Remind Me Tomorrow

Over the Hill

CASPER IS AN INCORRIGIBLE CREATURE of indissoluble habit and inflexible routine. He’s also bold, has a voracious appetite, is relentless in his pursuit of nourishment, and unfettered by conventions such as manners and propriety. So, as is his custom, he dashed unabashed and unannounced into Gene and Dana Rayburn's master bedroom at 5:30 to demand his breakfast. He neither noticed nor cared that on this otherwise unremarkable morning he’d caught Gene in flagrante delicto with a frisky, 40-something-year-old adulteress of indescribable beauty, insatiable appetite, astonishing stamina, possessed of a poverty of clothing and an utter lack of restraint. Dana Rayburn, a woman of considerable restraint, would not, to say the least, have approved.    

Gene was understandably annoyed by Casper’s ill-mannered intrusion, but wasn't troubled in the least by guilt, remorse, or concern over potentially unpleasant consequences that might upset the delicate balance of domestic tranquility he so treasures. The lurid scene was, after all, merely a private illusion...a harmless manipulation of a rare, unusually exotic dream state. Gene, on occasion, is able to control the characters, narrative, and environment of his dreams, even as he’s aware that he’s dreaming and—in this semiconscious state—also vaguely aware of the real world about him. Gene Rayburn—producer, director, star—can break or bend the laws of physics, woman, and God to his heart’s content without fear of consequence—in his lucid dreams. But neither God nor Casper are mocked.

Rayburn the Rake, as Gene privately styled himself, fully intended to savor his illusory adulterous romp, from plateau to apex…culmination…then… Who knows? A shared cigarette, perhaps? “Was it as good for you as it was for me, mon cherie amour?” Ever the gentleman, he. But there would be no hackneyed happy ending or trite postcoital small talk this morning. Thanks to Casper, Gene’s side of the marital bed would not be defiled by a wanton succubus today. Ah but there’s always tomorrow, Gene thought, flat on his back, eyes slowly closing, drifting off, half dreaming...and tomorrow...  

Tomorrow! Gene's eyes flipped open. He was immediately and miserably awake, alert, and aware. His expression a mixture of surprise and disgust, as if he'd just soiled his own bed. Gene didn't want to think about tomorrow. Not today. Today he loathes tomorrow and silently curses all in life that is inevitable. The passage of time is much on his mind of late and suddenly too much in plain sight. As Gene drew up on his elbows, his gaze fell on the disembodied face of an aged grandfather clock glowing ghostly before him. He was hardly shocked. It is a familiar, once-friendly presence in his bedroom.

The spectral image, projected by a gadget on his nightstand, is of a working antique clock face, with Roman numerals and moving hour, minute, and second hands. The relentless rotation of the second hand seems overly aggressive today, Gene thinks. The face—with whom he’d never before had reason to quarrel—now oozed arrogance. Uncalled for, Gene thought, as the device was a beloved Christmas present from his beloved Dana, who lay sleeping sweetly, snoring gently to his left. So peaceful in repose, he thought. At that, he remembered with a silent groan that the peace would soon be disturbed. Rayburn the Virtuous, as he privately styled Dana, would soon be roused by Casper the Spoiled if he failed to quit his inviolate bed and get about the business of preparing breakfast for the little ones. 

He crawled out of the sack…slowly, much like a tentative child nervously attempting to stand on his own for the first time, grasping at nearby objects—his nightstand...his oxygen concentrator—using his upper limbs to help his lower limbs defeat the merciless, ever-increasing force of gravity. Casper observed this comedy carefully from the bedroom doorway. Once confident that his vertabrae were reasonably well aligned, Gene dropped his hands to his side, arched his back slightly, opened wide his jaw and rolled his head about all axes until all cracking sounds ceased. He frowned at Casper and muttered “buzzkill” as he followed him off to the kitchen.

THE RAYBURNS, a pleasant, decorous, amiable couple, recently entered the fourth decade of a marriage they’d come to consider an enduring example of triumph over relentless tribulation. They have a knack for finding timely and creative ways of overcoming most difficulties, and this resourcefulness rarely fails them. Publishing is, or was, their métier. Gene is a writer and Dana a psychotically efficient manager. They met on the job in 1982 and worked together—for the most part—thereafter. Gene took a three-year sabbatical but picked up where he’d left off after his Honorable Discharge from the Army. They were astonishingly efficient as a team, and this was well known in the relatively small, highly specialized world of medical publishing. When one or the other accepted a position at a different company, one or the other soon followed. 

