My first instinct upon waking up is to find a scrap of paper and write a scrap of something down.
Some tatter of what remains to me from where I’ve been.
But I don’t. My contract forbids me, andIhaveto honor it. I can’t rightly say what it is that I fear might happen if I didn’t, but I don’t have the feeling that it would be something good.
I am not even allowed to look at it—it says so right on the second page, I’m told—so I don’t. I just let it be.
What I have to do in the morning, to get through this time when I’d like to be writing something down, building up, day by day, a star map of the nights that have made up the past few years, or a scale model, all toothpicks and rubber cement, that might help rough out some aspect of where I’ve been all this time, building up my fortune in ever-increasing increments, is to eat giant gushing mouthfuls of sweet, sweet cereal, filling my pencil-hand with a spoon and stirring at the gummy bowl until the tatters dissolve.
Marshmallows, lime and cherry flakes, chocolate chips, purple raspberry corn puffs. And whole milk, or even cream. Some coating for my teeth and tongue, a little warm fat to pack in the words that have crawled up from down in my throat.
I spread an Entertainment Weekly around me at the breakfast table, and wipe my milky fingers on the edges of the pages, down where the numbers are, as I see what the waking stars are up to.
I try to skip the TV section. When I happen to glance at it, I hope that there are no articles about me. When there are, I try not to read them, and when I do, I try to forget what I’ve read as soon as breakfast is over.
I hereby declare myself awake.
I often wonder if I should read more about my show just to see if any cancellations are imminent, any tectonic unrest between one season or network and the next, if I should prepare for the worst in that sense, start to compile a waking resume, but it’s stated very clearly in my contract that I am to give the show no waking thought of any kind; to think at all while I’m awake, would, indeed, constitute a certain breach, like telling the upcoming finale’s secret ending to a nosy interviewer, for no better reason than simply to have been the first to do it.
Some mornings, like now, I wake up with a gut full of turmoil, but if the feeling comes from inside the show, and what’s happening on it, or from outside, and what’s happening to it, I cannot tell.
I am, thus, in a way, the bearer of a secret, one that I cannot divulge to anyone, myself belonging firmly to that category. I don’t even know what season we’re in. I do live in some fear of the producers deciding to kill off my character, certainly, but there’s nothing I can do with this fear but let it come and go like one more mood, and pour some more cereal into whatever coconut-spackled milk remains.
I have nothing to do during the day. I am free to sit in my breakfast chair all the way until dinner.
And then, after dinner, I travel around the house in big loose circles, turning up the heat, wearing my pajamas or wrapped in a towel, until I’m tired enough to lie down, and then I lie there murmuring, thinking about my father, gathering up courage on the march toward sleep.
And then, as I imagine it, my work begins.
The cameramen come out of the closets, up from under the rugs, down from the attic and the chimney, in from the neighboring houses, and the director shouts action.
“I am a sleepwalking actor.”
This is all I’m allowed to tell the interviewers when they ask me, during the day, about what I do.
I am, it seems, a star. The star. Whether it’s a sitcom or a long, heavy drama, or pure pornography, executions down a long row of gagged captives or the daring rescue of innocents in freefall, I don’t know. But they do tell me that I’m a star, and, judging by the amount I get paid, either they mean it quite seriously, or else some very wealthy person is inexplicably intent on a very prolonged and diffuse joke.
My only waking job, as I sit here and think of it now, is to cultivate passivity. I have to let the actor take over, that is all. He kills his lines, he sweats charisma, he charms the dames right off their feet and knocks the fellas flat, if that’s the kind of show it is. And, if not, he does the other thing with equal finesse.
On the far side, where this all takes place, I am infinitely happy. Why shouldn’t I be?
In the mornings, nothing in the way of memory remains except a worn-out, composted mulch. A kind of smell, a sediment, a sort of distressed cereal softness in the ground from which weeds and other harmless things grow.
At worst, I have to blow my nose a few times.
And then I go to the bathroom and swallow a lot of water, when I feel something like a powder building up. Sometimes I feel that I would like to see a doctor, but the feeling passes.
