Tonight I will sleep, finally, through the night - stars winking their clear light away from the undersides of my slumbering eyes.
I awoke at 4:30 this morning, after shallow, fitful sleep, to the sound of the leaking faucet, dripping it's way into my knee-deep dreams like little nags about the ears. By 5:10 I had fixed it with a new gasket, which I bought yesterday at the same time I purchased a pint of vinyl spackle - to patch the hole in the wall made two months ago by the doorknob when I threw the front door open, set wildly on edge by the racket coming from upstairs. Sounds of what I imagined to be a heavy-set man, wearing cement-filled corrective shoes and pirouetting woodenly, two stepping with phantom partners in a room full of small bits of strewn lumber and light, hollow-bodied plastic furniture. The night's imaginings. Upstairs I went. Two months ago, a reckless Wednesday, 3:17am. Moths have flown out since, gently taunting.
Perfect for a petite, tightly balled fist, the hole was patched by 5:37 this morning, painted white by 11:15. The trash went out at 6:02, after I had eaten last night's Chinese takeout, cold and sassy like skinned alligators in my mouth. No dishes to speak of. Trimmed the hair in my nose and ears, waiting for the spackle to dry; too early to go to the corner store. Using turpentine and rusted steel wool, I scrubbed the ancient paint spill off the kitchen lino in near equal proportion to the skin on my fingertips. 7:03am - knocked on Mrs. Hallowell's door, begging a bundle of band-aids. She rises like a bird at 5 each morning to check on the sun as it ascends, shaking her head as its angle changes with the seasons. To her such cosmic inconsistency. Her life is a graying floral pattern, but I like her. She leaves peanut brittle at the threshold of my apartment at different times during the year, and when I don't accidentally step on it, I eat it. 7:18, fingertips restored to perfection, I stood admiring the gleaming linoleum - diminished by the rank appliances, perched dumbly atop.
Walked to the store; bought shoelaces, snickers, cigarettes, matches, large trash bags, all-purpose cleaner, nail clippers, sponges, soap, razors, scissors and plant food. The small Vietnamese woman behind the counter regarded me with the usual distaste, her small eyes lurking under her brow, overgrown with her doubt of the world. Her left hand, missing an index finger down to the second joint, took position on her left hip, bonily cocked with the lazy curve of her torso. She clucked her teeth when I nodded thanks, licked the thumb on her right hand and flung the page on her store supply catalogue, spread out before her on the counter. The smallest bit of the corner of the page stuck to her wet thumb. She took no notice. I checked my watch then, disturbed the strands of loose hanging copper doorbells at 7:56am.
Inside my apartment again, the light well beckoned me from beyond my West-facing windows; the only faces in the place with any real direction. My third floor windows open out onto a light well, a shaft between buildings, the neighboring building being only two stories, and the one beyond that, upwards of fifteen. Months of painful sloth had taken shape in heaps of trash and debris in the light well, a breathtaking vista of consumption, and were transformed slowly into seven large, taut black trash bags, which were then delivered to the dumpster's steel belly by 10:11am. My detritus expunged in a rare fit of clear and hopeful thinking. With a newspaper circular and an ample amount of cleaner, the windows were crystalline by 10:52. The patched wall sanded and painted by 11:15. Snickers devoured by 11:17. Saved by rainwater, a lonely ficus fed and rescued from the light well by 11:32. My life seemed to list less and less. Slanted columns of grey sun came searchingly into the apartment, testing the air for a new sort of volume.
I wiped the walls and doorways of grime. On my hands and knees I cleaned the bathroom floor, odors rising into my nostrils, head bent close, the shield of my nose hairs freshly shorn. The shower and tiles, floor, walls, sink, toilet, mirror, even shower curtain, were entirely cleaned by 1:47pm. At 2:08 I climbed back out into the light well, curious about how the ficus had viewed my dwelling place for so many months. I had had to throw its dry companion in the dumpster. Several weeks before a wind had toppled it over, and I had failed to right it. From this perspective, viewing me in my unraveling states, the dying ficus would have felt lucky to have at least the elements to keep it company on its descent.
Swept and dusted and arranged piles of books and paced awhile, looking for things to clean and make better. At 3:47 I arrived at a second hand store to replace my meager wardrobe with cleaner, newer items. Belt, shoes, 2 pairs of pants, 3 t-shirts, 2 button down shirts, 2 pairs of socks, a decent jacket. No underwear. No need for used underwear, not even my own. A handsome lot for a guy with gut rot, I thought. Returned to my apartment at 5:20, gathered all my old clothing, stained with the this-and-that of absolute uncaring, and threw it all away, without so much as a stitch of a second thought. I donned my new duds and then threw even the clothes I had been wearing away. Then I took a long shower, dug at my nails, and scrubbed every inch of my body with a meticulous rhythm while deeply inhaling the thick steam with greedy thoughts of robust health. I shaved and trimmed my hair and toweled myself.
And then I sat. Ate a roast beef sandwich and sat on the edge of the small cot that I use for a bed. For a while I lay down and tried to picture her face. At 8:09 I rolled onto my side, head on arm, and stared at the sinews of wood grain in the floor, ruptured into splinters here and there from the long, heavy tread of shuffling feet. At 9:43pm the man living upstairs sneezed, dropped some heavy object and cursed to himself loudly, then sneezed again. There was a thud then that I couldn't quite connect to his apartment, and reasoned it'd come from the one adjacent, where a young girl lives. I lay on my back again, studying the cracked cottage cheese ceiling, moving my eyes in and out of focus.
Sherylinn called to say she had decided to come back to me, three days ago now. This time tomorrow she'll be staring at me, the both of us unsure of what to do next, in this apartment so clean and ready, wholly ignorant of the depth of its own reality, as though clapped into a daydream with no thoughts of true wakefulness. Now her face comes to me clearly, each small definition moving forward to reclaim the past. As I write this now I shake a little, remembering. We'll stand for some time, I imagine, before moving to the bed, because there's no other place to sit. With these raw fingertips I will feel more than the sharpness of my loss, in her body I will feel the reclamation of my soul. And now the only thing to do is sleep through the night.
- J. Strawn