by Ray Vukcevich
“I do not,” I said. “I definitely do not snore.” I was talking to her back. “You’re making it up!” I was talking to the door. “Someone else would have mentioned it!” I was talking to myself.
Mistakes were made, relationships fell apart, and hurtful things were said. Life was like that.
In the days that followed, I rearranged all the furniture. I threw out everything in the refrigerator. I bought newspices — savory, anise, cumin, cracked black pepper — and packaged macaroni and cheese and powdered soups. Anchovies. Things Joanna didn’t like. I left the toilet seat up all the time and dropped my clothes wherever I took them off. I got a new haircut and collected brochures for a getaway to Panama. I looked at a red convertible but didn’t buy it.
Her crack about me snoring wouldn’t leave me alone, probably because it poked something that had always worried me. My father had snored. I remembered listening to him snore all the way down the hall and around the corner. I always thought it must be awful to be in there with him. Maybe it ran in the family, like baldness or alcoholism.
The solution, once it hit me, seemed obvious. I would record myself sleeping. I had nothing that would record such a long time, so I went to an audio store and bought an expensive machine that would do the job. I used some of the money I’d saved by not buying the red convertible.
I set it up on the dresser across the room at the foot of the bed. I poured myself a nightcap, drank it during the eleven o’clock news, brushed my teeth, turned on the recorder, got into bed and squirmed around restlessly for over an hour, listening to the possibly imaginary whir and hiss of magnetic tape moving through the mechanism.
The next day, there was no time to check the tape as I hurried through my morning ritual and left for work. I was tempted, but I couldn’t afford to be late. Then I got busy and didn’t think about it again until bedtime the next night.
I made myself a complicated drink and a plate of crackers with anchovies and cheese and sat down on the foot of my bed. I don’t know exactly what I expected. I was a little apprehensive. I stretched up and switched on the machine.
There were the sounds of me changing positions and sighing as I tried to get to sleep. I listened and ate a few crackers then stood up and held down the fast-forward button.
There were long periods of silence. No snoring. The house was quiet, too, with that late night stillness that isn’t really so quiet when you finally listen, and the two silences got mixed together until I was listening hard and eating crackers and not caring about the crumbs in my bed.
I continued sampling a moment here and there and then moving on.
“Ah ha,” I said. “I knew it.”
There was a long embarrassing fart an hour or so into the night, but absolutely no snoring. I heard something move in the kitchen like stuff settling in the plastic trash bag, a totally familiar sound. In fact, I couldn’t tell if it was on the tape or had just happened in real time. I heard the house creaking and the distant sounds of traffic and once an auto horn. Several hours later, a siren screamed in the distance, and my sleeping self moaned. The 3:00 a.m. train went by, five miles to the south. I had stopped hearing that whistle a long time ago. It was comforting somehow to hear it again. I speeded the tape forward.
I was home free.
Joanna had been jerking me around.
But then a woman said, “Shush!’ and giggled softly, and I gasped and jerked my hand up and drenched the front of my shirt with my drink.
I looked around wildly, thinking it was Joanna talking, thinking maybe it hadn’t been on the tape, thinking maybe she was standing right behind me, but most of me knew she wasn’t there. And the superspeed scenario I played in my mind where she’d sneaked into my bedroom last night to talk on my tape was stupid. Besides it hadn’t even been her voice.
“Just look at him,” the voice whispered.
I could hear someone moving around in the room. The rustle of clothing, the bump of a leg maybe hitting the side of the dresser or the chair by the window.
“Sure,” a man whispered, “he’s adorable.”
The woman giggled again.
I carefully put my glass down on the floor. I felt cold. My ears were ringing and my breathing was fast and shallow. I pulled off my wet shirt and threw it at the bathroom door.
The tape still moved but was silent.
I sat there listening for maybe an hour. Then I told myself I had imagined the whole thing. I got up and rewound the tape and played it again.
“Just look at him,” the woman whispered.
I spent the rest of the night listening to every inch of the tape. You would think listening to over eight hours of tape would take more than eight hours, but I made good use of the fast-forward button, and by morning, I was pretty sure that little snatch of conversation was all there was.
