There is no sleep on a wet mattress.
When air temperature and humidity conspire with my body to release heat in rivulets, I find myself an unwilling partner in evaporation; only slightly cooler and intolerably damp. And so, resolved to bear the clammy press of the sticky sheets and waterlogged pillow, I forgo my alternative of sitting up in the swelter, toweling off, and drawing unrewarding breaths of heavy, dank air. I am resigned to lay there, a prisoner of weariness, accepting minor relief which, in its best light, is akin to lying atop bare soil after a cloudburst or, in its worst, ensconced some six feet below.
The exposed brick walls and stained concrete floor of my apartment offered no insulation from the pounding heat that had gripped the building all day and, now, in the loneliest hours of the morning, still held that sultriness. It radiated, baking me into a distracted insensibility that undercut my will to move from my sop.
For a year in the late `90’s, I lived in a World War II-era military building that had been converted into trendy artist lofts. Sixteen ground floor apartments and sixteen upper but, in the delirious world of real estate marketing, they were all referred to as lofts. The designation Artist Apartments didn’t garner the same pretentious ego boost (or exorbitant rent) as Artist Lofts. One could almost smell the linseed and turpentine, hear the click-click-click of steel against granite or see the berets, lip beards and tattoos that bespeak a complicated relationship with The Muse. Almost...
The well-worn structure had been retrofitted with steel beams to withstand California’s earthquakes and decorated to meet the lofty, artistic intentions of the owners. They added a center courtyard adorned with humdrum works of art: ponderous sculptures, heavy-handed murals, and uninspired mobiles.
No traditional artists lived there, unless one considered trudging through a semi-functional life in a dangerous, transitional neighborhood a variant of grim, overly-theatrical, Performance Art. Given that lexiconic stretch, one could number 32 chichi actors and actresses; an odd ensemble that enacted round-the-clock, impromptu, Commedia dell’Arte sketches.
I christened the farcical sideshow Human Wreckage A Go-Go!- a snide disparagement that did nothing to endear me to the management - which pleased me no end.
Garish neon tubes above the front entrance scrawled out Exchange Apartments in a peppy, cosmopolitan script. This offered the look-at-me brassiness my apartment neighbors craved to add a whiff of classiness to their troubled lives. Simultaneously, it provided the semantic ambiguity I was needed to describe my complicity with such a pretentious group. Was the sign merely an off-handed name? An unthinking copulative command? A call to trade the regrettable past for the unsurveyed future?
Confusion and misinterpretation – the fertile loam of satirical mockery.
Originally, the structure was one of Alameda Air / Naval Station’s Post Exchange Laundries, abbreviated by sailors to The PX Laundry. Soiled and rumpled items were cleaned and pressed into starched attention, ready for a white-glove inspections. The metaphorical irony delighted me. Even now, sense-memories of wearing sweaty Army fatigues in monsoon-soaked Saigon have brought me back to my dewy bunk.
When I was a boy, secure in my attic bedroom, I welcomed the summer night’s heat and its sporadic lightning; flashing electrical discharges leaping from cloud to cloud, sending staccato bursts of fire-on-high shadows through my window. Living 10 miles north of the Atlantic and 10 south of the Long Island Sound meant being frequently doused by torrential summer storms. Towering, anvil-shaped thunderhead clouds rolled in from all sides; cool damp offshore winds met the day’s rising heat in a violent interplay of pressure, clouds and static electricity. The sky would grow dark and I’d feel the barometer pressure plummet as my inner ears popped, unable to release the pressure stored in my head. I waited expectantly to hear the first sizzling crackle as a bolt of lightning traced its way to the ground as I yawned to clear my ears for better reception.
One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one… BOOM!
My room resounded with the sonic shockwave. Four seconds told me the arc had struck ground just under a mile away, given my half-second reaction time. I counted after every flash, estimating if the storm was approaching or receding. No matter how many times I have done this stormy second-counting, I am always taken by surprise by the first peal of thunder, hence the offset.