They struggled during their early years—most young couples do—but as they and their marriage continued to mature, Gene and Dana enjoyed increasing prosperity. They hit their stride in the 1990s, earning more than they could have ever imagined when they first met, and were doing quite well until Gene was cut down by nearly catastrophic health problems that, outside of a clinical setting, were not amenable to timely creative solutions. Seven years after surviving the first crisis and a subsequent chain of additional chronic medical misfortunes, a judge declared him disabled, and Dana became the principle breadwinner. But the ever-resourceful Rayburns had managed their affairs and assets wisely and were able to retire a few years ago to a lovely new home in a bucolic borough of North Carolina. It was Mr. Rayburn who first broached the idea of leaving New York for North Carolina, but in fairness, this happy outcome was made possible almost entirely by dint of Dana’s discipline and parsimonious instincts—she is a Scot.

According to an article Dana read somewhere some time ago, psychologists have determined that writers are, in general, a hapless lot. They tend to be “individualists, skeptics, taboo-breakers, mockers, loners; they are undependable, likely to be behind on their rent; they keep irregular hours and have strange friends.” Dana agreed, on the whole, but would have added “peculiar fashion sense” to the mix. Gene needed sartorial guidance and structure in his life, and Dana was just the woman to provide it. Her organizational skills, tenacity, and ability to project authority are awe inspiring, whereas Gene is a gifted, creative “idea man” whose ability to ignore relentless nagging is legendary. Management and talent in a legally binding symbiotic relationship. It was a winning combination by any measure.

Thus, in terms of happy years together and the shape of things to come, the Rayburn marriage has all the appearances of an unqualified success. Darwin, however, would consider the couple a dismal failure, wholly unfit, an unfortunate waste of DNA. The Rayburns will die without issue. In fact, the heartbreak, humiliation, and obscene indignities associated with infertility and vile infertility interventions nearly did them in. The doomed pursuit of progeny strained their marriage well beyond any trial they’d faced before or since. For at least 18 months the connubial was made clinical, intimacy was placed under a microscope, and self-respect yielded to self-loathing. At times it seemed they hated each other, which Gene found ironic, considering the mission. But despite all, they endured, survived, eventually called an end to the madness, and made peace with reality. This peace did not come overnight. The couple was badly damaged by the medicalization of their marriage. Healing would take time, and some things would never be the same. The joy and innocence of their Eden was forever lost. No longer unashamed, they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. 

Today, they don’t often think about, and certainly don't mourn, life without children and grandchildren. Both have come to believe, without rationalizing, that it was for the best. Just last week, in fact, Dana mentioned aloud for some reason—Gene didn’t recall the context of the conversation—she’s glad, all in all, that things turned out as they had. Gene concurred. He freely boasted that he’d never changed a diaper in his life and didn't think he’d missed much for being so deprived.

FROM THE BEDROOM, Dana heard the familiar sounds of Gene tending to business and knew that breakfast, and her coffee, would soon be served. She’d felt her husband squirm when Casper started in and saw no reason to announce that she had been quietly awake for 10 or 15 minutes by then. Dana was especially tired and achy that morning. She knew if Gene were awake and able to leave the bed, he would quietly follow Casper to the kitchen so as not to wake her. Gene does his best to keep His Lordship, as the Rayburns openly styled Casper, from pestering her with his reliably annoying 5:30 wake-up calls. Her husband is thoughtful that way. But some mornings it can take hours before Gene’s able to get out of bed after waking. On such occasions, breakfast is on Dana. Because Casper Amadeus Rayburn will have his way. One can endure his ceaseless cris de cœur for only so long. Dana did feel slightly guilty, but playing dead is a two-way street, and she’s certain that Gene has suckered her as many times as she has him. It all evens out in the end.