I considered calling in sick, but then I would probably fall asleep, and I wasn’t ready to fall asleep yet. I showered and shaved and got dressed.
Things were too bright outside. The feeling was like an old memory of all-nighters in college and crawling out into the daylight finally and feeling like everything must surely be an elaborate set in a movie about someone else. I remembered the way Abby, my first true love, looked in those days, warm young woman, zoomed in tight, big distorted nose, morning close up, sleepy head, kiss kiss, an echoing dress-store dummy somehow moving, smiling too big, too many teeth. Good morning, Sunshine. And later, the coffee so deeply black and hot against my own teeth. Eggs over easy so you can paint bright yellow daffodils with your toast. Thick slabs of bacon.
“You’re doing the Zen breakfast thing, aren’t you?” Abby bumped me with her shoulder. We sat side by side at the counter because the place was always too full to get a booth in the morning.
Where had she gone? I remembered dreaming over and over again that I had accidentally killed her and hidden her body in a closet or out in the barn or under the bed, and for years and years and years I was forced to take care of it so no one would ever find out. I finished school and got good work, met a woman named Louisa, married her, fathered children, lost them but got weekends, met Joanna, all the time playing a complicated juggling game involving plastic bags and big trunks to keep Abby’s body hidden.
I suddenly wondered if that was Abby on the tape.
“What?” I snapped out of it long enough to nod and smile at the woman with the coffee pot. “Yes, please.”
I looked around. This was not the diner from my past. This was the restaurant down the block from my office. I never stopped in here for breakfast, but judging by the remains on my plate, I had stopped in for breakfast today. I glanced at my watch. I was late. I finished my coffee too quickly, burned my mouth, left a tip, paid the bill, and hurried off.
Out in the bright morning crowd of busy people all moving so deliberately toward important tasks, I knew very well I hadn’t killed Abby and kept her body hidden all these years. That was just something I had dreamed more than once. But I was drawing a blank on just what had happened to her. I couldn’t really bring her face into sharp focus in my mind. That probably wasn’t her voice on the tape.
At my desk, I made a mental list of the things that might be happening to me. The most obvious was that I was losing my mind. Next, I might be haunted; the voices might be ghosts. And finally, there was the conspiracy angle — someone really was sneaking into my bedroom at night and watching me sleep. But if that were true why hadn’t Joanna complained about spooky visitors instead of making up a story about me snoring?
I didn’t feel crazy. In fact, after the sleepless night, my mind seemed unusually sharp. Everything was bright and moist. I could see every hair on my arm. I could still taste the bacon from breakfast even if I couldn’t remember eating it. I could hear my co-workers talking in low tones across the room.
There was nothing to do about the supernatural. If that was what was happening, there was no defense. That’s what makes it the supernatural in the first place. It’s not like an understandable force that is simply too powerful, like a bully you can overcome by pumping iron and eating your Wheaties. There is no kung fu you can do when it comes to the supernatural. It is irrational and absolutely unpredictable. If there were rules that worked, the supernatural would be science. The truly supernatural must be truly meaningless.
That only left conspiracy, but I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible.
Nevertheless, my exercise in logic made me feel a little better, and in spite of the voices and in spite of a sleepless night, I got caught up in work and by early afternoon, I realized I’d forgotten all about the tape. That realization reminded me of the tape, of course, and I laughed, and everyone gave me a funny look, and I just shook my head and said, “Nothing. Sorry. Just a thought. Nothing.”
For dinner, I stopped in at the same restaurant where I had had breakfast. Then I went home and wandered around the house picking things up and putting them down again. I turned on the TV.
TV was often my meditation. The challenge was to make a coherent program out of a single utterance or exclamation or exploding building or whatever from each channel. No matter what was happening, you could linger on a channel no longer than a sentence. You had to pay attention, and it took hours to get a meaningful exchange, but once I did get a something meaningful, everything fell into place. The universe became a Buddha smile, and I reached a place of blue clarity. Hours passed, and while I could not remember exactly what the experience had been about, I felt as if I’d accomplished something by the time I stopped and pushed the dirty dishes to one side so I could rinse a glass and pour a couple of fingers of scotch and put a fresh tape on the fancy recording machine in the bedroom. I could have just recorded over the old one, but I wanted to avoid ambiguity. I gulped down the scotch, brushed my teeth and undressed. I switched on the recorder, and got into bed.