But there were no offshore winds here in Oakland, here in my pre-dawn, industrial warehouse neighborhood, even though the Inner Harbor of the San Francisco Bay shimmered moonlight mere yards from my Exchange. The lapping of its incoming tide was lost beneath the low roar of tires on Highway 580 which flanked the east side of the lofts.
Some bleary mornings I confused the two sounds, imagining a white-cap tempest brewing in the ruddy light of daybreak as traffic flowed into the city.
So now, lying in the chill of my own evaporating sweat, midway between being awake and yielding to unconsciousness, my perceptions began to change.
Pilots claim there are aircraft noises that can only be heard at night, when their eyes no longer flood them with details and clarity and assurance. In the dark, we are rudely reminded of how essential sound is to our existence and mental health. My room, wingless and earthbound, presented its own lightless, auditory lessons. The space was no more than a huge rectangular tympani. Concrete, brick and steel-framed windows absorbed no sound whatsoever, so noises bounced like mad ping-pong balls from side to side, top to bottom. My ceiling, the upper neighbor’s floor, was a drumhead of hardwood planks laid atop thick timbers. It sent household sounds - footsteps, voices, furniture dragging, and television walla - into my low-rent echo chamber, presenting an endless question.
“What the hell is going on up there?”
But, at three a.m., I listened, heard and identified: the building settling, the muffled claw-clatter of the neighbor’s pet dog, and the low-gear whine of a highway-bound tractor-trailer climbing the freeway entrance ramp. Between those sounds I listened for any unfamiliar noises that might worry me, prevent me from dozing into a light sleep or, having nodded off, might rouse me abruptly when they suddenly stopped. Footsteps in the courtyard, like my childhood thunder, were noted and analyzed carefully: speed, direction, intensity, puzzling pauses. As I’ve said, I was living in a transitional urban area where the severe city met the soft vulnerability of suburbia. There had been robberies, muggings and apartment invasions.
I recognized it as a low-level war zone. So I kept a gun in the drawer of my bed’s night table; loaded, with the safety off.
Occasionally, a noise in the dead of the night, or an unexpected knock on the door spurred me draw it out and hold it at my side while investigating the disturbance. I dreaded the idea of using it only slightly less than not being able to use it quickly enough. Violent interactions can be over in a fraction of a second and the result, even if you are victorious, will have repercussions for the rest of your life.
I practiced at an indoor pistol range and met others who understood the gravity of self-defense. I fired at paper silhouettes alongside cops who later told me they had decades of service without ever shooting anyone. I listened to their stories and advice, but kept my own counsel. Vietnam had educated me well about weapons and tactics and instinctive reactions.
I learned that a beat cop patrolling the Police Review Board-governed streets might never need to exercise the same conditioning I had.
So I loaded my Glock with Hydrashok fragmentation rounds and worked conscientiously toward placing three rounds within the diameter of an apple at twenty-five meters. Center-of mass, kill-zone accuracy is the sine qua non of split-second showdowns and it is essential to be a cool, collected victor. That requires following those body shots with a coup-de-grace to the attacker’s skull. The last thing you might ever want to see is a wheelchair-bound defendant, flanked by his court-appointed lawyer, when the prosecutor asks, “Do you see the man who shot you in this courtroom?”
If you must be hounded by the law, be sure to put down their lead dog at the outset.
My weariness was slowly overtaking me, dipping me into the endless subconscious stream that vanishes while we are fully awake and seizes all control when we drift off into daydreams or succumb to exhaustion. It shunts out sensory inflow and immerses us in the inner, chaotic reality of the unconscious. I yearn for deep, Delta and REM sleep, bereft of my senses, baptized in the forgetfulness that separates our days with the dreamy images and stories and absurdities. But I rarely achieve this gift of mindlessness.
As long as I can remember I have taken my night rest with equal measures of wakefulness and dreaminess that can border on hallucination. A hypnogogic or hypnopompic state is the medical term for my sleep disorder, which includes vivid imagery, paralysis and apnea – the cessation of breathing during unconsciousness. Having this affliction, especially during childhood is often associated with other upsetting experiences such as unshakable perceptions of possessing ESP, communications with the dead, out-of-body experiences and past life memories. These metaphysical affects were rare, but sleep paralysis and apnea haunt me to this day.
