On The Nights When I Can’t Sleep

Sleep doesn’t come easy, never has. It seems to have worsened over the past two years since my mama and Owen, my best friend, died. Grief has a way of sticking, and the part of me it sticks to the most is my sub-conscious mind, in the pitch-black hours when my wife lies sleeping by my side, my dog in the crate at the foot of the bed. I look out the back window and see lights on the houses up the hill, thinking that I’m not the only one with this condition, though maybe in those houses, they just don’t care as much about saving electricity as I do.

Still, not sleeping has its advantages, particularly for my writing. Being tired allows my vulnerable mind to fail in its censoring, so the images that come in these hours of darkness are honest. They can’t be so easily dismissed, though the grief wants me to do that dismissing, and fast. I used to try so hard to sleep again that I pushed past the images, until it occurred to me that it’s these I should want to write about, maybe need to write about.

So last week, two images, dredged out of a subconscious that should scare me, rose.

The first, my father’s old closet in the house where I was born and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, showed itself clearly. I saw the old wooden door; the rack Dad and Mama kept lined neatly with their twenty or thirty pairs of shoes, in perfect shine; the wooden pole, sagging from the weight of more shirts and coats and pants than any two middle-class humans have a right to own; and the top shelf, where Dad kept his tax papers in a green-gray strong box, next to a stack of papers hidden in which, were two or three Playboy magazines that I stole looks at whenever I could. When I got out of bed the next morning, I made my coffee and wrote this story.

Another night, I started thinking of the walking cane my grandmother (Nanny) received for Christmas one year, and how enraged she was at the woman—her best friend—who gave it to her. Why the cane and why now, I don’t know. Nanny has been dead these forty-nine years, and I’ve rarely thought about, much less written a story of her cane. But when I got up the next morning, not refreshed but eager, I wrote this prose-poem

And then last night, my wife is snoring, and I feel the cold from the window, which she insists must stay open despite the temperature dropping into the lower thirties. After one more sleepless covering away from the fan she’s also turned on (she’s in full-blown menopause), I begin thinking of a neighbor woman we knew when I was a boy. For two days, I was this lady’s daughter’s boyfriend. We were only eleven, and after those two days, that girl dumped me for an older boy of thirteen. Anyway, it wasn’t the girl I saw in this vision, but her mother, carrying on an affair with another man from our church. In the balcony of our church

I can’t help it; it’s the story I’ve heard off and on now for the last forty years. I don’t remember who the man is, but I could find out easily enough if I want to, if I decide to write this story, which I’m not sure I will, because while the lady is dead, her daughter is still alive. We talked on the occasions of our respective mama’s deaths. But I don’t know: not every image, even if it demands attention at three a.m. needs to be written.

So, as with anything else, it’s always up to the writer to decide which images need treatment. They’re all speaking to us, and what I’m saying here is don’t push them away or ignore them, even if you’d rather be sleeping. There are reasons for everything, and it’s the writer’s task to ferret these out. It helps if you keep a notebook by your pillow, though I rely on my memory. It’s full of grief, but so far, it hasn’t failed me.

Maybe soon, I’ll write that church story, or whatever other tale creeps up on me tonight and all the nights to come, as I lay not sleeping.

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