Grant Bailie

He puts on his pajamas—the flannel kind, with buttons, cuffs, and collar. Even little side pockets and a breast pocket he could tuck a three-cornered flannel sleeping handkerchief into, if such a thing existed. He brushes his teeth, then lies in bed, staring up at the ceiling but not sleeping. There is a damp shadow on the ceiling directly above him, and several small cracks radiating out from the farthest corner.

The lights are off, but there are still all the various amber or green diodes of several mechanisms throughout the room. His printer, computer, answering machine, alarm clock. They throw off a dull light, once the eyes adjust, making ghosts and monsters of his laundry pile, chair, and dresser. He will not sleep. He has not slept for years. And he is not even tired.

This is his nightly ritual: the pajamas, the bed, the lights off, the staring at the ceiling. Him giving sleep another shot. Soon he will tire of making faces out of shadows, or bodies of cracks. He will tire of flipping his pillow, looking for his lost years of dreams on the other side.

In an hour, maybe two, maybe three, he will give up again. Watch TV, then. Sit on the balcony of his condo and smoke a cigarette. Blow smoke at darkened windows, shadowy trees, the moon.

When his condition was still a novelty and a growing concern to him, he went to see the doctor. He had not slept in several weeks and was naturally concerned, though still not in the least bit tired. The doctor was, of course, incredulous. “You sleep, Mr. Perryman, ” he told him. “You just don’t realize it.”

“I don’t sleep,” he insisted. It was an old doctor. It seemed that there were only two kinds of doctors: the ancient and the impossibly young. This one entered a room with all the speed and paleness of a glacier. He stuck tongue depressors into mouths with a shaky hand. He sometimes missed the knee he was trying to hammer.

“You don’t realize when you sleep. But the human body cannot go that long without sleeping. Not without serious damage at the very least. And you seem fine, other than this complaint of yours. You sleep, Mr. Perryman. Believe me.”

“So I am sleeping and don’t know it?” he asked, but by then the doctor had plugged his ears with his stethoscope and was holding the cold, flat end of it to Perryman’s chest.

“Your heart seems fine,” he muttered. “Your breathing is good.”

At home again, he contemplated this problem. If he slept but did not know it, what was the point? And when did it happen? His nights seemed unbroken stretches. What blink could have signaled the start and end of some dull dream no different than his reality? And couldn’t this be a valid medical complaint as well? A dream as dull as life?

After a quick trip to the corner store, he returned home just as the sun was setting. He placed a carton of small note pads (assorted fun colors; adhesive backing for your convenience), and two pens on his kitchen table.

At ten o’clock, wide awake, no bags beneath his eyes, he put on his pajamas. He brushed his teeth, but did not go to his bed. Instead he sat at the kitchen table. He waited there. At midnight (better to start at the beginning, he reasoned), he uncapped his pen and wrote the number “1” on the top yellow square of the first pad. He removed it and stuck it onto the upper left-hand corner of the refrigerator door. A minute later there was a “2” next to it. And after that a “3,” a “4,” a “5”. . .

By daybreak, the fridge was covered with numbers. There were numbers on the cupboard doors and numbers on the wall. Assorted colored numbered squares filled the kitchen. At “300” he called work and told them he would not be in that day.

At “3000” he went to the store for more paper and by that evening the walls of his apartment looked at once festive and tattered, as if a clown had exploded. A breeze from the window rustled through the various tiny sheets of various numbers and colors. They sounded like leaves. He went back to the upper left-hand corner of the fridge and looked at the number “1.” And next to it “2” and next to that “3” and on again to the bottom and then up to the top of the wall above the sink, around the phone out of the kitchen across the apartment again. All those numbers, and none missing. No minute unaccounted for when he might have slept unawares.

And he was not even tired.

More numbers.

He considered calling his ancient doctor. “Doctor,” he would say. “You are wrong. I have not slept and I have proof. I have numbered every minute for two days now and nothing is missing.” But what would that prove? “People can go without sleep for two days,” the doctor would say in an annoyed, tired, and dying voice. “You bothered me for this? You woke me up for this?”