One early morning, in the loft, I was sprawled on my bed when a snippet of dream resolved into my view of the curtained windows next to my bed that looked out onto the harbor. I turned my head to look away, but the image stayed, unchanged, in my field of vision. I twisted my head further, trying to move my eyes away from the view but, no matter how I struggled; the same picture remained in my sight. I attempted to sit up, but still the same scene met my gaze. Then, my breathing slowed. I grew weaker and weaker, lungs burning, vertigo spinning my balance. I was held fast in a paralysis so intense that even my attempts to move my fingers was met with a dull numbness that ran up my arm to my shoulder and then into my heart.
Then it ceased. I shook and gasped. The room spun about the curtained window as I awoke.
I had not moved at all during my waking-sleep panic. I was staring blankly at the windows - locked in the fevered embrace of Hynagogia – the mistress who deceives with mirages and can seamlessly meld ecstasy and horror.
I caught my breath and rolled out of the disarrayed bed, panting, rubbing my paper-dry eyes, trying to assure myself I was safe and whole. It took several minutes for my adrenalin pump to subside into a tolerable excitation. I stared off, unfocused at the straw broom I used to bang on the ceiling when my neighbor was thoughtless; tap dancing, bowling or whatever the hell he did to create indecipherable noises. I kept the sweeper within arm’s reach for those moments when I had reached my last straw.
Around me, a black felt shroud of darkness cloaked all but that which was revealed by the dim luminescence of my nightlight – four watts of reassuring illumination behind a scallop seashell. And, in that murky chiaroscuro I saw enough to keep me from grabbing my gun and ramping a round. I couldn’t see everything, mind you, just the essentials to apportion me a sane man’s quantum of corporeality, palpability, authenticity.
I assure you, there is no more devastating loneliness than the scant shred of surety and safety won by seeing nothing other than the expected.
But this night, this interminable tenure on a damp bed, was accompanied by an emotional unease brought on by the day’s mind-scorching heat and reminders from the landlady to keep doors and windows locked, and pets in at night. I accepted my disquiet, hoping only for an hour or two of sleep to offset my continual vigilance. But it was a tricky balance.
I have never noticed the beginnings of the fugue that bridges wakefulness and sleep; muscles relaxing, breathing becoming shallow and heartbeat slowing in response to this moderation. But when dream images coalesce it’s possible that to instantly convulse in reaction to an imagined threat or fall, or occasionally crying out or uttering nonsense. I have no control of these reactions; a captive of helpless paroxysms, perceptions and reactions.
And I have a loaded gun within reach.
A light rain tapped against my windows and I expected a gust of cool air to sweep into the room. A neighbor’s dog growled in the parking lot, Jake brakes on a distant tractor trailer added a throbbing cough to the shush of early morning traffic and a ventilator fan on the roof of The Exchange whirred into operation. Moments later, a wall vent spewed a weak breeze that stirred dust motes above the amber nightlight.
I relaxed a bit. Everything was as it should be. I could let go now. I could stop counting.
A single, loud knock on my door made me sit up. I guessed at who it could be. The drunk guy in 3B who lost his driver’s license and staggers home from the bar around this late? The old woman with five cats who spends most of her nights looking for them after they escape? The landlady who bothers everyone with her inconsiderate intrusions? A gas leak? A fire? Or…
“Who is it?” I called out. Silence. I waited a moment, then, “Who is it?”
Straining to hear a response, I slowly, quietly opened the night table drawer and drew out the gun. Not a sound from the door. I started across the room, clearing my mind and running through my encounter strategies. If I opened the door, I would have a split second to evaluate the situation, make a lightning-fast decision, and be responsible for my actions – either good or bad.
I called out again. “Hello? Who is it?”
But there were no sounds at all, save the rush of blood through my temples that filled my ears with a whisper of background noise – a less than reassuring reminder of my mortality.
