“Well I was a high rigger for a long time,” the man said. “About 25 years, working in all the plants around here, and let me tell you there’s no scarier job, when you’re up there and the walkway starts to jerk around and you look and see the whole thing’s dangling from just a lynch pin and maybe some zip ties”—he laughed—“well Christ! You’ve got to jump, your body just says jump, and you do, and grab onto something and hope it all holds up.”
I’d been summoned to the local post of the American Legion by some friends, and once there I’d sat down at the bar—an expanse of knotted, pitted, ringed wood much-lacquered with beer—on an empty stool between one of my hoodie-clad and smoking friends and the man who was now expounding on his dream. I didn’t quite know how it had come up.
He tamped his cigarette out in a beige plastic ashtray and teased another from his pack of Marlboro Reds. Before he lit it, he took a gulp of some mysterious intoxicant from a Styrofoam cup.
“I gotta tell you,” he said, “I still have dreams about it, like I’m falling, but this one—this one’s the worst. Honestly it had never happened to me before, but when I had this dream I woke up in a cold sweat, and I didn’t even know what that meant, until I woke up in a cold sweat. And I haven’t had it again, that dream, but it’s all I ever think about now, and sometimes when I wake up it’s in a cold sweat, not because I had the dream, but just because I’d been thinking about it, in whatever I was dreaming. Do you get that?”
I think I nodded at him. I felt like one of those nameless listeners in a Conrad novel, the reclining conciliatory shades that begin the work in a nebulous third-person narration and quickly cede the power of speech to a greater raconteur. Somehow—with his talk of a feeling like dread, which felt out of place in a bar—this withered onetime rigger had intruded on my night. He seemed to promise something strange. I told him to go on.
“Oh, it’ll sound wild. It’s in a, it’s like a—what would you call it—a compound. That’s where I am. It’s so big I can’t see outside of it, just all sorts of sand, I guess we’re out in a desert somewhere. There are trucks everywhere, big dirt-moving trucks, and a couple of rows of fences with barbed wire up on top; it’s a nasty place. I just came out of a big sheet-metal building, that’s when the dream starts. And something’s strange, something feels evil about it. I look to my right and there’s a semi and its bed is full of prostitutes…”
“Exactly.” By this time my friend had bowed out in the aptly impolite way of all bargoers: He had simply drifted off. “A semi full of prostitutes, and I can tell that they’re up to no good. I think they’re trying to trick us; they’re up there on the bed of the semi looking good and moving themselves about, and I start to notice there are other guys leaving the same building I’d just left, and they’re wandering over to the prostitutes—but before they reach them, guards come up, and take them away.”
His hands made strophes as he spoke, held up before him as though he were preparing to be handcuffed, one wielding the lambent baton of his dwindling cigarette, which dragged and glowed and stippled the gloom.
“So I’m starting to get scared. I’m thinking: Shit! And I’m starting to put two and two together, and it seems to me that one of them shahs has set himself up a sort of ‘Hunger Games’ type thing, out there in Saudi Arabia, like he put all his money into this fancy-ass compound and now he’s gonna start killing all the workers. Like me.”
I didn’t laugh, but I wanted to. The whole story was so grotesque, the dream-images so blunt, so clearly xenophobia-fueled, that it seemed as if the collective psyche of the region had cracked open for a moment, and spilled its petty fears like half-priced beer on the bar before me.
“But,” he continues, “I haven’t seen anyone die. Yet. And as soon as I think that I turn around and there’s the strangest thing: a kid crawling out from the bed of a truck—I guess the bed was just a plywood sheet—and he’s squeezing himself out from under it like some sort of bug. He’s blonde; he’s got long blonde hair, all sweaty with the heat. And the moment he gets his torso free—whoom!—out of nowhere those same guards rush up. And they stab him. They’ve got long knives, those scimitar things, and they’re just stabbing away at him, and the kid’s screaming, and trying to move, and I think: Jesus! I start to feel sick. I start to run over to the kid, I think I’m gonna help him, but then I see him go limp; somebody got him right in the neck”—he motions savagely with his hand—“cut the spinal cord clean in two. And then someone grabs me, says, ‘You’ve got to come with me if you want to get out of here alive.’ And then I wake up.”
We sit silently. I note he has a very large nose, rubicund and pitted like a colander: engorged with spirits. A baseball cap bearing an arcane logo covers his short gray hair. I ask him about the blonde kid, if there was anything else to him, and he says yes, very strangely there was. He was wearing a blue construction hat. “And I’ve been on enough jobs, I’ve seen yellow hats and red hats, but I’ve never worked for a company with a blue hat. Not once.”
I tell him that I’m pretty sure United Nations peacekeepers wear blue helmets, and I pull out my phone and draw up a picture—in this age when our dreams can be researched, read, in a moment—and confirm that yes, they do.
He looks at the picture and scratches his forehead, dislodging his cap, and then, hardly interested at all, as though I’d missed the point entirely, he says: “Now that’s something to think about.”