Home > New Classics > Dream in Five Acts

Dream in Five Acts

June 11, 2010

by Karl Elder

In a bar the bartender claims is frequented by Clint Eastwood I am in the army on a weekend pass in my civies. It’s dark in here, really dark, it’s 2 p.m., and I have been walking for hours in the California sun without something like the sunglasses I now have on and, as I sip straight gin, no matter where I swivel nor how I turn I can’t see behind.
“This is one dark bar room,” I say, pointing at the mirror. I say, “Where does he sit?
The bartender says, “What?”
“Eastwood,” I say, “where does he sit?”
“He sits where you’re sitting, only he’s taller.”
The way the bartender says taller I know it is the end of act one.

Act two is the same scene only the bartender is a woman, and taller. Because I am in the army I’ve never seen a woman in my life and I am taller. It is a good thing I have sunglasses on. I cannot believe I am married and I am not here with her, my wife, that is, not the bartender. When we were on vacation in San Francisco a year ago I was with her, my wife, that is, not the bartender. Here I am in the army in Monterey where a glance is a stare. It must be the atmosphere, spare, cavernous, in fact, where you are served gin over diamonds you can crunch and they disappear.

“I hear Clint Eastwood frequents here,” I tell her.
I’m in the army and it’s act three, California, a cave in the city of Monterey.
“You could be him,” she says, “for all I know. The guy wears a disguise.”
In comes another customer looking like Abraham Lincoln, who orders an Olympia and walks it up the far end of the bar and thus toward my chair. I’m in the army and I’m not surprised he knows, though lately in different mirrors I never look the same way twice.

I tell him so in the fourth act. It is my affliction, I say. Abe is so honest, so innocent, I think he believes me as my fists fence each other with little plastic swords that held plump, stuffed olives, reminding me of eyes that never blink.
“No, really,” I wink, “I’m in Monterey in a cave because I shaved off my mustache in the army up the road at Ord because my C.O. made me. I’m married so don’t try to hit on me and that goes for you too, Missy.”
Abe orders me an Olympia.

By act five, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, Abe is calling me Clint. I’ve got a make up artist so good I wear a Karl Elder suit. Abe’s ears and beard are both on the bar, and absent the get-up he looks a lot like the guy in the mirror. It is February, 1972, and I’m writing a Valentine to my wife in Illinois on a cocktail napkin in a cave the bartender on a earlier shift claims is frequented by me, Clint Eastwood, who is in the army on a weekend pass. It’s dark in here and Abe Lincoln who looks more like me every minute is my understudy in a dream about Monterey and wants to know the secret of life.
“Kid,” I say, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”


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Karl Elder is Lakeland College’s Fessler Professor of Creative Writing and Poet in Residence. Among his honors are a Pushcart Prize; the Chad Walsh, Lorine Niedecker, and Lucien Stryk Awards; and two appearances in The Best American Poetry. His most recent collection is Gilgamesh at the Bellagio from The National Poetry Review Award Book Series.

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  1. Lynette Bat-Abba
    June 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Karl Elder is an amazing man who happens to be one of the world’s greatest poets. I am both honored and blessed to have sat in a chair in his classroom being able to listen to him read and teach his art. “Linda in Storage” is one of my favorite poems he has written and I hope he considers reading this work as well.
    This “Dream” was perfect as was his reading as always dressed in an Abe suit teaching kids how to write.
    Hail, Sir Karl, from the Water Queen!

  2. Michael Kriesel
    June 13, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Such a fine poem. Abe Lincoln noir? That in itself is an achievement.
    Karl’s a friend and mentor to me. In the last two weeks I’ve watched Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” and the Ken Burns Civil War Documentary.
    But I was in the Navy, not the Army. So I’m pretty sure I’m not Karl Elder, at least when I’m sober.

  3. June 21, 2010 at 10:58 am

    I really enjoyed this, Karl. Nice to see you here at qarrtsiluni!

  4. JJS
    June 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    I love everything about the form, hilarity, intelligence, homage(s), genre-busting and ferocity of this piece. So glad you sent it to us, Karl.

    “Abe Lincoln noir” indeed. Spaghetti Odyssey? Eastwood Ovid? It’s all here.

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