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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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AFFLICTION

 

by Tom Larsen

 

 

 

                 Lenny Palmer stands in his darkened living room looking out at the house across the street. Every yap hits him like a blow to the chest. Fifteen minutes since he called and he can still hear the phone ringing over there. Son of a bitch, Santos, won’t answer, doesn’t even hear it. Dogs, phones, you could land a fucking chopper on his roof and he’d sleep right through it. Reason enough for Lenny to hate him.

 

                Sleep is a battle for Lenny. He thinks of it as a battle, something to wrestle with, to pin to the mattress. Any number of things must go right internally and externally and that rare combination can make him too anxious. He’s heard how insomnia feeds on itself and suspects it’s going that way with him. Nothing as focused as a mind bent on madness.

 

                No one else seems to mind the barking. The neighbors on either side have been there for decades. How do they bear it? The incessant YIP-YIP-YAP-YAP! A single yip yanks Lenny from the deepest slumber. One yap and he’s wired till sunrise. And it’s not just the dogs. Anything that happens over there can set him off, the TV, the air conditioner, silence. Once awake, Lenny’s body turns against him. His stomach knots and his feet cramp, his very essence primed for the sound. Absolutely nothing he can do to change this, just as there’s no way to keep his sleep-deprived mind from settling on a worry. The dogs give him plenty of time for brooding, gaps of silence just long enough to wind tight, or much worse, fade into a doze.

 

                Lenny doesn’t even know the guy. Got the number from the old pickup parked in front, SANTOS PRODUCE in peeling letters. Short, fat Santos with the bow legged limp, a neighborhood don of some sort. Lenny calls and lets it ring all night. What else can he do?  Call the cops down here and you will regret it. Santos answers at daybreak all rumpled and croaky and Lenny hangs up like he’s made a point.

 

                He knows it’s crazy to take it personally. Santos doesn’t even know he exists. He’d lodge a complaint but there’d be hell to pay. He’s lived in the flats long enough to know.  Santos would tell him to go fuck himself and then he’d have to stop with the phone calls. This way no one suspects a thing. His options are open. This is what he tells himself.

 

                Learning to live with it is not an option. He knows how he is and how things get to him. He’s seen gang-bangers over there lately, nephews and cousins in do-rags and clown pants. The first time he saw them it was like a movie scene where the killers make their entrance.

 

                He rolls a cigarette between his fingers. It’s been a month since he took them up again and already he’s hacking up gobs in the morning. He holds the phone at arm’s length. The receiver whirs in synch with the ringing across the street. He should have better things to do, some timeworn pursuit or secret obsession. You’d think 53 years would take longer to unravel.

 

                 His big mistake was moving to the country, twenty years ago, now, but forever the milestone. The little frame house up in Humboldt, bequeathed to his wife by an outlaw uncle. Lenny could track the cars at night, miles in the distance, bending and snaking along the Matol. Round the bend and out of Milltown, catching every curve, every change in road surface, coming and coming till it passed in a rush, then on and on, but not out of earshot. Not for ten, fifteen minutes, double for trucks, triple for motorcycles.

 

                And barking dogs always and everywhere, the mutt next door served as leader of the pack. This particular bark was so pointless, this particular dog so repulsive, so grossly testicled that Lenny shuddered at the sight of him. A marathon barker with baseball gonads, no real range but at decibels that could chip concrete, Lenny listened and listened. A year later they packed it in.

 

                When his wife left him he tried to get help. He made an appointment at the clinic to wrangle a prescription, anything to help him through the night. Enter the dark eyed Doctor Smita, fresh out of med school and oozing concern. Lenny heaved a sigh and laid it out for her, the obsessive behavior, the lousy job, the ex-wife, all traced to a lack of sleep. Walked out with a script and a compensation claim, too much to ask for and way too good to stop now.

 

                A week before his follow-up Lenny staggered off the job. Looking his very worst for sweet Smita, he twitched and tremored his way to a referral, Dr. Greenbaum, of the hot flashes. Lenny spilled his guts, throwing in things that never happened, then things that happened but out of proportion, all of it geared to hit the jackpot. Sleep deprivation, a chronic affliction, crippling yet unverifiable, wreaking havoc with all the systems, wearing the victim to an unemployable frazzle. Doubly so when it feeds on itself, nerves so taut that the sound of sunshine runs him up the wall.

 

                 “See what I mean Deborah? I can’t work. I can’t eat. I, I, need … I need.”

 

                 “You need to go on disability,” Dr. Greenbaum decreed.

 

                Who knew it could be so easy? Subsidized for a year now, including shrink and biweekly masseuse, just what Lenny would’ve wanted had he known it was wantable. No visible symptoms, no test to pass or fail, no viable therapy or approved treatment, nothing to measure or evaluate. A dream disability, a benefit bonanza, controllable but self-perpetuating in that the mere mention of termination triggers a relapse. Taking to his sleepless bed for weeks at a time, a vicious cycle sort of thing.

 

                But idleness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Not working has given him too much time to smoke and listen to the dogs bark. He watches Santos’ house for hours on end, lime green stucco and slatted shutters, chain link fence and satellite dish. The dogs are in the back yard tethered to a clothesline. Lenny sees their leashes run back and forth. Santos pays no attention to them. A dog’s life if ever there was one.