Now I had two choices; open the door, or wait for another knock. I waited.
A rush of wastewater flowed through an overhead pipe; a toilet flushed in one of the upper apartments. I waited for the sound to subside.
I stepped closer to the door. “Is anyone there?”
What if that single rap wasn’t a knock on the door? I could have mistaken another apartment noise – a dropped shoe, a bumped piece of furniture. I was distracted when it happened and stranger things have happened.
Once I heard an old friend’s voice call out my name. Clear as day. “Marty!” he said, his deep-fried Southern baritone dragging the “r” through a trough of sorghum. I looked around, expecting to see his bright eyes, conspiratorial smile and big moose-like frame. I heard him and there was no question that it was him – other than knowing that he had been buried in Alabama years ago. No matter how I tried to deny that I heard him, his voice, the event left an undeniable resonance in my mind. I’ve had spiritually-obsessed friends tell me he called out from the grave, but I don’t have that much faith. Occam’s Razor shaves it down to the bare-bones explanation – he lives on in my head and that’s where his call originated.
Scuffing footsteps outside my door brought my gun hand to the ready. Someone was out there playing games with me. The door’s latch handle moved.
“Who’s out there?”
My anger rose, feeling foolish for allowing anyone to toy with me. It wasn’t fear at this point, I had gone from curiosity to annoyance and was on its way to a full-tilt rage. Trying the door? I had to remember to breathe.
Who the hell is this? I swear I’m not up for fooling around here…
With a couple of seconds, my carefully planned strategies were sidetracked. Now I wanted to upbraid some idiot, be it drunk or cat-chaser or landlady. God forbid it was some jackass out to rip me off… tonight would be a sorry end to his criminal career.
I unconsciously cocked the pistol, which already had a round in the chamber, so it spit out a brass cartridge onto the floor. I looked to see where it landed, but it was too dark by the door. As I looked down I remembered a friend, a Park Service guard on Alcatraz Island, telling me what he saw when there was no light at all.
After several months of spending four nights a week patrolling the prison alone, he became convinced that malevolent spirits roamed the concrete and steel penitentiary, dwelling in the deepest shadows of night. Burdened by his fears, he become paranoid and consulted a psychiatrist who offered him a simple resolution to his problem.
“When you see a ghost, confront it and demand, ‘Either blast me out of existence or leave me alone!’ If the spirit has ill intent, you will be no worse off since it could harm you for no reason at all at any time. That is, if it has the power to harm you. However, if it is benign, it may simply avoid you thereafter or vanish. You have nothing to lose either way. But, by not confronting an apparition, you are literally haunting yourself.”
So my friend accepted the challenge, and took it a step further.
He had learned that Alcatraz had a darker past, a more brutal ancestry that would have spawned far more tortured souls than pampered American gangsters.
The current penitentiary is built atop a catacomb of prison cells that remain from the original Spanish fortress. These frigid chambers are still accessible via a restricted staircase, hidden from contemporary tourists. It was there, in a dungeon that my desperate Park Ranger chose to make his stand.
"I waited until after my transport ferry returned to San Francisco that night. My shift was from 10 p.m. until dawn, so I had plenty of time alone. I did a last patrol of the island just after midnight, then headed for the stairwell. I had my flashlight, but left it midway down the steps so I could find it easily on my way back up...if I came out. The stairs were slick with condensation and temperature was nearly freezing. At the bottom of the flight, I felt my way along a stucco wall to the first opening. It was a small cell, maybe six by eight feet and the floor was a scatter of uneven cobbles. I stripped to the waist, pressed my back to the wall and waited. Shivering, but held my position for what seemed to be the longest time.
“Then I saw it, across the cell, near the floor. It was just a glint of light at first, then swirling into what appeared to be a fuzzy area, wispy gray against infinite blackness. It stayed in one place, but swayed as tree leaves do in a gentle breeze. It was hard to focus on it, but my eyes slowly found aspects of it that suggested a burled hardwood surface, then a watersplash on dry slate, then a shape that looked somewhat like a scowling face. Other streaks and flashes of light came and went as the shape grew larger and somewhat closer. I found a second face within the shifting light that overtook and obscured the first. It moved, approaching me. I no longer felt like I was freezing, shivering. In fact, the stone wall felt warm against my back and I pressed harder against it, its jagged edges now softened and yielding to my flesh.
