The room is filled with the dark of night. Red bricks of light that connect into the shapes of “4:30” are the only light. The numerals imprint on my eyelids.
I roll over onto my back and stare at the ceiling. It hangs like a Monet piece if he had met Yves Klein. The ceiling always fades away eventually. Not into the black of sleep, but into a blur as I start to see through it. I move through an eggshell fog and wooden frame and see clouds. But I’m still in the bed, it is still dark, and I still cannot sleep.
I roll over more, on my right side this time. I see the open doorway to the master bathroom, its edges hidden in shadow. In horror movies, the doorframes have straight, clear lines. The monster is in there, yeah, but there is a line of division that it cannot pass. Not here. Not really. The doorframe was slowly being eaten away by the monster. It was winning battle after battle, spreading its rule. How long would it take for it to get to me? It’s 4:35 am.
I give up on sleep. I convince myself it’s the logical choice, but, if I’m being honest, it’s a purely emotional response. I slip on some old shoes that I don’t need to tie and walk out of the apartment to my car. I need to move. I need to go somewhere. I need to drive.
– – –
When I was in high school, I’d walk down Forgoen Avenue at four in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. It was something you could do when the town’s population was fewer than 2000 and the closest house was another farm a half mile away.
My parents’ house was a blue, one-story rancher that sat on a plot with a small apple orchard in the back acre. A small barbed-wire fence drew its perimeter. Their apples didn’t go much further than the small family-owned grocery stores in Oatsdale, about two miles north on I-85, or Brenton, three miles east on Highway 234.
At four in the morning, when I wasn’t able to sleep, I grabbed my shoes and my house keys and headed west on Forgoen toward the Hilltop Mart. The house keys were a formality I learned from various shows we’d watch on NBC; my parents never really locked the doors to the house.
No one was on the road at four in the morning, and, because of the lack of local funds in Karnapa, no streetlights punctuating the road. The lack of light pollution let the moon and stars pick up the slack, though, so not all was lost. The lay of the road was so flat and so straight, that you could tell the exact molecule the horizon sat on. It was like the first drawing they make you do in art in elementary school; the one where they try to tell you about perspective and you just draw lines from the bottom corners to the center. That’s literally what Forgoen looked like, even with the few hastily-drawn trees sprinkled in after the teacher said you didn’t put in enough detail.
There was a space after the Herston’s land, the farm a half mile away, and before the Hilltop Mart where the transmission towers stood, giving a lane for the power lines to travel to us from Karnapa proper to the north, the central part of town with the library and the city hall and the paper mill. There was a light popping under the power lines that you could only hear at four in the morning, because the rest of the day had too much sound for you to observe it. I’d stop for a minute on my walk and listen to it. I’d look at the stars and imagine every pop being the birth or death of a star, somewhere out there hidden by their boisterous friends.
The Hilltop Mart was maybe a mile and a half one-way. It was an odd name, since it wasn’t on the top of a hill. It was on a hill, sure, but it was in the middle of a hill at best. It’s possible the hill of trees and Methodist chapels weren’t there when the Hilltop Mart was built, but that seemed unlikely; the trees were tall and the chapels didn’t have plumbing. It was open 24 hours a day because of the slim minority of me showing up at odd hours in the night, but mostly because of the two gas pumps outside of it and the state law that said an attendant had to pump your gas for you.
The aisles were empty, like the road the store sat on, but the shelves were full. Three aisles were devoted exclusively to American beer. Budweiser had cases stacked on cases in the aisle with a neon sign of the logo above, the fluorescent lights drab in comparison. I gravitated toward the snack aisles during my morning walks: plump bags of chips bursting from the shelves, candy bars laid in an orderly fashion in their little cardboard houses.
The nights in summer got down to the mid-60s. I grabbed a glass bottle of Snapple from the refrigerated section on the south wall, just before the refrigerated beers, and a Milky Way. I brought them to the counter where the clerk, Gill, stood. Gill was a middle-aged man with straight, shoulder-length, black hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a flannel shirt tucked into denim pants, his belt buckle changing every couple months. On this day, his belt buckle had a picture of a cowboy riding a horse, lasso raised in the air. Gill usually went with old Hank Williams songs when he was in charge of the store’s radio. The only thing he was missing was 10-gallon hat, I realized as an adult, but that never occurred to me then; that was just what Gill was like.