Dana sat up. Listening carefully, she could tell, with reasonable accuracy, what Gene was up to. For the first several minutes after he left the room she heard nothing. This suggested his first stop was likely the guest bathroom. That made sense. A straining bladder, she could testify, would be an added incentive to get up at such an ungodly hour. A couple minutes later, the distant sound of a toilet flushing confirmed she was right. Next, the bathroom door creaked open, and Dana could clearly hear the tank refilling. Enough time to wash his hands? She wondered…hoped. Gene would turn on the Keurig coffee machine as he passed by it on his way to the pantry. The switch could not be heard, but the machine would first groan like a plaintive melodic foghorn, then start huffing and puffing as the water heated and heaved. Moments later, she heard him rummaging around in the pantry and knew he would grab three matching plastic plates from the shelf and bring the breakfast fixings into the kitchen. She heard the refrigerator door thump closed after Gene retrieved her hazelnut creamer. But coffee, she knew, would have to wait a moment or two.

Casper was complaining again, probably pacing impatiently...the desperation in his voice suggested he was dangerously close to starvation, or at least he believed that to be the case. His stepsisters are much better mannered…and patient. They would be hungry too but are not given to hysterics. They stand by quietly and let Casper do all the heavy lifting when it comes to ensuring meals are served in a timely manner. Dana heard the first can pop open then the unmistakable sound of thin metal peeling apart. She knew what Gene would be serving that morning. Not that Dana could discern the contents of a can by the sound it makes upon being opened, it’s just that chicken hearts and liver feast with grilled-chicken–flavor gravy were the only two cans left. In any event it was as good a choice as any; the young ones have famously finicky, exasperatingly inconsistent palates. What was delectable last Tuesday might be disgusting this Tuesday. But whatever the decree, it was always unanimous. Fussy eaters. 

The Rayburns, owing perhaps to the fact that they are a barren couple, have spoiled their three adoptees rotten. They are accustomed to Casper’s impertinence, they indulge him, and understand if he is a brat, and he surely is, he’s a brat of their own making. More so than the others because he’s the most demanding, sensitive, and melodramatic of the crew. Scooter-Pie is crazy, to be sure, and bulimic, but she’s no beggar. Neither is Toby, the tiniest, shyest of the lot. Scoot and Toby are bicolor or “tuxedo cats.” They are also littermates. Casper is a Turkish Van or “swimming cat.” His fur’s white as new-fallen snow, fluffy, and beautifully marked with three black diamonds arranged in a triangle on his head and ears. He’s long, sleek, gangly, powerful, regal, uncommonly beautiful, and it all works to his advantage. He may be a few days older or younger than his stepsisters—it’s impossible to say. They were babies when the volunteer from the rescue group delivered them to the Rayburns. Dana and Gene love them fiercely and unconditionally. And all three cats, in their own peculiar endearing ways, return that love with equal intensity. 

When Casper at last fell silent, Dana knew breakfast was probably being devoured and coffee would arrive presently. She heard a splutter and loud hiss as the Keurig finished brewing the first cup of coffee. Another groan signalled the onset of another heating cycle. Since Gene was on the job that morning, Dana's coffee with hazelnut creamer, no sugar, would be served in the special cup, the one showing a beatific rabbit standing on hind legs in a field of flowers, clutching a pink heart to its chest, eyes closed, face turned toward heaven, ears drooping limp behind the head. When the cup is held with the right hand, the words “I love you so much” appear inside the top rim with every sip. When Dana takes care of the early morning chores, she serves Gene’s coffee in that same mug. The Rayburns can be sentimental. Dana heard another hiss as the second cup finished brewing.  

THE MOMENT DANA HEARD GENE shuffling back to the bedroom, she resumed playing possum. With practiced efficiency she slithered back under the covers, rolled to her left side, buried her face full into her pillow, and pulled the comforter up to her ears. It appeared to Gene that she hadn’t moved a muscle since he left, and he again marveled at her ability to survive night after night sleeping in a position that would certainly lead to swift suffocation should he attempt it. He set one cup down on his nightstand and placed the special cup in a ceramic coaster on Dana's nightstand. She jumped slightly at the rude clank of ceramic meeting ceramic. To this staged startle response she added a soft groan, a few unintelligible utterances, then a polite yawn...all designed to lend more authenticity to the deception.  “Mmm…thank you,” she mumbled with a smile.

