The Incredible Sleeping Man
“Seeds can be stored indefinitely. There are cases on record of hundred-year-old seeds producing tomatoes every bit as plump … ”
The lines of Ambrose’s face are etched deep blue by flickering cathode fingers. Hair ablaze with the sun’s first rays, his body sprawls motionless on the couch; a 3-d crime-scene outline.
The television drones. Words, like tiny insects float briefly then alight on his prostrate form. He stirs, eyelids sputter like a little-used faucet. His head moves enough to escape daylight. His children-of-the-damned eyes are blue saucers that only reflect the cathode-blue pantomime.
Such is the life of Ambrose: day, night, sleeping, waking, all merge endlessly in an uninterrupted and meaningless stream. While conscious, he watches whatever the TV spits out until sleep claims him, when he dreams whatever his mind broadcasts, until the blue void reclaims him.
Neighborhood children call him, “The Incredible Sleeping Man,” often holding vigil at his window; each secretly hoping that today he would really be dead.
Ancient porch wood groans. Children scatter like birds.
Sunlight, now grown to a perfect triangle, frames him like some B-movie space ray. He begins to move, shields his eyes, waving his arms jerky as the Frankenstein monster, unused to newfound limbs.
A few brave children reassemble at the window to watch Ambrose stumble about like a robot.
From deep within, a tugging, nagging, griping, primeval pull: hunger. He staggers, rifling cupboards, shelves, refrigerator. Nothing. Less than nothing – an open soda and what may once have been pizza, now a crawling, fuzzy infestation.
Ambrose holds his head as though playing some great tragic role. His stumbling takes him in wider and wider arcs, circling like a loose wheel until he comes upon needed items: a shoe, a wallet, the bathroom. He runs water and stares into a mirror so dirty there is no reflection.
The children giggle. Best show in town. Ambrose cocks his head like an animatronic dog at the sound, then continues his helter-skelter rampage. To the group at the window, he is a pinball, bounding off walls and furniture, the rattling of cups, and other household detritus the bells and bumpers.
His random motions, like the birth of worlds and stars, solar systems and galaxies gradually assemble a man dressed to walk the earth.
Part human, part machine, he lurches to the door, his young sentinels, but memories of cartoon smoke.
Ambrose throws open the door as though tearing it from its hinges. Sunlight bleeds into the room, soaking brilliance into the faded rug. His own gray visage absorbs the spectrum until his clothes take on the colors of life – flannel checks, blue pants, fleshed-out face.
He is on the move, movements more lifelike with each step. Houses, trees, trees, houses, the world slips by as he slips through, destination a white light burning in his mind, more real than the reality he passes. His steps pound the pavement in automatic motions. One foot follows the other. Below, worms churn the earth, above, vultures circle.
Light dapples through fence slats painting stripes on Ambrose’s pants. In the air, an aural assault - sharp, irritating yelps tear the air. Ambrose winces, eardrums switched on. His great robot head turns toward the sound. A small white ball of fury hops to and fro, yelping and snapping its jaws, moving like purebred light against a lawn so green it almost blinds him.
“Dog…” The word forms slowly in his mind, bubbling up from some deep recess. He stops to think more clearly. “A dog.”
This so infuriates the beast, it begins to twirl in mid-air as if possessed. The motion hypnotizes Ambrose, rooting him to the spot. The dog spins and hops so rapidly it seems about to burst into flames.
Ambrose watches. His nostrils twitch at the pungent odor of canine feces. He sways slightly like a tall building, listing in the wind. The spiraling dog seems to have grown three heads.
By now the tiny whirlwind is hurling itself against the fence. With each crash, its sharp yelps are punctuated by a dull wooden thump. Tiny divots are launched from each picket, and for long moments fence, dog, and man are locked in a strange dance.
Finally, Ambrose pulls himself away, the sound of the dog dopplering off behind him.
The storeowners, two ancient sisters whose skin has taken on the texture of bologna, eye him warily. Ambrose moves in slow motion, his selection mechanical, based as much on weight, as on palatability: corn flakes - generic.
As he totes his prize to the counter, Ambrose notices a section of pet-related items: dog bones, squeak toys, collars. He picks each up in turn examining it before setting it down.
He shuffles to the counter, dropping his carton like a mechanized conveyer belt.
“Redeemable?” One sister speaks.
