Home Stories Years’ Time by Adam Strassberg

Years’ Time by Adam Strassberg


Over the decades, Andrew is occasionally visited by his deceased father in a comforting lucid dream; by Adam Strassberg.

Image generated with OpenAI

It had been many years’ time since his father had died, and Andrew had never dreamt about him. Not even once. Not until now.

He sat there with his father in the old model train room. It was a large insulated shed abutted to the side door of the garage. Small air vents bordered the roof but the space was otherwise windowless, lit only by fluorescent panels powered by extension cords.

The interior of the largest wall was painted with a scene of the sun setting beneath a mountain horizon. Raised up on benchwork in front of this wall, an enormous model train layout filled the entirety of the small room. The main railway line, a large primary loop through a styrofoam mountain tunnel, branched to several secondary lines, including a train yard, a passenger station and a freight crane. Buildings, trees, bushes, people, even pets, were all scattered about the landscape, all to scale, all busily living plastic lives frozen in time.

Andrew sat on one of the two rotating chairs in the control pit, a round opening hollowed out in the center of the train layout. His small legs dangled off his seat. He knew he was a man, but he also knew somehow that he was just a boy, and his father sat there again in the chair next to his. They wore their matching engineer hats. His father placed Andrew’s small hand on the throttle control for the largest engine and cued him to rev it. A large black vintage locomotive charged out of the tunnel, puffing smoke and blowing horns.

“Dad, you know you’re dead, right?” The big black engine pulled a long line of box cars and coaches, ending in a classic red caboose. “Mom sold all the trains a year after you died. None of this is real. None of this is happening right now.”

Andrew’s father smiled. “Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘real’.” He had a wide grin with dimples on both cheeks. “And ‘right now’.” He used air quotes for emphasis. “I remember dreaming about my own father when I was alive, but they were never useful dreams, at least not to me.” The man frowned. “Your grandpa died when I was only nine.” He then straightened nine fingers from his hands.

Andrew saw his father’s familiar large hands and calloused fingers, but when he looked closer, the image would not hold still. The outlines of the fingers were blurry, they kept trembling with vibrating borders, fluttering sort of like the flames of candles. The harder Andrew the boy stared, the less clearly he could see.

Then Andrew the man remembered reading somewhere how staring at hands was a technique used to master a dreamscape. It supposedly pushed the dreamer into a lucid state – one in which they remained dreaming, but also very much awake.

Was this then one of those waking dreams?

Andrew looked down at his small boy’s hands. He focused on the squiggly outlines of each of his own weirdly vibrating fingers and counted them. One to ten. With each number, he breathed in, then out. He smelled the oils that he and his father would use to lubricate the train tracks, mixed in also with the scent memories of his father’s sweat and cologne.

His dad sitting next to him had become the most real thing he had ever experienced. Andrew the boy reached over and gave his father a big hug. He jumped onto the man’s lap and snuggled his small body onto the big man’s warm belly.

“Dad, I have so much to tell you. So much has happened.” The boy, who was also a man – and both were Andrew – continued. “I graduated. I’m a pharmacist now. I married that girl Claire I was dating, you got to meet her once near the end.”

His father smiled down at him, the little boy sitting on his lap. The man flipped some lever switches. The train was passing through street traffic in the village. Solenoids folded down crossing gates, red lights flashed and warning bells clanged.

Andrew continued, “You have a grandson. We named him Henry, after you. He’s three now, and he loves toy trains, maybe even more than you. I play wooden trains with him every day after work. There are these little wooden cars that use magnets to connect and wooden tracks that are easy to place all over the floor. We mostly play pretend and push them along with our hands. Last week we got him his favorite blue engine – it’s motorized with a battery. I bet he’s sleeping with it right now.”

Henry smiled and turned to his son, “That’s terrific! Do you want to blow the big whistle?”

“You bet I do!”

“The engine is entering the village. Sound the warning!” Henry ordered with a pretended sternness to his junior engineer.

“Aye aye, sir.” Andrew the boy leaned out and pulled on a long metal chain affixed to a large red lever hung above them in the center of the control pit. A small compressor released air into a restored steam whistle. “Whoo whoo!” The sound was authentic – loud and very jarring – yet somehow it did not wake Andrew from his dream.

Andrew the man was surprised by this. “Dad, this dream is so real – it’s like you’re actually here. I know you’re not alive – but you’re more real to me, now, in this moment, than maybe ever. Is this still a dream? Or maybe – is this like some kind of haunting? Are you a ghost?”

