The Technicolor Dreamer
by L. Stewart Marsden
It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire counseling career, and I have no explanation for any of it. I’m a pragmatist. My beliefs don’t ordinarily stray beyond what can be explained scientifically, or by the randomness of Nature. Coincidence, if you will. But this story belies all sane explanation, and falls into the category of eerie.
Toby Wheeler had been a client for years. He was prone to the couch because of his childhood, which was pretty bad. Abusive dad, co-dependent mother. One addicted to power and the other to a variety of substances — alcohol, barbiturates — the usual suspects.
Toby had been weak to begin with, born premature with an underdeveloped respiratory system. He was hospitalized for more than two months before being allowed to go home. Huge hospital bills, all which insurance wouldn’t cover, forced his dad to get another part-time job to make up the difference. But he was a cop and so finding security work at night wasn’t so difficult. That meant he was gone a good bit of the time, leaving Toby to be cared for by his mother, who drank and popped her days with pills.
After several years of struggling, the medical bills were finally paid, and his dad was home more frequently. He took all of his frustration out on Toby. Toby — the f**k-up reason his family didn’t own a house; the reason they drove an old clunker of a car; the reason for every bad thing — even the reason, so his dad said, I have to take off my belt so much to point you in the right direction.
Aside from being a momma’s boy (his dad’s favorite name for Toby — Hey, momma’s boy! Get me a damn beer!), Toby was plagued with asthma. He didn’t exercise because of that, and grew up thin and spindly — not the athlete prototype his dad had always wanted. And he ended up the only boy in the family, followed by two younger sisters. Now, they were the boys his dad always wanted.
Jackie was great at anything she tried — tennis, softball, rock climbing. If they had let girls on the football team, hell, she would have been an offensive guard, according to the way Toby’s dad bragged on her. Why the hell couldn’t you be more like Jackie? his dad would berate him at the dinner table. His mother would reach under the dining table to gently pat her son’s knee, as if to say, I love you just the way you are.
Della was the adventurer, making sure she was out of the house doing something, going somewhere. She was also the pretty one, and used her looks to her good advantage, wary that too much attention on the part of any boy was the lure to a tragic ending. She broke a lot of hearts, but hers remained intact.
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Yeah. Right. That was Toby’s favorite TV show — Mr. Rogers — and he lived to hear the opening song and rued the end of the daily episode. Between those musical bookends Toby soared in imagination and self-contentedness. Why couldn’t Mr. Rogers have been my dad? he wondered aloud in therapy.
To protect himself, Toby dived into a fantasy life filled with comic book heroes and science fiction. All of the Marvel men and women were his idols, Thing was his favorite. He also knew, nearly by heart, every episode of the original Star Trek television series. Like many, the emotionally-distanced Spock appealed to him, and he adopted much of his persona in his day-to-day life.
Of all my clients, Toby was great entertainment. We had regular sessions, which I always looked forward to. You might say our time was a staple in both our lives.
Toby didn’t come to me until after he had left his family home and was an adult on his own. Otherwise I would have been obligated to inform the authorities about his abusive father. Toby excelled academically — so much that he ended up with a full ride to Stanford, where he double-majored in math and mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, and then pursued his masters and PhD in computer engineering. Geek doesn’t begin to describe Toby.
Anyway, he was eons away from those childhood days chronologically when he first came to see me, although every instance of abuse felt and smelled fresh to him when he recounted them. I knew from the get-go we were going to be long-term. So we settled into our weekly regimen. I had no illusions of success where Toby was concerned.
He had virtually no contact with either his parents (small wonder) or his sisters. One of his sisters — Jackie, the athletic freak (as he called her) — moved to Montana and opened up a boutique that became rather trendy. She married her business partner, and the two of them decided to have a turkey baster baby — sperm donated by one of their gay friends. Jackie took the role of the father, and Helen was impregnated with the sperm and served as the mother.
His other sister, Della, moved to Amsterdam and did God knows what there. He thought she was part of a commune or something — but that was only rumor, spread when a childhood friend had run across her in Europe.
For years he and I hashed and rehashed the same old sh*t, as he called it. I tried putting him on a host of medication, which would seem to help for a while, and then not. I mean, it wasn’t like Toby was going to harm himself — or anybody else, for that matter. He just ran about an inch or so below normal. Dysthymic, I pronounced him one day.
“What’s that?” he asked, although I bet he knew. He was so well-versed in counseling terminology I once asked him had he ever considered going into the field himself. He just grinned.
“It’s like a six-cylinder engine running on four cylinders on account two are bad.” I use simple, easy-to-understand illustrations for my clients. Pretty down to earth, I am.