After breakfast I imagine that I’m asleep, just soundly out of the picture, under a bag in the parking lot of a closed-down supermarket, or else enjoying the inky liquid bath of real dreams, color and sound exploding into one another in a sky made of overlapping fireworks, way up in the far back of the universe, where weirdness begets weirdness just to be weird. This is what I think dreams must be.
This is my repose, which, I hope you understand, the nights can never be.
Sometimes I wonder if I become another person entirely at night, not me as a sleepwalker but someone else, someone awake, someone whose money is coming to me, through some misunderstanding or pore in the quilting, for which he holds me accountable, someone who may show up at my door one day and demand it, all of it at once or in installments, with interest, or demand something else entirely, something in exchange, some cruel and fearsome tithe.
Or someone who has arranged it just like this, paying me for some undeclared service that, by accepting his payments, I have implicitly agreed to perform. Whenever a knock comes, I imagine that it’s him, and I try to imagine what I’ll do.
These were my thoughts when the knock came.
At first I didn’t get up to answer it. I sat there above my empty bowl, quivering, licking my teeth, looking down at myself from the ceiling, hosting the headache that always comes at the moment when the day begins, as the last remnants of where I’ve been retreat. The pain changes places depending on how I tilt my neck, like a little toy truck lost somewhere between my ears and behind my eyes. The knock was like a marching band beat urging the truck on, across the parade grounds, smoothing down the grass for this afternoon’s big event.
But it went on and on, so finally I left the truck idling as the scene around it dimmed, and went to the door.
There stood a man with a head sparking like a nest of wires all freshly shredded.
He had the attitude of deliveryman and package all in one. He said he was my father, as if I didn’t know that.
I didn’t want to let him in, but then he was in, and so it must have been me that let him. He came to the table and sat down, and then he was sitting there, and then time began to pass with him in the house.
All of these thoughts I’ve been having I may well have had in his presence. I cannot rightly say when the moment of his entrance was. No one can think straight around him.
He was sitting at the breakfast table, his shoes and jacket still on, smelling of soil and sweat, staring out the window, all but catatonic.
A fear comes up in me sometimes in certain moments, where I feel a thing that should be slack going taut, and I start to wonder if the show is running right now, and I better let go of everything, so as not to throw the carefully-scripted scene off its course. I survive according to some delicate give and take, and I struggle to keep it from slipping.
I slouch way down in my seat, trying not to use even the muscles that hold me upright, like lying down under a bear in the woods, hoping it won’t have to go any further today than a few long hours of playing dead.
I look at my father, comatose where he sits, and imitate him in every particular. He has come to teach or remind me how to do this.
Just that morning, before the knock, the magazine had had a full-page article on the recent death of the world-famous black box sleep transmitter one of a kind circus freak phenomenon metaphysical mind fuck man.
It said he’d died in his sleep and been buried right here in town, in a cemetery not far away. It said there were plans to come back with molten lead in a few days, once enough was ready, and seal his grave tight, given the special circumstances that, dear reader, said the article, are surely all too familiar to you.
It said also that the biopic was already in the works, to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, but the actor playing him had asked that his name not be revealed, so as to keep it fresh for opening night.
The man in my kitchen said he’d been trying to sleep when they buried him, and so he’d climbed up out of his grave when the coast was clear, and then, skirting the city, hugging the back places, he arrived here, and here he was, and he was my father, and the rest was up to me. He smirked and said he’d taken down at least five people when they’d tried to move him, but eventually he, like anyone, had been overcome.
It’d happened before, he said, this kind of confusion about death and burial, an occupational hazard in my line of work, but now I’m getting old, and I’m starting not to see the humor where I used to see it, and so here I go skirting around the city, and thanks for letting me in.
He did, I guess, look a lot like me. So much so that, when I saw him, my first reaction was to think it was me at a later date, come back to check in, maybe offer a few tips to take or leave, or finally to collect, and cash out.
Now here we are at the breakfast table, and I’m looking at him, and at the wall behind him, my eyes fully as glazed as his.