“Oh I’m no ghost, no King Hamlet,” his father gave a deep laugh, “I’m more like an empty skull, a Yorick.” The man lifted up one of the older locomotives and held it above his head, as if to talk to it. He then deepened his voice and feigned a British accent, “I’m the remains of a ‘a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy’… who bore you ‘on his back a thousand times’.” His father’s belly vibrated from several deep laughs, tickling Andrew the boy’s arms and legs.

“Andrew, you’ll look it up after you wake up, but right now you’re kinda remembering that Yorick was much more a father to Prince Hamlet than the King himself.” The man flipped the lever switches again. This time the train was exiting the village, so the solenoids reversed to lift up the crossing gates, then red lights stopped flashing and warning bells ceased ringing. A line of cars, buses and taxis could now return to their imaginary loops around the town streets.

“Remember how much I loved Shakespeare. It’s a shame I gave up acting.” Andrew’s dad reached down into the pretend village. “I guess I never had enough drive to stick it out, so it’s ironic really that I became, literally, a driver.” He rolled a model taxi car down the street, pretending to pick up and drop off a few plastic passengers. “You know I never meant to do that job forever, it started off as just a gig until my acting career was supposed to take off – but then you came along… So I got my medallion and bought my own taxi. It was good regular money. It gave us a house. It sent you to college – the first in our family. Your mother and I are so proud. We never got to go. I guess I died before you graduated, but at least I got to see you off.”

Andrew the boy hugged his father long and hard. Tears came to both their eyes.

“And now you’re a pharmacist! Wow!” His dad kissed him on the cheek.

Andrew the boy felt the bristles of his father’s evening stubble.

Andrew’s father placed the palm of one hand over his own heart, then the palm of his other hand over Andrew the boy’s chest. “I was a young man once. I had dreams when I was alive, but I guess I live now only in your dreams.” He tapped his palms twice. “Me, what’s left of me, my dreams – it’s all inside of you now.”

His father cried, then Andrew the boy cried, and thus so did Andrew the man. Rain clouds somehow burst open inside the shed and a steady downpour showered above the village, the mountain, then the whole model landscape. Both Andrew and his dad became soaked.

Andrew continued sobbing more strongly and his eyes filled with even more tears. His vision blurred from the deluge. The entirety of the remembered train room, including his dad, faded out under a gray curtain of rainfall and a loud din from the drumming of strong rain. Then all became rain and the dreamscape vanished for Andrew’s adult waking world, which was greeting him now with a fresh morning thunderstorm.

It was many years’ time more before Andrew and his dead father would talk again. Not for lack of trying. Nor lack of desire.

After that first waking dream, Andrew yearned so fiercely to talk again with his dad, but the man was nowhere to be found. The dreams were all random, at least as far as Andrew could surmise. If there was a control switch, it was far outside his reach.

Then suddenly one night, Andrew found himself again inside the old train room. He sat there once more, in his boy’s body, on one of those two chairs in the control pit, his little legs dangling off the seat, his father sitting next to him, both wearing their matching striped engineer’s hats. Various model trains chugged and chuffed across the elaborate track layouts surrounding them.

For Andrew, it felt as if no time had passed since his last visit. In fact, it was still raining somehow from the shed ceiling. Perhaps the outside rain falling heavily during Andrew’s bedtime was falling inside into his dreamscape? This thought roused Andrew, but not enough to awaken him, and so he again stared down at his hands in his dream.

His fingers and palms were blurry, their outlines had no clear borders, everything was fluttering again like the flames of a candle. The harder Andrew the boy starred, the less clearly he could see – but the more aware in his dream he became. He counted his fingers, one to ten, then smiled and turned up his gaze to look towards his father.

“Dad, I think you should know. I found the letters.”

“You found the what?” The man lifted one of his large hands up to his mouth. “Oh shit.”

“Did you mean for me to find them or did you just forget about them in your old desk?”

“You’ll never know I suppose.” Andrew’s father extended both his hands palm upwards beneath the rain. “It’s not your mother’s fault. We didn’t have a word for what she was, at least not from where we grew up or when.” The man’s hands were large with callouses and scars, both the fingers and palms covered in layers of grease and dirt. “She did the best she could to love me, but she couldn’t really love me, you know -” He began rubbing his hands together beneath the rain shower to clean them. “- at least not in the way a man and woman are supposed to… She always had all those girlfriends. We had no idea that there was such a thing you could be. And by the time we both learned the word for it, we were too old and it was too late.”

