I Dream of Michael Jackson by Vincent Poturica

Shortly after Michael Jackson dies, I dream that he and I are sharing an apartment in Oakland, California, above a dentist’s office and next door to a newly remodeled synagogue. We’ve been living together long enough that I’m content to sit beside him without feeling the need to speak. The sun is sinking beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and the fog is rising like smoke from a fire.

Michael Jackson rests his chin on the windowsill, humming the da-da-da rhythm of the prayer a rabbi sings on the sidewalk below. Like the rabbi’s, Jackson’s eyes are closed. He’s dressed like a nineteen-fifties greaser: blue jeans, tight white t-shirt, black leather jacket, black cowboy boots. He looks good—not at all dead—like he did around the time Thriller was released, with his black hair immaculately permed and all his thinness buzzing, anxious to dance. I’d like to kiss him, but I don’t want to break his trance. So I sit on the floor and close my eyes too. When the song is over, Michael Jackson says, Tony, would you like to know what happens when you die? I start to say, Of course, but then I hesitate. Do you think I should know? I ask. Michael Jackson shrugs. That’s up to you, he says. We could talk about it some other time. We’re late for work. I follow him into the hall and down the steps and into the street.—The handrail is loose; I need to mention that to our landlord.— A few people nod and smile at Michael Jackson, but no one stares at him or points or asks him for an autograph, which strikes me as odd considering he’s the King of Pop and also dead.

But maybe the neighborhood is used to seeing him around. As we walk, Michael Jackson stops occasionally to scoop up bottle caps and the snapped-off tabs of aluminum cans. When I ask him why he’s doing this, Michael Jackson reaches into his pocket and pulls out a red frog that waddles across his palm before hopping off toward an abandoned lot. He reaches into his pocket again and holds a blue feather that bursts from his fingers like a roman candle as soon as he releases it. I see, I say. We walk in silence until we reach the stone steps of the Oakland Police Department. We’re here, Michael Jackson says. Work. I wonder whether Michael Jackson and I are detectives assigned to the same crime beat, spending our nights searching for clues and experiencing that collective solitude which occurs only when wandering a large city when it sleeps. But this thought is soon dismissed when a frowning blond officer leads us to a holding cell and locks us in. What’s going on, Michael? I ask. It’s time to work, he says, unfolding a piece of cardboard that I hadn’t noticed he’d been carrying under his left arm.

Two others are inside the cell: a young man slumped against the wall, unconscious or asleep, and an older man wearing sunglasses and eating a hard boiled egg. Either of you boys got any salt? Michael Jackson reaches into his pocket and pulls out one of those paper salt packets you find in cafeterias. Much obliged, the old man says. Jackson smoothes the cardboard—roughly six-and-a-half by three feet squared unfolded—across the cement floor and takes a deep breath. Hold this against the wall, he tells me. Jackson reaches into his pocket, pulls out a piece of white chalk, and traces the cardboard’s outline. When he’s finished, he draws a little circle just inside the right-hand border of the outline, about four feet from the ground. There, he says, looking pleased at the simple drawing. We’re almost done. Done? I ask. Jackson nods and taps the small circle, and I realize that it’s turning, that light is beginning to shine from the edges of the chalk, that the outline is a door. I learned this trick from Beetlejuice, Michael Jackson says. That’s a great film, I say. I know, Michael Jackson says, I know.

He takes the hand of the old man who I now understand is blind—sometimes it takes me a little while to pick up on these things—and I follow them through the door into a meadow of sunflowers. A black dog—probably a Labrador—runs towards us. It’s Louie, the blind man says. Hey Louie, I missed you. The blind man presses his face to Louie’s grinning muzzle and kisses the dog’s wet nose. Michael Jackson and I sit in the meadow with Louie and the blind man. I have a human feeling for animals, Jackson says, I think it has to do with being lonely. Amen to that, the blind man says. Me three, I say. After a while, we bid farewell to Louie and the blind man and walk into a grove of thin black trees. Jackson carefully unfolds the cardboard and surveys the grove for a trunk thick enough to outline a new door. Finally, he finds one, and, again, I hold up the cardboard as he traces around it with white chalk. We walk through the door into a dinner party.