I’m not sure what it would take for me to be sure either way about if this man, or any man of about the right age and complexion, is my father.
So this man here, sitting so still, who came to my door and claimed that he wasn’t dead, may indeed be him.
I was separated from him as a baby, before I could remember what he looked, smelled, or sounded like, although not before he’d permanently altered the course of my sleeping and sleepwalking life, and set me up to become the massively wealthy man that I have become.
As a teenager, with my foster family’s permission, I began a research project that I have continued ever since. What I found out was that my father is the black box transmission man, already a celebrity in those days.
That’s the technical term for it. Apparently, rare as the condition is, there are precedents. Mainly in Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. Places with a certain kind of cool air and a night sky gagged with stars and cracks of mean, pristine light, all salt and rock crystal.
So there have been other men like him, but never in our time and place.
What it meant was that he was a cannibal of sleep.
He ate or drank up other people’s sleep, as he, and they, slept. Some hand extended into the night from his body wherever it lay, and it crept around the neighborhood touching all the bodies that were there, pulling the sleep straight out of them and balling it up into a fist, leaving them hollow, weak, and wide awake.
In his prime, he would lie in his bed, a big smile on his face, swallowing and sucking his lips. Then he’d wake up glutted, sated, stuffed with sleep, as everyone around him, not only in his house but on the whole block, woke up groggy, sapped, drained, as if they’d sat up all night with their face in their hands, drooling between their fingers and onto their knees.
He never seemed tired, in just the way that a man who’s always eating never seems hungry. I can’t remember what his eyes looked like, but, as I’ve imagined them over the years, they’ve tended to have a certain condescending narrowness, a wrinkle about the edges, maybe something akin to friendliness, but tinged with the knowledge that, whoever he looked at, he could drink up the milk of that person’s sleep as easily as if he or she had chosen to spit it out into a cup.
He could sleep eight hours and wake up with the bloated full sleep stomach of a man who’d slept thirty or forty, or he could sleep just one or two, and still wake up like a man who’d slept eight or nine, with the whole rest of the night before him to savor alone like an exotic dessert.
According to the articles, I’d had a sister too, born six years before me, who died before I was born because of the stress of sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the same house as our father. She may indeed have never slept through an actual complete moment, going rather straight from maddening awakeness into permanent death. His wife, our mother, had tried all manner of screens and sheets and curtains, as if it were some kind of radiation issuing from him, but eventually she’d had to leave, first to another part of the city and finally much further than that.
Whatever it was that made me how I am, able to act in this show in the way that I do, and to profit from it to such an extent, grew directly out of those few months that I spent in the same house with him, the first months that I ever spent anywhere.
In whatever way I am touched, it was he who touched me.
He showed no signs of moving from where he sat at the breakfast table, so, after sitting and staring at noon creeping by, filling our shoulders with dust, I hoisted him up, surprised at how heavy and stiff he was, like a real dead man, and carried the body into the living room, where I placed it on a table that had been cleared and decked out with a white tablecloth, and there were even fresh flowers arranged around the edges.
I took a step back, and it did indeed look like he was lying in state and the organ, from off in its closet, was just about to clear its throat.
I covered him most of the way with a blanket, leaving only his eyes and forehead out, to make sure I’d always recognize him.
I know that the transmissions emanating from where he lies are probably going to burn me, but I’m ready for them. I want to see if they still can.
While I waited, I warmed up the computer. I reread the legend of how he’d been taken to a desert facility when his cannibalism had gone too far, a place where he could sleep with no one around for miles and miles, not even desert birds or drug tribes.
And it was there that he’d started to age. Before that, he’d remained a perennially dough-faced, kind of abstracted, but robust-looking man in his mid-thirties. Now, eaten away by the years that’d caught up with him, here he was back in the city. Maybe he spent all of the intervening time wandering back. Who knows how far out he had been taken.
There was a forum for the greatest metaphysical predators of the twentieth century, and he was right on there, at number three. I was about to refresh the page to look up numbers one and two.