So he continued numbering the minutes. And tiring (but not in a sleepy way) of little pieces of paper, he wrote on the windows with an indelible marker, penciled numbers on the covers and pages of his books, on envelopes and receipts. He carved them into the top of his dining room table, his desk, and the back of his chair.

By the end of the week his apartment looked like a nightmare he had as a small child. In the dream he had been chased by numbers. They had covered his pajamas. They had filled his head and spilled from his nose and mouth like a disease. He had forgotten about the dream until that moment, standing in his apartment, surrounded by numbers, a sickening familiarity seeping into him.

It was too much, of course, and he gave up—only vaguely disappointed and embarrassed with himself when it occurred to him that a simple notebook would have been more efficient.

He returned to work, apologetic and promising to make things up to them.

He stayed late his first day back and ended up working through the night.

There had always much work to be done at his job. Many forms to be filled out, reports to be written, studies to be digested and analyzed. Now he threw himself at these tasks with a passion, stopping only occasionally to hang his head out of a convenient window and smoke a cigarette. By dawn he was nearly caught up.

He went home long enough to shower and change his clothes (averting his eyes from all the numbered evidence of his recent fiasco) and returned to his cubicle as the first workers were coming in.

“Good morning,” he said to everyone. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

They greeted him likewise, but with less enthusiasm, and with an eager eye toward all the “World’s Greatest Dad” and “Quality Is Our Business” coffee mugs waiting empty for them at their desks. For the first time, he pitied the world that needed to sleep—the world that woke up angrily, torn daily from some pleasant illusion that could only be washed from their brain by the force of a showerhead and a bottomless cup of coffee. The way they crawled through mornings, the way they drove through it with travel mugs in hand and an angry squint at the sun on their face.

In a week or two he had caught up with his work for the rest of the year. All of his bosses were clearly impressed with his making so good on his promise. They gave him more to do and more responsibilities to watch over. He took it all cheerfully and in a month had broken all company records for productivity, efficiency, and accuracy (he was not, in fact, a preternaturally accurate man, but given enough extra time to proofread, he could create a fair impression of one).

He was the golden boy now, so hated by all the adjacent cubicles that he was eventually given an office of his own.

So up and up he moved, with changing titles, with steady relocations to increasingly higher floors and better views, until finally his office was in the highest corner of a gleaming glass tower. He had an executive administrative assistant to call his own, and numerous underlings with equally cumbersome labels.

But a funny thing happens when you rise to the upper reaches of any company; though your salary may swell, the things that are expected of you diminish. Your office is larger not because the space is needed to fill with your duties, but because that is the size best suited for practicing your golf swing and taking long, confident strides between your massive oak desk and your liquor cabinet shaped like the world.

Politely warned against micromanaging and advised to delegate more, he was sent on seminars in Hawaii, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. He learned new skills in dressing for success, power handshaking, and the importance of being social. He drank copiously from an open bar and discovered he could not get drunk any more than he could sleep.

But he missed the paper trail that had so effectively accounted for all his endless moments before, and found himself one day e-mailing Marketing every minute and writing down numbers on a legal pad at his desk. 1, 2, 3 . . . He remembered his old apartment. The one he still paid rent on and could not bring himself to clean or officially vacate. He had not been back to for years. He lived in a condo now, overlooking the ocean. He could see both his new home and the old one from the window of his office. If he stretched his arms out wide, he could touch the place on the glass where each of them was. Then and now. How far he had come.

He pressed the button that summoned his executive assistant. She entered, prop note-pad in hand, and sat down when he nodded toward the chair across from him.

“Do you know,” he said. “Do you know that I have not slept for five years? It is the secret of my success.”

“Should I be writing this down?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Unless you feel so compelled.”

It was early morning before he finally managed to pry his arm from beneath her naked back. It had been a slow process. He had not wanted to wake her, and withdrew his captured limb with the patience of a tree pulling back its root from soil that showed no promise. Finally he stood in the darkness of her room for a moment, gazing down at her (she was pretty and there is no more to say about it than that), then out the window, where the indistinct shapes of trees stood black against the milkier blackness of the sky.