“Colors flashed across the surface of the shape and I saw the face in detail, scowling, worry-lined and bearing gimlet eyes as it turned to regard me. A loud BOOM! – perhaps a cell door slamming shut – reverberated throughout the hollowness of the prison. I had chased trespassing teens off the island many times before and quickly attributed the noise to drunken horseplay. Then, a second explosion filled the galleries above. I shot a glance toward the darkness where I hoped the cell entrance was and, turning back, was blinded by a flash of light so overwhelming that I lost my vision so completely that, as it receded, I was met with blackness so impenetrable that I cried out, `Either blast me out of existence or leave me alone!’
“My shivering returned and flinty shards in my back had drawn blood. I put my shirt and jacket back on and climbed the stairs slowly. Midway, I found the flashlight, lit my way and left whatever it was that I had been afraid of down there.”
So, what was outside my door? Something real, or some image that my eyes would create to unlock the fear that lies at the bottom of everyman’s heart? I had to know and I was prepared to meet the danger that was of this or any other world. I unlatched the door, stepped back and swung it wide.
Someone darted off into the shrubbery of the courtyard. As he ran, I could see that he held something in his hand, maybe a stick, crowbar, or other break and enter tool. I stepped through my door but within seconds there was no trace of whoever knocked. I froze, listening for any sound that could give away his location. Shin-level path lights shined dim pools downward offering no illumination other than a rough idea of where the garden’s stepping stones might be. Above one light, I could make out the outline of a small Ficus tree and what looked like the top of the stick.
Stick versus gun? An idiots’ gamble… unless the stick was the cylindrical sheath of a Samurai sword.
I had only stepped forward only a foot or two before I realized the Ficus stick was a support pole for the scrawny tree. As I stepped onto the path, I was breathing hard, adrenaline rushing to my fight or flight aid. This was going to be a waiting game. There was no way out of the courtyard to the front door without passing me. One more step into the foliage and… something grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go. I pulled back and brought the pistol to bear just in front of my foot.
FOR CHRIST’S SAKE DON’T SHOOT YOUR FOOT!
I hopped to a path light and saw my attacker. One of the nightly lost cats, clinging to my pajama leg, now more terrified that I was.
“Jesus, cat… give it a break!” I whispered and the bushes shook wildly as the interloper struggled to find a way to other end of the garden where the neon sign lit the glass and steel entrance door an electric, funhouse green. I stayed on the path as I followed, but whoever it was, burst out of the shrubbery, kicked the pane of glass out of the door and took off toward the harbor.
“WAKE UP!” I yelled, “CALL THE POLICE!”
But whether my words went unheard at this hour or were ignored to avoid getting involved, I was now alone and determined to follow this intruder until the cops arrived and could collar him. By the time I pushed open the shattered door, all I could hear was the thunk-thunk-thunk of heavy boots on the pavement ahead of me. I figured he was half a block away and, as he ran under a street light, I saw that he was a big guy, dressed in dark sweats with a hoodie pulled over his head. I picked up the pace, keeping my finger off my gun’s trigger. At this range, I had time to respond and could ill afford to stumble and fire the weapon by mistake.
As I passed a warehouse adjacent to the Exchange, something swung out of the alleyway and hit me across the face. I felt the electrical sting of the stick against my face, the nauseating overload of pain and metallic tang of blood in my mouth. I staggered, grabbing my attacker, but he spun and broke my grip on his arm. I saw another blow with the stick coming so I moved backward as fast as I could, turning my ankle and falling into the gutter. My assailant ran around the corner of the building and I sat there trying to piece together what had happened.
There must have been two of them; one waiting as a lookout until the other broke into an apartment and signaled his accomplice to join the robbery. I blew it. They were prepared for a chase and, as I staggered against the building, I felt vomit rising and the ground shifting beneath my feet. I had to get back and get help. They might return to finish me off.