“Redeemable? Do you have any redeemable coupons?” The second sister.
“Coupons?” Ambrose mind struggles to retrieve the concept.
“That cereal is three for the price of two.” The first sister reports.
“With a coupon.” The second explains.
“No. No coupons.” Ambrose vaguely pats his pockets as if the coupons in question might be part of his attire.
At last, his packet tucked neatly beneath his arm, Ambrose sets his compass for home.
At the fence, he pauses, looks about as if he’d lost something. He notes the grass, tufted in tiny swirls; nicks on the fence, an empty leash, doggie toys, small craters filled with tiny orange shadows. The air is silent, tinged with the slight odor of fur and excrement. He sniffs, a primal, bestial act, before moving along catlike on padding feet. His eyes, aimed homeward, are the blue of steel reflecting sky.
He blankly fumbles with keys, eyes fixed on the paint that peels in long gray strips from a porch akimbo. The eastward-leaning deck offsets Ambrose's own westward list, rendering him an erect man. He cocks his head, not unlike a dog, destroying the upright illusion before the doorway swallows him in its cathode blue maw.
The blue-eyed television eyes Ambrose whose eyes reflect back the dull cobalt haze.
He staggers, stunned after the brilliance of life outdoors. His movements slow and stiffen to zombie goose steps. He puts his acquisition down, motion slowing in tune with the blue depths through which he swims. Suddenly, something in the azure glow illuminates his azure eyes; pupils grow to round and lively pinwheels.
A commercial for dog food yips and yaps a pack of dogs across the screen. The animals are all mature, clamoring like puppies about the feet of a woman bearing a bowel. Ambrose, transfixed by the sight, wavers in the wavering blue light. The voice of an announcer floats in the indigo gloom. His disembodied words explain how this particular canine cuisine will “teach old dogs new tricks.”
Ambrose continues to stand and sway, head locked on the screen long after the hungry hounds are replaced by a woman “rejuvenating her skin” with an exfoliating cream.
The blue cathode ray holds him in its spotlight, absorbing him; turning him to blue plastic; a monochrome toy soldier.
Ambrose moves his purchase to the counter amidst a diffusion of unwashed dishes, empty boxes, wrappers, utensils.
He examines the box as though it were covered in hieroglyphs. He moves it this way and that like a puzzle he cannot fathom. Finally, he tears it open, cursing unintelligibly when realizing he has no milk. He sticks his hand inside the box, indolently slapping handfuls into the bowl. Rising on legs sore and squeaky from the day’s unaccustomed labors, he perfunctorily makes his way to the sink, where he runs water into the bowl. His arm moves up and down shoveling spoonfuls of soggy gruel into his maw. He chews lethargically as though mulching up so much paper. When done, he sits, a statue representing the lackluster lack of enjoyment. When he finally rises, his limbs continuing to stiffen, he walks past the dirty mirror, gives it a perfunctory swipe of his hand revealing the outline of a man. At the couch, he topples like a fallen effigy back into its depths and the deadly blue rays.
Ambrose is prone; a toppled statue. Another morning washes the television glow from him, It appears he is thawing; blue ice dripping in cathode sheets. He emerges from sleep, unusually hungry.
Abruptly he realizes he is standing. He observes his motions with clinical detachment, noting his movements are not quite as rigid as he recalls. He sticks a hand before his face, turning it this way and that. He jiggles a foot; even does a knee bend, scratching his head in bemused wonder.
He rummages and rifles through the lack of canned and packaged foodstuffs that comprise his larder, cursing himself for a fool. He sees himself as a fool; a jester bedecked in tricolor tights, pointed shoes, and a jingling, flop-eared hat. Ambrose laughs; a dry cough of a cackle, like an old engine sputtering to turn over.
Ambrose’s mouth begins to water, salty as the sea. What he wants is bacon, eggs, toast; coffee; sizzling, frying, boiling, filling his small cell with odors and sounds. What he wants is to walk out on newfound legs to buy fresh food from the farm market, then return to linger over this feast, tasting, absorbing nutrients, renewing himself in satisfaction.
Ambrose once more emerges from blue-lit room, to blue-lit sky. The youngsters, who had not yet decided what mischief to engage in this day, were amassing on the hood of a car like iron filings on a magnet. They eye him as he passes, stunned at his half smiled, half coughed greeting, and his newly flexible hand waving in the air.