"Mm hm,” Gene replied, as he made his way back to his side of the marital bed. It isn’t unusual for Dana to fall back to sleep for several hours after such an early morning rousing, but for the moment at least, it seemed the Rayburns were up for the day. She asked if he’d fed the cats. He had. She asked if he’d started the fireplace. He had not. That was okay, she said. Then, as though the thought had only just occurred to her, Dana cheerfully announced, “Tomorrow's Friday, Gene! Friday the 13th! It’s your 60th birthday!” That was not okay.

“Yes. Yes…I know,” Gene sighed.

“Well aren’t you excited?” said Dana with great excitement.

“What is there to be excited about?” said Gene. “I’ll be 60, entering the 7th decade of my moribund existence. It’s just another day.” Gene’s enthusiasm over birthdays evaporated with his youth. That's not the case with Dana. A bit of the child in her reemerges for birthdays…especially Gene’s. And he gets a kick out of that. It cheers Gene to see Dana happy, free, and young of heart. She revels in the silliness…the goofy hats, balloons, cake…all of it. Dana’s possessed of a mysterious, ageless quality—as much at home at a sweet-16 party as a cocktail party. It’s a quality Gene finds especially endearing. She delights in making his birthdays special, he delights in seeing her happy. Thus, for as long as they’ve been together Gene has enjoyed, despite himself, happy birthdays. But this past year of angst and sturm und drang had been unlike any other Gene has known. This birthday really mattered.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Gene grumbled. “Another day behind me, one less ahead. Another grain of sand through the hourglass."

“Sands through the hourglass? Thank God you write better than you whine, Gene Rayburn. You should be embarrassed. You’re supposed to be getting over your midlife crisis at 60, not starting it.”

“One would think,” Gene replied. “But did you not notice it started when I was 45? That things went wobbly for me early on? Maybe during those all-too-real surreal days when you and I and the ICU team thought I might actually die? Carted off to Underwood's Funeral Home for an oil change and a dirt nap? I survived, Dana, but my pre-crises comfort zone did not. And it’s been one thing after another ever since. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if I wake up tomorrow.

“How did you know I was in the mood for a little melodrama?

“I’ve told you before. I’ve always had this sense, this feeling that I would die on my birthday. And that wouldn’t be so bad, really. There’s sort of a…completeness to it. Maybe I’ve dodged 59 bullets and tomorrow really is the big day of big days. Sixty is a big fat round number, and it seems almost poetic if I were to bite the dirt on Friday the 13th. Don’t you think?" 

“I think poetry was never your strong suit, Gene. But these things do happen. My father died on his birthday. Maybe you’re right. Maybe your number’s up after all. Do you have any plans? Will you be brave? Are you going to sit up at midnight and stare Death right in the eyes?”

“No. I’m going to hide under the covers. That’s the last place he’ll look.”

Dana laughed and adjusted the comforter so Casper, who had just returned from his breakfast, could crawl underneath. He likes to settle down and snooze under the covers between the Rayburns when they’re lounging in bed. Whether he devoured or disregarded his meal, Casper can be gracious and always gives the Rayburns an “A” for effort if they go to the trouble to serve it. He will politely ask that someone raise the comforter for him, but will otherwise hold his tongue, for a while. 

Gene watched Casper settle in…and worried about him, as he worries more and more about every little thing. Casper seems to be in excellent health. They all do. Dana appears to have the health, stamina, and vitality of an 18-year-old. But nobody’s getting younger, and everybody owes God one death. Everything and everyone Gene loves has an expiration date, and that’s always in the back of his mind when he thinks about them these days…or looks at them. He imagines life without his living, breathing treasures and wishes he couldn’t. Gene has a vivid imagination. 

“Look, Dana, I’m not afraid of dying. At least I don’t think so. But living has been a bear these past 15 years. It gets old…as I do.”

“Yes I know. You haven’t had it easy. Feeling sorry for yourself?”

“It certainly sounds like it. I suppose I am. But self pity is loathsome. So let’s keep that in the family, just between us…right here…you, me, Casper won’t talk,” Gene said as he ran his hand over the long lump purring under the covers between them. Somewhere outside the bedroom, Scooter-Pie started batting something around. Just one crazy cat, but it sounded like a herd of cats was playing basketball in the living room.  

