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
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,
machine, alarm clock. They throw off a dull light, once the eyes adjust,
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
fine, other than this complaint of yours. You sleep, Mr. Perryman. Believe
“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,
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
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;
backing for your convenience), and two pens on his kitchen table.
At ten oclock, 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,
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
No minute unaccounted for when he might have slept unawares.
And he was not even tired.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
cubicle as the first workers were coming in.
“Good morning,” he said to everyone. “Beautiful day, isn’t
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
in dressing for success, power handshaking, and the importance of being
social. He drank copiously from an open bar and discovered he could not
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
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
or officially vacate. He had not been back to for years. He lived in a
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
place on the glass where each of them was. Then and now. How far he had
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
“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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
for more than a few days. And I was wondering, is the converse true. Can
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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