Reuel dreamed the mortal screams of a cat fight. Frodo and a larger version of Frodo circled each other. Their blood curdling howls rippled through piñon smoke leaking from the fireplace, burning Reuel’s eyes and nose. Larger Version attacked. The cats twirled above the paint splattered concrete floor of Reuel’s studio like beaters in a bowl of meringue.
“Wake up, Frodo!” Reuel screamed. He stepped into the middle of the room. “You can’t die!” Larger Version fled through the pet door.
Two days after the dream Reuel was at his easel when Larger Version pushed through the pet door’s plastic flap. Frodo was sleeping on the floor, using Reuel’s foot as a pillow, in a rectangle of warmth from the sun through one of the large windows.
“I’m dreaming again,” Reuel said. At the sound of his voice Larger Version once again escaped through the pet door. Reuel watched Larger Version run past the cross and disappear over the backyard fence. He sniffed the paint on his hands, ran his fingers through Frodo’s brindle fur, and felt his purring.
Reuel had seen people think of dreams as mere wishes, random synapses firing in their brains. But for Reuel dreams were just another door to life. Like the angelic flock of naked flying women who occasionally visited him, with their crow’s heads, blowing the moon to the other side of the sun with the flapping of their wings; or when Meister, his Golden Retriever, once or twice a year rose from his grave in the backyard to assure Reuel he’s not upset about being buried alive; there’s Reuel’s domineering wife, the one he meets for the first time each time she appears, awkwardly failing to seduce him; and that washing machine he crawls into because he doesn’t want to take his clothes off in front of everyone at the Laundromat. Sometimes the news anchorwoman repeats to the whole world how his paintings remind her of when she has sex, but can’t climax. His favorite is all those nights flying past landmark after landmark to visit his sister, Joy, and finding himself in the morning, worn out from the journey, sitting by his made up bed. And now he has Frodo protecting his territory, fighting off Larger Version, rediscovering the vigor of youth, the sinews of necessity, without a scratch, as if willing a myth.
Reuel relished lying on the bed at night, not knowing the time, patiently waiting for a train’s or owl’s hoot, tires or footsteps humming on the road, voices or Frodo whining, and the moon’s or sun’s glow to peek beyond the edges of the window blinds.
Reuel painted Larger Version into a series of landscapes. In one, he is delicate paw prints in the snow. In the next, he is the eyes of a mouse afraid to venture out of his hole. And in yet another, Larger Version is pungent piss, wet leaves, and balls of fur decomposing under a tree in the forest. Larger Version reminded Reuel how sane his love for Frodo was. Because Frodo’s love was unconditional, like a dream wife, and it was beyond imagination that an eighteen year old cat could defend his territory against Larger Version.
Talking to Joy on the phone Reuel told the story of meeting Larger Version. Joy asked Reuel if he was taking his medication. “Every night,” Reuel answered. “After I go to bed.”
One day there was a knock at the front door of Reuel’s home. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head out the pet door, and looked around the back yard. Finally Lola, the owner of the gallery sponsoring a solo exhibition of Reuel’s paintings, came into the backyard to see if he might be in his studio.
“What are you doing?” asked Lola. She was so beautiful that day the man following her seemed hesitant, as if entering Reuel’s world, with his sketchy black beard, dreamy eyes, and paint splattered overalls, was unfair competition.
“I’m waiting through my pet door.”
“I tried to call.”
“I don’t need to talk through the phone, if you want to come in.”
Reuel got to his feet and opened the door meant for people who think dreams are only wishes. He led them inside with a slow sweep of his hand, as if directing them into a pew at a funeral or a baptism. Lola’s long golden hair shadowboxed the suddenly timid sun, her nose protruded from between her wide almond eyes, falling in a false front towards her delightful white teeth, so perfect and inviting no one noticed how thin her lips were. Reuel watched Lola’s skirt flow around the studio, her legs bending naively, seductively, like delicate saplings in a cloth of willow branches. She swung a bottle of bubbly in reverse rhythm to her hips.
“This is Paul. He’s a great admirer of your work.” Frodo circled and rubbed Paul’s ankle, who was surprised when he found no cat hair on the cuff of his trousers.