“And, how do we fix it?”
“Depends,” I said, relying on the counselor’s most-trusted statement to a client, “on if you want to be fixed.”
And, of course, whenever I did suggest that Toby was doing better, or that maybe we needed to reevaluate our arrangement, he immediately spiraled downward into a near-psychotic state of panic. It wasn’t that he actually was doing better. Sometimes I needed a break.
And that’s what I thought had occurred when Toby called me on that cold day in October.
“We’ve got to meet!”
“All right. Tell me why you think so, Toby.”
“Haven’t slept for days!”
“Take one of your pills,” I suggested.
“That’s just it! I can’t! I can’t go to sleep!”
“The pill will help . . . “
“No! Damn it! You’re not listening! I cannot, I MUST NOT go to sleep!”
“So, you’re telling me that the problem isn’t that you can’t sleep — it’s that you dare not go to sleep for some reason, correct?”
“Correct, for God’s sake!”
So we met an hour after the conversation. I had to clear the afternoon’s appointments, so I was a bit disgruntled when Toby arrived, disheveled and sleep crazed. Wired. Every other frantic adjective one could use oozed from him.
“Why can’t you go to sleep, Toby?”
“Because I might dream.”
“Uh-huh. You might dream? And we know you’ve dreamed before. And we’ve talked about many of those dreams, right?”
“This is different! God!“
“Calm down, Toby. It’s going to be all right.”
“No! It’s NOT going to be all right! You don’t understand!”
“Then help me to understand, Toby.”
Toby sat on the couch and raked his oily hair with his tense fingers. He leaned over and buried his face in his hands for several moments, then took a deep breath and sat up.
“Have you ever had a dream that came true?”
“You don’t mean a dream as in a hope, right?”
“A dream, for God’s sake!”
“Um, not sure. I remember a dream I had the night before a football game. In the dream I scored a touchdown on a short run. And, that happened in the game.”
“But, c’mon, Toby — that dream didn’t make the touchdown happen.”
“How do you know? How do you know your dream wasn’t a foretelling of what was going to happen?”
“Well, I guess I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that’s what happened.”
“Was it in color?”
“I’ll bet it was in color! Not black and white.”
“That was a hundred years ago! I don’t remember whether it was in color or black and white.”
“Technicolor, I guess, would be the more accurate term. I bet it was.”
“So, Toby — I’m guessing you’re here because of dreams you’re having?”
“No. I’m here because of dreams I might have.”
“Okay, I can’t read your mind! You need to explain.”
“I normally dream in black and white. I don’t know why — that’s the way it’s been ever since I can remember.
“About three months ago I had a dream that was in color — uh, technicolor. The first, ever.”
“It was a vivid dream of a tour bus, somewhere in the mid-west. The bus was filled with seniors — old people. They were a chatty bunch, talking and laughing, and the bus was zooming, it seemed to me, along a rather winding and narrow highway. It was on the outside lane, and a steep embankment that fell into a sort of canyon, was just on the other side of a metal guard rail.
“All of a sudden, as the bus rounded a corner, a semi coming from the other direction crossed the center line. I could see the driver of the semi as he realized what was going to happen. The truck slammed into the bus, and both the truck and the bus went over the guard rail and into the canyon, and burst into flames at the bottom.”
“Helluva dream, Toby.”
“That’s just it — it wasn’t a dream! It happened! It came on the national news the very next day!“
“Yes, I remember that. A tragic accident. No one survived, as I recall.”
“And I dreamed about it before it happened!”
I hesitated to respond to Toby.
“Toby, ever hear of deja vu ?”
“Sure. You suddenly are aware of having said or seen something that has happened before. It’s familiar.”
“Most researchers think it’s an instantaneous reflection — or echo — of an experience. Maybe a short-circuit event in the brain.”
“And you think my dream was deja vu? You think I watched the news and had a deja vu experience rather than dreaming it?”
“Well, to be honest, I thought that, too. I hoped that was true. Until I had another dream, also in technicolor. On that occasion, I jotted down the dream and dated it. I even put the time I wrote the dream down.
“The dream was about a small boy — maybe a little older than a year and a half. He was a toddler. In my dream he came out of a camping trailer at night. There was a full moon, and he crossed over to where there was a lake. The moon was reflected in the water, and the boy kept saying Moon! as he walked into the lake. He kept walking until his feet slipped, and he went under.”
“That story was on the news the next day. It was a local news item. The boy and his parents had gone camping in a nearby state park, and he slipped out of the camper late that night. They found his body floating in the lake about noon the next day.”
“And you had written it down.”
“I had written it down. Do you believe me?”
“Toby, I don’t know what to say.”