I got dizzy and vomited, feeling faint, tired and cold. Walking back, the pain and nausea took over – most of this I don’t remember, but when I came to, sprawled in the courtyard garden, my gun was missing and I had quite a bit of trouble getting to my feet. I worked my way back toward my apartment and, in the bushes, found my drunkard neighbor, face down, not moving.
He’s passed out. I saw something next to his head. Is that vomit?
I pulled up a path light, moved it toward the puddle and my heart sank. The support pole from the tree was lying on the ground, next to him, its sharpened end, smudged with dirt and blood.
He’s not breathing. No pulse... is he dead?
I picked up the pole to steady myself, realizing we needed cops now and damning the neighbors for their cowardice.
“HELP! DAMN IT! CALL THE POLICE… AND AN AMBULANCE!”
My apartment door was closed and I didn’t have my keys. On the outside chance the latch hadn’t closed securely enough to lock the door, I limped out of the garden, using the pole as a support. When I tried the latch handle and, shifting my weight to my good ankle, I let the pole hit the door.
Looking up at the upper-level apartments, I didn’t see any light coming on.
What the hell is going on? “HEY, CALL THE POLICE!”
Behind me, my apartment door opened and I saw the silhouette of someone stand there and the glint of metal in his hand. I panicked and ran into the garden shrubs ignoring my pain, clearing the branches with the pole. The path veered to the right and, once behind cover I made my way back toward the dead drunk.
They came back to steal my stuff. I have to get out of here, now!
Still, no lights shined from my neighbor’s windows, no one was moving about. Or were they just scared, calling the police from the privacy and darkness of their loft? I heard the intruder approaching, and the bastard had my gun.
Those frag rounds could kill me in an instant.
I steeled myself for the pain I knew would shoot up from my foot, held the pole in both hands like a quarterstaff and darted out of the bushes to the from door. One end of the pole shattered a side panel of glass on the door frame and I stumbled out onto the street through a shower of glass shards shining green under the glare of neon. As I turned to run up the street there were footsteps behind me, gaining on me and I turned to see a jogger in sweats as he passed me and sprinted ahead, pulling his hood up onto his head.
With every bit of energy I could muster, I fought back the pain of my wrenched ankle and made it past the warehouse. Stepping into the darkness around the far corner of the building I saw the jogger pass a streetlight at the corner of the block. Stick versus gun, again, an idiots choice, but that’s all I had.
Waiting... waiting to hear anything, I found my grip on the pole. Maybe I had a chance in a hundred, so it had to be precise and hard. I shivered now, sweat mixing with the light rain that made the asphalt under my bare feet. Where were my shoes? My feet were bloodied by the courtyard’s brambles but I couldn’t feel the scratches, a throbbing numbness griping my legs up to my knees. I could hear footsteps, approaching, increasing in speed, growing louder…
One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four and…
I swung the pole, throwing my shoulder into the blow and hearing the sickening crack of wood on bone. The intruder staggered back for a moment, and I grabbed his arm to retrieve my pistol. As he spun to get away, I pushed him into the gutter. Lost in the moment, I turned the wrong way and fell forward onto a thin runner of lawn that ran alongside the warehouse. Face down on the wet grass I held my pistol in one hand and the pole my other.
At any moment the intruder could stomp me and I struggled to turn my face to see where he was.
Blackness, deep and impenetrable.
I stared hard, looking for any sign of what I feared, until a small ray of light met my eyes. A blurry shape grew as my eyes adjusted to the light, finding details that outlined a recognizable shape.
It was a scallop shell, lit from behind, hovering in my field of vision. I moved my head to look away. My nightlight.
Lifting my head from the wet grass, saw that I was on my bed, snarled in wet sheets - groggy, but safe in my sweat-soaked bed.
In my right hand, my Glock. In my left, the strawbroom handle.
And then I heard it… a knock on my door.
- end -
© Martin Higgins, 2017
all rights reserved