“Thanks for including us. Is this what you’ve been waiting for?” Reuel waved at his easel in a backhanded manner. It held a canvas bisected by a row of weeping willow trees. Streaks of red formed a rectangle below the drooping branches. Inside the rectangle something not yet finished was flapping towards the viewer, like the pages of a book in the wind. Larger Version had passed through moments earlier.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Reuel felt Paul thought he needed to say.
“He’s becoming a collector’s item,” Lola assured them.
The mood was as genuine as newspaper philosophy, and it made Reuel uncomfortable, as if Paul was unsure what he wished for.
“You can’t have it now,” Lola continued. “Before all the paintings are hung together, there’s always some confusion. I’m positive Reuel will sell out. It will be worth so much more to you someday.”
Reuel scooped thick black paint onto a long brush and held it between his thumb and two fingers, like a conductor’s baton, waving it over the painting. Lola’s face scrunched in barely concealed horror. Paul held a sculpted smile, content to be in the presence of greatness. Reuel dropped his eyelids, puckered his lips, let his breath escape, then skillfully pushed the brush around the canvas. Sprouts of black paint distorted the underlying images before his eyes. Reuel lowered his arm and released the dream from his vision.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Lola groaned.
“He’s insane!” Paul said. He clapped his hands together and laughed at the low ceiling, finally noticing the multi-colored cob-webs hanging almost into his mouth.
“You might have been ruined,” Lola explained.
“It was a masterpiece,” Reuel said.
“Aren’t they all masterpieces?” Paul wanted to ask.
“This one needs to be scraped.” Reuel picked out a painting from a stack leaning against the wall under a window.
“Tell us about it,” Lola insisted.
The canvas was large enough for Reuel to disappear behind it, his voice thin as a beam of light, scattering particles through space and time.
“Frodo is defending his territory. Sometimes he needs to be petted. His whining hurts my ears when he wants me to think it’s time for dinner, but I hardly need to eat anymore, like a perfect lover.”
Most of the painting was blinding yellow streaks of cloudless sky. Three cottonwood trees in exquisite detail drew the eye down and to the left. An adobe church telescoped away towards the bottom, right of center. It’s wide double doors stood wide open. A cat in stained glass looked wistfully from a window. In the graveyard out back a herd of cats was having a meeting. Adog eavesdropped from a branch of one of the cottonwoods.
“What’s the title?” Lola wanted to know.
Reuel could see Paul didn’t understand. When no one responded, Reuel thought again, Conscious Dream.
“It might be Unconscious Wishes,” Reuel said.
“Really?” Paul asked.
“Reuel, excuse us for a moment.” Lola led Paul into the kitchen. “Now do you understand? The whole universe is trying to get through his door. Each sale for him is like losing a lover. Let me see what I can do with him. Don’t mention money. You can write a check, forty thousand. Wait here, put it in my purse and open the wine while I talk to him.”
“Does it matter? Every one’s a dream.”
Lola left her purse and went back to the studio.
“He’s so insistent. Reuel, I know you don’t like to do this, and wouldn’t ask, but this is a wish come true for Paul. And once he buys one, your paintings will be every collector’s dream.”
Reuel set a blank canvas on the easel and starting scratching paint onto his palette to match the color of Lola’s hair.
“I can try to get him to eight thousand. But you’ll have to let him take it today.”
He outlined Lola’s figure on the canvas, making her body glow brighter than the sun through the window behind her. The pop of the cork from the kitchen startled Frodo. He left through the pet door. Reuel decided to make the window out of stained glass.
“I’m glad we see things the same way. It embarrasses Paul to talk about money. That’s great. Keep painting, it’s a nice touch. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Lola went into the kitchen, checked her purse, looked through the cabinets, and washed three glasses. She led Paul to the studio and stationed him where he could watch Reuel work. Then she poured each of them a glass of bubbly. Paul raised his to Reuel and took a sip. Reuel got down on his knees, stuck his head out the pet door, called Frodo, then went back to his easel and put the glass on the floor by his feet.
Lola picked up Unconscious Wishes and held it up for Paul to admire. Reuel observed Lola, closed his eyes, and stroked two sinuous saplings onto the canvas. Then he added wings and a crow’s head, a moon beyond the sun.