“One more. I dreamed about my father. He was drunk and out of control. My mother was trying to contain him and he slapped her and knocked her unconscious.”
“Toby, that’s the story of your parents’ life!”
“He knocked a tooth out of her mouth. The front left incisor. Actually, cracked it in half. That’s what I dreamed. And I wrote it down because it had been in technicolor, too.
“Four days ago I called my mother. She said she had to go to a dentist to repair a broken tooth. She first told me she had fallen and hit the floor, breaking that tooth in half. The front left incisor. And I told her she was lying to me; that I had dreamed about Dad hitting her in a drunken fury; and she broke down in tears and confessed he had done it.”
“Hard to explain that one away, huh?”
“Again — it’s the story of your parents, Toby. I call it coincidence.”
“And I call it something else. Nothing I dream in black and white ever comes true! Those are symbolic dreams — about my fears and my psychoses. Everything I dream in technicolor comes true, and is NOT about my psychoses!”
“But three dreams is a very small sampling, Toby.”
“What? You need more than three dreams? I don’t! Three is enough for me! There is no way I’m going to sleep! What’s the next technicolor dream going to be? It isn’t like the dreams occur a week before whatever I dream happens so I can do something about them! It’s like I’m dreaming it as it happens!
“I’ve been awake for the last four days — ever since that phone call to my mom!”
“What are you afraid of? What if these dreams are coincidental? Toby, your dreams are not causing these things to happen. IF what you say is true, there’s some sort of inexplicable thing going on, and you are in tune with certain events. I don’t know — something psychic, maybe.”
“That’s the best you can do? Inexplicable thing? Something psychic? Come ON! You gotta help me! Otherwise I’m gonna do something drastic!”
“Like what? Kill yourself? You telling me you’re gonna commit suicide, Toby?”
“Oh, I like that! Then you put me into a psych ward and drug me up! I am NO FOOL! That won’t stop the dreams! I’ll still have them! Don’t you understand?”
“What do you want me to do, Toby?”
Toby dropped his head in disappointment. He calmed down a bit from his frenetic fervor.
“Right. What the hell can you do? Not a lot, I guess. Nothing, really. I mean, it’s not like you can guarantee that I won’t have another technicolor dream when I’m finally exhausted and fall asleep. Right? You can’t, right? There’s really no pill for something like this.”
I was thinking, diving deep into my bag of tricks and searching for any way to help Toby. He clearly was on the edge. If I had a black and white dream pill, I sure as hell would give it to him.
That was it! A black and white dream pill! And I knew just where to go to get it.
Toby was more than confused at my excitement. I grabbed my Rolodex and rifled through half a dozen names and numbers before finding what I was looking for.
“Here it is! Toby, hang on while I make a call,” I said, motioning him back to the waiting room. I instructed my receptionist to keep Toby engaged and talking. Then I made my call.
“Okay,” I announced, coming back into the waiting room. Toby stood up with anticipation. “You and I are going to see a friend who, I think, has the answer for you — at least until we can get to the bottom of this thing. I’ll drive. You’re too tired to be on the road driving.”
We crossed town through heavy late-afternoon traffic. Toby kept trying to pry out of me where we were going and who we were going to see. I kept saying, “You’ll see, Toby. Trust me!”
We pulled into a strip mall not far from the hospital. There were doctors and dentists and a host of other practitioner offices of nondescript decor that formed a u around the parking lot. We parked in front of one of those offices and entered.
“Gregory von Buelin, PhD, Behavioral Therapist,” was ornately etched into a brass plate on the door. Inside, an older and wiry gentlemen was awaiting us.
“Steven, I am so glad you called,” he said to me. “And this is Toby?”
He shook our hands and led us through a door and down a hall to an office. It was comfortably furnished with large, cushy leather chairs. The walls were lined with thousands of books. Track lighting offered a calming effect, as did the soft, innocuous background mood music.
“Please, sit wherever you like,” he instructed gently. “My name is Professor von Buelin. You may call me Gregory, Toby.”
“Okay . . . Gregory.”
“What we will attempt is to give you exactly what you want: a magic pill that will make it so that, when you sleep, your dreams will be in black and white.”
Von Buelin reached for a medicine bottle and tapped out two white pills into the palm of his hand.
“Yes. Magic pills,” and held them out to Toby, who picked them out of the professor’s hand and inspected them. “For your deep psyche, that is. To us, they are no more than sugar pills.”
“Placebos,” remarked Toby.
“Correct. Placebos. But, when you do what you are instructed to do, and you take these pills? They will work. You will not have anything but dreams in black and white.”
“That . . . would be . . . a miracle,” Toby mused with a grin. It was the first time all afternoon that he seemed to relax a bit.
