CAN'T WAKE UP UNLESS I'M SLEEPING
BY SARAH M. BALCOMB
|“Everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated
thief.” -- William S. Burroughs
Nicki awaits the next day, her nightgown stuffed with it. The waiting. You couldn’t begin to imagine what any other state looked like. Flat as Texas. She is thinking of how their neighbor gave a concert of his work. Only people invited. His pickled face florid, flexing both manicured hands, talking like an African priest, eager but subtle and persuasive as her knees. They listened to those daily Times headlines, seeing her first husband dragged away by death. Like the housekeeper to her owner. Please! It’s an extension of his profile, a shadow of his being: owning.
He left her on a Sunday; it was down at the stale-smelling hotels of the east end, none of it any of my business. Sympathetic smiles from the pensioners’ rooms, believing or wanting to believe the representation of the sun, a proof of his faith, rubbing the pink palms of their black hands, sucking suffering through their teeth. Everybody gets high just like everybody gets low.
Other hands shoved deep in hand-me-down pockets, nobody’s fault that he couldn’t see it. Judgment was reserved in this labyrinth of violence. An epidemic of good behavior. A life of protection. Read every day. Sleep. No hijack, hey mack, no murder: no growth. Did you see something you didn’t want to see? Ordinary contacts.
Flashback to some time later in the right-hand corner of Guadalajara, an official process for declaring nothingness. The state. After mere hallucinogens, the old woman was sorry she’d waited so long to write. Typical. At this point Nicki spent every evening on her poetry. The husband reading travel books with lavender flakes in his hair and tapping around her ankles with a warm damp piece of lace that seemed twisted in the blue light. They were ensconced in the sofa then, in the house down the river grown thick along the side with cotton in a water-lily pattern. Like the lace. No more reciting Jules Verne in the living room.
“Make him feel alive!” Nicki would shout, misunderstanding the diagnosis. Terminal candid heart. How blunt. Nothing to be supposed.
But things had grown quite clear by 1999 when he would forget her birthday curtains in the office downtown, an hour from the home in Paris. The old woman unwilling to make such a run. A little scar now down his side from where removing the thermometer: who was the sick one after all.
Can one be robbed of childhood inoculations? No man with no knife clutched between no teeth poses no threat. Broke my heart. The atmosphere of yesterday’s papers, wrapped around next week’s fish. Tomorrow it will be over, left on the bedside table with the half-used tissues. There’s always at least one section left fresh like there’s always a superstar. And me, I’m always good for a joke. Passed among strangers’ hands like a marked bill.
It comes and goes. Letting your heart out.
All this leading to an engaging scene along a deliberately wooded road, hitching south with our decorative posts tied up with what clothing we were wearing. Mine a boatneck, his a grimy cotton undershirt type deal. Wife-beater, you might say, though perhaps the other way round. Nicki, she was unattached at that time. After asking one too many funny questions, her tone clipped like yellowed toenails over an ashtray, she had to be led away by flashlight to a house in the distance with dirty glass in kitchen windows. No neighbors there.
Did she throw the rocks? You wouldn’t know. Not even with your little ouija board. Though there are plenty of things to believe in. The husband and me, we imagine the places she might be hung, dangling at the waist, laughing at a snowman’s blasted skull. Though in all honesty, there’s little funnier.
But we had the burlap bag and we counted to eleven shouting, “No whooping, boys, not for four stops and a mile from home,” tearing up our teaching certificates to make the union possible. This one not legally binding, though as steady as Nicki in her gowns. If it makes you happy, I’ve got nothing against other women, long as I’ve met them. Or they have red hair. Can’t be all bad.
Then the television was on and I was in bed with his family. Imagine it, all men of grace. Like Heaven’s Gate. Weak to think without speaking or the other way round. He wished he could just stay conscious, but next thing he knew three bubbles were in the air weighed down by shiny coins from summer. Holes in the middle.
Then the shit got weird. Oh, to wake up with a stranger. At length I told him what had happened in the basement by the fridge, mechanically speaking to stop the weeping. The family passing over my head, web of pipes visible in the ceiling, feeling exhausted as a stout woman pulls the blanket up over my face, then she’s out there ironing sheets -- socks will come next. He kneels beside her now demanding the location of the freight elevator, seems he wanted to go down to the cafeteria. Freedom. He dragged me down there with him once, putting calluses on my back. You should have told me this would happen.
Now cut to a shadow of a city. Whiff of cocaine. No Cameros, no lingerie. Really I’m just fucking with my liver, lungs and heart. Plus there’s the entertainment value.
“The Beatles were the last Modernists,” said the friend and I was ready to agree, such a nice statement, but I had to formulate an argument of defense. My own. Should do that more often. Hard considering the state of the evening. The perfect sidetrack.
It’s not that I’m lonely but that there are more hours in the day which I’d like to fill with human contact. Or so I tell myself.
The natural order to be alone, just see what comes next in the text. How many millions of combinations to rob from a page. Struggle to reject this idea and its varying density, also destiny, just move it around a little, a device of its own context. Out of it now, registered in the room at three, a passionate testimony distinguished only by its off-handed admittance, the pairing of words always natural. Like pearls. Dive deeper. Though is it wrong to isolate the vehicle of ordinary connections? No such thing.
If need is love and love is need, what about what I want?
Over coffee you will put the verdict in a notebook, remember the surprises, the rapid-fire questions. If only they could all be answered without ending while abstracting on lonely walls, one hand balanced by thumb in bag strap, other at work with cigarette. That’s how it works.
Slipping now. Why you carry pen and paper: a thief. Aren’t we all.
I think of making a pact with my inner child, but opt instead for a
warm bath with the husband, our delicate nostrils gone flaky like a freshly
baked pie. I told you a million times, it always ends with pie.
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