 

                He begins to sense nuance in the barking, notes of inflection, yap versus yip. The former reserved for other dogs, humans and things that go bump in the night, the latter, mindless and interminable, the barking-just-to-hear-myself bark that takes up the lion’s share of their day. A sound that sets Lenny’s teeth on edge, its purpose merely to shatter the silence.

 

                 He worries that his reaction can be detected, even shaped into reflex. Far from barking at nothing they are barking at him. Not such a stretch given a dog’s circuitry. Possibly they have him confused with someone else, some earlier experience interpreted to mean all this barking is somehow essential. A pre-emptive strike against whatever, barking as a life work.

 

                 In the morning Santos hangs up the phone without a word. Minutes later he stumbles out the door, half dressed and half conscious. Lenny watches with all his might, this unsightly Santos, this dog imprisoner, the man to blame for all his troubles. The Zapata moustache, the impossibly wavy hair, produce vendor, my ass! That truck hasn’t moved in months. When he reaches the end of the driveway Santos turns left and passes out of view. Lenny doesn’t know where he goes, has, in fact, pictured him standing just beyond his field of vision. An image so clear that on more than one occasion he’s poked his head out the door to check.

    

                He needs provisions. He needs to check his mail and do his laundry. The problem is he’s going through one of those phases where he can’t leave the house. He doesn’t want anyone to see him this way. It happens sometimes. In a few days he’ll be OK, just sit here with the doors locked and the shades drawn. It’ll pass. Sure it takes longer than it used to, but what doesn’t? Then the dogs start up and Lenny’s in a knot. literally. Arms wrapped around his legs, fists clenched, everything straining. Forget about going anywhere in this condition. But the dogs are relentless firing barks directly at him. Not vicious this time, but strong and steady, some message or cryptic code. Come see! Come see! Come see Santos standing just outside your field of vision!

 

                When the noise reaches a certain level Lenny starts to pace, room to room, upstairs and down. It distracts him, but it worries him too, this shuffling with his hands in his pockets, this hugging himself for warmth. Always he’s cold and cold is colder than it used to be. He cranks up the heat and layers on sweaters. The barks grow louder, more incessant. He grips the mantel to steady himself, and there in the mirror, a look he’s never seen.          

 

                The anti-depressants don’t work because Lenny doesn’t take them. He’s read the pamphlets and the Merk manual, reams of data, but few hard facts. Sleep disorders are the cause and effect of just about anything, or can be if you know how to look at it.

    

“The danger in sleep disorders is fixation,” Doctor Greenbaum warns. “The source of sleeplessness becomes more intense making it even more difficult to sleep.”

 

                 “Feeding on itself.”

 

                “That’s right.”

 

                Doesn’t seem to be anything about a sleep disorder that isn’t tailor made. The medications come with a printout of side effects that would discourage all but the terminally sleepless. Like giving the answers with the test and Lenny selects one from each column. And who wouldn’t qualify for this smorgasbord of symptoms, irritability, restlessness, fatigue, anxiety, weight gain as a clear indication, as well as weight loss. The more he reads the more elusive mental health seems to be, an ideal, distant and ephemeral. Lenny always suspected as much. Who can say for sure he’s getting better? Who wants to get better anyway?

 

                But the dogs have fucked up everything. He would rather work than listen to them. Yip yap yipping the livelong summer and then in September, a litter of puppies. Not so loud but inexhaustible. Lenny wept openly, knocked his head against the wall. Sat in his rocker and chain-smoked. Watched Santos house for God knows what.

 

                He lies in bed staring at the fault line in the ceiling. He is wearing the shooting range ear protectors that block every sound but gunfire and barking dogs. The standard ruckus from across the street is marked by a sudden squeal rising sharply then gurgling off. He sits up and slips off the headset. One of the puppies is caught in his leash.

 

                 “Why do I care?” he asks himself aloud, grabbing his pants off the floor, his shirt from the laundry bag, out the door and into a drifting mist, down the drive and across the street. The dogs crank it up at the sound of footsteps. A full-blown frenzy as he climbs the fence. Sees the pup right away suspended between picnic benches, tiny legs kicking above the pavement. Lenny frees it as the dogs howl and slobber, still warm, possibly alive. He thinks to pound on the door, but before he can a blinding light hits him from above. The dogs fall instantly silent.

 

                “HEY! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING IN MY YARD?”

 

                 Lenny holds the puppy up to the light.

 

                “The leash got caught. I was just—

 

                 “WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO TO MY DOG?”

 

                 “I was just trying-.”

 

                “MOTHERFUCKER CHOKED MY DOG!”

 

                “No, I was—

 

     Lenny turns as something flickers then a million stars explode in his head.

 

                 “ … OK? Can you hear me Mr. Palmer?

 

                He sees a woman and a man leaning over, hears the rustle of their clothes.

 

                “Mr. Palmer? This is Officer Simms. Are you awake?”

 

                He can’t move his arms and his mouth won’t work. Car wreck? Stroke? How bad is he? The last thing he remembers is … what? The sway of hips across the room, cold mist moving left to right. His eyes settle on a patch of sun just as the edges dissolve. His head fills with a fizzing sound.