“First, we talk. Then, we take the pills,” von Buelin motioned for the return of the pills.
As they talked, about nothing in particular, about nothing to do with Toby’s dreams nor his fears nor anything amounting to much at all, Toby began to relax more. The soft confidence of the professor’s voice disarmed him, and he began to sink into the rich leather chair, luxuriating in its feel and smell, as though he were being firmly hugged by the most loving person he had never known. Protecting. Trusting. Relaxing. Sinking. Relaxing. Relaxing. Relaxing.
“Now, Toby, I want you to take this bottle of pills. It contains a special medication that, when you put it on the back of your tongue and swallow it down with a small cup of water, will wash down your throat and into your stomach. There it will dissolve and then seep into your body, traveling along your blood system to reach your brain, where the special chemicals will go directly to your dream center, and finally pull the levers that control your dreams. When that happens, you will only dream in black and white, and not another one of your dreams will ever, ever, ever come true.
“Will you open the bottle of pills now, Toby?”
“Yes.” And Toby opened the bottle of pills.
“And will you take out one of the pills, Toby?”
“Yes.” And Toby took out one of the pills.
“And will you put it on the back of your tongue?”
“And will you take a small sip of water?”
“And will you swallow, and allow the pill to travel down your throat?”
“To your stomach?”
“And into your body?”
“And into your brain?”
“Where it is now pulling the lever so that you will only dream in black and white.”
“Black and white.”
“Yes, black and white.”
I marveled at Professor von Beulin and his abilities. I was half hypnotized myself. Certainly relaxed as hell. And so was Toby. No jitters, no fears — just calm and relaxed. And I knew for certain he was not going to be bothered by technicolored dreams any longer.
I took him home and dropped him off, telling him I would pick him up in the morning so he could get his car. He was definitely too relaxed to drive, and no reason to tempt fate, I always say.
It was a long, hard day for me. I mean, it normally is, what with listening on hours to people telling me about their various psychoses. But it was particularly stressful with Toby. I knew what was at the back of his mind. I knew what he was afraid of.
He was afraid that one day he would have a dream about himself. In technicolor. And in that dream he would have an awful accident and die.
Some say that if you dream about your own death, and don’t wake up before it ends — you die. I don’t know how the hell you go about proving that. It’s not like you can take a dead person’s brain and slice it up and do something with it to see what the last impressions were. Well, not currently, anyway. Maybe some day.
So that was on my mind. You know. About Toby and some final dream about his death. In technicolor. At least, that’s what I told myself. The power of suggestion. The day and the stress and all of Toby’s energy — plus the hypnotism. It all kind of got jumbled up in my head. That’s the way I figure it. That’s the way I explained it. Coincidence. A fluke of mental nature. That’s what I told myself.
That night I dreamed about Toby. He was in his apartment, and was so relaxed! He walked into his bathroom and looked at himself in the cabinet mirror. His face was unlined and smooth — a little on the pasty side.
He looked at the tub and began to run a bath. He poured lilac bath salts into the water, into the frothing and bubbling spot where the stream from the faucet entered the water.
He slowly disrobed and tested the water temperature. The water was tinted purple from the lilac salts, and felt silky warm to his hands and fingers. He got into the tub and sat down, his feet near the faucet, feeling the soft push of the water entering the tub. He breathed in slowly, smelling the salts, feeling calm and relaxed.
He tilted his head back against the incline of the back of the tub, his hair matting wet, cushioning him against the enamel. He rolled his head slowly, the water running, his arms to his sides and floating just below the surface of the water, his hands limp, fingers slightly parted.
He closed his eyes, and an orange sun-like spot on the inside of his eyelids glowed where the bathroom light shone. He was at the seashore. He could hear the ocean waves gently rolling up the beach and slipping back, back to the sea. A gull called languidly above him. And he slept. He dreamed. Everything was in black and white. For him.
I watched as he slipped under the water. I watched as he drowned peacefully, with the water still running from the faucet into the tub. Up and over the edge of the tub and onto the green tiled floor, soaking the dark brown mat.
So, you tell me? Coincidence?
I haven’t slept since that day three days ago. Toby’s funeral is this afternoon.
I want you to tell me this isn’t something that can’t be explained away. I need that from you. Toby needs that from you. I don’t dare dream in technicolor again.
Can you understand that?
My father, Lawrence A. Marsden, wrote a number of short stories years ago that were never published, as far as I know. At the beach this summer my older sister told me of one, “The Technicolor Dream,” which was similar to the one I wrote.To date we have not discovered that manuscript. I wrote this in tribute to my dad, and to the great and curious mind that was his.