of the area is trashed. In those days it was a lovely, quiet rural area, now it’s a brutalized wasteland of shopping centers, parking lots, gas stations, Applebee’s, Wal-Mart, ad nauseum. The hospital and its grounds were famous for being the most haunted place in Kentucky, for those into that kind of thing. Now they’re haunted picnic shelters. The real horrible fright comes from the Home Depot built in the pasture across from our old house.
My brother and I and a couple of our friends would ride our bikes down the country road to Lakeland, where we bought sodas and candy in an old, old general store there. The smell of a general store with bare wood floors is special and unmistakable. It’s nearly gone now, but it was common until general stores started disappearing in the late 60s, replace by Stop N Go, 7-Eleven, and now of course every gas station is filled with chips, candy and sodas. The Lakeland store was staffed by the patients of the hospital. We went there occasionally, but I remember one incident clearly because it was a bit freaky. The clerks and cashiers were mentally disabled, some of them severely, with ill-fitting clothes and funny haircuts, and while their eyes weren’t actually twirling in their sockets, it seemed that way to a 9-yr old because the people weren’t quite adhering to standard etiquette regarding eye contact. But they were quite friendly and welcoming, happy to see us, and while a visit there was sometimes a bit unsettling, it wasn’t usually scary. They had a kind of urn that dispensed “Hot Dr. Pepper.” I never tried it, going with cold orange soda instead. Years later, once microwaves became common, I tried heating Dr. Pepper. It lost its fizz and made an explosive mess. Not good. But they were always so eager to have us try their Hot Dr. Pepper. A Snickers bar in Kentucky then was 11¢, a dime plus a 10% sales tax. I put one on the counter, gave the clerk a dime and a nickel. He took the coins, opened the heavy ornate gold cash register with the pull of a big handle, it churned and rang, and he gave me two quarters change. “No,” I said. “Give me four pennies for the change.” He gave me four pennies. “Here, these are your quarters.” He took the quarters and exchanged them for three nickels, taking my hand in his, turning my palm upright, dropping the nickels in, then closed my fingers and patting them with a big smile. “No, the right changes is four cents. Four.” I held up four fingers. He took the three nickels back and gave me four dimes, closing my hand again, patting it and smiling at me. “Really, the candy bar is only eleven cents. Here take the dimes.” “I don’t want to steal from you,” he said, the first time I had heard him speak, his voice low but oddly muffled and raspy. The woman in the store with him, who had been watching the whole time, came over and said something that I couldn’t understand a word of although she seemed furious, like she was about to spit at me. I remember her hair: Dark, not too lengthy but curled under, with straight bangs cut too short. She was fairly tall and it made her neck look too, too long. She had a moustachey shadow on her upper lip. She kept talking, I didn’t understand a thing, until finally I caught what sounded like, “Take your fucking money and buy something else.” I had my correct change of four pennies and had dropped the four dimes on the counter. She reached into the register pulled out a whole handful of quarters and made me take them, and I got scared because she was still just furious. I got an Orange Crush out of the cooler, actually a big red metal Coca-Cola tub filled with melting ice, shyly gave the man a quarter, who took it smiling at me like always, then I dropped the handful of quarters into my pocket and took off on my bike. I came out over four bucks ahead on that deal. I told Dad about it that night, and he explained that the store was not about making money, it was occupational therapy for the patients. I gave him all the extra quarters, and he took them back to the Lakeland general store—I assumed. He may have kept them for all I know. The place is gone now. This is all just a memory. Memories of dreams and memories of experiences are much alike.