“I’m going to sleep now,” I said out loud so I’d have a reference point. I snuggled deeper into the covers and passed through the bed and into a dream in which all the people I had lost to death were back again, but changed. Not exactly zombies, just back and a little different. In the dream I had to make allowances for them. I’d say things like, “You’ll have to excuse her, she’s been dead.” I’d say things like, “The way he moves certainly is not creepy, he was dead only yesterday.” They would all come over to my house where I would feed them and teach them things and they would pretend they didn’t know me and wouldn’t seem the least bit grateful for my help, but I would forgive them because they’d been dead and were now trying to get back into the swing of things.
The next morning I called in sick. Judy, who took my call, wasn’t surprised. “You didn’t look so hot yesterday,” she told me.
I popped open a beer and rewound the tape.
Forward, pause, play. Snort, moan, honk, fart, shuffle, shift, yada yada yada. Forward, pause, play.
“He’s paralyzed,” the woman whispered.
“How can you tell?” the man asked.
“Look at his eyes moving,” she said. “There is a mechanism that paralyzes his body when he dreams. Otherwise he might get up and walk around.”
The man chuckled.
“Careful with that,” the woman said.
“I just need to rest,” the man said.
“You shouldn’t . . .”
“Shush,” the man said.
She sighed. “Okay, make room for me, too,” she whispered. “Careful with the covers. Okay, I’ll take the front. Easy, now, easy.”
“If he wakes up now,” the man whispered, “he’ll be looking right into your face.”
“Hmmm,” she said.
“Can he smell your breath?”
“Hmmm,” she said.
“I’m going to pinch him.”
“Just joking,” the man whispered.
My heart was beating too fast. I listened to the silence and small night sounds until my beer was gone. I crushed the can and stood up and hit the fast-forward button.
The voices didn’t occur on the tape again.
I checked all the windows and all the doors but I knew they were okay. When I got home, I always made a quick tour of the house to make sure there were no intruders lurking. I always locked the bathroom door before getting into the shower. I didn’t go to bed without putting the security chain on. The movies have trained us not to make too many stupid mistakes. I had always felt secure in my own house. I’d lived there for years. I knew every inch of the place.
I went around carefully tapping all the walls looking for secret passages. I knew it was stupid. I just couldn’t think of anything else to do. There was no way anyone could get in when I was asleep. How would they know when I was asleep in the first place?
I needed a second opinion. I had to let someone else listen to the tape. But who could I trust? Maybe a stranger would be better. But how would I get a stranger to listen to a tape and how could I trust what they said?
I knew who should listen to the tape. I had known from the moment I came up with the idea that someone should listen to it. I sat there staring down at my shoes, saying over and over again, “Just do it. Just do it.” Okay. I got up and ran the tape back to the points just before the woman first spoke. I took it out of the machine and put it in a box and wrapped the box and addressed it to Joanna at her office. I didn’t know where she was living.
I wrote a note. “Joanna, please listen to this and tell me what you hear.”
I called the messenger service I sometimes used at work. An hour later the messenger arrived, and I gave him the tape and some money.
There were other things I could do while I waited. I put a fresh tape in the machine. I found a sack of flour back behind my new spices. I could spread it all over the bedroom floor and see if there were footprints in the morning. I opened the bag. But wait. If I spread the flour now, I would probably step in it many times on my way to the bathroom, which reminded me to open another beer. I took the beer and the flour into the bedroom. I put the flour down by the recorder. I would spread it just before bed. Maybe Joanna would have called before then, though. Maybe whatever she had to say would solve the problem.
“Oh, yeah,” I’d say. “That’s it. Boy, is my face red. I should have thought of it myself.”
I could do something else, too, but it would take more courage. I could leave them a message. The danger in that was that they didn’t seem to know that I could hear them. What would they do if they found out? I was completely helpless in their company. Maybe I shouldn’t let them know that I knew. I was a kind of eavesdropper, really. Maybe they wouldn’t like it.