“Scoot’s getting a workout,” Gene muttered. “Probably found that pine cone."

“She’d better not barf,” Dana said.

Gene took a couple sips of coffee and looked straight ahead at nothing in particular. Dana set her cup down, grabbed her iPad, checked her e-mail, waited patiently.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Gene said at last. “I’ve been thinking about this for weeks…can’t get it out of my head. Do you realize Eisenhower was still president when I was born? And the flag…the flag only had 48 stars. Alaska and Hawaii weren’t even states yet!”

“Yeah, Gene, I know,” Dana said. “Did you forget I’m four years older than you? You want to hear something else shocking? Last I heard, The Rolling Stones are still touring.”

“What does that have to do… Well good for them! Rolling stones gather no moss. I sure did…do…am. I mean, look at me. In a torpor for 15 years.”

“Hardly, Gene. Hardly. You just have a short attention span, and you’ve forgotten or have disregarded your accomplishments. Shall I enumerate?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Fine. I think the problem here is that you haven’t accomplished all the things you want to do. How about that?”

“Yeah, there’s that. That’s another thing I can’t get out of my head. But I’ve lost my edge, Dana. My memory’s shot…or badly broken, at least. That makes me feel...old. My eyes refuse to work together. My mirror’s growing haggard. Just like it’s supposed to. Everything’s happening according to plan. There are no surprises here. But aging…it seems to accelerate over time, we pick up speed sliding down that razor blade of life. Old happens fast, but it also creates drag. Does its job. Slows us down. The stuff I write now is, I don’t know…probably better than ever, but it takes twice as long to get there.”

“Maybe it’s supposed to.”


“I mean maybe the stuff you write now is better because you put more into it than you used to. Lord knows you have the time now. But taking the time to do it right, that takes something out of you. And let us not forget, you’re…differently abled…

“No! Please. I prefer ‘crippled’”.

“All right. But you know what I mean. It’s never going to come as easy as it used to. If it’s better, though, that has to count for something. We’re retired. You aren’t under any pressure. Why not use your time better? You’re not disciplined, and you don’t have to be, but maybe if you tried a little harder to…oh I don’t know, to be more organized. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, it might help also if you'd stop throwing out nearly everything you write.”

“Bad ideas ought to be disregarded. Too many contemporary novels I’ve read never should have seen the light of day.”

“And no story you write will either unless you really want that. Am I the only one here who has faith in you?"

Gene looked at Dana...then back into his coffee cup. He remembered the dream that Casper so rudely interrupted not half an hour ago, and recalled that in lucid dreams he has free will, the will to choose, and he chose to play the philanderer. Now Rayburn the Rake felt like Rayburn the Ratbastard. Casper Amadeus had, in fact, prevented him from making a terrible mistake. He put his hand on the purring feline lump and gave him a tender pat. Dana watched bemused from the corner of her eye as Gene's expression passed from puzzled, to pained, to grave.

Then Gene spoke to Dana. In a soft voice. He told her of a dream. That it was no ordinary dream. That it was only a dream. But in some dreams he has control over everything that happens. He explained that lucid dreams aren’t so rare, really, but he realizes now that the dreamer bears great moral responsibility. In this dream, he faced a choice and he chose, of his own free will, to betray her…for another woman, and—

Dana laughed. Gene frowned. Casper sighed.

“Oh my God!” Dana said, fighting to catch her breath. “Oh my poor husband. My beloved unhappy warrior. Confessing to an affair you dreamed up? What a piece of work. You’ve become your own personal human doormat. Oh, what’s a girl to do?” she sighed. 

“I don’t see what…"

“Stop…shush. I’ve got it. Listen to me closely, Gene. Dearest Gene. Light of my life. I hereby grant you dominion over your dreams. Do as thou will, you rascally rake! You cad! Bounder! Dream away! Take control, sweetheart. Maybe there will be a good story or two in there for you. So you must remember them. Do something with them. You have my permission to dream, dearest, provided you wake up. Frolic and forsake me, if you will. I’ll look the other way. But always remember to wake up. Those are the rules. Always wake up. Especially tomorrow. It’s going to be a big day—your 60th birthday, old timer. There isn’t a damn thing you can do about it, so bitch all day if it helps. It’s your right, and I’ll cut you some slack—just for tomorrow. But just be here in the morning." 

