Last night I had a vivid dream which has stayed with me. These are the details:
I am an Anglican Catholic Priest standing and talking with other faithful Christians in the banquet room of an opulent, modern day hotel. This is the final night of a Synod, and we are all enjoying one “nightcap” after another without heading up to our respective hotel rooms any time soon. Whenever I step away from the conversation to remove one more cocktail from one of the passing silver platters, I offer the same joke to my friends before rolling the iced cubes around in my glass: “We should thank the Lord every day that we are just too “high church” to pass ourselves off as Baptists.” The joke is less funny every time I deliver it probably because of my slurred delivery, but no one seems to mind. As I continue to make the rounds, I behold a sour, elderly schoolmarm who looks like a cross between Phyllis Schlafly and the Wicked Witch of the West. She is wearing a long, black, granny dress and is clutching a playbook at her waist. Her grey hair is in a stark bun, and her granite face seems to have been chiseled into a permanent scowl. Her dark eyes are darting every which way condemning whatever they see into that Hell she keeps tucked away somewhere in her head. I am equally fascinated and terrified by her, and I deduce she must have come in from the outside. She is traditional enough to be one of us, but is too much of a scene to fade into the pink and white floral wallpaper like a Priest’s Wife. I see that she sees me, and I wince like a little lamb schoolboy who is about to have been knuckles smacked by a ruler. She does not even bother nodding towards me, as we both know that I have no choice but to follow her.
I hand one of my friends my cocktail, and I walk through the crowd toward a picnic table in the corner of the room. The tabletop is covered by a red and black checkered cloth. As I approach, a spotlight shines on the table, which separates it out from everything else. I take a seat at the corner of the table bench nearest me. Other folks step into the blinding spotlight, and take seats on the benches. Soon, we are all bunched together around that table with our elbows practically in each other’s ribs. The schoolmarm stands at my end of the table. We all look down and see that we each have a copy of the playbook for that late nineteenth century “Ghosts of Peyton Place” named “Spoon River.” We all open our playbooks and listen with rapt attention as the schoolmarm explains the monologues to us that we are expected to memorize. She speaks in the slow and steady tone proper to a Kindergarten class, while her eyes constantly look for any infractions on our part that could justify corporal punishment.
I am walking across the county faire on a hot, summer day. Off in the distance are rides: a rollercoaster, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and other similar attractions. Closer to where I am is an assortment of farm animals behind fences or in coops. Ahead is a red and white striped tent big enough to house a rodeo. Cowboys are leading horses through the front tent flaps. I follow them inside, and walk along the outer perimeter of a rodeo arena. The tent is full of people and animals preparing for the rodeo show that will be happening in here later tonight. With the bleachers to my right, and the tent canvass to my left, I walk the narrow path to a line of smaller tents tied together. Just outside of the tent is a roped off space with a sign that reads: Extras Corral. The space is full of men and women who are dressed in vintage, nineteenth century, small town, Americana outfits. The men have long, thick beards. The women keep their hair in poke bonnets or wide rimmed hats. All of them seem happy to be there, as they are practicing small dance steps, formal bows, and curtsies. I see the schoolmarm up ahead standing beside the flap that leads inside the row of tents. Beside her is a sign pointing into the tents that reads: Leads Only. From what I can tell, the schoolmarm seems intent on making sure only the right people step inside of the tents. God forbid that the riffraff should congregate among the lead actors. I am dressed as a period gentleman with a top hat, long coat, and suspenders. Though I have the playbook rolled in my right hand, I really do not need it, for I have performed in “Spoon River” before. I know the monologues that I intend to do by heart. I walk with as much confidence as I can muster, for this time I am determined not to cower like a little schoolboy before his teacher. As I pass the schoolmarm, I tip my hat, and she nods back at me with just a hint of a grin. I did not audition for a lead part, but because I have acted in “Spoon River” before I just assume that status. That seems to have done the trick, as I am accepted as one of the lead actors inside the row of tents without questioning. I have a small tent of my own inside waiting for me which includes a cot, a small table and stool with candlelight, and a trunk with other period costumes, wigs, and makeup.
Time has passed. “Spoon River” has moved on from the county faire and is now a part of a traveling vaudeville. I am aware that I am shirking my duties as a Priest the longer that I remain with this company, but I do not want to give up the live shows we do every night before all and sundry. I am seated in trousers, white shirt, and suspenders before a dim candlelight inside my tent. I am memorizing the monologue of another character I want to perform in the play. All the characters are ghosts telling the stories of their lives, and in keeping with the subject matter I have become all too familiar of late with the spooky shadows cast by the candlelight on the tent canvas. It is like I am living in a soft twilight between the dead and the living, a cocoon between ethereal planes, and I really have no desire to step outside of this pleasant limbo. I hear the flap pulled open. I look up from my playbook and behold the schoolmarm, except that now she is a young and beautiful woman. Or is she a figment of a fevered dream? For she is as much standing there in her black granny dress and boots as she is not. She steps closer to me, and I see what now appears to be her ghost sift in and out of the candlelight. I know that I should be scared, but I feel enchanted instead. I put down my playbook, stand up, and take her ghostlike hand into mine. She smiles playfully, as I lead her around the table and over to the cot.
I am awakened by sunlight bleeding through the tent flap. The schoolmarm is gone, and there is no indication that she ever had been there. I pull the suspenders up and over my white shirt. I see that I slept with my boots and trousers on, so there is nothing more for me to do before stepping outside and discovering a whole new world. I am beside a tent on the outskirts of an Old West town. A train of horses is pulling a stagecoach into town, and mounted deputies in cowboy hats and boots are riding alongside the stagecoach to secure it from any Outlaws or Indians. There is already a lot of hustle and bustle within the town, and I spot a half a dozen saloons dedicated to the proposition that not every Christian is a Baptist. Do I see the young and beautiful schoolmarm leading a dozen or so boys and girls into a one room schoolhouse? Hard to tell from so far away, so I start down the hill toward the town.