“But who was Ruthie then?

“Does it matter? I can’t tell you anything more than what’s in those love letters. I’m dead, you know.” Clear rain water pooled into the man’s cupped hands. “I mean, your mom and I had an understanding. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I had any average man’s needs. I drove a taxi for God’s sake. Often the night shift. With bars, clubs, ladies. It was bound to happen.”

A large bar of soap oddly plopped down from the ceiling onto Andrew’s lap. It was still dry enough not to be slippery, and so Andrew was able to hand it over to his father using both his little boy’s hands. “Dad, I remember you staying out all night and mom crying and you both sleeping in separate bedrooms.” He remembered it all now as an adult, but spoke it in his little boy’s voice. “At the time, I hated you for it, but I’m a man now. I understand. I’m glad you were able to find love, somewhere, with somebody. I know you never had it with mom, at least not the passion part.”

Andrew’s father lathered his hands vigorously with the bar soap and the heavy rain. “Every relationship is different, each in its own way. You must see that by now. Ours wasn’t physical, but what little love we did have, well, it produced you.” The bar soap slipped from his hands and shot down across the floor. “And I think that’s quite a lot.” He rinsed the remaining soap from his palms and fingers all beneath the continued rainfall. He lifted his hands upwards and inspected both sides. All the grease and dirt was gone. “Well, what do you know? I guess there is ‘rain enough in the sweet heavens’ to wash my hands clean. That’s more from Hamlet – you can look it up later after you wake up.”

There was a long, contented pause in their conversation as they sat together silently playing trains for a long while. The rain was warm, smelled earthy, and tapped a pleasant pitter-patter throughout the room. It never lessened, but suddenly just stopped. The only sounds then were Andrew and his father breathing, and the continued clank of their train locomotives pulling tin cargo and plastic people along their routes. A fuzzy mist then slowly arose from the raised model landscape, it encircled them both, then everything.

Andrew gazed at two concentric arcs of color, which beamed forth from behind the mountain tunnel, arched over the village, and then ended together in the horizon beyond the train depot. This double rainbow had more radiant colors than any rainbow could ever promise in the waking world.

He made a wish for something, but he could not quite remember what.

The sun painted on the far wall of the shed grew brighter and brighter. Then everything simply flipped from wet and warm to sunny and dry. The double rainbow vanished. A curtain of sunny yellow brightness fell everywhere and the dreamscape of the train shed transitioned into Andrew’s adult waking world, which was greeting him with morning sunshine beaming down through his bedroom window.

Each year, on the anniversary of his father’s death, Andrew lit a candle to remember him. He would pray then that he might meet his father again in his dreams. These prayers went unanswered for several more decades, until finally, just as inexplicably, on one random winter’s night, Andrew found himself returned to the old model train shed.

It felt good to be in his little boy’s body again. His short legs dangled off the side of his chair and his father sat in that twin rotating chair next to him. They were attired in their usual matching blue and white striped engineer’s hats, but also now wore matching red ear muffs affixed beneath them. Snow flurries fell somehow down from the ceiling and onto the model train landscape encircling the two. The air felt cold, and whenever Andrew the boy exhaled, he could see a small cloud of vapor from his breath, yet his small body nonetheless remained warm and comfortable.

Andrew’s father took one of his little hands and placed it beneath his own, guiding it over a throttle lever. They pulled down together and a large black locomotive accelerated through the main tunnel. Andrew the man inspected the back of his father’s hands, now cupped over his own small boy’s hand. In the waking world, Andrew’s real hands looked so like his father’s now. They were certainly as large now for many decades now, but over the last few, they had matured to be nearly identical, with similar scars, calluses, and sun spots. When Andrew saw his father’s hands, he saw his own hands, but in the dream he still had his boy hands, and this quirky paradox awakened Andrew just enough, but not too much, inside his dream.

He slipped his hand off the throttle and then lifted both his little boy hands up together, in order to count his fingers once more. One to ten. This technique had worked each time. His small dream fingers blurred as usual with their vibrating outlines, all flickering like flames. Andrew then tugged his father’s sleeve and met the man’s gaze.

“Dad, I have to tell you something.” He paused, then choked up a bit, “Mom’s dead.” A light snow continued to fall around him. “I’ve been an orphan now for a decade.” He turned his palms upwards and watched as the snow dropped to his hands, then melted away. “It feels funny.”