“It’s a wish come true,” Paul started.
“When that door opens, let’s go through it,” Reuel said.
“To have your dreams,” Paul said.
Lola made a cross with her index finger and thin lips. Reuel was sketching a washing machine around her body, so everyone could see her spinning through the window. He was flying across the backyard landscape for inspiration. The flap of the pet door swung open. Frodo passed into the studio, hugged Reuel, sipped the bubbles. There were paw prints in the snow, hinting at a path from the cross marking Meister’s grave to the washing machine.
“Beyond imagination,” Reuel said.
“He’s entering his own little world.” Lola whispered to Paul. She handed Unconscious Dreams to Paul, downed her bubbly, and picked up her purse.
Reuel looked at the door meant for people who know only wishes, saw their footprints in the snow. Suddenly Larger Version appeared, blocking their path. He and Frodo let out simultaneous blood-curling howls. The fireplace was leaking smoke. Paul veered to one side, hoisting Unconscious Dreams in front of his face. Reuel watched Larger Version sink his claws into the calf of Paul’s trousers. Paul kicked his leg as if he was a madman, but Larger Version’s claws caught in the material. Frodo went through the pet door. Lola tried to get a hold of Unconscious Dreams, and it looked to Reuel that the three of them, kicking and screaming, snow particles frothing in the air like smoke from a fire, were whipping dreams and wishes into a sacred mating dance. Reuel’s paintbrush flew across the backyard. It was as if he could predict what steps they were taking before they took them, their movements as familiar to him as the landscape between his bedroom and Joy’s home. Paul fell to the ground. Larger Version freed himself from Paul’s trousers and went through the canvas as if it were a pet door to get at him. Frodo leapt into Larger Version from Paul’s side of the canvas. The two cats locked onto each other, howling and scratching in an ancient choreography of flying snow. Paul ran away. Lola escaped through the pet door to the safety of the studio. Her skirt was covered in paw prints, snow clung to her buttocks. She reached out to Reuel, threw her arms around his ankles and announced, “I have always loved you, longed for you, I want you now.”
Reuel looked down on her, then closed his eyes. He stroked his canvas in flourishes, felt Lola run her hands up his legs, pull herself to her feet, press herself against him. Her thin lips touched his cheek. His brush waved non-stop at the canvas. Lola slid her skirt down, unbuttoned her shirt. She was the most beautiful woman Reuel had ever seen, and he was determined to render her faithfully. Her breasts appeared under her clothes, her buttocks a perfect heart inside her weeping skirt, spinning for all to see.
His passions spent, Reuel dropped his brush and lifted his eyelids. Frodo lay motionless in the snow. Lola dressed awkwardly, then silently went through the door meant for people who only believe in wishes, as if Reuel had stolen all her beauty and locked it into the canvas, leaving only what was ugly.
Reuel painted and dreamed, forgetting he was there. In the backyard cats gathered around the cross. The images on the canvas appeared without Reuel closing his eyes. Larger Version went up to the cross, turned to face hundreds of cats. His howl was like sex without climax, or a thousand ancient women mourning. For the first time Reuel understood Larger Version. He howled about Frodo, how their love was necessary for his sanity, and without love it was impossible to get out of bed, sleep, create, or fly through the sky. Reuel went through the pet door.
A few days later Lola came to pick up Reuel’s paintings for the exhibition. She called first, but, as usual, Reuel didn’t answer. No one came when she knocked on the front door, so she went around the home, to the door meant for those who only wish. It was locked. Lola peered through the window. Reuel’s palette was smeared with paint, a canvas on the easel. She looked around the yard. There were thousands of prints of paws in the snow.
Lola walked all the way around the house, knocked on the door again, and checked to see if any windows were unlocked. Finally, she crawled through the pet door.
On the easel was a painting of the back yard. It had a richness of detail she hadn’t seen in Reuel’s work before, but still maintained that dreamy quality that experts used to identify it as a Reuel. There was a small cross next to the big one, and two mounds of fresh dirt. Hundreds of cats filled the yard, and Larger Version was giving a eulogy. A golden retriever watched. Lola never saw Reuel again.