They might find out anyway. One of these nights, they might notice the tape machine. And surely if I spread flour all over the floor it would tip them off.
The day passed. I ate stuff from cans for lunch. I got no reply from Joanna. I must be pretty far down on her priority list these days.
I couldn’t find anything else to eat for dinner so I skipped it. There was still beer, but not too much.
I meditated with the TV for a few hours but never could achieve meaning. Around eleven I decided I really would leave them a message. It was night again and too quiet and bedtime and I had to do something. I tore a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote, “Who are you?” in big bold letters.
Now what? Should I pin it to my chest? What if they didn’t find it? I wadded the paper up and tossed it in the trash.
I could write really big letters on the wall.
I dug through kitchen drawers but found nothing I could use to make big letters. I checked the bathroom. Women never leave a place without a trace. Maybe there would be a lipstick. There wasn’t. So much for generalizations.
I had pink stomach stuff but it looked too runny, and I had colorless roll-on deodorant, so the wall wouldn’t sweat, but you’d have to smell the country fresh letters to puzzle out the message.
Ah ha. An old old bottle of tincture of merthiolate. Good god, I bought that before I met Abby. What was the expiration date? Most of the label was gone, but it looked like 1980. I had put the stuff on countless cuts. It still had a nice sting to it. This was one of those products that one bottle lasts you a lifetime. The company had probably gone out of business.
I stood on the bed and, using the little plastic applicator, started my message again on the wall. Rats. The applicator was too small. It would take forever. I poured merthiolate into my hand and smacked my hand onto the wall and dragged it down and up and down and up in a big dripping orange double-u. Okay. The rest went pretty quickly.
Who are you?
If they looked at me, and I seemed to be pretty much all they did look at, they could not fail to see my message.
My hands were orange. The orange stain wouldn’t come off with soap and water. To hell with it.
How about the flour?
Okay, okay. But do it carefully. Get undressed first. Start at the bathroom door and work your way back to the bed. Yes, like that. When you get to the bed just toss the empty flour sack out of the bedroom and get into bed. That’s it. Nothing could move across there without leaving a mark. Good. Good. Goddamn it, you forgot to pee.
I plopped down on the bed. I tossed the empty flour sack over the side. I took a deep breath. Then I walked straight across the flour to the bathroom. One straight path. I would use the same one coming back. Anything off that path would be my visitors.
Except that after I used the bathroom and carefully walked back to the bed, I realized I would need one more path to the dresser so I could turn on the recorder. Okay, one more. I walked to the dresser, turned on the machine, and walked back to the bed. Two paths. Footprints going in both directions. I got into bed.
I stared up at the ceiling, feeling like an absolute idiot. I would have to get up and make another path if I wanted to turn off the light. I got up and walked to the light switch and flipped it off. Then I made my way back in the dark. I knew I was not keeping a straight path. And as I walked, it occurred to me to wonder how they would see my message in the dark. I had probably ruined the wall for nothing. I stopped and closed my eyes to think about it. If they could see me, they could probably see the wall, but what about the orange letters? Would orange letters be visible to ghosts who could see in the dark? Maybe it would be like red light to fish. You put a red light in your aquarium and the fish all think it’s night and you can watch them and they don’t know you’re watching.
I opened my eyes and stumbled forward and saw the street glow through the bathroom window and realized that I’d gotten way off the path back to the bed. The flour seemed mostly pointless now.
I turned, and then stood peering through the dark at the bed. It didn’t look entirely empty. Those shapes could be my pillows. The slight movement I saw, like the quivering of a horse after a good run, might be just the kind of thing you see in the dark. I took a step back.
“Aren’t you coming to bed,” she said.
I cried out.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I heard the tape of you snoring,” she whispered. “Kind of a strange apology, but what the hell. Come on, hop in. It’s late.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed. She put her cool hand on my shoulder. I crawled in beside her. She pulled me in close.
“Is that really you, Joanna?” I asked.
“Of course, it isn’t, you moron,” the man behind me said.