He found his clothes, his car, his way back home.

Back in his condo, with its Spartan walls and stream-lined furniture, he put on his pajamas. He brushed his teeth. He went to bed. And sleep failed again.

Now he sits on his balcony blowing smoke at the fading moon again, and at the violet patch of sky where the sun is just beginning to lift itself out of the horizon. A few lights have gone on in the buildings and houses beneath him. People are yawning and contemplating their snooze alarms and how much extra time they can steal, how many non-essential functions of their morning they can pare away in the service of sleep. People are brewing coffee and splashing water on their faces. “I had the oddest dream last night,” they are saying to one another. “Oh? Tell me about it. I had a very peculiar dream myself . . .”

An idea occurs to him and he wonders why it had not occurred to him before now. He must call the doctor. He must ask him a question. But the doctor would be just waking up himself now. Putting in his teeth. Reaching for his cane.

He sits there anxiously as the day creeps in, the people wake up, and the world crawls its way once more back to life.

Sitting in the waiting room that afternoon, he finds his old doctor gone. Dead or retired. A young man—a prodigy who must have graduated from medical school still in his teens—has replaced him. His face is well fed and round like a baby’s. His cheeks are brightened with a rosy bumpiness.

“What seems to be the problem, Mr. Perryman,” this new doctor asks, with a voice that waivers now with youth and nervousness rather than age and fatigue.

“I just have a question,” he says. “A medical question, I suppose. The old doctor—your predecessor—said that a person can only go so long without sleep. That it was a physical impossibility to go without sleep for more than a few days. And I was wondering, is the converse true. Can a person only sleep for so long too?”

The young doctor turns pages in a file on his desk, perhaps looking for some relevance to this in Perryman’s medical records.

“I’m not sure I understand . . .”

“What I mean is, how long can a person sleep?”

“Oh, gosh,” he says. “Indefinitely, I suppose. People have been in comas for decades, if you can call that sleeping. I don’t know what the record is. Years, I suppose. Decades. Why do you ask? Are you having trouble waking up, Mr. Perryman?”

But Mr. Perryman is already up and heading for the door.

By mistake or design he returns to the wrong home. His old apartment. The key is still on his ring and still fits in the lock. The numbers are still on the walls, though their assorted colors have faded some and the greater portion of them have fallen to the floor. Adhesive edges are only good for so long, it seems. They scatter at the faint breeze of his footsteps like dead leaves and crinkle beneath his heel.

He sits down hard on the couch and a cloud of dust lifts up around him and swirls into a beam of sunlight. There is the phone on the wall, and another in his pocket. Should he call the office and tell them he will not be in today? Should he tell them that he is having a crisis of faith, like the one five years ago, before his meteoric rise to the top? His executive assistant will be worried, of course, and wonder if it was something she said or did. But what did she say or do? He cannot recall a single word or action of importance. He should do something himself, but what can he do that will matter? What can he see or make that could not, with the unblinking of an eye, disappear?

He kicks off his shoes and stretches himself out on the sofa. Looks up at the ceiling. Smells the dust in the cushions beneath his head. Sees the specks floating in the bright air like living creatures, like minuscule angels ascending to heaven in a circuitous path. He watches as dust specks meet, fall in love, and join together. He sighs heavily and watches how the sigh affects them, how couples swirl apart and struggle to find their way back, how they fall in and out of the light. He should pick up the phone and call work, but what would be the point? And would it be a phone or a pillow he held to his head?

Instead he listens to the sounds of traffic and wind outside—birds chattering, doors closing, slamming, creaking back open, people laughing or shouting, all the gears and belts of the city whirring and grinding. But grinding to a stop? Things do seem to grow quiet. The sounds of life’s machinery cease and there is nothing now but the gentle curl of wind in his ear and the soft pad of feet running and fading in an apartment above him. Is it only a pause? A lull in the action? The dust still moves around him and his own heart still beats in his head. He listens—listens closely to hear if somewhere, in the distance, an alarm is ringing.

Return to Archive