“Tell me about it.” Andrew’s father winced, then frowned, still holding his gaze on the various locomotives as they sped about their tracks.

“It feels naked – there’s no layer of living parents between my own life and eternity. I feel so exposed.” Andrew hopped his little boy’s body from his chair over onto his father’s lap. “Is this how it felt for you all those years?”

The man shrugged his shoulders. “You get used to it, just like anything else.”

“But Dad, remember I’m not this little boy right now sitting with you. I’m so much older in the real world – a lot older than you were when you died. It’s crazy to think about – if I meet you in the afterlife, I’d be like ‘who’s this young guy who’s also my dad?'” The boy reached up and kissed his father on the cheek. “I didn’t know it then, but I understand it now – you died so young Dad. Too young.”

Andrew’s father turned his head downward and kissed his son on the top of his head. “Anyone dying younger than you is someone dying too young.” His father the lowered the register of his voice and feigned a British accent “Andrew, ‘all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.'” His voice rose back to normal. “That’s Hamlet – to me, it means – when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

“But I don’t think it’s as simple as all that.” Andrew attempted a mock Shakespearean accent, though the best he could muster was more lower Cockney. “‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth’ – Daddy – ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ That’s Hamlet too.” Andrew pointed upwards to the snow flurries miraculously falling from inside the shed ceiling. “There’s so much more – there’s right now – these lucid dreams, or hauntings, or whatever this thing is between us that keeps happening here in our old model train shed.”

“We’re just playing together.”

The two played trains for many hours, or at least as many hours as the dreamscape simulacrum of linear time allowed. They ran various toy engines, steam and diesel, delivered freight, and pulled passengers. Plastic people left the train station for their homes in the village and Andrew’s father pushed a small yellow taxi through the streets. “Beep-beep. Time to go off duty for the night.” He pulled the cab into the driveway of a small model house, a blue split-level colonial with a dark gray roof. A miniature square shed abutted where the side garage door should have been. A small yellow bulb lit the inside of the little room.

“Dad, you and I are in the model train shed in our old house, and our old house is down in the model village right there. That’s your yellow taxi parked outside.” Andrew closed his eyes, then winced a bit. “But that’s the only place these things exist now. After mom died, we sold the house, and then the new owners razed it. There’s nothing left. At least not outside in the real world.”

The snow flurries that fell from the ceiling began covering the fake landscape around them with a blanket of real snow. Andrew’s father dug his hand in his pants pocket to remove a small plastic bag from their favorite hobby store. Inside, there was some plastic packaging, which was ripped open to remove three small figurines. They placed these down together on the center of their lawn: a small white snowman with a black top hat and an orange carrot nose, a man with a shovel and a boy on a sled.

“Dad. I’m the man with the shovel, but also the little boy speeding by on the sled. Everything is going by so fast.” Andrew pushed the little plastic boy on the sled in circles around the snowman. “It feels like we’re running out of time – or at least I am.” He pinched at his arm and his leg with his free hand. “This is my body from when I was a little boy, but back in the real world, I’ve become an old man. And there’s still so much I want to share with you.” He extended the fingers of one hand – they continued to tremble and flutter in the dream space – and then used the index finger of his other hand to emphasize his list. “Claire and I patched things up. I decided to make a real go of it after I found those letters of yours years ago. We also found a great couple’s counselor. It’s like you say, every marriage is different, and we each do the best we can. Henry got married. They’re already expecting their second. It’s gonna be a boy this time. Claire convinced me to retire this year. We’re going on a cruise for our anniversary.” He ended with his hands pushed forward, palms down, ten fingers extended, dreamily flickering about like flames in a candelabrum. “So much keeps happening. And so much faster than when I was young.”

“I used to bless you with my hands in exactly that same position.” Andrew’s father stretched out his arms and placed his hands, palms down, ten fingers extended, in an identical position to Andrew’s. “When you were a little boy, anytime I came off a night shift, I’d sneak into your bedroom to check on you. I’d hover my hands over you just as you slept, just like this.”

“What was the blessing?”

“You’re remembering it right now so I can show you.” His father stood above Andrew in his little boy body with his small head bowed. The man continued holding out his hands, then closed his eyes. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance and grant you peace.”

There were no further sounds. The snow fell more fiercely from the ceiling. Wind encircled the room and began a blizzard. Layers of white snow rose from the floor, this soon covered the model landscape – the village, the tracks, finally the tunnel and mountaintop itself. Nothing felt cold but everything was ice. A final soft white curtain draped over Andrew and his father. Then all was white.