To call Ambrose’s gait jaunty, would be a misnomer, but there was a certain lift to his step, as though Frankenstein was wearing lighter shoes.
At the house where he encountered the dog, Ambrose leans on the fence, hands dangling between the pickets. The house, neatly encased within the bounds of the fence, is not large. White with blue trim, its windows, doors, and eaves render the front face-like; reminiscent of a child’s drawing of a house.
He wonders about the people that live there. Were these new owners; or had the house passed down through generations? Looks to be about 30 years old. Perhaps the parents and the children and even grandchildren all live there. Then again, perhaps not. He tries to remember what it looked like here 30 years ago. A field? Woods?
Suddenly, a searing pain runs from his hand, up his arm, and throughout his being, as if he were charged with electrical energy. In the instant before he realizes the white ball of fur had managed to leap high enough to bite his hand, the twisted face of Victor Frankenstein camping “It’s alive!” races through his mind.
The small dog almost manages to get him again before Ambrose pulls his arm away.
“Whiskey!” A disembodied voice from within is like a switch turning the animal off. Whiskey trots meekly toward the house.
Ambrose eyes his bloodied hand. Striped red and white as a Squirrelfish, he marvels at how red the blood is.
“Whiskey, hey? Well, Whiskey you little devil, the war is on.”Ambrose smiles, shaking the hand that stings with life.
He moves on, his steps lighter still, as if the spilled blood held the weight of the ocean. The smarting tingle in his hand seems endowed with a life of its own. He holds it out, striped red against a clean blue sky. The smell of blood mingles with the mulchy scent of last fall’s leaves, and the budding odors of early spring. His eyes are melting blue ice, reflecting the sun.
As he passes the store of the two sisters, stuffy odors intrude on the outdoor air. He thinks of his house.
The farm market is alive with people, plants, and animals. Shoppers move among baskets filled with bright red apples, orange peppers, and yellow corn. They check their purchases with cashiers who are all young men and women from the college. Out back, wandering, pecking chickens mimic customers. A sty is filled with pigs big as cows. Their pink skins gleam in the sunlight.
Ambrose wanders childlike. At the egg cooler, white, brown, speckled, fertilized, and unfertilized, eggs are displayed like jewels. He picks one up, brown as earth, and beholds it in the dappling light.
The smell of coffee draws him; tingling his nostrils as though he had never had olfactory sense. He picks up a bag, examines it this way and that, before he finally buries his face in it. He inhales the pungent air as though he had just emerged from a great depth. He holds in the flavored breath, until he is forced to exhale, unwilling to let it go.
Finally, he gathers up the bacon, eggs, and coffee, checks out and is again on the street, head bent to it, homeward bound.
He stops again at the dog’s house, but all is quiet. He takes in the scene as a general might a battlefield, his senses on high alert. The odor of feces hangs like fertilizer on the fresh air, a squeak toy here, a leather bone there. Patches of lawn are dug up, and beneath a picket in the far front corner, a hole. Ambrose walks the length of the fence and sees the opening leads outside. He looks about him, skin prickling, and continues on his way like a soldier on point.
He feels the hair on the back of his neck spring to life. The road is alive beneath his shoes. The woods are filled with a plethora of tiny sounds; scrapings, nuzzlings, slitherings.
Suddenly, a long sliding sound erupts from the trees behind him. He turns, but despite his new found alertness, the little dog manages to ambush and retreat, nipping his heel then zipping off to the cover of the trees.
Ambrose grabs his leg hopping about like a cross between a drunken rabbit and a jack-in-the-box. He yowls, and curses, straining his head to see the back of his foot. Then he stops and smiles, his eyes twinkling sunlight.
Ambrose reaches into the bag containing his long-delayed breakfast, half cursing, half smiling. He wraps his hand around one of the eggs. Its smooth, slightly pocked shell sensuous in his fist. He hefts it like a pitcher reading signals from a catcher. Its weight is perfect for throwing. He thinks for a moment about life emerging from eggs, then quickly returns to his concentration.
There it is; a scuffling in the trees, followed by the start of that sliding sound. In one motion, Ambrose turns, catches sight of the white blur hurtling toward him, and lets go with the egg. The missile sails in a slight arc, catching the startled dog between the eyes.
It yelps. It spins. It scampers back to the woods, where it whimpers softly. Ambrose, ears cocked sharp as an owl's, knew Whiskey was not prepared for a third assault. His smile widens like a tectonic fault line; slow but inevitable.