I gently eased the Snapple bottle onto the counter to make less noise and followed it with the Milky Way bar. A sad twang of steel guitar filling the store. “Hey Gill.”
He looked up from yesterday’s crossword. “Hey Pete.” His voice had a low drawl to it. When he talked, you didn’t see his mouth move so much as you saw his mustache roll.
Gill met my eyes. He raised his right hand, palm up, and gestured to the empty northern wall on his right to the empty southern wall on his left. “Booming.”
We laughed. It was the kind of joke that works at that hour in that small of a town. Gill scanned the tea and the candy bar, and I pulled out the five I had in my pocket that I earned from my summer gig as a bagger at the Safeway by the library.
The register opened with a pang, the jostling of coins ringing out of its mouth. “Eight-letter word. Person from Calgary or Edmonton.”
“Got any letters?”
“Ends with N.” He answered, placing my change on the counter and picking up his pencil. He looked at me expectantly.
“Tried that. Doesn’t fit with nine-down. Country where David lives: Italy. It ends with T-something-N.”
I pictured a Canadian map on the neon Coors sign and split it into provinces. British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, “Albertan.”
“Ah. Right. Thanks, Pete.” Gill started scratching the letters into the squares.
I nodded. “Anytime.” I shoved the bills and coins into my pocket, picked up the Milky Way with my left hand, Snapple with my right.
The door to the store closed with the dinging of a small bell. After walking down the steps to the road, I placed the Snapple on the edge of the stoop to open the Milky Way. I tried to do it while walking once, and I lost half the tea to a ditch. I’d walk the mile and a half east back home, listening to the last bit of the transmission tower’s electric popping with the sun peeking over the Herston’s silo.
– – –
I get to my car, which I had to park several buildings away in the complex due to all the free spots being taken by other freeloaders. It’s a green Kia I got at a “pre-owned” dealership last fall. I went on about the weird euphemism with the dealer; how it wasn’t a good term since it was longer and more complicated than the original term, “used,” and in response, he said, “I need your signature here, here, and your initials here.”
There’s no one on the road at four in the morning, because, it turns out, sane people just aren’t up that early. It isn’t just true in rural Karnapa; it’s true in suburban Harpen too. These roads have streetlights though. The people in Harpen want to play God and make the roads live in perpetual day. No sleep for you, Lauren Drive.
I drive south on 267th, winding through a dim forest that’s been partially emptied for a couple houses every hundred feet for lake people who can’t afford to live on Lake Rhonda, but want to live by it. Their houses blend in with the tree trunks at least, peeling paint, cedar shingles, whatnot.
I take several turns in places I don’t think about; all muscle memory. The car just drives to a place, and I am on the journey with it. The drive is about a half hour. I end up in the parking lot of Valley Middle School, where I teach. It’s 5:15 am. School starts in two hours. The first day of the year.
In Kia’s trunk is an emergency stash of clothes I am expected to wear as an adult at a school: a purple button-up with thin, dark, vertical lines; a black tie; jeans that don’t have any holes; and shoes that don’t have visible holes. I keep some deodorant, a comb, a toothbrush, and toothpaste in my desk as well; I’m not worried.
I get out of Kia and stretch my back, on my tiptoes, trying to grab the clouds. Harpen isn’t as warm as Karnapa— it’s in the low-50s— and there’s fog hovering over the fields behind the school. I rub my forearms a little, feel the goosebumps travel up them. I climb onto Kia’s hood and sit cross-legged, not resting my back on the windshield.
I watch the fog flow around the fields and lap the parking lot. I look at the building, with its red-painted, cinder-block facade slowly getting chipped away. There are dots in the places students had written something in sharpie the previous year that hasn’t been painted over yet. A tennis ball lodged in a vent above the door to the science hallway. A blue frisbee (literally and figuratively) sitting on the roof above Ms. Spencer’s history classroom.
An hour later, the sun rises over the portables that sit between the school and the fields. The clouds are whipped-cream streaks over strawberry puree. The portables’ antennas like small spoons dipped in it, stuck there.
“Sure. Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath of fresh morning air. I get my clothes out of the trunk, and walk toward the building.