The tablecloth is black. The napkins are red. Someone is talking about a new film: its postmodernism-tropes, unrealistic depictions of the class struggle, inherent racism: its superficial meditations upon which. Several theorists are mentioned, and I zone out. Michael Jackson is wearing one of his trademark admiral jackets, with bright gold buttons in neat rows along his shoulders. I don’t remember him changing his clothes. But I tell him he looks good and I stare at the buttons until gazpacho is served in small green bowls. The gazpacho is bland, so I attempt discreetly to flavor it with pepper—I don’t want to offend the host even though I don’t know who the host is or, in fact, who anyone at the table is except a girl who was—and possibly still is—the cashier at a Trader Joe’s in Eugene, Oregon, who I was always too nervous to ask on a date. A rain cloud forms above the table and lightning strikes a silver candleholder. Michael Jackson shrugs and folds his red napkin into a Japanese crane. The others are arguing about another film I haven’t seen. Lightning strikes my fork. When I tentatively tap it with my ring finger; the metal is cold.

Would you like to know what happens when you die? Michael Jackson asks the table. Several people frown, and a man with a mustache excuses himself to use the restroom. I think we should probably go, I say. We trace the door on the wall beside a gold-framed reprint of one of Van Gogh’s sunflower studies, the one where the yellow petals seem to curl away from the canvas like the urgent tentacles of sea anemones. We’re walking in a desert now. Michael Jackson holds a red umbrella above our heads even though it isn’t raining. The sun is not bright, but the heat is suffocating. I take off my t-shirt and tie it around my head. Michael Jackson drops the umbrella abruptly and begins to dig a hole in the sand. I do the same and stuff my head into the hole like an ostrich. I speak into the hole, and my echoes answer all my questions. Am I losing my mind again? Of course. Are we going to be okay? No. Will there ever be any rest? Never. When I raise my head, I see that Michael Jackson holds a book with a cover made of dried grass. The book is as large as those wonderful illustrated atlases you find in university libraries. It’s my diary, Jackson says, pointing to the book.

He hands it to me. I’d like you take a look. I leaf through it. There are many pages covered with clouds—some are painted with faded watercolors; others, sketched with pencil. There are lists. One reads, #1 BUY LIFESAVERS #2 CALL MAMA #3 WRITE A SONG ABOUT UNRAVELING A RAINBOW. There are pictures of Whitney Houston cut from magazines beside photos of ascetics with pinched faces, drawings of court jesters, locks of hair, pressed flowers. REMEMBER TO FORGIVE is written over and over; sometimes the letters are small and neat, and other times the script is so huge and reckless that Michael Jackson must have been drunk or feverish when he was writing. An excerpt dated April 22, 1998, reads:

GHOSTBUSTERS IS SHOWING AGAIN ON TV I DON’T KNOW IF I WANT TO WATCH IT I’M AN IDIOT I LIKE THE SHINY PINWHEEL THE LITTLE GIRL OUTSIDE MY WINDOW IS HOLDING I’M REALLY QUITE STUPID GAZPACHO WITHOUT TOO MUCH PEPPER MIGHT DO THE TRICK ALOHA YES I KNOW WE’RE NOT IN HAWAII ANYMORE BUT I LIKE SAYING ALOHA WOULD YOU HOLD MY HAND? WOULD YOU TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME? I LOVE YOU WOULD YOU TELL ME THAT WE’RE OKAY? THAT WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER IT’S STILL ONLY 4:45 TWILIGHT IS ALWAYS TOO SUDDEN I HATE THE NIGHT THE GRASS LOOKS BLOODY IN THE RAIN JANET CALLED AGAIN AND I TOLD HER I WAS FEELING BLUE I THOUGHT WE WERE DREAMING WHEN WE WERE KIDS BUT THEN I WOKE UP AND NOTHING MADE SENSE DON’T TELL MOM I’M BLUE I SAID TO JANET MOM’S DEAD JANET SAID YES BUT SHE CAN STILL HEAR US MICHAEL ARE YOU OKAY? THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL IS IT GREEN? OR MAYBE YELLOW THE COLOR OF MY FAVORITE BARTLETT PEARS PLEASE ACCEPT ME AS I AM I DO MICHAEL JANET SAID I LOVE YOU I’M NOT AFRAID OF THE DARK ANYMORE I TOLD HER I PROMISE THERE IS NO WAY FOR ME TO STOP LYING I’M MISERABLE I’M OKAY GOD HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP? MOM WAS RIGHT I WASN’T MADE FOR THIS WORLD I LOVE YOU MAMA WHY AM I SO LONELY? I HOPE THE STORM DOESN’T BREAK I’D LIKE TO TAKE A LONG DRIVE TO THE SUPERMARKET TO BUY SOME PEANUT M&M’S I GOTTA BELIVE IT WON’T ALWAYS BE THIS HARD . . . the words continue. And I feel guilty for having read them. I turn more pages: to sketches of people becoming trees; the light spilling through the branches of their hair; so many birds refusing to perch. One of the faces looks strangely like my own. Beside this face is a note that reads: YOU WILL MEET TONY IN A DREAM THE DREAM WILL BE PLEASANT BUT NOTHING WILL BE EXPLAINED. I point to the picture and the note and ask Michael Jackson what it means. He shrugs and I hand him back his book. We look at the sky, and the sun and moon are rising together. The darkness is total. I don’t know how long this blackness lasts, but when it’s over, I see that the desert has become a small island. Michael Jackson trails his fingers through the sand and uncovers beach glass that has been rounded into little green and blue lumps. We play marbles on a palm frond with these lumps. The clouds on the horizon look like a herd of migrating dinosaurs. I've always found it sad that dinosaurs are extinct, I say. Me too, Michael Jackson says. He breaks open a coconut against a palm tree. While we share the milk, a cruise ship anchors near the island. Revelers chant, Michael, Michael, Michael . . . from the bow.

A captain resembling David Hasselhoff paddles a row boat to the island’s shore. He kneels and bows his head, handing Michael Jackson an invitation written in an exquisite gold calligraphy. We help the captain paddle, and then climb a ladder to board the ship. The throng cheers. Shining confetti rains from a balcony and sticks to our sweaty faces. A group of the ship’s crew kneels before Michael Jackson and asks him if he wouldn’t mind singing a few songs with the ship’s band. Of course, Michael Jackson says, it would be my pleasure. He squeezes my shoulder before he follows the band. Listen closely to my song, Tony, Michael Jackson says, I’m going to tell you what happens when you die. I nod and wish him luck. Then I wander the ship until two very pretty Indian women who look to be in their early thirties ask me if Michael Jackson is really the Michael Jackson. I tell them Yes. I thought he was dead, one of the women says; they just had that massive funeral in Los Angeles. He is dead, I say. Oh, they say.

While the ship’s band sets up their equipment, the women explain to me that almost everyone on the cruise works for a certain software company headquartered in Bangalore that recently merged with another IT firm based in Amsterdam. The passengers are, for the most part, Indian or Dutch on a corporate team-building holiday. That’s awesome that you guys get to take a free cruise, I say. The women nod. An older Dutch woman in a yellow sundress joins us and offers to share her lobster with me. I gladly accept her gift. While the band tunes up, we chat about the pros and cons of our growing dependence on computers. I realize, during our conversation, that I have yet to hear Michael Jackson sing. I’m excited. The drummer leads off with a steady beat. I recognize the stuttering bass line of “Billie Jean,” as Michael Jackson opens his mouth for the first verse. And I watch the shadows parading down his throat.

Vincent Poturica has worked as a journalist in Sri Lanka and Minnesota. Originally from the South Bay of Los Angeles, he currently lives in Gainesville where he is an MFA canditate at the University of Florida. He tweets @vpoturica.