“Got the little bastard.” Ambrose slams his fist into the air, executing a little jig like an umpire calling a strike. He reaches in his bag for another egg and hurls it at the sounds on a mortar-like trajectory. Another yelp, followed by panicked rustlings.
Ambrose ambles homeward. His sauntering steps a shuffling hornpipe, enliven the pavement with an animated dance; his eyes Husky blue.
His porch greets him with sagging beams, tilted deck, and the hangdog entry to the black yaw looming behind the half-mast windows.
Ambrose opens the door as though breaking and entering. The darkness has grown foreign to his eyes. Sunlight attempts to stream into its depths but is dammed back after only a few feet. The dim quarters are unfamiliar after the brilliance of the world. His eyes barely separate one seedy room from one another.
He moves through dark space, a modern Prometheus bent on bringing the fire of daylight to every dim corner. He steps over and through things to get to the windows, where he unceremoniously tears down curtains, shades, and blinds. Shadows run frightened into the farthest corners. Insects scramble for their lives, as a radiant deluge floods the room.
Ambrose feels cleansed by the luminosity; and ravenously hungry. He sets about arranging his greasy pans, burnt, blackened pots, caked plates, stained cups, and sweeps them into the sink. He cleans and scrubs, and scrubs and cleans, until each one gives off, if not sparkle, some semblance of clean. His face stares back at him from a fresh scrubbed pot, crooked, distorted, and blotched with left behind grime. Ambrose wields his newly cleaned utensils like a cross between Gabby Hayes and a well-oiled machine.
Eggs crackle, bacon sizzles, and coffee percolates, slowly churning the musty room into a cauldron of sounds and smells. Ambrose, brandishing forks and spatulas, spoons and bowls conducts himself like a symphony.
He sweeps detritus from his table; empty cans, candy wrappers, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of his life. He sits down to enjoy the feast. He can’t remember the last time he’d sat down to eat like this, consuming real food with real smells and tastes; perhaps when his wife was alive.
Ambrose stares into the depths of this thought, until he is suddenly fascinated by the tableau before him: a wooden table brought to life. Orange yolks framed in white, woody strips of bacon laid side by side, the coffee, a swirling black hole in the universe of the cup; a still life come into being.
For a moment, he is perplexed; absorbed in the table arrangement, undecided what to eat first. Then he springs to it, dipping the crisp, slightly burned toast into the heart of the egg as if performing a ritual. The yellow liquid drips like blood from the bread. Ambrose solemnly places the dripping morsel into his mouth, taking great pleasure in the play of tastes and textures against his tongue. He swallows slowly, then sips his coffee, luxuriating in the warm and acrid flavor breaking on his tongue like the primordial sea on a newly minted earth; the perfect counterpoint to the toast. Next he chooses a slice of bacon shiny with grease. The strip is practically raw fat, the way he likes it. The smell is almost overpowering as he moves it beneath his nostrils toward his mouth.
After breakfast, Ambrose springs to action. Emitting a series of grunts, mumbles, and rumblings, he begins to rummage through his cabinets, Cans fly left, right, and center. Some are hefted in parabolic journeys halfway to the ceiling and all the way to the floor. Banging, scraping, tottering on precarious perches, Ambrose flutters like a bird, stalks like a lion, and hops like a gazelle.
Cans of pumpkins – the ghosts of Thanksgivings past, petrified cookies, embalmed pickles, condiments in reserve these past 40 years: mustards, ketchups, mayonnaise, all solidified, dissolved, or otherwise succumbed to the dictates of time. There are spices of every ilk: clove and nutmeg, thyme and cumin, essences of vanilla, almond, peppermint; all, no doubt, destined for Christmas cookies that never were.
At last he comes upon a yellowed bottle of red pepper. Ambrose’s smile is like sunrise, as he sets the spice in a special place to be revisited later.
When the house is cleaned to his satisfaction, Ambrose strips the bed of sheets, and gathers clothing long relegated to hangars, drawers, and floors, and proceeds to wash them. Comfortably tired from the day’s labors, he decides to bathe before turning in, a ritual he has long neglected, in favor of the sponge bath.
Ambrose stands before the full-length bathroom mirror, a man wholly revealed. He eyes a body used badly by time; bent, wrinkled, and grayed. He harumphs and mumbles his way to the shower, turning knobs that scream from neglect.