“I just feel...“

“Like an idiot, I hope. And I don’t blame you. Go out in the back yard and slap yourself around for a while, then throw in a swift kick in the ass from me."

“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll admit point taken and promise to be here in the morning"

“Good. I’ll be here too,” said Dana. “And I’ll be sure to check for a pulse."

“You and me against the world.”

“Except the world isn’t against us, Gene. It’s you alone against Gene Rayburn. Why not give the guy a break? At least on his 60th birthday. He’s such a fragile creature. Be kind?”

“I’ll try.” He felt mildly embarrassed now, just as Dana had planned. A touch of humiliation is always therapeutic when Gene’s sulking gets the better of him. Dana knows her man. 

“Fair enough. Are you writing anything now?”

“I was working on…nothing, it’s stupid. I tossed it last night.”

“Find it. Finish it. I want to read something stupid. Go upstairs…right now.”

Gene wasn’t in the mood. He felt uninspired. Abandoned by his muse. But he was wide awake and had nothing better to do. He’d finished his coffee, didn’t want another, felt like a fool, and his back hurt like sin. Too much time in bed.

“All right, Dana,” said Gene, as he got up. "But you won’t l like it. I don’t like it."

“Then we’ll dislike it together. Or not. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Gene. Will you keep that in mind...for me? You will never write the perfect anything. Good isn’t so bad. And take a chance for once in your life. Don’t be afraid of the bad.”

“All right…all right, point taken. Let me get out of here before you break into 'You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Christ, I can’t believe I used to like that song. I’ll be upstairs.”

“Bye,” said Dana.

“Bye,” said Gene.

UPSTAIRS AT HIS DESK Gene stared intently at his iMac. Nothing happened. Staring, he’s found, is an inefficient approach to writing, and he felt exceptionally inefficient, all in all. Toby was sleeping quietly on the couch behind him. The violent ruckus coming from downstairs meant Scooter-Pie was still happily amusing herself. It was quiet upstairs, though, and not much to speak of was happening. Perhaps 10 minutes had passed when Gene saw Casper peek over the top step to the second floor then walk toward him, slowly, as is Casper’s way when food is not involved. Gene turned back to look at nothing on his screen, but was soon distracted when something soft and warm brushed against the bare skin of his right leg. 

He reached down and gently caressed Casper about the ears. Casper purred deeply, which Gene found—always finds—pleasing. Then, for the sort of reason writers can neither explain nor comprehend, Gene's brain at last slipped out of neutral. At once he looked like a man who suddenly remembered why he left the early morning comfort of his bedroom to walk from one side of his house to the other and climb a flight of stairs to sit in another room. He looked down at Casper, who looked back at Gene and blinked, once...slowly. Gene smiled, nodded once, slightly, to himself, then turned back to his screen as his gray matter ground through a few more gears. A moment later he said “Thank you, Casper” and as he tickled his keyboard the following words began to gather on his screen:

CASPER IS AN INCORRIGIBLE CREATURE of indissoluble habit and inflexible routine. He’s also bold, has a voracious appetite, is relentless in his pursuit of nourishment, and unfettered by conventions such as manners or propriety. So, as is his custom, he dashed unabashed and unannounced into Gene and Dana Rayburn's master bedroom at 5:30 to demand his breakfast. He neither noticed…   

The words came easily, Gene felt confident, Gene felt comfortable, Gene felt his heart implode when a grating synthetic female voice suddenly boomed from his computer...

“Pardon me. Reminder: Gene A. Rayburn's 60th Birthday, tomorrow."

Gene sighed. Fist on mouse, he dragged the cursor to the announcement box at the upper right corner of the screen. He clicked on Later, then from the drop-down box on Remind Me Tomorrow, then returned to his keyboard.

...nor cared that on this otherwise unremarkable morning he’d caught Gene in flagrante delicto with a frisky, 40-something-year-old adulteress of indescribable beauty, insatiable appetite, astonishing stamina, possessed of a poverty of clothing and restraint. Dana Rayburn...

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