Andrew smelled fresh baked bread.

The next time Andrew awoke in a dream, it was all very different.

He was playing wooden trains with Henry, who was a young boy again, but also a man, married and a father.

Andrew sat somehow in a cross-legged position he had not achieved for decades. He could bend his knees again and the pain from his osteoarthritis had vanished. He sat on the floor in their kitchen and saw his reflection in the stainless steel of the refrigerator door. Andrew was a young man again.

He remembered that he and Henry had spent the afternoon laying out over seventy feet of interlocking wooden track pieces downstairs. The mostly circular layout began at a train depot in the center of the kitchen floor, then departed for the dining room, looping through the den, entry hall, and living room, then ascending and descending several chairs in the breakfast nook, before returning to the kitchen floor train depot. There were several turnouts and detours of additional track, also a rather complicated village arose in the living room, built from wooden blocks and empty tissue boxes. There were various toy cars on random streets. Herds of mismatched plastic animals roamed the grounds, intermixed with patrols of green army soldiers, spacemen, and superheroes.

Andrew, as a young man, sat next to his son Henry, now a little boy. His son pushed a blue engine with his small hand and it tugged at a long train of freight cars and passenger cars along its route. The small train cars were each connected to each other by thick magnets, and some had batteries with buttons for silly sound effects. They wore the same matching blue and white striped engineer’s hats from Andrew’s own childhood. Andrew lifted a long carved wooden train whistle in his hand and blew two toots. Henry closed a railroad crossing with his little fingers, then hollered, “Choo choo, all aboard.”

A delightful scent of warm bread wafted through the air. Andrew had two loaves baking in the oven for Friday night dinner. He inhaled deeply and savored the grainy essence. He smiled and watched his son push his favorite blue wooden engine with a young boy’s focused intensity.

Suddenly Henry the little boy stopped playing, turned his gaze up to Andrew’s eyes, then spoke with adult Henry’s voice somehow coming out of little boy Henry’s mouth. “Dad, you know you’re dead, right?” Henry pushed a button and the blue engine’s motor energized, pulling a long line of box cars and coaches, ending in a classic red caboose, which clanged a little bell with each wheel rotation. “Mom gave me the old boxes of wooden trains after you died. I play with them with my own kids now. None of this is real. None of this is happening right now.”

For Andrew, however, all of this was real and all of this was happening right now. He straightened his arms and stared at his hands. The image held still. He looked closer and extended his fingers. Their outlines were crips and clear, with no trembling and no vibrations, and he could easily count them, one to ten. He was awake, but now only in his son Henry’s dream.

“Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘real’,” Andrew smiled, “and ‘right now’.” He laughed. “I remember dreaming about my own father when I was alive, they were useful dreams, at least to me.”

Henry, as a little boy, reached up and gave Andrew a big hug. His son then hopped on the top of Andrew’s folded legs and looked up at him with watery eyes. “Dad, I have so much to tell you. So much has happened.” This boy, who was also a man – and both were his son Henry – continued. “We named our son after you – Andrew. He’s trying to make it as an actor. We know it’s a long shot but he’s got real talent. He lives in LA now and even has an agent. He went for classical training and people say he has ‘Shakespearean gravitas’.”

Andrew smiled down at his son, “That’s terrific! Do you want to blow the big whistle?”

“You bet I do!”

“The engine is leaving the station. Sound the warning!” Andrew ordered with pretend sternness.

“Aye aye, sir.” Henry the boy grabbed the long carved wooden whistle with both hands, breathed in deeply, then blew hard into the top of the tube. “Toot toot!” He placed the whistle onto his lap and continued sitting upon his father’s folded legs. “Dad, this is all so real – it’s like you’re really here. I know you are not alive – but you are more real to me, now, in this moment, than maybe ever. Is this still a dream?”

Andrew deepened his voice and gave his best attempt at a British accent. “‘To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come.'” His speech returned to normal. “That’s from the Bard. It’s Hamlet. Your grandpa loved that play.”

Andrew placed the palm of one hand over his heart, then the palm of his other hand over the young Henry’s chest. “I was a young man once. I had so many dreams when I was alive, I guess I live now only in your dreams.” He tapped his palms twice. “Me, what’s left of me, and my dreams – it’s all inside of you now.”

Then the two played trains for the rest of the afternoon.


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