But water descends, and steam arises, and the naked man steps into cascades of pleasure: the satisfying sting of the striking droplets, the joy of the warmth, the delight of years of grime evaporating from his skin. He feels, lighter, younger, alive, stepping from this pleasant booth, tingling and pink as a newborn.
He heads for the long deserted bedroom, where he sleeps like a baby on crisp clean sheets.
Ambrose swims to life on an ocean of sheets and covers. He clings to his pillow like a life preserver, riding it upward to consciousness. He is confused. For a moment he thinks it is 30 years earlier. Then he simply luxuriates in the sensuous comfort of the bed, making snow angels in the sheets.
Eyes flutter open to dappled sunlight. He turns toward daylight, drinking in the brilliance. His eyes are clear shining pools.
Ambrose examines the clothing he removed the night before; the same clothing he’d been wearing day and night for so long he could not recall. The dingy shirt and pants lay on the floor stretched out at impossible angles, the outline of a dead man. He stares down at them thinking that they don’t actually trace dead bodies like that in real life. Finally, he gathers up the murdered garments and tosses them into the trash.
He carefully lays out clothes not worn for years, but fresh from the washing machine. Ambrose dresses and heads out of his room like a mannequin come to life, his clothes glistening.
In the kitchen he is like some mad scientist, mixing red pepper and water in a plastic spray bottle. His eyes gleam, alive and in motion as the churning blue sea. As he works, he whistles; behind him the television is mute.
Ambrose heads out into sunshine. Framed for a moment in the doorway, a circle of light surrounds him like some child’s bible-story Lazarus come to life.
He walks and cackles, cackles and walks. He speaks to himself in a kind of old-coot glossolalia, as he pats his spray bottle, like a gunslinger on his way to the showdown.
His eyes are clear and blue as sky; his mind runs clear and crisp as blue mountain water. Ambrose, a man on a mission, adrenaline surging, moves with the steps of a younger man.
As he reaches the house of his canine enemy, the fecal smell rises to his nostrils, pungent as the OK Corral. The ball of fur rises too. Spinning, twirling, snapping, snarling, it attacks, launching itself into the thick air.
The clock in Ambrose’s head strikes high noon.
He draws his bottle and fires. A thin red line arcs through the sunlit air like a liquid laser beam. Both dog and spray seem to hover in a shimmering montage before meeting in mid flight. The scene instantly deflates; the dog now on the ground whimpering, snorting, coughing, madly trying to bury its face in the ground, swiping at itself with its paws.
Ambrose stands transfixed for a moment, then begins to hop and hoot like Quasimodo pouring lead on the rabble. As he does, the dog continues to whimper and snort. Their sounds weave a strange symphony of joy and pain, until Ambrose suddenly deflates, and only the dog’s crying remains.
Ambrose stares at the dog’s misery in silence. He turns and walks off.
He walks in a dreamless dream, squeezing through the door of the two sisters as though entering the world for the first time. His eyes are wide and blue as a newborn’s. The drab store has become a magical place, filled with food and drink, gadgets and devices. He is overwhelmed by things. The word “provender” alights in his mind; a fluttering butterfly. Here are meats of all kinds: beef, chicken, pork; fresh, packaged, and canned. There apples, squash, carrots, and lettuce light up the dreary store with freshness and color. Lined up in the coolers are bottles of milk, soda, juice, and beer sparkling and sweating behind their glass doors.
Ambrose buys a giant red steak and a six pack of beer. On his way home he notices a rusted-out rotting old trailer. It suddenly occurs to him that at one time it was new and someone went to some kind of showroom to look at it and buy it, no doubt hauling it proudly home on a car that was now itself junk, to a family who has now moved on, apparently without looking back.
When he reaches the dog’s yard, the tiny beast is whimpering quietly in the corner. Ambrose opens a beer and observes the dog, which has retreated farther into the shadows on seeing him.
Ambrose now pulls the steak from the paper bag and tosses it into the yard. The dog lets off its sobbing, and begins to sniff suspiciously at the meat, before tearing into it with a frenzied appetite.
Ambrose laughs, and shakes his beer like a child with soda pop, spraying himself and the animal in a fizzing, arcing baptism. He drinks heartily from what is left, and moves on.
The Incredible Sleeping Man