It hit hard, like I’d swallowed something and it was only a matter of time until …
… my bed and pulled the pillow hard over my eyes and ears … was streaming in, needed an orifice like this to stream in through, looking for the little version of me that lived inside the big one, and now here—I am, like a little last fish bone in a giant cauldron of wet, wet sour soup.
The fear of the dead man in the living room gave way to something vaguer, and more ancient. It brought me all the way back, to those first months, in my bassinet, staring at the bars, losing and regaining the orientation of the room again and again, as the night spread out beyond the scope of my life and I struggled not to float up toward the ceiling.
I can feel it all now. My eyelids are sheets of rubber trying to close over smooth and squeaky glass, unbroken but broken-glass-sharp at the edges. The pillow starts to feel hard, and dry and stale, like a piece of packing foam left over from some antediluvian delivery.
This is the battle, now in full swing. The fear of jumping off across the black, between here and sleeping, where all the rest of it takes place, beyond the fear of falling into the black, because jumping over and falling in are surely the same thing, if only I could remember that, and believe it.
There is nothing to do but fall, but, with him downstairs, even that basic thing, just the necessary gravity, is gone. I hover itching on the surface, and can’t get down to where the TV show and the world of my better life are waiting.
I try to imagine that I have eaten a tremendous meal, full of thick sauces and drippings and gooey chunks of bread and hocks of stewed red meat, and wine so red it’s black, and caramel and banana and brown sugar pudding, and it’s all in my stomach now, pulling me down, inexorably, so tired that I can’t even change out of my clothes or turn out the light, but I am a feather, I’m an insect skimming in scum and sleep is itself asleep and will not stir to admit me.
He holds me hard and fast, stretching me so taut across the surface that laughing children come out with their ice skates and sketch angels on my skin, where it bubbles and sweats.
I can see the faintest glimmering outlines of a TV screen way down on the bottom, like I left it on in a room that I passed through long ago, glimmering now like mica among the pebbles.
They come crashing in downstairs, not even bothering to knock, like there’s no door, or maybe I’ve left it open all this time.
I listen to the sounds of their footsteps and decide that it must be the undertakers. It’s like they’re trying to bury him in the house, like this is the place where he was supposed to be, to keep the city safe from the thing that he is. I pray there’s still time to crawl into his grave before him, and down in there at last escape the day.
But it’s so hard, here in the house with him, stealing sleep like a tick steals blood. I feel him up above me now, hoisting me up, up and out of the hole. Maybe he’s saving me. I try to keep very still and picture the cemetery, the trees hanging overhead, the dirt that’s falling down, the words that go with it, my hands folded across my chest, and the dirt keeps falling and holds me tightly in place, pushing me all the way downwards, toward the center where it shakes and hums with snores and breathing.
I try to huddle in here and silence the thing, but it will not stop climbing out, trailing trash and murky weeds, on that long shambling walk across town.
If I could just, only, hurl myself across … to where it’s all automatic. To where it’s all good.
But you are not dead, I say, and I hear. You have no extremities long enough to reach the bottom. Stop lying around. Go spend what you have inherited, before the searching thing finds you.
He’s calling to me, holding out his hand, he says you can keep all the money, anything you want, just please, please come over here so the show can go on. Even if this has to be the last time.
“Are they here now?” I ask, with a thrill. “To haul me off to my drawer in the hall of fame?”
All those voices down there, that shouting. And the softness and warmth of my bed, the full and good and pungent afternoon light, streaming down over me where I lie like falling leaves, in through the window.
I hear them clattering up the stairs, and I cannot guess how many.
The heat of the lamps and then someone’s right up close upon me, dusting my eyelids with a brush, and I can smell the body’s sweat from where it lies downstairs, and I know that they have brushed his eyelids too.
A hand comes to me through the dark, and I reach into someplace and prepare to give it what it wants, and then I hesitate, and then resume.
We are on some kind of a horrible cusp.
Around the edges I hear footsteps, and the crunching of ice cubes, and the possibility of applause.